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Don Giovanni Records’ Founder on Buillding a Beloved Local Indie Label

As difficult as it was to brave Friday’s blizzard to attend the second night of New Brunswick, NJ-based Don Giovanni Records’ three-day annual showcase at Music Hall of Williamsburg, we wouldn’t have seriously considered missing it. The lineup was stacked – from opener Hilly Eye, who just released their debut album and started off the evening on an emotional and cathartic note, to Laura Stevenson and the Cans, a band that manages to blow us away every time we see them, the showcase was the perfect thing to make us forget about the winter storm outside. A particular highlight was Jeffrey Lewis, whose special talent is to be depressing and hilarious all at once. This time, his self-deprecating style found its outlet in a spoken piece riffing on Lou Reed’s interpretation of The Raven, in which the raven was a pigeon and the narrator was an old Jewish West Sider. Although her band got stuck in the snow and couldn’t make it, Waxahatchee brought the songs on her lo-fi debut to appropriately gut-wrenching life as she played them solo on guitar.

The defining essence of Don Giovanni, and what came across in the showcase, is its homeyness. Standing in the crowd, there was a sense that almost every musician there had at least a few friends in attendance, as well as several long-time fans of bands whose national profile is still low. This community vibe probably has something to do with the label’s commitment to supporting the New Brunswick scene, something that founder Joseph Steinhardt described in our interview, below. He and co-founder Zach Gajewski have been going strong for ten years, and if the crowd that showed up in the midst of a blizzard to celebrate the label says anything about their audience’s devotion, we expect their next decade will be even bigger.

Jeffrey Lewis. Photo credit: Emily Wheeler

Flavorwire: How did Don Giovanni come about? What was the first artist you guys signed? 

Joseph Steinhardt: We started the label so we could release our own band’s seven-inch.  I had always wanted to release something from a band I was in because so many of the local bands that inspired me when I was growing up started labels to release their own records, like The Degenerics (Soul Rebel), Stormshadow (Ch-Ching), and Dead Nation (Slaughterhouse). Once we got the record out some of my friends from that scene asked if we would help them with their records, and so we did. That’s actually kinda still what we do. The first two bands we did records with that weren’t our own were called Kamikaze and Snakebite.

Is it harder or easier running an indie label now than it was ten years ago?

I don’t know. In most ways I feel like Zach and I are doing the exact same thing now that we did back then, for the same reasons, with most of the same people and the same ideals and goals. It’s never really been hard, though. It’s a lot of work, but it’s not hard, and even the mundane and boring aspects are really rewarding. I think the fact that Zach and I do have day jobs that are fully separate from the label and have nothing to do with music is why it’s never felt hard and never not been rewarding. We don’t put any of our money into the label at this point, but also don’t take any out of it. I think by not relying on the label for income, and with the label not relying on us for finance either, it’s able to be this pure thing that exists to support a scene and artists, where we don’t feel any pressure to release stuff that will sell, and likewise aren’t able to throw crazy amounts of money at a band that doesn’t deserve it.

Laura Stevenson and the Cans. Photo credit: Emily Wheeler

It seems like a lot of people at your showcases are hardcore fans of bands who know each other from their local scene. Is it hard to help these bands with a cult following find a wider audience? 

I would say it’s impossible to really make bands have any kind of following, be it wide or cult. I see our goal as simply to make our music as easily available as possible and let as many people who might like it know about it as possible. This idea of a band having a cult following or being mainstream or whatever is only something that can be assessed in hindsight, and not really something I think about too much since that seems to only matter from a marketing standpoint.

I noticed at the show last night that the lineup was predominantly female-fronted bands, and that seems to be a trend across the acts you sign (which is awesome). Do you think about the gender makeup of the label? 

I can honestly say I’ve never thought about gender when deciding which bands to work with. We have an incredible music scene in New Jersey and the surrounding areas where I never felt like I had to even think about these issues and a lot of other issues that seem to plague other music scenes around the country. I feel really lucky for that, and the older I get and the more places I go and people I talk to, I realize more and more how special the scene here is. I’d like to feel that anyone should feel comfortable starting bands and playing shows in our scene, and the label is just a reflection of that.

Hilly Eye. Photo credit: Emily Wheeler, courtesy of Impose

What new bands/labels/blogs/albums are you most excited about this year?

I’m really excited about a lot of stuff my friends are doing this year: Cryptophasia fanzine issue #1 is supposed to come out sometime soon, and I’m dying to read it. I heard from Jeff Lewis two nights ago that he is working on a new record with Pete Stampfel, and that might be the release I am most excited to hear this year. I am also dying to hear the stuff Lemuria has been recording. Amy Ray is working on a new record right now, which I really want to hear. My friend Matt has been working on solo stuff under the name Kissing Is a Crime for almost as long as we’ve been doing the label, and I just heard a new song of his which is the best thing he’s ever done.

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