Josh Rosenthal and Tompkins Square Records

The work involved in this issue of Sound American started eight months ago, much earlier than is typical. I knew that I wanted to approach the question of what American music was, and that Ian Nagoski would be a good initial aesthetic to adopt. However, I didn't know enough about his work...or the world of restoration and compilation in feel comfortable putting such an issue together. The research, then, was relatively daunting. It ended, however, by paying huge dividends, not only in appreciation of the music that Ian and Dick Spottswood have championed during their careers, but in introducing me to two fantastic labels and their founders: Eric Isaacson and Mississippi Records in Portland, Oregon and Josh Rosenthal's San Francisco based Tompkins Square Records.* Tompkins Square released Ian's approachably epic three disc set: To What Strange Place: The Music of the Ottoman-American Diaspora 1916-1929, which was partially responsible for bringing his work to international attention. Initially, that's what drew me to TSQ, but what I found when I started poking around in Josh's catalog seemed, to me, to be the signs of an almost obsessively subjective collection of releases which piqued my curiosity. A historical set like Ian's might sit aside a contemporary compositional fingerstyle guitar record of James Blackshaw's, or a solo piano record by free jazz underground saxophone legend Charles Gayle or a different kind of solo piano recital by Macarthur Fellow, Ran Blake. When looking at the catalog objectively, it's hard to find the connections that would lead you to believe that they all come from the same curatorial mind. But, as I spent more time with the discs, I realized that the releases had a strong and unique definition of Americana that Josh had either consciously or unconsciously created; a group of great American fringe dwellers, weirdos, and other musical figures that could never easily fit into what we've been told is the great pantheon of American music. My own reduction of Tompkins Square's output to a cultural prototype made me imagine Josh as some sort of ultimate custodian of the unheard music; a "hero of the underground". I had half imagined him with a big, bushy beard, quoting early 20th century Anarchist tropes and bemoaning the American weirdo archetype. What I found in the brief conversation that follows, though, was that the custodian can take many shapes, can come from the least likely places and ultimately, can find a way to achieve a kind of mainstream success (the label has been nominated for five grammys including their most recent, ‘He Is My Story : The Sanctified Soul of Arizona Dranes‘, nominated for Historical Album of the Year) without sacrificing one person's strong commitment to a personal vision of what people should know about American music.
SOUND AMERICAN: First of all, can you give me a little background on you and your history with recordings? What was your first experience with music and how did it develop into the business of Tompkins Square? JOSH ROSENTHAL: I started in the business at 16 years of age, as an intern at PolyGram Records in NYC. It was 1984-1985. I worked in the college radio promotion department. In the 18 months that I worked there, they released the first round of Velvet Underground reissues, John Mellencamp, Van Morrison, Trio, Richard Thompson. It was an amazing experience. I was working at my high school radio station at the time. Upon graduation I became Music Director at my college station in Albany, WCDB. I was hired upon graduation as a promo guy for Columbia Records, and worked at SONY Music for 15 years in various capacities. Left in 2005, started the label that same year. SA: you did a lot of big label stuff initially. Looking at the Tompkins Square catalog, I can't imagine that what you're putting out now (Charles Gayle, Ran Blake, fingerstyle guitar, comps of historical music) would find a home at Sony of PolyGram or Columbia. Have you always been interested in promoting lesser known artists or did you feel like there was a need that wasn't being met in your initial work with the labels and radio stations that you're now trying to fill? What was the reason for Tompkins Square coming into existence? JR: I worked on a lot of stuff at SONY that still inspires me to do what I do now. For example, working on the Robert Johnson box set in 1990. That was really the first reissue of music from that era that connected widely with the general public. Also, I pestered Legacy to do the Charlie Poole box set, which would never happen today, and will never happen again. I started my label after I left SONY in 2005. Just wanted to try something entrepreneurial, having worked for the man for 15 years at that point. SA: Do you feel like leaving a large group like Sony has given you a sense of freedom in what you choose to put out? It's interesting to hear you say that you left to do something more entrepreneurial as it seems like you're doing more labor of love projects now than a large label would. JR: Yes, I like doing what I want to do. It was also fun being part of something big, with a giant machine behind it. This was pre-internet. We ruled the planet! SA: As you probably know, this issue is somewhat involved in exploring how a group of people that run labels that are small and personal come to it, and it's interesting to me that you came from the world of the "world rulers" of recorded media and are now working on what I assume is a much smaller scale on projects that are close to you. Did you have a moment that you can think of that made you realize you were really in love with music and want to share it? JR: I didn't have a "moment". It's something I've been doing since I worked at my high school radio station. Sharing music with friends, turning them on and vice versa as a teenager. Did it at SONY, promoting things I liked a little harder, trying to make a difference that way. I still do it today through the label, and on my radio show - KZSU. It's all part of the same thing. SA: Do you consider what you do a business, a passion, or a moral imperative? JR: All three! Less so the moral imperative. I want to leave a rich legacy through the recordings I release. I can't write or play, so this is what I can do.