Interview: Kill Rock Stars on ‘Either / Or: The Expanded Edition’

Elliott Smith in concert. (Photo by Frank Mullen/WireImage)

In the same way Shakespeare’s use of words have since become casual turns of phrase for the English language, the music of Elliott Smith–with its soft haunting melodies and thoughtful introspective lyrics–has informed the very essence of overcast coffee-infused Portland music culture for generations.

In commemoration of its 20th anniversary Kill Rock Stars is releasing ‘Either / Or: The Expanded Edition’, due out March 10th (pre-order here). This two disc set features remastered songs of the original, five live multi-track recordings from the Yo Yo A Go Go Festival in Olympia WA in 1997, three previously unreleased studio recordings and one B-side (‘I Don’t Think I’m Ever Gonna Figure It Out’). Songs on this best selling record such as ‘Alameda’ and ‘Rose Parade’ are references to street names and local events in Portland, thus speaking to Smith’s roots in the City of Roses.

President of Kill Rock Stars Portia Sabin, who took over the label in 2006, as well as founder Slim Moon spoke with The Know about Smith and the release of ‘Either / Or: The Expanded Edition’.

TK: Doing an article like this can be difficult, because we are talking about a musician that tragically died, and I guess the bottom line for me as a journalist is to do this in the most respectful way possible.

Portia Sabin: Definitely. And we’ve been very happy with the campaign so far because everyone has been respectful. I think this release is special in that we picked the songs very carefully, especially the unreleased tracks, to showcase what a great musician he was not only with his songwriting–which is genius–but also his guitar playing and musicianship. Really all the press so far has been about that, which is exactly what we want. We really want to be talking about him as a musician and a great influence on the musicians of his generation and on many other generations, because really that’s the importance of his legacy. That’s exactly what we are here to support and promote.

TK: Can you tell me a little bit about seeing him play and what made you decide to bring him on the label?

Slim Moon: I’ll try to be brief. I first got in the punk scene in Seattle in the eighties. The Seattle punk scene was really aggressive and the eighties were all about hardcore, especially on the west coast. Every weekend there was some hardcore punk band from Oxnard or somewhere coming and playing. It was always guitar, bass drums, or maybe two guitars. They played loud aggressive rock. It was all male. But then a couple of times I went to shows and there were these odd bands that were playing much wimpier music that was fun, and all of these people that I normally didn’t see at shows would be there. They would all be dancing and crashing into each other in a non-violent way–like in a fun way, instead of a slam dancing way–and you might end up in a pig pile, or the whole audience would end up on stage with the band. The bands were like Girl Trouble, Beat Happening and the Melvins. I found out after asking around that all of these bands were from Tacoma and Olympia. One of the reasons I moved to Olympia was that they had a completely different idea of what punk rock was all about, and it was way more innovative and way more intimate. It was way more informed by the minimalist notion that less is more. The more I started to think about what I liked and how much I loved this idea of less is more, I became a real big fan of musicians who could give you just as much emotional impact with just one or two instruments, as it would take other bands using four, five or seven instruments to have that amount of emotional impact. I came to believe that the greatest most powerful and interesting artists are the people who can just play a piano and sing and just completely destroy you emotionally with just their voice and their song and their playing—or play guitar and sing. In Olympia people did experimental things. They might play Xylophone and sing, or ukulele and sing way before ukulele became a big thing, or play a bongo set and sing. I really loved the innovation it took to be really emotionally powerful with just one simple melody, or one simple guitar line. I felt like Elliott was the pinnacle of that. I’ve never seen somebody so gripping, so talented with just a guitar and voice. And so I was super taken with him and very very moved by his music and his art. For that reason. In that way, I thought it was very punk rock because it was very minimal and yet so effective.

TK: Elliott mentioned in ‘Under The Radar’ that he was sort of an odd fit for being on Kill Rock Stars because at the time it was known for being a Riot Grrrl label with bands like Bikini Kill. Slim, you also mentioned in ‘Hit Quarters’ that the label sought outsiders, and that to do what Elliott did by playing solo under his own name was considered career suicide. Can you speak a little about how he came to be a part of the Kill Rock Stars label, and what other outside qualities of Elliott’s fall in line with the label’s ethos?

PS: I wasn’t around at that time as part of the label, so I can’t speak on him being on the roster. I can say, having lived through that time it is really true, that exact idea. If you were going to put yourself out like that, under your own name, people are not going to take you seriously. I know anecdotally from what Slim said that the feedback he was getting from press people was: “what is this, some Paul Simon crap?” That’s where people who would see just a singer songwriter under his own name went in their mind. That was during the rise of grunge. I think music had a very specific identity, and it really wasn’t a single guy standing on stage with a guitar.

SM: Totally. It was unheard of in indie rock. People went by names like Smog or Palace. All of these solo artists in indie rock were pretending to be bands, calling themselves by band names because it was just affiliated with “oh, you just want to be Jackson Brown or Paul Simon,” if you put out a solo acoustic record under your own name.

PS: My own experience from that time which I love to tell, because it makes me look like such an idiot, but it’s so perfect: I was living in London at the very beginning when Nirvana broke, and I saw music every night, five or six nights a week, and I was loving it. It was the best time to be in London. There was this one night where there was a band I wanted to see called the Family Cat, and they were playing a small venue. I was really beat because I had been out for every night, and I looked at the listing in the paper–because of course this is way before the Internet–and I saw that they were headlining a show. Their opener was just person with a regular-person name, and I was just like, “uh, I am not gonna go to that show, if you think I am gonna stand and watch some singer songwriter with a guitar, I would—I would rather die.” That person’s name was PJ Harvey.

TK: Wow!

PS: Yeah. And I have kicked myself, kicked myself for 20 years. What was I thinking, I could have seen PJ Harvey open at some tiny club in London? What was I thinking? This was way before she became who she was.

TK: What made Elliott an outsider and how did that fit into the KRS ethos in general?

SM: It helped that he was from a rock band with Heatmiser, and it helped that he wasn’t really embodied in the music scene. He liked a lot of the same bands that I liked, which were very informed by a punk ethos rather than coming from a place of listening to the Grateful Dead and REM or something. He came from a punk ethos and he was very DIY. Even a lot of DIY music that we liked in the eighties and nineties was very amateurish and I really liked that fact that somebody who could barely sing or who could barely play could still be very emotionally affecting. Or that somebody could sing off key and be very emotionally affecting. It wasn’t all about precision, skill and chops. That first record Elliott put out was just recorded on a cassette four track, or maybe a reel to reel. It was recorded at home with very cheap limited gear so he came from that DIY mindset, but the truth is he actually had the chops and the technical ability. But I felt like he had those chops—and maybe he took lessons at some point—but I felt he mostly had those chops from being self taught and listening to cool records, and that it was from a DIY place.

TK: So it was his chops and effectiveness as a songwriter in tandem with his DIY ethic that attracted you to him to have him on the label?

SM: Yeah. And at first I didn’t think he fit in on the label because we were doing post punk guitar bands like Unwound as well as spoken word and Riot Grrrl bands, and that seemed like a lot. It seemed like a lot to ask our audience, to ask them to like three separate and very different things. So even though I thought Elliott was great, it seemed like it didn’t fit in to add a fourth really different genre to what we were doing. But we just got to know each other and we realized that our values were the same, so we decided to work together anyways, and I started signing bands like Mary Lou Lord and Danielle Howle and started doing a lot more minimal solo acoustic stuff. But at first I was wary, before I came around and decided to do it.

TK: I’m so glad you did.

SM: [laughs] Thanks. My employees hated it. They all were like, “well I’m sure he is a nice person but I don’t want to put out an Elliott Smith record,” so when I went that direction it was the first time that the people who worked for me started to feel like “oh, well Slim’s going to put out things he likes that aren’t necessarily from our scene that we don’t really understand.” But then they got used to it and started to put out lots of other things from the scene, and a lot of other people liked it.

TK: You released ‘New Moon’ in 2007, and now this expanded edition of ‘Either / Or’ in 2017. Can we expect another release in 2027?

PS: I would say no. We ran through the archival material that we have, and Elliott’s family is very careful, and I think rightly so, because they don’t want to just release any old stuff. They want to do what they think he would have wanted as much as possible. And they really wanted to make sure that the stuff we release is put out in the right way, with the right intention. There’s lots of archival material but it’s not all super well recorded. Some stuff is more like sketches that he jotted off then made a quick little recording of, rather than something really thought out and well done. His studio work is characterized by his meticulous attention to detail. The recording process was amazing. Larry Crane can talk about that at length. We don’t want to be purveyors of just whatever, and there’s plenty of recordings out there–bad recordings of live shows, just stuff that sounds like crap–and we are not going to do that. We want to be more careful than that and more respectful. And I think that’s the right way to do it.

TK: What made you choose the four studio tracks, and what’s the significance of releasing them at this time?

PS: We chose the studio tracks because they were really great. They sounded really good. They’re well recorded and they really hadn’t been out there that much. There’s only one of the studio tracks that was previously on a B-side of a 7 inch, so it’s pretty under-released material. We felt that this is the time because it’s the twenty year anniversary of ‘Either / Or’. That album remains his best selling record even though he has two other records on a major label. People still buy ‘Either / Or’ the most. While it’s hard for me to pick favorites among Elliott’s music, one thing I can say about ‘Either / Or’ is that it’s straight hits from beginning to end. All twelve songs are awesome. There’s just no filler. It’s a beautiful record, every song is great, and I think that’s probably what’s responsible for its longevity. We wanted to market it since it’s been twenty years since the record came out, it’s still his best selling record, and we wanted to highlight the importance of Elliott for a new generation of listeners. We wanted to remind people of what a great artist he was, and to make sure that he stays evergreen in people’s minds. What’s different with an artist that’s deceased is he’s not going to be touring or putting out new material, but he’s such a genius, and his music is so portent. We want to make sure that people remember him.

TK: For these other songs (live recordings from Yo Yo A Go Go), what made you choose those live recordings, and was there something particular about that event?

PS: That was a true miracle because that was a multi track recording, and we are so lucky that they chose to do that for the Yo Yo A Go Go festival, because that means it can be mixed. It’s really high quality and it sounds fantastic. I’m personally not an aficionado of live music. I won’t necessarily purchase a live album of even my favorite band, because I’d rather go see them live. But surprisingly, these five songs sound fantastic live, and I think it’s because of the multi track recording. We were really lucky that we had that recording available and that the people from the Yo Yo A Go Go Festival were willing to let us use that. Like I said, there are a lot of live recordings out there, but they are recorded with things like people’s phones, or just a board recording from some venue. And like I said we are not going to put something out unless it’s of very good quality, so we are lucky that something like that existed.

TK: How do you handle an artist like Elliott Smith obtaining worldwide success?

SM: Well you know, I kind of sucked at—It just wasn’t on my radar to just sign bands that I thought would sell a lot of records. I signed bands that I thought were important or interesting. Even just good wasn’t enough of a reason. They had to be doing something that was like a contribution that’s moving the world forward or moving music forward, or moving the scene forward, not just nice to listen to. It turned out that this model worked well enough that we were able to make an income and keep putting out more records and hire more employees and move into a bigger building. But that was never on my mind. I was never like “well, let’s just sign the bands that will sell, and not sign the bands that won’t sell.” I think that if anybody questions that, if they think I’m full of shit, then they should go look at the hundreds of records I put out that no one would think would sell more than a few hundred copies. I put out quite a few records that were clearly just eclectic and had a small fan base but were really interesting and weird and progressive, alternative and experimental. That being said, the fact that Elliott sold a whole bunch of records, made a lot of fans and who is known all over the world helped the label be able to put out a bunch more records and reach more people with the music of all of our bands. And that’s great. I worried, because at the end of his life Kurt Cobain seemed really unhappy with his experience of being famous and successful and contractually obligated to a  major label. So I worried every time friends or colleagues of mine signed to major labels.

I know I called the label Kill Rock Stars, and I was very strident when I was twenty three, when I started the label in ’91, but I didn’t have this idea that everyone who goes to a major label is a sell out, or that everybody who signs to a major label is going to end up miserable, or that they’re going to get screwed by The Man. It’s more like I just worried that they might. So I worried for Elliott personally and I rooted for him, and I’m glad he reached lots of people. I’m glad that the records we put out together reached lots of people. I’m very sad that he died too young. I’m really sad that he didn’t get to write more songs. We signed records one at a time, because I never wanted to be in a position where musicians would be contractually obligated to put out another record if they weren’t happy with their release. Every record I put out, I always knew that this band might put out their next record with somebody else. And sometimes they would. Sometimes they’d put their next record out on a friend’s label, sometimes they would switch to a major label, sometimes they switched to a different indie label. Probably what hurt my feelings the most—it only happened twice—but the two times a band would switch to another indie label that seemed to be doing exactly the same thing we were doing—the same size, same resources, same marketing—that was the most head scratching. When people just seem to move sideways. But if they moved to their best friend’s label who operates out of his basement, and they really believe it’s DIY, we’d be like “okay. That’s your choice, your art and your vision for yourself,” and we’d say the same thing if they signed to a major label, so that was fine.

PS: Just so you know, I’m going to show you how Kill Rock Stars got started, because it sort of shows how Slim is one of those magic makers that has been able to have special luck. The very first release that KRS (Kill Rock Stars) did was a KRS comp [‘Various Artists’], released in August of ’91. In September of ’91 Nirvana put out ‘Nevermind’, and one of the tracks on the comp was [Slim’s] neighbor, Kurt Cobain, and his band Nirvana. So that comp sold 25,000 copies right out of the gate, and basically funded the label.

TK: That’s amazing.

PS: Yeah, I mean really amazing. Slim just always had a nose for bands. He could always tell the good bands, and that comp was just full of great and incredible artists.

TK: It almost seems to be a who’s who of the grunge scene.

PS: Exactly.

TK: [To Portia] Did you ever get to meet Elliott, or see him perform?

PS: No, I didn’t. It’s a tragedy [laughs]. But you know, It’s not hard to do my job because Elliott’s a genius, and you can hear it just from listening to his music. The music speaks for itself. In my opinion his music gets better the more you listen to it. It’s so nuanced. It makes you feel in such a specific way that is just powerful.

TK: It seems like there’s an element of his music that is timeless even though he was making music in the mid to late 90s. There is something about the music that remains accessible and I think good art is just like that like that.

PS: Absolutely. The music is just as fresh today as when he recorded it. I don’t think anyone would listen to it and think, “wow that sounds old.” [laughs] Definitely not.

TK: [To Slim] Is there anything else you want to add about Elliott that I missed, or that you think people might like to read about?

SM: I’ve probably shared some of these things. I don’t have that much to say except he was really funny, and he cracked jokes all the time. He knew thousands of songs. Like he could bust out a Willie Nelson song or a Hank Williams song. Zillions of great songs he could just play if you handed him an acoustic guitar. He could have made great records of just albums of covers, or solo acoustic versions of great songs. One thing that is kind of a fun tidbit, is that he told me he wrote most of his songs while watching T.V. with the sound off. So he would just play chord progressions and melodies over and over again in front of a muted T.V. He admitted that probably some of the images would give him lyrical ideas as he was writing the words. So I think that’s kind of a fun image. Elliott alone with his guitar watching mute T.V. while writing songs.

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