Forty years and 14,600 nights
Landslide Records turns 40, owner Michael Rothschild, guitarist Tinsley Ellis, and others looks back — and ahead
“A real record man” is how the rocking blues guitarist Tinsley Ellis affectionately describes Landslide label founder and head honcho, Michael Rothschild.
Even if Rothschild had not been the first to nationally distribute music from and garner worldwide exposure to such now high profile acts like Widespread Panic, The Derek Trucks Band, Sean Costello, Webb Wilder, and Tinsley Ellis, he would still be a major figure — an icon even — in Atlanta’s music history.
Rothschild’s scrappy indie imprint has played a crucial role in not just recording, but publicizing and generally spreading the gospel of much of Atlanta and the South’s homegrown, roots-oriented music scenes.
Now celebrating Landslide Records’ 40th year of business with a sprawling, wildly eclectic, two-disc album of highlights from the past four decades, the entrepreneur takes a well-deserved victory lap to recap what he has spent more than half his life on — keeping Landslide afloat and (for the most part) profitable. Anyone who knows the hazardous economics of locally based, small, independent businesses — especially in the music industry — understands how difficult and rare an accomplishment this is.
Just as impressive, however, is that the 78-year-old impresario isn’t slowing down, not anytime soon, at least. Rothschild already has plans for new releases in 2022. But for now, it’s time — actually well past time — for him to take a breath and reflect on the sheer quantity and quality of the music he has recorded and promoted since his first release in 1981.
Rothschild got his first taste of the music industry immediately after leaving the army in 1969. He worked for Transcontinental, a conglomerate that distributed about 25 percent of the music throughout the country. Afterward, he was employed in the distribution end of the movie business. It was that job that led him to Atlanta in 1973.
The Landslide story starts, as many in the early 80s roots scene do, with Bruce Hampton. Not yet a Colonel, let alone a retired one as he often appended to his name, Hampton and Rothschild met in the mid-70s. Rothschild explains, “We had a close mutual friend. I met Hampton at a party at his house. We started going to baseball games together and talking about music. I wasn’t around for the Hampton Grease Band. This was after that. I ended up seeing some of Bruce’s performances … and it just built as a friendship. I enjoyed their shows and it got to the point where Bruce said, ‘You should start a label. We’ll all be riding around in limousines.’”
It sounds so simple and innocent now. Perhaps it was just the tenor of the era. But Rothschild took Hampton up on the suggestion with the debut of Landslide Records. The imprint’s name emerged, oddly enough, from conservative politics. “At the time, Reagan was elected in a landslide, and Bruce said, ‘Music is going to go totally crazy now. It’s going to be real atonal and rebellious.’ So I said maybe we should call it Landslide Records, and he thought that was a good idea. It wasn’t because of any political feelings,” he laughs.
Financially, Rothschild says, “For the startup, I used my money. We did have some investors early on that helped fund certain projects, but it was mostly what I invested.” Outside Looking In by The Late Bronze Age, Hampton’s band at that time, was, not surprisingly, the label’s first release. Unfortunately, things got off to a rough start as the album stiffed commercially despite generally positive reviews, including a major one from respected music journalist Robert Palmer in the Sunday edition of The New York Times. Perhaps that was inevitable with songs that featured an odd jazz-rock, somewhat Zappa-like approach with Hampton’s typically cryptic, stream-of-consciousness lyrics and inscrutable titles like “Rehearsals for Fainting,” “Seven Men in a Bazooka,” and the impenetrable “Fat Brooms Push the Number Bush.”
But Rothschild never thought about quitting. He had already committed to jazz records, one from keyboardist Dan Wall, a Hampton friend, and another with percussionist David Earle Johnson, another musician in Hampton’s universe, backed by noted ECM guitarist John Abercrombie. “At that point, we had our distribution set up, so we had to keep feeding it.” Landslide’s next album came from avant-garde, jazz-funk outfit Curlew with noted bassist and producer Bill Laswell on the band’s roster. Rothschild kept his focus on jazz with a solo project from reed player Paul McCandless of the well-regarded band Oregon.
Around 1982, Rothschild met legendary English producer Eddy Offord, best known for his work with Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes, Rory Gallagher, and Ginger Baker, who had opened a recording studio, the East Point Theatre, just south of Atlanta. “He loved Bruce and offered us a deal far better than Hampton could have gotten elsewhere. So we recorded another record with The Late Bronze Age (Isles of Langerhan), which didn’t really do much better,” he laughs, “but it was a fun record.” Both are represented by a track each on the new Landslide compilation.
Did anything released on Landslide turn a profit?
“We made money off of the McCandless record … After that, the first Bluesbusters album (1986), a band that had Paul Barrere (Little Feat), T Lavitz (Dixie Dregs) and Catfish Hodge, sold well due to some good airplay.” Over the long haul, albums from Tinsley Ellis & The Heartfixers, including Cool On It, and Webb Wilder’s It Came from Nashville (which continues to sell) sold well enough. “Eventually we recouped on the Hampton records … It took a long time,” he deadpans.
The record that sold the fastest, not the most, was by The Lost Continentals in 1997. “They were from Atlanta but playing all over the place, and we couldn’t keep it in stock. And then they broke up. The same thing happened with The Brains.”
Those familiar with Atlanta blues outfit Delta Moon also likely know that Tom Gray, its cofounder, was a member of Atlanta new wavers The Brains. The band’s two albums for Mercury (1980 and ’81) are long out of print and not even digitally available. A third record, the EP Dancing Under Steetlights, was issued by Landslide and is also currently unavailable. But even though they disbanded shortly after it was released, Rothschild and Gray have remained friends. Landslide now distributes Delta Moon’s own Jumping Jack Records, and the title track of 2017’s Cabbagetown is represented on the 40th anniversary collection. “When I’ve called him (Rothschild) with a project, he’s been right there,” says Gray. At the time of our conversation, Gray acknowledged that he’s been in discussions with Rothschild about the possibility of a Landslide re-release of Streetlights that might also include other Brains recordings from that era.
Few musicians are as grateful for what Rothschild means to them as veteran Atlanta-based, blues-rock guitarist Tinsley Ellis. “It would be hard for me to imagine my modest career in music without Michael involved in it,” he says. “He has been with me every step of the way. We’ve been in business together coming up on 40 years.” Ellis appears three times on the anniversary set — it opens with The Heartfixers’ “Drivin’ Woman.” Ellis and The Heartfixers are joined by Chicago Bob Nelson adding vocals on a live version of Muddy Waters’s “Walkin’ Thru the Park,” and Ellis and The Heartfixers back up Nappy Brown on “Hard Luck Blues.” Rothschild first heard Ellis and The Heartfixers when they opened for John Lee Hooker on a club date in 1982.
After three records on Landslide, Rothschild took Ellis to Alligator Records in 1988, the label for which Ellis still records. Landslide also distributes Ellis’s Heartfixer Music releases, so the two very much continue both business and, perhaps more importantly, their personal relationship. “I am very proud to have brought some acts to Michael’s attention,” says Ellis. And what acts they are. “Widespread Panic, Derek Trucks, Sean Costello and Webb Wilder … all are big fans of Michael,” Ellis reveals — and with good reason. Rothschild helped place Ellis’s song, “A Quitter Never Wins,” on Jonny Lang’s second album, Lie to Me, ultimately exposing Ellis’s songwriting to a wider audience when the release earned both guitarists platinum record awards — selling in excess of one million copies — to add to their walls.
One of Landslide’s most consistent selling artists is the late Sean Costello. Rothschild got involved with the young guitar slinger early in Costello’s career, releasing his second and third efforts, 2000’s Cuttin’ In and 2001’s Moanin’ for Molasses. With Costello’s posthumous albums Landslide released a total of six titles by the artist, including 2019’s wonderful various artist tribute Don’t Pass Me By. Two of Costello’s selections made the cut onto the 40th set.
Costello’s ex-roommate, Electromatics founder and frontman Jon Liebman, remembers how much Costello respected Rothschild’s veteran status and that Rothschild was so supportive of Sean, whether showing up at Costello gigs at the Northside Tavern and Fatt Matt’s, or even when Costello would just sit in with Electromatics at various places.
“Michael was very endearing in his relationship with Sean. Sean really looked up to Michael. He liked recording and having Michael be the executive producer on those records,” explains Liebman. But the relationship went both ways. “I learned a lot from him (Costello). I always learn a lot from these artists because I’m really just a fan,” admits Rothschild. “I learned a lot about blues that Sean knew but I wasn’t familiar with.”
The act that looms largest for many in Landslide’s extensive catalogue of releases, however, is Widespread Panic. Rothschild remembers back in 1988 when Tinsley Ellis first suggested he check out the Athens-based band live. “It was a scene I hadn’t (experienced) in a long time — everyone wearing tie-dye and twirling around dancing. The place was packed.” When it came to the music, it was easy. “They already had stuff recorded with John Keane in Athens, so we just took the tapes and put the record out. Initially that was not a big seller.” Ultimately, the band bought the album back, which helped Rothschild at the time with a much-needed infusion of cash. “I’d like to have that in my catalog now. But, they were nice enough to let me use (a song) for this compilation.”
Although the concept of a 35th anniversary collection was floated, it never materialized. Instead Rothschild started thinking about the 40th only a few months ago. “We don’t have a new release until after the first of the year, so this is really good timing.” In respect to what made the final list, he says, “There are things we did that are not represented. But I did not miss anything based on my personal taste.”
The 33 tracks, arranged nonchronologically, reflect the wide range of the label owner’s personal tastes. It’s such diversity that has made Landslide a distinctive imprint. The first disc is blues-based with music from the aforementioned acts, along with an Oliver Woods-fronted King Johnson title, classic New Orleans sounds from 1999 with Dave Bartholomew, and Rothschild’s most recent signing, guitarist Damon Fowler. The second offers the more eclectic sounds of a young Derek Trucks, Rothschild first saw Trucks when he was 11; The Brains; Tedeschi Trucks singer Mike Mattison, solo and with Scrapomatic; and, of course, the outsized, unpredictable and enormously influential wild card, Bruce Hampton.
With the exception of artists from outside the region, Rothschild generally signed acts from the South. “I thought that (Atlanta) was a fertile area to pursue. One thing I was told early on was a quote from (blues legend) Willie Dixon. ‘If you have a record label, there are always going to be artists to sign.’ And I found that to be the case. There were people that I wanted to sign, like Drivin N Cryin, that we weren’t able to.” He also tells the story of an artist outside his musical comfort zone he later regretted not signing. “One time I got a demo rap cassette in from a guy named Calvin Broadus. It was wrapped in notebook paper, nothing much to it. I listened to it and thought it wasn’t my thing. A couple of years later Calvin Broadus surfaced as Snoop Dogg.”
As you might expect for such a small operation, Landslide’s output is modest. “Over the last few years, we’ve been doing maybe two to three releases a year. That’s pretty much all we can handle. But you have to keep releases coming or distributors will lose faith.” But there have been lean periods too. He remembers a time when Landslide was almost inactive. “In the early 1990s, things weren’t gelling. The overhead of the office on 14th street was getting to be too much.” A friend offered him a job back in the movie business with an office and said he could run his label out of it. After the transitional phase, Rothschild notes, “We gradually got back into regular releases,” which, 40 years and 62 recordings later, is where he stays.
Not only does Rothschild have a career with highlights any record exec would covet, he is also seemingly universally respected and, more importantly, loved by everyone in a notoriously cutthroat industry.
“I fully believe Michael will discover another Widespread Panic, another Derek Trucks, or another Sean Costello,” Ellis predicts. “He’s an old school ‘record man,’ like Leonard Chess, (Capricorn’s) Phil Walden or (Alligator’s) Bruce Iglauer. He’s someone who gets involved with the artist personally, musically, nurtures their songwriting … and talks them off the ledge … He has his ear to the track as any record man would.” —CL—