4:44 pm Feb. 14, 20122
“I’m having incredible pancakes,” said Josh Rosenthal.
He was at Bette's Oceanview Diner, in Berkeley, when we spoke on the phone late last week—just across the Bay Bridge from his new home in San Francisco, where he moved a year ago. Still, his heart remains in the East Village—or at least, the name of his business does.
Rosenthal runs Tompkins Square Records, which since 2005 has issued a wide array of music, both new (jazz discs from Ran Blake and Charles Gayle, a release from ’80s British indie band Prefab Sprout, a solo album from Charlie Louvin, of country giants the Louvin Brothers) and—especially—old.
Tompkins Square has a well-deserved rep as one of the top reissue and compilation labels around—not a small field, these days, as imprints ranging from Soul Jazz to Revenant to Light in the Attic concentrate on beautifully packaged obscurities from all across the spectrum of music of the past. In Tompkins Square’s case, that past is often distant—the 1920s and 1930s are a particularly rich source of Rosenthal’s enthusiasm.
He’s put out superb overviews of North Carolinian early-country group the Red Fox Chasers and, back even further, minstrel banjoist Polk Miller, as well as a series of highly regarded multi-artist sets: People Take Warning! Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs, 1913-1938, To What Strange Place: The Music Of The Ottoman-American Diaspora, 1916-1929, and the new, Valentine’s Day-pegged Aimer et Perdre: To Love & To Lose—Songs, 1917-1934, a two-CD, 36-song package of Polish and Ukranian songs about heartache that mostly sounds a lot spryer than the description lets on, and features cover art by Robert Crumb, an old hand at this sort of thing (cf. his drawings for numerous Yazoo and Shanachie compilations).
“Where we were with music history seven years ago, you’d already had half a century of re-appraisals, repackagings, and box sets,” said Yeti editor Mike McGonigal, who has produced two multidisc gospel compilations for Tompkins Square and is working on a third—a four-disc overview of the Nashboro label—with gospel collector Kevin Nutt.
“You had canonical reissues like the killer job that Smithsonian did in the 1990s with their reissue of the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, as well as contemporary compilations like Revenant’s American Primitive collections and Shanachie’s Secret Museum of Mankind series. Those compilations are a road map for how to be both informative and ass-kickingly beautiful. They’re arranged with a symmetry and a purpose and make connections that you might not get until dozens of listens. It was clear that [Rosenthal] was interested in records like this because he released them.”
But first, breakfast with an old friend. Unsurprisingly, before I interrupted their incredible pancakes, Rosenthal and his dining partner were discussing work.
“I'm going to interview Bob Johnston for a project,” said Rosenthal enthusiastically. “I tracked him down—it was a pain in the ass to find him. I had to go through all kinds of hoops. [It took] something like a month, but he's in L.A. I was like ‘O.K., I want to meet you because you produced [Leonard Cohen’s] Songs from a Room and [Bob Dylan’s] Blonde on Blonde and Dino Valente and Moby Grape and all this shit.’
“But the reason I'm meeting up with him,” Rosenthal clarified, “is he produced a record that I bought for a quarter here in Berkeley a couple of weeks ago. I'd never heard of the record or the artist. His name is Bill Wilson. The record's from 1973. I listened and it fucking blew me down, so I was like, ‘I want to reissue this thing and talk to Bob Johnston about making this record.’ I told him, and he said, ‘Oh yeah. I remember making that record like it was yesterday.’”
Sounds lucky all around. But how often does Rosenthal come across records he actually wants to reissue?
“It happens,” he said. “It’s happened quite recently with Calvin Keys. I found that record at my old flea market in the East Village on 11th Street and Avenue A, a great place to find records. I listened to it and when I got home, there was an email from the guy who owns [Keys’ label] Black Jazz, asking me if I wanted to buy the catalogue. It was a total coincidence. It was one of the weirdest things that has ever happened to me.”
I imagine that, being in the reissue biz, a lot of weird stuff happens to Rosenthal.
“It does. I mean, I worked at Sony for 15 years. I think I'd known the catalogue really well and I'd never, ever seen that [Bill Wilson] record, never laid eyes on it, never saw it on the Internet, never heard a note, and I bought it for a quarter on a whim because it was produced by Bob Johnston and it was just too weird not to buy. And now I'm in the process of trying to license [it], so yeah, [it] just connected to the thing,” he said, laughing.
What catches the eye of a hardened records guy like Rosenthal?
“I look for nothing,” he said with a laugh. “I just look. I have definitely extended what I look for because my tastes have changed and extended. When I was a kid, I looked for the rock section, and when I started getting into the college, I was into the folk section and the jazz section. Then, maybe when I graduated college, I really started getting into the blues section. I never, ever, looked at the gospel section. Now, I don't collect gospel records, but I certainly look at them. It's an evolving thing.”
It began early. Rosenthal grew up on Long Island and attended a high school with its own radio station. One of his fellow D.J.s was a class clown named Judd Apatow.
“He interviewed comedians on his talk show, and I would interview bands,” said Rosenthal. “I would just go see R.E.M. at a roller rink on Long Island and interview them. I wasn’t cool in high school at all. I was an outcast. Working at a high school radio station was a very insular existence, separate from the rest of the school. It was something that could never happen today. Basically, I could just cut class and spend as much time at the radio station as I wanted. When I wasn't there I could smoke cigarettes in the courtyard. The teachers would come out and smoke cigarettes with the kids in the morning, in the courtyard, so yeah—different era.”
At 16, Rosenthal began interning for Polygram Records. There, he hung out with pioneering rock-reissues producer Bill Levenson, who reissued the then-impossible-to-find back catalog of the Velvet Underground during Rosenthal’s time there.
“I was listening to reel to reel tapes in his office of the Velvet Underground,” said Rosenthal. “It was such an education; that was really formative.”
After attending SUNY Albany, where he was music director at the college station, Rosenthal became a radio promoter for Columbia Records in 1989. A year later, he helped plug Robert Johnson’s The Complete Recordings—the first reissue of previously-obscure music that, thanks to Johnson’s position as a prime inspiration to the likes of Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, shocked the company by moving units. The reissues biz was in full swing.
“I have a gold record for that thing,” said Rosenthal. “Normally I wouldn’t be proud of such a thing, but I’m very proud of that, because I would call NPR stations, and people at Columbia would be like, ‘What’s NPR? Why are you doing this?’ That was really incredible, working that kind of project…. Certainly I look back and say, ‘Wow. That really was the seed.’”
Rosenthal left Sony in 2005. “The merger happened with BMG,” he said. “I didn't like the way the company was changing. My deal there was up anyway, and I knew it was time for me to do something for me. I never expected to be an entrepreneurial person, but by October 2005 I had a deal with Fontana/Universal for my label, and I just started right up, right there. The first thing I did was this compilation called Imaginational Anthem.”
“I'm really in the American-primitive stuff,” Rosenthal said. “I do a lot of different kinds of stuff, but I still love the guitar stuff and I'm doing another Imaginational Anthem. I don't really care how much they sell. It doesn't even matter. It's just something I enjoy doing.
“I've put out records in a lot of different directions. I would really go nuts and be bored if all I did was historical reissues. I like to deal with people who are breathing, too. I'm putting out this record by Michael Taylor, [alias] Hiss Golden Messenger. It's unlike what I do in that he actually plays songs and sings them. And there's actually a band, and they actually play and it's in that singer-songwriter [mold]. He's channeling all those people he worships—Mickey Newberry and Ronnie Lane. He’s just really good, where 99.9 percent of male singer-songwriters are terrible. If you’re a male singer-songwriter, there’s 99.9 percent chance I will hate you.” (The album was originally released by another label in the reissue and new-music business,Paradise of Bachelors)
Old-fashioned paradigms are clearly not something Rosenthal worries a ton about, though.
“I’m going to do a line of 78 rpm records,” Rosenthal announced. “I’m putting out two 78s on Record Store Day: One is by Luther Dickinson and the other is by Ralph Stanley. Then after those, in May, I’m going to put one out by Tyler Ramsey from Band of Horses. Our first book-and-CD project is going to come out in June, based on new research done by [Austin writer] Michael Corcoran, [about] the life of Arizona Dranes, who was a barrelhouse gospel piano player in the ’20s. I'm [also] going to make up some neat obscure-giants-of-acoustic [guitar] trading cards.”
That seems to fit in 2012, as record labels are decreasingly in the business of physical records. It's kind of expand-or-die out there.
“Not for me,” Rosenthal said. “I'm firmly in the physical CD business. Even when I put out something digitally, I put it out a little later. I rarely put it out simultaneously. [Sales] will still be 90 to 95 percent physical. Whether that's good or bad I don't really know. I do know that if you package something intelligently, people will buy it.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the bridget that connects Berkeley, Calif. to San Francisco as the Golden Gate Bridge.