The year is 1991 and Darren Walters, along with his partner Tim Owen, have a vision. They want to create a record label that releases quality music, without restrictions regarding genres or ethics, and to be the best they possibly can.
Fast forward to 1995, a 17 year old kid (yours truly), immersed in a love of independent/underground music, attends The Really Loud Music Fest is New Bedford, MA. Onstage is the band Lifetime, ripping through their song Neutral Territory off the Hello Bastards album released on Jade Tree Records. Kids are flying around everywhere, singing along, smiling, and having a great time. When I think about Jade Tree Records, I’m bombarded with a plethora of memories such as this, many of which, a Jade Tree band provided the soundtrack to.
If you’re a fan of indie music, there’s a good chance you have a Jade Tree release somewhere in your collection. They’re responsible for such artists as Jets To Brazil, Avail, J Church, Four Walls Falling, Universal Order Of Armageddon and so many more! That being said I hope you enjoy this romp down memory lane with Darren Walters, co-owner of Jade Tree Records.
The Darren Walters/Jade Tree Records Interview
TIS: Jade Tree is one of the fore fathers in the independent music scene, responsible for such acts as Cap’N Jazz, Hot Water Music, Texas Is The Reason, The Promise Ring and so many more! I’d have to imagine you guys could have made the transition over to major/corporate label status by now, so why not?
DW: It’s fair to say there have been a number of opportunities which have come our way over the years. When Tim and I started the label, our “dream” so to speak, was to be one of the world’s biggest independent labels. In that philosophy, was the idea that we were going to release records that we wanted to release, regardless of genre, geographical, or philosophical restrictions etc. We really wanted to be the biggest and the best and nowhere in those ideas were a desire to be corporatized or tied down.
It’s important to note that we always wanted to be big. I’m talking about when you’re 19 or 20 and want to make a living from selling records. Our vision was really influenced by our idols like Dischord and Touch & Go etc. We really wanted to do this for a living, but do it on our own.
There were definitely certain flirtations. Some of the people we dealt with went on to sign with major labels. We had friends who worked at major labels, we would work with people on certain projects occasionally that were affiliated with major labels and we’d see a side of the industry that certainly, at times, would appear more glamorous. Luckily, we were always brought back down to earth. I can only speak for myself, but ultimately, there were a number of things that made me feel uncomfortable about stepping into that other world.
First and foremost, I’m a business person, but I’m not a corporate business person, and I think that’s an important distinction. I was never comfortable stepping into corporatized offices and the phoniness that went along with it while I was in there.
On the other side, I didn’t necessarily feel anything against anyone who worked in that system, but ultimately I knew it wasn’t something I’d be able to do unless I could affect some sort of change.
The same thing went with the artists. Sometimes I felt like if we worked with a particular artist, that maybe it could help Jade Tree. In certain cases though, after I’d get to know the artist better, I’d learn they had aspirations to go much further than Jade Tree, and if that was at the forefront of it, I’d usually realize that’s not who I wanted to work with.
I apologize for going on about this. I’ve been working on a philosophical statement for my educational work so it’s all fresh in my head.
TIS: No worries man.
DW: Cool. And so that’s why I say flirtations. You go out to dinner with someone and think wow, this is so cool, I’m here with this person and they’re giving us all this free shit and took us out to diner or a movie or whatever. Here I am, just some stupid kid from the suburbs, and who would have thought!? But then you get back home and realize how phony it all was. I’d get back into my comfortable world and remember I wanted to be there, because it’s what I made.
There’s also the satisfaction I get from people who to this day say stuff like, wow, Jade Tree, a cool indie label who’s helped a lot of my favorite bands, just like you said when we first started the interview.
TIS: Yeah, definitely.
DW: And still, every time I hear someone say that to me, it solidifies my decision and position.
TIS: Right on. So I’m curious as to who has the final say in which bands will join the Jade Tree family since you don’t do the A&R thing.
DW: It’s always been Tim and I, as we’re the co-owners. We’ve always wanted to see the artist in a live setting which has been essential, so we’ve always relied a lot on the live show and how impressed we were by that. There have been times where we signed someone we hadn’t seen live and it didn’t worked out. If we’ve done that three times I’d be surprised but, we have made that mistake.
Otherwise, when it comes to music, the philosophy Tim and I agree on in terms of A&R is that it’s a gut feeling. There was never anything in particular that we looked for.
We both came from owning purely Straight Edge Hardcore labels. One of the things that was frustrating for the both of us at that time was that the genre was starting to die out. It became impossible for us to sign acts that were purely Straight Edge Hardcore artists and keep the label going, but it was also difficult for us to sign bands that were not Straight Edge Hardcore because that’s what we were known for.
So we said listen, we like all sorts of music and it would be great if we could start an independent label that had no restrictions in who we’d sign, and although there are certainly plenty of genres of music that Jade Tree hasn’t worked with, we still have zero restrictions on who we will sign.
Now, with all of that being said, there has certainly been disagreements about artists, and Tim and I have had to really sell one another on some of our bands. There have been times where Tim or I have told one another that we really liked a certain band and that you need to trust me.
We’ve also made deals with one another. For example, we might say, if you let me have this band, I’ll let you have that band. The world will never know who those bands are, but in most cases, they’ve almost always worked out. I’d be lying if I said that Tim and I didn’t have a running tally about who’s track record is better. We’ve definitely had a running competition and give each other a hard time about certain bands and how many records they’ve sold, all in good fun though.
TIS: So what is Tim up to these days besides Jade Tree?
DW: Well I should mention first that Tim’s father was very influential in Jade Tree. His dad unfortunately passed away about a year ago, but he was really there at the beginning of Jade Tree and he was a very sharp individual who helped guide us quite a bit. He was a real estate auctioneer, and so Tim has recently stepped into that a bit more.
Jade Tree has reached the point where it doesn’t require us to be there all the time. And that’s another important distinction that should be noted when it comes to sort of keeping things fresh in the music world. Personally, I find, and this is something I try to teach my students, that it’s difficult not to get burnt out. The music industry is tough. I love it, but it absorbs so much of my time. So it’s really important to constantly keep mixing things up. For me, teaching has given me a completely wonderful and unique perspective on the music industry that continually keeps it fresh.
TIS: Ok, and how do you juggle being a Professor at Drexel University and co-owning Jade Tree? Sounds like it’s actually a really good thing for you.
DW: Yeah. Well I’m a professor in the Music Industry Program at Drexel university and love it. It works well because being a professor there, I’m able to prepare my students for a life in the music industry and it’s continual evolution. So really, there’s only so much you can prepare them for, which is why I really impart the DIY ethic to them.
Of course, not all of my students are looking to run an indie label or to work at Jade Tree or Matador records etc. Plenty of them want to work at major labels, or manage stars or work at concert venues, but through the DIY values I impart to them, I’m able to teach them the things that I learned and how important it is to get in their and get your hands dirty, and really be involved. A good example is Drexel is a very hands on school, particularly our program. We have companies that the music program runs, for instance, we have our own record label called Mad Dragon Records.
There’s also a class I teach called Bantic Media which is an artist services company. We released a Dave Hause (of The Loved Ones) 7” last year. What we did there was look at how he was beginning a solo career and what we could do to help get the “brand” of Dave Hause out there. So the students job was to come up with some ideas, which culminated in us releasing a limited edition 7”, and use that as a spring board to help launch his career.
In that way, there really isn’t any delineation between what I do at Drexell and what I do at Jade Tree. If anything, being in contact with the students I teach, keeps me in direct contact with the people I want to be selling records to every single day, so I’m getting a great education from them too. There is a lot of learning for me, a lot of give and take in that situation, and through what I hear at Drexell, there’s a lot of ideas I can bring back to Jade Tree. I not only hear what bands they may like, or what trends they’re following, but how they are purchasing music and how they want to see things presented etc? We discuss these things in class so it works out great.
As far as juggling time, Drexel absorbs a huge amount. At the end of the day, it’s a corporation, so in that sense, there’s a lot of corporatized work I have to do which has nothing to do with students, but just the corporation of Drexel.
But it’s still great. I use my life experience, and Jade Tree experience in teaching. A lot of my students know the bands we’ve released and are familiar with the label. We’ll see each other out at shows or other events. Some of them have gone on to do projects with Jade Tree after they graduate, whether their working at labels or publicity companies etc. It’s really interesting to watch.
TIS: Is there any bands Jade Tree wanted to release but lost to someone else?
TIS: Ok, well are you at liberty to name a couple?
DW: Let me put it to you this way, the reason we started doing the split series, although we didn’t get very far, was that we realized we had a vast number of contacts and artists that we were friendly with, and it was just impossible for whatever reason to get them to commit to the label.
For example, by the time we knew them, they were already on their friend’s label, and although they would have been happy to do a record with us, they didn’t want to leave that friend’s label. So we thought well, why don’t we make this simple, lets do a split. It’s only a one off and no harm no foul. So all of those bands in the split series, Good Riddance, Hot Water Music, Alkaline Trio, My Morning Jacket, etc., those would be good examples of bands that “got away”. There were plenty of other bands that were going to do splits but the reason we never got much farther was because at the time the last one came out, there was a wave of bands signing to majors.
What happened is, a lot of these artists would say well, our manager told us we may want to wait, or, we think we’re going to be signing to a major so we may hold onto that song. So unfortunately, that started to gum up the works. All of these artists that had committed to giving us two or three songs were putting on the breaks and waiting to see if their deal would pan out, and now that I’m saying this, I’m realizing I can’t really mention the other bands because of reasons that are not entirely my own.
Let’s just say there are at least one or two that have sold a couple hundred thousand records who got away. I look at it like this, oh well. My kids and my wife don’t like to look at it that way though. They know some of the artists and were like, “what”.
But you know, I hear from a lot of people in passing, who don’t know my label, things like, whoa, My Morning Jacket, they were on Letterman, and that’s always cool for me to hear. It’s one of those things that not everybody knows, but I find a lot of people who are surprised I’ve worked with them, and others, and that’s cool with me.
TIS: Cool indeed. So in closing, do you have any tips for indie bands, labels, promoters etc. out there struggling to get by?
DW: They’ve just got to keep at it. I tell my students this is not something you should be doing because you want to make a lot of money. It has to come strictly from love and something you really want to do. Starting with my own first label, Hi-Impact, and continuing on to Jade Tree. Sure, Jade Tree has provided a full time living for me, and while that was a dream, it’s not why I started it.
Anyone starting a band, label, management company etc, has to love it because it’s tough. The amount of people who actually make it is minimal. I’m not trying to get people to think negatively about this. I really do want them to think positively, but realistically too. You don’t need to lose any money, but you need to love what you do and have a strategy for it.
Make a plan and stick to it. Things don’t just happen out of luck. Well ok, sometimes they do. We all know someone who just fell into something. But loving what you do is the key. You need to learn every aspect of what you’re involved in.
Again, I love that DIY ethic. Get your hands dirty. Learn about every angel you can regarding the business you’re in. Educate yourself and then you have a basis where no matted what happens, you’re ready for every outcome.
TIS: That’s some really great insight. Thanks so much for taking the time to do this. I know you’re insanely busy with things, so it’s greatly appreciated.
DW: No worries at all, and I’m sorry it’s taken sooo long to put this together.
TIS: No problem at all. I’ve been a fan of Jade Tree and it’s bands since the early 90’s so it’s great and nostalgic for me to do this!
DW: And that’s what I was saying before. That means more to me than any of the corporate stuff that came my way. That’s what I’ve been writing about in my philosophical statement for Drexel. I’m talking about the story of my life and about how I’ve been with the heads of every major record label around, and the guys who run the “music industry”. But it’s the kid at 2am in a parking lot somewhere who says wow, I really love this record, or the couple who got engaged at a Promise Ring show etc. That’s the stuff that I remember, not some guy who kissed my ass and said “if we invest in Jade Tree, here’s what we can do”. To me, that’s bullshit and never had any effect on me.
And again, that’s what I was talking about earlier, when you get back to earth, so to speak. It’s easy when your up in some big office and people are waiting on you hand and foot, but then you get back home and realize it really didn’t mean anything. When someone like you makes that comment, that’s genuine, and that’s what means something.
TIS: Wow, well that means a lot. Thanks Darren.
DW: Thank you.