Numero Group Brings Forgotten Music Back from the Dead

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Numero Group Brings Forgotten Music Back from the Dead

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Numero Group was founded by Ken Shipley and Rob Sevier, who are part crate diggers, part forensic scientists who unearth long forgotten music—funk, gospel, country, metal—from decades past. And more recently they’ve been refocusing their attention on a new target: ‘80s and ‘90s punk, post-hardcore, emo and indie.

This weekend, the Chicago-born, Los Angeles-based record label Numero Group will celebrate its twentieth anniversary with two nights of live shows at downtown L.A.’s Palace Theater. The fact that Numero has survived for twenty years—weathering everything from the rise of streaming to a supply-chain-glutting “vinyl revival” that ironically made it harder to press new records on vinyl—is no surprise. From the moment the company released the first installment of its long-running Eccentric Soul series in 2003, it’s been the team to beat in the reissue field. Numero built its reputation producing exhaustive and lavishly-annotated compilations of obscure funk and soul music released by regional labels during the 1960s and ‘70s, bringing to light brilliant and frequently uncanny music made by forgotten artists whose total recorded output often fit on two sides of a 45-RPM single. Numero co-founders Ken Shipley and Rob Sevier were crate-diggers as cold-case detectives, unearthing legacies of greatness long-buried in attics and storage units, as well as the stories of the people who made that music. As the label’s grown, so has its purview; Numero’s discography now includes gospel, folk, country, heavy metal, cocktail exotica, and even New Age music by artists including Harlem zither maestro Laraaji, one of many still-living legends whose careers the label’s helped revitalize. 

But in recent years Numero’s also begun documenting a slightly-less-vintage strain of American independent music—guitar-driven ‘80s and ‘90s punk, post-hardcore, emo and indie rock. 2017’s Savage Young Dü—a four-LP box set documenting primordial work by the legendary Minneapolis punk trio Hüsker Dü, who’d go on to drop stone classics like Zen Arcade and New Day Rising—inaugurated the label’s “200 Line,” which has since given the deluxe Numero treatment to essential recordings by bands like Olympia, Washington’s Unwound and New York City slow-core pioneers Codeine. Unwound and Codeine will both perform at the label’s Numero Twenty event in L.A. this weekend, as part of a ten-band lineup that also includes outfits like Rex, Karate, Chisel, Tsunami, and Everyone Asked About You, many of whom haven’t played together live since Bill Clinton was president. This week I spoke to Shipley (voluble, enthusiastic) and Sevier (gruff, authoritative) via Zoom from their respective workspaces in Los Angeles and Chicago; we began by talking about how and why the label turned its attention to the post-punk era. 

GQ: Over the years, the Numero Group has spotlighted underappreciated music from across the genre spectrum, and in retrospect it makes perfect sense that you’d get around to reissuing music by ‘90s indie bands who never got their due. But digging into recent history still seems like a pretty significant focus shift for the label. How did you decide to go down this road? 

KEN SHIPLEY: We had started realizing, about 10 years into running the label, that it was getting harder and harder to track down some of the people that we were looking for. 

ROB SEVIER: Ten years ago now seems like a dream to me. Take me back to ten years ago! I would love that. You could actually still get people on the phone ten years ago. Now, y’know, they’re getting calls all day—some sort of scam, some sort of sales pitch. They’re not picking up their phones anymore. That’s a thing of the past. You’re lucky to get anybody on the horn unless you leave ‘em ten messages, beg them with a text message, send them letters. It’s a very different environment in terms of getting in touch with the kind of folks who were our bread and butter at the start of the label. So things have definitely changed in the ecosystem that we’re in. 

KS: But one idea was like, oh, these [‘90s artists], they’re still alive. They’re actually still young. They still have tapes. They’ve got an ability to tell a story. Maybe they wanna have a second taste at a career. And so it seemed kind of natural, especially since I came from the nineties [indie-rock] world, and I knew a lot of these people already. I don’t think we ever deliberated about whether or not we would do it. We deliberated about whether to do it on Numero or start another label. 

RS: Yeah. That was the big conversation. It started because Codeine was interested. We met [Codeine cofounder] Chris Brokaw, and we were like, I love Codeine. What can we do with Codeine? This stuff’s been out of print forever. These records are expensive. They’re hard to get. People who would wanna discover this stuff can’t discover it. What can we do? 

Ken was very passionate about Codeine. I thought it was a good look. I think the main thing that we differed on was whether or not it should be on Numero or if it should be on a new [label.] And it’s not even that there was disagreement. Ken brainstormed a lot of cool, like, “90s label” ideas and concepts too. It wasn’t necessarily him versus me— but it was very much a debate about identity, and how do we set this stuff apart. 

Obviously there are broader historical reasons why music by Black funk and soul artists from the ‘60s and ‘70s wasn’t appreciated in the moment and became overlooked and therefore ripe for rediscovery. When ‘90s bands like Codeine or Duster slipped off the radar, there were different factors at play. But as you’ve started working with these bands and delving more into what we could call “deep indie rock,” have you found that these artists have similar stories in any way? Are there any commonalities to their experiences as independent musicians, regardless of where and when they did their work?

RS: I think the creative process does really connect [these artists] throughout the decades. Just the difficulty of getting a group together and getting ’em into a studio, and the complexity, with any level of technology, of actually getting something onto tape. Those are huge common threads that everyone we work with shares. 

But I think there’s a major transition that happens when there’s an understanding that music could be part of a broader national and international community. When bands are touring DIY around the country, and they arrive in a new town and there’s an audience waiting for ’em—just to hear the idea, right? They don’t know the music necessarily. But there’s this idea—we can call it punk rock, we can call it DIY, there’s a lot of terms for it, over the years, but there’s an audience waiting for that. That’s the major paradigmatic shift, as I see it, between [‘90s independent music] and what was happening in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. 

Back then, you could be the most incredible band in the world. You go to a new town, they don’t wanna hear the songs you wrote. They want to hear the hits on the radio. That was what a live show was at a club in, in the seventies, right? So that changes, that goes away, and a new paradigm emerges. When Ken and I started going to shows, it’s a bunch of kids in a dirty basement, and they’re performing their own songs. And we just understood that that’s the way it was. If they were performing someone else’s songs, that’s a cover band, right? 

But in the seventies, that’s just a night out. You go to hear a band and they’re playing “The Look of Love,” and then they go into “Celebration,” and they’re entertaining the crowd. That’s a huge difference. 

It’s been interesting for me, as someone who actually lived through the ‘90s, to watch a historical narrative take shape around the music of that decade. Like, it’s all building up to Nirvana and it’s all downhill after Nirvana. By resurfacing all this underdiscussed and hard-to-find music from that time, do you feel like you’re creating a counternarrative or an alternate history, a different telling of the tale? 

KS: Absolutely—but Numero has been telling the alternate history of popular music for two decades now, right? We’re just championing the unheard, the under-heard, the bands that just never really got there. And even a band like Unwound, who I would consider to be a pillar of that era— the last tour they were playing for hundreds of people, and now, I just saw them last night with 2,000 people. It’s really enjoyable to be presenting that to people, and showing them what they missed. While you were busy listening to these other things, here was this other world that existed. 

History is written by the winners. But when you look at a band like Duster or Unwound, and you look at how many kids there were at this thing last night—that’s a whole new generation of people who are gonna decide what is worth saving from an era. Whether you go back to the blues collectors getting into Robert Johnson in the late ’40s and early ’50s or to psych-rock collectors in the early ‘80s, things get rediscovered and then people champion them and they become important because they were always great—it just took so much time to surface that stuff. And now with the power of the Internet, that distance is much shorter. You can hear everything, and you don’t have to mail-order it or wait for someone to put something on a tape. There’s an unlimited amount of ways for you to go and listen to Unwound or Duster if you want to. In a lot of ways we’ve arrived at a really fascinating crossroads in music history—distribution’s flat, and it’s not bound by genre, it’s not bound by year. It’s just bound by what you’re into. 

Spotify launched about three years after you guys started Numero. Streaming has since become a huge part of the way people experience music. How has Numero’s relationship to the digital realm evolved over the years? 

KS: We just weren’t technologically capable for the first eight or nine years of the label to really deal with it. We were so busy making records that we like, kind of weren’t paying attention to the digital thing. Honestly, I would say that digital was a blind spot for us until 2015. It was probably less than 5 percent of our total business for a very long time. And then one of our partners, Darius Van Arman, challenged us. He was like, “If you can make a playlist and get 500 followers in a month, I’ll take you to a really nice dinner.”

And I love a challenge, and we made it happen. I think what he was doing was being like, You guys are so good at figuring out things—go figure out this other world. Like, This is an opportunity, you’re just not looking at it yet. And he really got me kind of addicted to making playlists. To me, it’s no different than when I was making cassette tapes and giving them to people, or when I was 16 and selling records out of my locker. It’s the same concept. You put some songs together that all fit in a bucket together, and people either choose to listen to them or they don’t. 

I wish that challenge had been thrown a little earlier so that we could have been a lot farther along, but simultaneously, I’m not sure that we had the bandwidth to really commit to it. Now we release two songs every day digitally and we don’t know when they’re coming out physically. Our digital schedule is more ambitious than our physical schedule, and we’re releasing 50 physical records this year. So we’ll end up probably putting close to 500 songs, maybe 600 songs, into the world in any given year. 

Has it gotten harder to be in the physical-record business? You hear horror stories about backlogs at pressing plants and bands having to wait years to get a new album pressed on vinyl. It sometimes seems like the so-called “vinyl revival” has been bad news for a lot of people in that space, unless your business involves selling Taylor Swift records at Wal-Mart. 

KS: It hasn’t been bad for us. One, because we’re part of [Indiana-based indie-label powerhouse] Secretly Group, we have a lot of capacity—more capacity than some of our peers in the reissue business might have. And two, we’ve made 500 records, so [the vinyl boom] created an amazing opportunity to sell through our enormous back catalog. There were years where our warehouse in Chicago was just stuffed to the brim with titles that weren’t selling. Mickey and the Soul Generation LPs and The Way Out Label LPs and Sandy Denny LPs. It was like we couldn’t give those records away—and then all of a sudden we turned around mid-pandemic all these records are just gone. So I think it cuts both ways.

Do you see a future—maybe not next week, maybe not even next decade, but at some point—where you’re not making physical records at all? Or is that something you always want to hold onto? 

RS: We’re always gonna be in the physical realm on some level. I don’t know exactly what form that’s gonna take. One of the things we started doing with the Periodical Numeral, which is our very low press run zine, basically— it’s actually kind of a companion for streaming. That was our original vision for it. If you don’t buy our records because you don’t have a record player and you don’t wanna pretend like you have a record player— which some people do, and there’s nothing wrong with that, some people wanna own a talisman of the music… 

Right, it’s a souvenir of, like, Harry Styles fandom… 

RS: Well, that’s an ungenerous way to put it. You can say that it’s spiritually imbued with the music, because it has a physical sound wave inside of it, right? I mean, there’s a lot of ways you can put it. You can be poetic or you can be negative about it. But some people are doing that. They’re buying a talisman. They’re not buying an object that they wanna play. But for somebody that doesn’t want to do that either, you know, those, the Periodicals are a way to really engage with the music. Because what you do lose with streaming is the engagement. Focused, deep listening is very hard to do. If I’m not on a phone call or in a meeting, I’m streaming music and podcasts the entire day. 

But when I sit down at the end of the day with a record and I listen to it front to back and look at the sleeve, a lot of stuff emerges, because now I’m like, Wait, who’s this producer? I’ve never seen this name before, and then I’m googling them that second. That engagement needs to happen somehow. So the Periodical Numeral is us dipping our toe in something that could help you engage with that music without it being physical in any other way. But I also do think that on some level, vinyl’s gonna be around for a very long time. It’s unlikely to get cheaper. It might get way more expensive. But it’s just the way that most physical music is stored right now. 

KS: I’m gonna really quickly play devil’s advocate, though, and say that I can envision a world in which it’s not environmentally responsible or financially possible to make as much durable physical goods. And we’ll probably just become more selective about what we make, and those things will become more special. But also, we’re in the middle of a project, right now of getting all of our liner notes online, and making them more available as readable stories, and turning our Web site into a place where, in addition to it being a commerce site, you can go and learn about the history of, y’know, Cap-Soul Records, which only exists in the liner notes to those records right now. 

I think over the course of probably the next decade, a lot of our physical archive will become digital, and it’ll become easier for people to explore. I don’t think streaming’s going away. There’s gonna be a next thing after streaming. So it’s like, how do we anticipate what the next version is gonna look like? In the same way that we’ve spent the last 20 years dragging all the 45s and the photos out of the attics and basements of the world, we need to drag all those same things out of our own attic and basement and get it all into the Cloud so that it can live on for the next generation of listeners and readers. 

Every time I read another story about plants struggling to meet the demand for new vinyl, I spend like 20 minutes daydreaming about changing careers and opening a pressing plant. It lasts right up until I remind myself what it costs to buy and maintain even one vinyl-pressing machine. It’s a lot. 

RS: Um, do not do that. The cost of the machines is the least of your worries. I’ll say this: Have you been working in manufacturing your entire life? Have you run a factory before?

I have manufactured magazine stories. And before that, lattes. 

RS: That’s not enough. Yeah. That’s the wrong background. I think that what a lot of people are missing [about vinyl pressing] is that this is industrial work. You’re dealing with pollutants. This is not something you want to get into without true factory and manufacturing experience, because that’s what this is. It’s not enjoyable work and the profit margins are not such that you’re printing money. 

So unless you happen to have been in the White Stripes at some point and you have that revenue stream going for you, you’re saying it’s not practical.

KS: Jack [White] is like Willy Wonka. I’m a big Jack stan—it’s not necessarily his music that I love, but I think he’s probably one of the most interesting creative artists of the 21st century, on a number of different levels. Just an end-to-end visionary. His pressing plant—I’m sure it makes money, but it’s more about just creating something cool. 

I appreciate you guys talking me out of this. I was not aware of the stakes and now I really feel like I am. 

RS: Start by taking an apprenticeship in the manufacturing field. That’s the thing I cannot emphasize enough. It is a manufacturing job, and I think that’s what people lose track of. They want it to be cool, but it’s not. It’s factory work, y’know. But you do have a path. Give up this writing bullshit. Get back to your blue-collar roots. I would spend ten years in other manufacturing before you go in this direction. 

So, ten years of making patio chairs or something…

RS: Exactly. Yes. 

You mentioned dragging things out of people’s attics, which is kind of the foundational Numero experience. Are you guys still out there knocking on doors and persuading people to let you look through their stuff, the way you did in the early days of the label? Or do you have operatives in the field who do that now? 

RS: There’s still a lot of shoe leather. Well, there’s some. I might sit at my computer all day and send emails and be on Zoom meetings. But I don’t necessarily trust anybody else to go into the environment, into the quote-unquote field. That’s the type of thing that I don’t like to delegate. 

KS: Because you get an eye for it, right? You know what you’re looking for because you’ve looked at it so many times that you can very quickly sort what is important or non-important in a scenario. And that’s 20 years of work. Getting to a place where you can look at a record and know something about that record just by looking at the label, or looking at a photograph and deciding if it’s an important photograph for whatever you’re working on. Oh, wow, this master tape is in really good shape. Or really bad shape. I’m not saying it’s impossible to teach, because clearly we taught ourselves, but you really have to kind of be in it. 

And I enjoy it, too. I’d been chasing this woman, Bonnie Guitar, for a really long time, and finally last April her grandchildren allowed us to go into this barn where her stuff was. And, like, that’s the reason to do it. Because when I got into that barn, I felt like I was at home. It’s filled with records and promo photos and press clippings and all these random cassettes. That’s what makes the job worth doing. You’re on the hunt for something that you’ve never heard or seen before. 

I imagine there’s a human element to this kind of work that you also can’t learn except by experience—being in that scenario, in the living room with someone’s family, convincing their grandkids to let you into the barn. 

RS: Yeah, that’s certainly part of it. As we continue to expand, we’re not gonna be able to do all that ourselves, but for the time being, that’s the thing you have to do yourself, and some of the other things, you have to kick away. 

Last night I went back and looked at the Spin piece David Peisner wrote about Numero in 2012, where you guys are driving around various parts of the South, trying to track down different artists. There’s a quote in there from Mickey Rouse, who recorded all kinds of amazing music in a basement studio in Beaumont, Texas in the early ‘70s. Forty years later, his body of work saw the light of day on a Numero compilation called Local Customs: Lone Star Lowlands, but it took forty years for that to happen, and Rouse tells Peisner that when you guys first came around, it was a bittersweet moment, because the recordings he’d held onto were a reminder of a chapter of his life where he felt like he’d failed. 

Obviously when you approach these artists, you have to convince them that you’re legit and that you’ll compensate them fairly for what you want to do with their work, but how much of it is about convincing them to revisit something that might represent a painful memory, of trying to make it and not making it, or getting fucked over, or whatever the specifics are? How much of it is you convincing people that their own creative work has value when they’ve long since given up on that idea? 

KS: Like, half of this is therapy, right? You’re doing therapy with people on their trauma. If you’ve done anything in your life and you’ve failed at it, it’s gonna stick with you. Almost every single person that I talk to is somebody who had a bad experience and they’ve carried that experience around for their entire existence, whether it’s The Hated and untangling years of interpersonal relationships, or a Mickey Rouse, who just thought that this was an absolute failure. You have to go in with a sensitivity and a willingness to be open and listen and hear them about the things that were important to them about [their work.] Now those may not be important barriers to our being able to do something with it, but I do think that there’s something very powerful about just letting somebody talk, and listening. 

RS: Yeah. Everybody has their own ideas coming into something, and it’s very hard to change those ideas. Sometimes impossible. But it’s also possible to create a new narrative of possibility and that’s sometimes what you have to do. Like, we’re not gonna reverse the wrongs, but this is a new story, this is a new beginning. And you can sometimes rewire some of those synapses around it— but it’s also complicated. Sometimes it just takes people a really long time to come around to something. And we’re there when they’re ready. 

Lately Numero’s been delving into genres like New Age and smooth jazz, which were once the antithesis of cool. Is there a final frontier? Is there any genre that can’t be reclaimed?

RS: I don’t want to spell anything out that we’re poking at. I would say Cajun music is something that’s pretty misunderstood. But if you want a real final frontier, it’s polka. Because that’s actually really difficult to listen to. We’ve got boxes of boxes of it at the office. 

What makes polka difficult to listen to is that it’s jarring. It’s very uptempo. You can’t just chill to it. I mean, at its core, this is music to keep people awake who are very drunk. We forget that music has functions, but at its core, that’s really what this music is about. It gets people in the bar singing along, keeps ’em awake, keeps ’em partying, keeps them buying beer. That does not translate to a great at-home Tuesday evening listening experience. So that’s the big challenge with that one. 

But I think if we found somebody— and we have not yet, just to be clear— but if we found somebody that was doing like, slow, mournful polkas? One of the coolest records we put out last year was the Branko Mataja record. Croatian songs played in a very beautiful way— and there’s probably a lot of contexts in which those songs would not be enjoyable in the same way. But if there was some drunk polka artist out there who just like slowed it all the way down, they could have, maybe, created some interesting music. 

The polka equivalent of Codeine’s The White Birch is out there, somewhere. 

RS: I suspect so. And that’s the polka record we’re looking for. 

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