John P. Strohm interview
by Pete Crigler
Blake Babies were one of the last major indie bands to make their name known in a pre-Nirvana world. The trio of John Strohm, Freda Love, and Juliana Hatfield made a few amazing records before breaking up at the height of their success so Hatfield could begin her solo career. Strohm and Love went on to start Antenna before going their separate ways. Love went on to Mysteries of Life while Strohm had the short-lived Velo-Deluxe before starting his own solo career. Briefly reemerging in 2001 with a critically acclaimed reunion album, the Blake Babies were able to pick up where they left off. Strohm has continued on a musically adventurous solo career and eventually moved to the other side of the music business to become president of the prestigious Rounder Records.
PSF: How did you get interested in playing music?
JS: I was interested in playing music from early childhood, but I didn't really get started until I played drums in school band starting at age 11. By high school I was playing paid gigs as a drummer, playing in hardcore bands, and playing in every school ensemble. Around age 15 I got interested in playing guitar and by the end of high school that really took over, along with an interest in songwriting. I gave Freda Love, my girlfriend, my drum set and taught her some basics--we both figured that if we were going to spend all our time together, it might as well be a creative collaboration.
PSF: How did Blake Babies come together, and what was the scene like at the time?
JS: Freda and I moved to Boston (from Bloomington, Indiana, our hometown) in 1985. I was going to Berklee College of Music studying guitar and music production, and Freda was basically hanging out. We met Juliana at school in the spring of '86--we approached her having never spoken and asked her to join our band. She accepted. We invited our high school friend Seth White to move to Boston to join the band, so he packed up his car and drove out. That was late summer 1986.
PSF: How did the band develop its sound?
JS: Juliana and I had each written some songs that we recorded for our first project, Nicely, Nicely. I had "Rain," "Her," and a song called "Goodbye" that Freda wrote the words to. Juliana had "Swill and the Cocaine Sluts," "Not Just a Wish," and I think "Tom and Bob" came soon after (expressing her gratitude for Freda and me bringing her into our band). We practiced a lot early on, because Freda and Juliana were not very proficient on their instruments. The dynamic with Seth was not very good, and he wasn't happy in Boston; so he moved back to Bloomington. I was sort of the musical director in the early days because I'd played in bands and understood how to arrange songs. We had a friend named T. W. Li, our neighbor in the apartment we all shared, who had access to a studio and some basic producing skills. That was the setup for Nicely, Nicely.
PSF: What was it like recording that first record?
JS: We recorded only between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m. because that's when studio time was available we could afford. It might have been free time for the student engineer we were working with, Tracy Chisolm, who later worked on Belly's first album if memory serves. We worked when we could and pieced it together. We pressed 1,000 albums because we wanted to get our songs on college radio. Curtis Casella, who owned TAANG! Records, helped us with mailing lists and advice. I was drumming for the Lemonheads at the time, so I had access to that community. Everything I knew about promoting a record was from the hardcore world, but that was actually very helpful. We never had a proper distributor so almost all the sales were in or near Boston. Making that record helped us draw more fans locally, but when we tried to go on tour in late 1987 (with Evan Dando on bass), we figured out that we were totally unknown despite some college radio airplay. We had fun traveling the Eastern Seaboard, however.
PSF: How did the band come to sign with Mammoth?
JS: Prior to the aforementioned Blake Babies tour, the Lemonheads had done a U.S. tour that stopped in Chapel Hill, N.C. In fact, our vehicle broke down, and we ended up spending several days sleeping on the floor of the party house my older brother lived in at the time. We went on the local college radio station, WXYC, to ask if anyone would let us play, and a local fraternity invited us to play a party. That night we met Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance, who formed Superchunk a couple years later, and Mac invited us to open for his band the following night at the iconic Cat's Cradle club. The DJ at the radio station was a guy named Steve Balcom, who was one of the founding partners of Mammoth. I didn't know he worked for a record company, but I gave him a copy of Nicely, Nicely for his personal collection (they had a station copy). After the tour, he tracked me down and offered to sign our band. So the fall '87 tour was really to come to North Carolina to sign our contract. I tried to read the contract, but it confused me, so I just went ahead and signed it. Nineteen-year-old me could have definitely used the help of 50-year-old me just then.
PSF: What was "success" like, and how did everyone handle it?
JS: Well, we were never really successful, but we did start to get better crowds and some press. We'd gone into it with such confidence that I don't think any of us were very surprised, and we didn't fully appreciate the rare opportunity to reach people with our music. But we worked hard and tried to be as good as we could be--especially with the songwriting. I'd taken on a quasi-managerial role out of necessity, and my personality was probably more aggressive as a result. We didn't have much organization--no manager and only eventually a person to help with sound. Touring was a lot of work, and we toured constantly.
PSF: What caused the band to break up so suddenly?
JS: It's hard to say exactly what happened, but when the music-business people started to take notice of our band, I think there was a certain amount of people taking Juliana aside and suggesting that the band was holding her back if she wanted to have mainstream success. Now that I'm on the business side, I understand that sort of energy better. In 1990 there wasn't much precedent for scrappy indie bands having real success. If it had been a few years later, it might have been different. But I don't think our story would have been possible a few years later. People who pursued underground rock in the '80s have baked-in credibility because there was no path to real success. When we formed, there was really no chance we'd be pop stars--and we accepted that. But then later, especially after Nevermind hit, underground bands could be huge business. Juliana is a great talent, and I knew that. It was a happy accident that we picked her out of a crowd; but there was no mistaking her talent as a vocalist, writer, and innovator. So it might have been the right thing for her to "go solo" when she did. And Freda and I wanted to experiment, and we loved the freedom of making music without aesthetic limits. That's what Antenna was about, for better or worse.
PSF: Was the breakup expected to be permanent?
JS: We didn't talk about it. I think we all assumed it would be.
PSF: How did Antenna come together, and what ended that project?
JS: Freda and I moved to Bloomington in the summer of 1990, ostensibly because we couldn't afford to live in Boston, but also because we were already sort of breaking off from the unit. I spent the summer of 1990 writing songs like crazy, and I recorded those songs as 4-track demos and sent them to Steve at Mammoth. He and Jay Faires, his partner in Mammoth, loved my demo tape and offered to make a solo record. In retrospect I should have just released that 4-track demo and called it a day, but instead I took a budget and went into the studio the following spring and made a record with Paul Mahern producing, my old friend who had done the last Blake Babies recordings (which became Rosy Jack World). I recruited my friend Vess Ruhtenberg from Indianapolis to play guitar and Jake Smith from Bloomington to play bass. We made the record quickly and just poured every idea we had into the project. I think we were convinced it was a better record than it actually was at the time--an argument for getting some distance before putting something into the world. I did a song of Vess's and a song of Jake's to make it more of a band project. Vess left to do his own thing, Freda and I broke up, and Jake and Freda became a couple (they've been married for over 20 years now--we are all close friends). Lots of drama. We made our follow-up, Hideout, which I feel is a better record--at least production-wise. It was inevitable that we'd break up, because Freda and Jake had a son and I was off on some sort of hedonistic adventure.
PSF: Same with Velo-Deluxe?
JS: Jake and Freda formed their own band, Mysteries of Life (and made some fantastic records), so I felt it appropriate to change the name when I recruited a new lineup. I was flailing at that point, not really making great creative choices. I was also playing guitar in the Lemonheads, which became a sort of day job for me. It was all moving in the direction of having the confidence to make records on my own. By then I knew I didn't have the creative genius of Juliana or Evan, so I knew I'd have to figure out another way to make a living. It's a depressing realization, I suppose, but I'd started to see myself in more of a business role since that's what I'd always gravitated towards.
PSF: Were the Blake Babies still friendly during this time?
JS: It was a tough transition for Freda and me, because we'd been in a relationship for nine years that was coming to an end. We both wanted it to end, but it's difficult when we're still actively working together. I think it took a few years to get past the weirdness. But to be clear, I was always very supportive of Jake and Freda getting together. I knew they were great for each other, and it's very gratifying to see the life they've built--especially given that I met the love of my life around that time, and I've been happily married with a family for a long time. It's interesting that we all pursued advanced degrees and found careers that involve creativity--Freda is a writer and educator, Jake is a cultural studies professor, and I am a music lawyer representing artists. It all makes sense now, but it was emotional back then.
PSF: What was it like to start a solo career?
JS: The first "solo" record I made--Caledonia--was just something I was doing between Lemonheads tours. I had a country band in Bloomington we were calling Hello Strangers, playing country covers in local joints. It was a blast, and I decided to have that band back me up on some rootsier material I was working on. I recorded it myself with a little help from Paul Mahern. I'd intended to make it a band record, but someone from another band called Hello Strangers sent me a cease-and-desist, so I decided to just make it a solo record. The only solo record I made deliberately was the one called Vestavia, and I really tried to do my best work on that record. I made it with my good friend Ed Ackerson in Minneapolis, who had played in some of the later Antenna shows. He helped me make it mostly by myself--he played bass and keys, and when I gave up trying to drum on everything because it was just too hard, his band's drummer came in and played on most of the tracks. I still feel like that is my best work outside of Blake Babies. I'm proud of that album. But it was also the catalyst to get me back in school because it wasn't particularly successful. People liked it well enough, but it wasn't opening doors. The last record I made, Everyday Life, was sort of sweeping the floor of all the material I'd written before I started law school, and it took me four years to record because I was so busy with work and raising babies. I just needed to record and release those songs so they wouldn't be lost.
PSF: How did the 2000 reunion come together, and what was that like?
JS: It was Freda's idea really--she and Juliana had worked together in Some Girls, and we decided to do a show for New Year's 1999-2000 (Y2K). That proved to be fun, so we did another show that followed my wedding, summer of 2000 in Birmingham (where I lived between 1998 and 2011). After the Birmingham show we started collaborating on material. I took all the songs I'd written for my next solo project--some without lyrics--and sent them to Freda and Juliana. Juliana wrote words to some of the tunes I had, "On" and "Disappear" come to mind, and we chose a couple of mine to record. Juliana and Freda each brought finished songs. Once we felt we had enough material, we met up in Bloomington over a few days with Paul Mahern to record. Evan came in for a couple days and brought his Ben Lee collaboration Brain Damage. Juliana suggested covering the Madder Rose song "Baby Gets High". God Bless the Blake Babies (a sarcastic quote from Bono during a drunk radio interview) is by far my favorite BBs album to listen to. I think it's our best record, and it's my argument we should do another--which we may do.
PSF: Any potential plans for more shows?
JS: Discussing. We'll see. We're all busy.
PSF: What are you currently up to?
JS: I took a bunch of years off from music-making, but I'm about halfway through an album project. I'll release some songs later this summer, and I'll officially release the finished album in some form or fashion next year. A few of these songs I'd written for a potential Blake Babies album, but when Juliana decided to make Pussycat last year, I shifted gears and got to work on my own project. It's taking me a while because I can only find a few hours a month to work on music! I try to make the most of it.
PSF: How did you come to become president of Rounder, and how has it been working on the other side of the industry?
JS: Now that I'm out of law practice, I have some perspective on my path, and I realize that law was mostly just a path to find a way to work on the business side of artist development. My passion is working with great artists, and that has been a constant since I first had the opportunity to work with great artists in Boston in the 1980s. By the time I had the wheels on my law practice representing artists, I saw limitations to what I was able to do in that role. I loved my work, but I found it frustrating that law isn't very creative, and is by definition adversarial. I'm not interested in fighting for the sake of fighting, but that is what a lot of lawyers particularly enjoy. We're supposed to be looking after the interests and pursuing the goals of our clients, but we spend large amounts of our days fighting over issues that are probably inconsequential, and then we have to bill our clients for the time we spent in some ego battle we didn't choose to engage. I can do it, and I could do it again; but it isn't my favorite way to spend so many of my working hours.
So, by the time I hit my stride, I had my eyes open for a way to parlay what I'd learned in a decade or more of law practice into some similar pursuit that included more creativity, and less fighting. My big break came in the fall of 2017 when Tom Whalley, one of my heroes and mentors in the music industry, approached me with an offer to work for him running Rounder Records, which had been recently acquired by Concord, a large independent entertainment company with substantial music holdings. Tom, who had great success as an A&R man, a founder of Interscope Records, and Chairman of Warner Brothers Records, had become the CEO of Concord's recorded music division. Concord had also become the home for the independent label Tom runs with his son Ryan, Loma Vista Recordings. Loma Vista had significant success, so the board of directors asked Tom to guide all of Concord's frontline labels, which include Fantasy Records, Concord Records, and Rounder. When a position came open for a new President of Rounder, Tom thought of me. Of course, it's very flattering to be recognized by such an iconic industry leader for the work I'd been doing discovering and developing talent, but I was still skeptical. I'd built a business in my law clientele, and it was emotionally very difficult to have to resign from representing all my clients, many of whom were among my all-time favorite artists, many of whom are my close friends. But after a great deal of consideration, I decided that running an iconic label with great resources and an ambitious growth plan was a perfect professional fit for me. Now, coming up on two years into my new role, I'm so glad I made the jump. It's challenging to learn new skills, such as leading a team and developing marketing plans; but my work fits well with my values as a music fan, musician, and artist advocate, and I owe that to Tom Whalley. I would be useless in my role if I couldn't continue to work with the best artists and treat them with the respect they deserve. I am truly in the business of making great records now, and that is what I've always wanted to do. I keep my distance when it comes to our artists' creativity, but I often play a significant role in terms of helping to realize their creative vision, and connecting the music with fans. I want to succeed so that I get to keep doing this for many years, and to sharpen my skills and knowledge to better serve artists, and to have an impact on the culture.
I have a great respect and appreciation for the history of Rounder, which turns 50 next year. I work closely with the founders of the label to better serve their vision for the company they started; however, it isn't really tradition that made me want to take this job. There's a widely held opinion in the music business that labels are no longer relevant, and that they are a drain on creative artists, or that they get in the way of the creative process. I saw time and again in my law practice that there's plenty of truth to these opinions, and I've witnessed artists struggling with label relationships. Nevertheless, there is a tremendous need for investment and resources in the best creative artists so that they can reach a large, international audience, and good artist managers know that often the best way to access those resources and funds are through a label deal. My philosophy for the future of the artist business is that future-focused labels will realize that they can be that resource without overreaching in their business deals, and without interfering with the creative process. That's what we're doing at Rounder. We're focused on great songs, great singers, great records, respect for artists and their work, innovative marketing, and a tradition of American roots music that has been this company's stock in trade since it found its roots in the folk revival of the 1960's.
Assuming I've pretty much said what I've had to say with my own music (which I do still make), I hope what we're building at Rounder will be my life's work. The music business has had its problems in my view primarily because people in the business haven't had sufficient respect for artists and their work. There is a perfect equilibrium at the juncture of art and commerce where companies can be profitable while truly serving artists and their careers. That's the side of the industry I've been pursuing for decades, and that is truly where my passions have led me.
PSF: What do you think about alternative rock and its impact on the '90s?
JS: Alternative rock produced a lot of amazing songs, albums, and artists, but ultimately it was a letdown once it metastasized into a pop radio format. Once it became a singles-based medium, the business diluted the art and pushed the more interesting projects underground. My own interest in music is in great songs and voices, not in genres. I love music from every genre, and I feel we're in as great a time as ever for music. I'm not nostalgic for alternative rock, and I hope we learned some lessons from its decline. I do hope there are exciting new rock artists in the future, but I'm sure there will be a lot of amazing songs and records in the future. People need great songs.
PSF: What do you hope Blake Babies' legacy will be?
JS: I'm not really concerned, because I feel our songs and records have aged well. I don't think we're one of those bands that started a movement or blew up like a nuclear bomb. But I do feel we contributed to the art and left behind a good legacy. I'm mostly proud of the fact that we did what we did and moved on to live happy, productive lives. Success in music, especially for young people, can be a destructive force. None of us were roadkill from that incredible time, and that's a triumph in itself. I love Freda and Juliana's work outside the band, and I sincerely hope we all continue to be productive, whether together or apart.
Photo by Heather Durham, courtesy of Rounder
Also see Peter Crigler's blog
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