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Jade Tree's world of difference

By Nick Catucci

JANUARY 17, 2000:  "Autonomy," Fugazi's Ian Mackaye growled in 1995, "is a world of difference." Mackaye's reference to the intangible quality that has always separated indie rock from more-commercial major-label music may have sounded to some like stiff-upper-lip shtick at the time, what with punk-influenced bands everywhere signing major-label deals in the wake of Nirvana's mainstream breakthrough. But the merger-driven consolidation and subsequent roster clearing that took place as the '90s came to a close has given "independence" -- perhaps even punk rock itself -- an opportunity to reassert its currency and meaning. There's no better example of this shift than upstart indie label Jade Tree, which began to make an impact in 1998 with the release of discs from Jets to Brazil and Kid Dynamite and followed up with relatively high-profile albums from the Promise Ring, Joan of Arc, and Euphone in 1999 -- the same year in which label owners Tim Owen and Darren Walters hired two new employees and moved from their Delaware bedrooms into real offices.

It's easy to see Jade Tree as a David in an industry of Goliaths. "Jade Tree seems to be playing ball with the big boys and winning," Dan Sinker insisted in an article in Punk Planet last fall. "And amazingly enough, they're winning while refusing to play by the big boys' rules." The reality isn't quite that simple or dramatic: Jade Tree isn't really playing the same game as the conglomerates. Whereas labels like Warner Bros., Sony, and the recently merged Seagrams/Universal multinational aim for albums that sell in the millions, Jade Tree put out fewer than 10,000 copies of Joan of Arc's last CD while managing to sell four times as many of the Promise Ring's latest.

Owen and Walters started Jade Tree in 1990, right before the rise of the alternative nation put indie labels like Sub Pop, Matador, and Touch & Go on the mainstream map. The duo's home town -- Wilmington, Delaware -- functions as a suburb of the DC music scene that spawned Mackaye's Minor Threat, Fugazi, and his Dischord label, as well as a thriving hardcore/indie-rock scene that dates back to the early '80s. Although Owen and Walters both came out of that scene, their tastes had broadened by the time they formed Jade Tree. "We wanted Jade Tree to have a diverse sound," Owen explains. "We didn't want to be known for just one thing."

Various shorthand designations for all types of punk-influenced rock have come in and out of fashion since the DC scene first reared its rebellious head. But in Jade Tree's case, the "one thing" Owen is clearly talking about is "emocore," a name for a strain of punk that emphasizes crisp anthemic songs and soul-searching lyrics delivered with an earnest passion. "When I got into punk, it was referred to as DC-influenced," Owen points out. "Then it was referred to as postpunk. Now it's referred to as emo."

The emo tag, however, is meaningless when applied to a roster of bands as diverse as Jade Tree's. Most of the label's bands are residents of the same post-punk underground scene, but they don't all adhere to the same set of stylistic guidelines. Kid Dynamite, for example, stick mainly to the straight, brisk, melodic hardcore that was popular back in the early '80s (their forthcoming album, due at the end of February, is titled Shorter, Faster, Louder). Euphone and Turing Machine draw from an experimental, instrumental palette.

"Punk rock is more ideology than sound these days," says Owen, echoing a sentiment that has allowed punk to evolve in many directions without losing touch with its roots over the past 25 years. And in contemporary parlance, "ideology" means "independence," whether you prefer the bittersweet pop punk of the Promise Ring or the arty acoustic tunes of Joan of Arc. "Everything is about being organic," Owen emphasizes, "and not forcing anything. We give our bands a lot of control."

Joan of Arc singer/guitarist Tim Kinsella, whose band released Live in Chicago, 1999 on Jade Tree last year, is happy with what the label has to offer: "We couldn't be in a better place." His bandmate, Jeremy Boyle adds, "It's obvious that being on a major label just wouldn't work for us." He's probably right, at least in the current popular-music climate, which doesn't present a band like his with much in the way of opportunities for commercial success. Joan of Arc specialize in quiet, quirky songs driven by acoustic guitars and improvisational drumming and layered with simple melodies and soft electronic flourishes. The band rely on subtle textures rather than the jagged guitar distortion and pounding rhythms normally associated with punk.

Of all of the Jade Tree bands, the Promise Ring probably have the most commercial potential. Their 1999 album Very Emergency! was one of Spin magazine's Top 20 albums of the year, and it's the group's most accessible effort to date, mainly because the production emphasizes the catchy guitar hooks and almost bubblegummy vocal harmonies that singer Davey vonBolen and guitarist Jason Gnewikow deploy on the rousing choruses. Still, Gnewikow sees certain advantages in sticking with Jade Tree rather than pursuing a major-label deal. "At this point we have it really good. It takes us $10,000 per record for us to break even. On a major label it would take $500,0000, and we still wouldn't make any royalties." But Gnewikow does allow he's tempted by the resources that a major label would be able to offer the band: "I'd love to spend $200,0000 recording our next album."

The Promise Ring's increasing popularity landed them a guest spot on MTV's 120 Minutes when the video for the single "Emergency! Emergency!" was released in November. I ask Owen whether he's at all uncomfortable with that level of success, whether he feels strange seeing a Jade Tree band on MTV when punks have raged against the channel since its start almost 20 years ago. "We are concerned," he e-mails back. "Seeing the Promise Ring on MTV has been weird. But we give our bands a lot of control, and the Promise Ring like doing videos."

Jade Tree has become a haven for one bandleader who found the post-Nirvana major-label waters a little too chilly, Jets to Brazil singer/guitarist Blake Schwarzenbach. His Jawbreaker, who'd gotten their start in the late-'80s punk underground, were signed to Geffen's DGC imprint, where they released one album five years ago before breaking up. Jets to Brazil's 1998 release Orange Rhyming Dictionary, the group's first full-length, retains the pop sensibility that got Jawbreaker signed to DGC, and it marks Jets as the kind of band who could, like the Promise Ring, make the leap to a major label if they were willing.

At the other end of the Jade Tree spectrum are groups like Euphone and Turing Machine, who eschew vocals in favor of cerebral, exploratory instrumental rock that may appeal only to a select group of fans. On 1999's Calendar of Unlucky Days, Euphone employed bass, live and electronic drums, and samples. The more recently signed Turing Machine stick to the traditional guitar, bass, and drums on their forthcoming A New Machine for Living. The Jade Tree catalogue is rounded out by several albums from now-defunct, legendary-to-dozens (to borrow a phrase from critic Richard Gehr) bands like Cap'n Jazz, Lifetime, and Swiz. Members of Cap'n Jazz went on to form the Promise Ring and Joan of Arc; Lifetime spawned Kid Dynamite.

This mix of obscure, hard-to-sell acts like Turing Machine and more accessible bands like the Promise Ring required Jade Tree to adopt what Johnny Temple (bassist for Girls Against Boys and author of an article on punk recently published in the Nation) describes as a "two-tiered system" that allows for but does not require big album sales and wide distribution. Temple's model for this strategy is Dischord, which manages to rack up six-figure sales for its premier band, Fugazi, while also recouping on lesser sellers like Bluetip. Jade Tree added a second tier in 1992 when it hooked up with the independent distributor Mordam, and that has allowed Jade Tree itself to remain a small operation while Mordam helps a band like the Promise Ring reach as many listeners as they do.

So how important is Jade Tree? Labels like Dischord and SST helped build the nationwide stage that Nirvana jumped onto in '91. Jets to Brazil and the Promise Ring may be creating the same kind of base now. Underground movements, however, are never as simple as they're made out to be. The members of the Promise Ring and Joan of Arc whom I speak to try to avoid being boxed in: they allow that their bands are "punk" -- just as Kurt Cobain said that Nirvana were punk -- but reject all other tags. "We're punk," Tim Kinsella explains, "but 10 years ago they would've called it grunge." Tim Owen is equally adamant when discussing Jade Tree's roster, dismissing all attempts to find a governing principle in the way he and Walters choose bands and plan for the future. "We just put out bands we like."

Underlying Jade Tree's resistance to terms like "punk" and "emocore" is the knowledge that once packaged, music is much more easily commodified. As Kurt Cobain lamented in 1993, "Teenage angst has paid off well." Owen frames the issue this way: "An independent label puts out records because it believes in the bands. I want people to realize that major labels are always going to be a dead end, that they fuck people over." Those certainly aren't new sentiments, and they're part of a drama that's been played out over and over since the dawn of counterculture. But that doesn't make the "ideology," or the bands on the Jade Tree roster, any less compelling.

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