by D. House
January 17, 2010
Kim Coletta is perhaps best know as the bass-player for the Washington D.C. based band Jawbox who were active from 1989 until 1997. Jawbox were first signed to Dischord records, and were the first band on Dischord to sign with a major label. Outside of her tenure in Jawbox however, Kim spent a number of years running DeSoto records with husband and fellow Jawbox guitarist Bill Barbot. DeSoto Records had a good bit of success releasing records by a number of bands including Burning Airlines, The Dismemberment Plan, Juno and Edie Sedgwick. 2009 saw the 15-year reissue of Jawbox' classic “For Your Own Special Sweetheart,” originally released on Atlantic. Jawbox did a brief reunion appearing on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. They were still as impressive as ever. This interview was conducted shortly before that reunion gig.
You spent a good chunk of your life in music, playing in bands and running an indie label. As much as it seems like something of a crapshoot or a lottery ticket for most, it seems that you did well. Do you ever miss either side of the music (business) coin?
I don’t run a label anymore and I don’t play anymore, but I do think about it sometimes. I know very few people who have managed to make a full-time career out of it, but isn’t this stuff for almost all of us kind of a labor of love? Even in the heyday of Jawbox on Atlantic [Records], I look back at those tax returns from that period of my life and – god - they’re hilarious. We just were really adept at surviving on very little money. We just made it work. Even then we weren’t making a ton of money. It was my full-time gig back then, but none-the-less we were still living in group-houses.
Was it your full-time gig once you were on Atlantic or pretty much the whole time?
No, pre-Atlantic as well. if We had a whole bunch of jobs that were accommodating to people in the music scene. Here in D.C. there was this rotating cast of places you could work and leave and tour and come back and hopefully get work again. There were a couple bookstores and record stores and Dischord Records. We had jobs for the most part, though we didn’t for the Atlantic period, which was nice. How many people can say they were able to do that, even if only for a short period of time? I think that was a super-cool period.
I was curious about the relationship between DeSoto [Records] and Jawbox. I know that the two were basically concurrent, and Jawbox first came out on Desoto before coming out on Dischord properly. Was Desoto started initially as a vehicle to put out your own music, or was it happening before? Which came first, or were they in parallel?
DeSoto was actually started by a completely different band named Edsel. They came up with the name DeSoto Records to release their first 7” with no intention of it being a record label. The next year, Jawbox was ready to put out our first 7”, and I was working at Dischord at the time. I talked to Ian MacKaye about maybe putting it out on Dischord, and he said that could be great but I’d learn a lot more if I did it as a half-release on Dischord. So I thought it would be pretty cool to try my hand at seeing what it would be like to put out a release. I loved Edsel and was good friends with them, so I asked if I could steal the name DeSoto Records and make them release #2, which is what we did. I went through the process of putting that out and really enjoyed it. DeSoto Records was almost born out of that. Interestingly enough, Jawbox didn’t go on to be on DeSoto but rather on Dischord. Meanwhile, I kept building up DeSoto on the side, putting out music by my friends. It got a little more expansive toward the end. I worked with a band called Juno from Seattle.
Wasn’t that a co-release with Pacifico?
Yes, it was a co-release with Pacifico [Records], though I’d have to say it was a situation where I did the bulk of the work. I knew Juno enough to trust them, but they weren’t as close to me initially as previous bands, so I got a bit more expansive. I always used the Dischord model, and I never used a contract. It was the thinking that if I did a good job the band will stay, and if I didn’t they were free to leave, and that’s just how I ran it. I knew it could bite you in the ass if one of the bands became super huge, but that never really happened. The bands stuck with me. I think that really takes so much pressure off the relationship.
Let’s talk about how you made the departure from Dischord to a major label. I remember all the outcry from the hardcore fans saying you’d sold out.
I’ve thought about that a lot. Actually, I feel like most of the outcry was not from hardcore fans, because they kind of got it. The shit that we got was mostly from people who didn’t care about the music we were putting out but rather the scene we were from.
And about indie vs. major?
Yes. And those people don’t interest me that much. Good music is where you find it. I remember we got a letter, because of course there was no email back then, that was like a death threat. “I hope you die in a fiery van accident.” Are you kidding me? That’s just outrageous.
All because you made a choice to take an opportunity that would allow you to do things that you were previously unable to do…?
Yeah, and honestly that was the main force driving us. It sucks to be broke year-in and year-out. And to me, this enabled us to actually carry on possibly longer than we would have as a band otherwise.
I think For Your Own Special Sweetheart is perhaps the strongest record of your career, and it’s still one of my favorite records from the last 20 years by any band. When I got the press release about it being re-released and re-mastered, I became excited. How did that come to happen?
Let me tell you why that all went down. It had nothing to do with us, I have to say. Dischord came to us and had the idea to do it. They’d been re-mastering and re-releasing stuff from their catalog, and while that record was not from the Dischord catalog, the coolest thing is the way that we originally left Dischord. I stayed friends with Ian; we still play softball together. When they approached us with the idea of re-mastering and re-issuing For Your Own Special Sweetheart, I thought that sounded cool. I went to the band, and we all said why not. It’s interesting to me how that all came full circle. The other interesting thing is that Bobbie Gale and Ken Weinstein from Big Hassle Publicity, they take it full circle too, because they were our publicists on Atlantic. Now they’re independent again. Watch what you wish for, because Bobbie is a publicity force to be reckoned with. I figured Dischord would do just a minute bit of publicity on this; they’re very low-key about stuff like that. I talked to Bobbie and asked if she’d be interested in helping us out, and she was. Next thing I know, I’m being asked if I want to play on Jimmy Fallon. I blame Bobbie for all of it.
Did Dischord deal with Atlantic in getting the rights back?
No, not at all. Part of my deal with Ian when we left Dischord was, ‘you do what you need to do and make sure Dischord has nothing to do with and has no connection with your major label dealings.’ Fair enough. I used my own little indie rock lawyer, Bryan Christner, who also used to be in the music scene. He got the rights for the record back. It cost $5000 for each record.
So you own the masters to all the Atlantic records now?
Is the follow-up record, Jawbox, going to come out eventually as well?
We haven’t really discussed it. Maybe, I don’t know. We’re taking this one day at a time. With the Jimmy Fallon thing, my first gut feeling was no, we’re not doing that. Are you kidding me? No way. Then I started getting in touch with the band. I’m married to Bill [Barbot], so he’s underfoot. J. [Robbins] is in Baltimore; Zach [Barocas] is in Brooklyn. So we’re emailing, and Zach of course, being in Brooklyn and being the kind of guy he is, was like, why would we not do it? I was thinking, ‘you would do it because you live in Brooklyn, you don’t have kids, and you have it fucking easy.’
Do you have kids?
We do. We have an 8-year-old son. So anyway, for Zach it was easy to say yes. J. has a special needs child, but of course his wife is able to stay home with Callum. For Bill and I, there are roadblocks now that didn’t exist when I was in my 20’s. Though, I realized they weren’t insurmountable, so I thought we’ll do it and we’ll make it work. And we did. I also thought, if there was any chance of us playing an actual set again, let’s just do one song and see if that’s even fun to get together and do this. It was an easy way to test the waters.
So there’s the possibility that there could be a reunion, but there’s no plan?
That’s well put, better than I could put it. The Jimmy Fallon thing has escalated into some kind of madness. Jonathan Cohen is the booker, and he used to write for Billboard. He’s someone I’ve known a really long time. When I heard it was Jonathan booking the Fallon show, it all kind of made sense to me why this offer would come our way. I didn’t think Jimmy Fallon was a huge Jawbox fan. Because so many people are interested in seeing us play one damn song, we’re actually playing a three-song mini-set at lunchtime at the Jimmy Fallon studio as well to try and accommodate more people. We’re playing “Savory,” “FF=66” and “68,” which didn’t actually make it on Sweetheart, but now it’ll be on as a bonus track. It’s one of my favorite Jawbox songs. J. has reworked the vocal melody because our heads are in a different spot now. We tweaked the songs a tiny bit for this performance in ways that I think had we been more mature as songwriters we probably would have liked to have done back in the day. We get a chance to be revisionists right now, which not many people get.
I always though it was best to record after you got off tour because little things happen on tour, little subtleties and the ways you play off each other.
Yeah, I agree. Because we toured so much, I think we were always in that situation. We always road-tested songs. I remember, and you probably do too from playing live, there are moments when you notice the audience connecting with a song or the much worse moment when you realize this is going over like a fucking lead balloon. You thought it came out pretty cool in the practice stage, then live it’s, oh wow.
So J. continues to play music, right?
He does, he’s in a brand new band, Office of Future Plans. It’s such a J. Robbins name. I don’t know much more about it than that to be honest with you. I don’t think there are notable people playing with him, they’re people he knows from around Baltimore and D.C.
But he’s still playing, and Bill was playing with him in Burning Airlines, correct?
Bill plays Burning Airlines, but he’s also been doing a very low-key D.C. band called The Blames for the last 3 or 4 years. They don’t really play live, they just practice, have fun and write songs. They’re on hiatus right now because of the Jimmy Fallon madness.
Do you ever have any desire to play again? You haven’t been in a band since Jawbox, have you?
I haven’t. I had my son in 2001, and becoming a parent is a lot of fucking work. It’s funny, Jawbox meant so much to me, and I experienced so much through Jawbox that I felt I almost got it out of my system. But doing this again, first of all I was terrified of doing this, me more than anyone, because those guys have all been playing. That said, it came right back to me. That was cool as I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. Even if I can’t remember the exact note, I have a weird muscle memory of the way my fingers move. It all came back so much more quickly. It’s been cool, and I’ve really enjoyed playing again. I don’t know what that means for my future, but it’s been surprisingly enjoyable. I don’t think it would have even happened five years ago. Things have calmed down in my life now that have allowed it to work.
Does your son have any interest in music?
Well… I’m only hesitating because it’s kind of a joke between Bill and me because he’s not musically or artistically inclined. He’s physically just awesome, any physical enterprise he’s amazing at. He does strange sports like gymnastics, short track speed skating and taekwondo. He loves listening to music, but he’s a terrible musician so far. But who cares? I always think, do I want him to actually go on a similar path that I took? I’m not sure the answer is yes. The good moments were so good, but there were so many shitty, hard moments. I don’t know. But kids have to find their own path. I think to myself, I didn’t have my first bass until college. Jawbox didn’t start until after I graduated college. There’s such a weird movement going on now in the music world, I assume in every big city and maybe small cities too. We have School of Rock here that takes kids my son’s age and maybe a little older, and they teach them rock music. It’s weird to me.
Did you see that there’s a documentary about it?
No, I didn’t. I need to check it out because I have such mixed feelings. Our friends’ kids do this and I’ve been to a lot of the School of Rock nights here in D.C. It’ll be ‘AC/DC Night’ and I’m really uncomfortable watching 9-year-olds singing AC/DC songs.
At least they’re not doing Motörhead and singing “Jailbait.”
Well, I went to an arena rock night too, and these lyrics are inappropriate for everyone. Some of them are majorly talented too, but I’m so DIY that I love the way we all had to find our path to come into the music scene. For kids now it’s a little more spoon-fed if you ask me.
Do you think that has something to do with the way information is now delivered through the Internet? It strikes me that the ability for things to occur as organically as they could, it doesn’t exist the same way anymore. It makes it almost impossible for local scenes to be self-contained because they’re constantly being influenced and informed by all these other external influences.
Yes, and I’m not judgmental about that because I’m not the kind of person who really lives in the past. I like a lot of new music that’s out today. Do I like listening to shit from 20 years ago? Sure I do, we like our comfort zones. I won’t say I’ve kept up 100% with the music scene, because who the hell can these days? I always wonder if I could have put Jawbox through the filter of what would have been had this information infrastructure existed back then. What would have happened to our band? Bigger? smaller? I have no idea.
Or would it have even been the same thing creatively?
Yeah, I don’t know. I get a little taste of it right now with the work Bobbie Gale is doing for us. I do an interview, and it’s up online the next day and it’s, like, holy shit. That’s just so crazy to me. And the way things are viral, the news about Jimmy Fallon was so rapid. I don’t know what to think of it, it’s new to me.
The speed of everything is just so fast.
That’s why I stopped doing DeSoto. It still exists and I still have a nice back catalog, but I’m not taking on new bands because I think I’m not the best candidate to understand what’s good for a label now. We have good sales with digital downloads for certain bands like The Dismemberment Plan. I think I’m not super qualified to know the best way of releasing music right now, so I’m not going to do it. There’s a whole new group of kids that need to take on this project. I’m a smart cookie, I could probably figure it out, but my head’s in a different place now. I don’t frankly want to work with 20-year-old boys anymore because they’re not my peers. They should hang out with their peers and put out their music.
Do you ever think about the difference between the whole indie/major thing from back in the day vs. the marketplace now, and if there’s a differentiation?
I have to be honest, I don’t really think like that. It’s just not how my brain is wired. I don’t know, but what I do perceive is that major labels were always a day late and a dollar short on anything cool that was happening back in the day. Now they seem even way more behind. With every bit of technology and everything that’s happening, major labels seem like they’re always trying to catch up.
First they try and fight it. When they succumb to the fact that they can’t fight it, then they try to catch up to it.
Yes. Then they act like it was their idea all along. No, it wasn’t your idea; you didn’t like this idea a year ago. It’s so stupid. And they never do the technology element as well as others. It’s just as clunky a mechanism for releasing music as it’s always been. I look at it that way. It’s just clunky in different ways now, but it’s still bureaucratic and moves at this glacial pace. Unless you’re a superstar selling so much, it just sucks.
It’s unfortunate; I find it a lot harder to find music that really excites me.
I know, especially the music coming out on major labels.
There’s not much that you hear that has that sense of urgency.
It’s true. Because of what you just said, there’s a lot of copying going on because it’s so easy to hear everything and have access to it all. You’re not working in this insolated little world of your own anymore.
It’s true. Because of what you just said, there’s a lot of copying going on because it’s so easy to hear everything and have access to it all. You’re not working in this insulated little world of your own anymore.
Living in Seattle at the time when the whole grunge scene exploded and became international, all of a sudden there were 140 new bands in town that you’ve never heard of that were total copycats. And all of the demos that would come into the [C/Z Records] office…we had our Nirvana pile, our Alice In Chains pile, our Soundgarden pile. Seriously, almost every demo sounded like, ‘oh, it’s today’s Pearl Jam clone.’
I’m always proud of Jawbox because I really do think the music we made was very prickly and we were not much like anything else. We drove our A&R guy almost to an early grave at Atlantic, Mike Gitter. He obviously loved Jawbox, and then when we had to work with him and all the pressure of it landed on his back, on the one hand he really loved the music and on the other he realized it really wasn’t that commercial. But we’re Jawbox, and we really wouldn’t change a damn thing, so it didn’t matter what he said.
And you had creative control?
Yes, which was (and still is) a rare thing back then. We had a good lawyer, and were really stubborn. The thing is, I don’t think we ultimately cared if we did the deal with Atlantic, which made the negotiations on our side very strong. We also were just at the right time when they were going gaga over indie bands. We would have to kick Gitter out of the studio at times and tell him he could listen when the song was done. I still feel kind of bad about Gitter. He had the hardest road at Atlantic of all of us.
I think he had a great run there. Plus he got to sign you guys.
Yeah, I guess that’s true!