Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

Sheer Ambition 

With SeeThru Broadcasting, Dave Sardy and Kevin Wortis envision a new kind of indie label: one that's passionate about music and well-financed

Wednesday, Jan 5 2000
I'm trying to start the label that I wish I could have signed to," explains Dave Sardy, on the phone from his Hollywood home. He's taking a break from producing the new Marilyn Manson record in an abandoned mansion somewhere in L.A. It's going well, he says, claiming that behind the sinister exterior, his current client is, in fact, "funny as shit."

When Sardy talks about his new record label, SeeThru Broadcasting, he's unable to resist doing a little major label bashing, and he speaks from personal experience: His own band, Barkmarket, was recently released by American Records. But Sardy has been exasperated with indie labels as much as with majors, if not more so. "I've never had as much disrespect shown to me at a major as I did on an indie," he says, noting that Barkmarket has been on "every label on the planet at one point or other," including San Francisco's Man's Ruin. "With a lot of indies there's so many decisions based on a frantic need to get things done, at a cost that often gets the artist screwed. It's really hard because you're operating on a shoestring, whereas at a major they have all the money in the world."

Yet even at the majors only a few bands get access to the mountains of cash, which can grow very small very quickly. And Sardy would know: He spends a lot of time dealing with major labels. In fact, while he'd be loath to admit it, at 32 he may only be a few years away from being one of the top producers in the world.

Sardy cites his experience working with one well-known rock band as an inspiration for SeeThru's fiscal policy. "I spent a year on this one record," he recalls. "It's a real straight record. It was basically just an engineering-mixing job. Coming off of it, I just wanted to do everything fuckin' wrong. I thought, 'How can I record in the most chaotic, unthinking, unprofessional, stupid-ass way?' I was so frustrated sitting in a $3,000-a-day studio for seven months just watching the money burn."

SeeThru Broadcasting, formed last year in conjunction with European über-distributor Play It Again Sam, is the real world manifestation of a very simple tenet: If you want something done right, do it yourself. Disillusioned with their experiences in dealing with both major and indie labels, Sardy and San Francisco-based manager Kevin Wortis thought they could build a better mousetrap. So they did, creating a label they hope will attract artists who, for whatever reason, will never meet the increasingly unrealistic, bottom line-oriented demands brought on by major label consolidation.

Though Sardy began twisting knobs for an array of indie stalwarts, including his own band, his uncanny ability to produce phenomenal-sounding recordings has created considerable demand for his services within mainstream rock circles. His previous major label projects have included records by Helmet, Slayer, Skeleton Key, and the much-anticipated Dandy Warhols follow-up for Capitol Records. But it's Sardy's work on the forthcoming Manson album that promises to garner him the most attention to date. Meanwhile, Sardy's own band is revered as one of the fiercest, loudest ensembles to ever emerge from New York's post-hardcore scene. Across five releases, Barkmarket has won a small but rabidly evangelical cadre of fans, and Sardy's easygoing nature belies his ferocious presence both onstage and on record.

"Dave has been in and around the business and he knows all the shitty things about it and all the traps," says ex-Brainiac guitarist John Schmersal, who last year, under the name John Stuart Mill, recorded the first album to be released by SeeThru. "Dave knows what the industry should be that it's not. I think he's the perfect candidate to be doing a label. I think SeeThru is in an optimum place for putting out records because of Dave and Kevin and what they've done."

The concept for SeeThru isn't novel: Take talented artists, give them the resources they need to create their music, and promote the results with vigor. But with Sardy and Wortis at the helm, the label is armed with resources that extend far beyond those of even more established labels. Factor in the muscle and cash of label-distributor Play It Again Sam (whose accounts include Tommy Boy, 4AD, Epitaph, and Mute) and you've got the convergence of three frighteningly capable entities.

Intelligent and deliberate, with a wry sense of humor, Wortis himself is the kind of guy any band would be lucky to have on its side. Arriving in the Bay Area from Philadelphia in 1990, Wortis immediately immersed himself in the city's burgeoning noise rock scene while living in a converted bar in the Mission. "It was one of those amazing properties that used to be in San Francisco, that you walked away from thinking, 'I'll find another one,'" he says, ruefully. Wortis befriended groups like Steel Pole Bathtub and Neurosis, eventually booking and then managing them. As a co-owner of Rave, a Mission-based booking and management firm, he spent the early '90s working with some of the underground's most beloved noisemongers, including Unsane, Seaweed, Mule, the Ex, Elliot Sharp, Antiseen, Crash Worship, Seven Year Bitch, and Doo Rag. When his wife, a tour manager, moved to San Francisco in 1993, she introduced him to Sardy; Wortis began managing Barkmarket shortly thereafter. In addition to that band, he continues to manage Steel Pole, Neurosis, and Michael Gira of Swans, as well as the business affairs of Gira's Young God imprint and Neurosis' Neurot Records.

Wortis is known for championing the bands he manages, which led to his position as de facto label manager at SeeThru, though real job titles have yet to be assigned. While touring Europe last year, Neurosis began to complain about shoddy treatment at the hands of Play It Again Sam, which had licensed the band's catalog (as well as Barkmarket's) for European distribution. Wortis paid a visit to the company's Brussels headquarters. "I basically went over there and chewed out the owner for a couple hours," explains Wortis. "I told him that they weren't doing a good job, that they were hurting the band and hurting themselves.

"At the end of the meeting he said, 'Yeah, you're right,' and he let the band go. And then he turned around and said that [Sardy] should get me to run [SeeThru]." Sardy, who had been talking with Play It Again Sam about setting up a label in the U.S., was more than amenable to the idea of including Wortis. "I was like, 'OK, the guy's been my manager for six years, I think I can work with him,'" he laughs. Wortis simply shakes his head. "It was pretty amusing," he says.

"The nice thing about Kevin is that he's definitely on your side," says Jim Putnam, singer/guitarist for Los Angeles' Radar Brothers, whose most recent album, The Singing Hatchet, was released on SeeThru last year. "I like that Kevin comes from a manager's position. I think he's better at dealing with bands than A&R people. A manager usually works with bands, whereas A&R people seem to work ... against bands."

"I spent so much of my time chasing [labels] around to get a job done," says Wortis. "It seemed obvious that I could spend half the time and just do the job myself." Wortis also displays a keen understanding of economics as they relate to the record industry. That is, he knows where a project will enter the black, and how to get it there. "I was always looking at the way majors were perceiving a certain sales level as a failure," he explains. "And I was always astonished, thinking, 'If discussed in a different light, selling a hundred thousand records could be a wild success rather than a wild failure."

Although Sardy and Wortis have the luxury of funding -- Play It Again Sam finances every aspect of SeeThru -- they try to conserve resources wherever possible. Sardy employs his studio savvy, connections, and gear (he recently purchased a two-story warehouse in New York City in which to construct a new studio to save money on recording, thus allowing more cash to be directed at marketing and promoting the resulting albums). "You need to just not spend a lot of money making records," he asserts. "The cool thing is that [SeeThru] has a studio, and between me and all these musicians, producers, and other people I know, we'll be able to create a kind of family of people to make music." Sardy encourages SeeThru artists to record themselves, supplying artists with money to buy their own recording equipment.

This may be a horrifying prospect for most labels, but most labels aren't co-owned by a world-class producer capable of fashioning even the most modestly recorded sounds into mind-blowing sonic gems. Take, for instance, Believo, the upcoming SeeThru release by John Schmersal's new band, Enon, which also includes Rick Lee and Steve Calhoon from NYC art rockers Skeleton Key. Much of the album -- a tuneful, sample-infused pop-noir cross between Portishead and the Jackson 5 -- was originally recorded by the band in its New York City practice space. In Sardy's hands, it's been remixed, retooled, and reinvigorated. Ditto for the untitled debut from Mike G (né Gagliardi), errant bassist for NYC major label pop band Thin Lizard Dawn. Sardy first heard the songs (originally recorded on over 60 cassettes in an apartment) blaring in the Manhattan bar where Gagliardi works. After some intensive studio time with Sardy, the final product is witty, hilarious, and remarkably hi-fi -- junk pop that'll give Beck fans something to scream about.

Sardy, as the primary recruiter of new talent, listens for, simply enough, "songs. That's it. Fuckin' great songs," he says. "There are a lot of bands out there that play incredible, wonderful, heartfelt music that doesn't fit into the 1 percent of what rock radio is." On their forthcoming SeeThru debut, Norman, Okla.'s Starlight Mints craft an amalgamation of the Beatles, David Bowie, and Pavement, with healthy doses of strings and harmonies thrown in; it's polished, radio-ready, and catchy as hell. "The songs should be hitting you, not the sound of the record," explains Sardy. "Once you get drawn in, there are more levels to it, like great artwork on a package."

To create SeeThru's visual identity, Sardy recruited longtime collaborator Marina Zurkow, who has done work on most of Barkmarket's releases. "It was our idea from the beginning to have one really amazing designer do everything," says Sardy. He and Wortis began discussing SeeThru's visual identity early on. "We talked a lot about 4AD and Blue Note," explains Wortis. "There are certain parts of real estate on the record that we'd like to have."

But Sardy is quick to point out that SeeThru artists are under no obligation to let him and Wortis anywhere near their music. The Radar Brothers' Putnam records all of his band's music in his garage, for instance, and Sardy wouldn't have it any other way, contending that the bottom line is that the artist is pleased with the outcome. "We'll work on it for as long as it takes, which is definitely not an indie mentality," he says. "I'd rather concentrate on making really great records and working with people and establishing a place where people will want to be a part of the label. Why cut corners if it means giving someone more time to work on a song rather than just smash out a throwaway? We don't want records to be throwaways."

About The Author

Lloyd Langworthy


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"