Matador owner, music lover captures one Austin scene with 'Casual Victim Pile'
When Gerard Cosloy sits down in Bouldin Creek Coffeehouse's back room on one of those unseasonably cold days Austin got in January, he looks like he's nursing a bad cold.
"I'm fine, actually," he says. "I'm just tired."
One wonders how Cosloy isn't totally exhausted all the time.
The 45-year-old co-owns Matador Records, one of the most influential independent music labels of the past 20 years and the current or one-time home of Liz Phair, Pavement, Spoon, New Pornographers, Yo La Tengo, Shearwater and dozens more. The label is based in New York, so it's a job that requires a tolerance for flying on par with George Clooney's in "Up in the Air."
In addition, Cosloy writes the razor-sharp sports blog Can't Stop the Bleeding, which demands a whole lot of sports-watching. He posts frequently on Matador's Matablog page. He plays in the improvisational noise/rock duo Air Traffic Controllers (which equals Gerard on guitar and voice and a rotating cast of drummers of varying degrees of skill). He seems to be out at shows every night of the week, from Emo's to Beerland to Mohawk.
That nocturnal activity led him, in part, to curating the killer "Casual Victim Pile," a 19-band anthology of club-level Austin acts (and two from Denton) Dikes of Holland, the Young, the Golden Boys, Wild America, Follow That Bird, the Persimmons and a baker's dozen more bands that could be your life.
These aren't the Americana acts you catch at Saxon Pub or Cactus Cafe or Continental Club or ACL Fest. You might see Wild America pounding out catchy, high-octane punk at a Wednesday night in-store at Trailer Space records in front of 20 or 30 fans. You might or see the Golden Boys' bent, quasi-country anywhere at Emo's or the Mohawk, playing a garage rock gig with the Flesh Lights. You're definitely not going to see the Teeners, who broke up before the compilation was released. These are not bands that are going to go out of their way to promote themselves. You have to find them, usually in various clubs along Red River Street or house shows. Some people play in each others bands, often playing very different music. It's not a scene unified by sound or vision, but it is worth seeking out.
"When somebody from a publication or radio station I won't name says 'I haven't heard of half the bands on this record,' my reaction is 'Maybe you're not doing a very good job,'" Cosloy says. " 'You should know who these bands are, that's why this exists.' "
Matador released the album Jan. 26. A three-night show at Beerland featuring virtually all the bands takes place Feb. 4-6.
And the house Cosloy co-owned with Austin singer-songwriter Sally Crewe was destroyed in an early morning fire Aug. 11, resulting in the loss of all of the possessions therein, the death of a pet, the destruction of many master tapes for "Casual Victim Pile" and a record collection that vinyl nerds the world over quietly wept for.
"I don't know how he has time to do all the stuff he does," Merge Records co-founder Mac McCaughan says. McCaughan has known Cosloy since the former was in college at Columbia University in the mid-'80s and Cosloy was the wunderkind running Homestead Records. McCaughan band Superchunk released several records on Matador before Merge became big enough to support a full roster of bands. These days, Merge is home to some of the biggest independent bands in the world, including the Arcade Fire and Spoon, whose first album was released on Matador.
"He runs this huge label, but he also does very in-depth writing about sports and music," McCaughan says. "I just don't know how he does it."
But, then, he always has had a lot going on.
Austinites first ran into Cosloy regularly in 2004, when he moved here after a five-year stint working at Matador's London office.
But his story stretches back to suburban Boston, where Cosloy was a high-school-aged punk rock fan with a zine called "Conflict," which Cosloy continued to publish throughout the '80s and '90s and where he first established a reputation for a scabrous wit and a take-no-prisoners writing style.
Craig Koon, the former manger of now-closed Austin record store Sound Exchange, got to know Cosloy first though "Conflict."
"He didn't suffer any fools," Koon says from his current home in Oregon. "If he thought you were worth tying a string of firecrackers to your tail, he'd do it. I remember these letters he would write to various magazines that were like stink bombs lobbed around the music business."
Cosloy's first foray into the compilation business was "Bands That Could Be God," a collection of punk bands from Boston and Western Massachusetts that he co-released himself. Good luck finding one.
Koon got to know Cosloy better when both worked at Dutch East, an umbrella company for some small-scale music businesses. Koon worked for the booking arm, Ubu, while Cosloy ran the label Homestead Records. He was all of 20.
Under Cosloy, Homestead became one of the most important labels of the 1980s, releasing records by Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Big Black, the Meatmen, Nick Cave and many, many more. It was small operation, but a powerfully influential one. (See also Homestead's near-perfect 1987 label sampler "The Wailing Ultimate" for a sharp overview.)
"People who worked with Gerard tended to like him and respect him," Koon said, even if the records didn't sell so well at first.
When I asked Cosloy what it was like selling 25,000 records in 1986 as opposed to now, an age of diminished expectations, he looks at me slightly incredulously.
"I didn't," he says. "It never happened to me. The average Homestead release sold about 5,000. I remember when we sold 9,000 Meatmen records it was like 'Woo-woo-woo!' It took years for the records that became famous to sell a lot of copies."
Cash was always tight and simply getting records into stores was a challenge.
"Even with harsh conditions at the moment, the financial environment for bands now is much better than it was then," Cosloy said. "No matter how bad things are now, at least now you can get some semblance of nationwide and global distribution. It was much harder to accomplish then without the help of a large label."
Frustratingly, bands eventually split off from Homestead, often not lasting more than one or two releases. Sonic Youth and Dinosaur, Jr. headed to SST, Big Black went to Touch 'n' Go.
Cosloy himself joined former Dutch East employee Chris Lombardi in a new venture, Matador Records, in 1990. He had already been thinking about his next compilation, 1991's "New York Eye and Ear Control," a collection of New York bands that he found worth documenting. It's the comp Cosloy thinks is most analogous to "Casual Victim Pile."
"('Eye and Ear') was also a bunch of bands that typified something that was happening in lower Manhattan that, at that point, wasn't really being documented," Cosloy said. "These were good bands who were not being chased by labels and did not have management or lots of shows."
Cosloy and Lombardi knew something was up with Teenage Fanclub's 1990 album "A Catholic Education."
"That one gave us a shot at turning into a real business," Cosloy said. "Almost overnight that it became this record that everyone had to have."
Cosloy pauses: "Then Pavement broke it open."
By "Pavement", Cosloy means "Slanted and Enchanted," the band's debut full-length and one of the most critically feted albums of the 1990s, garnering album of the year kudos based on a grotty advance cassette.
Matador released four more Pavement albums unitl the band called it quits in 1999. In time for some 2010 reunion shows, a Pavement best-of is due in April.
From that point, Cosloy managed to do it all over again, midwifing alternative rock in the '90s the way he had American post-punk rock in the 1980s. Between the domestic and London branches (Cosloy started to work at the latter in 1999) Matador worked with nearly all of the underground bands that became tiny legends: Liz Phair, Sleater-Kinney, Mogwai, Cat Power, Belle and Sebastian, the list is mind-boggling. This decade, Matador released records by Cosloy's boyhood heroes Mission of Burma and released a record by, of all people, Sonic Youth.
Cosloy left London for Austin in 2004.
"Before I lived here, Austin music to me was the (13th Floor) Elevators, True Believers, Doctor's Mob, Reivers, Texas Instruments, Scratch Acid," Cosloy said. "They were way bigger to me than they may have actually been here."
After a few years of constantly going to shows in Austin, Cosloy made the decision: Another compilation was in order.
"Dikes of Holland and (the now-defunctish Denton band) the Marked Men had the most to do with it," Cosloy said. "Seeing the younger bands the Wax Museums and the Bad Sports, that gave me the idea that there was something pretty awesome going on that needed to be documented. And ever since I started seeing Dikes of Holland I've believed that they are a world-class band. I was continually frustrated at the low turnouts at their shows." Hence, the leg-up a compilation on Matador might provide.
Not that Dikes need it, Cosloy quickly says. Harlem is now signed to Matador and Woven Bones have their own growing fan base. The only band to turn Cosloy down was the brilliant, savage punk/noise band Total Abuse, whose second album arrives in the spring: "they would have been doing me a bigger favor than the other way round," Cosloy said.
"This record isn't everyone who is good in town," he adds. "All I was ever trying to do was put a record together people would like and that I thought sounded good and had a flow from beginning to end."
Is it an Austin thing? Cosloy is polite enough not to roll his eyes at the notion.
"This is about as far as I'm going to go on the cheerleady Chamber of Commerce front," he says, "but I do feel like shows here, the vibe is very different from Memphis or New York or Philly. The people who are there are generally there for the right reasons."
And that is as rah-rah as he gets. "There's a belief here that types of music more overtly geared toward being heard in a giant field full of people are worthy of serious consideration and everyone else is kind (messing) around. I don't feel good about that." Hence, a regionally focused compilation of small-bore bands he loves on a major indie label at a time when records are very hard to sell. (Then again, if everything is hard to sell, "Casual Victim Pile" won't be that much harder.)
"He always seems to put out music that he loves," McCaughan said. "That's just so clear. And it's the most important consideration."