Jim Thomson is an enthusiastic promoter of music, with a hand in booking, producing and distributing the wide variety of sounds he digs. A percussionist with several notable ensembles (discussed within), his Electric Cowbell label puts out (mostly) 7" records with seemingly no stylistic boundaries. Since 2009 the label has released "a marching band that thinks it's a rock band" (Mucca Pazza), a funk band with people from USA Is A Monster (CSC), an Ethiopian groove band (Debo), a progressive salsa band (Bio Ritmo), a collaborative 7" with ESP-Disk (Talibam!), a record by Greg Ginn...and that is just a tip of the iceburg! We present to you Jimmy T of the brain-jolting Electric Cowbell:
Could you give some background about growing up, your early years and how you got into being involved in music.
I grew up on an apple orchard in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. I was the youngest of four brothers. My two oldest brothers were significantly older by 13-15 years. I was born in 1966 so when I was becoming more aware of pop culture and music outside of nursery rhymes and bible school, it was my brother's and their teenage tastes that influenced me the most. They also had a band that practiced in one of the barns on our farm. They were playing Jimi Hendrix covers. It was extremely exciting for me to listen to the music outside the door of where they were jamming. I thought everything about rock and roll was cool. A Christian rock group by the name of Flame visited our church and gave a concert once. It was loud and I loved it. I didn't start playing music myself until I was about 14.
What were some bands that you grew up listening to?
Like I mentioned, my brothers were influencing me quite a bit. They were into Hendrix and a lot of Woodstock type stuff. Plus Leon Russell and Edgar Winter. Of course there were The Beatles. They weren't much into The Stones though. I first got into the 45's because we had a little 45 player there in the house. There were lots of Beatles records but also The Zombies and some British Invasion stuff. It wasn't until I was about 12 that I started going next level. My friend's older brother's record collections seemed to hold a lot of mysteries. But it was staying up late and watching Saturday Night Live that expanded my mind. I remember specifically watching Joe Jackson give a punky performance on American Bandstand and seeing The Specials on SNL. That really twisted things up. I had no idea what I was seeing or hearing. No reference point really other than there was a lot of bouncing up and down and wild energy. Then I found a Specials record in one of my friend's big brother's record collections. The graphic design and style of the band made an impact on me. One of my girlfriend's had a big brother who was really into Black Sabbath. I remember getting Master of Reality by Black Sabbath as a birthday gift when I turned 13. I relied on DC radio stations as well. Washington, DC was about 65 miles east of the farm. Back then the jocks were playing more than just the hits on the records. DC101 was decent. I was also addicted to listening to American Top 40. Then WHFS came along, at least I started picking it up. They were playing new wave stuff like Ultravox, Kraftwerk, Simple Minds, and stuff like The Buzzcocks in the early 80s. During high school I used to listen with a pen and paper nearby. The next biggest town near the farm was Winchester, Virginia. There were a couple record shops and department stores that had records and tape sections. The import sections were where stuff like the Dead Kennedys would be. I remember seeing The Jam and Sex Pistols records in there and also Joy Division. The imports were expensive and too risky for me to purchase without knowing what was on there. By my junior and senior years in high school I had graduated from my big brothers' influence and even that of my peers. I prided myself on not having the standard issue commodities that the other students had but I was also getting something in the transmission of the alternative stuff I was seeking out. I couldn't find myself comfortable with any one identity: punk, ska, mod, rocker, metal head. I liked too many things that were all over the place. At the time it bothered me that I couldn't pick an identity. Looking in the rear view mirror now I'm glad I couldn't. I used to go see The Fleshtones at the old 9:30 Club in DC. They were awesome. Sometimes more punk bands would open for them. I think I saw Black Market Baby on a bill with them. I thought it was great. I also saw the first Bad Seeds tour with Nick Cave around that time. I randomly just happened to be hanging out at the club that night. It was another "WTF?" musical moment.
Could you talk about your time spent in Gwar?
Gwar was something I kind of fell into. There was, and still is, a vibrant music and art scene in Richmond, Virginia, where I went to college in 1984. It was quite a change of pace from the DC scene. It seemed more relaxed at the time. Death Piggy was sort of a hardcore band with a slapstick sense of humor that was fronted by Dave Brockie who was a huge creative force in the scene. We were all just trying different stuff out at the time. We shared practice spaces in an old dairy plant that used to bottle milk and make ice cream. I was playing in an instrumental spazzy rock band called the Alter Natives. We slipped into the Gwar costumes for a while before Greg Ginn signed us to SST Records. I returned to do some touring with Gwar a couple years later. My character's name was Hans Orifice.
What about some of your other musical projects?
It's definitely not a straight path. One thing just led to another. By the time the Alter Natives disbanded in 1991, I was wanting to go further into drumming. I'd heard the Kodo drummers from Japan and heard they more or less lived together on an island or something. I couldn't think of anything better than to be that committed. But I lacked the discipline to do something like that yet I was still committed. I had read Drumming at the Edge of Magic by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and was inspired that this rock drummer had gotten into the shamanistic aspects of drumming. Around the same time Joseph Campbell had done that famous interview with Bill Moyers, Power of Myth. And I was reading other articles and books on various drummers and connecting this spiritual dimension to my whole path. I was very interested in vodun and trance. I was connecting everything through this lens at the time. There were industrial groups like Test Department and artists like Z'ev and his RHYTHMAJIK philosophy. Hip Hop as well. I just saw all this popular and underground music tied in with this continuum of rhythm that connected humanity, not in a "we are the world" kind of way but that there were invisible forces at play that could be tapped into. The lines between subjective and objective were often blurry for me in those days.
Have you ever worked on making music for movies?
Not really. I have approached music with cinema in mind for sure but never deliberately scored music for film.
What was your path into latin and african music?
It probably had a lot to do with my interest in vodun. I was also an avid reader of liner notes on the backs of LPs. I used to do manual labor for this older hippy in Richmond, Virginia. When CDs came out he replaced his entire record collection and essentially gave me all his old records. There was tons of killer stuff in there. Out to Lunch by Eric Dolphy, Mingus, tons of later-era Coltrane, Miles. I liked Santana too and always noted the rhythm section, especially with Armando Peraza. The library was another spot where I started coming across percussion records. Then I bought a record by Mongo Santamaria called Yambú. It was a heavy hitter. I didn't even know about him as a latin jazz or pop artist who had a hit with his version of "Watermelon Man." This was deep and dark stuff. Around the same time I met two of the founders of Bio Ritmo-Jorge Negron and Rei Alvarez. They hipped me to all the Fania stuff. I wanted to start playing hand percussion too but I didn't want anything to do with the hippies in the drum circles with their Guatemalan sandals with their djembe drums. But I thought the Afro-Cuban stuff was slick and bad ass. There was the guy who was like a spiritual elder for those early days of Bio Ritmo-Miguel Valdez (RIP). He lived in Richmond and had played with Dave Matthews Band (barf) and The Brand New Heavies. He was a Cuban who had some relatives who lived in Richmond. I really never knew where he came from or why he was there but meeting him changed my life. I only had maybe three lessons from him, most of which was just talking. He was a santero. His family had ties to Yoruban religion. He was one of the most musical souls I ever met. He partied very hard too. So hard in fact, that he died of liver failure not long after I had met him. His wake was heavy. I felt some tingling in my body during the ceremony where his family and some drummers sent him off. If you're interested in drumming and it's origins it all goes back to Africa or comes from Africa, so naturally as my interest in drumming expanded, it led me to Latin and African music.
I am a big fan of Electric Cowbell. What was the original inspiration and idea behind the label? Are there any musical boundaries at all?
I was living in New York City. I felt a bit aimless at the time. I wasn't depressed or anything but I was looking for some new kind of kick in the ass. Wasn't sure what I was going to do next. Being in a band wasn't as simple as it used to be when I was younger. I had answered some ads on Craigslist to jam with people but nothing was clicking. A friend of mine called me up and told me they were putting together a funk band to open for another friend's band who were on tour. They were doing Sun Ra covers off of Lanquidity and some covers of some African funk reissues. I was in. It was a racket and we played a couple loft parties. We weren't supposed to be a band really but we kept doing gigs and named ourselves CSC Funk Band. Daptone was in high gear at the time along with the Truth and Soul record label. I liked the overall aesthetic and the fact that they put out singles. I saw lots of DJs with their 45 boxes. I remembered John Peel had that box of 148 45s or whatever. I just liked the emphasis on recording a 7" 45RPM record. You had less than five minutes to do your thing. It made the CSC Funk Band self-edit these extended psychedelic jams into a distilled piece of essence. This is when and why I started the label. We recorded two songs: "Bad Banana Bread" and "Caneca" in a basement in Bushwick. I took the singles around to local record stores in Brooklyn and Manhattan and got really good feedback from the clerks. Then I started looking for distribution. The distributors were like, we don't really have time for you unless you have a catalog or something. That's when I started rallying my contacts to make 45s: Spanglish Fly, Bio Ritmo, Debo Band, and Superhuman Happiness were some of the first.
When you find an artist you'd like to present on EC how do you go about doing it? Is there a basic template you work with? Do you give royalties or records to the artists?
There's no boundaries really. I mean a 45, especially now, is a hard sell. I imagine DJs out there like myself who like to spin 45s. If it's too weird or doesn't have a groove or solid backbeat, it might not make into the Platter-Pak for a DJ set. When I buy 45s I'm thinking about that. I am imagining dropping it at a party. Will it clear the floor? But basically my template is an extended network of like-minded friends and community. I really don't crank out the releases. I have to be able to enjoy the process of a release: working with the artists, the designer, setting up the manufacturing. It's a creative act that I find nourishing. It's rare I take a demo. I have before like with Karthala 72 but that was an exception because it's exceptional music. We do royalties but it's not like you get a check with your royalties. It's a 50/50 deal. I normally can't afford to front production costs so I always compare it to baking a cake together. This is after the group or artist have already recorded. I don't know many labels who give out recording budgets anymore. But I get everyone involved in a project like we're baking a cake together. I might bring 30% of the ingredients and they bring 70%. Once the record comes out of the oven we divide them according to what each of us put in. I generally don't make much as I keep the price as low as possible for distribution. The band has a much better chance of making their money back with mark-up and selling their product at shows. I hardly ever do digital. There's just too many spoons in the soup to make streaming revenue work for multiple parties. My feeling is that the bands should run their own digital. I have some of the catalog available for streaming but that's really just to keep the brand out there and accessible to people everywhere.
How many items are in the catalog? What is forthcoming?
We're at about 30 releases right now. We've got the new Zongo Junction 12" dropping in July. Great afrobeat group from NYC but there's something that separates them from the pack. I don't want to just say they're more experimental but there's a lot of different elements at work on their new record that I really connected with. Also we're releasing NAWA: Ancient Sufi Invocations and Forgotten Songs from Aleppo as a collaboration with Lost Origins of ancient Sufi chants recorded in Syria in 2009. We released it initially on Record Store Day 2014 but it sold out and then some. So we're going to repress and re-release. Are there any particularly best-selling titles in the catalog? Karthala 72, Bio Ritmo, CSC Funk Band, Spanglish Fly but I wouldn't say there's real best-sellers.
Does the label make enough $$ to sustain itself or do you have to put in out-of-pocket at times?
Both. It's always a case-by-case scenario.
Have there been any favorite labels that you trust for quality through the years?
Sure. There was SST before they signed my band! Factory was of course great at one time. Nowadays I look to NYC Trust and most of the labels we have on Independent Grand: Daptone, Soundway, Sofrito, PPU, Omega Supreme, Black Pearl, Wonderwheel and more.
You are involved with the Independent Grand online store. How did this come about? Could you explain the philosophy and desire to distribute other labels' vinyl?
I'm friends with NYC Trust guys. Each of our labels have had a moderately successful self-run webshop on our respective websites, but the aim of Independent Grand is to provide a 1-stop shopping destination to help combat some of the recent & evil USPS postage hikes by offering a greater amount of stock to customers. As the new rates reflect, bundling multiple records saves greatly on postage, most especially for those overseas and in Canada. In addition to a reaction to this unfortunate USPS mandate, Independent Grand was formed to provide a unique and curated selection of records and labels. Stock is limited and specifically chosen to promote and support the business and culture of like-minded independent vinyl labels and mall-run record releases. It's kind of a power in numbers move.
You are involved with booking music in the NYC and DC areas. Could you elaborate on that?
It's a hustle. It's also a natural extension of what I do: promoting and servicing music that I like or that I feel like has a value in it. But I work mostly with emerging artists. It's likely that I'll be promoting groups that are not as well-known. Sometimes I feel like I need a gimmick or a chicken suit to wear to get folks to check out a great new band or an unknown group from Mali or whatever.
As you are somebody who not only plays in bands but also produces records for others and presents concerts, what do you feel you need to provide for an artist? What types of standards do you like to see in regards to treatment of artists at concerts and for recordings?
This is pretty simple for me. Respect and support. Be kind and courteous when you can. You do need some tough skin sometimes because dealing with presenting in night clubs can be tedious and fraught with peril. I find myself trying to shield artists from the dark side if like I'm dealing with a club owner whose out of his mind on cocaine and booze but at the same time I remember reading Miles Davis's or James Brown's autobiographies. The night club business is historically joined at the hip it seems with the lowest and highest forms of life. It's like a cosmic dance. If you can't get some perspective or be able to laugh at it, you will go crazy.
Who have been the most exciting artists you have heard in recent times?
Tal National, Janka Nabay, Oumar Konate. Seems like my mind is being blown by lots of West African music these days.
What forthcoming projects can we look forward to?
Zongo Junction 12" dropping in July. It's called No Discount.
Besides the music, what are some of your other personal interests?
Writing occasionally. Watching Youtube. Reading books. Hikes and beaches.
Could you recommend a favorite current restaurant or two?
Merkat Ethiopian in DC and The Greek Spot.
What have been your favorite cities you have lived in or visited?
Asheville, NC and Los Angeles. Name a few records that you count among your all time favorites (any style, genre, era). This list can change at anytime on any given day:
--Motorhead No Sleep Til Hammersmith (Mercury-US)
--Bad Brains (ROIR) cassette
--John Coltrane Live at the Village Vanguard (Impulse)
--Husker Du Zen Arcade (SST)
--Minutemen Double Nickels on the Dime (SST)
--Tito Puente Dance Mania (RCA Victor)
--King Sunny Ade Juju Music (Mango)
--Joy Division Unknown Pleasures (Factory)
--Slayer Reign in Blood (Def Jam)
--Tom Waits Rain Dogs (Island)
Electric Cowbell can be found here, here, here, or here. And if, after that, you need more Electric Cowbell, than you can archaically shoot an email to email@example.com. Peace & Rhythm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org (two doors down on the web).