In our continuing quest to feature cool independent record labels where the people running the show actually give a shit about the music they put out, this week we turn our focus to Hyena Records. Based out of Brooklyn, New York, I talked to label main man Kevin Calabro about what Hyena is all about and how they survive in this tough music economy.
Rock and Roll Report: How long has the label been around and where are you based? How did it get started? Why the name “Hyena Records”?
Kevin Calabro: Hyena Records has been around for a little over five years. The initial concept for the label came from the legendary record producer Joel Dorn, who has since passed away. At the outset we were focused on releasing archival projects, that is we were taking old “live” tapes and recordings, clearing all the rights, cleaning up the sound, creating packages and releasing them commercially. As you’ll see we have releases out by incredible artists like Thelonious Monk, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Don McLean and Dr. John among others. Over time we started to sign new artists, as well, and at this point that’s become our primary focus. The label is split between my office in Brooklyn and an office in LA from where our owner, label manager and staff work. As for the name, Joel came up with that. I’m not exactly sure why. I do remember him saying at one point, he wanted to conjure the image of the ugliest, scariest, most misunderstood animal out there. If you knew Joel, you’d understand. He had that sense of humor about him. For us, it’s come to represent living off the kills of the major labels, much like the hyena lives off the kills of lions. Our approach has always been to take what the major labels have screwed up and passed over and prove that’s where the best music lives and breathes.
RRR: What kind of music does the label release?
KC: We’re a pretty diverse and eclectic label. We’ve got cutting edge jazz, modern blues, progressive hip hop, alt country and Americana artists all under one umbrella. But there’s an aesthetic there that I think ties it all together. First off, it all ultimately ties back to the roots of American music, no matter what genre, there’s something in all of our artists that has that timeless, vintage kind of quality about it. Secondly, there’s something subversive about all our artists. Nothing here is a brazen attempt at commerciality or the bullshit that passes as pop music today. While there’s certainly an element of mainstream appeal to everything we release, that’s never the goal. It all sets out to make an artistic statement, to offer something that resonates with people on a deeper level. It’s the kind of music that becomes the soundtrack to their lives. Our artists are deadly serious about the music they make, they want it to change people’s consciousness, if even for a little while.
RRR: How many bands call Hyena home? Name some of the best-known bands on the label.
KC: Hmmm. I’d have to count, I think it’s around 12 or so bands calling Hyena home right now. And we’ve slowed down signing new stuff as of late to concentrate on developing the roster we have. It’s hard to say who are the best known bands because everyone of them have a following in their own little world. We have Grayson Capps, Dale Watson, Backyard Tire Fire, The Bridge, Common Market, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, Seth Walker, IsWhat?! and Mike Dillon’s Go-Go Jungle to name a few.
RRR: What are some of the current releases being promoted right now by the label? What releases are going to be released in the near future?
KC: Right now we’re really excited about the new Seth Walker album, “Leap Of Faith” that comes out on March 3. It was produced by Grammy Award-winning producer Gary Nicholson. It’s an absolutely amazing collection of songs with a contemporary blues and roots feel. Think along the lines of James Hunter, Keb Mo, guys like that, but with a little more Texas dirt under its fingernails. Mike Dillon’s Go-Go Jungle are also dropping a new one on February 10 called “Rock Star Bench Press.” Here you’ve got Mike D. on the vibes playing free bop, punk rock and funk all at the same time. It’s a total head trip of a record for the real music freaks out there. We’re also getting new Dale Watson and IsWhat?! releases ready for later this year!
RRR: How does the label release its music (music formats)?
KC: We release primarily on digital and CD formats. Four of our acts, JFJO, Grayson Capps, Common Market and Backyard Tire Fire, also have vinyl available. We’ll release vinyl from time to time when we feel like the release warrants it and that there’s an audience there for it.
RRR: Biggest plans for the future of the label?
KC: I think those new releases we described earlier sum up our plans. We tend not to make big plans, but solid ones that help grow the label in a organic and grassroots kind of way. Our first concern is always the music and the integrity of the artists we’re presenting.
RRR: The industry is going through some trying times with CD sales dropping. How does Hyena deal with this?
KC: It’s been tough in that regard. We’ll find blogs and torrents out there where somebody takes an album we’ve spent a lot of money recording and promoting and offers it to people for free. It’s total bullshit. I don’t think people understand how much it hurts. This new generation of music fans has to start supporting music with its hard earned dollars. Music isn’t free. It’s costs something to record and promote, artists need to make a living. I don’t think people always make the distinction between the sort of mass commercialism and corporate agendas of the major labels that often drives consumers to steal music and the intentions of indie labels like Hyena who are really in it for the music. As far as how deal with it, there’s not much we can do. We just keep on keeping on and hope people will recognize the quality of music is worth supporting so we can keep this whole thing rolling. And I will say we do have a core audience that is totally loyal and is always buying off our website and spreading the word about Hyena.
RRR: What sets Hyena Records apart from other labels? What should rock and roll fans know when checking out your bands?
KC: The music is dope, the artists are the real deal, they live, breath, eat the life 24-7. We want our records to make the clouds part and let the sun shine in. I’d also say to rock fans, don’t be afraid of checking out artists that aren’t necessarily considered rock artists. We’ve got Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey interpreting The Flaming Lips, Marco Benevneto crossing jazz with indie rock for some of the freshest experimental music out there. The Bridge might appeal to fans of Phish and The Grateful Dead, but they’ll also blow away fans of rootsier stuff like Jerry Douglass and Steve Earle. That’s the whole thing about Hyena, it’s not about a genre of music, but just good music. Keep your ears open to all of it.
RRR: Do you accept demo submissions from bands?
KC: We do, but we ask that anyone submitting to us has an idea of what we release and envisions a way in which there music works in the context of the label.
RRR: Anything you want to add ?
KC: Let’s have a great 2009. Buy local, support independent businesses and artists! Keep it real!
You can check out and buy all of Hyena Record’s stuff at http://www.hyenarecords.com/