Tommie Gonzalez’s road to starting a record label began with a skateboard magazine.
Anyone who grew up in the 1980s and early 1990s may recall Thrasher, the Rolling Stone of skate mags. Buried among its ads for Vision Street Wear duds and Powell-Peralta boards and Tony Alva videotapes were those from DIY labels selling records. It’s where Gonzalez discovered bands like The Minutemen, Husker Du, The Descendents and Black Flag, whose Damaged album Tommie spotted in a Texas store. When he took it home, he found not only the music, but a fold-up catalog featuring other SST Records releases.
“I studied that thing back and forth, up, down and reverse, like under my covers with a flashlight,” he says.
After a three-decade journey that included college radio, music retail shops and the booking and promoting of shows, Gonzalez has his own label, with his own releases to hawk. Last year, his Red Eye Transit label released “Mirage,” a single from South By Southwest-bound Norwegian band Heyerdahl, with ØEN, the debut full-length for both band and label, out on Jan. 28. Four more RET releases will follow in 2013, all from Norwegian acts.
“Where I am right now has come from nearly 20 years of daydreams, drifting off during boring bands at shows, and having the fortune of always being surrounded by great, inspiring, creative and talented friends,” says Gonzalez. “I reached a point where I wanted to stop talking about it, stop analyzing it, stop making excuses for and against it and finally take a chance.”
Gonzalez’ history with Heyerdahl’s Kenneth Ishak predates his glory days as a local promoter. In the early 2000s, after moving here from San Antonio, he and partner Jennifer Ianni booked shows under the promotional banner Imaginary Christmas. Armed with all of Gonzalez’ contacts from Texas, where he’d put on concerts by acts like At the Drive-In and The Get Up Kids, the duo produced several memorable shows at small venues near UNLV. It booked touring indie faves like Les Savy Fav, The Dismemberment Plan and The Weakerthans at Cafe Espresso Roma, and The Shins at Balcony Lights. Sometimes local bands like Expert On October and, in one instance, the original formation of The Killers, opened those shows.
But just previous to that, Gonzalez, fresh from his move west, was asked by a buddy in Reno if he could book a string of West Coast dates for an indie label owner’s recent signee: Ishak’s band, Beezewax. Given that the group’s influences mirrored Gonzalez’ power-pop tastes (namely, Big Star), and that it had just worked with Ken Stringfellow from The Posies (also a Tommie fave), he signed on.
“They came out, they stayed with me for a few days, we rode the rides up on the Stratosphere, shopped for records at Big B’s [record store],” says Gonzalez.
The two reconnected last year in Oslo, where Ishak played his new band’s music to Gonzalez, who, enamored by what he was hearing and chomping at the bit to finally kick-start his dream of releasing music, made his pitch.
“I was honest about what I wanted from the label, explained my inspiration for the label, and what I hoped to help them accomplish,” says Gonzalez. “Luckily, they believed in me enough to let me try to realize this crazy dream. They picked up a manager and we got to work.
“It was also really great that Heyerdahl themselves were ready for a fresh approach at making and releasing their music,” he adds. “They’d all been in bands before and knew exactly what they didn’t want to do again. Their adventurous and optimistic spirit matched mine.”
Last summer, a 12-inch of “Mirage” hit record stores in Oslo and beyond, the very first release from Red Eye Transit. But with a $10-and-up price point, what place do vinyl singles have in a day and age where labels are lucky to get most music fans to pay for a one-dollar iTunes download?
For one, it comes down to the artfulness and quality control of packaging and the vinyl itself. “Mirage,” for instance, can only be played on one side and at 45 RPM (“Have you heard a 45 RPM audiophile vinyl playback on a hi-fi recently?” asks Gonzalez. “It’s the best way to listen to recorded music.”) And the product should appeal to the record collector who still scours stores for vinyl and orders music to be delivered to his home and empties his wallet at the gig merch booth — basically, a traditionalist like Gonzalez himself, who bought all his favorite records at shows and still prefers the brick ’n’ mortar world over the digital one.
Gonzalez will live up to the name of his label by pretty much living out of his bag for much of 2013, dividing his time between Oslo and his residences in Las Vegas and Austin, Texas, a huge music city in his native state and the home of his also-musically connected sister, Amiee, who helps him run the label. She came aboard to help him realize his dream after his recovery from a car accident that nearly paralyzed him.
“I developed really personal ambitions about life, friends and family — that’s why my sister is involved,” he says. “That’s really important to me. This record label is the most sincere thing I have ever done. I had to overcome a lot of self-doubt, but, man, I really love doing this.”