In Real Talk, a regular feature for The Corner, Marty Jones talks to those in our community that influence what we read, what we see, what we hear and what we attend. This time round he speaks to Benjii Jackson, head of Auckland-based indie label Muzai Records, about his split with Sherpa, what motivates artists to make music in New Zealand and where he’d like to see the label go from here.
So when did you decide to start Muzai Records?
There’s always been this dalliance around the official date, but the idea behind it kind of formed in January 2009. Then the actual first release would’ve been February or not too long after that. So yeah we’ve been going for, I count, three years officially now.
And what was your first release?
The first one was God Bows To Math, their first EP called Depravity. That came out as part of three different kinds of releases in quick succession. It was God Bows To Math Depravity, BMX Rapists Cocks of the Animal Kingdom, and then the third one was one a band called Sworn to the King and that was just called EP. So yeah that’s how basically we started the label, that quick succession of three releases started to build up a discography and whether I liked it or not I was starting to go down the path of running a record label as opposed to just helping my mates out.
So what were the kinds of record labels that inspired you to start your own?
I’m a big Nirvana fan so Sub Pop is definitely there, Kill Rock Stars also and Martin got me into a whole bunch of stuff on Touch and Go so I really like them. Locally there is a label and the guy who runs the label is the nicest guy and I would say that he was an influence on me starting the label; it’s a chap Sam Walsh who runs Mole Music. He was, dare I say it, a precursor for Muzai because he would champion bands like The Vacants, Deer Park, This Night Creeps, Brand New Math, Sharpie Crows. So yeah Mole Music was a profound influence. Arch Hill has been like a mentor as such, Ben Howe you know is one of those rare people in the industry that you can sit down and have a beer with.
So when did you decide that it was going to be a long term investment?
I guess it was kind of decided for me when I had a bunch of bands asking me to do some stuff. I’ve always maintained that I fell into this accidentally. I guess when I started going to all ages shows and seeing like two or three underage bands that I thought were really cool and I’d like to hear what they sounded like on record. It was at that point in time when I started talking to Bandicoot and Nice Birds and it wasn’t like helping out a couple friends or associates of mine, it was helping out some people I’ve only just met because I really liked their music. That’s when it turned into, okay the workload has gotten bigger this is no longer okay I’ll put your release out it’s now going to be I want to see these people succeed I’ve got to get my head down and sort the priorities out. So yeah probably the tail end of that first year, around July or August it suddenly dawned on me that this is becoming a record label.
You seem to have a knack for picking bands out of obscurity, how do you think that has come about?
It’s a weird one. It started off where I guess I wanted to do all ages stuff because I felt it was kind of punk. I always remember even before the record label when I was presenting on Fleet FM there were bands coming through that needed a bit of a foot up. I’m a sucker for an underdog at the end of the day. I think by extension the underdog story and doing something that people kind of weren’t doing. Don’t get me wrong there was an all ages scene there and it was being done really well and there’s people out there like Joe Trotman, who is in Grass Canons now, and he was spot on in championing that kind of thing. So yeah he was every bit as influential in going out and picking up all ages bands as anyone else. I just thought, you know what would be really cool? If someone harnessed these bands and helped them to fulfill potential because they sound amazing and I reckon that people would get behind them.
It takes a certain type of person to work with bands on that level, and work with them for what I’m guessing is next to nothing. What keeps you going?
Yeah I do it because I’m passionate about the bands you know, and you’re quite right I’m not making a huge amount off running a record label. But then that’s the problem when you try and start up a business in the middle of a recession and releasing on formats that people are unsure whether they want to buy anymore, in this case CDs and stuff like that. I just feel quite fortunate about the whole thing you know. I count my blessings every day that I’m still surviving and not in the red or anything like that. I still haven’t had to take out a business loan to run the label – what you see is basically come from money that I have put in myself. So I have to be passionate about working with these bands because there’s no money being made, or at least not a huge amount. I’m glad that I’m at a point now with the current roster that I’m dealing with a bunch of artists that are grateful for everything that they’ve got and that work just as hard towards accomplishing what they want to do as I am with them. That’s my solace, that’s my happy place, that’s my peace of mind. Whatever happens I know that these people are grateful. What I don’t make in money, I’m making in karma.
I understand you recently had to deal with a dispute with one of your bands leaving the label, what happened there?
Yeah they’re called Sherpa. I haven’t really spoken to anyone on the record about this because it’s awkward when a band leaves a label. It’s awkward because when a band leaves a record label what’s the first thing that goes through your head? Clearly it’s ‘oh the label was probably trying to fuck them over’ you know. Which if fans of Sherpa want to think that I was trying to fuck them over, then cool that’s their opinion, and what Sherpa felt they deserved and what I was capable of providing for them were two different things. If they want to go and rattle off and complain etc. that I was trying to rip them off then not to sound harsh but the contract that I had with them, which a number of people have seen, was a standard industry agreement. Sherpa, like God Bows To Math, they were one of the first bands I had on the label and when that kind of stuff goes sour fuck it’s demoralising! They were going to be one of the first big releases on the label and we had worked towards this album, and not to get into specifics but when stuff went down I honestly started questioning whether it was all worth it. When you get effectively dumped over Facebook like I did, it was a really weird dark time and I’ve only just started to get back on the horse and do Muzai things. Out of all the bands that have left the label that was the one that hurt.
Coming from working with a number of bands, what do you think it is that motivates artists to make music in New Zealand?
I think there is always going to be that aspiration of being big, going overseas, traveling the world and doing what you love. I think everybody is like that though; you don’t just have to be a musician to be like that you could be say a chartered accountant that wants to travel the world and do chartered accountancy haha! It’s weird because in the UK when bands form it’s like, that’s it we’re going to concentrate on everything that we do. But over here you find a kind of delicate balance between, yeah we’re going to record this fantastic album it’s going to be brilliant, yet at the same time I still have to wake up at 6.30 in the morning to go make coffee. It’s that fear of I want to be an accomplished musician but I also want to have a backup plan just in case it fucks out on me. I’d like to think that for the most part that if a band has a day job and it’s a real guts 9 to 5 kind of thing and then if the band takes off hopefully all that time they spent doing the day job will keep them grounded. As things can go from great to bad in an instance you just have to put out one bad song and have everybody hate on it and then the worm has turned.
So what about yourself, what are your motivations for the label?
I’d like to survive, I’m not going to jump in and say I’d like to make a million dollars through Muzai. I want to get to a nice comfortable spot where we get more and more respected. It would be cool maybe in say a couple years’ time that we had international record labels come over to pick and choose who they wanted to distribute in the States and the UK. Maybe in 2-3 years’ time it would be great if I could earn a minimum wage from running Muzai… that would be pretty sweet! The comparison is always being thrown so I guess it’s fair play it use it now but it would be cool if we became kind of like a modern Flying Nun, not just world famous in New Zealand but being influential to other places as well. But yeah I guess just keep on trucking is the best phrase to use at the minute and keep doing what we’re doing and amass a few more bands that go onto bigger and better things.