MOKB Interview : Matt Halverson of Lefse Records

Lefse Records — home to artists like Dominant Legs, Cuckoo Chaos, How To Dress Well, and Youth Lagoon — is an independent label that’s flourished at the hands of its open-minded and creative founders, whose foremost focus has been on quality, and quality alone. Like a rich, textured piece of tapestry, Lefse Records is an ever-growing collective of diverse acts from all genres, hailing from countries near and far.

But like all labels do (and despite the big names they now house under their wings) Lefse started out as a small, fledgling operation with nothing but ambitious dreams. We spoke to co-founder Matt Halverson for an in-depth look at Lefse Records…

I understand that Lefse Records works alongside Banter Media. How are the two related?
We started Banter Media as a local record label six years ago. With Banter we were putting out local stuff when we were based in San Diego. Then, we switched gears a little bit and turned it into Banter Media Management; rather than being a label, we were managing bands and doing PR. Lots of bands and labels ended up coming to us asking us to do PR work for them. Later on down the road we discovered Neon Indian and decided to start a label again. But instead of re-starting Banter, we created Lefse and that Psychic Chasms album by Neon Indian was our first release. So, long story short…Banter is more media-oriented with PR and all, and Lefse is for label stuff.

What kind of changes did the business undergo as it transitioned between PR, management and label entities? I mean I can see how their functions could overlap with one another, but they are inherently different.
We are doing a lot of the same things across the board. The way to categorize it really is by the way the money is handled. If you’re a label, you’re paying for the product and promotion – the main goal is getting the album in the stores, getting the proper promotion and distribution to sell the products. When you’re managing, you’re the liaison between the bands and the labels – you’re not really in charge at all of the product or anything like that, you’re making sure that the label is doing the right job with your artists. That’s what we do for the bands we manage since they are all on different labels.

Lefse is housed within Banter Media’s offices. How are you able to run both at the same time?
There’s two of us that own it and we meet a few times a day to plan things out. Our days are actually pretty strictly mapped out. [Laughs]. The majority of the Lefse responsibilities fall on me. Although we bounce ideas back and forth, I’m basically running the label. Tyler handles all the PR stuff. We both kind of tag team the management side. I’m more of the “hands on guy,” the one that talks to all the bands talks to the press. Tyler does a lot of the band end stuff as far as making sure all the website is updated, following up on distribution and licensing stuff, handling the album artwork and any legal issues – he’s definitely the smart guy [laughs]. I’m the guy that finds all the music that we are working with… [laughs] it’s a different kind of smarts.

Why did you decide to start a record label? Why “indie-rock”?

The reason we wanted to start Lefse was that in the past a lot of the bands we were managing and releasing records for weren’t necessarily the kind of music that we were excited about everyday. We worked with folk/alt country bands, and bands that were always within our circle of friends, despite the fact that they weren’t really “up our alley,” so to speak. So we decided to take that leap to try and work with music that we could listen to and would buy on a daily basis. If you listen to anything on our roster, that’s the kind of stuff we listen to all day long in our office.

You have a wide range of artists from all over the world. How do you go about finding these bands? What is it you’re looking for in these artists?

It’s true that Lefse has bands from all over. I’d like to think that our label provides music geared towards one type of music fan. Usually when someone likes something on Lefse, they like the majority of Lefse. But our artists do range in styles, range in origins, from San Francisco to Italy and everything in between. Basically the way we judge if we are going to sign a band to the label – it’s a bigger commitment than anything that we do – first, we have to be super pumped on the music. It’s got to be something we would want to listen to while we are working, or listen to all the time. We also try to work with bands that are kind of trying new things. Like Neon Indian – it was lo-fi, but super poppy. Or Dominant Legs – it was super poppy, but ‘80s sounding (the serious ‘80s, not the silly ‘80s that everyone was imitating). There’s got to be some level of, for lack of a better term, “groundbreakingness” to it. If it’s just an artist that’s imitating something, a lot of the time we shy away from it even if we do like how it sounds. There’s something about every band on Lefse that we just thought, “Wow,” because although they are drawing from their influences, they are adding something new to it also.

Do you meet with these artists before you sign them?
[Laughs] That would be awesome if we could. They’re scattered all over the globe, Iceland, Ireland… [laughs]. We just don’t have the budget or the brainpower to travel that much. We talk to them on the phone a lot, and exchange tons of emails. There are even some bands that we have not even seen live, until months after releasing their record. In a perfect world, we would love to meet with everyone in person, but it doesn’t always work that way.

Since the first signing of Neon Indian, how do you think the label as evolved up this point? You guys have a much larger roster, and in 2010 months you guys rolled out releases like crazy.

In 2010 we were definitely trying to ride the hype that Lefse had, the kind of hype that meant that anything that we did would be pretty easily discoverable in the media, on the blogs. That’s why you saw us release a lot of EPs. We tried to get stuff out there while we had those open channels. But this year, we’ve slowed down and plan to release more full-lengths. But since the very first release until now, the main thing that’s changed with the label is that it went from a brand new label with our email inbox at 0, to now constantly sifting through band demos, opportunities from booking agents and show invites. Even though Lefse is owned by Banter Media, it’s almost becoming its own company to the point that it’s so busy it could be separate.

In a previous article I read that you guys browse through Myspace/Bandcamp links all night. Is that sort of the common way that artists grab your attention? Any really interesting stories that drew you toward a band and/or led to the signing of a band?

I think How To Dress Well with his whole back story definitely made me want to check out the music. You know, he’s an American based in Berlin studying some kind of 15th century German Philosophy, getting his PhD and creating this super indie music infused with lo-fi r&b… just that description right there from his manager made me want to listen to it. It’s along the lines of what we were talking about earlier, that IT factor that makes an artist stand out. A story like his is really captivating. He was definitely the first of his kind, I think. We really do try to listen to everything: every package we get, every link we receive, in order to find that IT factor.

Is there another label that you emulated as you begun Lefse? Or one that you might compare Lefse to?

Before, Ace Fu Records was the reason I wanted to get into music at all. Saddle Creek Records influenced me to start one on my own. I’m not particularly a huge fan of their music now, but I really liked how it was run by friends, and all the bands on the label earlier on were from Omaha and were buddies. Before that, all I associated record labels with were big companies, wearing suits, and bands getting screwed over. When I read something about Saddle Creek and heard about how they are all friends and intertwined brothers and sisters, I knew that that’s what I wanted to do. And that’s how we started Banter! With all of our friends, all San Diego bands we dug. People were dating each other [laughs]. Family members scattered throughout. It was started by three of us and we all went to high school together.

Are there any labels today that you would say works similarly to Lefse?

A lot of the “independent” labels now are just not truly independent. I think Underwater Peoples are a friend-oriented label. They are putting out stuff from their friends’ bands. They are putting out some amazing things.

These kinds of truly independent labels thrive on the whole idea of sharing and being friend/family-oriented, and overall just having a very positive environment. What are your thoughts on record labels in general today in this seemingly unstable music industry? Since the digital world/internet has exploded, people have dubbed the record label ‘irrelevant’ – what’s your take?
I may be biased because I’m a label guy [laughs], but I think that is untrue. Labels are still very relevant. If you just look at our roster for example, a lot of the bands on it now have widespread attention and have booking agents and tours lined up. They didn’t have any of this stuff before the label, they just had their music on MySpace. If a band has enough money, connections and luck they can do it on their own. There have been plenty of bands that have been able to make it. But there’s an insane amount of work that needs to be done. We work 50-60 hours a week on label stuff, all day long and still there isn’t enough time. How can labels be irrelevant if they are the ones weeding out all the bad music? Labels can put out good music because they really take the time to listen to all the demos and find the best bands out there and show them to the world. Labels have relationships and channels that enable bands to have things like download cards at Starbucks or something. Even smaller independent labels are getting their music into big channels like commercials and TV shows. Labels love a band and work hard for them; they allow the band to focus on the touring and the making of music, so that they aren’t worrying about all the business elements. But like I said, there are some bands that can do it, like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – but that’s one out of thousands that become popular.

– Post by Michelle Geslani

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