Not your parents’ record store: An interview with Ben Swank and Chet Weise

Third Man Records
Ben Swank (left) and Chet Weise collaborated on the prose and poetry anthology Language Lessons, Vol. 1. — photo by Jennifer Donahue

Third Man Records and a cadre of underground music and literary artists will be performing at Gabe’s on Saturday, April 5.

There are plenty of record stores with considerable cultural cachet. Amoeba Music in Los Angeles has made a place for itself as a multi-media juggernaut. Waterloo Records in Austin, Texas, not only has a massive catalog to choose from, it’s also famous for housing impressive live performances. Reckless Records in my hometown Chicago has forever cemented its cult status as the inspiration for the fictitious Championship Vinyl in the film High Fidelity. The brand these outlets have built for themselves helps ensure their survival in today’s volatile market for cultural consumption.

Third Man Records also has its own brand and cachet to call upon; however, what’s more impressive about this outfit is its commitment to providing a platform to develop and showcase the work of underground artists working in various media. In this regard, TMR is more than a brand: It’s also a mission.

Founded by renowned musician and impresario Jack White in 2001, TMR established its base of operations in Nashville, Tenn., in 2009. Its physical location houses a record store as well as TMR’s label offices, photo studio and darkroom, a live music venue and an analog recording studio. In addition to its forays into music, TMR has now extended its ventures into the written word with the release of its first publication, an anthology titled Language Lessons, Volume 1 through its literary arm, Third Man Books.

Little Village recently interviewed TMR co-founder Ben Swank and Language Lessons editor Chet Weise about their contributions to the record label’s innovative approach to supporting underground artists.

Little Village: How did each of you become involved with TMR?

Ben Swank: Jack, Ben Blackwell and I have all known each other for a long time. I was working in London doing some media/label work, and when Jack decided he wanted to open a brick and mortar label/storefront, he got me and Ben involved from the beginning. A few months later I moved to Nashville, in 2009, and been doing this since.

Chet Weise: Back in the day, we all played in bands—Soledad Brothers, White Stripes, Immortal Lee County Killers—that shared bills together. By the way, we still talk about loading up and down the steps at Gabe’s.

As for more recent times, I curate a reading series in Nashville called Poetry Sucks! We feature music, poetry, prose, confessionals, comedy, etc. Swank has been involved with helping organize the event and has even participated, and, of course, both Jack and Swank have attended. Third Man Book’s first publication of poetry and prose, Language Lessons: Volume I, sprung from that reading series.

TMR’s website highlights a mission “to bring a spontaneous and tangible aesthetic back into the record business.” What does this suggest about the significance of TMR’s name, the motivation behind its efforts and how its mission applies to TMR’s various artistic ventures?

BS: We strive to find new, amusing or interesting ways for people to engage with music and art. It’s easy and awesome to sit at a computer and click a button and have music delivered immediately. It takes more effort to go to a physical location, make conversation and discover something new … but all of that effort is ultimately more rewarding and it helps encourage a more lasting experience and relationship with your fan base.

CW: I’m hard-pressed to think of any record label who has printed a book of contemporary poetry and prose, especially as a hardcover, especially including a double (yes, vinyl!) album of music ranging from free jazz, to Mississippi hill blues, to psychedelic punk-rock and live-recorded recitations from poets such as Sampson Starkweather and Jake Adam York. So, I think the Language Lessons anthology epitomizes what the question implies: a dedication to art and an ethos that keeps producing both music on vinyl (the best medium for listening) and the music of language on paper (the best medium for reading), and all in one place—a box set. Oh, and there will be broadsides of art included, too, for poems by the likes of CD Wright and Frank Stanford (unpublished poems, too).

TMR has its hands in a number of creative media. What’s the significance behind this holistic approach to supporting underground artists?

BS: We’re in a unique position where people are paying attention to not only what we release musically but also what motivates those decisions. They know there’s real people behind the label. So I think if fans are paying attention, why not share things with them you feel they might want to get involved in. Music is just one part of the artistic conversation, so we like to present film, literature and visual art when it’s relevant and hopefully folks pick up on that.

CW: For instance, last night I drank wine and watched Kenneth Anger on immaculate 16-millimeter film at TMR. There’s nothing like Milk Duds, box wine and Scorpio Rising.

What are the most rewarding aspects of your work with TMR? The most challenging?

BS: Ha … they usually go hand-in-hand. Maybe this is a boring answer, but we have a pretty relentless release and event schedule and I have a 10-month-old daughter at home. Time management can be a challenge for me. But it’s ALL rewarding. Honestly, just knowing that people care about something you’ve put time and effort into is very rewarding and encouraging, daily.

CW: Baby Lula!

Chet, you recently teamed up with the Mission Creek Festival to debut your edited collection, Language Lessons, Volume 1, at the Association of Writing Professionals conference in Seattle. Why should us Iowa City folk, denizens of a UNESCO designated “City of Literature,” be reading Third Man Books’ seminal publication?

CW: Language Lessons has uncollected and unpublished poems from CD Wright, Frank Stanford, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, Jake Adam York, Brian Barker, Steve Stern, Besmilr Brigham, TJ Jarrett and more. It also features poems by Ben Burr (our favorite taco chef in town), and non-fiction by punk rockers Richard Hell (Heartbreakers, Television, Voidoids) and Tav Falco (Panther Burns), plus poems by National Book Award finalist Adrian Matejka, and a story by Pulitzer nominee Dale Ray Phillips. I’m dropping names like bombs to make a point: If you appreciate good writing from both Pulitzer Prize authors and taco-makers, you’re going to enjoy something, somewhere in Language Lessons.

In preparation for this interview I read an article on Buzzfeed titled “27 Breathtaking Record Stores You Have to Shop at Before You Die.” What entry would you want written about Third Man Records?

BW: You know, just that there’s personality and thought behind what is presented to fans when they enter our building. And that the folks working our counter are ALWAYS going to be friendly and helpful. Indie stores can be intimidating sometimes when you’re first entering that world … Also, we have a scopiotone machine and booth where you can record your own 45 record … which is pretty awesome.

Ben, why was it important for you to bring Third Man Records into the publishing business? What do you hope to accomplish, creatively, by this endeavor?

BW: It’s a logical step in the right direction for the label. Again, music is only one part of the conversation …

Patrick Oray has been deputized by the Little Village to cover the IC area’s art, culture and community beats.

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