Most people spend their tax refund checks on vacations, TVs, or retirement. Twelve years ago, Joe Spadaro spent his on a record label.
It was 2004, and the then-38-year-old wanted to help his friends’ bands get local press.
“I said, ‘Why don’t we start a label as a co-op, so people will take us a little more seriously when we send out demos to be reviewed,’” Spadaro recalls, “So I collected a bunch of bands to get together, and that’s the way it started.”
After he got his little label rolling, he realized he had a problem: The artists that he had collected actually expected him to physically release some of their music, rather than just be a name on a business card. While Uncle Sam’s refund wasn’t enough for Spadaro to afford to put out a full album for each band, he realized he could put together a compilation-style release.
“That’s basically how it started,” he says, “I put out a compilation of eight bands, each contributing two songs. That was my first release and my first taste of what it would be like to run a record label.”
More than a decade after those humble beginnings, Spadaro’s American Laundromat Records has become known throughout the industry for its beautifully curated compilation releases — popular themed albums that pay tribute to everything from quirky filmmakers like Wes Anderson to classic songwriters like Neil Young.
“I mean it’s hard work, but I’m not complaining — I just love it.”
To this day, each record — including the label’s much-anticipated upcoming album Say Yes! A Tribute To Elliott Smith (out Friday, October 14) — is assembled much like his first. Spadaro quietly comes up with a theme that’s close to his heart, sends personal notes to various artists, managers, and publicists he think might be interested in a project, and slowly jigsaws together varied recordings into a complete album over the course of a year or so.
It can be nerve-wracking. When he pitches his newest brainchild, he doesn’t know which artists will stick.
“If they are really passionate about it, if they are intent on doing it, they find ways to make it work, you know?,” Spadaro says of his musical collaborators, “That’s basically the way I’ve always built these projects.”
Within the framework of the theme of his choosing, the label-runner gives his musical collaborators the utmost leeway. So long as they stick to the overall theme, they get to pick whatever track they want and do whatever they want with it. Songs are also recorded and produced wherever and with whomever an artist wishes, giving each track a distinct creative energy.
‘It’s completely a passion’
The ever-expanding cast that has contributed to American Laundromat’s projects is as talented as it is diverse, and includes everyone from indie rock deities like the Pixies’ Frank Black and Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis to critically-hailed female songwriters like Juliana Hatfield and Julien Baker, among dozens of others.
But despite the label’s steady growth, big-name casts, and record-nerd street cred, the man pulling the strings has little to no desire to move his business out of the basement in small-town Connecticut, where he still packages, labels, and boxes each order himself.
A father and full-time worker in an unrelated field, Spadaro wakes around 4:30 each morning to get in a couple hours of work in under his belt, often staying up late after work to tie up various loose ends.
He says he can’t imagine doing it any other way.
“It’s completely a passion,” he admitted during our mid-morning call. “I mean it’s hard work, but I’m not complaining — I just love it. A lot of times I look forward to the weekend, because I get to put a solid six hours in on Saturday.”
Tribute to Smith
Even for such an accomplished curator, many of his best ideas still seem to come out of thin air. Say Yes! was devised after Spadaro’s Pandora stations kept playing the music of Smith, the iconic Portland, Oregon, songwriter who died in 2003.
“I thought, ‘Man, he is just so amazing. One of these days I should do a tribute to him,'” Spadaro said.
As his label has grown and gained notice, more and more artists are quick to join projects. It’s clear from the 15-track list on the back of his latest release: Spadaro got very few “No’s” when he pitched Say Yes!.
Over the course of the album, there is a full complement of gentle acoustic singles and heavy rockers, homages to one of the indie rock world’s most beloved tailors of words and melodies from some of it’s most established and interesting modern voices.
Gems abound. Songwriter Baker delivers a gut-wrenching rendition of Ballad of The Big Nothing, Dinosaur Jr’s Mascis transforms Smith’s Waltz #2 into a gravelly voiced jam, and U.K.-based rockers Yuck provide a heavy-chugging version of Bled White.
For longtime fans of Smith’s musical melancholy, there are many different levels of tribute represented on the album, with some bands stealing guitar lines almost note for note, and others going a bit more off the beaten path with their interpretations. But because of Spadaro’s personal and creative touches, the album doesn’t feel like it was haphazardly put together to boost royalty numbers or inflate anyone’s bank account. It feels like a genre-agnostic gift from one group of artists to a single beloved influence.
In a record industry that can feel fixated on finances and sales figures, the honesty and kindness which abound in American Laundromat’s catalog make Spadaro among the least intense, easiest to like record executives.
Everything he does has a personal touch. When Spadaro’s Mother passed away from breast cancer, Spadaro curated a record of covers from Neil Young’s Decade album — all by women — because his Mom had given him that record for Christmas as a child.
“I love writing royalty checks to Neil Young. That cracks me up.”
The proceeds from that release — which remains a good seller for his label to this day — go to Casting For Recovery, a small nonprofit that takes women affected by breast cancer on fly-fishing retreats. Before she passed, Spadaro’s mother had gone on one of the charity’s trips.
“My Mother came back from that weekend just glowing. She caught a fish, and she just thought that was the best thing,” he says, “One of her wishes was that people would donate to this program.”
In addition to that charitable record, he’s released an album of pop songs reimagined as lullabies, with all proceeds benefiting the Valarie Fund, a nonprofit that helps children with cancer and blood disorders.
While he can’t say which project he will undertake next during our late-summer phone call, Spadaro speaks proudly of his ability to help showcase artists he loves.
As his only employee, he says satisfaction is at an all-time high.
“I just love the music,” he says of his ongoing basement efforts. “That, and I love writing royalty checks to Neil Young. That cracks me up.”