Welcome to Local Music 'Mericans, where we'll be meeting some people behind the local music scene who aren't musicians, but more behind-the-scenes folk.
Josh Robinson, to a first-timer, might look like he's about to kill you. He's a large, somewhat menacing, tattooed and black-bearded man who looks like he might consume a live cat onstage before screaming into microphone while fronting a death metal band.
Truth is, first impressions couldn't be more inaccurate.
Josh, and his wife, Mandy, are two very recognizable faces to anyone who ever stepped into the Gypsy Tea Room's ballroom and bellied up to the big bar for a drink. Both maintained a great rapport of handshakes and remembered the faces of venue frequenters. Essentially, they couldn't be nicer folks.
These days, Robinson divides his time between being behind the bar at Vickery Park four days a week and working the console at Skyline, the recording studio he set up in the space next to what used to be the Tea Room and is now the Prophet Bar.
While not currently active as a musician himself, it was his humble beginnings as one that brought him to where he is now, mixing and recording some of the very best hard and heavy sounds coming out of Deep Ellum. He also currently runs his own small record label, Battle Flag Records, previously home to The Phuss, and the current roost for Fort Worth mainstays Jacknife and exciting new local metal act Malleveler.
After the jump, we'll find out how me manages to make it all work.
You work in bars, run a label and own a studio. Do you manage to find time to do plenty of studio engineering, too?
I do manage to find time, although sometimes it seems like I don't have time for much else. It's a nice balance, though, because just when I think I can't handle one more night of screaming and yelling in the bar, I get to go into the studio and focus on music. And, conversely, just when I've got cabin fever from being locked in a studio for 12 hours a day and I've reached my musical saturation point, I can go get behind a bar, do a more physical job, interact with people, and give my musical side a break.
So much of the local music media coverage in Downtown/Deep Ellum is geared in the opposite direction of hard rock/metal. Did this worry you at all when starting up Battle Flag?
I didn't give it any thought, really. I've always been more concerned with the quality of our releases -- from musical content and production to artwork and graphics, packaging, videos, web content, and the whole huge spectrum of multimedia stuff that comes with running a label. My thinking has always been that if you work hard and put out an extraordinary product that people can't help but take notice. Give them something worth writing about and they will.
At what point did you decide you wanted to put your total backing behind these two bands? Was it during a performance?
I've known the Jacknife guys for years -- back before there was a Battle Flag. Their previous label had folded and they approached me about producing a follow-up to their 2006 record, Moment of Reckoning. I agreed, and, during the production of what would become A Plague of People, I began asking the guys in the band what they planned to do with the album when it was finished. No one seemed to have a definitive answer. I heard the quality of the music, saw the drive of the guys, and genuinely believed in the sincerity of what they were doing, so I began to formulate a plan of action and Battle Flag was born. With the Maleveller guys, I caught one of their first shows and was absolutely floored by the maturity of the material and the cohesiveness of a newly formed band that had only played a handful of shows. I knew a couple of the guys in the band and a few weeks later they approached me about coming into Skyline and doing a three-song demo. That "demo" became the Astronomer's Fyre EP, which the band released independently last January. I loved the music and was really impressed by the work ethic of the guys and their attention to detail in every aspect of their band, so eventually I approached them about being a part of the Battle Flag roster. We picked up the EP and put it out through distribution, shot a video for the song "Astronomer's Fyre," and are currently in the process of printing a second run of the EP. Both bands have new albums in progress, to be released later this year.
How much of a support system is your wife, Mandy? She seems pretty down with the program herself.
She's great. Her whole family has roots in music -- her grandparents on one side were in Vaudeville, her grandfather on the other side played jazz piano for Mel Torme (among others), her dad has a voracious appetite for music and loves to play guitar, and her mom sings in a choir that performs with the Fort Worth Symphony. The point is that coming from a musical background gives her a deeper respect for the power of music and the need for it in our lives. Musicians can sometimes be difficult people to love, and she understands just how important music is to me. She also has a really good ear and is probably more of a "fan" of new bands than I am these days.
Tell me about your earlier/younger days as a music fan, locally, what you saw, and what bands/shows/records might have inspired you to become as involved as you are.
I've been playing guitar since I was 10 and played my first show at 16. I started playing in a band full-time when I was 20 and we knew that recording our music was a necessary step in any band's development. We played shows all over Texas and began working on a full-length record, spending tons of money and lots of time working on what would be our debut disc. After two years of work on the record, the band broke up and we all went our separate ways, but I was still as on fire for music as much as ever and became increasingly fascinated by the recording process. It was at that point that I decided to put together a small project studio at home, and around that same time I got a job tending bar at the Gypsy Tea Room. The Tea Room turned out to be the cornerstone for a lot of my musical growth -- I saw more great shows than I can count, met tons of local musicians and people in the scene, and made a great group of friends that I carry with me to this day. I miss the Tea Room a lot.
Top three most incredible/life-changing things that you saw ontage at the Tea Room? Feel free to include soundchecks, after-closing moments, anything.
1. Robert Plant playing "Whole Lotta Love" to a sold-out (and mesmerized) crowd. Seriously, no one said a word, no one ordered a drink, and every eye was trained on the stage as the entire crowd swayed in time to the music. One of the strongest testaments to the power of music I've ever seen.
2. Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings playing one of the tightest sets I've ever seen to a crowd of about 13 people. They had played Conan the night before, played SXSW the week after, and have been on the way up ever since. Probably the single best live performance I've ever seen. (Though that's really tough to call.)
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3. Slayer at soundcheck, playing "Raining Blood" with the PA off, only amps and un-miked drums. Sounded like a stream of pure evil coming out of the coolest garage band ever.
This list could go on for eons, literally. I've got more incredible Tea Room stories than I can count.
Does mixing bartending work with a local label/studio work? Do the musicians come in and drink at Vickery, and bring their friends? How about them expecting freebies from you while you're working?
Yes, it works incredibly well. I get a lot of my studio business via word of mouth, and musicians and bars are like peanut butter and chocolate. Sometimes I'll meet someone at Vickery and they'll end up recording at the studio. Occasionally studio clients find out that I work at a bar and come in to see me for drinks. Either way, both sides definitely have their place. I love when folks come in to see me, and I love to see their friends as well, but I learned a long time ago that there's no such thing as a free drink. Either you pay for that drink or I do. You wouldn't go into McDonalds and argue for a free hamburger, so don't come into my bar and expect a free drink. And tipping is greatly appreciated. Thanks.
If budget/time wasn't a question, what two DFW bands would you love to add to your label immediately?
Man, that's a tough question, especially since we just talked about how many hours a week I work. The thought of taking on a new artist right now makes my head want to explode! Anyway, if time and budget were of no concern, I'd definitely say that the guys in Descender and Hello Lover are doing it right. And that's not to say that these guys would want (or need) my help -- I just think that they make great music, do their promo right, and deliver a great live show. The House Harkonnen, The Dead Twins (although I think they might be signed), Stew, the list could go on...I'm just happy to have a ton of great bands taking part in what feels like it just might be the beginning of a real music scene.