By Max Dropout
The basement of a Memphis church is the last place you’d expect to find Sympathy For The Record Industry proprietor Long Gone John, but it was there that I met him a little over a year ago. I was waiting in line for an afternoon showing of John Michael McCarthy’s punk rock burlesque anthology, Broad Daylight, and there he was — the stationary beacon of focus standing in the recessed light of the hallway, only feet away from me. His presence was modest and unobtrusive, and I would say unassuming, as he maintained a patient stance with arms crossed and eyes scouring the course of hipster rabble parading down the stairwell. I’d heard him referred to as both the Devil and Christ by various associates of his over the years, and his appearance was somewhere in between: interesting enough to consider devilish, but too unpretentious to regard as anything other than warm.
Prior to my own witnessing of LGJ and our subsequent brief exchange, I would have expected an arrogant, loud-mouthed lout. Instead I got a stoic pillar of observation that absorbed every detail of his surrounding atmosphere. In examining SFTRI’s extensive catalog and LGJ’s staunch support and patronage of numerous other artistic mediums, one realizes how logical and constant a state this must be for him. While strength of character and voice have no doubt aided Long Gone as a businessman, observation and examination are key in honing in on talent to foster and promote.
Long Gone is a character that nobody is neutral towards — everyone has a strong opinion regarding Sympathy. However, I would say some opinions are less qualified than others. For example, Cass Records’ Ben Blackwell recently further delayed the release of the Hot Machines 7″ to publicly criticize the Sympathy founder for his business ethic. While some label associates may have their respective bones to pick with LGJ, the fog of urban myth and sewing circle-style gossip provides a shroud of protection around SFTRI, suggesting that no outsider knows an entirely true story regarding the mogul.
Rather than continue to spew conjecture and horror stories, I decided to approach Long Gone John myself for a little Q&A. Here are the results.
I know there are some touchy subjects I should avoid when approaching you. I figured I’d start off by asking what a person can ask to royally piss off LGJ?
Actually, contrary to popular opinion, I am relatively easy-going and forgive people quickly… perhaps too quickly. There are very few people in my life I’ve come across that I actually despise, and my time is too valuable and important to waste on blatant assholes. Most of them are miserable fuckin’ jerks no matter how successful they seem to become, and that is usually satisfaction enough for me. I get pissed off watching idiots on TV, and catching passing commentary on the presidential election. Kerry and Bush act like spoiled little fuckin’ brats. I think the election should be decided by a pay-per-view no-holds-barred punch-up drag-out fight, and with some luck one would kill the other and the remaining one would be maimed so badly that he would be physically unfit for the job. Then maybe Donald Trump could buy the candidacy and have some dumbfuck like P-Diddy be vice president, and together they could at least entertain us with their delusions of superiority until some third world country blows us off the face of the planet.
You have earned status as a living legend within the garage punk community, and I always hear outlandish stories retold, ie. Ben Blackwell’s mention of Danzig punching you out (a myth you recently dispelled). What are some other stories you’ve heard about yourself that are false?
My favourite is that I have Tourette’s Syndrome. That one has been circulating for years in Long Beach. I also like that some people really believe me to be involved in pornography and slaughterhouses, but I kinda started those ones myself. About Benji Blackwell, he’s just an ignorant fuckin’ loud-mouthed asshole and known by everyone as such. It was barely worth my time to respond, but in the end, the response I received for putting him in his place made it worthwhile. I’ve never had so many people from so many unexpected places go out of their way to thank me for a job well done. It was really cool to find that so many people agreed with me. That guy is not very well liked and it was surprising to find that it’s especially true in his own fuckin’ town. I thought the Detroit Chamber of Commerce was gonna nominate me for fuckin’ sainthood. I’ll admit readily to having plenty of people that don’t like me, but it’s taken me many fuckin’ years to perfect my somewhat repellant demeanor. I think it’s amazing that he has amassed so fuckin’ many passionate enemies so early in life. I guess when you are a fuckin’ asshole of his caliber you begin alienating people quickly.
There are conflicting stories about how you got the name Long Gone John. There’s the story of you being kidnapped by gypsies, and then another story I see floating around about you enduring some sort of brain surgery. Can you elaborate on either?
The gypsies story is only slightly exaggerated. I was kidnapped before I was a year old and before returning me to my parents a note was pinned to me in Romanian, which translated roughly to “long gone.” My birth name is John. It was the papers and media that tagged me “Long Gone John.”
I’ve read that you never had any intention of starting a label, and the Lazy Cowgirls’ release just ended up in your hands by chance. It’s also been mentioned that you were influenced by Stiff, though. When did the reality of Sympathy emerge, and when did you decide that this was something you wanted to do?
Well, it’s true, I had no designs in beginning a label. It just kinda evolved, and before I realized it, I had no time for anything else. I’ve always thought of it as an extra-curricular project that got wildly outta control. About Stiff records, that’s also true; they were my favourite label. And with the exception of very few releases, I have everything they ever put out. They had an irreverence which I could identify with and they did all different kinds of music. They took lots of big chances and were somewhat popular, but definitely outsiders. I didn’t intentionally pattern myself after them, but maybe subconsciously something was going on. If there is a comparison to Sympathy lurking out there, it’s definitely Stiff records.
What do you recall about the paper you worked on, “Endless Party”? Who else was involved with that, and what was it about? I’d be curious to see some of that stuff.
Well, it evolved from another project called “Beyond The Blackout, ” and I did that with Chris Amaroux and a girl named Wendy. Then I went on to do “Endless Party” with Chris. I enjoyed writing. It didn’t seem like so much work back then. I liked writing about music that impressed me. I didn’t waste much fuckin’ time slagging stuff I hated. I also tried to bring in elements of art and culture and not just concentrate on music.
One thing I seldom see explored in interviews with you is your time with the Gun Club. What was the extent of your relationship with Jeffrey Lee Pierce?
With Jeffrey, there was more of an unspoken thing going on between us. We just sort of acknowledged each other. He appreciated me because I was always at the shows and probably because I drove a pink ’59 Cadillac with Gun Club license plates; I somehow just thought I understood the guy and his band. I acknowledged them and sang their praises when I could in the fanzines I wrote for… I was actually better friends with Rob, Terry and Ward, and later Patricia, but I had very high respect and regard for Jeffrey. I was amazed by the depth of his knowledge of the blues and his ability to infuse it with punk sensibilities. The Gun Club pretty much created a new musical genre. I was also always impressed by his devotion to things considerably out of step and decidedly un-hip, like his intense infatuation with Willie Nelson, and I was intrigued by his peculiar choice of covers all the way from Gershwin to Billie Holiday. I’ll be accused of being a big fuckin’ idiot and of the ultimate sacrilege, but I really preferred the Gun Club’s versions of songs like “A Love Supreme” and “Preaching The Blues” to the originals. The Gun Club were just IT for me. I could talk forever about how special, viable and important I think the Gun Club are. For me, personally, they were saviours at a time in L.A. when the dreaded lame-ass hardcore was in full, boring swing.
What are some of the things that really stand out to you about L.A. and the music scene then and now? In the pro-and-con sense?
Well, then I could go out five nights a week and see really great bands, and often go to two different clubs a night. I was only ever interested in music. I was never into being part of a scene. I’d see the bands I wanted to see and then disappear into the night. I have hundreds of live tapes of all the cool bands. I recorded nearly every show I ever went to.
I know you have kids. I was wondering how growing up in your wildly colorful world has affected them, and how the pressures of family life affects your business plans, considering you have their college educations to account for now.
My kids are grown. I had them at a young age. I am already a grandfather. My youngest daughter works for Lookout Records, and she is their marketing and sales manager — that, I find kinda ironic. My other daughter manages a dentist office. I think they both appreciate my modest accomplishments and my undying attempt to infect the eardrums of as many unsuspecting listeners as possible with cool rock n’ roll music.
What is the one item in your catalog that epitomizes SFTRI? What are you most proud of accomplishing with your label?
Having worked with over 550 bands and having released over 700 records. As for the first part of the question, that is, of course, pretty difficult to say. Actually, I could never say, as that would be completely unfair. There are too many important releases, and they are not based on ultimate success or sales figures. I have had only a few shining moments, but when I look at my catalog, I am pleased with the diversity and sheer volume. I have worked hard and have been fortunate to be involved with a lot of very talented people. I listen to Sympathy releases more than anything else. I know I have been able to release some really great music, and there’s some I never get tired of. I’m real proud of all the Memphis and Detroit stuff. Same goes for being able to unearth and re-release some older things, like Roky Erickson, the New York Dolls, Suicide, the Scientists, and this October the Gun Club’s three long-out-of-print albums. A few other standout faves are April March, the Geraldine Fibbers, Rocket From The Crypt, all the Billy Childish and Holly Golightly projects, and the Sonic Boom and Spacemen 3 stuff. My personal current faves are Scarling, Miss Derringer and Mr. Airplane Man… I’ve been able to give many bands a start and am responsible for a lot of bands’ earliest releases. That is what I will always be most proud of.
I’m a big fan of commercial art myself, while a lot of people either think it distracts from a product or has very little worth. What’s your take on that attitude, and your opinion of commercial art?
Anyone suggesting that well-thought-out graphics distracts from a product is a fuckin’ moron! A brilliant image/artwork or an intriguing photo will lure me in every time. Sometimes the more over the top, the better. It’s hard to have a completely original idea, and I respect people who occasionally pull one off. The bottom line is, that just as much effort should be spent on the cover as there is on the music.
I’ve always heard you were huge on packaging, and had great ambition and ideas. Have you been able to freely do what you wanna do, packaging-wise, yet?
For the most part, I’ve done what I wanted to do without concerns of recouping costs, etc. I know most things are destined to become a losing battle, so I’m not disappointed when I lose money. I’d much rather be pleased with the finished artifact than stress over cutting corners to break even. Somehow things manage to work out… one release does a little better and that subsidizes the one that does poorly. If in the end the band and myself are pleased with the project, then that record is a fuckin’ success. It’s nice to make money, but it is much more important and ultimately gratifying to be proud of your work.
Volume seems to be a big part of your business plan, putting out a lot of stuff. Do you think this tactic has been entirely successful, or has it hindered you in any way?
That was never my game plan. It’s just the way things worked out. I always took on projects at an alarming rate, and I guess I got a cheap thrill out of the pace of my release schedule. At ten years in business, it worked out to a release per week for every week Sympathy had been in business. That’s a lot of records. Now, I’m at fifteen years and currently have over 700 releases. I’ve slowed down immensely, but that is mostly due to the drastic change in the sensibility of the record buyer, and I guess I finally got tired of losing fuckin’ money.
With respect to volume, do you ever put out stuff you regret having in your catalog? If so, what do you think blows?
I’d never say, as that would be demeaning to the artists who created the music. Let’s just sat that I have been less than discerning many, many times along the way. I certainly have some regrets, but they are few and far between compared to the hundreds and hundreds of proud associations.
What do you generally limit a pressing to, on average?
I usually just press what I feel is a wise amount. There is no magic number. My initial pressings are usually very modest.
Has SFTRI been viable, as a business? You recently said, in a nutshell, that it’s basically a gamble. You win some, you lose some — sometimes you shell out advances and never get a thing in return. If you feel comfortable, could you describe the inner-workings of SFTRI as a business? Is it healthy? It seems like a pretty risky venture for you.
Well, it is for the most part self-sufficient. That in itself is hard enough to achieve. I consider the fact that after fifteen years I’m still here, still busy, still relatively coherent and that I only drool occasionally as a symptom of success. To this day, I don’t do anything that I don’t want to do. I have no one to answer to and I don’t have to consider anyone else’s views and politics. For that luxury I am very blessed.
What motivates you to keep doing it?
Stubbornness, I suppose. I still enjoy music and like being involved in the process of seeing it being created.
There seems to be a lot of jealousy toward you and your accomplishments from other label owners. You seem to have succeeded where a lot of others have failed. In what ways do you think SFTRI has come out on top?
Comparisons don’t pay bills. I do what I do and don’t concern myself with anyone else. I’m not competing. There are a lot of very cool people running labels, doing exactly what I do. They try hard to put out quality stuff and introduce the public to new bands. I’m not trying to achieve anything but personal satisfaction. If it was about money, I’d would have given up years ago. As I said, I do what I do and good, bad, or indifferent, Sympathy is an entity unto itself.
Do you have any allies in the business? What are some of the other labels you appreciate and keep an eye on?
I keep pretty much to myself and don’t keep an eye on anyone. What other labels do doesn’t concern me. The closest thing I have to an ally is Larry Hardy at In The Red. We’ve been friends pretty much since we started the labels. We have a similar aesthetic and have worked with many of the same bands. With both of us running labels alone we sometimes seek advice from each other, discuss ideas, and vent about stupid, ungrateful fuckin’ bands. I think he’s a lot more savvy and focused than me and possibly even more cynical and opinionated, and I respect that.
Do you have anything to do with Swami anymore, or do you have any involvement with any other labels outside of Sympathy?
Well, John Reis and I started Swami together. John is one of my best friends and I have many important Rocket From The Crypt records in my catalog. I have the greatest admiration for him as an artist and as a truly swell human being. Swami reached the point where he wanted to do it alone and so he did. He releases really great stuff and he is, not surprisingly, doing very well with it.
Can you tell us a bit about the relationship between the Dwarves and Sympathy? First of all, I’ve always admired their packaging, and the latest slew of stuff is some of the most provocative, yet in a weird way it’s really tasteful. Why are they putting the new stuff out through SFTRI, and what are your thoughts on the Dwarves?
I’ve done a lot of projects with Blag through the years. We have a mutual respect for each other. He is one of the most intelligent and talented people I know. I have put out records by the Dwarves, as well as several of his solo projects. The time finally arrived to do a Dwarves album. He has realistic expectations and is generally very easy to work with. Blag has pretty much stayed true to his original perverted vision and he does not make concessions for anyone. He is sincerely twisted and demented and I respect that he tells the right people to fuck off and die.
I know you love female vocals, and particularly all-female bands. Sympathy has probably been just as vital a platform for female musicians as KRS. Have you intentionally gone out of your way to make it easier for girls to be heard through your label? If so, do you handle female acts differently?
Well, it stems back to having a preference to looking at girls on stage instead of guys. I’m proud of my associations and support of girls and girl bands in music. They’re still underappreciated and don’t get the same breaks. I discovered long ago that it’s not about gender; talent isn’t that specific. I’ll give a listen to a project with girls maybe more readily, but being a girl isn’t enough. They have to really have something valid to offer, and ultimately they gotta win me over with their music. Being cute is just a bonus.
What’s the perception of SFTRI by most feminists? Are you aware of any? You put a lot of support into female artists, but I can see how certain artists or something like the Sympathy girl might rub Evergreen Liberal Arts College kids the wrong way.
I have no idea what anyone’s perception of me is. I don’t have contact with that many people. I’ve done many things, which if taken in the wrong spirit, certain people would find demeaning, but my intentions were never malicious. It’s easy to upset people; that’s no great trick, and I don’t go out of my way to do it. All you need in order to push peoples’ buttons is a finger. Goddamn, I’m brilliant!
Your catalog of releases is pretty extensive, and I know you’ve said you don’t have the attention span to listen to whole albums. How much of your catalog have you heard? What’s the percentage of stuff you haven’t heard, if at all?
There are only a few full lengths I’ve not listened to. I have a lot of amazing records that I never tire of listening to, and I also have some I’d never listen to even if you paid me.
Do you have people who screen stuff? Who is the most familiar with your catalog within your label?
I have no one. I work alone. I’ve no idea who is familiar with my catalog besides me. I’d like to think my distributor is, but sometimes I wonder.
What would you say you’re more interested in these days, as far as artistic medium? Painting or music?
Well, I don’t like much current music, so I guess I have to say art holds a bit more intrigue for me. There is no shortage of talented visual artists and I’m always discovering new ones. One thing keeping me interested is the toy company, Necessaries Toy Foundation, I began last year. My first project was a 15″ figure of Enid from Ghost World. It was successful and I have nine more pieces sculpted and ready to go into production.
I know you’re a huge patron of the arts in general. Have you ever done any art or music yourself? If yes, lay it on us; if not, why not?
Well, not anything really worth mentioning. Unfortunately, I’ve never had the patience to learn an instrument, although I do have a dream of getting an amazing old pipe organ and learning to play to entertain myself and my cats. As far as art, I used to love to do very intricate crazy collages, and I have a very primitive drawing style, which is to say I basically have no real talent. Actually, my talent appears to be recognizing talent in others.
Your house, and particularly your art and toy collections are world famous. How did you manage to acquire so much art? You must have a killer security system.
I’ve always been a discerning patron and have fortunately made very shrewd purchases along the way. I’ve always worked hard and always wanted to have something to show for it instead of just having money dwindle through my hands. I’ve never had any particularly bad habits, so my money, whatever I had, has always been well spent. I like to be surrounded by an overload of visual stimuli and so I continue to haunt the swap meets, toy shows and galleries looking for new stuff to drag home.
One of my favorite painters is Robert Williams, and I’ve heard you own some of his stuff. Have you met him? If so, could you describe that encounter or relationship?
I’ve known Robert for years and have five of his best paintings. I used to have more, but I’ve traded and sold some. I met him about sixteen years ago when I was doing Endless Party. I interviewed him before I had ever bought a painting. He is an interesting guy. He’s kinda caught somewhere between being a hillbilly and a professor. He is extremely intelligent and funny, and an amazing storyteller.
Who is your favorite artist currently?
Well, I guess I gotta say Mark Ryden. Pretty hard to top that guy. I guess I’ve known him for about eight years. He has become my best friend and has really done a lot of amazing things for me. I have eight of his paintings and because he has always given me first choices in shows, I have some of his best. He has his first museum show coming up in Seattle at the Frye, then it goes to the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. I’m kinda dreading having to give up four of the paintings for nine months.
Long Gone Manor is on fire, and you can only grab one thing. What would it be?
I’d save my six cats Hiro, Digit, Drella, Bronte, Dickens and Trilby. After them, it’s nearly impossible to say, but I’d probably opt for sentimental rather than monetary value. I am too fuckin’ materialistic for my own good. I treasure everything I have from trash to priceless artifacts, it’s all the same and equally as important to me.
What are you most proud of in your art and toy collections, respectively?
Too difficult to say, but if pressed as far as a toy — although not actually a toy, but based on a toy from the thirties — is a 5 1/2 foot tall figure of Eugene the Jeep from the early Popeye cartoons. It’s one of a kind and was made in 1951, and it makes me happy just seeing it. Of the art, I guess my favourite painting is Snow White by Mark Ryden, it’s 4′ x 6′ and is the largest he’s done. It is an absolutely amazing painting, and I can’t believe I am fortunate enough to own it.
Is it true that one or both of the Clayton brothers were skinheads in their Denver days?
Well, I get the feeling they were probably skateboard dudes. I don’t know if you mean skinhead as a political stance or as a type of hairdo, but I guarantee the former couldn’t possibly be true.
What’s in store for us from Sympathy, music- and art-wise in the next year or so?
I’m doing a lot fewer releases. I’m trying hard to be more discerning. Cool stuff coming up is the Gun Club releases and a new album by Jack Oblivian and the Tearjerkers, some stuff with Reigning Sound and a new album with Kat from Babes in Toyland and a couple collections, Sympathetic Sounds of Montreal and Alright, This Time Just The Girls volume 2 will be finished eventually.
What will happen to Sympathy in the distant future? What direction do you see it taking? Are your kids going to inherit the business eventually?
No idea where it is going. I think of selling it sometimes, but am not sure anyone would want it. It’s occasionally a joy, but mostly it feels like a fuckin’ noose around my neck.
Special thanks to Long Gone John for his participation in the interview, and apologies for its belated publishing.