Gringo is one of our favourite independent record labels, and so we thought the time was well overdue to hear some more about them from the horse's mouth itself. Dan Salter posed the questions for label head honcho Matt Newnham...
(((o))): So Gringo has been going for around 15 years now. That's a long time to be at the coal face of the industry. Can you tell us a bit about how, and indeed why, you got started?
Haha, I would never say I was at the coal face of the industry, but it is certainly a long time to have been doing whatever it is I do. I'll let you into a secret; I wasn't one of Gringo's founding fathers. In my last year of school I'd started writing a fanzine called Damn You! with my friend Tom. We were pretty hopped up on the stuff coming out of Glasgow (Mogwai, Urusei Yatsura, Bis, Eska, Pink Kross) and Colchester just had to read what was on our minds. I saw Mogwai the night before one of my A-Level exams, and they blew my socks off, so I stalked them for a while. When I left Colchester to go to university, Tom and a couple of my friends stayed behind, playing in bands, trying to figure out what they wanted to do with themselves. On Halloween 1996 we met an older gentleman named Jason at a Urusei Yatsura / Eska gig in Colchester and he became part of our circle. The new gang decided to start a record label and put out a split single with two of Halstead's finest lo-fi bands – Lando and Teebo (full disclosure, 3 of the founding fathers were in them!). Obviously I must have felt a bit left out! I hated the university I was at and quit in the middle of the second semester, so when I returned to Colchester I infiltrated the record label gestation talks and stumped up a fifth of the cash. I had no talent for playing music so running a label seemed like a fun way of being involved. To cut a long story short, the label became just Jason and myself and then for the last 10 years it has just been me.
(((o))): A lot has happened in the last 15 years, the whole internet & all the good and bad things that has brought to the music business. How has the landscape for an independent label changed between when you started & now?
The internet and the decline of record shops are the big ones and of course they are the cause and effect. So when Gringo first started the internet was at the very beginning, I first used email when I got to university. Most of the records we sold were to shops and it didn't seem difficult to get 300 7”s into shops whereas now that would be a mega success. Of course, you never really knew if anyone went into the shop and bought the record! I like that now people can hear what Gringo puts out and it is easy for them to buy. I sell more records by mailorder than ever before and digital sales are around a third of the label's income. It is easy to support record labels and artists if you are so inclined. The really cool thing is that good record shops are still going and new ones, like The Music Exchange in Nottingham, are thriving.
(((o))): If you were just starting out now, what would you do differently & indeed would you do it at all?
I wouldn't start a record label at 35 in 2013! My girlfriend would dump me. But now I can't separate the label from myself, it is like an extra limb. It has shaped and been a part of so many events in my life. Of course there are loads of things I could have done differently. Even right now there are loads of things I could and should be doing! But running Gringo is a delicate balance along with my day job and my life. It is the same for the bands I work with. Making a living off music is not the goal.
(((o))): What have been the personal highlights of those fifteen years?
Hearing John Peel play a Gringo track on the radio. Hearing John Peel play a Gringo track on the radio at the wrong speed. Travelling round Europe with various bands and appreciating the tremendous hospitality of people you have never met before, and trying to bring that culture back to the UK. The Gringo 10th birthday was amazing; the first time I was fully aware that other people cared about the label. Right now is pretty exciting and I'm sure good times are yet to come.
(((o))): Are there any bands that you've looked back with the benefit of hindsight & wish you'd signed?
I've only ever signed a contract with one band, and that was because it was already clear they were going to put records out with a bigger label. I guess when you say sign you probably mean are there bands I wanted to release records by. There have not been many missed opportunities to be honest. We wanted to put out a record by Bob Tilton in the Gringo early years, but it just never happened. I think they were humouring us! I ended up living with Neil from Tilton for ten years so I got my revenge in multiple ways. There are plenty of bands I think could have fitted in with the Gringo vibe – Charlottefield, Quack Quack, Ligament, The Horse Loom, Mazes, Trash Kit – but I don't like treading on toes and I kind of like Gringo's glacial release rate.
(((o))): The Hookworms album is looking like being one of 2013's breakthrough releases. How did you come across the record, did they approach you or did you find them?
A few friends had already mentioned that I should check them out. I travelled down to Reading with Bilge Pump for a gig and the promoters (Doubledotdash) had put out a wee CD compilation with a Hookworms number on it. Emlyn from Bilge Pump and I listened to it on drive home and I loved the Hookworms track (‘Teen Dreams’). Pretty much as soon as I got home I emailed them and threw myself at their feet.
(((o))): When you first heard it did you think 'that's a hit!' or was it more that you liked it & wanted to work with them & everything that's followed has been a bonus?
I don't think in terms of things being a hit. I actually very rarely hear a band's recordings (especially one track!) and then ask to put their record out. Normally I'll see the band play live first and try and get to know them a little bit to see if they are on the same wavelength as me. At the time I felt Gringo need a bit of fresh impetus so I was up for taking a chance and approaching a band outside of my usual circle of friends. With Hookworms, I think I got what they were trying to do. ‘Teen Dreams’ sounded like Guy Piciotto fronting a mega repeato-rock band. Luckily the band were fans of Gringo and they suggested to Dan from Faux Discx that I help with the 12” they already had lined up. That went great, I ended up doing a split 7” with Hookworms and Kogumaza as well, and then I took a chance and asked them to consider Gringo when they finished their album. I knew they would have other offers so I was pleasantly surprised and quite proud when they stuck with me.
(((o))): Has the critical acclaim & mainstream exposure it's receiving come as a surprise? Why do you think it's captured people's imagination?
I'm not surprised the album has done well. It became clear early on that they were a cracking band and people who bought records actually liked them. The surprise has more been how quickly the exposure and sales have come about. Record Store Day made it hard to keep the vinyl in print and keep up with demand.
(((o))): How do you generally find bands for the label? What advice you would you give bands looking to approach an independent label such as yourselves?
My advice would be not to approach anyone. Let them come to you or just do it yourself. Get good, play with bands you like in other cities and good labels will be queuing up to put out your record, if that is what you want. I've never put a record out by a band who approached me where I didn't already know them on a personal level. I tend to hear about good bands through other Gringo bands and seeing good things in Nottingham (or promoting them). While I appreciate bands sending me things to listen to, it is difficult to find the time.
(((o))): Beyond the Hookworms album, what are Gringo's plans for 2013 & what other records should we looking out for from you?
Oh loads. My house is a hive of activity. A Grey Hairs 7” came out for Record Store Day and the Vision Fortune album (co-released with Faux Discx) has already sold out. Next up are albums from Fists, Broken Arm and That Fucking Tank (a 10th anniversary live LP!). After that, goodness knows.