Chances are that when a giant rock from outer space smashes into the rest of our governmentally-respirated economy and the book is closed on Western Civilization as we now see it, the circles are few and far between in which Roadrunner Records A&R legend Monte Conner is going to be remembered for exposing us all to the likes of Floodgate and Karma to Burn.
But, few and far between though they are, they’re these circles, damn it, so when I had the chance to talk to Conner, it wasn’t the stories about Max Cavalera and Sepultura or Glen Benton and Deicide that I wanted to hear (though those stories are awesome as well). I wanted to know about why the first Queens of the Stone Age record was put out by Roadrunner in Europe and not the US. I wanted to know why the version of Leadfoot‘s Bring it On that I paid a dollar for in the junk bin at a record store has his label’s logo on it, but not the one I had from way back whenever that album came out. And I wanted to know why stoner rock makes for bad business when for the most part the music is traditionally structured and easily accessible. Well, fortunately Monte‘s a bit of a talker. And unbeknownst to many — but, I admit, knownst to me before I set up the phoner — he’s actually a pretty big stoner rock fan.
Just on the other side of that “Read More” link down there, Conner opines on the above, how come the genre has never taken off commercially, and much more, including some of his all-time favorite stoner bands and albums. Enjoy.
How did you get introduced to stoner rock?
Well, stoner rock is, I don’t know, it’s a bit of a bad, dirty word to some people, because I think most stoner rock bands don’t want to be called “stoner rock,” because they feel it pigeonholes them into a sound. Really, who was the first stoner rock band? I guess you could even say Black Sabbath were the inventors of stoner rock, but for me, I think the term originated in the early ’90s with Kyuss. I would say bands like Kyuss and Fu Manchu were some of the first bands. Roadsaw and Sleep. These were the first bands that had this new expression “stoner rock” being attributed to them. I was a big fan of all that early stuff. Kyuss is one of my favorite bands ever, Fu Manchu is probably my favorite stoner band. Queens, even though Queens aren’t exactly a stoner band their first record was. I don’t know, it’s just always been a sound that’s appealed to me. I don’t smoke pot, so I’m not a stoner myself, but there’s just something about the music, and almost all the stoner bands have that sort of fuzzed out guitar. So it’s a combination of fuzzy guitars, the lyrics about space and cars and the desert. A lot of these bands even have similar vocalists — they’re not growlers, they have a musicality or a melody to their voice. I don’t know how to define it, but whatever it is, I’m really into it. Especially those bands that were doing it in the mid-’90s, like Kyuss and Fu Manchu, because those are the bands that invented it, and obviously there’s been millions of bands, so it’s at the point now where it’s almost a parody when you get a CD and it’s all about space and has a fuzzed-out Fu Manchu riff to it. It’s kind of like, “Oh, not this again.” I’m a little bit sick of it, only because there are so many bands doing it. I tend to find that when I want to hear good stoner rock, I’ll go to the originators, not the second and third generation clone bands.
Tell me about the Burn One Up compilation.
The Burn One Up compilation was put together out of Holland and was A&R’ed by a guy that worked out of our Dutch office, his name was Lucas. He put that record together. He actually was one of the first people — well, before me. I actually tried to sign Queens of the Stone Age here…
Roadrunner put out the first record in Europe.
I’ll tell you the whole Queens story, it’s interesting. Anyway, before I actually met Josh Homme, the person at Roadrunner who knew them originally was the guy who did the Burn One Up compilation. He was the first one to meet Josh and that led to us getting the track “18 A.D.” on that record. So I know he pulled that one in. As far as my contributions to that record, Fu Manchu would have come in through me, Slaprocket was me. That was a band here in the States and I loved that song on there and I recommended that to [RR Europe], but aside from Slaprocket and maybe Fu Manchu, that compilation was largely put together by Lucas. I helped consult and give him some ideas. That was one of the original stoner rock ideas we did. There hasn’t been a whole lot of stoner rock on Roadrunner. We had Karma to Burn, who some people consider to be a stoner band, and I think aren’t really. They kind of are, but not really a pure stoner band in the traditional sense. Stoner rock is not something that the owner of Roadrunner is particularly fond of. He views it as a very limited, small genre, and truth be told, it’s not like any stoner rock band in the history of music has ever broken out. Kyuss, the granddaddies of it all, have never sold more than 40,000-50,000 records, and this is after these records have been out for 15 years. Fu Manchu, my favorite stoner band, doesn’t sell anything past 30,000 records. He very rightfully views it as something cool, but not something that a businessman can make money on, which is why you haven’t seen very much stoner rock on Roadrunner. But the whole Queens of the Stone Age story is interesting. I was a huge Kyuss fan, so upon the demise of Kyuss, I wanted in the worst possible way to work with either Josh or John Garcia. I actually tried to sign Slo Burn at the time and John turned down our offer to turn down whatever the label was that put out that EP, Amusing the Amazing. In general, John was a nice enough guy, but he was a little flaky business-wise and I think he kind of viewed Roadrunner as the big, bad major label. I think he very much had an indie mentality. So, as I said, really nice guy, but not together on a business level or maybe suspicious of being on a label of Roadrunner‘s size. But we did come much closer with Queens. I’d gotten in touch with Josh Homme and we were actually the first label to offer them a deal, before they signed with Loosegroove and we got really far into talks. At this time, when we were speaking with them, Josh was still looking for a singer because he didn’t want to sing on the record. I don’t know if he didn’t want to do it or if he wasn’t confident enough in his voice, even though at the time they had a demo out of some of the songs, “If Only” and others that wound up being on the record, and I thought he sounded great, he could pull it off. Nevertheless, he definitely wanted to get a singer in the band, and we financed a whole set of demos that I have here, six or seven demos, with a singer that he had at the time that was called The Kid. That’s how Josh referred to him. I don’t know this guy’s real name, I’ve only known him as The Kid. We’ve got a six song demo we paid for with The Kid. Quite a few of these songs later appeared on Queens records – either on records or EPs or maybe even Desert Sessions, but I think they’ve all been used in different versions. Negotiations got really far along with Josh and in the end, I guess the frustration of not being able to find a singer, Josh came to the conclusion “I’m gonna be the singer,” and Cees Wessels, who’s the owner of Roadrunner, didn’t view Josh as a singer because he’d never been a singer and he’s like, “Well, why can this guy sing? He’s never done it before.” So it was a combination of lack of confidence in Josh as a singer and also Kyuss coming from a stoner background, and I told you how Cees and Roadrunner felt about stoner music, so he had this view of it like, “Okay, here’s the band and even though it’s not Kyuss, it’s probably going to be another stoner band and they don’t even have a singer.” So he got cold feet and literally pulled out at the last minute, prompting Josh to do the deal with Loosegroove. But then kind of as a consolation, because I was so depressed about losing the band and Loosegroove didn’t have a setup in Europe, I continued to talk to Josh and Cees agreed that we would do a deal and at least put the record out in Europe. It was kind of a consolation prize for me: “Well, I didn’t let you sign Queens, but we can license the first two records from Loosegroove,” and that’s how we wound up putting the first record out overseas. We didn’t get the second record because at that point Loosegroove did a deal with Interscope and then Interscope basically refused to give them the second record, so we worked out some kind of a deal with them at the time. I probably haven’t spoken to Josh very much since those records came out. I would like to think that if I saw the guy we could have some beers and be friends, because we always got along really great, but there was definitely a little acrimony between Josh and the owner of Roadrunner with the whole way it went down. Sure enough, that first Queens of the Stone Age record, very much was in the stoner rock vibe – not like traditional stoner, but very forward-thinking stoner. You could listen to that first Queens record and see that there was so much of a bigger picture there, that the band could definitely step outside of the box and do so much more interesting things than the typical stoner band. That was one of the things I was telling the owner of Roadrunner at the time, “This isn’t just some stoner band. These demos may be like that, but this guy ultimately is going to branch into something different,” and sure enough he did with the Rated R record. Losing Queens was definitely a big blow to me, because I think Josh is a genius and everything from the first album up to Songs for the Deaf was just amazing, and it’s definitely one of the things in my career that I most regret is losing that band. Josh, if you’re reading this, call me, let’s hang out.
You mentioned Karma to Burn before. Their first album, what was the situation with the vocalist as opposed to the band wanting to be instrumental. What happened there?
God, you’re asking all the right questions. Basically, we saw Karma to Burn for the first time here in New York at a club called Brownies, myself and Howie Abrams, the guy who led the charge in signing the band. We saw them as an instrumental trio and were just absolutely floored at the power. You could listen to Karma to Burn even without vocals and it was still captivating, at least for one record. It might wear thin after a while, especially with songs called “Thirty-Nine,” “Forty,” “Forty-Two,” it’s a little hard to keep track at that point. But we did see Karma and we were absolutely floored and we thought, “God, if these guys get a singer there’s gonna be no stopping them!” At the time we signed the band, the whole courtship process and signing the band, the band at that point did want to get a singer and agreed to get a singer, and it was only after frustration of not finding someone that I think the band realized, “Hey, maybe we’re better without a singer, we’re more unique this way, we don’t need a singer.” At that point, they told us “No singer,” and we were objecting because we signed them with the intention of getting a singer, and as I said, that was laid out from the beginning and when we signed them, they said, “Yes, we are going to get a singer.” So they kind of changed the game on us, and they had already recorded the entire record prior to having a singer, figuring, “We’ll get the singer and he’ll just go in and lay down the tracks.” Eventually, due to pressure from us, the band still couldn’t find a singer and had a local friend of theirs, Jason Jarosz, come in and put down vocals. Not traditional vocals at all, but these really sinister, kind of strange, as you can hear on the record, kind of weird vocals, that we thought were cool, even though they were not typical vocals at all. It kind of gave the whole thing an eerie, avant garde feeling. So we accepted it, we were okay with it, but I think in the end, it really wasn’t the type of vocals we imagined. I think we were settling at that point, just because we wanted to get the record out. The band went along with it to appease us, but in the end I don’t think they liked this guy’s vocals. They were very rebellious and were like, “Fuck this, we don’t want a singer,” so they basically parted ways with this guy and decided to continue on as an instrumental band and at that point we weren’t interested in continuing, so we dropped them. But then, Howie Abrams, who had signed them, was still really good friends with the band and I guess partnered up with a friend of his and financed the band to continue recording, and that’s when they did the Wild Wonderful Purgatory record, the second record. Being that Howie was no longer with Roadrunner but had a relationship with us, once again we decided to license the record for Europe. In general, we’re a lot less picky what we put out in Europe than what we put out here. In Europe, we’ve traditionally put out more product, more licensed product. For the European side of Roadrunner, basically anything goes, because we feel the American side of the company is the public face of Roadrunner we’re known for our American roster, that’s how people judge Roadrunner, whereas in Europe, we’ve always put out more product and more licensed product and so forth. Ironically enough, even though the relationship with Karma to Burn ended with a little bit of acrimony, things were repaired and we actually continued with them in Europe and put out Wild Wonderful Purgatory. In the end, maybe the band were right. People seemed to like them as an instrumental band, and it’s fun to listen to, but I think it wears thin once you get four and five records deep. Perhaps the first record would have been better without the vocals, I don’t know and I guess we’ll let the fans decide that. Some of those songs on the first record did appear instrumentally on an EP even before the vocals were added, so you can hear those versions.
And there are a couple tracks on there that are instrumental anyway.
Yeah, I think there were three or four of them. That was a compromise.
What do you think it is about the genre that never really caught on commercially? The music, by and large, is accessible.
It is by and large accessible and as I said, most of these bands have fairly accessible vocals. To be honest, I really think most of these bands tend to sound very similar. They all have the same kind of fuzzy guitar tones. The lyrical subject matter. Fu Manchu and Nebula sound alike — well, in the beginning they sounded alike, Nebula eventually branched out into something more alternative sounding. In the beginning they sounded alike. If you listen to a band like Roadsaw, it sounds like all the rest. I just think due to the lyrical subject matter and even the album covers and the guitar sound, it’s a limiting genre. I think these bands all tend to sound too similar. Of course, to me, Kyuss is the one band that stands out as completely unique from everything else. As much as I love Fu Manchu, there are plenty of other bands that can do the Fu Manchu sound — never as good, of course. I think it hasn’t caught on mainly because musically it’s limiting in terms of bands not really being able to expand on the formula. I guess you could call Wolfmother a stoner band in a way, and if you can, they definitely are the most successful stoner band of all time – the only one with a gold record. But if you look at Wolfmother, they also have this whole Led Zeppelin III acoustic side to them that these other stoner bands don’t have, so it’s no surprise that a band like that was able to break out. Because they’ve got another side to them that a band like Fu Manchu or Orange Goblin, Sleep, none of those bands had that.
You could apply the same thing to The Sword, if maybe on a lesser scale.
The Sword are definitely a full-on stoner band, but for some reason, people just absolutely love that band and think they’re different than everything that’s come before them. I love The Sword and I can appreciate what The Sword does, but it kind of bears out my thoughts on stoner rock. As acclaimed as The Sword are — and Metallica takes them out on tour — and they’re just this band that’s loved by all kinds of big musicians, that’s a band that pops out 50,000 units. And yeah, 50,000 units is great for a label like Kemado, they can make money on that, but for a bigger label like Roadrunner, we wouldn’t be making money, and I don’t want to just sound like some callous record company asshole, but we are a record company and we are in business to make a profit and it’s my job to keep the commerce in mind while defending the art. We want to sign cool bands, but we also need to sign cool bands that are gonna help keep the lights on, because ultimately this is a business. A band like The Sword, cool as they are, it’s not really the right business for a label like Roadrunner. And it sucks to say that, because I’d love to work with The Sword. I’m a big fan of stoner rock, this just isn’t the right place for that kind of music. I think it would have been perfect to sign Queens because they were a stoner band and they were able to branch into something bigger. That would have been perfect for a label like Roadrunner.
What about smaller acts like Leadfoot and Floodgate?
Oh yeah, I forgot about Leadfoot! I don’t know if I’d call Leadfoot a stoner band. To me, they’re a little more southern rock, but definitely a band with ties to the stoner genre. I was a big fan of Karl Agell and Phil Swisher from their work on C.O.C.‘s Blind. They sent me demos, I thought the stuff was great. I loved Karl‘s voice and we made this record that I think is fantastic. We wound up not putting it out here, we licensed it to The Music Cartel and put it out in Europe, and to me it’s just a classic record that never quite got its due. The Floodgate record we did put out worldwide. Again, I don’t know if I would exactly call that a stoner band, but it does have ties to that world. I don’t know what you’d really call Floodgate. That’s a difficult one, but I could see you calling them a stoner band, I guess. We put out that one record with that cool cover with the shark teeth on it and I thought that was a really, really strong record and the band could have had a bright future, but we just couldn’t sell it at all; it did really, really poorly. But I thought it was a really strong record. As strong as the Leadfoot record, let’s say. So as you can see, our track record with stoner and stoner-related bands has not exactly been stellar (laughs).
Yeah, I can kind of see why Cees Wessels would feel the way he does about it.
Yeah (laughs). My all-time favorite pure stoner band is Fu Manchu. I think they’re fucking amazing and they’ve been doing it forever and keeping the quality up for the most part. In Search Of is probably my favorite stoner record. The guitars on that record are so fucking overdriven and distorted, it literally sounds like your speaker is falling apart when you play it. Almost too distorted. And Kyuss are the godfathers of the whole scene. Just a completely innovative band, and they were smart to break up when they did and preserve their legacy. They were doing it for all the right reasons. The crazy part is Josh maintained to me back then and still does today that he had never even heard Black Sabbath when he was writing that music. I believe him, actually. That’s pretty mindblowing. You could probably call Josh Homme himself the Godfather of Stoner Rock. If you weren’t going to say Black Sabbath were that, it would definitely be Josh and Kyuss in my book.
Just don’t say it to his face.
Yeah, he probably wouldn’t like that (laughs).Monte Conner, Roadrunner