Home' Rhythms Magazine : 2016 Jul-Aug Contents thought was funny, I don’t care,” he goes on, his enthusiasm taking hold. “You know, no one will
play acoustic if there’s an electric guitar there, for the most part, you know? The fact all those guys
were being made to play acoustic because that was tradition and shit, that’s kinda bullshit, that’s
not right. I was like, why should the kids have the marshall stacks, and they don’t? So that’s the first
thing we got, with RL.”
This is what set Fat Possum apart from the get-go. They quickly made for themselves a reputation
for not conforming in any way, shape or form, which is why they’re so highly regarded today. The
blues they were working with was different to begin with, but they took it further – there were hip
hop hybrids, punk hybrids, rock ‘n’ roll hybrids. These artists began to cross over, picking up fans
in the unlikeliest of places. The label’s reputation grew.
Despite this, they’ve never really made any money over the years (they were funded by Epitaph in
the mid ‘90s, saving them from certain death), but they’ve always managed to keep afloat. There’ve
been a few events which have also helped – signing The Black keys early on in their career;
securing the rights to Al Green’s back catalogue. For the most part though, it’s not been easy.
“I’m not really sure, to be honest,” Johnson laughs when I ask why he never called it quits, why the
label is still here after 25 years. “Epitaph and The Black keys [saved us] as we were teetering on the
edge ... I hope we still have relevance today, I mean, we’ve had to change our game. I do miss those
guys a lot. we still have some guys, like Fat white Family, to carry the torch of RL Burnside.”
According to Johnson, there’s nothing happening in rural mississippi these days. Not like back
then, no one of the ilk of Burnside, kimbrough, Ford, Fred mcDowell, Jessie mae Hemphill, Johnny
Farmer. “RL’s gone, Junior’s gone, all the stuff I liked is gone,” he concurs. “The people who learned
it and had those crappy jobs, the real-deal guys, they’re all gone. [Today’s kids] don’t care, they’re
doing the hip hop thing, and I get it. They think it’s a white person’s thing.”
He pauses after he says this. I get the impression that despite the hardships he would have
endured dealing with these artists, (“It was basically like chaos theory,” he laughs at one point),
he misses the fucked up unpredictability of it all, not to mention the raw power of the music itself,
now only existing, gathering dust, in the label’s vaults. It’s sad in a way. Sad that these renegades
have died out and there’s no one to replace them.
The label itself of course has managed to survive, essentially by expanding their sonic horizons.
Their signing of The Black keys is well documented, as is their work with Iggy Pop, Solomon
Bourke and Dinosaur Jr. It’s fair to say they’re still known as a blues label, but these days Fat
Possum has many different fingers, in many different pies.
“A lot of it was necessity,” Johnson explains on this sonic expansion over the past decade and a
half. “[And] it has to be bands that I like, that’s the only criteria. There’s something about all of
these bands, The Districts are one of my favourites, and I love Seratones. we just had to evolve, or
it would just get kinda old, you know?”
Now home to the likes of the lo-fi rock of Sunflower Bean; the roots/rock hybrid that is Seratones;
the unhinged punk roots of Fat white Family; the country of The Felice Brothers; Jon Spencer’s
disjointed side-project Heavy Trash, Fat Possum has indeed changed its focus. what hasn’t
changed though is the quality of the acts that call the label home. Sure, it’s different music, it’s
not as hectic and chaotic as it would have been in the early ‘90s, but Fat Possum is still very much
alive, still very much focused on what they see as good music.
“I hope so,” Johnson says after some thought, on whether the label has another 25 years in it. “I
mean, hopefully we’re not gonna undo what we’ve managed to accomplish so far.” He laughs again
here, and then lapses into silence before adding, “It’s gotten so damn hard ... for a while things were
flying off the shelves, not hugely, but you know...”
The label’s motto is ‘we’re Trying our Best’, which says it all really. That’s what they’ve been doing
since 1991, and even as the record industry continues to slip and slide, they’ll keep on trying their
best. It’s why they’ve survived as long as they have – an unflinching belief in the music they’re
working with, regardless of any outside influence. Just like the lurching, jangling, fucked up outlaw
bluesmen they originally championed.
For more information on Fat Possum and its roster, head to www.fatpossum.com
SAmUEL J. FELL
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