Good Karma in Stereo
At the Anti- label, it’s all about the music
This article is part of a package called “For the Love of Music.” For more, read Really Fresh Air and Play That Funky Vinyl.
I’ve been assigned to track down Andy Kaulkin, the man who runs Anti-, the most adventuresome indie record label in America. But there’s a problem. It seems that Kaulkin—the man who resuscitated the careers of Solomon Burke and Bettye LaVette, who signed Neko Case and released her finest album—doesn’t like to talk about himself.
What’s up with that? Doesn’t Kaulkin live in Los Angeles, the world capital of brutal self-aggrandizement? Yes, but it seems that he is more interested in making great records than in grabbing all of the credit for them. In the music business, this is a case without precedent.
After much wheedling and pleading, Kaulkin agrees to talk to me on the phone late one night, but only to explain his position. “It’s just bad karma,” he says. “If I start talking about myself, I’m afraid that the label will suffer somehow.”
I’m irritated, but it’s hard to argue with Kaulkin’s accomplishments at Anti-, a label with an organizing principle that runs counter to just about every indie imprint in America. Anti-, which is basically a one-man show bankrolled by the punk label Epitaph, doesn’t discriminate against age, attitude, or genre. It’s a small label with a big-tent philosophy. Kaulkin will sign anything if it’s good.
Anti-’s high-profile acts Neko Case and Tom Waits are two of the most respected singer-songwriters on the planet, but they plow different furrows. Case’s most recent album, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, is a gorgeous, mostly acoustic rumination on doomed love and backwoods mythology, while Waits’ three-CD epic Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards is murky, art-damaged rock, a creepy trawl through Waits’ netherworld of reprobates and soused romantics. Both records appeared on numerous critics’ top 10 lists for 2007 and sold vigorously: 200,000 for Case and 146,000 for Waits, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Anti- also releases records by artists no other label would ever bother to nurture: mature performers who have run aground and have been left to scrape along the margins of the music business. Literate singer-songwriter Joe Henry kicked around various labels before finding an amenable home at Anti-; besides releasing his own records, he produced Solomon Burke’s glorious 2002 comeback Don’t Give Up on Me for the label. Once-obscure soul singer Bettye LaVette and soul legend Mavis Staples are also here. Funky protest singer Michael Franti, incendiary hip-hoppers the Coup, New Orleans party starters Galactic, the late Grand Ole Opry legend Porter Wagoner—they’ve all made some of the best music of their careers with Anti-.
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