Antony Bland

Interviewed by Doug Minnick

Antony is Director of A&R at American Recordings, the joint venture between Columbia Records and producer Rick Rubin ( Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, Slayer, Beastie Boys, Run DMC, many more).

Where did you grow up?

I'm from a little farming town called Dunston in Northern England, as far away from anything as you can imagine. There is nothing there, not even a shop in the village anymore. It's got one pub which is sort of the center of life of the village. It's sad going back now because all of the buildings have satellite TV dishes. The village is about a thousand years old.

What brought you to Los Angeles?

I worked for Chrysalis Music Publishing in England. I got transferred over here in 1991, and I was at Chrysalis in Los Angeles for about nine years. We were working on this project that American had signed called Vitro. We had a meeting with the general manager about what we could do to collaborate and make it work. It didn't happen, but they called a couple of weeks later and said, "We're interviewing for A&R people. Are you interested?" I said, "Damn yeah." It took about nine months to get all of the visas and paperwork sorted out, and I eventually came in. I've been here about nine months now.

Are you a musician?

I was in a band in high school. We were like the little local band. The only band in the town. We had a great following, but we would never have made it outside of our town. I leave that to the experts now.

How does the roster here reflect Rick Rubin's influence?

Working with him is great. It's very inspiring to work for a guy who is not a businessman. He's very musical. From the get go, I was a big fan of Rick's and George Drakoulias. George produced the first Black Crowe's record, so I think I was even more excited to meet him, in some respects. Rick is really intriguing to work with because he is very, very calm and driven by what is really great. He's very hard to please, and I think that has taught us all to really, really believe in something before we try to sign it. Having someone like that who is so musical and has such a history of working with great artists kind of makes you want to bring something in that's fantastic, and not just mediocre.

Rick is going to have the final say as to what comes on the label. If he's not passionate about something, it's probably not the greatest place for the band to be. I think his influence and his ability to direct the projects through the big Columbia system is paramount. I don't think there is anything that has been signed that he personally dislikes. I just don't think it will happen. He's pretty harsh when it comes to things we bring to him. I've walked in with things that I really thought had merit, and to his credit, he'll give it a listen and say no, it's not there. I can't say he's been wrong about anything I've brought in. The things that I've brought in needed time and development, but realistically he was right. It's one thing to bring something in and say, okay, six months or a year from now, this could be perfect; as opposed to saying, this is going to take three or four records to get somewhere.

Who is on the label?
Johnny Cash, System Of A Down, Slayer, The Jayhawks, Palo Alto. Palo Alto is a band from Los Angeles. They're head and shoulders above a lot of stuff that plays around town. We have a band called Loudermilk—a very young, heavy-ish, early sort of Smashing Pumpkins-type of sound. Two bands are at work right now in the studio—one called Unida, who are a very heavy Queens of the Stone Age, desert rock type of thing. Big guys, scary to look at. And this other band called American Head Charge. They're very heavy. Also Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and his nephew Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. That's another world altogether. You can get so lost in it. It's Qawwali spiritual music. Some of the songs date back 600 700 years. Half of the songs are written by ancient Sufis. It's amazing to listen to. They perform for three or four hours. They consume an enormous amount of food, because when they play for that long, it's an incredible workout.

We have a lot of very heavy and very rock things coming out this year. I think I came in to be the "wuss rock" guy, (laughs) to find a Coldplay or a Radiohead or a Travis.

It seems from your roster that you guys don't think much about radio when you sign something. Is that true?

I know that with System Of A Down, the label did what really is the ideal. They had them out on the road for a long time but kept holding back the record (from radio). They finally went with "Sugar" to radio which did really well. It really blew up. A lot of the bands we've signed in the last year or two definitely seem to be touring acts ñ lifestyle acts. Some of these bands play to a thousand people a night, yet you've never heard them on the radio.

Can you define "lifestyle" acts?

The easiest thing with some of these new metal/sports metal bands is that you've got the built-in touring base. You've got the Family Values Tour, the Ozzfest, and the Warped Tour which are built-in places to stick all of these bands.
When you've got modern rock bands that are a little more on the light side there is no place to put them with all of these major tours. There is no package going out with modern rock bands. I can't believe everyone is into Limp Bizkit or Korn or Incubus. Those bands all have merit, but it's a lot harder to break a modern rock band unless you've got one absolute smash defining single.

How important is it that a band you're looking at already has some kind of following or base in their home region?

It's great. It's lovely if they've got a base, but I don't think it's necessarily the most important thing. One guy I'm looking at right now has never really played out in this current lineup. But I heard his music, and I think he's fantastic. I'll work with him to get him to the point where we can sign him.

That's not something I hear from a lot of A&R people at other labels. Right now, everyone seems to only want bands that are doing well in their regional markets.

I think a lot of the problem, especially with younger A&R people with a little less experience, is a lot of it is about being cool. It's not about: Is this a great song? I'd rather listen to the Backstreet Boys than half of the stuff I hear on KROQ (LA's Alternative station) sometimes. At least they have songs. I love songs. If I hear something that is just fantastic, I appreciate that there has to be a good live show. There has to be something there to follow it up. These days, it's so much about that one spot at radio. It's so hard to get on there. If you find a truly great pop song, I think you can get it out there and then focus on getting the live show together.

Is it more expensive to break a pop song at radio than a rock song at radio?

There are different levels. You go through college radio, which is quite expensive. Then there are all of your different formats, like Triple-A and modern rock. And then the sort of holy grail is Top-40 radio. I wouldn't even want to think about the money that is spent to break some of these records. But at the end of the day, if it's a great pop song, [it might have a chance]. For example, right now, Columbia has Crazy Town who have an undeniable single. It's one of those cases where you have to hold back [radio promotion] until the band has built up a following. They did it the right way. You've got the band out for a year selling 2,000 albums a week touring and building a bit of a base, and then at the right time, you can explode it. I think it did like 80,000 last week. It's blowing up.

And then there is someone like David Gray whose single kind of took off on its own.

It's amazing. It's fantastic that something like that could happen. He's not young, he's not super cute. He's been around a long time in Ireland. I think it takes quite a while for people to develop the ability to write a song, unless you're born with it. Indie bands that develop through their mid and late 20's start to get a little bit more interested in making things sound nice or catchier. There is a little bit more melody. You get out of your angry, "we're going to be completely different and the most uncommercial band you can ever imagine" phase. Slowly you grow up and you appreciate songs a bit more.

Are you guys ever going to sign any true pop acts?

Pure pop? Like the Backstreet Boys? I'd love to do one of those records. Like Britney Spears. That would be so much fun to just go out and find great pop songs.

I'd like to hear a Rick Rubin-produced Britney Spears record! But what about doing more mainstream, pop alternative artists?

One guy I'm looking at right now is like a cross between Elton John, Prince, and Ben Folds Five. It's very piano driven. Very beautiful melodies. He's one of the best songwriters I've heard in years. I hope we get to sign him. I think that fits in perfectly. The roster needs to be focused, and obviously there are a lot of rock bands on the roster. That's just a reflection of what Rick loves. Even so, when you break down the rock bands, they are very different from one another.

How much time do you spend listening to unsigned demos on average?

I try not to listen too much at work. It's a little bit too sterile, and the phone is always ringing. But my commute here and back is probably an hour and a half a day, so I get a lot of time to listen in the car. I usually spend that time listening. With various stuff that has come in through the mail, I'll put in maybe two or three hours a week, usually at the end of the day when it's a bit more calm.

What do you look for? What are your criteria to get you interested in a band?

If I'm listening to songs here in the office, it's often on in the background. For example, with this kid that I love, I stuck it on and was working away, and all of a sudden three songs in I thought "This is great!". I usually like anything that's got a beautiful melody. I grew up on pop music watching Top of the Pops. We didn't have a lot of alternative outlets where I came from .We had one hour of American heavy metal every Friday night on TV.

When I go to see a band, I think it's all about going to see magic. I still love being a fan. Seeing the guy on stage and thinking that guy is not like you or me. He's different. He's magical. I really believe that most of the great people are born with it. You can learn songwriting to some degree. If it's coming from the heart, from a dark place or a happy place, wherever it's coming from, it seems real. It's when somebody is passionate and they literally could not say "I'm going to quit. I'm going to go get a job." It's somebody who is driven to perform and to write. It's star quality. Magic. It's impossible to describe. You know it when you see it.

Where do you get the demos that you listen to?

A lot of it comes from organizations like TAXI and ASCAP and the people there. A lot of stuff comes in from friends around the country and people who are in bands. I love the fact that bands support each other. I'll be talking to one band, and maybe it's never going to happen, but they'll constantly send me stuff. "Hey you've got to check this band out." "We played with this band." "We talked to these guys." A lot of it is word of mouth. We get stuff from attorneys and managers and publishing companies just like everybody else does.

If it's from a friend who is not in the music industry, then it means even more. Maybe someone has been down to see a show and they call me up and say, "You've got to come see this band. They're great. The singer is great." Maybe we're not going to sign it, but at least someone out there who isn't being paid to think like that loves something. That's very meaningful.


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