The Narrator's Jesse Woghin on owning his band's record label
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In a city where indie-rock bands are a dime a dozen, it takes some effort to stand out from the Steve Albini-recording, Touch & Go-loving masses. Bands often rush into playing shows or recording albums just to get their names out there, only to wish they’d been more patient later. Patience has helped The Narrator distinguish itself from the dozens of indie-rock bands playing around town every week. The group formed three years ago, but didn’t release its debut full-length, Such Triumph, until June 2005. That discipline paid dividends; Such Triumph sounds deliberate and reasoned, even when it’s punky and frenetic. The Narrator controlled every aspect of the album, including how local indie Flameshovel Records released and promoted it—an easy task, considering that Narrator singer-guitarist Jesse Woghin co-owns the label. Woghin recently told The A.V. Club that The Narrator wouldn’t have it any other way.
The A.V. Club: A lot of bands now seem to release albums before the world even knows they exist. What made you hold back?
Jesse Woghin: We had a pretty specific idea of what we wanted the record to be like, and the songs just kind of developed over a long period of time. We wanted to let everything gestate. I’m personally pretty big on revision. We don’t really have any interest in rushing too much into anything. We’re pretty aware that most things that would happen for our band would take place in a little longer period of time. We’re hoping to be around for a little while. It’s not, “Oh man, we gotta write our magnum opus.” We recorded a bunch of songs, but decided, “Well, two of these are really good, so let’s put them on a seven-inch.” [Laughs.]
AVC: Few bands are that disciplined. It’s like, “Record everything, and get it out there.”
JW: I can think about our first couple of shows, and while they were a lot of fun, it would be pretty weird if there was a record out there that had a bunch of the songs we were playing. Maybe someday it would be great to have those songs, in some weird fashion, but I think we’re all fairly confident that we’re a lot happier with what we’re doing now. Our whole thing was, we wanted to play shows and tour and things like that, but the whole songwriting process is a little different for us. Sometimes I wish we wrote things a little quicker, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking your time and making sure you’re happy with everything.
AVC: Does it feel like it’s taken a long time for the band to establish itself?
JW: Yeah, it’s a slow build, but I think that’s natural, and I guess I wouldn’t really want it any other way. I’m often wary of things that appear and have this immediate fan base. I mean, sometimes people connect with things instantaneously, and it makes sense. But for us, bands we take inspiration from, none of them was [successful] overnight. It’s not like one day they weren’t there, and the next day they were everywhere. Just over the last year or so, things have started to feel a lot better in town. The release show [for Such Triumph] was the first show we ever played in Chicago when the whole front of the stage was filled in, and I didn’t know any of those people at all, and they were into it. [Laughs.] That was a really great moment, having to look through the crowd to figure out where my friends were. It was a bizarre experience. It just kind of felt like we weren’t in Chicago. Generally speaking, we’ve been lucky to play some really great shows in Chicago with bands we like, but the shows that are the most fun are not in Chicago. This is the first time that it’s happened on our home turf, and it just felt really good.
AVC: And it only took three years.
JW: Yeah, you know, but so what? It could be worse. It could have never happened. Hopefully they’ll come back next time, or at least some of them.
AVC: Is it weird releasing your band’s stuff on your record label? Do you worry about giving The Narrator preferential treatment over the other bands?
JW: Speaking firsthand and knowing all the work that goes into it, I know we don’t get any preferential treatment. In fact, it’s probably the opposite, to some extent, because I guess I’m conscious of that. To be perfectly honest, it makes sense for me to put out the record. We were talking about waiting for things and wanting to make the record great and spending time writing the songs and everything, but at the same time, once it’s done, I really don’t have any interest in sitting around and shopping it to people and seeing if somebody’s going to bite. I know James and I have the means to do it ourselves. I built the label and started doing all this work and figuring out how to put out records, and I went through the shitstorm of doing that stuff forever, and now that I’m here, and I have the means to put out our record, why wouldn’t I just do it?
AVC: There are a lot of indies here in Chicago. What’s your relationship with them like?
JW: We’re at the very least friendly with everyone. We realized pretty quickly that if we were ever really struggling, you can send any of these people an e-mail. I could send Bettina [Richards, owner of Thrill Jockey] an e-mail, and she’ll write back a whole page on whatever it is you want to know. Everybody’s pretty welcoming and pretty inviting.