Weekend Shows Celebrate A Quarter Century of Goner


Eric Friedl and Zac Ives of Goner Records - MICHAEL DONAHUE
  • MIchael Donahue
  • Eric Friedl and Zac Ives of Goner Records
Scan over the provenance of bands signed to Goner Records and you'll see a polyglot of international performers, hailing from Sydney, Tokyo, Toronto, Montreal, Leipzig, London, and Dunedin, New Zealand. There are acts representing both Melbourne, Australia, and Melbourne, Florida. Not to mention other domestic burgs like New Orleans, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago, and, naturally, Memphis. Goner is very much a hometown player.

This year, the label and store are celebrating their 25th Anniversary with a weekend of hot music. It starts on Friday, appropriately enough, with Jeff Evans, Ross Johnson, and Walter Daniels, all of whom helped foster the scene out of which Goner arose, followed by that national treasure, Jack Oblivian. On Saturday, we have upstart country with the Flamin' A's and the strange-o-billy of Bloodshot Bill. Sunday's first show will feature a screening of Mike McCarthy's Sore Losers, followed by the Tokyo terrors that started it all with Goner's first release in 1993, Guitar Wolf. New Orleans' own Royal Pendletons, beloved by many a Memphian, will have a rare reunion performance after that, and the evening will see more from Tokyo with the Let's Go, and Big Clown from Memphis.

The span of such bands, both geographically and stylistically, is remarkable, but quite in keeping with the eclectic vision this label has pursued. The store, too, get's widespread appreciation, including another nod last December from Rolling Stone magazine as one of the country's ten best record stores.

With all that in mind, I reached out to Goner's founder and co-owner Eric Friedl to delve into how this all came to be, who makes it tick, and how it came to be a global mini-empire.

Memphis Flyer: I just read in Bob Mehr's great profile that you moved here with the express purpose of opening Shangri-La Records with Sherman Willmott.

Eric Friedl: Yeah. It was basically like 30 records. It was pretty amazing. And actually our big windfall was the WLYX sale. They closed down Rhodes' radio station and sold all their vinyl and we got like a thousand records. So that was really the start of the store.

When you met Sherman, you guys must have been into records already. But did you have retail experience or business experience?

No. Sherman had the idea to do the flotation tanks thing [with customers floating in salt water solution]. That was his big moment of “Ah-ha, Memphis needs to relax!” And he was only thirty years ahead of his time. But he realized even if you have an active massage/flotation tank place, nothing's really happening. It's dull. So, the record store idea was a side thing to the flotation tanks. And it kind of went from there. I don't know why he asked me. We had done a little fanzine together, I think? So we had kept in touch and we had kept up with the music and stuff.

Before Goner, Shangri-La set a local precedent of a label connected to a record store. That's not very common is it? Stax did that of course, and there are other examples, but...

It's weirdly happening now, the other way. Labels are opening stores. I think it makes sense. You're in the middle of everything and the bands are hanging out at the store, and you're like, these guys need a record. But doing it more as a full time thing, I don't think it's that common.

Do the two sides of the business enhance each other?

Luckily for us, they've complemented each other. When one has been going bad the other one has been going good. I can't really say one or the other is the moneymaker. It's varied. It is hard, because we wanna tell people about the label, but we also wanna tell them about the store. People who are into the label stuff don't care that we've got a original Abbey Road record in. So it's kind of tough to balance sometimes.

But my thing has always been about serving the customers. If they wanna buy Adelle records, that's fine. We've got Adelle records. We're not probably gonna put out that record on our label. Someone else will do that. That's not really our spot. But in terms of retail, if someone's coming looking for it, I wanna have it to sell, or be able to get it for 'em. That's just basically being a record store.

The Goner label is really well-curated, and incredibly eclectic. It goes way beyond punk. You and [Goner co-owner] Zac [Ives] must have pretty diverse tastes.

Even stuff that we put out, we wouldn't necessarily say, 'This is what I'm listening to.' We don't have a master plan. Things fall in our lap and we go, 'This is good, we should put it out.' We don't go, 'Is this gonna alienate our Reatards fans?' You know, the people that like fast punk rock stuff. We're like, 'There's room for everybody. Just throw it out there.' Some things are easier to sell than others, for sure. But we've been lucky. People that pay attention to the label are generally pretty open minded, and that's a big part of it.

Is the label just you and Zac making the decisions?

Yeah, for the most part. But some punk rock singles put out in the last year or so have been more Alec [McIntire] and Cole [Wheeler] and John Hoppe's thing. We put out singles by Crown Court and by Boss. It's aggressive, straight ahead punk rock kinda stuff. And that was from their angle, which is fun. It's cool to have other input on it too.

John Hoppe has been with us the longest. He moved down from Kalamazoo, and he has tons of experience selling records, and really took over the behind the scenes stuff, running the register and everything. That really helped us out a whole lot, especially when things get hairy, like during our festival or other busy times. He has a really good knack for that. And we've had a few other people coming though that have really helped out. Charlotte Watson from Nots helped out for a while. But basically our crew right now is John, Alec McIntire, who plays with Hash Redactor and Ex-Cult, and Cole Wheeler. And everybody has kind of their angle, doing mail order or retail sales, or keeping the label stuff together. There's plenty to do. We're always scrambling, doing twenty jobs at once and trying to keep track of it. It's always a challenge.

That's one of the weird things. All the articles make it all about me, and I really haven't done anywhere near everything. It's been teamwork. To the point where I will start something, and then realize I'm way over my head and realize that everyone else has already realized that and has picked up the pieces or put it together. But if you work close enough for long enough, that's sort of how things happen. We all complement eachother real well.

There were rumors that last year's Gonerfest would be the last, but it's still rolling...

Yeah, we always think about taking a break. And then we start getting excited about bands coming to town, and people are asking about it and it sort of assembles itself again and you realize, 'It's happening! It's gonna drag you along, like it or not!' It's a lot of fun, and every year it's amazing. The fact that people will come to Memphis, year after year, multiple times, to come to this festival in September is awesome. These people from Australia that keep coming, they could go anywhere in the world, but they're going halfway around the world just to come to Memphis. I think it's great.

You guys have quite an international reach and profile.

Yeah, it's cool. Before the first little Buccaneer show we did, we were driving over and realized there was a guy I'd never met, a guy from Italy, walking down the street. He had a tiny little label in Italy, but it was worth it to him to come all that way to the Buccaneer to see these bands. I realized there's people from all over the place that get into this stuff. And they really get a kick out of coming to Memphis. They love it. 
Guitar Wolf from Nagasaki, Japan
  • Guitar Wolf from Nagasaki, Japan

I guess the international reach was there right from the beginning, when you started with that Guitar Wolf release in 1993.

Yeah. We had a bunch of Japanese bands at first. International bands that were touring in the 90s when I started doing that stuff. The 5678's, Guitar Wolf, Teengenerate, and Jackie and the Cedrics came over here and were in that scene. There was a festival in Bellingham, WA, Garage Shock, that was kind of the headquarters for that stuff at the time. And that's where I saw Guitar Wolf. Garage Shock pioneered putting these kinds of festivals together. I went to a couple of those and I'm sure that left some kind of mark on what we could do and how to do festivals.

Were you early adopters of the internet?

Yeah, we got lucky on that. I had a bulletin board, and that is really the engine behind Goner and the appeal of everything. We had the Goner bulletin board, which is still up. You could see a direct drop off as soon as Facebook came into the picture, but before that, people that wanted to yack about this stuff would get on our bulletin board and post stuff, see what we were doing, find out about shows, and that kind of thing. So the bulletin board was the main thing. I had a site that I sold records off of, pretty early. Peggy from the Gories had some of their records she wanted to sell, and I helped her do that. So we were in the middle of it when nobody knew what was going on.

Really, the bulletin board had a huge reach. It still kinda does. Like it'll pop up. Somebody will have some topic on there about aspirin or something, and the Goner board will pop up because people are talking about it. Instead of going to Bayer's site, no one's gonna go there, there's no action there. They might have the information, but it isn't gonna pop up in the Google algorithm, so the Goner board will pop up in regards to aspirin or something. It recently popped up as the number one Google search result for Michael Jackson jokes. Not something to be really proud of, but when the Michael Jackson movie came out we were back in the spotlight.

When did you start that bulletin board?

You know, it crashed and we lost a bunch of it, but it was probably going by '95, something like that? There might be stuff from the 90s still. I'll have to do the internet archive thing and see if anything's there. Yeah, it was pretty early and pretty interesting, the people that went through there. We've had songs written about it, about crashing it and trying to destroy it, all kinds of stuff. It still is pretty interesting. I think the only real thread that kind of maintains itself is 'defunct Memphis restaurants that we miss.' People look for some restaurant and the Goner board pops up so they'll post something.

So well before the brick and mortar store, you were doing a brisk business?

Yeah. I didn't have a whole lot of records that I was selling, but a couple hundred, you know. I'd do orders from distributors and sell it out of the apartment. So that was there to move into a brick and mortar type of thing. There was a demand for it and it made sense to do it. Greg [Cartwright] had the space [Legba Records] and was moving, and said, 'You guys should take this over!'

How great that Guitar Wolf is still going strong, and Jack Oblivian is still going strong. You've got these threads connecting to the very first days of the whole thing.

It was weird when we realized that all this was coming together, we were like, 'We have to put together a weekend.' We don't need to do more than one festival a year. This was more like a bunch of shows thrown together. But I think it works. All the shows are great and people are excited about it.

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