I have no idea if I'm just a careless dreamer right now." It's the first week of December when Chris Watson says this, and maybe the looming anniversary of John Lennon's death has the record label head waxing poetic. Or maybe he's being serious.
By the end of this week, Watson will have relocated Park the Van, his five-year-old imprint, from Philadelphia back to New Orleans where it was born. When the levee failures of 2005 flooded Watson's Lakeview home and his vehicle, forcing him to flee town and set up temporary shop in Schwenksville, Pa., Park the Van was a minor constellation in the indie-rock universe centered around three little-known bands, two of them from Philadelphia.
The label returns to the Crescent City an established independent with a dozen-deep roster of national artists — including one from Louisiana, Shreveport sextet the Peekers. The band is set to play the 2008 Park the Van Holiday Soiree (10 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 27, at the Circle Bar), an annual revue that debuted last December, when Watson first divulged plans to bring his label home.
Almost a year to the day later, those plans are being realized, and the 29-year-old can barely contain his excitement. "I hope it f***ing does something," he says. Then, with a laugh: "I'm going to come back and maybe shit's going to happen!"
Watson is out to make a small piece of history. Rock bands that don't ascribe to Better Than Ezra's brand of manufactured radio-readiness face a famously steep climb for relevance among New Orleans' funk, jazz and fusion staples. Labels that don't traffic in indigenous music might have it even tougher. Still, Park the Van is undeterred. With four releases scheduled in the first four months of 2009 — including the Peekers' full-length debut Life in the Air, due in April — Watson plans to hit the Louisiana ground running.
He won't have to do it alone. His fiancée, New Orleans native Sabrina Koerber, and his business partner and longtime friend Kevin Taylor, a lifetime Californian, is also coming to New Orleans. (A third partner, Zach Fischel, will continue to work from California.) The series of moves will put Park the Van's leading creative forces in the same city for the first time.
"The last two years, it's been in a virtual capacity," says Taylor, co-founder of the Long Beach, Calif., label Cornerstone Recording Arts Society (R.A.S.), which gave Watson his first Web development job when he was 18 years old. "It's not quite what it was in the same office (at Cornerstone)."
With the new benefits come new challenges, not least of which is New Orleans' lack of proximity to, well, much of anything. Although Watson acknowledges the advantages of his time in Philadelphia — including having his flagship band, Dr. Dog, right in his backyard and being just a two-hour drive from Manhattan — the allure of coming back to the city he loves was simply too strong.
"There's a ton of ideas being kicked around," Watson says. "One thing I'd love to do is have a shared office space with some likeminded businesses in town. We've talked about trying to do more video-related projects, live video, in a similar fashion to what Daytrotter.com is doing. We want to have more creative outlets to concentrate on, things that might involve the charms of the city more."
"(The goal is) to be a local label as much as a national or international label by really being a part of the local music community," Taylor adds.
The cultural heritage of Vacaville, Calif., a modest hamlet situated midway between Sacramento and San Francisco, is both short and bittersweet. "It's the home of Papa Roach and Yan Can Cook," Watson says of his hometown. "Too $hort lived there for a little while, and so did Huey Lewis."
But his California roots did instill in Watson his first musical passion: SoCal punk rock. "SST (Records), Minutemen, Meat Puppets, T.S.O.L., Secret Hate," he rattles off. "Probably, it came down to girls. This girl I liked had a list of bands that I knew nothing about, so it forced me to figure [them out]."
A military brat, Watson moved with his family to Olympia, Wash., when he was 17. It was 1996, and the post-grunge music scene in the Pacific Northwest was coalescing around indie-rock labels like Seattle's Sub Pop and Olympia's own K Records. Naturally, this would seem the part of the story where the eager computer science student falls in with the emerging underground music community and sparks fly. "But no, I opted to make a Web site for a major-label band," Watson says.
That band was Sublime, the ska-inflected California pop-punk outfit primed to become Long Beach's next big thing just before bandleader Bradley Nowell overdosed on heroin weeks prior to the release of its self-titled debut. Watson had already begun reaching out to other fans through online message boards and soon amassed a listserv of 10,000 email addresses. It was, in effect, his first effort in music promotion.
"(Skunk Records) was kind of blown away by all the shit that I was doing — for a personal Web site, basically," he says. "So they hired me."
In 1998, Watson moved back to California — this time to Long Beach — to do Web development for Skunk and Cornerstone R.A.S., a new label launched by Sublime's marketing team, Zach Fischel and Kevin Taylor. There, he learned the tricks of guerrilla music publicity: organizing street teams, doing graphic design and creating retail promotions. For three years, Watson served as the webmaster for both labels, while also creating Web content for Sublime's merchandising company, Martian Church. "Those three paychecks combined were paying my bills," he says.
A second ska group's drug episode marked a turning point in Watson's career. One of Cornerstone's bands, Sacramento's Filibuster, was about to embark on a European tour when its bass player overdosed. "He didn't die, but they had to fill that slot," Watson says.
The fill-in was another Sacramento band called Frank Jordan. Rather than the ska scratches of Sublime or Filibuster, singer/songwriter Mike Visser wrote twisting, nontraditional songs that evaded conventional pop/rock structures in pursuit of layered instrumental texture and prog-like improvisation. For Frank Jordan, the tour offer was a big break. For Watson, Frank Jordan was tantamount to a new language.
"They were totally unlike anything Cornerstone was working with at the time," he says. "They were an indie-rock band. To me, it was like, 'There's something else that we could be doing?'"
Booking shows led to a gig as the band's tour manager, and in 2001, Watson left Long Beach to crisscross the country in Frank Jordan's Ford Econoline cargo van. It was the ideal environment to make inroads with other touring bands, and Watson says he met more than he can remember. But one stood out from the rest: Philadelphia's Raccoon. "They were the best band Frank Jordan had played with, besides Grandaddy and Jimmy Eat World. The best unknown band. We were just blown away by those guys."
The two groups stayed in touch. Whenever Frank Jordan passed through the Northeast, Watson would give Raccoon founders Scott McMicken and Toby Leaman a ring. Other Philly bands, such as Raccoon favorite the Teeth, sometimes joined the bills.
Then, on one such swing, Watson got word that Raccoon was no more. "(Raccoon bass player) Andrew (Jones) told me that (his bandmates) Scott and Toby were more concerned about their side project — a secret basement project called Dr. Dog."
After the first show Frank Jordan played with McMicken and Leaman's post-Raccoon group, Watson received a phone call from Visser. To put it mildly, he says, Frank Jordan's frontman was excited.
"'This is the best f***ing band in the universe,'" Watson recalls Visser telling him. "'This is the closest thing to seeing the Beatles live.' He just gushed about it so much. Just what I needed to hear — another band I'm going to love."
McMicken takes it a step further: "The way [Visser] told us the story, he called Watson while we were playing."
By 2004, Watson had expanded his musical horizons well beyond coastal California, falling hard for the Athens, Ga., recording collective Elephant 6 and charter bands like Neutral Milk Hotel and The Olivia Tremor Control. Following a final West Coast stint — a year spent managing Frank Jordan's new label, Devil In the Woods — he found a new base camp: New Orleans, home to girlfriend Sabrina Koerber, a Web and print designer.
Discovering Dr. Dog was the necessary spark for what Watson describes as a long-gestating fire: the burning desire to launch his own record label. He held in his hands a copy of Easy Beat, the band's unreleased second album, and knew it was something special. "There was a pretty good story blossoming," he says. "They had gone on tour with (Louisville, Ky., rockers) My Morning Jacket; Jim James loved the copy of (self-released debut) Toothbrush that Scott had given to him. I found a new distribution deal, started what was at the time National Parking Records, and put out the Dr. Dog record."
The story got better: rave reviews from The New York Times and tastemaker magazine The Fader and a raucous showcase at the 2005 South By Southwest conference in Austin, Texas. National Parking became Park the Van, and Dr. Dog became its inaugural band.
During the summer of 2005, Watson says, the new label's prospects were sky-high. "We had three bands who were touring with Park the Van logos on their products. A good amount of stores were starting to pay attention, mostly because of Dr. Dog, but the Teeth, too."
In New Orleans, Watson leveraged his artists on to larger-profile shows: the Teeth opened for the Athens, Ga., pop group Of Montreal (which had released a 7-inch on vinyl through Park the Van) at the now-defunct TwiRoPa, and Carter Tanton, a Boston-based singer/songwriter, played one of the last gigs at the Mermaid Lounge with the Seattle rock band Minus the Bear. Local awareness was on the rise.
"I don't know if it's safe to call it a scene, but people were paying attention and cared about what was happening," Watson says. "And the label likewise: We cared about what was happening in other facets of the city and what we could do to help each other out as much as possible."
Hurricane Katrina proved disastrous for both. Watson lost all label materials except some Of Montreal singles located on a shelf above the waterline, and the city's month on lockdown meant Park the Van needed a new place of operation. Philadelphia, home to both Dr. Dog and the Teeth, was a logical landing spot.
The tail end of 2005 was a low point for Park the Van. The label operated out of a Marriott hotel while Watson and Koerber searched for a new place to live. Its bands were up in the air. Business partner Mike Cloward, dealing with the problems of his own label, Devil In the Woods, bailed out.
Two fortuitous developments in early 2006 kept Park the Van afloat: Cornerstone R.A.S. invested in the company, giving Watson two new partners (old friends Fischel and Taylor), and Dr. Dog agreed to a renegotiated contract. In the new deal, the band effectively received the rights to 5 percent of the company.
It wasn't a difficult decision, Watson says. "A lot of what was happening with Park the Van, the artistic direction, came from my relationship with Scott and Toby. It's always been the dream to have what would feel more like a label recording community. Those bands look after each other, take each other on tour. You have your catalog inserts and your (regular) releases, but there's a similar vibe going on."
Though Watson believes he nearly lost Dr. Dog, McMicken insists that isn't the case. "We've had many opportunities to move on, and we've been urged — by just about every source outside of the Park the Van family — to move on to another label," he says. "There are things far more important than how fast you become successful or how many people come out and see you. To me, that is 100 percent represented by what Park the Van is. And the roster has become something that — not as a guy on the label but as an objective listener — I find really inspiring."
There's a blessed, if eerie, similarity to Park the Van's discoveries of Dr. Dog and the Peekers. As with the former, it was a cell phone communiqué that alerted Watson to the latter — this time a prescient text message from Shai Halperin of the Capitol Years, a Philadelphia psych/rock stalwart and 2006 Park the Van signee. ("I just found your next band," Watson recalls reading.)
And again South By Southwest played a prominent role. It was during the Austin conference in 2007 that the Peekers effectively auditioned for Park the Van — not at a Red River hotspot like Emo's or Stubb's, but at Gene's Restaurant, a (what else?) New Orleans-style po-boy shop located on the edge of the Texas State Cemetery. That led to an impromptu — and, Watson adds, prohibited — addition to the label's showcase.
"We played so terribly," says singer/guitarist Michael Stephens.
Watson remembers it differently: "Everybody loved them, and we decided to work with them."
"It was definitely one of those showbiz-y experiences: small band comes out and auditions for a label at the big music festival," Taylor says. "Label signs band, and everybody's happy."
McMicken says the whisper campaigns that led to both bands' signings are no coincidence. In fact, they're a large part of what makes Watson special. "When he signs a band, he expects them to turn him on to the next band he should sign — he uses his faith in their taste to continue building the label. We signed, and we were like, 'Sign the Teeth.' And he did. He says, 'Who should I check out?' The Teeth say, 'National Eye.' They say, 'Check out the Capitol Years.' He signs the Capitol Years. It goes on and on."
As for Watson's immediate future as the head of Louisiana's newest label?
"The next step, to me, along with signing more national or international acts — you got to have some New Orleans bands on Park the Van."
If his track record is any indicator, one will lead to another.