ABOUT FRENCHKISS RECORDS
Syd Butler has always been looking for a community and in August of 1999 he received a credit card in the mail. Almost on the spot he decided to start a record label giving a home to the second full-length by his own band, Brooklyn art punks Les Savy Fav. His nascent label’s roster soon began to fill as Les Savy Fav toured around America, and Butler discovered new and exciting bands on a nightly basis.
“We’d see other bands on tour like Lifter Puller and we would just put out their record,” says Butler. “We were never scene-oriented. We were good band-oriented. It was like the island of misfit records. All these bands that didn’t really have homes, we wanted to give them a home.”
The releases rolled out as they could over the next few years, with Butler using whatever proceeds one record made to help finance the next. If a certain record never made it into the black, Butler would use some combination of credit lines and the occasional loan from friends and family to finance more releases.
Early Frenchkiss bands like Ex Models or S PRCSS would be ecstatic to sell a thousand copies. It was a one-person, hand-to-mouth operation.
That is until everyone started talking about The Hold Steady’s debut.
Released in March of 2004, Almost Killed Me had built some buzz around the band’s stomping grounds of Brooklyn and in their hometown of Minneapolis, but it wasn’t until that year’s end that things started to boil over nationally. With a glowing year-end review from noted critic Rob Sheffield and sudden and unexpected inclusion on myriad year-end lists, The Hold Steady seemed to blow up overnight, somehow on the back of a record that had been out for nine months.
Fortuitously, the band had spent much of 2004 working on their follow-up, which allowed them to capitalize on this sudden and unexpected rush of attention. Excitement and anticipation were high when the band released Separation Sunday in May of 2005. The band appeared on the cover of the Village Voice, had major features in national publications and was suddenly indie rock’s group du jour.
In the wake of the success of Separation Sunday, Frenchkiss became a proper operation, with Butler hiring a full-time publicist and young label manager Paul Hanly, who helps run Frenchkiss to this day and whom Butler calls both his “right and left arm.”
Butler also credits his long-term partner, the actress Amy Carlson, with steering Frenchkiss during this exciting and tempestuous time.
“Since the genesis of the label, Amy has been a major contributor, partner and guiding force,” Butler says. “During the lean years, Amy supported the label financially patching together funds from her many acting jobs. She also jumped in to help whenever it needed, whether it was filing in when there were lapses in personnel, or helping with creative decisions.”
Carlson helped open Butler’s eyes to the nitty-gritty side of self-employment; how to balance a checkbook, how to pay off credit cards and, eventually, how to run a staff.
“As an actress, she’s always had to do it all,” Butler says. “She had to run her own finances, she had to be on top of all of the stuff a punk rock kid like me never thought about.”
She even started the band Office Romance alongside Butler and Les Savy Fav guitarist Seth Jabour, the nexus of which can be traced to her love of the holiday season.
With newfound success behind The Hold Steady, noted distributors started sniffing around Frenchkiss, who had previously distributed their records via an ever-evolving series of one-off distribution deals. Butler soon built a much more focused, albeit patchwork network of distribution with Caroline handling Frenchkiss’s physical distro and The Orchard overseeing their digital catalog.
With a label that was nimble enough to sign exciting new bands quickly, flush with enough cash flow to offer deals that were extremely artist-friendly and owned by a member of one of indie rock’s most respected and beloved groups, Frenchkiss’s roster began to grow.
New Frenchkiss bands like Dodos, The Drums and The Antlers were capitalizing on the reach of the internet and the growing influence of upstart tastemaking sites like Pitchfork and Gorilla vs. Bear. And while these groups had little in common aesthetically, they all shared the same common thread that their disparate forebears like The Hold Steady, Les Savy Fav and Ex Models did in the decade prior: they were all a part of Syd Butler’s idealized community.
It was a community that expanded rapidly shortly after Butler drove up to Boston to check out a new band that almost no one had heard of in mid-2008.
With about fifteen people other in a small club, Butler was blown away by the group and after two short weeks of negotiating, Michael Angelakos and his Passion Pit project became members of the Frenchkiss roster.
Heralding a new era of indie music, one that shifted its focus to more electronic-oriented sounds and dancefloor-ready tunes, Passion Pit’s star exploded almost immediately.
“Within two weeks of (the band’s first single) “Sleepyhead,” they became too big for us to handle,” says Butler. That single helped propel Passion Pit’s debut album, Manners, to Frenchkiss’s then-strongest chart showing, when it debuted at number fifty-one.
The label’s ethos of eschewing any one scene in favor of being “cool band-oriented” continued to manifest through its disparate and ever-growing roster. Bands like Freelance Whales, 1,2,3, Cut Off Your Hands and Bloc Party were all welcomed into the fold, many of which helped to blur the lines of genre that, thanks in large part to Frenchkiss’s efforts, have become less rigid than ever today.
For Butler, everything culminated in the signing and success of L.A.-based band Local Natives, as they’d always envisioned for his record label.
There was no adjective that could readily describe Local Natives. They were a group of friends, borne from a vibrant musical community in L.A.’s Silverlake neighborhood, who wrote songs that thrilled and excited Butler. They were everything he looked for in a Frenchkiss band.
“That was the pinnacle of everything,” he says. “They were a massive band that wrote beautiful songs with radio capability who carried this indie credibility. And both of their albums selling more than 100,000 copies each is such a point of pride for us.”
In 2014, Butler’s phone buzzed out of the blue. A producer of Late Night With Seth Meyers was calling. Butler had come recommended by his longtime friend and new Late Night bandleader, comedian Fred Armisen, the producer said. He then asked if Butler would be interested in joining Armisen along with some other punk and indie-rock luminaries , Eli Janney from Girls against Boys, Marnie Stern, and les savy fav bandmate Seth Jabour for a full-time job playing in Seth Meyers’ house band.
Right around that time, Frenchkiss was finalizing a deal for their longtime distributor, The Orchard, to purchase the label fully. The timing was ideal, as The Orchard planned to let Butler continue to operate his label as he always did; with an eye toward building the community he’d always wanted.
Taking even more of the day-to-day operations off of his plate, Butler was able to focus his energies on finding good bands and, now, becoming the house bass player on a late night television show.
More than a new job, however, Butler saw his Meyers gig as the manifestation of the community he’d been building over the previous two decades.
“Seth Meyers is kind of the yield of everything that Frenchkiss stands for,” Butler says. “It’s this community that we’ve developed over the last twenty years. From Les Savy Fav’s friendship with Fred (Armisen) has come this amazing opportunity to make music with these people every single day.
“I won the golden ticket.”