Q&A: Label Founder Tim Owen on the Evolution of Jade Tree Records
"We had to figure out a lot on our own," says Owen. "It was really a lot of trial and error."
For anyone with stock in early ’90s punk, emo, and hardcore, independent East Coast record label Jade Tree was an institution. It was the source of a large number of genre- and era-defining albums by Promise Ring, Jets to Brazil, Lifetime, Joan of Arc, Swiz, Kid Dynamite, and many other bands, all of which got their start working with label owners Darren Walters and Tim Owen. But even if Cap’n Jazz or Turing Machine don’t ring a bell for you, chances are you’ve seen Jade Tree’s simple, monochromatic logo in the corner of a Pedro the Lion record, or on Fucked Up’s debut album, or on the first three These Arms are Snakes releases. Maybe you weren’t completely aware of it, but in its 24 years of existence, Jade Tree has heavily influenced how modern DIY labels operate and, in turn, helped direct the course of independent rock music at large.
Once Jade Tree distributor Touch & Go made the decision to downsize its operations in 2009, however, Walters and Owen had to scale back their business as well. And it ultimately meant that their pioneering label as they knew it would be, for all intents and purposes, gone. In the wake of that difficult choice, the owners had to get “day jobs,” the label trickled out a small release here and there, and the voice of Jade Tree essentially became a whisper. Then, early last month, the label dropped its entire discography onto Bandcamp as a means of announcing its return to a busy release schedule which would “dwarf the [output of] last few years.” With that in mind, we reached out to Tim Owen to talk about his enduring label. He talked about the music, friends, and community of artists that inspired him to start Jade Tree, the enormous role that designers, photographers, and studio engineers have played in the label’s success, and what’s on the horizon now that they’re back in action.
So you were in high school when you started Jade Tree?
What was going on in your life that inspired you to start a record label?
Basically, I got into punk and hardcore in 1987, which was my sophomore year. I got exposed to that subculture through a friend that I made in my first year of school. He knew about some of the D.C., New York, and L.A. bands, and started to turn me on to some stuff. I started going to shows then, too. That was also the first year I started taking photography classes, so I started shooting shows right away. A lot of the Dischord bands would play at the old 9:30 Club in D.C., and that’s where I saw my first show ever with Dag Nasty and Swiz in November of 1987. It was a weeknight, so I had to sneak out. That night sort of got the ball rolling for me.
I actually met [Jade Tree co-owner] Darren Walters through his best friend Carl Hedgepath at a show in D.C. He’d just put out a 7″ by this band Turning Point on his label, Hi-Impact, and [Hedgepath] and I decided to do our own label. He said, “My best friend just put out a record, so we can ask him what to do.” We wound up releasing a couple of 7″s on our little label called Axtion Packed. Both labels were geared towards straight-edge [hardcore] because that’s what we were into at that time. Three years later, I wanted to do a new label as a way to kind of diversify. It wasn’t a matter of not being straight-edge anymore, because I still am after all these years, but more because I had started to evolve my musical tastes. Darren was always good at the infrastructure and business stuff, and I always preferred the artistic side, if you will — I liked dealing with the bands, the layouts, the recording studios, and all that kind of stuff. So in 1990 when I graduated, I called up Darren and said, “Let’s do a new label.”
Was it a struggle being a brand-new label in the ’90s punk and hardcore scene?
I think it was sort of a double-edged sword. There were only so many labels and bands back then, versus how it is now with more of a culture around it all. Even though there were certain labels around and we started to get to know some of them as we continued to put out records, we still had to figure out a lot of it on our own. It was really a lot of trial and error. In the first couple years, we learned a lot in terms of where and how to spend our money. I remember that we had our second and third records designed by Kurt Sayenga, who had done some of Fugazi’s records. Obviously, we were young, and we thought, “We love Fugazi. Let’s get this guy. This will be cool.” And he was probably more expensive than we could afford at the time, but we did it. There were things like that we had to go through. It’s an ever-evolving learning process, even still.
When was the first time you felt Jade Tree had accomplished something you were especially proud of?
I think the turning point that Darren and I will always remember was in 1996, when the first Promise Ring album, 30° Everywhere, came out. We had no idea what was going to happen. We had done a 7″ with them and people were starting to like them, but it was a small, close-knit kind of thing back then with a lot of those Midwestern bands. Some have gone on to be cherished, and others you’d only know about if you were around at the time. So it took us by surprise when we really started selling records. Once that record came out, things opened up for us in ways we didn’t expect. We had the first Lifetime album after that, then Jets to Brazil, and things started to snowball. People we never thought we’d be able to work with started coming to us. After Jawbreaker broke up, Blake [Schwarzenbach] could’ve gone anywhere, any indie label, or any major. The fact that he came to us… Darren and I were just like, “Woah.” That was probably the first big validation of what Jade Tree was doing.
On an aesthetic level, how did Jade Tree’s design sense evolve?
It all kind of began with the Promise Ring and our relationship with Jason Gnewikow. His graphic design started to set the tone, I think. He did all the Promise Ring records, and then we used him for other stuff, too. I think his design influenced a lot of other designers at the time. He was definitely a torchbearer, if you will. His influences, style, and eye really set that band apart, and in turn helped us create our visual identity.
That also led to us working with a guy named Jeremy Dean. He was working for a company called House Industries in Delaware, which is sort of its own version of [Jade Tree] in the typography/design world. Jeremy was really into punk and hardcore and indie rock, and we connected with him through a mutual friend. He was responsible for designing a lot of our releases — the Kid Dynamite records, Paint it Black, Turing Machine. He went on to work for Urban Outfitters as one of their head graphic designers, so I think his style became influential for a time. I think we’ve been lucky to work with certain people in that world. We’ve crossed paths with a lot of designers, or even engineers like J. Robbins and James Murphy, who have gone on to gain some amount of influence or recognition.
How big of a role would you say those artists, designers, engineers, and the like played in the early success of Jade Tree?
I think that everyone that has been involved in every record has played an important role. There’s also been certain photographers we’ve worked with along the way. A photographer named Shane McCauley who was living in Philly got his start shooting bands for us and magazines like [Alternative Press], and now he does fashion and celebrities. We’ve been lucky to attract people with creative vision. Whether it was a designer, a photographer, a recording engineer, or whatever, their work has always been huge for us.
Now that the label is ramping up its release schedule again, what’s on the horizon?
The first new band on the label is called Dark Blue. We know two of the three guys from the past: Andy [Mackie] the bass player was in Paint it Black, and the drummer Mike [Sneeringer] we’ve actually known even longer because of his band Trial by Fire from D.C., who Jade Tree worked with years ago. They’re right here in Philadelphia, so it’s kind of been a perfect match. They have a 7″ coming out in July [available digitally now], and literally just finished their album this weekend, which is going to come out in October if everything goes as planned. And from there we’re going to reissue some of the bigger records, like Promise Ring and Jets to Brazil, probably in 2015. Evan [Patterson] from Young Widows has a new solo side project that he’s going to start debuting live, called Jaye Jayle. It has a lot of weird instruments and sounds, acoustic guitars, and all that. He’s doing a bunch of 7″s with different labels, and we’re going to do one of those probably in September. We’re working on a lot of other things now, but it’s a bit too early to say who it’s going to be or when it’s going to come out. We’re actively talking to people and meeting people, and now that people are hearing what we’re up to, they’re coming to us. It’s cool to have that new dialogue with people we’ve never met whose music we’ve known about or just recently discovered.