Kirtland Records' Tami Thomsen Tells Us About Her Start, What She Sees In The Label's Future
Welcome to Local Music 'Mericans , where we meet some of the people behind the local music scene -- those who aren't necessarily members of local bands, but more the people who make the scene move.
As a high school student, Tami Thomsen, the main cog in the wheel that is (former Deep Blue Something drummer) John Kirtland's Kirtland Records, was something of a black sheep in her home town in Omaha, Nebraska. She found solace in some of the best rock and punk records that the '70s had to offer (KISS, Siouxsie and the Banshees). But, even while growing up immersed in these albums, she never dreamed that jobs in the music industry even existed.
Later, after a stint working at Last Beat Records, while living in a loft above the store -- and right next to Billy Gibbons, no less -- she started working toward breaking into the industry.
These days, the Kirtland label she helps run has been responsible for watering and growing a commendable batch of musical talent from our own backyard -- and tersely treating them as national acts from the get-go.
To say Thomsen just puts in exhausting hours for the Kirtland cause still doesn't paint the complete picture. She lives it. Tami eats, sleeps and breathes our local music scene. And, by choice, she treats it as a national one, per the label she reps. It's not tough to bump into her if you're out soaking in local sounds; occasionally, you can even catch her DJing at places like The Double Wide.
After the jump, we'll get more on not only Thomsen's musical history, but her insights into the musical future of such Kirtland greats as Sarah Jaffe, The Toadies (plus their annual shindig, Dia De Los Toadies), Smile Smile, Bob Schneider and even Bush. Yes, that Bush.
Tell us a little bit about your life before Kirtland Records. Did you grow up around here? I don't really imagine you as part of the jock crowd in high school. I suspect you kind of had your own thing going on with your own interests.
[Laughs.] What? You don't think I was my high school's homecoming queen or cheerleading captain? Well, you're right. I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, BSC (Before Saddle Creek). At best, I was always a little left of center. At worst, I felt like an alien. And I'm pretty sure there were times when my parents thought the hospital must have given them the wrong baby. My childhood was super normal, though. Mom was a teacher, dad had a real estate company, and my brother is the all-American boy next door. He's a doctor with two kids, a sheepdog and a white picket fence. Needless to say, I've always been the black sheep of the family. I've always been extremely passionate, veering on obsessive, about music. But, growing up in Omaha, I had no idea there were "jobs" in the music industry. I didn't even know publicists, managers or agents existed. I went to what few shows there were, and ran away with The Clash one night. (Sorry, Mom.) I spent a lot of time wondering, "What in the hell am I gonna do when I grow up?" I still ask that.
So, OK, The Clash was a big part of the mold. Who else?
Early on my dad took me to see KISS, and I was completely blown away by the magic of it all. I used to sit in my bedroom and listen to music nonstop. There are so many records that influenced me: The Velvet Underground, which taught me as much about art and life as music; Bowie, and especially ZIggy Stardust era; I also identified with the "darkness" and solitude of The Smiths and Joy Division. I listened to a lot of early punk, like The Clash and The Damned. That was before the Internet and YouTube. You really had to try and discover bands on your own. And, of course, my all-time favorite is Siouxsie and the Banshees. I remember getting their Scream album years after it was released. They were so strange and imaginative -- unlike anything I'd ever heard or seen in a Nebraska cornfield! They scared me, and I loved it.
How did your relationship with John Kirtland begin?
Shortening a long story: I put out a few songs from Todd Lewis' and Taz Bentley's Burden Brothers via the Last Beat record label. Todd and Taz then went on to work with John. John, who I didn't know at the time, called and asked me to help. The indie hipster in me said, "What in the hell do I have in common with a guy that played in Deep Blue Something?" Turns out, he's a great person -- and the perfect guy to own a label. He knows what it's like to be driving around in a crappy van, making $100 a night. He's also experienced having a hit single, touring the world and then having it fall apart.
Seven years is a really good run at one label. Were there other label gigs before this one for you?
I got started in music working at the Last Beat Record Store, which was located in Deep Ellum during its glory days. I had so many great times then. I had a loft above the store, and Billy Gibbons was my neighbor. Billy would come down and we'd just listen to all kinds of new music. Bands from Green Day to Iggy Pop and Marilyn Manson did in-stores there. Radiohead, Suede, Beastie Boys, Rage Against The Machine and PJ Harvey all came into the store early in their careers. The store eventually grew into a local label and recording studio, which was great 'cause I got to experience both creating and selling music.
What do you suppose makes working for Kirtland different? From an outside perspective, it seems that it's all about helping the artists grow. I gather there's some really special things about working for this label. If so, can you share some?
I love working so closely with such creative people. Working with the Toadies has been one of the most rewarding experiences. At one time, they never wanted to record or tour again. I think it would be fair to say that they had gotten to a point where they hated the music industry in general. Being a part of their renewed success -- and watching them having fun again -- has been great. The past year working with Sarah Jaffe has been really, really special. She's phenomenal. We've accomplished a lot in a short time. But I'm fortunate to have worked with a lot of great artists and helped them to release some great music -- bands like Vibrolux, Captain Audio, rubberbullet and Baboon. And, in particular, songs like Pleasant Grove's "Nothing this Beautiful," Comet's "Rocket Flare" and the Burden Brothers' "Beautiful Night." It's amazing to get to be a part of the process from hearing a demo, to recording and releasing it, and then maybe hearing it on the radio. Or just having people sing along with it at a show. Recently I helped produce a concert at the Arts Magnet High School. Erykah Badu played. She was electrifying, inspiring and completely connected with the kids. It was an honor to have been a part of that. Kirtland itself is a pretty special environment. We are a small and dedicated group that has formed some great partnerships with our bands. I am beyond fortunate that I get to do this every day.
Was it purely by accident that Kirtland became so locally involved? Was that in the early mission statement?
I have a love/hate relationship with the term "local label." I'm proud to be at a Texas-based label, and I don't feel that we are at any kind of disadvantage by being here. There are so many talented people in this area from bands to producers to filmmakers. But, somehow, "local" sounds limiting. Obviously, a lot of our bands are from Texas, but the intention is for them to become national acts. Our goal is to do the best job possible for our artists, no matter where either of us is based.
Does the convenience of finding so much talent in your own backyard lend to an inconvenience when it comes to trying to get other parts of the country to pay attention? I could see a station in, say, Massachussets unfairly pigeonhole Kirtland as a "local Dallas label." Then again, the talent seems to be such quality that maybe they never even notice that. Do one of those two apply to the label's challenges?
Everything is a challenge in selling records theses days. We've worked hard to become a label that can compete on a national scale. A lot of people in Dallas might not know that we own Bush's back-catalog, or that we have an office in L.A. We've worked with distributors on both coasts, and most of our publicists are either L.A.- or New York City-based. We've had some good national success stories. Bob [Schneider]'s recent CD debuted in the Billboard Top 200. Sarah's Suburban Nature album made many national year-end Top Ten lists in places like Paste, Amazon and USA Today, and her "Clementine" single did really well at radio nationally. It was the No. 1 record on several stations, including Sirius Spectrum. It also got placed on [TV shows] Private Practice and, more recently, One Tree Hill. Our bands tour nationally, and sometimes even internationally. Just last week, I was in New York City with Bob while Sarah was on tour on the west coast. We've built strong relationships and proved ourselves enough. So I feel that where we are from isn't much of an issue anymore.
Is it just a mater of listening more closely to the bands? Surely, a good song makes things easier to sell.
Honestly, I don't think anything is easy these days. Having a good song certainly helps, but there's a lot of great songs that tanked, and a lot of crappy bands that have made it. You have better odds of making it in Vegas than you do in music. There's no formula for success. Under the best of circumstances, it takes a lot of work, promotion and financing -- combined with a hell of a lot of luck. It's never easy.
You seem to dedicate a lot of your own time to the local music scene as well. You seem to genuinely enjoy it and have a lot of friends in the community. Does that cause the lines to get blurred between personal and professional? Or does it maybe make the job even easier?
The line between personal and professional does get blurred. I've worked with a lot of the local music industry people for years. I hope I've made more friends than enemies. I take what I do very seriously. It's not just partying with your buddies all night. Doing business with people who are also my friends just makes it that more important that I get it right. In band management especially, you work so closely with people. You have to play the part of friend, business partner, therapist and occasionally even babysitter. It can be tough to deliver bad news, just as it's difficult to have opposing opinions with your friends and business partners. It's really a big balancing act, and learning not to take things to personally.
Tell us about the beginnings of visualizing Dia De Los Toadies. Was this something the band came to Kirtland with, or was it the the other way around?
Toadies had always said they wanted to do their own festival someday, something along the lines of Willie's Picnic. Their No Deliverance album was released in August 2008. We wanted to have the band playing that whole month, including Labor Day weekend, which is typically a bad time for club shows. I jokingly said, "We should do a show at Possum Kingdom Lake." We asked a few of our favorite Texas bands to join us, named it Dia De Los Toadies and are now in our fourth year. The Toadies themselves choose the location and the bands. It's a partnership of their vision and me trying to help make it happen.
Any glimpses into the Kirtland future? Are there some exciting things on the horizon that maybe you're able to at least hint at?
Bush is going to have a new album out this fall. We'll be involved with various aspects of that. Both Toadies and Smile Smile are writing for upcoming releases. This week, I'm finishing up production on The Way Sound Leaves A Room, a new CD/DVD from Sarah Jaffe. It has the first new recordings that Sarah has done in quite awhile, and hints at the direction of her next full-length, which we'll start recording this fall.
How about you, personally, in relation to the local music scene? Have you recently heard or witnessed something that you feel the rest of the world will fall in love with?
I'm the wrong person to ask any falling-in-love type questions! But I'm curious to see what John Mudd will do with Ishi now, and what Taylor [Rea]'s next project will be. I'm a big fan of John Congleton's, and I'm looking forward to seeing his new band The Nighty Nite. Same with Tim DeLaughter's new Preteen Zenith. I was blown away by Astronatilus' Homegrown show. There's a lot to be excited about here -- but also nationally. Last week, Amazon surprised everyone and sold Lady Gaga's new album for 99 cents. Meanwhile, Apple is launching iCloud this week, The Flaming Lips just released music in a Gummy Skull and the new Kaiser Chiefs disc allows fans to choose their own track listing and art. Music is being made and sold differently every day. The future is unwritten! What a great time to be a part of the music industry!
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