June 2010

Mexican Revolution

Reb Kennedy’s Wild Records—the most important L.A. indie label you never heard of

Chris
Ziegler

wild records, my l.a. Photo by Scott Council

Reb Kennedy was chasing something. No, it wasn’t the punk sound that inspired him while growing up in working-class Dublin in the ’70s. It was the punk energy—the raw, authentic, kick-your-butt ethos that the British and American movement evoked. In 2000, at the precipice of an era sanitized by iTunes and at the end of one still slumbering with arena-style shows and velvet ropes, Kennedy walked into a hole-in-the-wall strip-mall bar in Downey, after driving six hours from San Francisco upon merely seeing a photocopied flyer promising a night of “Mexican Rock and Roll.”

“The place was packed with underage Mexican kids,” says Kennedy. “Myself and my wife were the only gringos. The band Lil’ Luis y Los Wild Teens was playing. There was a solo, and then all hell broke loose—total bedlam!” After the solo by Luis Arriaga, the band basically gave up on the song they’d been playing and just trailed off into a ferocious jam.

“What impressed me was not the musicianship—they were atrocious!” he says with a sturdy Irish brogue. “But there was fantastic energy in what they were trying to do! It went back to the first wave of punk. It was the most honest energy I’d seen from a band.”

Kennedy chatted with the group that night and then showed up at their rehearsal, where he soon discovered a song that would get him even more excited—“La Rebeldona.” It was a dirty, nervous and instantly winning vintage-style rock ’n’ roller, a blend of the Cramps and Chuck Berry—the kind of song that might’ve warranted police intervention in 1959 with Arriaga’s lascivious growl on “Rrrrrrrrebeldona.”

It was brass knuckled through and through—and it just happened to be sung in Spanish, which may be the only thing that really made it “Mexican.” Inexplicably, Kennedy asked the guys if they’d like to cut a record. Arriaga says, “We thought, Why the hell does this crazy Irishman want to record a Mexican song?” The cultural divide was crossed, Kennedy was smitten—and Wild Records was born.

This one stroke of serendipity enabled an expat Irishman with a degree in early-childhood development to start an L.A. indie label—one that puts out only lo-fi vinyl 45s and CDs, mostly with the term Mexican Rock and Roll branded on the sleeves. While Kennedy had some jobs in the music business early in his career—namely as a warehouse supervisor at Rough Trade Records and a rockabilly DJ at the Elephant’s Head and other clubs throughout Europe—his day job for years consisted of teaching independent living skills to adults with disabilities. It was a job he quit less than a year ago to devote himself to his label.

Now, Kennedy works out of his Altadena home among sagging shelves of CDs and stranded empties of Tecate in his driveway. He is currently Wild’s booking agent, promoter, PR man, producer and A&R guy. His wife, Jenny, keeps wildrecordsusa.com alive and focuses on the business side.

Today, the label still pushes Mexican rock, but it has expanded to include music from all over the American pop landscape, including Chicago blues, California surf and Memphis mishmash. “I don’t ask anyone to be anything other than themselves—why would I want that? What sets our bands apart is the passion, and all of them have their own soul.”

And that makes Wild probably the most successful Los Angeles label you never heard of. In the L.A. Weekly’s recent “Best Of” issue, it mentions many notable local indie labels, including Manimal Vinyl and Dangerbird, but nowhere in the list is Wild.

So how does the company make money? If Wild artists could wear a T-shirt that says it all, it would read, “I’m big in Europe.”

It’s a curious omission, considering Wild artists sell enough records in the starved-down world of 21st-century music to rate as one of the largest independents in the city. However, there are some good reasons it’s largely unknown to L.A. tastemakers. Wild doesn’t do digital, and Kennedy doesn’t advertise—in fact, he doesn’t even offer his own releases for sale anywhere locally besides a hand-stocked kiosk at Big Ed’s Records in Long Beach. The truly determined can likely find Wild releases at various barbershops around the city that focus on rockabilly haircuts—like Sweeney Todd’s in Hollywood or Hawleywood’s in Long Beach. And of course, there’s always the Website.

So how does the company make money? If Wild artists could wear a T-shirt that says it all, it would read, “I’m big in Europe.” Some 99 percent of Wild Records sales are in Europe, where the label flies bands in style from festival to festival to headline before thousands of loyal fans.

The overseas success can be attributed less to matters of personal taste and more to infrastructure. The festival circuit there is better organized, so it’s easier for Kennedy to promote his bands. It’s not that he’s against going more domestic or more digital—to him, both are beside the point. “We’re what indie music is supposed to be about,” says Kennedy. “We record and release our music, and the audience comes to us. We don’t fit in—and we don’t try.”

Wild models itself on the pre-Elvis labor-of-love Sun Records, where relationships mattered and publicists didn’t. Kennedy runs his company like an extended family—in fact, Wild artist Becky Blanca, punk front-woman for Don Juan y los Blancos, babysits Kennedy’s kid on occasion.

The label’s European street cred is so strong a slew of Scandinavian musicians from bestselling bands like the Cardigans and the Hives have flown across the pond to form a band with Wild’s Luis Arriaga, called the Dragtones. After a recent alcohol-fueled, fist-pumping recording session in Kennedy’s sweltering backyard studio, where other Wild artists dropped by to hang out and jam, the Swedes had only good things to say. “I play music all the time every day, but this is extra fun—it’s the music I listen to!” says Vigilante Carlstroem, better known as guitarist for the platinum-selling Hives.

“We thought we were going on a quiet time for two or three days,” says Dragtone Per Thorsell, who is a session musician back home for the Cardigans. “Then all these people started turning up! Man, this is cool! I think maybe ‘Wild’ is a really good name for this company.” The Dragtones’ album is still untitled, but it’s expected to drop this summer.

Things weren’t always this good for Kennedy. For the first few years, Wild didn’t make a cent, then in 2006, Luis & the Wildfires’ (Arriaga’s new band) Brain Jail EP created its first sales spike. In 2007, the more established indie label Norton, which specializes in vintage rock and unreleased demos, rereleased the record, more sales ensued—and Wild suddenly had a foothold on the indie landscape.

Billy Miller runs New York’s Norton Records with Miriam Linna, the original drummer for the Cramps. Between them, they’ve released LPs by Gene Vincent, the Ramones, Sun Ra and more. Their catalog reads like a history of rock. “I first heard Brain Jail at a festival in Green Bay,” Miller says. “A DJ was playing it, so I grabbed a CD off him—Miriam and I flipped. I remember driving home through Illinois calling to the Norton office, going, ‘Get me Reb Kennedy—NOW!’”

The record garnered some critical acclaim in the alternative press (ironically, nary a peep in Los Angeles). Michael Hurtt of Detroit’s Metro Times described the album as “a hail of pounding piano, trance-inducing maracas and screeching guitars. Short-circuiting rockabilly, garage and the nastiest John Lee Hooker-fueled boogie, they...strike the perfect balance between pure musicality and pure madness.”

If Wild has a future, it’s because of the Wildfires’ Arriaga. He’s why the Scandinavians, who could likely find a bigger payday with Universal or Warner, flew to L.A. to make a record in someone’s sweltering backyard. “Everybody’s excited to have Wild with them!” he says, taking a celebratory puff of his cigar after a marathon Dragtones recording. “Everybody’s happy to do what we do.”

While Arriaga is fond of the “crazy Irishman” who put his life into supporting his music, he’s not above poking fun at him as “the man.” In Kennedy’s studio is a sign that says, “F--k you, Reb! Don’t tell me how to live my life. Signed, All Bands.”

“The interesting thing,” says Kennedy, “is that the sign is still there.” While he is now—perhaps reluctantly—rethinking his digital strategy, he’s still trying to focus on the low-hanging fruit by trying to get places like Amoeba to carry his records. The indie label’s crusade is never over.

“Wild will thrive because it reflects Reb Kennedy’s personality and vision. That is the key to any great label,” says Norton’s Miller. “They don’t even need traditional distribution. It’s almost like that part of the operation thrives in the way true independents did in the ’50s. It’s a rare thing. I think if they didn’t sell a single record, they’d still make them—because they want to.”

CHRIS ZIEGLER is cofounder and editor of the independent music mag L.A. Record. A native of Tombstone, Arizona, he has eaten cactus, been struck by lightning and come home from losing the county spelling bee to find his dog dead from a rattlesnake bite.