In this interview Brandon Ebel, founder and president of Tooth & Nail records, takes us back through the history of labels multiple decades of operation and how they've been able to adapt and grown their business since the early nineties.
Guest post by Will Hodge of Noisetrade
Whenever we feature a record label sampler, we try to get a peak behind the curtain to get the their story and find out what makes them special. For this NoiseTrade One-on-One, we interviewed Tooth & Nail Records founder and president Brandon Ebel to discuss the label’s multi-decade history, their blending of new bands and legacy artists, how they’ve handled the shifting landscape of the music business since their early days in the ’90s, and much more!
NoiseTrade: Before we get into Tooth & Nail, let’s start with a little bit about yourself. How’d you first fall in love with music and when did you decide to make a career out of it?
Brandon Ebel: As a kid, I was way into music, just a fanatic about it. I would always go over to my friends’ houses and stare at their audio equipment. When I was real little, like five or six, my parents would have to tell me not to touch the stereo when we went over to other people’s houses. Growing up as a conservative Christian kid, I wasn’t allowed to listen to any quote-unquote “secular” music, but I would always listen to it when I went over to someone else’s house. It was the 1970s, so I’m talking The Eagles, KISS, and Black Sabbath – stuff we got from my friend’s older brother. The only “secular” record I had as a kid was Shaun Cassidy. For some reason, my parents let me have that one. It was bizarre.
Moving into the 1980s, I really liked bands like Daniel Amos and Stryper, but I was also in high school, so I could start listening to whatever I wanted. I was still rooted in bands that had a Christian backdrop, so I started getting into labels like Blonde Vinyl Records and R.E.X. Music. I felt like that scene had some pretty legit bands, especially R.E.X. on the metal side with Living Sacrifice and Believer. Indie rock wise, I thought Blonde Vinyl was really cool and that’s how I ended up getting Joy Electric and Starflyer 59, because they were in a band on Blonde Vinyl.
In the 1990s, there were a lot of really cool bands that had a Christian message like Poor Old Lu in Seattle and The Clergy down in Portland. I had a college show on KBBR at Oregon State and I would play some of those bands mixed in with the rest of the normal playlists. Because of that radio show, I got a job at Frontline Records down in Southern California. When I was interviewing at Frontline, I was also interviewing at Paine Webber to become a stockbroker. I went with Frontline for about $16,000 a year – even though Paine Webber would’ve been a highly more lucrative gig – mainly because I wanted to take a stab at the music business. Upon moving to Southern California, I immediately started going to shows and found this whole straightedge/Christian scene down in the Huntington Beach/Newport Beach area. From that scene, I really liked this band Focused and tried to get Frontline to sign them. I quickly realized they didn’t want to take A&R advice from a phone rep, so about six months in I decided that I could just start my own label.
NT: For anyone not familiar with Tooth & Nail (which you’ve helmed from the beginning), can you give us a little bit of the label’s origin story and some of its significant artists/moments through the years?
Ebel: When I started Tooth & Nail, the very first band I signed was called Wish for Eden. I also signed Focused and I signed Starflyer 59. I had three different kinds of bands: a commercial-ish rock band like Helmet, a hardcore Victory Records type band, and an alternative music band. So, the label started off pretty eclectic. I then signed Plankeye, which went on to be like our third largest group in the ‘90s. Shortly after that I did a 7” deal with MxPx from Seattle, which went on to be our largest group in the ‘90s. At the time, I didn’t love Southern California and was looking to move the label. So because MxPx was doing so well, I decided to move the company to Seattle and we’ve been here ever since. If we would’ve stayed in Southern California, I don’t know whether we would’ve been bigger or smaller – maybe bigger, because there’s just so much talent down there.
Over the years… you know that whole Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon thing? I feel like Tooth & Nail has a bit of that going on. Good Charlotte credits their career to MxPx. Sufjan Stevens played with Danielson Famile. Father John Misty worked in our mail order department. The guys from Driver Eight went on to form a group called Paloalto that Rick Rubin signed. There are all kinds of that stuff going on with the label. It’s crazy.
NT: Your NoiseTrade sampler features tracks from some of your newest releases like Le Voyageur and The Welcome Wagon. Instead of just asking “what do you look for when signing a band,” what specifically was it about these two bands that prompted Tooth and Nail to sign them?
Ebel: Credibility, legitimacy, and good art. Tooth & Nail has gone through so many ebbs and flows – partially because of my personality – where we started with a lot punk rock and then went through an indie phase. In the late-‘90s we were putting out artsy bands like Frodus and Danielson Famile. In 2001, I sold part of the company to EMI Universal and we started doing more commercial music for a while. I got the company brand back in 2013 and now we’re back to signing what we really like, whether or not we think they’re going to be a big seller or not. You never know what the next thing is going to be. We’re back to that early mentality – if we believe in the group and we love the music, then we’re going to put it out if we can. Le Voyageur and The Welcome Wagon are like that. They’re amazing and they’re totally legitimate and musically relative. We don’t have to operate like we did around 2010 and 2011, where we were trying to make a corporate number for EMI Universal. Now, we’re back to just putting out music that we enjoy.
NT: The sampler also features a track from Starflyer 59, a band that has been a part of the Tooth & Nail story essentially from the beginning. What are your thoughts on the connection between the band and the label? As the label head, what does it mean to have a relationship with the same band for that long?
Ebel: Yeah, for like, 19 releases? I think it’s awesome because it shows if there’s a good chemistry between a label and an artist, then you can do a lot of cool stuff together for a long time. Jason Martin is a really good friend of mine. I respect him tremendously. I really wish he was a larger artist. We’ve got like nine gold albums and have been able to break a bunch of groups, but for some reason we’ve never really been able to break Starflyer. At the same time, he hasn’t really played a live show in like eight or nine years, so I don’t know if he really has the desire to tour anymore. I feel like he’s just one TV commercial away from becoming huge.
NT: Having been a label head since the early ‘90s, what are some of the biggest (and hardest to navigate) changes you’ve seen in the music business in the last couple decades and what has stayed the exact same?
Ebel: Well, everything’s changed in the music business. I think we want to keep creating value for our artists, so we have to keep asking ourselves how we do that. Distribution’s not a value anymore. Now it comes down to your socials and YouTube and your A&R direction. The fact that you’re still paying for everything matters, of course. It’s an interesting time for music though. Like, in all of history, musicians have never really made any money until like the ‘40s or ‘50s. I’m sure Beethoven was wealthy, but overall, you could be the best musicians in the world and just play a bar and get tips your whole life. Then recorded music comes along and you’ve got Elvis and The Beatles and millions of records being sold. They were people like Elvis and The Beatles before then, but no one knew about it because they weren’t recorded, you know? Then all of a sudden in the ‘90s, you’ve got CDs selling for like $18 bucks apiece, arenas are selling out, and NSYNC sells 2 million albums in like a week. Now, so much music can be had for just like $10 a month or free. It used to cost like $100,000 to make an album and now you can do it on a laptop. Overall, it’s cheaper to make a record and the distribution is easier. So there’s more competition and less revenue. If you’re streaming a bunch of records, but not out there touring and selling t-shirts, you may not make any money. It’s just a different game now. There’s more selection and more competition and it’s easier to put out a record – which I think is a good thing. But there are less mega-artists now – which is probably also a good thing.
With streaming, it’s really cool that nothing is ever really out of print anymore. You can be like “Oh, I remember that band Pep Squad that was on Tooth & Nail” and you can just go listen to it. As a music consumer, it’s awesome. I love it, personally. But as a label, we’re always trying to produce value for our artists.
NT: Finally, if you had to summarize the entirety history of Tooth & Nail’s vibe on only one 7” single, what track do you put on the A-side and which track goes on the B-side?
Ebel: Wow! Only two songs out of like, 8,000 songs? That’s a fun game to play but I have to think about that one.
NT: Maybe I can be generous and give you an EP or a full-length LP, if that helps at all.
Ebel: Man, we’ve done over 800 releases… so like, 800 times 10 songs a piece… How about these:
MxPx – “Punk Rawk Show”
Juliana Theory – “Top Of The World”
Anberlin – “Unwinding Cable Car”
Underoath – “A Boy Brushed Red Living In Black and White”
Demon Hunter – “Not Ready To Die”
Thousand Foot Krutch – “Rock Fist”
Copeland – “Erase”
Tyson Motsenbocker – “Rust”
Starflyer 59 – “Fell In Love at 22”
Living Sacrifice – “Reject”
Supertones – “Supertones Strike Back”
Joy Electric – “Sugar Rush”
Emery – “Walls”
Further Seems Forever – “Snowbirds and Townies”
Plankeye – “Goodbye”