Who knew all it would take for the world to finally notice that its country music capital is more than a little bit rock 'n' roll was a few rock stars migrating to Nashville and some sex catching fire? The influx has proved to be just as much of a boon for the local real estate market as it has the local rock scene. Jack White's Third Man Records and its downtown headquarters — where a host of local rock's finest have graced the stage — certainly needs no introduction. And more recent transplant Dan Auerbach's neighboring Easy Eye Sound is where The Black Keys' singer just helmed JEFF the Brotherhood's forthcoming major label debut.
But what about Kings of Leon — you know, the band that actually rose to stardom from Music City's trenches? They have a label, too: Serpents and Snakes, which the Followills established in 2009 for the sole purpose of signing their — and Middle Tennessee's — longtime favorite band, The Features.
As it turns out, that wasn't a one-off. With plans to expand into a full-fledged local indie label, Serpents and Snakes has just inked deals with local garage-psych luminaries Turbo Fruits and local-by-way-of-Mississippi trad-rockers The Weeks. The recent signings bring the label's roster to a total of four artists, three of whom are fixtures on the Music City scene. Atlanta pop-rock quartet Snowden signed to the label in August.
Serpents and Snakes general manager/A&R czar Seth Riddle tells the Scene that the label will put out Turbo Fruits' forthcoming third LP Butter —tentatively slated for an early August release — in addition to The Weeks' previously self-released Gutter Gaunt Gangster EP, with an as-yet-unrecorded full-length to follow in 2013.
Contrary to reports claiming Serpents and Snakes is a Bug Music subsidiary (though it does have a partnership with the publishing group), Riddle says the label is a fully autonomous indie, wholly owned and primarily bankrolled by the Followill clan, with distribution through Sony RED. "It's Kings of Leon that's keeping the lights on," he says, adding that their recently purchased Nashville property — which the band is fashioning to function as a rehearsal/studio space — will house the label's offices.
"It's pretty much a family-run operation," Riddle says. "We want to keep it as a select few [bands] and provide [them] with the tools and resources they need to be successful. It's really about helping good bands continue to be bands and make music." Paraphrasing Kings of Leon drummer Nathan Followill, Riddle says the Followills' ambition is to establish the kind of dedicated, artist-friendly dream label they wish they'd had when starting out.
It's the label's for-artists-by-artists ethos, in concert with not having to compete with a large roster of marquee names for attention and resources, that enticed Turbo Fruits frontman Jonas Stein to part ways with indie giant Fat Possum — which put out the band's full-length Echo Kid — and sign with Serpents. "It's already been a way more positive experience than dealing with Fat Possum," Stein says of the label, claiming Possum was chronically too busy catering to roster residents like Al Green and Andrew Bird to return his emails. "It was just a whole fuckin' mess," he says. "They're one of the more powerful labels right now, and they've got a lot of money-making artists whose dicks they need to suck."
That experience left Stein at a crossroads with Butter — which the band took out a loan to self-finance and record with producer and Spoon drummer Jim Eno at his Austin, Texas, studio, Public Hi-Fi. Stein had initially drawn up a budget for self-releasing the album on his own label, Turbo Time Records. Unaware of Serpents and Snakes' existence, Stein slipped Riddle — a former Rough Trade Records A&R rep who put out Damn Damn Leash, the debut EP from Stein's former outfit Be Your Own Pet — a copy of the record simply to get an advocate's honest opinion.
Riddle says the label's signing process entails him going out and doing good, old-fashioned A&R, hitting the town to check out local artists and then bringing favorites to the attention of the Followills. If the five of them — Riddle included — vote unanimously to pursue a band, they bring in Music Row entertainment attorney and KOL/Serpents consigliere Kent Marcus to broker a deal. Riddle says that a signee's work ethic factors greatly in getting green-lighted. "We wanna work with bands that have already been self-starters," he says.
The deal between Serpents and Turbo Fruits gives the label ownership of the Butter masters and includes an option for a follow-up, while still giving Stein license to drop singles and special releases on Turbo Time.
"This is the most unique label situation that I've been involved in," Stein says. "We were able to approach them with how we wanted to do it — just the necessary expenses to make this thing happen properly."
"It's really, truly a benevolent kind of deal where [the Followills] see hard-working bands who are out on the road and they wanna to add some resources and some tools that [those bands] might not have access to," Riddle says. "There's a lot of doors open for us." Kent Marcus tells the Scene that Serpents artists will have access to Kings of Leon's star-making team, including the muscle of Vector Management and PR giant Big Hassle Media.
"They did not put publishing on the table, which is great," Stein says of Serpents, "A lot of record labels are asking for that shit these days. ... The music industry needs labels like this right now."
Unlike Turbo Fruits, who come to the label road-tested with hundreds of shows under their belt and a years-sprawling discography to speak of, The Weeks are a "baby band." Its members — two of whom are twin brothers — are 21 years old. This is the their first record deal. Riddle says he first saw the quartet when they opened for The Meat Puppets at Mercy Lounge last year. "Caleb [Followill] had said upon catching a recent Weeks gig at The Basement, 'This stuff makes me excited, it inspires me, it makes me wanna go write and make music.' "