By Daniel Kohn
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Photo by Jeanne RiceIt's the day after Thanksgiving, and Long Gone John has a turkey in the oven and pop-art painter Mark Ryden on the phone to talk about cover art for an upcoming CD by LA rock band Scarling. Once he hangs up, the goateed, shaggy-haired, anti-mogul who heads the indie label Sympathy For The Record Industry asks that I bear with him while he handles a bit of business. So, before he can take me on a tour of the Long Beach home he shares with six cats (a record and toy geek's wet dream, in which every square inch contains something cool and vintage), it's off to the post office to mail artwork and then a trip to a local recording studio to pick up the Scarling masters.
In the car, John plays a few songs from another upcoming Sympathy release by a sultry country-rock band called Miss Derringer. He tells me—in tones that, with a man of Long Gone John's understated demeanor, could pass for "excited"—about a proposed Sympathy showcase at next year's South By Southwest confab in Austin, Texas. "Miss Derringer, the Bloody Hollies, Scarling and the Scientists say they want to do it," he says, and pauses a minute before adding, "I hate Austin."
Sympathy For The Record Industry is now 15 years old, still putting out music by largely unknown bands, and after some 700 releases, Long Gone John can come across as an affable grump, a punk curmudgeon who's caustic barbs contain real wisdom. Take his perspective on the band for which he is currently most famous, the White Stripes, the band whose success after three Sympathy releases re-ignited the long-dead interest in garage rock.
Bullshit, says John. "The White Stripes weren't unique. I'd done 50, 60 bands like the White Stripes before the White Stripes. They're just another one that happened to hit and get some attention. They're not more talented, they're just lucky."
Until a couple of years ago, the White Stripes' were released under the Sympathy logo, but as the band's popularity soared, frontman Jack White told a Music Connection writer that Long Gone John's practice of operating on handshakes, honesty and no contracts made White a bit edgy. Soon after, the White Stripes struck a deal with Virgin Records offshoot V2, who now carry the White Stripes catalog.
"My stance is that the records wouldn't have existed if I hadn't seen merit in the band," says John, who generally doesn't discuss the details of his dealings with the Detroit duo. "I paid to produce the band when nobody else cared."
John's passion for rock & roll began when he was five years old and discovered radio. "The first really big thing in my life was the Beach Boys," says John. "And then the British stuff, and then the cool American stuff. I love rock & roll."
Raised in a religious family with four brothers and four sisters, the 51-year-old John—he gave himself the nickname Long Gone in his 20s—became something of a bad-ass rebel during his formative years ("Me and my mother were mortal enemies," he recalls) and was bounced from high school to high school, eventually ending up in juvenile hall and then a boy's home. Life had been so wretched that the boys home "was a much better life."
Hanging out in the LA music scene of the mid-1980s, John made friends with bands like the Lazy Cowgirls and Crowbar Salvation. In 1988, when the Cowgirls couldn't find a label for their live album, John volunteered to put out the record himself.
"When I did that Lazy Cowgirls record, I had no intention of doing anything else," explains John. "I was on my way out to Hollywood, I thought of the name for the label, and I thought that probably would be the only thing I would ever do. I had no design or interest in starting a record label. It was the same kind of situation for the next record. Then I started doing a bunch of 7-inches. Before I knew it, it was a real label."
A real label, but one in which the proprietor's personality was very much ingrained. A tone of irreverence was immediately set by the label's moniker, by its Margaret Keane-style, sad-eyed waif logo, and by its motto: "We almost really care."
"All these years, even to this day, lots of people think that Sympathy is a much bigger concern than it is," says John. "People don't understand that it's just one person working out of his house, because I've always referred to 'the staff at the Sympathetic Nerve Center.' People have called up and asked to speak to someone in the radio promotion department!"
With budgets microscopic even by indie standards, Sympathy pumped out music at a furious pace during the '90s, at one point averaging a new release a week—some by groups that eventually made the leap to major labels like Hole, the Muffs and Rocket From The Crypt. Most of his roster is still made up of artists who sing and play in near-perfect obscurity. But each is offered the same no-frills recording deal. Sympathy puts out the record, and whatever happens, happens.