Trans-Global Indie Pop: Paul Vittum’s
Red Carpet Ring
Randall J. Stephens
Obscure New Hampshire label Red Carpet Ring has much to offer fans of esoteric lo-fi indie pop. RCR, enlisting such bands as the Princeton Reverbs Colonial, My Place in Space, Fablefactory, and Micro-ondes, constitutes a little colony of curiosity extended up and down the Eastern seaboard and around the globe. In some ways they bear a striking resemblance to the British lo-fi pop label, Acid Tapes, whose low profile and cultish status also drew fans out of the woodwork. It’s easy for labels as truly independent as RCR to get lost in a sea of quasi-corporate pretindies, but they manage to hold their own, and deserve as much, if not more, radio play and coverage as the latest kitsch-core or post-rock flash in the pan does. What makes RCR keep trudging on? What’s their ancient Chinese secret? For answers to these and other questions we turn now to the man at the helm of RCR, Paul Vittum…
How, when, and why did you start Red Carpet Ring?
I started Red Carpet Ring in high school, releasing four-track tapes and selling them to the kids around the school. The name comes from my parents’ basement, where I used to record — it had red carpet and the ring part constitutes the ringing of sound. I had been into underground pop for a while from reading about it in skate magazines and stuff (this was before Thrasher magazine, etc. didn’t only cover punk rock bands) and the whole idea of tape culture just really intrigued me in general. I funded the projects just by saving money and going to K-Mart and buying tapes in bulk. I spent extra money to make full color J-cards and would play at a bagel shop during the week to try and push the tapes as well. The shop would pay me with bagels.
In 1997, I got used to the idea of releasing music and wanted people to hear the music my friends were making, too. I spent a summer working in a soda warehouse to save money to put out a (v/a) CD (All on the Account of Songs, RCR04). After that came out, I considered Red Carpet Ring as something more substantial… it seemed a bit more real to me and it fueled my desire to keep going further with the label. After that I released some vinyl and more tapes and then in 1999 released our first full length CD, American Custard from Athens, GA’s Fablefactory.
What got you interested in the style of music RCR puts out? Could you say that the label is fairly genre specific?
I’ve always been a pop fan. I grew up listening to records in my dad’s jukebox collection. Everything from bands like the Hollies and Zombies to Patsy Cline and Buddy Holly, as well as listening to the reel-to-reel recordings my father recorded along with the 12-inch his band released on their own (the Messengers/Good News, Born Again, a split 12-inch which RCR later re-released). I remember in fourth grade I got into skateboarding and found punk rock and then that quickly merged into a love for underground pop bands. I would say now, having grown into adulthood, pop will always have a special place, but my primary interest lies in releasing music by bands that combine enough experimentation in their songwriting (whether it be combining pop with other forms or whatever) to make what they’re doing successful not just commercially, but artistically as well. That’s the stuff that really excites me and I think that’s where pop music [should] go. I will say, however, that RCR doesn’t want to necessary subscribe itself to one specific genre it just has happened that the majority has been pop
What type of bands and genres catch the interest of RCR? What sort of bands do you usually like to work with?
As I mentioned, bands that draw enough influence from different places (regional and traditional music and instrumentation, etc) to come up with something that is innovative, this is what catches my interest. I have certain personal preferences with regards to genres. I like a lot of different stuff, but pop, jazz, gospel, field recordings, atmospheres, classical, vocal music, Eastern, and folk are all what I’m drawn to specifically. However, these are also the genres that have already been worked into pop music (but not necessarily fully explored) and therefore it’s important to recognize what has come out of those relationships already and to either concentrate on developing that stuff further, or to try to bring influences from other places to push yourself in new creative directions. Bands that we feel do this and/or are making an effort to do this are the bands we want to work with.
How do you finance your releases?
With the first CD, I worked a summer in a soda warehouse to fund it. After that, I really still didn’t have things down as well as I had hoped with regards to distribution and stuff. The first Princeton Reverbs 12-inch was funded with some of the money I had made back on the (v/a) CD, and then also some money I had made working in a library for a little bit. After that I released a 2×12-inch (v/a) compilation called With Singing, Orchestra, and Harp that started to bring a little bit more of a concept to the label itself with the artwork, etc. That was funded with some money made off of the PR 12-inch and some money I made from working for a local newspaper for the summer. My whole reasoning really for working for the paper, besides to make the money to put into the 2×12-inch, was to get an article in the paper about what I was doing. They had printed one before about the (v/a) CD, and I thought it was so cool to see my picture and a story on the front page of the Sunday edition that I couldn’t wait to try to do it again. After that, the money made off of each consecutive release went into releasing the next title. That makes it harder to get out more then one title at a time, but now that the label is starting to make a little bit more of a name for itself, distributors on a regular basis stock our titles. This helps to make money back and if you can get a couple of good sellers in a row, it makes it easier financially to release on a more consistent basis.
How have the bands recorded the material you’ve put out so far? Homemade, analogue, or in studios?
All of the above ways of recording have actually been utilized on RCR releases. We’re not too biased about [hi or lo] fidelity. Either the music shines through and moves you or it doesn’t. However, sometimes some recordings work more successfully when they’ve been recorded with a little bit more professionalism. On the other hand, though, some of the real beauty would be lost because of a cleaner recording on some of our titles. It’s really up to the artist[sigma] Because we’re on an extremely tight budget, though, we haven’t really been able to offer anyone money to use in recording up until this last Princeton Reverbs Colonial CD. Even with that, though, the recording budget came out of our own pockets because most of the RCR camp plays in PRC. We made sure to be prepared to go into the studio and not waste time because we had limited money. We ended up recording a really nice record to analogue tape in five days for $650, and then mastered it digitally. The idea was when the money was made back, we’d each be reimbursed by the label.
How has the label been received by fans in the US? Has there been a response to RCR in the world of international indie?
Yeah, actually, the majority of our records are sold to Japan. We’ve made a conscious effort to try to get our records not just in the better record shops in the U.S., but also in those shops around the world. I figure the more people we can get our records to, the better off we’ll be. With technologies like the Internet, it makes it a lot easier. It seems to me that the Japanese audiences in particular seem to be more willing to check out records they may have only heard a little bit about. I know Japanese consumers will oftentimes base a purchase on not just what they’ve heard about something but also might be inclined to buy records with artwork that appeals to them and stuff like that. Both in the U. S. and internationally, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing from people that have really liked something they’ve picked up on our label, and that’s cool. We’re working to bridge the gap a bit more though to get people consistently coming back to each new release. RCR is in the early stages of beginning to set a standard for itself where the result is people picking up records because it’s on RCR, because they know they’ll be able to keep going back to it in there record collections.
What would you like to see RCR do in the next few years?
To achieve what I’ve mentioned above. I want to see us coming out with more releases on a regular basis. We need better promotion for each title and we need to be gaining more distribution. This last summer I was working particularly hard to gather more distributors, especially those that would be able to get our titles into chain stores. The result was many of them wanted marketing plans laid out and wanted to see more effort put into pushing the records here in America than working to make our records available to people globally. Unfortunately, with marketing stuff, you really can’t get into plans too much without having somewhat of a strong financial backbone to lean on. On the other hand, by having our records available globally, I believe we’re making more of an effort to reach larger audiences quicker. I can really only see that as an advantage in a constantly growing global market. Plus, aside from a few choice chain stores, they are not really our market anyway right now. We’ve invested quite a bit into the label, but it’s been on the production end, and we’ve put a lot of our funds into releasing full lengths. Now we’re starting to think more about what we should be doing to promote a bit more. We’re starting to think also about releasing more seven-inch records, and with that, I think we’ll be able to bring everything that’s worked well together for us while strengthening aspects of the label that need to be stronger.
Anything particularly exciting that’s up and coming for Red Carpet Ring?
Yeah, we’re planning on doing another My Place in Space release. Darren released a self-titled cassette back in early ’99, and then it was re-released with extra tracks on Kylie Productions in the UK. We’ve really been wanting to get something else out by MPIS, and for a while it looked like a full length, but now it will be split seven-inch with My Place in Space and Yar’s Revenge. Another RCR artist, Russ Sweetser, who also helped out on the PRC CD, is going to be the next thing from both artists. Chris Parfitt (ex-Apples in Stereo guy who now heads Vince Mole and His Calcium Orchestra) has been talking to us for a couple of years now about recording a record under the name Micro-ondes and supposedly has been working on the material during this time but we’ve never heard anything out of the recordings besides the stuff Darren and myself played on for it. The Princeton Reverbs Colonial is getting ready to go back down to GA in March to record some new material. Ultimately, this will be a follow up to The Princeton Reverbs Colonial …and the Flute to Float the Soldier’s Sword. That record is one chapter in a bunch of musical chapters that tells a larger story that will eventually become a book. The stuff we’re recording in March is going to come out as another musical chapter to the book, but the catch is the material will come out on a chronicle of seven-inches. So there’s like four seven-inches, and each seven-inch is a chronicle in this next overall chapter.
Bands that Red Carpet Ring has worked with in one way or another (on comps, etc): Cutter Car, Circa 78, Will Simmons, the Kirks, Drew St. Aubin, Dingo Roi, Neener, I’d Rather Be Flying, Terabithia, Aikagi, the Maggies, Brincando De Deus, Mars Hill, Watoo Watoo, Police Cat, Peach Bald 60 Minutes, Broken Tree Fort, Clean Boy * Messy Girl, Timmy Condon, Stinky Fire Engine, Brideshead, Biwa, Fivehead, Vince Mole and His Calcium Orchestra, Red Eyebrows, Curbside Journal, Musical Chairs, Britt Daniels (Spoon), Parachute Splash, Gritty Kitty, Poopiehead, Grimace, Born Digital, Kincaid, Pecan Sandies, SuperXXman, Silver Scooter, Dressy Bessy, Bergen Twigs, Michael Anger, Mishima.
Primary roster RCR artists (though not bound exclusively to just RCR): Skywriter, the Princeton Reverbs Colonial, the Messengers, Joe Fredrick, Yar’s Revenge, Fablefactory, and My Place in Space.