Interview: Numero Group on Syl Johnson, Capsoul, and Dinosaur Jr.

Two of the owners behind the renowned reissue label talk shop

Over the past decade, Numero Group, the common brainchild of Ken Shipley, Rob Sevier and their gang of kindred spirits, has grown into one of the most trusted names in the world of unearthing obscure wax platters and shedding light on the overlooked heroes and heroines of music history. Numero Group was originally conceived in 2003 by “three guys in various stages of unemployment”; they aimed to create a US-specific reissue label, similar to what imprints like Soul Jazz and Honest Jon’s had already established in the UK.

Building on a waterproof sense for tracking down genre-defying outsider recordings and the stories behind them, Numero Group went from a modestly ambitious 7-inch label to an organically grown network of sub-labels, compilation series, and side hustles. And while the early years of the label were mostly devoted to the rediscovery of long-lost vintage music from the ’60s and ’70s, the NG back catalogue now lists everything from little known female folk sirens and hard-hitting gospel funk to enigmatic soul legends like Syl Johnson, weird electronica and New Age shamans like Iasos, and ’90s indie rock staples such as Dinosaur Jr and Hüsker Dü. In this edited and condensed excerpt from their recent interview with RBMA Radio, Ken and Rob discuss some of the projects that have made Numero Group what it is today.

How did you get involved with the label, Rob?

Rob Sevier: My original role in Numero Group was to compile a collection called Eccentric Soul that I had a loose idea in my head for. I was not necessarily interested in the reissue world, but I was interested in collecting odd 7-inches or 45s of groups that I didn’t know anything about. At the same time, I was also interested in tracking down private LPs and their purveyors. I was buying any self-released record that I saw cheap.

I remember I bought a 45 from Jazz Record Mart by this guy Lord of Lightning. It was a guy that I’d actually seen play at the corner of Maxwell and Halstead in Chicago. He would actually put up the sign that says, “I’m the Lord of Lightning.” I brought it to the counter at Jazz Record Mart and they’re like, “Oh, I can’t believe we still have those. This guy consigned them to us 15 years ago and he would come in once a year and pick up his $2 from a copy that had sold.”

Ken Shipley: You could tell that the people who were self-issuing these records were, in a lot of ways, just like us. They had a passion for the music and they wanted to do something. They wanted to get it out there. We’d already been doing that. I started my first label when I was 18. Rob started his first label when he was 21. We’d already had these shared experiences of a lot of the people that we were about to track down.

When we did our first record, it was this guy Bill Moss who ran a little label out of Columbus, Ohio called Capsoul. We called him up because Rob had been driving this track into my brain by this group called Johnson, Hawkins, Tatum & Durr called “You Can’t Blame Me.” It had this really mysterious vibraphone opening and then a slinky guitar line. This guy Virgil Johnson’s voice just appears out of nowhere. It’s this striking falsetto. I called Bill Moss and I was like, “Hey, I’m working on this record. I want to license the song by Johnson, Hawkins, Tatum & Durr called ‘You Can’t Blame Me.’” He’s like, “Ah! I love this song,” but he said, “You know, there’s a lot more to Capsoul than this one song. We made a lot of other records.”

It didn’t really occur to me until that moment that Capsoul needed to be a label story and that these label stories could potentially be more interesting. We took a step back and said, “This is a label that’s not just about making old records, but about making old records live again and trying to tell the story of what happens in these scenes and with these artists, these towns, these producers. Drilling in and getting down to the microelements of it became more important than the music in some ways.

The Arrows - We Have Love

I wanted to ask about this idea of being a storyteller.

Rob Sevier: I think that if we’re talking about something where the story is bigger than the music, there’s really one release that has to be discussed immediately, which is the Bandit label release. The Arrow Brown story is – not to take away from the liner notes that accompany the new edition which fleshes out a shocking amount of detail about this very, very tiny label run by the megalomaniac Arrow Brown – that he created his own hippy cult with a bunch of women that fell under his spell. Some would work as models and he would manage them and take all their modeling gig money. Some of them were on welfare. He would pull all the money from the welfare checks, and they lived communally in this house.

There are a lot of sordid details when you get into it, but these are the types of things you don’t ever expect to find. It’s probably the most outlandish story we’ve ever uncovered, especially as it was the basis for a fairly unassuming group of very maudlin optimistic soul songs. If you look at the titles of every Arrow Brown song, love is in 60% of his titles, like “We Had Love,” “We Loved Together,” “Magic of Your Love.” That’s the beauty of it. You never know what you’re getting into when you crack open these stories now.

Syl Johnson Is It Because I'm Black Single

Can you talk about Syl Johnson?

Ken Shipley: Our proximity as a Midwestern record company is an incredible advantage. Chicago arguably made more black records across gospel, soul, funk, and disco than any other city in America. There’s more labels there than you can imagine. It’s an extremely deep reservoir of records.

We finished a compilation of Twinight singles called Twinight’s Lunar Rotation in 2006. We knew when we were making that record that Syl Johnson was a live wire. He was this guy that had some notoriety for being extremely litigious. When we approached him, he immediately took the defensive position. He didn’t want us to release anything at first because he felt that throughout the years he got ripped off by people in the music business. It took us making Lunar Rotation to prove to him that we paid him as a producer and we paid him as a songwriter. That’s two things that have never been done for his Twinight recordings. He never received anything for them.

Syl Johnson just told these incredible tales that couldn’t be possibly be true. There’s no way that he was Robert Johnson’s illegitimate son.

These were small checks, $400, $800, nothing big but the consistency of them, doing it over several periods and showing him, “Hey, we’re reputable people. We pay artists.” That changed something for him and a level of trust was developed that he hadn’t developed with anybody prior to this. Between an extensive amount of phone calls that would range from one to two hours and meetings at our office that would essentially be these galactic rambles, tirades against the music business or long sidebars into sampling, we developed an incredible rapport with him and got him to open up in a way that he never opened up.

Originally, we just thought, we should put “Is it Because I’m Black” and “Dresses Too Short” on CDs with maybe some bonus tracks, but a slew of unreleased material had made itself present when we were working on Twinight and another cadre of material was rumored to exist that he had. We thought if we could put all the stuff together and tell this story, it would… it’s amazing theater, it really is. We had all these interviews done where he just told these incredible tales that couldn’t be possibly be true. There’s no way that he was Robert Johnson’s illegitimate son. His birthday continued to change. How he got the name Syl Johnson. That story changed a couple of times over the years.

Willie Wright - I'm so happy now

One thing I was wondering about was that, in most cases, if you run an indie label you pretty much have a couple of bigger acts you can rely on. You know that if they’re going to keep on making an album every two years, maybe you can get more people on board. How does that work for Numero?

Ken Shipley: At the very onset, I think we decided that sales were not going to necessarily going to be the most important benchmark for what we were doing. We’ve have records that took years for people to understand and have become some of our biggest titles. The great thing about working on music that’s 40 or 50 years old is that it’s not getting any newer. There isn’t a moment when it’s going to be more or less relevant. It is already irrelevant and we are making it relevant.

If it takes people five years to discover it on LP, it’s still an important discovery to that person. We keep every title in print because we know that as we’re building this library, there’s going to be people who are going to be curious about which number falls in which place and where to go from there. We really look at making records as, “If we’re into this now, somebody will be into it into the future.” It doesn’t matter if the first week sales make any chart or if it’s well reviewed or anything like that.

We’ve had records like Willie Wright’s Telling the Truth that got zero reviews, and yet it’s become a perennial for us. It’s a record that continues to sell. People continue to find it because his voice is just really incredible. “I’m So Happy Now” was really the track that made the record come alive because it ended up getting used in a lot of television shows and films.

Can you talk a bit about how the Dinosaur Jr release came about?

Ken Shipley: About seven years into running the company, I started to imagine a future when we would run out of road, when the artists of the ’60s and the ’70s would begin to disappear and we wouldn’t be able to find them because they would return to the earth. There was this idea like, “What happens when we run out of things to do?” I’d had a long love affair with independent music in the ’90s. I’m 37 and that was the music that I grew up on. I can remember skipping my eighth grade graduation to see Dinosaur Jr. and their opener was Nirvana. I was 14 or something like that.

It was really special to be able to take an artist that I loved as a kid and then do a Numero version of it.

We did this merger about a year ago with these guys from Bloomington, Indiana who run the labels Secretly Canadian and Jagjaguwar and Dead Oceans. They were deeply involved with Dinosaur Jr. as a new artist. They have their three classic albums in print on vinyl. I had this idea almost from the outset. I remember buying Dinosaur Jr. on the 45 when I was 13-14 years old and getting “Just like Heaven” and “Repulsion,” “Freak Scene.” These 45s, these are records that really spoke to me as a kid and I had this idea, I was, “What if we could just take those things and repackage them, because the art on them is just so gorgeous.”

I came up with the idea, I pitched it. The band liked it. The key to that is not just putting these records back in print, it’s actually the art. I reached out to the artist, this woman named Maura Jasper. I said, “Hey, I love your art. It’s really powerful stuff that meant a lot to me when I was a kid. Would you be interested in telling your story behind the art and making the art?” We were able to achieve something really great because we got to reissue music but we got to go and go through her art archive and pull out the pieces that inspired the pieces that were on Bug and You’re Living All Over Me. Her brilliant, crazy covers of Just Like Heaven. It was really special to be able to take an artist that I loved as a kid and then do a Numero version of it, but then also be able to take it down a completely different path and make it about the art and the music in a way is almost secondary to the whole package. It’s like you’re buying an art piece.

By Julian Brimmers on August 6, 2014

On a different note