Ray Farrell Interview

When did you start working at SST and what were you doing prior to that?

I started in early '85. I met Joe Carducci when he moved from Portland, OR to Berkeley, CA in the late 70’s to
start Systematic Distribution. I was the import/indie buyer for the legendary Rather Ripped Records and I
bought records from Systematic to sell at the store.

After Rather Ripped I worked for the blues label Arhoolie Records/Back Room Distribution and moved to
Rough Trade U.S., whose warehouse was blocks from Systematic. Rough Trade distributed imports and indie
records to stores. We manufactured key Rough Trade, Crass & Factory Records titles stateside because the
records needed to be in stock and affordable.

At the same time, I was part of the initial Maximum Rock n’ Roll radio program with Tim Yohannon on KPFA. I
managed Pell Mell, and for a short time, Slovenly. I booked west coast shows for Sonic Youth, The Wipers and
Meat Puppets. I knew Henry Kaiser, Negativland and Angst because they lived in the Bay Area. I had nothing
to do with getting them signed to SST. I knew the Minutemen because they asked Pell Mell to play a few shows
with them.

Carducci offered me a job at SST (but) I didn’t think I wanted to leave the Bay Area, I had just met the woman
that would later be my wife. Joe had a great recruiting campaign - he sent advance cassettes of “Up On The
Sun”, “New Day Rising” and the just released “Double Nickels”. Within a few weeks I packed a van and moved.

Just before moving to Hawthorne for SST, I worked for the small label CD Presents. It released the first Billy
Bragg records in the U.S. and Billy and his manager were setting the stage to garner major label interest. Billy’s
manager was Peter Jenner, who managed Pink Floyd right from the beginning. I stayed in touch with him for another 20 years.

Do you recall the first releases you worked on?

Husker Du’s “Flip Your Wig” which I set up with the single “Makes No Sense At All/Love Is All Around”; Meat
Puppets’ “Up On The Sun” with the single “Up On The Sun/Swimming Ground”. My memory is a little hazy on
‘85 or ’86, but Black Flag was on a nine month tour with Gone, Painted Willie and Tom Troccoli’s Dog. I
promoted the bands to college radio and regional press. Promotion is all about focus. If the editors and music
directors weren’t inclined to think for themselves, I told them what song to play, what picture to run, and two
sentences about the band they could paraphrase in a weekly music calendar.

What was it like working there in 1985? The label released so many records it must've really been trial by fire!

When I started Chuck was running Global Booking in a separate location (and) Greg was on tour. Carducci and
Mugger ran the SST office. Watt, under the name Spaceman, was calling record stores. Michael Whittaker
inherited that position. Yeah a lot of records came out in ’85 but there were more in ’87 than any other year. We
released more records that year than Warner Bros.

Did the number of releases coming out make it harder to promote the albums, or were you on board with the
release schedule?

We couldn’t cost effectively promote every release. SST had mail order inserts in the records. Over time we ran
more ads in fanzines. The Overkill album was one of my faves but the band was defunct. Octoberfaction
wasn’t a working band. SST’s foundation was Black Flag and bands that wanted to tour. Those records were
the focus. I could be promoting a given record for over a year if that band toured. In ’87 there were many
records by bands and artists that did not tour. Greg’s “No Age” instrumental comp yielded multiple albums from
these instro artists. I promoted the compilation as a concept. It expanded people’s idea of what SST was. The
only band from that project that I recall touring was the awesome Blind Idiot God. Tim Yohannon turned me on
to them.

What were your primary job duties at SST? How many hours a day/week were you putting in?

Carducci brought me in to be the promotion dept at the label. He was already talking to key rock writers and magazines.

I first focused on college radio, which was new to SST. I worked a smattering of commercial radio stations, video tv shows and a wide swath of press (regional papers, fanzines et al). In ’86 or ‘87, SST and Global were under one roof. I hired Brian Long for college radio and Michael Whittaker did the press.

It was more than a full time job. I lived, breathed and loved it. My social circle after work was mostly co-workers and the bands. SST had a great public profile. At first, it was Black Flag leading the charge. Greg took SST bands on tour rather than leaving it up to promoters to fill the bills. Chuck and Black Flag built a touring network. Some of the kids that booked the local “hod-caw” shows became club owners later.

Were there some bands you worked with more closely than others?

At any record company, you focus on the records and bands that can build a momentum. Black Flag was well established in the “underground” and their live show was powerful and invigorating. Selling records was important but getting people to shows was the goal. Black Flag worked the hardest. “Up On The Sun” is still magical to me and I loved working with the Pups. Husker Du understood how to connect the promotional dots more than the other bands. The Minutemen were workhorses and did great interviews. SWA was fun and mysterious. Dinosaur Jr. was just mysterious. There were some people whose company I really enjoyed regardless of how popular the records were. All of the guys in Das Damen, Brian Ritchie’s band, the Leaving Trains. I knew Kendra from Opal before Dream Syndicate formed. I knew Suki of Opal from her college radio days. I loved talking with Tom Troccolli about the production of classic albums.

It must've been an exciting time, with college radio really starting to embrace independent music?

When I started at SST, from a national prospective college radio was mostly playing British bands from U.S. major labels. On my first day, I went through boxes of letters from college radio stations asking or begging to be on our mailing list. There were a few trade magazines that aggregated college and commercial radio chart reporting. College radio reps at the majors were tasked with getting their records into the national college radio top ten as a perceived stepping stone to commercial airplay. It was fun to compete with the majors. Some college stations had more chart weight than others. Sending promo albums can be expensive, so I planned out how far to take each promo mailing.

I didn’t know anyone at the labels in L.A. until they called trying to figure out who I was. A woman at A&M told me how to game the CMJ charts, so I did that for fun. A top charting college radio record had no measurable impact on sales but it would help to secure record reviews and interviews. There were about a dozen commercial radio stations in the U.S. that played key songs in some rotation. At first, I was determined to “crack the code” of mainstream commercial rock radio. Many mersh stations had national consultants who were paid to foist certain songs on radio. I can’t claim any real success stories even if I got airplay. Radio stations wanted to know that records were in the stores before they’d play the songs. That’s a dangerous path financially. I would have had to seed local record stores with free stock just to keep radio play going.

I recall pitching a Meat Puppets song to radio stations while the Grateful Dead had a hit with “I Will Survive”. The vibe is similar. A legendary jerk at a midwest station ran with it but only after making me hard sell it. A radio station where Mellencamp is from played Divine Horsemen’s “Devils River”. But the best situation was commercial metal station WBAB on Long Island playing Bad Brains’ “House Of Suffering” and cranking it for a month. I worked hard to try and get The Descendents on mersh radio. Their sound later became the template for many successful bands that got a lot of radio play. There’s guys from some SST bands that claim that the bands didn’t want to be on the radio, but they are full of shit.

Another 30 or so commercial rock stations had “new music” shows on Sunday nights. “New Music” could easily mean any new record they wanted to test. I was only interested in those that played indies. Some of the shows had derogatory names like “Children’s Hour” and “Nocturnal Emissions” as if to say, “we don’t take this music seriously.”

Some college radio stations had higher wattage than others. At the lowest level, some had little more reach than the campus border. These were carrier current stations. I managed a process where I’d pull radio stations from the promo list unless they showed proof that the records were on their playlists. I remember a guy from a Hawaiian college station calling to scream at me about it. After he got my parcel he wrote my address on a coconut, put postage on it and I got it in the mail! Some powerful college stations were part of the school curriculum - they had broadcasting and media classes. There were certainly conservative college stations that mimicked mainstream radio airplay. I remember asking one music director to play a Sonic Youth track so that we’d get the #1 national slot. She asked, “Are they cute? Fax me a picture and if they are, I’ll add it”.

Public radio was not a viable avenue. There were mostly blues jazz and folk music programs. It’s very hip now and entirely influenced by publicists. Back then, it really was like the Saturday Night Live “Schweddy Balls” skit.

The most effective national promo activity was video. When MTV launched 120 Minutes, they didn’t have enough videos to play. The focus was on new music, although I don’t think the word “alternative” was used yet. The guy running it was a fan of SST. He told me that Tom Petty just made a video in b&w so that it looked grainy and punk enough to get on 120 Minutes. It didn’t.

The most we ever spent on a video was 2K. Independent filmmakers like Kevin Kerslake, Randal Johnson and others started their careers making videos for cost. 120 Minutes would not play everything, but there was a network of rock clubs and regional cable shows that did. Occasionally a tv show recorded a band live and with permission I’d distribute it as a video. There’s some lip synch performances by Divine Horsemen and Slovenly from a French TV program called “Music California” on YouTube.

In ’86 there was a crossover in promoting punk and metal bands. There were a bunch of metal mags that liked Flag, St. Vitus and DC3. Long Beach, CA had a commercial metal radio station KNAC.

Do you have any favorite releases from your time at the label? Any dark horses we should watch out for as we work our way through?

At the time we had a lot of bands that I call SST’s backyard bands because they were local and not yet taking hold nationally. St. Vitus and Saccharine Trust were my favorites. I tried to see every show. I loved Divine Horsemen, Opal, Slovenly and Sylvia Juncosa’s guitar playing. The first Gone album still blows me away. The “Lovedolls Superstar” film and album are a lot of fun and a welcome mood switch in the SST canon. The Elliot Sharp records were revelatory. When you work at a label, or if you are in a band touring with another band, it’s easy to be enthusiastic for the other records and bands that are in your life at the time. I made mixtapes for touring bands and I’d be blown away when they’d play a cover of a song from it. After SST I continued to work with Pell Mell and Sonic Youth, who inspired me infinitely.

Pell Mell. Photo by Kristine Larson.
Can you give us a brief summary of what you did after leaving SST?

I was fired in ’88 and it was the best thing that could happen. Sonic Youth left at the same time to go to the expanded Blast First! label. There had been some crossover between Blast First! and SST earlier because BF was the British label for SY, Dino Jr, Butthole Surfers, Big Black et al. I worked for the label for just over a year. Really fun - I focused primarily on promoting “Daydream Nation”. In ‘89 I went to Geffen Records with Sonic Youth. 

Thanks to Ray Farrell for giving us his time, and to Michael T. Fournier for editing assistance.
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