What label? That’s what Chad Kroeger asked on the fateful day in 2002 when Nickelback’s attorney Jonathan Simkin called him and said, ”Hey man, here’s something interesting, I think I just started a bidding war on our label.”
Seven years later, and having just secured 604 Records’ first ever US Gold with Theory Of A Deadman's Scars and Souvenirs album, Simkin says, “I’ll never forget what he said. ‘What label?’”
Back then, Kroeger was riding the cyclone of immediate and astronomical success as Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me” became the post-grunge confessional that ate the world.
This was after six years of slow-building from the Last Picture Show ground up of Hanna, Alberta, to the bitchy maelstrom of Vancouver’s late ‘90s, punk and credibility-infatuated music scene, and further onto moderate Stateside success with Nickelback’s sophomore album, The State. And suddenly, Kroeger and his erstwhile friend, strategist, and behind-the-scenes partner Simkin found themselves on the other side of the looking glass.
Recalls Simkin, “Once Nickleback took off, all of these American labels are looking at us like we’re the Godfathers of some neo-grunge movement taking place in
Vancouver. Which was not true. It was insane. It was off the hook.”
Before that, Kroeger merely had an ad hoc interest in developing other bands, while Simkin was pursuing an ad hoc interest in structuring the business side of his client’s activities – something the duo dry-ran in 2000 when they negotiated a deal with TVT for one of Kroeger’s earlier discoveries, Default. Simkin was in LA shopping around another of Kroeger’s pet bands, Theory of a Deadman, when “How You Remind Me” changed everything. Incredibly, 604 mutated out of a misunderstanding between Simkin and a rep at Atlantic.
“He called me and said, ‘Dude, I just wanna be clear about something’,” explains Simkin, “’because I’m just going into an A&R meeting here. Are you shopping the band Theory of a Deadman, or are you shopping your label?’ And I hadn’t really thought it about it in those terms, but it was one of those life-defining moments when everything slowed down. I remember saying it, like, ‘Laaa-b-lllle…” Like Alphabet Soup, where you could see the letters coming out of your mouth. I’m still amazed I said it. So he said, ‘Okay, cool. That’s what I thought.’”
And that’s when Simkin called a puzzled Kroeger, who asked, ‘What label?”
“…and then it all comes down to a meeting in New York with Lyor Cohen, and Cees Wessels, the head of Roadrunner,” Simkin continues, “and we worked out our deal in a room at the Irving Hotel, and it was mind-boggling. We were two really young guys who had never had that kind of success or that kind of money, and we were negotiating with two of the most powerful people in the music industry in the most expensive hotel in New York. It was surreal. It was utterly surreal. And it was all done on napkins.”
Insiders in Vancouver’s music community remember well what happened next, through the years 2002 and 2003 when the newly minted label went on a local demo signing frenzy. Simkin chuckles when he characterizes this period as “goofy” – but cops to the fact that he and his partner were observing, learning, and finding their feet in a perilous industry that greeted them with humongous expectations.
“The truth is for the first year and a half this was a one album label,” Simkin says, referring to Theory’s eponymous debut, eventually released ‘02. “I knew enough to know that I really didn’t know anything. I was like, let’s learn. That’s what we did, and really it took a couple of years for us to settle into what we were.”
Cutting forward to early 2009, 604 Records is sitting on three new releases that define its multi-faceted personality and a rare long-term commitment to its bands. Thornley’s Tiny Pictures is a gearhead’s wet dream of new rock married to classic; Masterpiece Theatre by Mariana’s Trench is post-modern cabaret for pop kidz; and Armchair Cynics has just furnished the world with its hook-riddled full-length, Starting Today, which falls somewhere inbetween the other two.
In all cases, these are breakthrough records in terms of craft, ambition, and perseverance.
“We are definitely about artist development,” Simkin states. “Chad’s an artist and I spent most of my professional career advocating for artists, and that gave us a hell of a pro-artist perspective. It’s about patience. We don’t bail on our acts, we can afford to take our time, and we’re not reporting to a Board of Directors who wanna know what’s going on right now. And we’ve struggled at times, but it’s sure paid off on bands like Marianas.”
The balance of the 604 roster points to the breadth of the label’s vision. Sitting alongside the manful rock of Theory of a Deadman and Oakalla, there’s the insurgent Canadian country of Jessie Farrell and Aaron Pritchett, the impeccable pop craft of Faber Drive, and slick, tailored r&b in the shape of the Suits XL. And of course, in 2004, 604 smashed all preconceptions about itself when it roared out of the gate with one of the era-defining, hipster-approved bands of its time – the now sadly defunct Organ.
“It’s always obvious which are the Simkin bands and which are the Chad bands,” chuckles Simkin, who, 10 years Kroeger’s senior, feasted on alternative rock in his youth, and cites the Velvet Underground, Eno, Peter Gabriel, Joy Division, the Smiths, and the Cure among his favourites.
Growing up in Hanna, Alberta, meanwhile, meant that Kroeger consumed a steady diet of country and metal . “But the thing we have in common,” Simkin offers, “is we’re both song guys.” He recalls Kroeger’s initial dismay over the proudly amateur aesthetic of the Organ, until the day when it finally clicked. “If you don’t have the Smiths and the Cure in your vocabulary, it just doesn’t make sense,” Simkin says. “But it came back to the song thing. He said, ‘You know what? Katie (Sketch) can really write a good song.’ He heard that. ‘So if you really believe in this, let’s do it.’ And so I signed them.”
As the first decade of the new millennium draws to a close, 604 has managed to confound the expectations of those who were banking on a label filled with mini-Nickelbacks, and which – remarkably - has maintained its rude health in a business that faces seismic, paradigmatic changes. Simkin remains both grateful and proud of the achievement.
“In Canada, we’re a record label in the truest sense,” he says. “We own the recordings, we pay for the recordings, we have our own in house marketing department, and we have an enhanced P&D deal with Universal, which means we can opt in on various services on a band by band basis.” He also mentions that “staying independent” ranks as his and Kroeger’s greatest triumph, along with the shrewd and hard won decision to retain the label’s digital rights.
But one suspects there’s an even greater and somewhat less clinical accomplishment behind the paperwork and the numbers, and it’s related to the feeling Simkin admits he still gets – “the feeling that I’m five again” – when he hears Marianas Trench, Thornley or any of his other bands on the radio.
“It’s not like I found a cure for cancer,” Simkin offers. “I don’t fool myself about the importance, but you know what? Maybe we make the world a bit better because we put some art out there that makes people feel good, and that feels pretty important to me. And it’s been a wonderful ride. The experiences I’ve had, the things I’ve seen, the people I’ve met, handing gold records to our bands, and even writing huge royalty cheques to Theory of a Deadman… ”
“I still feel great about that,” he says.