Published on February 17th, 2015 | by The Beige Baron0
Interview: Jem from Indie Label “WeEmptyRooms”
I met Jem about 10 years ago when he was wearing nothing but a pair of briefs.
Okay, I guess they could have been boxers, I don’t really remember because of what he was doing to his drums. The room was basically black, about 20 punters in a loose semi-circle around the kit, spilling beer on the mess of cables and pedals strewn over the manky carpet of some forgotten bar in Fitzroy or Collingwood.
Here he is, an 18-year-old kid just punishing two floor toms–in his undies–with relentless, autistic focus, and occasionally smacking a cracked ride cymbal the size of a Chinaman’s hat. Sweat steam billowing into a cloud from his shoulders and back. The two bass guitarists are leaning back into the crowd in a gale of hideous noise, fixtures shaking and pole posters threatening to flap off the walls.
The band was Fire Witch. A wildly unpopular group that emptied many a room and heralded the entrance of a group of musicians who knew what they wanted to say, but were still figuring out how to say it.
I left with the experience cemented in my mind, not just because I happened to like the music, but because it was probably the first time I ever saw a band that clearly didn’t care if people came, or went, or paid, or if they sold a record or not. They were just doing it. I mean of course they made music and wanted people to come and enjoy it, and if people had bought a few thousand copies of their record, maybe Fire Witch would still be around today.
They just had this unshakable confidence that what they were playing was good. Jem did, anyway. Not arrogant, just sure. I saw Fire Witch play in a literally empty room once, and they performed with the same intensity as they did when the room was packed–as it often was.
Compulsion. Conviction. At a time when being offhand and cynical was terribly popular, the total sincerity deeply affected me, and I remembered the band and the drummer long after I moved away.
What I didn’t know was that Jem–a long-haired miso-soup-loving dude with a disarming grin–had started his own label in high school. In high school. And with characteristic dry wit named it WeEmptyRooms. As he grew musically, playing with a few different bands (currently the astonishingly good two-piece DEAD), he took a few other bands with him.
In fact, if you wanted a decent snapshot of what is happening in the experimental-slash-heavy rock world in Melbourne and Sydney, the bands on his roster are representative. It took 10 years–and he’s probably a bit fatter now, despite the miso–but things are really starting to take shape.
BNU: So when did you start your label and what prompted you to do it?
I started releasing CDs of my bands in 2001. I was in early high school. In 2005 I started the label WeEmptyRooms. Up until then, I thought there was some secret labels had that I didn’t and so had refrained from putting a name to the work I was doing. It was fairly pragmatic for me. I made music, I wanted it released and no one else was going to do it. I then began to release some music besides my own. I lost a lot of money doing so, but I don’t regret any of it. I just wished I could have done a better job with some of those records and gotten them heard by more people.
So during that time when you were losing money, did you feel like giving up?
Not that I can recall. I’m still losing money on the label! I don’t think it’s a logic-driven thing, something like this. It’s very much driven by passion and desire and, most importantly, the fact that it won’t happen unless you do it yourself.
Who were the first bands you put out besides a group you were playing in?
Nunchukka Superfly. And I’ve continued to admire and work with them since.
You also do local distribution for other bands too, right? How did that come about?
No, I don’t do distribution as such. I have a traveling and online distro/record shop which is mainly records I trade with like-minded labels and bands, plus a bit of stuff I just really wanna share with people. So I’ll buy direct from the labels and on-sell. The Hard-Ons/Melvins split 7″ was organised by Hard-Ons. I’ve worked with those guys for years (Hard-Ons and Nunchukka Superfly) and last year they asked me to release four split 7-inches to celebrate their 30th Anniversary. Hard-Ons are a band I am always keen to work with. They work hard, treat their fans really well, and are great people.
So what’s a typical day for you involve?
A typical day is like this one right now. I work all day to pay the bills and then I try and reply to all the emails before I fall asleep! Right now I’m booking the next DEAD U.S. tour, working on art/promotion for about 5 different releases due out in the next few months, and working on some Australian tour dates too.
Or I might spend a whole day just screen printing/folding record sleeves. I’m trying to get better at switching off from it for periods of time, but I find it very hard. Give me a spare moment and I’m working on the label, even if just in my head.
Do you ever run out of time and get behind? It sounds like you have a lot on your plate. How do you know how many records to press? Have you ever been left holding the baby when something didn’t sell? And do you seriously make all your covers by hand??
I live constantly behind schedule! Trying to better this, but have a terrible habit of committing to more than I can actually get done. In my defence, large chunks of it are out of my control. Shit happens sometimes and what should have been a relatively painless operation becomes a major stress. You might have a national tour booked and one week out, four or five of the venues close. Shit like that happens all the time. I have in the past been extremely stressed by this stuff but I think I’m getting better at managing that.
Working out how many records to press is another thing I’m getting better at. But it’s always a gamble. It depends on the band of course, and then how much work you’re willing to put into selling it. With DEAD, we know if we go on tour and push a record, we can sell 500 copies or more. But if we don’t push it hard, then we can maybe sell 20 copies. It’s really is a matter of how much time, energy, and money you want to invest into it. Records don’t sell themselves, not in my experience. And yeah, we make all our record covers by hand. Unless the band involved doesn’t want that. With the Peter Black LP, that was all manufactured by a pressing plant. It’s a pretty integral part of this label’s aesthetic.
So can you tell me a bit more about some of the bands you’re helping out?
Well, for example, if Hard-Ons ever have a project they want to work on with me I’m up for it so long as I have the time available. They’re not a band who struggle to sell records. So my role is more about organising the pressing for them and executing the packaging and art ideas. For overseas bands, I can generally only release their music here if they are doing a tour. This label doesn’t get much in the way of media coverage or radio play. So if a band is not on tour, they are not selling records usually.
I do get a lot of bands asking me about releasing their music, and I have to decline most because they basically want someone to do all the work for them. Unless the band already has a following, then this just means it’s gonna be an uphill battle at my end. I get a bit cynical with bands like these. No one ever did all the work for my bands, so why should they sit on their arse?!
And then sometimes there is a band like Dad They Broke Me, who are just so fucking good it doesn’t really matter how much money I lose on them, I just want to share their music.
I’ve worked with BRUCE! recently, and about to work with TTTDC because these bands are hard-working and together, combining our efforts, we can get their records heard by more people. With bands like this we help each other out in all sorts of ways. When we’re touring. TTTDC are helping us make a film-clip for example. It’s like an extended family, and it’s not always worked out to the last detail how we will help each other. It’s just generally understood we have each other’s back.
Shit. I hope that kind of answers your question.
Can you give us a taste of some of the bands on your roster ?
Thinking about this, I realise I only work with bands I greatly respect and am passionate about. Let’s see…
Drums/Guitar/Guitar storytelling power-trio who seem to fit in well amongst your Melvins, Big Business, and other heavy records, but always have a bit of an old-school Americana vibe going on.
Dad They Broke Me
Words like “crushing” get thrown around a lot but these guys were the real deal. So heavy, absolutely one-of-a-kind. I never saw them play a dud show. Every time it was a completely devastating experience as an audience.
The forever-misunderstood twin brother of Hard-Ons. Both bands have the same songwriters and singers, both bands put out great records, and both write great songs. It’s not like Nunchukka are just making white noise. The fact Hard-Ons can pack out rooms and Nunchukka still empty them after all these years is proof of how frustrating this business can be. Most people don’t seem the base their musical opinions on the actual music.
Do we need to say anything about these guys? Thirty years on, and they are more ferocious than ever, have not lost any of their passion, and unlike most bands from 20-30 years ago, have not just cashed in on the nostalgia card. Even when they were doing the 30th Anniversary shows they were still releasing brand new music. Nothing but respect for these guys.
Another twin-guitar/no-bass-beast. When you combine Peeping Tom/SOTIS and Wicked City members, I don’t see how you could go wrong. The Mediterranean flavours are strong in this band.
They are from Wollongong and they are proud of it too. Which they should be. As a musical city, it punches above its weight. These guys work really hard, wear their influences on their sleeves and back each other on stage with the kind of support you usually only see in winning footy team.
I play in this band. We’re good. I wouldn’t bother putting all the effort into touring and releasing our records if we were no good.
Truly an inspiring band to me. Their alter ego “Hammerhead” have enjoyed a lot more by way of fame but I find the output of Vaz to be a lot more interesting. Another bass-less band now that I think of it.
So how do you enjoy your job and your life? Are you where you expected to be when you started the label? And where would you like it to be in 10 years?
I dunno, the grass is always greener I guess. I’d love to be able to work for others less and work on the label more. But I also think if the label was my bread and butter then I would have less freedom in some ways. My restrictions are budget and time but if I choose to lose money on a band I love I can, I answer to no one.
I’ve always had a lot of ambition but now that I think of it I don’t know where I expected to be when I started this thing. I’m a musician first and I run a label second. My focus has always been on the music I make and the bands I am in or work with. In 10 years? I don’t think worrying about that is so important to me for some reason.
Sorry to get all job interview on you, man. What’s in the pipeline?
A shitload! In the next few months we’ll release the Hard Ons split 7″s with Slight Slappers (Japan) and Neil Hamburger (US), a DEAD LP with extra stuff from the “Captains” sessions, a new album from TTTDC and… Not sure what else. A few things in planning that may or may not happen this year.
For ONE WEEK ONLY, WeEmptyRooms is making the label’s sampler disc available to loyal readers of Brown Noise Unit FREE OF CHARGE starting 18th February. Get on it now via the label’s BANDCAMP and while you’re there, browse the magnificent selection of vinyl on offer.