“Right now I’m working on little details, logistics. When are bands arriving, where are they staying, do they have their floor tom properly tuned?”
Josh Rosenfeld is speaking to me from the new Interbay offices of Barsuk Records, the label he runs with his wife Emily Alford and long-time conspirator Christopher Possanza. Amid the clutter of boxes, the triumvirate and attendant staff is preparing for this weekend’s 15th-anniversary celebration, which will fill Seattle clubs with the bands the label has found, fostered, and watched flourish in its decade-and-a-half existence. Indie-rock standouts such as Nada Surf, The Long Winters, Jesse Sykes, David Bazan, and many more will play to sold out crowds over the course of four nights. Not on any of these bills is the most successful member of Barsuk’s roster (and one of the first), Death Cab for Cutie—though a few “Special Guest” spots have fans wondering if Ben Gibbard and his band will make an appearance.
Success was not guaranteed for Barsuk, cast as it was in the shadow of the prior decade’s dominant independent outfits, including Merge, Matador, and its neighbors at Sub Pop. But something made Barsuk stand out—ingratiating it with artists and fans alike, helping launch the label into mainstream culture, and providing it with the flexibility to survive during one of the music industry’s most difficult decades. What follows is the story of the label’s early years, the ones that set the stage for this weekend’s celebration. As became clear in my conversations with the label’s co-founders, as well as the associates and artists who contributed to this brief oral history, the success of Death Cab and the label’s other artists has a little to do with luck and a lot to do with Barsuk’s commitment to its artists, attention to detail, and willingness to be involved in every little part of the process. Though Rosenfeld admits he will not personally be tuning any floor toms, I got the sense that the 40-year-old label boss would if he needed to.
“I really can’t express how important Barsuk Records has been in my life,” Ben Gibbard told me a couple days later. “Josh is pretty much the only reason I am sitting here talking to you. If it wouldn’t have been for Josh, Death Cab wouldn’t be where it is today. I love telling this story.”
All quotes have been edited for length and clarity.
As a sophomore at Sehome High School in Bellingham, Josh Rosenfeld met senior Emily Alford. They dated for some time, a courtship that involved him making numerous mixtapes. She remembers hearing Talking Heads and They Might Be Giants for the first time on those tapes. The couple split and Rosenfeld went to Colorado College. But he soon reunited with his friend and future wife after transferring to the University of Washington, where he studied comparative literature and math. He shared an apartment with Alford, and worked at Cellophane Square Records in the U District.
EMILY ALFORD The Cellophane Square crew was a huge part of our lives. We went to shows a lot and hung out with record-store people a lot, and I really loved that crowd. Everybody who worked there was really smart and really excited about music to the point where they could talk to you about it for hours and would. I think everybody there made $5 an hour. It was not a high-paying job.
CHRISTOPHER POSSANZA I went to Cellophane Square pretty often. It was a place with a lot of good used CDs, and they had a lot of things you wouldn’t find at some of the more mainstream places. It was a place where I would find more indie and punk stuff. I was really into Guided by Voices, and I was still amassing my collection of XTC records as well. Josh and Barrett [Wilke] were both working at Cellophane Square at the time. I was beginning to write songs and wanted to start a band. I had a guitar player and needed a bass player. I asked Josh to play bass and Barrett played drum. We named ourselves This Busy Monster. This was in 1991 or ’92.
SEAN NELSON (lead singer, Harvey Danger) I had seen Josh around because he worked at Cellophane Square, so he was easy to spot and we had a class together. We became friends because we both had bands, and neither of our bands really fit into the Seattle music scene. There just wasn’t any sense in which they were cool or fashionable and their music was certainly not easy to grasp, but if it appealed to you, it was of course incredibly rewarding. They were one of the first groups that we made friends with where we were actually friends and not just a strategic alliance amongst struggling bands. Josh ushered me into a whole community of friends who had grown up in Bellingham and then moved here.
JOHN RODERICK (lead singer, The Long Winters) My band at the time, the Bun Family Players, opened for This Busy Monster at Moe. We were pretty impressed with them—they were more established than us and had really complicated song structures—but when I tried to chat them up after the show, Christopher was impenetrable and Josh was condescending. At that time there weren’t many bands playing that kind of proto-indie music and I thought we’d be buddy bands, but they blew us off. We didn’t actually become friends for another five years.
POSSANZA We had been playing in the band for a while, and we wanted to get some music out into the world. Mainly we wanted something that we could share with record labels so we could find a label to put out our album. So we made a couple of seven inches and used those to shop around.
ALFORD I was an elevator operator at the Space Needle, and it did pay pretty well. I had a little bit of money, and I could give them, like, $500 to make a pressing of their first 7-inch. And they very nicely thanked me by engraving my name on the little runout grooves on the record. They sold them and consigned them at record stores, and it all worked out the way it is supposed to; I got my money back and they got their record and everybody was happy.
CHRIS WALLA (producer; guitarist, Death Cab for Cutie) My first Barsuk purchase was the first This Busy Monster 7-inch. I had seen them play at the Moore Theatre opening for The Posies. I was really excited when I ran into the 7-inch at Cellophane Square. I was going on and on about how cool the printing was to the woman behind the counter, and she was like, “I think you need to meet Josh.”
BEN GIBBARD (lead singer, Death Cab for Cutie) This Busy Monster came and played a show in Bellingham. At this point This Busy Monster, I think, had pressed a couple of their own 7-inches. They were all very friendly and Josh was really nice and I was really impressed that they had records, which was something that, at least in our little college town, nobody had at that point. People had cassettes. I was given this false sense—and I say this with tongue in cheek—that Barsuk was a real label, not knowing that all you needed to do was call a pressing company and order records and then put a name on the back of the record.
NELSON There was a dog, Barsuk, who belonged to Christopher. I spent many excellent days and nights hanging out with those folks and playing with Barsuk; he was a very sweet dog, which is why they named the label after him, I guess. But it wasn’t until Death Cab came along that they decided they were going to get somewhat serious about the label, and put out the first Death Cab record in conjunction with Elsinor.
GIBBARD Death Cab started with this local label, Elsinor, putting out the first cassette. Then when the band was put together with Nick [Harmer] and, at the time, Nathan [Good], and Chris [Walla], we had this idea: Why don’t we make a record, like a CD? Elsinor I don’t believe had the money to press a CD.
JAY CHILCOTE (co-owner, Elsinor Records) In Bellingham for us it was about creating a sense of community and having a label that would give it some legitimacy. Josh, on the other hand, was much more savvy business-wise, PR-wise, and just experienced, so he was on the other end of the spectrum.
WALLA When [Elsinor] expressed that they didn’t feel they had the resources and that they wanted somebody to help with it, Barsuk was the first name that came up. I had a good solid collection of experiences with Josh, so I felt good about that. So I was like, “Yeah, that’s cool, we can do that.”
GIBBARD Josh had heard some of the material and got excited, and he came up and we all sat around and talked. I remember sitting on Jay and Joe from Elsinor’s porch with Josh. We were sitting around and talking about how we were going to press 1,000 CDs. And I think myself and Chris were like, “That’s crazy. There’s no way we’re going to sell 1,000 CDs; that’s just way too many.” And Josh was like, “Well, you know 1,000 CDs is where you get a price break, so we should probably press 1,000.”
JOSH ROSENFELD In ’98 we figured out how to make our first CDs, and those were the first This Busy Monster album, Like Icicles, and because we knew how to press CDs we offered to do a pressing for Death Cab for Cutie for their first album, Something About Airplanes. Those two albums came out in August of ’98, and that’s where we mark the beginning of the label, because that’s where it became something that required care and feeding.
BARBARA MITCHELL (publicist) KEXP played this song and I was not getting out of my car until I found out who it was. It was the first Death Cab single. I was doing independent PR at the time and basically tracked Josh down. We met up at the Eastlake Zoo. I didn’t give him any way to say no. I said, “You’re going to let me do press for this, I’m not going to charge you anything and it’s gonna be great.” So I worked the first two Death Cab records.
JENNY LEWIS (singer/songwriter; former member, Rilo Kiley) I was a huge fan of Something About Airplanes, which I bought at Aron’s on Highland [in Los Angeles]. It just really resonated with me. I grew up on hip-hop, and lyrics are what I focus on while listening to music. With that record it was the stories in the songs; they were relatable. So having listened to that somewhat religiously, I looked at the back of the record, and there was this little dog and the Barsuk stamp.
MATTHEW CAWS (lead singer, Nada Surf) I got a copy of that record, Something About Airplanes, and I really liked the band, but I particularly loved the package. I liked that the Barsuk logo was all in lower case, and there was something subtle about it that I felt drawn to.
DAVID BAZAN (singer/songwriter) My first interaction with Barsuk was probably Something About Airplanes. They had a reputation early on in being interested in involved packaging design. That was really cool to me; that kind of spoke to me as somebody who wasn’t as interested in the bottom line—that they just really wanted to make something beautiful.
GIBBARD We were just kind of dreaming up what we thought were outlandishly expensive and crazy ideas for packaging, and it was a real testament to Josh at that point, and to Jay and Joe at Elsinor, that they thought, Cool, this is a great idea, we can do this.
POSSANZA Josh did a lot of the design work, and I learned the programs and how to put it together. Some of our friends who went by the name Thingmakers at the time, they were printers, they helped us a lot with learning how to use the programs to make the art and learning how to prepare it for printing and everything.
JOSEPH CHILCOTE (co-owner, Elsinor Records) It was a ball. I remember all of us getting together at the OK Hotel on the Seattle waterfront to draw the rowboat for the cover of Something About Airplanes. We all drew a rowboat on a cocktail napkin. Chris Walla was the winner.
JAY CHILCOTE That was the perfect marriage of the two labels. Hand printing with a die-cut oval, but then drawing the physical artwork image on a napkin in a bar.
POSSANZA [This Busy Monster] had sort of stopped playing as much around the time the first Death Cab album came out. At the time I was working for a software company, and I was concerned with making enough money to live. I think my priorities shifted over time, all of our priorities.
ROSENFELD We did a tour with Death Cab down to South by Southwest around that time with another of the early Barsuk bands, Little Champions. Sean and John joined This Busy Monster for that tour.
RODERICK I remember that tour well. It was an eye-opener for us all. Death Cab took their performances seriously, and the other bands on the label at the time were more hobbyists, more weekend warriors. The San Francisco show was where we all got the message. Barsuk needed to start acting like a real record label, and I needed to make a good album and buy a van.
ROSENFELD It might have actually been during the course of that tour that it started to occur to me that This Busy Monster wasn’t my main calling. Death Cab for Cutie was a real band that had real fans and was working really hard to be a band, and we were doing this other thing that was keeping the band from being our main thing. I think I maybe had my first cell phone, and I remember trying to do label business from the road and driving through West Texas with no cell phone service, and just thought, Wait a minute, this is not going to work.
While Rosenfeld and Possanza were winding down This Busy Monster and beginning to contemplate the future of the nascent label, Sean Nelson was taking his band to the next level. In 1997, Harvey Danger had released “Flagpole Sitta,” a song that became Seattle’s first huge post-grunge hit and that earned Nelson and his bandmates a contract with a major label. Things soon went south for the band due to massive corporate reorganization. As Barsuk was releasing its first CDs, Harvey Danger was playing a waiting game, fearing that its next record would never be released.
ROSENFELD We were friends with the guys in Harvey Danger and saw the troubles that they were having with their label. That gave us the goal, which also came out of punk rock, to be the most artist-friendly label we could be. We wanted to have really fair deals with bands, and to just be the best environment for musicians because we were musicians. The greatest expression of that we could do was to say, “Let’s just give almost all the money to the bands.” The very first deals that we did with Death Cab was an 80/20 split in the band’s favor. A great testament to Death Cab is that it didn’t take them very long at all before they were like, “You know what? You’re doing a huge amount of work. This isn’t fair to you; let’s go to the regular 50/50 deal.” The most I would let them do is 60/40 in their favor.
GIBBARD I know that Josh has learned through the years that for a business to function, especially a record label in the ‘00s, in an era where people aren’t necessarily buying music, you need to have more of a fair split.
ROSENFELD There was a great indie label community in Seattle in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. If I had question about how things worked, I would call up Megan [Jasper] at Sub Pop or Chris [Takino] at Up Records.
MEGAN JASPER (executive vice president, Sub Pop) I remember talking to him about royalties. We told him how royalties were paid out. I remember him sitting there and going, “Oh my God.”
ROSENFELD After college I got a job doing statistical analysis in the research department of the Hope Heart Institute. I think in the spring of 2000, right around the time the second Death Cab record [We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes] came out, I quit that job. I was just young and stupid. I had saved up a little money from that job and I didn’t really have high expenses.
ALFORD I had been working at Amazon since ’96, but around 2001 it became clear that Josh needed help. I really wanted to be that person—partially because that person was going to be working at our house, but also it seemed like a good opportunity. So I decided to leave my job and work with the label.
Committing to the label full-time allowed Rosenfeld to expand its reach. Now with some cash flow, he started investing in talent and resources.The label, built until now to promote the music of friends, was beginning to court relative strangers—some of whom were outside of Seattle, even.
JOHN VANDERSLICE (singer/songwriter) It was really the Death Cab guys who helped me get on the label. I remember meeting Josh at one of the last shows for my band [MK Ultra], and Chris Walla told me that “Naw, I don’t really think this is his thing,” which was really devastating to me at the time. It was like the only label that I knew. But I had enough of an open door with Josh that five or six months later I sent him my first solo record that I had completed with John Croslin, who did all the early Spoon records. I think that Josh bonded to that record, and that was the beginning of it.
LEWIS Rilo Kiley was making a record at home. When we finished the record, I suggested we send it up to Barsuk. Josh called us and he said he was going to come down to L.A. He said this was the first time he had ever traveled outside of Seattle to check out a band live. So Josh flew down to see us in L.A. and basically offered to put our record out.
VANDERSLICE After that first album, Mass Suicide Occult Figuirines, I couldn’t afford to go on tour. Josh encouraged me to spend all of my energy making a very committed second album and trying to find an identity that was outside my old band. So I stayed in and recorded another record, Time Travel Is Lonely, which was by far the biggest leap I had made creatively at that point for sure. That record coming out was really the beginning of my career; that’s when people started responding to me.
NELSON Around the time when Death Cab was getting ready to make its third album, The Photo Album, I became a partner in Barsuk by investing with them in a studio that became Chris Walla’s Hall of Justice. Back then it had been John and Stu’s place where John Goodman-son recorded our first Harvey Danger record. A lot of great records had been made there.
WALLA We were getting ready to move down from Bellingham and I was trying to figure out what my next move was as a recording engineer. And Barsuk saw it as a good investment.
Walla used the studio to record The Photo Album, and then began to hone his production skills by working with other artists, some of whom, such as The Long Winters, were destined for Barsuk.
BAZAN One of the things I am most grateful to Barsuk for is putting out those Long Winters records. I don’t think that there were a lot of people around who were going to give Roderick that opportunity at the time, and, man, I think the music world is such a better place for those records being out there.
RODERICK I made that [first Long Winters] album with Chris Walla and Sean Nelson, and we all wanted it to be on Barsuk. A family was coalescing around the label and around a particular style of Seattle indie, and it felt very natural for me to want to be a part of it. Fortunately, the record we made turned out to be one of the albums that defined the sound of the label going forward. That record didn’t find the same national audience the subsequent Long Winters albums did, but we were very proud of it at the time. It was the culmination of everything we’d learned.
NELSON Josh didn’t like John’s previous band, the Western State Hurricanes; he thought it was just too much of a rock band and not really interesting to him. Though he admired the songcraft, he didn’t like the aesthetic of the band. And The Long Winters was a thing that was a lot more in keeping with the Barsuk overall aesthetic. And so Barsuk was like, “Yes, we want to put it out.”
ROSENFELD At that point the first Death Cab record had sold 6,000 copies, and the next one sold 12 or 15,000 copies, and the next one looked like it might sell 30 or 40,000 copies. There was a feeling that we were growing and if we put our time into it, then maybe it would be something we can do for a few years. We didn’t really have any overhead. I didn’t pay myself at all the first year that I worked full-time on the label.
POSSANZA Around 2002 is when I quit my job at the software company and started doing the label full-time.
ROSENFELD Right after we had shipped The Photo Album, our distributor, DNA, went out of business. We shipped a whole bunch of records out into the world, lost all that inventory in the bankruptcy, and never got paid for any of those records. At that time, had we been a real record label with a staff and an office, we probably would have gone out of business and had to sell our rights to the records. I mean, it was probably 60 or 70 percent of our annual revenue that we lost in that one moment. But at the time we were still operating out of our house and we didn’t have any overhead, so we were able to absorb. Still, during that period I am sure we thought many times, Well, this isn’t going to work, we should probably pack it in.
JASPER The distribution was such a huge deal at that time. Distributors, if they weren’t totally solid, were a fuckin’ mess. And if you didn’t work exclusively with one distributor, you were working with many distributors, and then you were just chasing people down to pay you and it was very difficult. Getting paid was not always a given, and it was hard.
ROSENFELD In the Behind the Music episode, there would be some very dramatic music happening right now. Ghang-ghang-ghang!
Undeterred by the bankruptcy of its distributor, Barsuk joined the more stable (and Sub Pop affiliated) Alternative Distribution Alliance. The label continued to sign artists, and took on greater risk by moving the operation out of the house and into a warehouse in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood. They also gambled the label’s reputation on Nada Surf, the former major-label band responsible for the ’90s hit “Popular.”
CAWS We were pretty deeply uncool in a way. That’s a challenge we had from the beginning. When we started recording, I wanted to be on Matador, I wanted to be on Merge, I wanted to be on Touch and Go, and I sent cassettes to all of those labels and didn’t hear back from any of them. But we were offered a deal from Elektra, which we hemmed and hawed about for a month because we didn’t want to be on a major. But there was nothing else, no other doors were opening, so we did it, and kind of knew from the outset that we would have a bad experience. We understood that there was some baggage and that we didn’t really fit a profile of somewhere like Barsuk, which seemed to be more underground in all the cool ways.
ROSENFELD Their second record had been turned in to the label, and it was the totally standard major-label story: The label didn’t hear the hit, so they got dropped. They were totally destined for one-hit-wonder-ness in many people’s minds. And then they made this record, Let Go, which was so good and nobody wanted to touch it. Even when we started telling people “I think that we are going to put out a Nada Surf record; it’s really good,” there were a lot of people who were like, “Nooooo. It will destroy everything you built; you can’t start working with an ex-major-label band.”
MITCHELL There were a bunch of us over at Josh’s place after a Death Cab show, and I’m pretty sure it was Nick [Harmer] who started to give Josh grief about putting out a “one-hit-wonder band.” Josh just turns to him and says, “Have you heard the record?” And Nick was like, “No.” And Josh was just like, “Then I think you should shut up” . . . but in a much nicer way.
NELSON Far from being cowed by that advice, it galvanized Josh’s desire to do it even more, because Josh has a very strong streak of rugged individualism. The desire to flout the conventional wisdom of the music biz is a big part of why he started the label to begin with. Doing the thing that is not the obvious thing, but that you have a conviction for—that is right in the DNA of the whole label.
CAWS He went through the whole process of signing us and releasing the album without ever hearing “Popular,” which was great. Is it perverse to not go check it out? Maybe. But maybe he didn’t want to know why everyone was giving him heat.
MITCHELL For him to get behind a record like that, it was like, “Oh, you’re really behind it.” When I was managing the Posies, he turned down two Ken Stringfellow records, and he said, “I know we can probably sell some records, but there is something about this that is not sitting with me.”
ROSENFELD Let Go came out in February, and it started really selling well. So suddenly we had Death Cab doing really well on the label, and Nada Surf doing really well on the label, and John Vanderslice doing really well. 2003 was this really crazy year for us because we only put out four albums and every single one of them was really acclaimed, critically, and it suddenly had this feeling that, hey, we’ve been building this for a few years and now it’s starting to fire on all cylinders. Jesse Sykes’ Reckless Burning was coming out, and When I Pretend to Fall, Long Winters’ tremendous second album, that was just getting super-good press everywhere, and they were going on tour and people were going to the shows all across the country, and Death Cab took The Long Winters out, and Nada Surf and Death Cab toured together, and Nada Surf and The Long Winters toured together. And also that spring The Postal Service album came out on Sub Pop.
In addition to his duties in Death Cab, Ben Gibbard also worked on minor side projects. One of those was with electronic producer Jimmy Tamborello, who under the name Dntel had released an album called Life is Full of Possibilities, which featured Gibbard’s lyrics and vocals on the song “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan.” Later the two collaborated on a full-length album, Give Up, under the moniker The Postal Service.
GIBBARD There is this disinformation in the world that Barsuk passed on the Postal Service record, and that is absolutely not true—the record was always going to be a Sub Pop record, and it was Tony Kiewel at Sub Pop who expressed interest in putting out a full-length record based on the earlier recordings I did with Dntel. It wasn’t offered to Barsuk; it was always meant to be something away from Death Cab. At the time, with the band relationship, I wouldn’t call it volatile, but Death Cab would not have felt good about me doing another record on Barsuk with another band. That would have hit too close to home, even if it was an option, and it never really was.
JASPER Death Cab has been an unwavering focus for Ben. He made that really clear to us when we started working on the Postal Service record.
ROSENFELD Our thought was that we’ll have Sub Pop put that record out, and that will help to have Sub Pop talking about how this is Death Cab for Cutie’s side project, and that will help us for when we put the Death Cab album out in the fall. It’ll be great. And then, ha ha.
JASPER The Postal Service record obviously went on to sell a lot of records; it’s almost at 1,200,000. And that Death Cab record went on to do really well also. It was surprising that the Postal Service record outsold Death Cab for Cutie at the time because Death Cab was so big and no one knew who the Postal Service was, but I’ve got to say that I admire Ben for sticking to his guns and saying “Death Cab is my focus.” He could have switched gears and gone to where the sales were at the time.
Ben Gibbard and his bandmates were in fact planning on switching gears, though in a different sense. After ignoring calls from major record labels for years, the band decided it was time to make the leap. Death Cab would eventually sign to Atlantic Records in November 2004. But first they had some unfinished business to take care of.
ROSENFELD Up until 2003, all the deals we had with bands were just kind of one-record-at-a-time-handshake.
GIBBARD There was no need for a contract, because there was nothing on the line. There was no sense that any of the first couple records were going to sell a bunch of copies, or that we were going to get upstreamed to a major label. But by the time we were preparing to put Transatlanticism out, we were starting to think . . .
ROSENFELD They came to us and said, “We want to do a three-record deal with Barsuk and we want to be contractually obligated to you, so that if somebody comes to us and offers us a bunch of money, you have to get paid contractually.” I can’t imagine that really has ever happened in the history of the music business. That’s nuts.
GIBBARD We all realized that we can’t just walk away leaving Barsuk flapping in the wind. We need to make it right. Legally we could have just walked away, but at the time we were like, we need to make this an everybody-wins situation. We were in a very advantageous position to create a scenario in which Barsuk could find themselves a windfall that would help them move forward without the next record that we would not be making for them.
ROSENFELD They said, “We want to do an agreement with you so that all our past records stay with Barsuk, and we want to do a three-record deal with this one [Transatlanticism] that we are about to turn in as the first.” And that was their idea. And so we took that idea and we used it as a template for pretty much any band we wanted to sign. That same deal has been the backbone of every deal we’ve done since. Since our overhead has grown, we’ve actually moved to a 50/50 split rather than 60/40, but otherwise largely it’s the same deal.
GIBBARD It was a crazy year. Everything was shifting culturally in a way that hadn’t happened to date for independent indie-rock culture. It was a big watershed year for that stuff to be moving into the mainstream as much as it could. It was the Shins in Garden State; it was watching this weird TV show [The OC] and hearing the characters talking about my band.
ROSENFELD Transatlanticism came out on Barsuk in October of 2003, and it just felt like we could do no wrong. The band was getting bigger and bigger and starting to talk to major labels, and we were being engaged in all those deals, and it really felt like, We’re winning! The underdogs are winning!
ROSENFELD It turns out in the long run we didn’t win, but we certainly had a good run there for a little while. The record business has gotten harder and harder over the last eight years. I’m really proud of the music we’ve continued to put out—Ra Ra Riot, Mates of State, Rocky Votolato, Phantogram. Some of those records have sold really well. And occasionally an album will sell really, really well. But you know what’s really amazing? This probably sounds like b.s., but it’s really true: If I’m having a hard month and feeling like this is gonna be the end for us and that all the struggle is going to finally come to a conclusion, I just need to go and see David Bazan play a show. It takes, like, a song and a half and then I remember, “Oh, it’s all worthwhile.”