A cold is kicking Matthew Johnson’s butt. Fatigued and stuffy, the founder of one of America’s premier independent labels graciously apologizes for feeling out of it. Yet for a guy who sounds as if he’s auditioning for a Nyquil commercial, there’s no keeping him down when offered a chance to talk about his love for discovering new artists.
He comes to life when discussing The Fat White Family, one of the strangest acts to ever hook up with Fat Possum Records. Johnson revels in telling the story of how he came to sign the notoriously combative miscreants from South London (imagine a sordid blend of Country Teasers and The Yummy Fur soaked in a stew of brain-warping substances) shortly before the label unleashed their debut, 2014’s provocatively titled Champagne Holocaust, upon America.
“I was in England, and we met up with them,” he explains from Fat Possum’s headquarters in Oxford, Mississippi, where the imprint has been in overdrive ever since announcing its 25th anniversary celebration plans in early March.
“We literally had to walk an hour and a half in the rain before we could find a bar that allowed them in. Everyone was like, ‘Get out! Get out! Leave now!’ I wound up getting into a bidding war with them against myself… I thought to myself, ‘We just have to sign these guys’.”
An unapologetic risk-taker with a DIY attitude, Johnson belongs to that rare group of label owners who are as individualistic as the music they put out
From the contentious Fat White Family to the stable of unhinged Mississippi blues artists who put Fat Possum on the map (including the late, great R.L. Burnside), Johnson has worked with a cavalcade of oversized characters since the label’s inception in 1992. In the process, he himself has become one.
An unapologetic risk-taker with a DIY attitude, Johnson belongs to that rare group of label owners (Factory Records’ Tony Wilson comes to mind) who are as individualistic as the music they put out. In his 2003 profile for The Guardian, Richard Grant described him as the label’s “disheveled, hard-drinking, fiercely iconoclastic founder.” Several years later, in a piece for Wondering Sound, Marc Hogan wrote that Johnson is “known for living almost as hard as the bluesmen on his label.”
But Johnson is endearingly unconventional, not to mention one hell of a storyteller. He also is frank. If he believes something to be crap, then he doesn’t equivocate: It’s crap. Likewise, when talking about an artist he loves, his Southern drawl rides a rippling swell of enthusiasm. When you get right down to it, he comes off less like a music industry mover and shaker and more like that cool, somewhat peculiar uncle or older brother who shares a six pack while blowing your mind with all kinds of cool records you never knew existed. If Fat Possum is, as punk Iggy Pop once said, “the most uncorrupted label in America,” then Johnson definitely is the country’s most uncorrupted label owner.
Fat Possum’s Artists Run the Gamut From Merely Contentious to Unhinged
Johnson and the label are celebrating their 25th anniversary with a string of limited-edition vinyl releases and digital reissues. The bulk of the titles are rooted in the grime-stained juke joints and hill country blues which Fat Possum became synonymous with between 1992 into the early ’00s.
In his 2002 feature for the New Yorker, “White Man at the Door: One Man’s Mission to Record the ‘Dirty Blues’,” Jay McInerney documents how the imprint unearthed what may well have been the Deep South’s last great generation of Delta blues musicians in Burnside, as well as Junior Kimbrough and T-Model Ford (each of whom have also left us). The author paints a mythical portrait of Johnson zigzagging across poverty-stricken Mississippi, down every country road and two-track imaginable, in search of undiscovered progenitors of the art form. Along the way, he finds plenty of action, lots of trouble and some of the very best American vernacular music of the decade.
I’ve always loved Howlin’ Wolf just as much as I have The Velvet Underground — to me, they’re the same
But unlike pivotal folklorists such as Alan Lomax and George Mitchell, whose field recordings helped to preserve the Southern blues music tradition, Johnson wasn’t playing the role of mere documentarian. He intentionally sought out a specific strain of Delta blues. It had to be raw, stripped down, electric and hypnotically rhythmic in ways that were closer to punk than the polished virtuosity of B.B. King or Buddy Guy.
“There was so much bad blues out there,” he says. “I liked the idea of it, but so much of it was so fucking awful. It became a guitar coordination thing. I didn’t care if somebody could play something really fast. Howlin’ Wolf was no virtuoso on guitar, but he had that howl. He sounded crazy. I’ve always loved Howlin’ Wolf just as much as I have The Velvet Underground. To me, they’re the same. And that’s the thing we were going for.”
While the mainstream blues scene was slow to embrace unrefined slabs like Kimbrough’s All Night Long (1992) and Burnside’s Too Bad Jim (1994), modern rock wasn’t. In fact, it is no overstatement to say that Fat Possum’s rowdy vision of the blues wound up altering the evolution of modern rock ‘n’roll. After all, it was garage rockers like Dan Auerbach and Jack White who were some of the earliest musicians to soak up the label’s output.
The Black Keys (who released a pair of albums on Fat Possum) and The White Stripes each pioneered a brand of elemental rock inspired by the trance-inducing grooves of Burnside, Kimbrough, Ford, et al. They in turn rode their respective styles to global stardom, in the process passing their Fat Possum influence on to countless up-and-coming bands. From the Alabama Shakes and Elle King to the Black Lips and Wolfmother, you can hear the echoes and threads that reach back to Johnson’s journey into the depths of Mississippi. The impact is staggering.
No Rest for the Wicked
Fat Possum’s devotion to American roots music comprises a large part of their story, yet it’s only a part of the story that continues to be written. The label has proven adaptable in an industry that has grown more unforgiving in the digital era — there have been plenty of ups, downs and near collapses.
In addition to barely avoiding bankruptcy on more than one occasion, death’s cold hands have claimed virtually every one of the OG blues artists who produced many of the imprint’s most successful titles. But Johnson responded by reinventing the label’s aesthetic.
We put all our chips on the table for Van Zandt — if we went bust over it, we would’ve be fine with that
Within the last decade Fat Possum’s catalog has grown wildly eclectic. They released music from cutting-edge artists such as Wavves, Youth Lagoon, Lissie and the Fat White Family, they’ve also signed a slew of veteran bands, from Dinosaur Jr. to Iggy and the Stooges.
But if Fat Possum knows anything, the label knows music needs to be seen as much as heard. One of the label’s most striking signings — and proof of the label’s unquenchable thirst for new sounds — has come within the last year. Hailing from Brooklyn, the capital of cool, Sunflower Bean deliver a swirling mix of lush dream pop and fuzz-caked riff-crunch on their debut, Human Ceremony. Known for their arresting, psych-drenched live shows, the trio is in the midst of a sprawling tour that lasts through mid-September.
Labelmates Seratones also embrace the pavement (juke joints have wheels these days) and the young outfit from Shreveport, Louisiana, just released “Chandelier,” from their forthcoming debut, Get Gone (slated for a May 6 release date). The quartet deals in a potent blend of Southern garage-rock and earthy soul featuring the gospel-bred vocals of A.J. Haynes. And the band made their national television debut on CBS Good Morning, of all things.
But staying current also requires that Fat Possum keeps its eye (or ear) on the past, which furrowed its so-called fortunes, and the label has entered into numerous licensing deals to deliver sought-after reissues from artists as diverse as soul diva Ann Peebles, glam pioneers T. Rex and Americana great Townes Van Zandt.
“It takes everything just to survive,” Johnson explains, reflecting on the tempestuous climate of the current marketplace. “It helps to have a large back catalog while also having a constant stream of new releases, either through new artists or partnering up with folks. It’s a very hodgepodge way of doing things, but in order to keep the lights on, it helps to team up with folks.”
This approach proved fortuitous, and once again, Fat Possum proved highly influential. In 2007, when the label made the decision to reissue Van Zandt’s catalog, few independent labels were exploring such novel options. Johnson was in uncharted territory. “We put all our chips on the table for Van Zandt,” he admits. “It was a big step for us. It was something that we really believed in, and if we went bust over it, we would’ve be fine with that.”
Since then, more and more imprints of every size have adopted Johnson’s “hodgepodge” model.
Drag City, one of indie rock’s formative labels, now splits its focus between developing new talent (Meg Baird, Ty Segall) and reissuing obscure gems from the likes of proto-outlaw singer Mickey Newbury and Aussie avant-rockers Venom P. Stinger. Then there’s the far smaller Dais Records, an industrial label whose catalog balances releases from emerging noisemakers like Youth Code and Drab Majesty with archival sets from obscure industrial pioneers Deviation Social and famed beat writer William S. Burroughs.
But while Fat Possum certainly has carved out a new and commercially viable niche for itself, Johnson is careful to point out that the label continues to live on the edge. “We’re a bit more established, but it’s still hand-to-mouth for any label this size,” he says.
Then again, the chances are good that’s how it always will be for a genuine character whose passion for the raw and obscure, the new and bold, forever pushes the limits of financial realities. Music will always need renegades like Matthew Johnson but it was, after all, renegades that created the best music.