In the world of independent music, branding is an important thing. Without the benefit of radio, television and other typical marketing forces, bands and record companies need to associate themselves with a quality product. Record labels like Matador, Merge and Sub Pop have grown into cultural giants by releasing consistently great albums of a similar sound and style, but there is a smaller set of recording companies like Table of the Elements, Locust, Pogus and Family Vineyard who have built names for themselves by being predictably unpredictable.
Eric Weddle formed Family Vineyard in 1998 in Bloomington, Ind., and he now runs the label out of his home in West Lafayette. Over the past decade, Weddle has released music from a wildly diverse set of artists. From Indiana experimental rock heroes MX-80, to ’70s and ’80s New England jazz legend Paul Flaherty, or Japanese puppeteer-turned-folk-guitarist Hisato Higuchi and New York City avant blues guru Loren MazzaCane Connors, the Family Vineyard product has been equally prestigious, demanding and luminous.
“I grew up around music,” Weddle says. “My father sang solo and in the church choir, and played the violin. My older brother was into new wave and rock during the early to mid ’80s, and that led me to fall in love with music.” Weddle’s interests ranged from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young to Depeche Mode.
“When I was 12, after Sunday soccer games, my parents would drive me to the used record shops downtown, a record fair at a Best Western or flea markets,” he says. “I’m sure the older guys working the counter enjoyed sending me after Boney M or Butthole Surfers’ LPs. As I got older, I just bought more records, a lot through the mail with saved lunch money via the Bomp, Ajax or RRR catalogs. Even then, the concept of a record label was definitely intriguing to me. I got really into label discographies for Wax Traxx!, Touch & Go, Harvest, Dischord [and] Alternative Tentacles … I really found I was in on a secret.”
After moving to Bloomington for college in 1995, Weddle quickly became involved in the burgeoning local music scene. In 1996, he and three friends began a record label called Secretly Canadian, which has gone on to be one of the most successful and widely recognized independents in the business.
“We planned it out, found out how to make a 7-inch and did it,” he says. “It started in some dorm rooms and expanded to what it is now. It is pretty amazing.”
Weddle eventually left the Secretly Canadian fold to focus on school and begin Family Vineyard, which indulges in much more untried fare than his friends’ label. “Since I left, they have continued to be a major support and distribution system for Family Vineyard,” he says. “My label definitely would not be where it is at today without our continued friendship and business dealings.”
An unequivocal belief
“Surely I’ve released some albums that have fallen on deaf ears commercially and critically,” Weddle says, “but I felt they needed to be released … The artists on Family Vineyard are the types of people who would be making music without critical praise. Loren Connors and Paul Flaherty [released] their own records for over a decade before anyone else offered or showed interest.”
Praise comes in due time to those who soldier through the absence of instant gratification via a modicum of success. 2006 was a banner year for Family Vineyard releases getting notices and accolades from international publications. Higuchi’s first album with Family Vineyard was placed in the influential U.K. Wire independent magazine’s end of the year top records of the year, as was the box set Weddle put out by Connors.
Weddle shows no signs of slowing down his unusual and impulsive productions. Intended 2007 releases include a record by a lost psychedelic nü-folkie from the ’80s, Dredd Foole, and a reissue of the 1986 cassette by Human Skab, which was a pseudonym for a 10-year-old boy playing rogue guitar and ranting about terrorism and breaking windows. Weddle is involved with making music as well, playing saxophone, guitar and electronics in a variety of bands, including the beloved John Wilkes Booze (which he founded with Seth Mahern), and groups that straddle the line between jazz and rock like the Unstable Ensemble and the Ground-Ups.
One thing is for certain: Running an avant-garde label is not a lucrative business. “Family Vineyard sustains itself economically, but not myself,” Weddle says. “I have a full-time job outside of it. So it’s as if I have two full-time jobs. Of course, I’d love the artists to sell more records and I could work more on FV, and hopefully the future will lead there … The goals have always been the same; release music by artists that I unequivocally believe in.”
Family Vineyard album recommendations:
Paul Flaherty, The Whirl of Nothingness: The legendary jazz saxophonist from New England began releasing records in 1978. This album of new solo recordings is intensely personal and emotional.
Hisato Higuchi, Dialogue: Dialogue is a late-night, quiet record of solo guitar recordings that sounds a bit like a Vincent Gallo score. Higuchi delivers long exhales of breath as harbingers for poignant swells.
The Blithe Sons, We Walk the Young Earth: A beautiful record that turns an orchestra of instruments into an actual living and breathing forest. Loren Chasse and Glenn Donaldson of the vaunted Jeweled Antler Collective recorded the album.
Loren Connors, Night Through: Singles and Collected Works 1976-2004: This is an unbelievable three-CD collection of the enigmatic Connors’ best performances. He takes the spirit of John Fahey and Charley Patton into new and cosmic directions.