By NEIL FERGUSON // The saga of two guys who had the guts to start a record label.
Why would anybody start a record label these days? One glance at the state of the music industry and even a casual observer can see that starting a record label defies any sensible logic. Then again, the best art doesn’t always come from what’s most logical. John Shepski and Chad Lanning knew it wasn’t exactly logical when they decided to officially launch Fluff & Gravy Records, but here they are in 2016 celebrating the five-year anniversary. Shepski, who serves as “head honcho”, and Lanning, who handles “everything you can see”, are comfortable in the knowledge that through hard work and a deep devotion to the music they have managed to carve out a respectable cult following in the industry.
In five years, Fluff & Gravy has chocked up over 30 releases including EPs, 7” records, and singles, with roughly eighty percent coming from artists based right in their home base of Portland. This is an impressive feat in a relatively short span of time. On all of the releases, which range from folk and rock to alt-country and just about everything in between - the label puts its stamp of quality on everything.
Fluff & Gravy joins ranks of other independent labels that have carved out a surprisingly successful niche against the odds. These include Chicago’s Bloodshot Records, Seattle’s Sub Pop, and North Carolina’s Merge to name a few, all of whom have built up a sort of cult of personality over the years. Instead of cranking out a stream of market-based garbage, these labels have gained a loyal following based on the thoughtful, fan-first approach to curating their catalogue. In other words, if you like one release from the label, chances are you’ll like the next five.
John Shepski cites the artist and fan-friendly approach of these indie labels as a major influence in shaping how Fluff & Gravy works. “Merge was one of my favorites and I've really tried to model Fluff & Gravy after that. As a music fan I'd go into a record store and be flipping through stuff and see that little Merge logo and be like, I have no idea who this band is but I'll check this out.”
Just like Merge, which is a label with an international roster of artists yet still keeps much of its output close to home, Fluff & Gravy has managed to balance the fine line between being distinctly regional yet not being considered a hyper-local label that only appeals to those who can catch its acts around town. Although, if you live in Portland you can count yourself lucky to catch acts like Fernando or Anna Tivel on a regular basis. They also do everything in-house, from press outreach and photography to running a fully operational studio in the basement of Shepski’s Northeast Portland home, but more on that later.
John Shepski and Chad Lanning both hail from the Midwest, but they connected in Portland over a mutual love of music shared while playing hootenannies at a place deep in Southeast Portland called The Barn. Casual jam sessions grew into something more and before long they had joined the band that would ultimately lead to the label.
“We fell into a band that was called WhistlePunk! and we recorded a demo that we wanted to sell at shows, so we decided that it should have an imprint of a record label on the back. That was the very first Fluff & Gravy imprint,” reflects Shepski.
After Shepski went back and forth with Lanning before ultimately selling him on the idea, the two partnered up and officially launched the label with the 2012 release of Drunken Prayer’s Into The Missionfield, a southern-tinged collection of soulful roots rock.
“At the time I had a little bit of money and I thought, why don't I just kind of make Fluff & Gravy Records a real thing and we can put [Into The Missionfield] out,” says Shepski.
The name itself came out of a night of celebration and libations during a slurry discussion on the ride back from a WhistlePunk! gig.
“We all agreed how it happened though - it was a reference to my role in Drunken Prayer, which I was in at the time, singing background vocals and playing acoustic guitar. Drunken Prayer is all Morgan Geer's show. Someone asked me, what is that you do in Drunken Prayer?” says Shepski.
Lanning adds, “We were trying to plan a WhistlePunk! gig and John was like, ‘I can miss a Drunken Prayer show, it doesn't matter if I'm there or not, it's all fluff and gravy.” The details may be fuzzy, but what mattered was that “it worked. That was the takeaway. Once it was established, it was easy to rally around it.”
Playing in a few bands was as close as Lanning and Shepski had been to the music industry, so naturally there was a learning curve.
“For the first year or two when we were trying to figure out how to do it, we were really just dumping money into it for things that we now know we didn't need to be doing,” says Shepski.
Mistakes were made, money was lost, and it wasn’t long before they learned the ropes enough to bring everything in-house to cut costs. This was a pivotal moment in the survival of Fluff & Gravy. “One of the things you really need to do is have the ability, the infrastructure, and the manpower to do things yourself instead of hiring out,” says Shepski.
As they ramped up the label, Lanning even brought in his wife Juniana, an audio engineer, to handle production in the studio. Having Juniana behind the board “is also something that's really cool because not only is it a family operation, but I don't know another female audio engineer. It's a seriously male dominated profession, and to me it's been really cool to have her in the studio,” says Shepski.
Drunken Prayer’s Morgan Geer, who also plays as a member of Freakwater these days, came up with the phrase ‘Trust Your Label’. This has become the motto of Fluff & Gravy, both in terms of how they treat artists and in the way consumers can trust that every release will be at consistently high level of quality. Among its roster, Fluff & Gravy counts literary alt-country favorites Richmond Fontaine, Oregon Music Hall of Famer Fernando Viciconte, Dan Stuart of legendary band Green On Red, folk singer Jeffrey Martin, and veteran songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist Mike Coykendall, among others. Not every act is Portland-based, but the majority is, which makes Fluff & Gravy a vital part of the local scene.
“I do feel like there are a ton of great bands in Portland that slip through the cracks and don't get the attention they deserve. It's not necessarily a conscious thing to focus on Portland bands, that's just what we're seeing,” says Shepski.
Over the course of three days, Fluff & Gravy will celebrate its fifth anniversary with a run of shows featuring nearly their entire roster. The shows will take place November 11-13 at Dante’s and the Star Theater with performances from Hillstomp, Mike Coykendall, Richmond Fontaine, Vacilando, and more. To coincide with the shows, the label is also releasing the 5 Years of Gravy, a compilation featuring unreleased tracks from their artists recorded throughout the 5 year history. The proceeds of the album will go to Portland’s Jeremy Wilson Foundation.
In planning out the celebration, Shepski found inspiration from Bloodshot Records and Merge. “My idea was to combine what Bloodshot does with anniversary compilations with what Merge does with their week of live shows to bring it all together as one huge party,” he says, adding, “We are blown away by the people we've gotten the opportunity to work with, and to get almost all of them under one umbrella for three days is gonna be amazing.”
Each of those labels has been around for over twenty years, so Fluff & Gravy is still a newcomer among their peers. Nonetheless, for a record label to even last five years in the dire climate of the music industry is an accomplishment. With a handful of releases already slated for 2017, John Shepski and Chad Lanning are looking towards the future of Fluff & Gravy. This is good for all of us who like to get our music from people who actually care about it.
Shepski sums up the Fluff & Gravy mentality when explaining his own pitch to an artist he wanted to sign: “I'm not going to say that we are the most established label, we don't have the best connections, we don't have a crap ton of money to put behind your record. What we do have is a love of music and a passion for your record and we're fucking crazy about it.”
All photos by Chad Lanning
Five Years of Gravy takes place November 11-13 at Dante's, the Star Theater, and Fluff & Gravy Studios. PURCHASE TICKETS
You can also check out fluffandgravy.com.