Round the Dial
Wednesday 17 July @ 10:15:38
by Tom Hallett
Greetings faithful ‘Dial Heads! This week we’ll poke our musical toes into the hot, muddy swamp water of rural Georgia, where internationally renowned recording artist Jack Logan, his guitar-pickin’ pal Kelly Keneipp, and Kelly’s wife, Nikki, run the laid-back, down-home indie label Backburner.
Formed in the late ’90s after Logan and Keneipp had both been through the proverbial major label ringer, Backburner’s agenda was clear right from the start. They kicked things off with a sampler containing songs from such diverse artists as Vic Chesnutt, The Possibilities, ex-Dashboard Savior Rob Veal, and Logan. That blast of quirky cuts and back porch rockers was quickly followed by a full-length from Indiana’s Roach Brothers—two siblings who’ve been making music, recording, and growing corn for over thirty years. Over the next few weeks, we’ll dig deeper than an Arkansas razorback into the artists, the inner workings, and the future of this eclectic “little label that could.” Hop aboard!
In order to capture both the growth and the inner workings of Backburner, we’ll present a short review of each release, in chronological order, followed by commentary from each of the label’s owners and PR man Bob Spires. For a peek at original Logan artwork, a complete listing of the label’s releases, and how to pick up the albums we’ll be discussing, head to http://www.backburnerrecords.com on the internet. First, though, we’ll dedicate this week to bringing you a brief introduction to our cast of characters:
Jack Logan: Mechanic/singer/songwriter from Winder, Georgia. Jack’s been writing songs and creating visual art (including some downright inspiring underground comix and several of Backburner’s album covers) for over 25 years, but only came to the world’s attention after Twin/Tone Records co-founder Peter Jesperson coaxed him into releasing his breakthrough, 42-song album, Bulk, on Restless/Medium Cool Records in 1994. The record, which featured such fellow Southern luminaries as Vic Chesnutt, The Dashboard Saviors and Keneipp, soon reached the ears of critics and discerning music fans across the globe, and Logan soon found himself caught up in a whirlwind of touring, national TV appearances, and label business.
After another classic album, 1996’s Mood Elevator, (which also featured Keneipp in a backing band called Liquor Cabinet) the label went through some inner turmoil that eventually led to Jesperson’s leaving and Logan’s third album, Mr. Curious, getting shelved for “lack of a radio single.” Disillusioned by the industry and exhausted from touring, Logan retreated to rural Georgia and went back to working a day job, writing and recording songs for fun on the 2-and-4-track.
Kelly and his wife, Nikki, meanwhile, began putting together Backburner with Jack’s backing and support. Logan and another old guitar-pickin’ pal, Bob Kimbell, released an excellent album of dream-pop on Parasol Records, Little Private Angel, in 1998. LPA featured musical contributions from The Possibilities, The Roach Brothers, and a piano cameo by Kelly. In 1999, Mr. Curious was finally released under the title Buzz Me In, on Capricorn Records. The album proved to be another watershed moment for Logan, featuring gospel singers, strings, horns, production by former Clash manager Kosmo Vinyl, and guest appearances from Chesnutt, Kevn Kinney, and others. Around this time, Liquor Cabinet was in the process of disbanding, so Jack recruited The Possibilities to hit the road with him.
After another grueling session of touring and promotion, Logan dropped out of sight for a few more years, concentrating on the domestic front and his baby boy. Thankfully, he’s kept busy writing, recording for Backburner, drawing, and learning to play guitar during his hiatus. His 2001 album Monkey Paw found him writing both the lyrics and music for all of his songs for the first time, something he’s extremely proud of. He also recently released another album (Woodshedding) with Bob Kimbell on the Parasol label. “I began to suspect that putting out records without touring makes no %@!#$&ing sense whatsoever,” he says. “But it appears I will continue to do it—I do suspect I’ll find a way to play Minneapolis and Chicago again at some point, if I can still get gigs there.”
He’s typically humble about his involvement in the running of Backburner, as well, despite the fact that his name alone brings the label a good portion of its business. “I can’t take a lot of credit for Backburner. Any success that the label has had has been due to the efforts of Nikki and Kelly. I’ve helped out a little with the artwork, but they’ve done all the heavy lifting like dealing with the press, shipping and manufacturing hassles, threatening the distributors, all those kinds of things. Plus the record that has and continues to keep the label afloat is Merriment, the record Kelly and Nikki did with Vic Chesnutt.”
Kelly Keneipp: Logan’s childhood buddy, Kelly is a whiz guitar player, multi-instrumentalist, producer, engineer, spiritual guide, and was the musical backbone of Liquor Cabinet. He still writes the music for and performs on a slew of Backburner releases. After he and Logan dealt with the headaches, heartaches, and betrayals so inherent in the major label business, Kelly and his wife, Nikki, put Backburner together as a vehicle to release their friend’s and their own recordings at leisure. Though Liquor Cabinet is officially defunct, Kelly keeps quite busy, working with Nikki, Vic Chesnutt, and Logan, playing live gigs with The Possibilities around Athens, and coordinating the day-to-day business of Backburner.
“Jack and I met in 10th grade,” he recounts, “and had the same interest in musical acts (Hendrix). We started fooling around with music ourselves in the late 70’s. We formed several different little bands, and since then have always recorded together. Then when Peter Jesperson gave us our shot in ‘93, we got a little more serious about it.” After the Logan album Buzz Me In (AKA Mr. Curious) was shelved, Keneipp says, he realized they’d all be better off on their own. “The experience of recording ‘Buzz Me In’ was not what you would call “fun.” It took us out of our natural element, and threw us into what you would call “the real music world.” We were used to home recording at our own pace and, along with Peter, we were our own best editors.
“That was the last time we wanted to do a record like that. At the same time, I was playing a bunch of old songs for Nikki and realized we had, not only a bunch of our own songs nobody had ever heard, but also knew a lot of super-talented friends who weren’t signed with anybody. We also wanted to be fair and have a basic handshake deal with all of our artists. We’d had enough of lawyers and accountants, so we set out to just split all profits 50/50 with the artist with no multi-record deals...that way if either side isn’t happy (or something better comes along) everybody is free and clear.” Keeping things so loose and friendly, he says, makes running Backburner more like a favorite pastime than a series of daily duties. “As far as the day-to-day running of the label, Nikki and I take care of it. Jack is, of course, one of the mainstay artists and our creative man. Bob Spires is now helping us with press work, and Debbie Tonks helps us with computer-related things. We are currently distributed by Redeye Distribution in North Carolina.”
Nikki Keneipp: Kelly’s wife, Nikki, is an accomplished keyboardist, clarinetist, and songwriter. She contributed to both Logan’s 1999 album, Tinker, and the couple’s 2000 album with Vic Chesnutt, Merriment. The only member of the Backburner staff to originally hail from north of the Mason-Dixon line, Nikki was actually an early champion of Logan and Liquor Cabinet. “I met them in Ann Arbor, Michigan, after one of their outstanding shows,” she remembers. “Kelly and I struck up a conversation and over the course of the next year we wrote letters, spoke over the phone, and visited each other. Kelly and I really hit it off, and he asked me to come to Georgia. I really got to know Jack after I moved here. After hearing some of the music that had not been released from Jack and Kelly and all of our friends, we all thought there should be an outlet for it.”
Her early classical and rock influences probably contributed to the eclectic musical tastes she shared with Kelly and the Logan crew, and her forays into recording with the Backburner stable have only strengthened her determination to continue playing and writing. “I’ve always loved playing and listening to music,” she stresses. “I started playing clarinet when I was 11 and piano when I was 12. I played it through high school and, to my parents dismay, majored in music in college. My main instruments are piano and any clarinet, although I’ve been taking violin lessons and doing my best with the pointers Kelly and the guys from The Possibilities give me with guitar. I don’t know if you can call them influences, but I’ve always loved Buddy Holly, Robyn Hitchcock, and the Pixies. I’ve always liked a lot of classical music as well...in particular the 20th century composers like Stravinsky. I’m flattered any time I’m asked to contribute to the [Backburner] music, and I’m sure I’ll do it.”
Bob Spires: Bob is a founding member of (and sings, plays bass, and writes songs for) Georgia pop-rock outfit The Possibilities. You can read more about that band—who play tomorrow night, Thursday, 7/18, at St. Paul’s Turf Club, and Saturday, 7/20, at Lee’s Liquor in Minneapolis—elsewhere in this issue of Pulse. Bob handles promotions/publicity for Backburner, and adds a fiery, youthful presence to the label. “I really think the albums are good,” he says. “That makes it easier to help them out. I couldn’t see me working for Warner Brothers, force-feeding some %@!#$&ty boy band down everybody’s throat. It makes a difference when you talk to someone in another city who gave the album a listen and are surprised that it didn’t suck. I think most writers are so desensitized to getting CDs that are the same old, rehashed bull%@!#$&, that when they get a CD from a band whose lead singer doesn’t sound like Eddie Vedder, they’re taken aback.”
Next week! We’ll begin breaking down each individual Backburner release with short reviews and commentary from the Backburner staff—kicking off with a look at The Roach Brothers’ 1998 debut, Big Load!! Until then—make yer own damn news.
If you have local music news/gigs/events that you’d like to see listed in this column, or you’d just like to get info on how to join the Pino Palladino Fan Club, send replies to: TMygunn777@aol.com