With Indica, GrimSkunk’s in business because that’s where the music led
No sign announces the existence of Indica Records outside its walk-up office on the Main, near Mount Royal Ave. – just a few faded band stickers on the mailbox – and upstairs there is no reception area. Turn right, just past a door revealing a recording studio, and you’re suddenly drawn into the quiet hum of a small roomful of people of various ages pecking away at laptops and talking on the phone. Posters and paraphernalia range from heavy-metal fangs (hello, Priestess) and leafy green weed and an upturned vintage airplane propeller (courtoisie Les Trois Accords, the label’s biggest-selling act).
And, of course, posters for Fires Under the Road, the eighth album by GrimSkunk, the legendary local metal band with a conscience. This is the house that GrimSkunk built, and it’s built for the pleasure and pain of doing business in a music industry going through proverbial changes.
“The industry is beginning to come around to our way of thinking,” says Franz Schuller, the group’s vocalist-guitarist-songwriter, main spokesman – and proselytizer.
Indica was formed nearly 10 years ago, when he and his mates realized no one else could properly take care of their business. In the process they’ve served a host of other local acts, like Les Trois Accords, Dobacaracol and Vulgaires Machins, in addition to breaking the comingof-age French folk-rock group Tryo on this side of the Atlantic.
Schuller has a quiet, messianic air to him, patience and mellowness incarnate. He is prone to uttering bromides – “The rule is never say never in this business” and “You gotta use your brain, you gotta think outside the box” – but look into his eyes, set on a handsome, healthy face framed by long fair hair parted in the middle, and you see burning sincerity. He is peaked and sleepless, having just arrived from a music confab in Korea (the following week he’d be off to Europe for the WOMAD worldmusic fest), which only adds a certain urgent cadence to his rap.
“GrimSkunk had been around the block – we did everything ourselves,” he begins, explaining the band’s decision to start up Indica in the wake of a bankruptcy by the notorious indie label, Cargo Records. “It was like walking into the jungle – we were taking a risk. Somehow you accept to build a company for peanuts, and keep investing your royalties into it with no real concrete guarantee of anything at the end of the rainbow. It means putting in more hours and energy and stress than the average person. If something doesn’t work, we don’t lose our jobs, but our jobs aren’t worth much because we don’t make money – we make music.
“So we learn from our mistakes. When Grimskunk had to somehow get home from San Diego on our second U.S. tour, with $5 in our pockets, we bought five $1 burritos, sat down and said, ‘We’ve got to find a way to get home.’ That takes resourcefulness (and frantic phone calls), and I think that kind of experience makes Indica a more intelligent label. It taught us how to do a lot on very little.”
Indeed, part of the legend of GrimSkunk, and Indica, is the ability to deliver for local bands of all stripes, like Arseniq 33, Capitaine Révolte, Psychotic 4, Vulgar Deli and, most recently, Xavier Caffeine. Then there are the label’s European connections, due in large part to their success with Tryo, which have brought them such alt-French acts as Anaïs, La Ruda Salska, Tagada Jones. When Dobacaracol hit big in Australia, Indica won Canadian distribution rights to The Cat Empire from Melbourne.
“Bands are here today and gone tomorrow, they’re in a marriage you hope won’t end in divorce,” says Kyria Kilakos, the label’s calm, thirtysomething manager. “Being artists who founded the company makes us aware of that perspective. It’s also about keeping in mind that Indica is not about us, it’s truly about every artist on the label. Everything you do, the money you bring in, you can’t see those things belonging to you. To me Indica is like a soul, like a living entity you’ve got to nurture.”
Enter promo man Fred Poulin, who joined the company in 2003 after a stint at Universal. “Things that take six or seven people here to do would take Universal dozens of people to approve.” The same mentality afflicts radio, he says. Local stations refused to play Les Trois Accords’s cartoon-rock anthem Hawaiian before 6 p.m., so Poulin reached out to the province’s regions and local indie stations. The pressure clicked when Musique Plus finally took a flyer on the group’s wacky video. It was a hit – and finally got on bigtime radio.
“Now, when Les Trois Accords, Malajube, Cowboys Fringants, Pierre Lapointe all arrive at the same time, (radio) people say, ‘Ooh, what’s happening here?’ – there’s so many good groups, they don’t have a choice but to play at least some of them.” Indeed, Poulin and Indica work with acts not on the label, such as WD-40 and popular rappers At- tach Tatuq.
Schuller takes pride in the fact that Indica operates for both French- and English-speaking bands. “That’s a result of GrimSkunk’s fan base, which is both anglo and franco. It’s very surprising to record people in Europe. On a purely taste level, it’s somewhat questionable to sing a TexMex song in Spanish, which we don’t know, or take an eastern European riff and sing of freedom – in Greek – in the song Perestroika because we couldn’t find anyone to sing it in Russian. We do bring an eclectic mix to the table.”
That includes the surefire anthem America Sucks, from Fires Under the Road, a song that gives blurt-out voice to the American Way of Success. “The big companies made way too much money, things were way too easy. It was like a coke cartel – you’re making so much money you lose touch with reality.
“What I hope for most with Indica and our bands is never to become complacent, never sit on your fat ass on a throne thinking you rule the Earth. It doesn’t work as a philosophy or as a business model. We’ve learned through experience.” That includes over 30 American and European tours. “We played before 50,000 people with Moist at the Grand Prix, then got on a plane for Germany and played to 30 people. I think that keeps us real. In this business, there’s not that much difference between being at the top and then quickly sinking to the bottom.
“So we just keep reinvesting and finally we’ve come to a point where we can work with people like (producer) Gggarth Richardson and (mixer) Mike Fraser to make the album we’ve always wanted to make – until the next one.”