Jim Harper is the father of Boxing Clever Records, a recent addition to the St. Louis ad agency Boxing Clever. We sat down with a bottle of bourbon to talk about his experiences in music and what led him to the crazy idea of starting up a record label.
Andrew Doty: A couple of weeks ago, we talked about some of the bands you were in. You started playing in stuff in high school?
Jim Harper: Actually, early college.
AD: You didn't start playing until college?
JH: I've played drums since I was five; I started in big band and swing. And then, I don't want to say I got bored with it, but just like anybody else, I started doing other stuff, and going to school, and whatever. And early college, it was kind of one of those things where it's like, "Don't you have drums or something?" "I don't know, I think?" But I didn't, so a friend of mine gave me his, and of course, I never gave them back. I was at that age where when someone lends you something, you never give it back. And so I had a pair of real thin ultra-tiger-stripe drums. The same kit Bobby Brady got in the Brady Bunch from his dad, or whatever. Started playing with that. Yeah. It's terrible.
JH: Just punk rock. Well, punk rock, and then, as we got older, we started listening to bands that tried to reinvent themselves every song instead of every album, so we got disjointed and terrible, and then all of our songs had a different vibe. So it was like, "This is kind of punk with reggae, and this is kind of punk with country." You know what I mean? "And this is kind of funky." And to me, that's the worst thing you could do. And in retrospect, we had so much energy when we just fucking rocked, I wish we'd just fucking rocked all the time. But we still had fun. We still had a big following. And a local promoter gave us all the good shows. So we just lucked out and got to play with Bad Brains, Murphy's Law, Henry Rollins, all these legendary punk bands. Even though we were terrible, everybody kind of liked us, 'cause they had no choice, 'cause we were always there.
AD: You made friends anyway, though. I mean, you made enough friends to have a record label now and still be getting to release friends' stuff. Did that band end before you moved on to another band?
JH: Yes. So we were in that band a little over five years. Went through a couple different shifts in members. Usually it involved not getting along with our singer.
AD: As a singer, I know how that is.
JH: Yeah. Strong personalities, you know? But we're all friends now, and it's funny to go back to that, 'cause we're all adults now, too, but the funniest part about that—the cool part—is that our last bass player, Rob, was also in a punk band Ultraman, which kind of gave us a little bit cooler punk credibility 'cause they toured Europe and Japan and the world, and they were kind of popular, so we had this rock star in our band who's kind of done it all. And he's amazing because we reunited four or five years ago, after twenty something years, and he is a photographic memory freak person who didn't forget anything. Just came in and was like "No, you play it like this." Like, he remembered everything. And he's a genius like that. Even the other people in the band who are amazing players, everybody's a fifty-times better player than they were back then, and this cat just—it was freaky. One thing I will say—the lyrics of the band, that Greg wrote, our singer, who later was the Edwardsville Public High School librarian here in town for a while, he was such a literary guy that we were definitely doing the "every song is a socially conscious message or political message" thing, 'cause that's the age we were. But if you go back and listen to some of the lyrics, they're kind of genius. One song was called "Who Dropped the Ayatollah," when the Ayatollah Khomeini died in Iran. There were songs that were all messed up, but if you go back and read them, you're like, "That was kind of smart."
AD: Did you feel like you had to give him some retroactive credit?
JH: I definitely did. We had to go back like, "Man, how did you do that when you were that young?"
AD: When you guys got back together, did you write any new songs?
JH: No. No time.
AD: Did he feel like he had to update any of the lyrics?
JH: Actually, we just had to learn how to play wrong, because we all knew how to play our shit now. So we had to de-learn what we'd learned since then to be able to play songs that bad.
AD: Nice work.
JH: Our last two shows were really exciting, because we played with ALL, who used to be the Descendants, as our last show, and our second-to-last show was The Jesus Lizard, which was incredible, and the Dazzling Killmen, who were on Skin Graft.
AD: Where was that at?
JH: Club 360, in North County.
AD: So what other bands did you plan in?
JH: After that, I was in a band called Sledgehummer. We got in the band with this guy who owned Sacred Grounds coffeeshop at the time, here in town. And Scott, who was a great guy, opened a music club in the basement of his coffeehouse, where he never served booze, just coffee, and had shows down there and created this cool little scene on Main Street in Edwardsville. We didn't play with him long. We kind of revamped members and restarted a few couple later as a band called Bionica with a different singer and one less guitar player. That was kind of fun, that was a very heavy kind of thing, and then Bionica was more of an alternative college rock kind of vibe for us, with a very—probably the darkest alternative college rock you can imagine, but nonetheless, that's what it was.
AD: I think that's what everybody who listens to college rock says about the stuff they listen to.
JH: Well, so, I would have been out of my rebel rock stage into my depressive stage as a musician. I think some musicians have a continuity in their music; they kind of always maintain the same vibe. And then, I think when you start real young, your bands can be described as different moods. "We were angry! Then we were happy. Then we were sad. Then we were depressed. Then we rocked!" I don't know, it's weird.
AD: I think people make bands that way. I think people get together because they enjoy playing their instruments, and each of them has their own approach to how they play their instrument, but the one thing they can agree on is the mood, and they start just making music that way.
JH: I love that, like, "We all have these instruments, we should play music," and then you get together and it's like, "God, I'm pissed," or, "I want to do this." Which is why I've always been such a big fan of Refused, because they were the band that were, I don't want to say anti-government, but their motif in all their lyrics matched their music to a beautiful T.
AD: When you were playing music back then, had you ever thought about starting up a record company?
JH: Actually, yeah. When I was in Snake Ranch, Greg and Rob started ScrapDog Records, and they actually put our vinyl out on that label, and then—I don't know how this happened or why this happened—but a label in Finland, which is also the farthest I've ever been away from home, picked up our record and sold the heck out of it over there. Only Finland. Maybe they sold some in Copenhagen. Maybe they sold some in Russia. I don't know. But they sure as hell sold them in Finland, which is weird.
AD: You were a celebrity for a while.
JH: That's right, at a place I'd never been. So sad.
AD: You were exotic for a minute, probably. "This is a new American band!"
JH: Which is very weird. So Sledgehummer, then Bionica, the alt-rock band. Very fun. Very good friends of mine, still. Reunited again a couple of years ago for a friend's benefit show. We have a friend of ours who was in the bands back then who passed away, and every year we have a benefit for him and we just give the money to a charity. We just get together and make music, so we got to play again together, and it was really fun. After Bionica, joined Pave the Rocket, signed with Deep Elm who were in based in NYC at the time. Did some touring to support the record. Had my five seconds of fame, then went back into the ad industry full time. Had some amazing experiences during the Pave era. Not any significant fame by any means, just phenomenal music-based experiences. Joined the heaviest, math-iest thing I ever did after that with some great friends, Operation:Rock. We mostly had other musicians show up to our shows. Then later joined a really fun who-gaze outfit called Stella Mora. All of my band experiences were really a blast, and I had different kinds of fun with each one. Each one has made my love for music deeper in some way.
AD: How many original recordings is Boxing Clever Records getting?
JH: Actually, we just ask that the song we release on vinyl be exclusive for six months. Some of the bands are like, "That's going to be on an album," and we've said, "Okay, that's on the contract, but we're not going to sue you anyway, because we don't care." We thought that would be a cool way to do it, but we found that it doesn't matter. Vinyl people are going to buy vinyl, so we tried to do that for a while, and then we got lax on it and just kind of said it doesn't matter if you release that on an album or not. You know, seven-inches are kind of their own animal in the vinyl world anyway, so it's just kind of a fun collector's thing. And, you know, it started out as a design project anyway, and it just became something cooler than that as we went.
AD: How did it start as a design project? What did you have in mind then?
JH: We were designing all the Vintage Vinyl in-store posters, and we wanted to design for vinyl, and the way Boxing Clever is set up is that if there's something we want to do, we do it, so that we can prove to someone we can do it. No clients, no one's going to come to you and be like, "Hey can you do this?" And you're like, "Yes," and it's like, "Well, let me see an example," then it's like "We don't have any," and they're like, "Hey, fuck it! I don't care! Here's all the money!" That never happens in this world. Nobody goes, "You're a mechanic, I want you to fix all my cars," if you don't have have a garage or a reputation. But long story short, when we wanted to design more for the music industry, we started a record label. And since then, you know, like tomorrow, I have a conference call with my friend Perry and Phil Anselmo of Pantera, who I met a couple weeks ago. He wants a marketing home for his label, and we wouldn't be asked to do that if he didn't like the stuff we did for ourselves.
AD: He's got a pretty good aesthetic himself. Who was the first person you talked to about getting a record put out?
JH: Jim Utz at Vintage Vinyl. He is the promotions director at Vintage, been there for years, never really wanted to work anywhere else, 'cause you know, right now he hangs out with the Rolling Stones and everyone cool in the music industry. You'll see him backstage at this giant show, and then you'll see him at the coolest band. His life is all about music, and I talked to him about it first. He's such a positive person, even though there's plenty of negative things. People can say what they want, it's really hard to do. There's a lot of stuff involved, e-commerce, fulfillment, legal stuff, it's very deep, but he remained positive. He was like, "Well, you're going to do a lot of stuff, and it's going to take longer than you think, and here are some of the obstacles, but you should do it, that's really cool." He was very positive.
AD: Did he help set you up with any bands?
JH: Actually, he helped introduce us to legal people, people who could help us with contracts at labels and friends of his, that was the first thing he helped us with. The bands I already knew from being in bands and stuff. My friend Perry from A*Star, who was on the first record, they were in a band called bliss.city.east, and my last band, which was called Stella Mora, which was kind of a shoegaze thing in St. Louis, he had posted on Facebook, "Who wants to put one of our new songs out on seven-inch?" and I was like, "I'm going to put that on seven-inch." And that's what started the whole record thing. We had already talked about it from designing the music stuff. Basically, I was like, "I'm putting your record out," and he was like, "What are you talking about?" I was like, "I'm starting a record label," and he was like, "Get the hell out of here." And I was like, "But I need somebody cool on the back," so he immediately called Beth Rettig, who played with Curve back in the '90s, who actually had a popular UK album that was really big on the charts, called Doppelgänger, and she's in a band called Blindness, and he was like, "How about a band from London?" and I was like, "That is exactly what we need to come out of the gate with." I heard 'em, and they were really poppy and cool songwriters, and I was like, "Yeah, that's going to be a fun split, " so we did the first one and then we slated six.
AD: You fulfilled all those, so now you've got more in the works?
JH: Yes. We're hoping to go from split seven-inches to full-lengths. The hard part—and the part that we hate—is that distribution houses and channels want hard product. They don't just want vinyl, they also want CDs. We don't want to make CDs, so what we're thinking of doing is maybe we have a CD case, and inside the CD case there are cool postcards and pictures and cool stuff and a download card. It's like this pack of fun art. Because I don't want to make a CD. They're just so disposable. CDs are not going to have a resurgence. I saw this company that had these beautiful, disposable USB drives. So it's a piece of cardboard with the little metallic things on the end that slides into your computer, then you download the song, then you recycle it. I was like, that's what I'm talking about. Here's my big fantasy: You remember those flexible records back in the day that came in magazines and stuff? To have a flexible record with that little digital download; you plug it in, download the thing, play the flexible record once, and throw the whole thing away or recycle it or something. But then your record, your full-length record, is with it in another container, and that's sealed, so if you're a nerd collector, you download the digital file, have that flexible one, and then you keep the other one pristine. That's the nerd in me that wants to do that. We'll see if I can pull that off.
AD: What sort of record companies are out there right now that you're keeping you eye on and wishing you could pull off the stunts they're doing?
JH: Who we want to be when we grow up is what I call it, and that's obviously Third Man. To me, Jack White's label is all about the preservation and beauty of music. Like that new Paramount box set he did was recognized by the New York Public Library, you know what I mean, it's an important piece of history he preserved. No matter what you want to say about Jack White and whether you like him as an artist or whatever, I think he's got one of the most important, cool labels ever. Everything he puts out has a special edition thing in it. Joyful Noise Recordings puts out a lot of different things, including Jesus Lizard stuff that I loved back in the day, like their new book. And they do that, too, like, "Here's this awesome release, and before you buy the regular release, here's this awesome limited-to-250-pieces thing." I love that. I don't buy a lot of stuff, so when I do, I want it to be special. I'm one of those kinds of people. I'm not a person who wants to buy all kinds of crap. I want to buy certain things, and I want them to be awesome when I spend that kind of money. To me, it's like they put out these amazingly beautiful vinyl editions and recorded editions, and when those are gone, okay, the music's still relevant and good, here's the regular one. You can just buy it if you want. I dig that. I'm a sucker for that.
AD: Black metal's been really good at that. That's how they got their start. "We made 20 of these tapes. Here they are."
JH: Did you hear about the new Wu Tang album?
AD: Yeah, I did. Just one of 'em.
JH: That's awesome, man. I love it.
AD: Did you catch the stunt that Boards of Canada did this last year? Their Record Store Day release only had six copies. They put one in a record store in New York and the others in a record stores in other countries. They announced they were going to have these out, so people went nuts looking for them. It turned out that at the end of these records was a sequence of numbers that spelled out a code. And the code, when deciphered, which I think meant leaked to a journalist by the band, probably, it decoded into the release date of their new album, which they hadn't announced yet. It was badass. And I don't think there's any chance in hell it just so happened that somebody picked it up who also happened to be able to decipher this stupid code. I don't believe that for a second. But that doesn't make it any less of an effective marketing tool.
JH: Yeah, absolutely. That's the thing, too. The David Byrne book, How Music Works, there's some fascinating things that he brought up about the fact that, you know there was this big "music industry's dead" thing a couple years ago because of the internet, and it's not. It's so much bigger. But the beauty of it is, like a lot of things, it's balanced out so it's not just owned by any—the number of record companies became smaller and smaller, and we had these monopolies again, like in a lot of other terrible businesses, and then all of a sudden now it's being distributed again. It's like the wealth of coolness is being distributed by all these different record labels, and that's why we're doing it. We're doing it because we want to be a part of the culture. We don't consider anything anyone does competition. We want to do something cool to influence them or feed off of those labels. It's really cool. The Lips having the gummy skull that you have to eat to get to the music in the middle. Mos Def did the album that was a T-shirt, you know, he was the first one to do that. It was like, "Here's my T-shirt, the download code's on the tag." Put the T-shirt on, download the album. Brilliant. Just so simple, you know? And you're giving somebody two tangible things instead of one. It's really cool.
AD: What kind of stuff do you have lined up for this year?
JH: There's a small handful of local bands we want to talk to first. Because we're from here, we think St. Louis, like Euclid has a really cool label, and there's a couple other cool small labels; we kind of want to start with that community first, and then what we'd like to do is look at a couple other bands from abroad. There's a band The Microdance who's on one of our records we like a lot. Band from Germany that's on one of our splits we like a lot. We'll look at those next, hopefully, and then we want to try to go after somebody a little bigger. You know, we kind of want to walk before we run, and then I want to do reissues. I don't know how, and it's getting harder because reissues are getting gobbled up everywhere. It's getting harder and harder to find stuff that's not on vinyl. But we've talked to a few artists about reissuing stuff that isn't available on vinyl anymore.
Thanks to Jim Harper for all the wonderful conversation—much more than is published here. Visit Boxing Clever Records, and don't forget to check out Snake Ranch on Critical Mass.
Andrew Doty is the sole editor and creator of Lyricism. He is a professional freelance editor and unprofessional musician currently calling St. Louis home base.