Peter Jesperson talks about the early days at Twin/Tone Records
Peter Jesperson's resume includes stints with Oar Folkjokeopus (now Treehouse Records), Jay's Longhorn Bar, Rev 105, and myriad other music-related jobs. Perhaps best known for co-founding Twin/Tone Records with Paul Stark and Charley Hallman, Jesperson signed such seminal artists as the Replacements, the Suburbs, and Soul Asylum.
In 1995, Jesperson left Minnesota for sunny Los Angeles and now works A&R/Production for New West Records. Twin/Tone released over 100 bands, many of whom signed with major labels and saw significant fan bases, and the label also archived much of the Twin Cities rock scene of the 1980s. In addition to the names above, the label released records from Suicide Commandos, Babes In Toyland, the Jayhawks, and Curtiss A. Twin/Tone hasn't released any new music since 1998 and the label currently sits "in mothballs." Not officially disbanded, they continue to release custom-burned CDs for out-of-print material.
Getting hold of Jesperson in North Hollywood, CA, Gimme Noise talked about the early days of Twin/Tone, his career in the biz, and how he follows his hometown scene.
Gimme Noise: I saw that you're listed as Hopkins Lindbergh Class of 1972 and started at Oar Folkjokeopus the next year. Did you have any idea at 19 that you'd still be working in the music industry almost forty years later?
Peter Jesperson: At 19 I can't say I had an actual plan, much less thought about what I'd be doing in 40 years, but I was completely obsessed with music and hoped I could work in it long-term. I worked very hard and, fortunately, doors just kept opening. I can't tell you how lucky I feel. I still love going to work every day.
You moved out of Minneapolis in 1995. How closely do you follow the city and the current music scene?
I follow it pretty closely through both longtime pals and new contacts who pass along tips about artists they think I might be interested in hearing. For instance recently, I heard from a gent who recommended I check out Howler. I listened and loved them immediately, a very promising band.
Do you have any memorable "learning curve" moments from early Twin/Tone on how a label should be run?
Geez, millions of moments...One example that comes to mind, on our very first releases in 1978 - the three EPs by Spooks, Fingerprints and the Suburbs - the artwork was a fraction of an inch off from the template for the picture sleeves and the printer couldn't do the automated folding and gluing, so we got stuck doing 6,000 of them by hand. But, in a way, that mistake pulled us together too. The three of us who ran the label, many of the artists, and friends all pitched in and did it together. I can still picture a bunch of us sitting around tables at the Longhorn before the club opened, doing the folding and gluing.
One of the biggest lessons we learned early on is how important it is to get the parameters of your working relationship with an artist down on paper as early as possible. One specific example of that is on the various artists compilation we did in '79: Big Hits of Mid-America Volume Three. We had invited a band called Yipes to contribute a song. They played the Longhorn regularly, I was a huge fan of theirs and had gotten to be good friends with them. They recorded a great song called "The Ballad of Roy Orbison" for us over at Blackberry Way and it went on the comp. Sometime later, after Big Hits had been out a while, the band signed to Millennium/RCA and we received legal notification that we had to remove the track from the album - something about it having been done without the band's permission - which I could never figure out because, as I recalled, everything seemed hunky-dory. No one forced them into the studio. But we dutifully took the Yipes song off and added one by the New Psychenauts on the next printing.
How did Twin/Tone find artists? Was there a local focus? There were also national acts (Ween would be one example) that the label released.
In the first few years it seemed pretty obvious which artists we should sign because the focus was completely local. The underground music scene at the time was centered around the Longhorn, so the task was really just picking the best of what we heard live at the club. We did have three bands on Big Hits -- Yipes, the Swingers, and the Jets -- who were regional, Wisconsin/Illinois-area bands, but we never did full-album projects with them.
As the company grew, signings branched out. Our first paid employee, Blake Gumprecht, brought some cool, national artists to our attention like the Slickee Boys from Washington D.C., who were our first official non-Twin Cities signing. Some of the other national or international acts came to us through P&D (pressing & distribution) deals that we did with labels like Coyote and Amphetamine Reptile. There was also the relationship we developed with A&M when they signed Soul Asylum, which brought us Robyn Hitchcock. Specifically, Ween came to us through Dave Ayers, who did A&R for Twin/Tone in the late '80s. I think he heard about Ween through Agitpop, another band he had brought to the label.
Twin/Tone is doing some custom-printed CDs of their catalog and you sold many of the licensing rights when you started at New West. What is the future of the label?
I came to New West in 1999. It was actually 1992 when we licensed some of the best selling T/T titles to Restless Records. Restless was later bought by Ryko, who was in turn purchased by the Warner Music Group, which is where those titles are now. Bit of serendipity there as that's what allowed me to do the eight Replacements reissues through Rhino (part of WMG). The balance of the T/T catalog is available digitally and as custom burns and I think that's how it will be for the foreseeable future, at least.
Twin/Tone mostly worked with new artists while your current label, New West, has a mixed roster with some firmly entrenched musicians. Do you prefer to work with new bands or with established ones?
I don't have a preference. I love working with both. The real hands-on involvement I can have with a new artist is especially cool: discussing songs, finding producers, package design, etc. Like, for instance, with Wild Moccasins, they came to us with a finished record that we loved, but I thought the mastering could've been better. I asked them to let me take another crack at it with Dave Schultz, a brilliant engineer at D2 Mastering here in L.A. and they loved the results. Or helping Robert Ellis navigate through the vinyl production process--those sorts of things are very gratifying to me.
Generally speaking, veteran artists don't want or require a lot of guidance, but there are other rewards. On the first record we did with Kris Kristofferson, I suggested a song sequence that I felt strongly about. Both he and the producer, Don Was, liked it and that ended up being the one we used. Or, right now, we're finishing an album with Tom Morello. He and I worked closely on fine-tuning all the text for his EP and album packages. That was productive and fun and allowed us to get to know each other. And, practically speaking, in terms of the economics of an indie label, the established artists we have at New West help to fund the new ones.
The playing field between indies and major labels has leveled a lot since 1978. In the present environment, what are the major limitations of working with a mid-to-small label like New West?
The limitations are mostly financial these days. Apart from that, I think the smart, sturdy indies can totally compete with the majors. At Twin/Tone, we were quite content to be a sort of "farm team" for the majors. Not so at New West. We have a remarkable staff and, for some artists, I think we can do a better job than the majors.