Go West: an interview with Peter Jesperson

There are some mighty important names on the local music scene you’ll hear mentioned any time questions about its early days arise—First Avenue head honcho Steve McLellan, Suicide Commando Chris Osgood and record shop/label owner Terry Katzman are just a few of them. But many of those old tales—and the scene-nurturing fallout that resulted—lead back to Peter Jesperson, a guy whose burning passion for music has seen him delivering Brit music mag New Musical Express door-to-door as a kid, helping launch interest in the burgeoning punk movement during his tenure as DJ/manager at legendary indie record store Oar Folk, discovering and signing groundbreaking acts like The Replacements, co-founding world-famous label Twin/Tone Records, and hosting a highly popular rock ’n’ roll variety show—“Shakin’ Street”—on now defunct alternative FM radio station REV 105. And those are merely the first few installments in an ongoing rock and roll saga that’s traveled from the cold, hard sidewalks of Minneapolis to the balmy, sun-kissed streets of Southern California.

Since the mid-’90s, Jesperson (along with his wife and 4-year-old son) has lived in So Cal, first working with the Medium Cool imprint and then eventually moving on to hold his current position as a Senior VP and A&R rep for maverick indie label New West Records, which has offices in both Los Angeles and Austin, Texas. A quick glance at the label’s roster (see sidebar) proves that New West not only has one foot firmly planted in the roots of rock and roll, but is also on the cutting edge of the current music scene and showing no signs of losing momentum anytime soon.

Pulse caught up with the notoriously overworked music nut/producer/label founder/A&R man at his offices in Beverly Hills, where he’s as busy as ever but absolutely ebullient about the state of both his personal and professional lives. Driven as if by the Furies themselves to sign and release albums by not only some of his own all-time favorites, but to expose the world to some of the most exciting new up-and-comers around, Jesperson comes off like a man who’s in an honest state of awe at his own good fortune, yet also stands ready, willing and able to continue forging fresh new ground in a business that sorely needs him and his ilk:

Pulse: Tell us a bit about the history of New West and how you got involved.

Peter Jesperson: Well, interestingly enough, Cameron Strang started what became New West in St. Paul in 1996. Initially, it was a partnership with Kelly Deal called Nice Records. Cam was a 30-year old attorney from Vancouver, B.C., who landed in Minneapolis/St. Paul for a spell. He was a lifelong music fan and had always had a dream of starting a record company. After two Kelly Deal 6000 records, he and Kelly parted ways. Cam was determined to keep it going and changed the name to New West. His first signings were pretty heavy, if you ask me—Billy Joe Shaver and Stephen Bruton. He moved the operation to L.A. in 1998.

Pulse: What had originally led you out West, and how’d you hook up with Cam?

PJ: Cam and I hooked up in 1999. I had moved to L.A. in ‘95 to work my Medium Cool releases through a company that had licensed some of our Twin/Tone titles. After a couple of years, I became disenchanted with the company. So I got the hell out of there, but had to leave behind some of my dearly beloved record catalog due to a, ummm, shall we say, rather lop-sided business deal. Still kinda breaks my heart to be honest. But we live and learn, right? Anyway, I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. Did some odds and ends for a year or so. Writing, reading, music supervising a TV show for a short time. Did a lot of work organizing my Replacements stuff, cataloging and transferring analog to digital for preservation purposes. Then Cam called me out of the blue and said he’d heard I was between things and wondered if I’d like to join his one-man company. We met for lunch and ended up talking for three or four hours. And we’ve been working together ever since. As I like to say, Cam’s the kind of guy who can walk into a banker’s office and walk out with a sack full of cash. He’s just the kind of guy you instantly trust and want to work with. And he’s brilliant at both the creative and business sides, which in my experience is very rare. Me, I need to mostly stay in a creative [mode], that’s my world. Overall though, it’s a very intense job, incredibly challenging. In many ways, it’s what I’d always hoped Twin/Tone would become.

Pulse: Tell us a bit about the label itself—who keeps the wheels spinning, who’s absolutely indispensable, etc.

PJ: New West has slowly grown into what’s currently a 15-person company with offices in Los Angeles and Austin, Texas. We’ve built a pretty great team. I really like everyone I work with. Cam is President. He runs the company. Mary Jurey is like the glue. She’s office manager, she’s Cam’s quasi-assistant, she handles manufacturing and foreign distribution. Steve Rosenblatt is director of marketing—he used to be at Capitol and DreamWorks. Traci Thomas heads up the Publicity Department. Kat Delaney is our art director. Jeff Cook and Steve Nice do radio promotion. Chris Fagot masterminds New Media/Internet/Website. George Fontaine Jr. is Marketing Assistant. J.R. Wilson’s title is something like film & TV licensing/A&R assistant. Gary Briggs oversees DVD production and does some A&R. In Austin, Clare Surgeson is the office manager who also takes care of the warehouse and shipping among many other things. And more DVD coordination and sales is done by Jay Woods. He and I are the senior VPs of the company. I handle most of the A&R, along with Cam. And I must mention George Fontaine Sr., Cam’s business partner. He’s a record nut with a heart the size of Montana.

Pulse: How have things changed for you since your early days with New West?

PJ: We started out in Cam’s house in Hollywood, just south of Melrose. Moved into a three office suite with no windows on Olympic Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Then into a nicer suite, with windows, in the same building. And then, after five years of crazy hard work, we bought a building just a few blocks west. Four-thousand-two-hundred square feet. We’ve got some elbow room now! We rebuilt the entire inside, it’s very open, high ceilings, kind of warehouse-ey. The roster has grown to 18 artists with our latest signing, Kris Kristofferson. Our big guns are Delbert McClinton, John Hiatt and Dwight Yoakam. Sometimes I think I’m dreaming, working with writers and singers of this caliber. But it’s all been cool, very educational. With Twin/Tone, we just flew by the seat of our pants, made it up as we went along and were fortunate to be sort of the documentarians of an outrageously fertile scene. With Medium Cool, I got to do some work with Bob (Slim) Dunlap who I’d wanted to make records with for years. Not to mention Tommy Stinson, Jack Logan and The Leatherwoods among others. I guess the big difference at New West is that I’m finally in a situation where I’m part of a company where there’s a full staff with the infrastructure and resources to do it for real.

Pulse: Tell us about some of your personal favorite signings and how they might’ve grown or changed since coming aboard—I’m sure with such a diverse roster, there must be some fascinating tales there.

PJ: When Cam & I first got together, he asked me to make a list of artists I thought we should be looking at. The first name on that list was Vic Chesnutt. I’d been trying to figure out a way to work with him for 10 years, ever since I heard his song “Mr Reilly” on his first album, Little. We’ve done two albums with him now and I think it’s been the most rewarding work of my career. As for how he’s grown—with Vic, that’s tough to answer. I don’t think he’s capable of making a bad record. It’s just permanent genius.

I signed Chuck Prophet in 2001. He can mix traditional and modern music in the most fascinating way and his guitar playing is astonishing. His roots are Dylan and The Stones, but he’s a voracious listener and assimilates it all into this bizarre stew; I love it. Working with Chuck is like working with some kind of 21st century beatnik. We actually had a top five hit in 2002 with his song “Summertime Thing” from the first album we did together, No Other Love. We put out Age Of Miracles last year. He’s working on new material now.

Drive-By Truckers was one Cam & I both were responsible for. They’re such a big, dense, dark and smart rock ’n’ roll band. I’d known Patterson [Hood, ’Truckers front man] for years, just from hanging around Athens, Ga. In fact, Jack Logan was the first person who told me about DBT. I think they’re destined for something big. We’re just finishing their new album, to be entitled A Blessing And A Curse, their third one for us, and it’s unquestionably their best yet.

Ben Lee was one that came to me from my friend Michael Krumper, who used to be at Artemis Records. He thought Ben would be right up my alley. Michael recommended that Ben’s manager send me some music. He did and I flipped. It’s this very thoughtful pop-rock. I wish I had a little of Ben’s wisdom and calm, he’s an inspiring man.

[Jayhawks co-founder] Gary Louris pitched me Sarah Lee Guthrie [daughter of Arlo and granddaughter of Woody] and Johnny Irion, who he and Ed Ackerson were producing. A folk-rock thing. They sent me some of the recordings and I liked them. Then I went to a mixing session out here at Tom Rothrock’s place and liked what I heard even more, but still wasn’t 100 percent sold. Gary kept encouraging me to listen further and to see them live. So finally, Labor Day weekend ‘04 I drove up to Ventura to catch a show. By about the fourth song, I was gone. It was their singing that got me but also their charm. They really are a charismatic pair. Nic Armstrong & The Thieves was another one both Cam & I did. Our first British signing, from Nottingham. The music came to us via Bjork’s management who were also handling Nic and looking for a deal in the U.S. When I heard the music, I honestly thought someone was playing a trick on me—it had so much in common with the first records I bought as a kid, I almost couldn’t believe it. It had elements of early Stones, Beatles, Hollies while still having a contemporary feel. They recently cut new demos that are fantastic. We’re just getting into making a second record with them now down in Austin.

Pulse: I think a lot of people were surprised you guys got Alice Cooper on board. How’d that come about and what’s Alice like to work with?

PJ: The Alice Cooper thing kind of came in the side door. We have a Pro Tools recording studio in our building. An associate of ours was producing a new record for Alice and needed a place to cut vocals and do overdubs. They ended up working at our place. I got to know Alice a little bit from bumping into him in the kitchen or whatever. My office is covered with posters and pictures old and new and Alice would pop his head in and look around and we’d talk. He’s a really smart, funny, well grounded guy. It was hilarious. I got to tell him about seeing his band for the first time at The Guthrie, summer of ‘69, opening for The Mothers Of Invention. Anyway, we kept hearing these great new songs coming out of the studio. One thing lead to another and we struck up a deal. It’s been a fun project. One of those classic “who’d a-thunk?” situations.

Pulse: What are some other new and exciting things happening with the label lately?

PJ: One of the most significant developments is that we swung a deal with the Austin City Limits TV program and now exclusively represent their catalog, which dates back some 31 years. We’re in the process of releasing many of the programs on DVD in expanded form with vastly improved sound and picture. We’ve done 12 so far, including Lucinda Williams, Son Volt, Richard Thompson, Steve Earle and Johnny Cash. Some of them have CD companions. We’ve also done a few other DVDs: Drive-By Truckers, Old 97s and Stan Ridgway.

Pulse: You’ve got one of the most amazing record label websites I think I’ve ever seen. Tell us about that and some of the cool stuff you’ve got going on there.

PJ: Our website is pretty happening. We have all kinds of things going on. We did a very successful Katrina Relief Benefit Auction and raised a fair amount of money. We have a radio station that shuffle-plays all of our stuff. We’re just opening our E-Commerce Store. Tour dates. Message Boards. And we have an “About Us” section where we all get to plug our favorite new albums and live shows.

Pulse: Well, I know you’re excited to spill the beans about your latest signing—tell us how you hooked up with famed singer/songwriter Kris Kristofferson and got him on board.

PJ: Cam, in particular, had wanted to sign Kris for a long time. We always thought we had a bit of an inside track because [New West artist] Stephen Bruton has been Kris’ sidekick off and on for years. I guess during the sessions for this new album, Stephen mentioned us to Kris and the producer, Don Was. So, sometime last summer, Don called Cam and discussions began. The new album is one of the most powerful records I’ve heard in a long time. It’s very stripped down, primarily Kris singing and playing guitar and harmonica. Stephen plays some guitar and mandolin and does backup vocals. Don plays bass, piano on one song and also does backing vocals. And Jim Keltner plays drums on two songs. The material is very reflective, often outspoken, extremely poetic and tender. It really reminds me of Leonard Cohen at times. I’ve only met Kris in person once, when he came by the office for our first meeting. I talk to him and his wife on the phone quite regularly now as we’re getting the album plans together. I must admit, it’s a bit surreal for me—I’ve been a great fan of his work for 35 years. I did tell him I needed to thank him for helping to pay the rent at Oar Folk back in the early ‘70s; we sold so many of his early records! He’s a great guy, very self-effacing, 69 years old and still stunningly handsome.

Pulse: So what’s ahead for New West? Any long-term plans or nefarious rock ’n’ roll plots we should know about?

PJ: New West is digging its heels in for the long haul. I think we have the potential to do some great things, in spite of the general record industry woes. We’re sensible and cautious in our spending. We have an incredible amount of combined experience between us. And I think we have one of the strongest artist rosters of any label in the world. I’m very optimistic about the future.

Pulse: Speaking of “general record industry woes,” how do you feel, as a three-plus decade vet in the biz, about how things are going these days in the industry?

PJ: You know, I work so much I don’t have much time to think about it. But, it seems to me that music is more accessible to more people now than ever before, how can that not be a good thing?

Pulse: Considering that you got your start here in Minneapolis and still have tons of friends and fans of your work here, you must have a few faves that have come out of the old hometown over the past year or so. Dish!

PJ: The best new thing I’ve heard out of Minneapolis is the Tim O’Reagan record. He’s still the finest singer I ever had the good fortune to work with and he’s made a stunning record. I’m really proud of him. I’m crazy about everything Kraig Johnson does. Gary Louris too. And, of course, Paul Westerberg’s done some brilliant work on his Vagrant releases. Jesus, that song “As Far As I Know” is about as good as anything he’s ever done if you ask me. I’m sure there’s tons of things I’m missing but there’s no keeping up anymore.

Pulse: Anything else going on with the label or in music in general that you’d like folks to know about?

PJ: Well, besides what I’ve mentioned, we’re working on a new Tim Easton album that I think is out of this world. Some of it was done at Flowers in Minneapolis with Gary and Ed. Most of it we did out in the desert in Joshua Tree. Mark Howard, one of my favorite engineer/producers, brought out his “studio on the move” and set it up in Victoria Williams’ guest house. It’s also a very stripped down affair. A few guests like Don Heffington on drums, Doug Pettibone on guitars and pedal steel. Lucinda Williams sang backup on a song. Jim Boquist, Tim O’Reagan and Gary Louris are on some of the tracks from Minneapolis. It’s a gorgeous piece of work. Tim’s best batch of songs to date.

On a completely unrelated topic, everyone should buy the album by Eisley called Room Noises on Reprise Records. Innocent, ethereal, excruciatingly beautiful pop-rock done by a quintet from Tyler, Texas. Four siblings—three sisters, their brother and a neighbor. The two girls who sing are 16 and 20 years old and are a couple of the best singers I’ve ever heard. My most played album of the year, a near perfect record if you ask me. And seek out the album and two EPs by Dan Kelly & The Alpha Males—Godlike stuff.

Pulse: Well, it sounds like you’re continuing the same no-bullshit, down-to-earth practices you were known so well for at Twin/Tone with New West. Congratulations from the old hometown and we’re looking forward to hearing more great new stuff from you!

PJ: Thanks a lot; I really appreciate your interest and the coverage.

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