FOR THE RECORD: Eric Lindell released his first independent album on vinyl.
At the Crossroads
Is leaving his record label the best decision Eric Lindell's ever made?
By Gabe Meline
ERIC LINDELL, at age 40, has just committed what outsiders might call career suicide. Signed for a successful run to Alligator Records, one of the top blues labels in the world, Lindell last year voluntarily left to put out records on his own fledgling label, Sparco Records.
What's more, Lindell released his first record on vinyl, which is a stylish but tough sell. What about his promotional budget to advertise the album, to service it to radio stations, to fund tour support? Think of Alligator Records as the Empire State Building. Then notice that Sparco Records' logo is the Flatiron Building, 100 stories down.
Yet here's what matters: Between Motion and Rest, Lindell's first self-release, is incredible. It's full of grit and soul, with an honest rawness built on his limited budget as much as his hard-fought freedom. It breathes. I'm not alone in baldly decreeing to him it's the best record he's ever made.
"Thanks a lot, man, several people have said that," says Lindell, on the phone from Chicago. "That's just a great feeling after going out on a limb like this to do what I believe in my heart is the right thing."
When Alligator came chomping, Lindell had been in New Orleans for years, playing constantly and releasing EPs independently. The label ended up reissuing those EPs as Change in the Weather, which enjoyed extensive play on radio stations and good sales. Lindell, assuming he'd secured the label's trust, was dismayed to find himself soon butting heads with label owner Bruce Iglauer.
"For the second record, he wanted me to make demos, and he was critiquing me," Lindell recalls. "I couldn't believe how hard it was to make that record. I wasn't used to someone looking over my shoulder." Even the album artwork, Lindell says, was "muscled" by the label. For his next Alligator release, Gulf Coast Highway, he handled all the art, but as for the music itself? "It was like pulling teeth," Lindell groans. "It was kind of challenging, to put it politely, makin' records for the guy."
After five years and three successful albums together, the moment came. "He came down to New Orleans and met with me and my lawyer to talk about it," Lindell says, "and basically we were dead in the water, right there."
New New Thing
Last year, Lindell drove with keyboardist Ivan Neville to meet a quickly assembled band at Petaluma's Grizzly Studios to record Between Motion and Rest. There were stains on the carpet, graffiti on the couch, and on that particular day, the studio's computer was on the fritz. No matter. Lindell and a gang of old friends—including Alan Theis, longtime drummer Jake Brown and Thomas Johnson, who's releasing a solo record on Sparco soon—warmed up as engineer Roger Tschann strung up some two-inch analog tape. Soon they were laying down songs: the romantic "Matrimony," which Lindell wrote on the spot, one week before getting married; "Bodega," an ode to his West Coast sanctuary; a couple covers of Curtis Mayfield and Magic Sam.
With so many local friends involved (plus art designed by Josh Staples, who released Lindell's first album in 1996, and silkscreened by longtime pal Jayson Taylor, who handles his merchandising), the record was "a real sentimental thing, man," Lindell says. The songs flow freely, naturally, and it shows in the grooves.
Is it working, his great experiment of independence? Encouragingly, Lindell's sold about 3,000 copies of Between Motion and Rest, including 800 copies on vinyl. Without having to pay a label, that translates into some decent money. He's also signed a licensing deal for song publishing, has kept his radio contacts and is in talks for distribution. He's even been able to pay back the friends who loaned him the money to record the album.
"Obviously," he says, a sense of pride in his rasp, "to walk away from that Alligator deal, there's been times when it was hard to get the money together. Obviously there's been times I've had doubt, like, 'Oh God, what am I getting into?' But creatively, which is somethin' that's important to me, I needed to have free reign to do what the hell I want to do. I don't even have no money to be doin' what I'm doin'. But I just—I don't know why I feel so driven to do it. I just feel like as a musician, it's my duty."
ERIC LINDELL plays Thursday, Aug. 19, at 9pm at Moe's Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. Tickets $12 advance/ $15 door at www.moesalley.com.
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