The Ben Blackwell Interview! Cass Records, Dirtbombs & Beyond!
Ben on the 2003 Euro Tour & Ben 2 weeks ago...
By: Rich Tupica
Almost eight years-ago Ben Blackwell was folding record sleeves for the Detroit based Italy Records, records that would later become a testament to the great music that Detroit was producing at that time.
The year was 1999 and the young Blackwell was taking mental notes that would one day help him start his own label. He was learning the ropes of the business while witnessing some gigs by The Clone Defects, Bantam Rooster, Rocket 455 and so on… shows that only a time machine could get you a ticket to nowadays. When asked about all of the great music that was coming out of the Motor City from the late ‘90s into the 2000s, often the bands involved would dismiss or downplay the attention as simply being media hype, but the fact is there was an extraordinary number of great bands making noise in the Cass Corridor, releasing handfuls of kick ass LPs and 7” singles, who in between beers would also give you a kick ass live show.
Anyway, if you are reading this I’m sure you know that Ben Blackwell has been drumming for The Dirtbombs since he was 17 years-old and when he’s not on tour or catching a show at the Magic Stick, he’s keeping his ears open for music that will soon be pressed and stamped with his signature, the Cass label.
So Ben, Cass Records has put out some really great bands, how do you decide which band you'll release something by?
"Well, there's no huge meeting with PowerPoint presentations or lobbying amongst board members. I basically put out music I like, nothing more than that. Something like the Sagger single I did, I honestly believed and still do that they were two amazing songs. The rest of the population of earth felt otherwise. So when I realize that most other people don't hear music the way I do, I start to tell myself that if the rest of the world had my taste in music that it'd be a dull and boring place. Sometimes you just have to temper the not-so-great sellers by just remembering how many great bands never sold squat to begin with. But a month or two back, Ian from The Piranhas came up to me and told me how much he loved Sagger and how they were ahead of their time and didn't get their due. I respect the guy's opinion so that made me feel a little better."
How did Cass Records first start? And is it more or less work than you thought it was going to be to operate a label?
"I officially started doing legwork for the label in January of 2003. I had talked to a few bands at the end of 2002 about possibly doing releases, but it didn't get proper and serious until 2003. As for the start up, Brian Muldoon innocuously told my mom something along the lines that I knew so much about music and knew enough people in bands that someone should just give me money to do a record label. My mom happened to be refinancing her house at that point and asked me if Brian was correct in his assumptions. I said 'Yeah, but who's going to give me any money?' She made the justification that because I earned a full scholarship for college and because she paid both my brother and sister's college tuition, that I was owed at least the equivalent amount, I jumped right in. Let me also give the disclaimer that the family is in no way well-off and I pretty much spent the 'scholarship reimbursement' in the first year and have put all the profits back into label operations and occasionally subsidized it with my own glamorous Dirtbombs' earnings. I'd done stuff here and there for Italy Records starting when I was still in high school and had visited Larry at In The Red enough to know what was involved in running a record label, so I'd say it was just as much work as I'd imagined there'd be."
Ben at a train station in Munich
You have mentioned that Dave Buick from Italy Records helped you understand the vinyl business, how was that experience and is Dave still releasing records under the Italy Records name these days?
"Dave is reviving the Italy imprint as we speak. He's going to re-release the 'Hentchforth' record on CD with bonus tracks and also has a 7" by The Go coming up. I got started with Dave by just begging, really. I wanted to be involved with Italy Records so bad, I kept telling him every time he had a new record out to call me up and let me help fold sleeves, do mail-order, anything. He probably didn't want some snot-nosed high-schooler around, but finally, September or October of '99 he gave me the phone numbers to all three of the distributors he used, Revolver, Get Hip and Subterranean. He hadn't sent them records in God-knows how long, just told me to place orders with them. So one day after school I call up all these places, have my little spiral-bound notebook with all the Italy catalog numbers written down and get all these places to order stuff. The exact amount escapes me, but I think it was around $1700 worth of records I'd sold for him that day. I couldn't believe that much money even existed, let alone how easy it was getting these places to order 100 or 200 copies of singles by The White Stripes who'd barely even left Detroit at that point. From then on I was a little more involved...I finally got to fold the sleeves and pack up mail-orders and junk like that. He eventually gave me keys to his house so I could go and do work while he wasn't around. Things could get frustrating at times, we'd routinely send people their orders a second time, even though they received the first order fine...we were just so unorganized, but I look back on it and have nothing but fond and funny memories."
"Alone time" with Nirvana's 'Bleach' gold record at Sub Pop
You started playing with The Dirtbombs when you were 17 years-old, how was it playing in a band with Mick Collins at that age, was it ever intimidating jamming with a Gorie?
"I can't say I ever felt intimidated. In awe...yes, but only the first rehearsal and the time we played the Gories song 'Feral' in Groningen in 2001. Otherwise, I was lucky in that Pat Pantano, the other Dirtbomb drummer, accomplished photographer and oenophile(a connoisseur of wines), actually knew what he was doing. I didn't really feel a part of the band until we started recording 'Ultraglide in Black,' which was originally supposed to be called 'Standing on the Shoulders of Giants' until Oasis used it as an album title."
What's a Dirtbomb horror story for you?
"Never mind the fact that I'd been playing with The Dirtbombs for almost a year when Mick turns to introduce me to Shelia Holmes who's a professional vocalist that's on a bunch of Dirtbombs tracks and he (Mick) says to me...'What's your name again?' Safe to say that was my ultimate low-point in The Dirtbombs, which isn't that bad."
Right now, what's your favorite newer band out there?
"I honestly love The Muldoons more than words can describe. I first heard them just visiting their house, Brian is a close friend and he started showing me lyrics that Shane had written. Imagine looking at the lyrics to 'Destruction Boy' in a 7-year-old's messy scrawl...it's amazing and inspiring. Hunter started putting music to the words not long after and before we knew it they'd recorded a single and were the surprise openers for The White Stripes. I watched with a feeling of pride that I can only assume is how a father would. I almost shed a tear, almost. As far as stuff I've been digging that I haven't put out, I'm really into this label from L.A. called Not Not Fun, really exotic, beautifully packed, noise-freaked goodness. I also really dig Home Blitz, which I think is just some kid in Massachusetts with the spirit of Jonathan Richman bursting through his veins."
How did Shane and Hunter react the night of the big show with Jack & Meg at the Masonic Temple Theatre in Detroit? Were they nervous or playing it cool?
"Shane and Hunter were decidedly cool...I think Brian and I were way more nervous than those two."
What kind of Music are the Muldoon kids into?
"They are big fans of The White Stripes and lots of other cool bands...The Ramones, The Stooges, Nirvana, even The Dirtbombs. My favorite quote from them is something Shane said; He was playing with one of my little cousins and they were talking about music and my cousin said something like "I really love the White Stripes," and Shane came back with "The White Stripes are good, but they're not as good as The Stooges."
I know you're a huge record collector, how much time a week do you spend shopping for vinyl?
"There's no real answer to that question. I spend a fair amount of time on Ebay, searching for the first Compulsive Gamblers 7" or a cassette copy of the second Gories album, any leads or offers contact Cass Records, but is that really shopping? I'm probably in a record store every other week or so, but because I'm selling Cass product it's not purely to buy vinyl. Most of my purchasing of late has been mail order, just because what I've been into or looking for just doesn't seem to make it into stores."
Ben, DJ'ing at BFM in Auckland, NZ
I asked Tom & Ko, so I guess I'll ask you too, what's some crazy shit you have seen on the road with The Dirtbombs?
"I think Ko and Tom have probably seen more crazy shit than I have, they know what I'm talking about. Anyway, a few years back The Dirtbombs had hotel reservations in Brussels but for some unexplicable reason automobiles were not being allowed in the city. Not just a particular street, but essentially ALL of downtown Brussels and just for that day. We've got a big van with all our luggage and gear and merch and this policeman is trying to tell us to get to our hotel we need to park in some lot and then take a subway or bus or tram or god-knows-what to get into town about five miles away... we said fuck that. We cancelled our reservations and got a hotel close to the airport where we were flying out of the next morning for a couple of shows in Spain. Everyone had exhausted their supply of clean clothes as this was a particularly sweaty European spell in the middle of August. After deeming the hotel laundry prices exorbitant we all decided to wash what we needed in the sink or tub and dry them in our rooms."
So how much clothing was being hand washed in the tub?
"This wasn't just a pair of socks here or some underwear there, no, this was full-on smells like a wet dog. Blue jeans and t-shirts completely covered every available surface of two hotel rooms right next door to each other and the clothes didn't dry too quickly; I actually think we were left with some still soggy items. All the while I'm just trying to sit there and read my Lewis Cass biography and ignore this hideous smell. I guess that's the craziest thing that I've ever seen...laundry. Ask Ko to send you the clip of her, Pat and I stuck in an elevator. That's a whole 'nother yarn. If she does, please post it on your website as it's hilarious!"
You've been by The White Stripes' side since the beginning back in 1998, so how does it feel now watching The White Stripes win Grammys and also enjoy all of their other deserved success? (i.e. The fucking Simpsons!)
"Well, it's funny, because while I'm sure they're honored by the recognition, it just totally doesn't phase them. I was with Jack this year on the night of the Grammys, he didn't attend. We were just relaxing at his house and I caution to say he probably didn't even know they were taking place that night. I was fooling around on my laptop and happened to see that AOL had up-to-the-millisecond Grammy reporting and noticed that the Stripes had already won for whatever category they were nominated. I shouted over to the next room "Hey Jack, you won a Grammy!" to which he replied, "Cool...wanna get some pizza?" As a whole, I feel excited and proud for every small (Grammy) and large (Simpsons) accomplishment of theirs. It's great to see tenacity and originality pay off."
You said you earned a full scholarship to college, what did you go to college for? Do you plan on using your education in the future?
"I went to Wayne State for three years studying journalism. I almost dropped out in the middle of my second year, 2001. The Dirtbombs were supposed to tour Europe for the entire month of November and I figured there was no way I could keep up with my classes, so I just started blowing it off early. Then the tour got cancelled and I started to panic...I actually bought the books I was supposed to be reading and trying to catch-up on all the classes I'd skipped. After I'd put myself in a respectable position again, two weeks of the tour got salvaged and booked and I had to figure things out all over again. I ended up dropping one class, British lit or some bullshit, the teacher quoted Gang of Four in the syllabus and played some Clash song in class...I should've loved it. Then I begged for leniency from all my other professors. Surprisingly, telling a teacher that you're going to Europe for two weeks to tour with a rock band is easily the best way to get out of petty assignments or to push back due dates. Either way, I finally dropped out at the beginning of the 2003 Fall semester."
So touring got the best of school...
The Dirtbombs had touring scheduled for half of October and December and all of November. I'd managed to make most tours work around my school schedule before that, but there was no way my academic career would last through supporting 'Dangerous Magical Noise.' Whether or not I use what I learned about journalism when writing for Creem or the Metro Times has yet to be determined."
You often have music articles that you wrote published, how did you get into writing? And do you write anything beyond music stories?
"I guess I started writing out of boredom, around the time when I started playing drums, maybe hedging my bets that I might not have what it takes to be a drummer. Part of me thinks that my current writing is still me hedging my bets against this drumming thing, but I had an interest in music and the only real way to show that interest was in writing.
Do you remember what your first music article was about?
"I started with an essay I wrote in my freshman English class about what the Foo Fighters needed to do to make their upcoming album 'The Colour and the Shape' a success. I think it included lame things that I didn't know the meaning of like, 'play small, intimate venues' and 'release limited edition single.' That kind of got the ball rolling and I eventually ended up writing for the school paper doing live gig reviews and it basically never stopped from there."
So have you branched out into fiction or anything like that?
"I've tried to write fiction or short stories but have come to the conclusion that that part of my brain doesn't work. In the same respect, I have such a hard time reading novels whereas a biography or magazine I can just totally devour. Is there a name for this type of behavior?"
What can we expect next from The Dirtbombs?
"The Dirtbombs will be heading into the studio the first week of November to record an EP and a couple of singles, so says Mick. All these 'singles' are for labels I've personally never heard of so we'll see how it goes. After that's recorded, I'm sure it'll be the typical world-domination, endless touring, yada yada yada."
Dirtbombs celebrating "Sinter Klaus" in Nijmegen, 2003
What can we expect next from Cass Records?
"I am honestly considering taking Cass into a direction where I focus more on miniscule pressings done as lathe-cut records. Stuff like a single by The Thread Counts or an LP by The Vegetarian Cannibals, I don't think I can really justify the costs for cutting lacquers and plating and pressing and then only sell 20 copies. If you only make 20 copies, then it's all a success, isn't it? As far as new releases, I got a Tin Knocker single already pressed and ready. We're going to include a 10 song CD-R with it so we're waiting on that to be printed up. Hopefully that will be ready before the end of the year."
Who the hell are the Vegetarian Cannibals? I’ve seen you name drop these guys before, I thought it was a joke…
"The Vegetarian Cannibals were a teenage band from the Detroit area in the late '80s to early '90s. I doubt they ever played any shows. They recorded one cassette, 'Before the Fact', on a boom-box and hand-dubbed copies. The music is really hard to describe...but it has a certain amateur, inept beauty to it. A modern 'Back From the Grave' if you will. The drummer plays without a bass drum and the vocals usually have a lot of echo. They covered 'Helter Skelter' and 'Gary Floyd' by The Butthole Surfers. I think two of them went on to play in the band Forge. I believe I am in possession of the only surviving copy of the tape and can't imagine more than 100 people wanting to hear it. If I do put it out, Jack White said he would write the liner notes. He went to high school with the drummer and that's how I became aware of the band."
What’s a brief history of the band Tin Knocker? Have they played any shows ever?
"Tin Knocker was our fourth release. The band is Eddie 'Maraca' Gillis on guitar and Brian Muldoon on drums. They'd given Dave Buick some material to check out while I was still working at Italy and when Dave failed to show any interest I stepped in. We originally had this elaborate plan to make the single a scavenger hunt. I put together a list of all these weird and random places around the city to hide a single and we thought of printing up a list of clues or a treasure map or something like that. Eventually, we got lazy and had the brilliant marketing decision to just not sell the record. Make it instantly desirable. I had it listed on the website as 'Sold Out' but you could never buy them in the first place. Promo-only, trade-only, whatever you want to call it. The old Raoul's Records in Melbourne actually took some copies from me as trade, in exchange for Kelley Stoltz's 'live-to-acetate' LP, limited to about 60 copies and then listed it in a newspaper ad, printed the sleeve art and everything. I also hid some copies in a few record stores in the Shinjuku district in Japan. They sound like rock and roll. I think they've done one or two open mic gigs, but I've honestly never seen them play."
Tin Knocker 7", Ultra Rare & Sold Out!
Your next single to be released by Cass is by a veteran Michigan band called The Go, they have been gigging around Detroit for years, is there any new or up & coming bands in 'The D' today that you would vouch for?
"I really dig the Odd Clouds record, but still haven't seen them live. And I enjoy all the stuff that X! Recordings have put out...The Frustrations, Terrible Twos, Tyvek. Lee Marvin Computer Arm can be pretty badass too but I think they're on some sort of hiatus. The Smashed Windows, which is Hunter Muldoon's side-project. The Displays which is more under-aged punk rock and The Decks are doing good things."
I notice Cass Records is the only label without a Myspace, Is it something personal or do you simply not give a shit?
"I really think I have no business savvy whatsoever. I have consciously rejected the entire premise of MySpace for some time now. Certainly I cannot be the only label without a MySpace? Has Sam Philips caved in? Berry Gordy? Who am I kidding? A MySpace page would've been the first thing either of those guys would've made if they were operating today. I kind of like the contrarian idea of not doing something that is clearly good for business. I mean, shit, I'm putting out vinyl. Honestly, I will probably create a MySpace in the near future, probably."
Out of all the records you have performed on, released, toured, people you have met, places you have visited, what has been your proudest moment since becoming a musician/label owner?
"Well, there's a bunch of proud moments, in no particular order. My first appearance on a record is un-credited. The first Clone Defects single, "Bottled Woman," starts with me pounding my fist on an old Kay reverb unit, I am super-proud of that. As far as releases, I'm definitely most proud of the Trachtenburg Family single. The whole process was just so wonderful. I literally just approached them after a show, said I wanted to put out a single and made it happen from there. Picked the two songs I wanted, found them a studio in NYC to record, got a designer to do the sleeve art, had the record pressed on pink wax because Rachel wanted a pink record...all just a testament to how some things that are meant to be can just come together so well.
The Dirtbombs once played 22 consecutive nights and the more I think about it, I can't imagine we didn't kill each other. We also became such a great band at that time, we were really tight and locked into each other and having fun while doing it, that was our European tour in 2003. The people I've met, shit, when Mark Arm (of Mudhoney) remembered my name I was in heaven. Also Larry at In The Red, I'm so glad that he puts out our records because he's honestly become one of my favorite people on earth. Never in a million years would I have thought that I'd have been to Europe as many times as I have or Japan or Australia or even all around the US. I am very content with everything I've accomplished, but I don't think that will keep me from trying to do more and more."
Ben holding the Cyril Lords 7"
Thanks to Ben Blackwell for the pics
Official CASS RECORDS website
Offical DIRTBOMBS website
Dirtbombs Legion on Myspace
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