What is Water?
The best reissue independent in the country? A label fueled by Cat Power and other wistful girls strumming plaintive guitars? Perhaps the ’60s and ’70s reissue imprint along with Runt, its Oakland distribution parent company, and its associated sister labels got to where it is because owner Filippo Salvadori had the foresight to put out the first LP, 1995’s Dear Sir, by the ageless, Karl Lagerfeldanointed troubadour Cat Power, née Chan Marshall, foreshadowing Water’s releases by femme folkies such as Judee Sill and "Windy" songwriter Ruthann Friedman, once lost but now passionately hailed by fans like Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart, respectively.
Or maybe the Runt-Water phenomenon all started with a simple scenario familiar to music fans of a certain age when, back in the plastic age before cable, the Web, IM, MySpace, text messages, and the lot, as Pat Thomas longtime Runt staffer and Mushroom drummer and onetime respected San Francisco folk label Heyday owner, a "detective and general errand boy" who’d track down artwork, master tapes, and families that own publishing rights puts it, "The only thing to do was smoke a joint and listen to an album. So you really got into your albums. That was your entertainment."
And that was the reason why Thomas and the rest of Salvadori’s small staff would later lovingly dust off and rerelease those precious artifacts from the lazy days of endless summer, multiuse gym socks, wood-grain stereo consoles, and just three channels on the boob tube, unearthing and restoring previously unheard gems along the way. As monolithic major labels tighten their catalogs and slap together cookie-cutter reissues with cut-rate art, it’s come down to indies like Seattle’s Light in the Attic and Coxsackie, New York’s Sundazed, and Runt (named after Salvadori’s favorite Todd Rundgren LP) and its imprints Water, 4 Men with Beards, Plain, and DBK Works to dig into swelling back catalogs and curate with the care that makes true music geeks and retro hipsters want to snag everything they issue. Those Water releases range, dizzyingly, from Terry Reid, the man who would have been Led Zeppelin’s lead vocalist had he been more career minded, to a recent series of majestic Milton Nascimento ’70s releases to Sonny Sharrock’s screaming early endeavors and the Flaming Lips’ Restless albums on pink, blue, and clear vinyl.
"There’s not one fucking record on there that isn’t interesting," says Patrick Roques, who has worked for Water as well as Blue Note. "Everything on the catalog, you want to have. It reminds me of Factory, growing up: anything you saw with that label, you wanted to buy it. All that music that came out on Water is important."
And in the recent years of industry downturn, the music has gotten lost while major labels have largely focused on reissuing albums digitally sans the careful packaging and new liner notes that Runt takes pains to deliver rather than physically. "The way the market is going for all labels and with fewer places to sell physical CDs, we can’t put out as many as we used to," says Mason Williams, A&R director at Rhino/Warner Bros., which made its name as an independent reissuer, continues to put out handsome reissues, and now works with Runt, among other indies. "More and more smaller labels have started in the last few years and are working with other labels to reissue deep catalog stuff."
"When I was a teenager [in the ’70s]," Thomas continues, "I could go to JC Penney and Sears and buy any album by the Stones or the Beatles or the Who from the classic rock back catalog. Now if you go Target or Wal-Mart, you’re only going to get ‘Best of’s. Even multimillion-selling bands you can get the best of Led Zep, but you can’t get Led Zeppelin IV. This is forcing labels to tighten up their catalog because places like that aren’t ordering it." The closure of Tower, one of the biggest stockers of back-catalog albums, didn’t help. "Eventually, it’s going to reach a point that legendary items aren’t going to be available on CD."
That’s where Runt comes in. The latest Elliott Smith collection of tasty, previously unreleased scraps wafts through Runt’s spacious brick loft and warehouse as Salvadori burns me a copy of Water’s latest release, Judee Sill’s Live in London: The BBC Recordings 19721973, beneath a Dr. Seusslike shadow man painted by staffer Nat Russell, who fronts Birds of America and runs Isota Records, which is also distributed by Runt. Life is beautiful, as the Roberto Benigni film title goes, on this sun-dappled day a few rolling blocks from the Parkway, and the man from Arezzo, the same small town the Italian dark comedy was set in, is talking about 4 Men with Beards’ upcoming vinyl releases of iconic albums by the Flying Burrito Brothers, Tim Buckley, John Cale, the Velvet Underground, Nico, the Replacements, and, as chance would have it, Smith all with pricier gatefold packaging, if the LPs originally had it, and careful remastering at Fantasy. That sense of dedication reached its height with the release of Public Image Ltd.’s Metal Box on immaculately canned vinyl. "It was really crazy, but we really did it," Salvadori says, peering through thick black-rimmed spectacles as he picks up an original Metal Box, purchased off eBay and now significantly diminished in resale value thanks to the characters scrawled on its silver surface at the Chinese factory that duplicated it. The Runt crew procured the music rights from Warner Bros. before being told that the packaging permissions were owned by EMI/Virgin, which, it turned out, only had OK in the UK. Eventually John Lydon himself delivered the approval.
That journey tracing a slab of decades-old wax on its manifold trajectories, to its multiple owners is only one of many Salvadori has made. After his initial Cat Power success, he moved to Berkeley to study English in the mid-’90s. The touch-and-go world of struggling indies brought him back to Europe to distribute friends’ labels. Then, around 2001, Salvadori and his fellow collector-geek pal Thomas decided to take their major-label contacts and get into the reissue business themselves, beginning with such offbeat releases as the Holy Modal Rounders’ The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders and the Zodiac’s Cosmic Sounds. Licensing albums from labels like Rhino/Warner Bros. seemed mutually beneficial, Salvadori recalls: "For us it’s fine if we move a few thousand. Sometimes we get lucky and move more than several thousand, but for them it probably wouldn’t be worth it."
Water also seems to be sparking revivals in the music of Sill and Reid, who remain the label’s biggest sellers, as well as Ruthann Friedman, who began recording with Banhart and in early July had her first Bay Area show in aeons. Think of Runt, Water, and its offshoots as the logical extensions of your older sibling’s mysterious yet well-loved record collection, guiding you toward what you must listen to next, be it a cry from Albert Ayler, a Cluster and Brian Eno collabo, or a forgotten solo disc by Neu’s Michael Rother. Still, Salvadori hopes to someday get back to his roots, despite the costs and risks associated with nonreissues, i.e., newer artists, with … say, have you heard the Moore Brothers, on Plain? "We didn’t get too much luck yet, but I always hope the next record is going to be the one," he says. "They’re so good! So hopefully people are going to eventually say, ‘Hey, this is good.’ I always hope …" *
RUTHANN FRIEDMAN AND MUSHROOM WITH EDDIE GALE
With Bart Davenport
July 13, call for time and price
3101 Shattuck, Berk.