Crawdaddy: How Cathy Pellow’s Sargent House Breeds the Best Bands Around
Sargent House is an actual house in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, a borderline mansion fit for a 1970s drug lord. Cathy Pellow heads the cartel, but she invests her money on products with less street value than narcotics, like vinyl record pressings and tour support for her roster of bands. Bands like Fang Island and Russian Circles call Sargent House home; a framed poster of the latter’s run of European dates supporting Tool is displayed proudly in the office. Pellow’s company oversaw the creative and commercial growth of Maps & Atlases and These Arms Are Snakes. They recently signed on a pair of established acts, famed Japanese stoner metal outfit Boris and Sacramento’s definitive math/noise duo Hella. The Mars Volta guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez runs his own multimedia imprint under the Sargent House umbrella. Part record label, part management firm, part production company, Sargent House is a catchall support system for some of the most exciting independent music being made today.
I visited the physical Sargent House once, after the Los Angeles stop on So Many Dynamos’ tour with Cast Spells, the solo endeavor of David Davison from Maps & Atlases. It was the birthday of Cast Spells’ touring cellist Rashaad, whom Cathy Pellow had not met. Still, she acquired a cake. Members of The Advantage and Sounds of Animals Fighting mingled casually, as did Jonathan Hischke, current touring bassist of Broken Bells and newest addition to Le Butcherettes. The Indiana quartet Native, Sargent House’s youngest signing, arrived in the small hours to stay the night and raid the merch storage room.
Through the evening, I realized Pellow is an Andy Warhol figure for the southern California art rock circle, her residence shifting between a cultural hub and a post-hippie commune. She commands attention without effort, cutting through dozens of conversations with choice quote-ables like “Do you think I give a shit about how many fucking Myspace friends your band has?” and “Do you have any idea how much coke I’ve done with Steely Dan in my lifetime?”
The Pellow/Warhol similarity was not my first observation about the head of the Sargent Household. I was introduced to her not as a tastemaking entrepreneur, but as the drunk woman who kept sneaking behind Maps & Atlases’ merch table in Chicago to raise the prices on their vinyl. My first impression, confirmed when she theorized that avant-garde rock group Tera Melos was going to take over the world, is that Cathy Pellow is completely insane. This is the only logical reason for Sargent House’s success.
Cathy Pellow never intended to start a record label. Her roots are in film. A job at a management office in New York in the ‘90s led her to music video production. Music videos led to her own company Refused TV, named after the Swedish hardcore band on whose legendary “New Noise” video Pellow worked. Refused TV was a gateway to more intimate dealings with bands. She eventually became the manager for RX Bandits, an adventurous ex-ska band with a dedicated following and an awkward relationship with pop-punk branding machine Drive Thru Records.
“I always thought RX Bandits was this amazing, misunderstood band,” Pellow says. “[Vocalist] Matt Embree called me out of the blue and said, ‘We have got to get off our label.’ I knew the folks at Drive Thru, so I talked to them and helped the band get out of their deal. According to the terms of the contract, they had to put out their next album themselves.”
RX Bandits’ …And The Battle Begun became Sargent House’s first release, and the highest selling record in the label’s catalog to date. Cathy Pellow admittedly doesn’t keep track of the numbers, but she knows the album outsold subsequent RX Bandits records, each of which have moved over 20,000 units. “[Battle] led me to see that it’s so much cooler when you can release the record yourself,” Pellow says. “You can see everything, you can have incredible flexibility. Unless you’re the highest priority on a big label, the band has to do all the marketing themselves anyway. It became obvious working with bands on other labels that I was the only person who gave a shit, so why not just do this together.”
Sales aside, positive dealings with RX Bandits inspired Pellow to take other bands under her wing. These Arms Are Snakes left Jade Tree and joined her mgmt roster. She began managing Maps & Atlases with no intention of handling their releases. “With Maps, I just thought we couldn’t let [debut EP]Trees, Swallows, Houses sit around for a year waiting for a label,” she recalls. “We had to press it, get them on the road, and see what happened.”
Pellow courted more bands and put out their albums out of necessity. “Before I knew it, we were a damn good record label!” she says with a laugh.
Sargent House now boasts an impressive number of damn good releases from damn good artists. Damn good like Gypsyblood’s sun-damaged summer pop record Cold In The Guestway (catalog number SH052). Damn good like the harmony-soaked, self-titled album by playful indie folk trio Good Old War (SH038). Damn good like This Is The Second Album Of A Band Called Adebisi Shank (SH050), a J. Robbins produced instrumental future-tech party record from the titular Irish group Adebisi Shank. Damn good like albums from El Paso dream-funk act Zechs Marquise and Guadalajara, Mexico punks Le Butcherettes which were grandfathered into the label through Rodriguez Lopez Productions.
Sometimes “damn good” is the only commonality between artists on Sargent House. “I tend to think that whatever style of band we have, ours is the best,” Pellow says. “Russian Circles is the best instrumental post-rock whatever band around. Good Old War is one of the better three-part harmony folk bands. If our roster was just Hella, Tera Melos, and Maps & Atlases, those are the best math rock bands. Then all that’s left would be all the B-level copycat bands and all the C-level copycats. I see that all the time with other labels. If you already have the band people love, why sign eight other bands who all sound like that band? Just sign the best one!”
Inversely, if two bands on Sargent House sound similar, they often share members. Bygones resembles Hella and Tera Melos because the group consists of Hella drummer Zach Hill and Tera Melos guitarist Nick Reinhart. One of the company’s newest offerings, me&LP, takes its name from the initials of its members, the label’s Matthew Embree of RX Bandits/Love You Moon and Lisa Papineau, whose voice can be heard on “Teen Angst” by M83 and “Surfing On A Rocket” by Air. One of the label’s greatest success stories, Fang Island was originally a side project of now-defunct Sargent House band Daughters.
Pellow maintains one basic qualification for her roster. “I operate from an agenda of total personal taste,” she says. “If I like something enough to put effort behind it, I bet there’s someone out there who believes in it too. The genre is my taste. I have to just love it.”
Love is the only logical motivation for Sargent House; a company looking to make a quick buck would not be likely to invest in a barely pubescent post-hardcore band from Indiana. “I’ve always run the label and management out of philanthropy,” Pellow says. “I was fortunate that, from the beginning, I didn’t have to take a cut from the bands to survive. I was fortunate because I wasn’t some underfunded kid manager with no resources.”
Pellow made a comfortable living as a music video producer for artists like Sting, Rolling Stones, Kid Rock, and Paramore. She produced the Tim Burton-directed clip for The Killers’ “Bones.” Those patient enough to catch the ending credits of Snakes On A Plane saw the Pellow-produced Cobra Starship video “Bring It.” Business-wise, Sargent House is a side project that eventually took over as Pellow’s highest priority. She closed her production company this year but occasionally picks up commission work for Warner Brothers or Atlantic. One of her latest freelance jobs was “Fuck You” by Cee-Lo Green.
Producer, manager, label impresario, and philanthropist, Cathy Pellow is a fan above all. This fandom is her guiding principle, and she puts an absurd amount of faith into her bands. She casually mentioned fronting one group $5,000 to go to Europe and did not appear to expect reimbursement. Her choices, like her extroverted persona, may seem insane at first, but her reasoning is numbingly simple. “All I care about is building relationships with people who love and care about music,” she says, speaking straight from her idealist heart.
The words sting a bit. Pellow has seen every nook of the music industry, from its musty punk basements to its Cristal-stocked green rooms, and she still holds a deeper belief in the power of rock ‘n’ roll than I am capable of. We talk for a few more minutes, she in her office with her seven employees, me sitting on a squeaky piano bench in front of my ancient Apple desktop. I hang up and wonder who in our conversation was the insane one.
Five Quintessential Sargent House Releases, as chosen by Cathy Pellow.
1. RX Bandits: …And The Battle Begun. “Because this was the first record we ever put out. It started everything.”
2. Good Old War: Only Way To Be Alone. “This was a complete Cinderella story, taking a band that nobody knew and nobody believed me on and seeing them take off.”
3. Fang Island: Fang Island. “Nick Sadler from Daughters was sending me these instrumental Fang Island songs and I said, ‘I can’t release another instrumental math rock band. Maybe if you add vocals, I’ll think about it,’ just to get him off my back. But they added vocals and sent it to me, and I was blown away.”
4. Maps & Atlases: Trees, Swallows, Houses. “Nobody knew what to do with this band, but we knew they were incredible, so we just went for it.”
5. Tera Melos: Patagonian Rats. “We’re talking again about a band that nobody really understood, that has a massive cult following but the mainstream didn’t get at all. They were always amazing but this record is such a progression. I know they’re going to be historic, like Frank Zappa, and everybody is going to talk about them. But that isn’t going to happen until 10 years after they break up.”
By- Ryan Wasoba