Todd V. Wolfson

Backstage at this year's Bumbershoot, Devendra Banhart was hiding under a giant hat and members of Art Brut scurried to find their last-minute hairspray. Between them stood Eric Zappa, short and lanky in flannel and jeans, looking like the dork who crashed the party. After minding his business for some time, the 32-year-old approached his old friend, Apples in Stereo drummer John Dufilho, to chat about a side-project record they're putting out together on Zappa's Glurp Records.

As Art Brut started into their set, Zappa's conversation went on and on, two thirtysomething buddies shooting the shit about Mexican food and e-mailed MP3s before parting ways and skipping the rest of the fest. It appeared the dork had the most fun at this party, which is why Zappa started Glurp back in 2000: to hang out with friends and their bands, something he'd been doing for years as a manic fan in his local music scene.

That scene was Austin. The backstage powwow is a mere shadow of his Texas music heyday—four (or more) concerts a week, a day job in online music, and a marriage to a manager at the biggest music store in Austin. It was the perfect environment to connect with musicians, the perfect amount of spare time to put out two or three albums a year.

In 2005, Zappa relocated to Seattle; today he's working for Microsoft and raising two kids. He's lucky to attend four concerts a month, and those are usually because his musical friends are in town. Yet Glurp is having its best year yet. The label has broken out of its "Austin favorite" cult status with glowing national reviews of the Mendoza Line's breakup record and increased spins of label longtimer Li'l Cap'n Travis on college radio— particularly KEXP. Zappa is still making the label work the way he wants, releasing one or two albums a year by his friends' bands. While the rest of the music industry blames anything and everything for its woes, Glurp's small-scale success depends on both the label and its owner growing up.

"Did you know private school costs $16,000? For kindergarten?" Zappa can't stop talking about his kids as he walks toward the recent Bill Callahan concert at the Triple Door. Turns out it's his first-ever visit to the venue.

"I don't have as much bandwidth for rock 'n' roll stuff as I used to," Zappa says. Before the birth of Glurp (or kids), he did: Fresh off college-radio gigs and an internship with Atlantic Records, the New Jersey native landed in Austin in 1995 to work at roots-rock watershed label Watermelon Records. It was a perfect transition for both his career and his tastes, as the young man's Northeast DIY-punk obsession of old opened up to Watermelon's alt-country artists such as Alejandro Escovedo and the Gourds. Four years later, the label filed Chapter 11 and Zappa bolted, but not before he "got to know the ins and outs of how promotion worked, and how distribution worked," he says. "I definitely knew I could do it myself."

He and his wife, Jennie, dug into their Austin scenester Rolodex and kicked off Glurp with an Elvis Costello tribute record. "All the bands I liked and knew just happened to be huge Costello fans," he says. The debut was a testament to good taste, loaded with then-newcomers Hem, Okkervil River, Vic Chesnutt, and Matt Pond PA, along with a slew of area heavies who did the geek-rock grandfather right. Glurp's output has since stayed in line with Zappa's tastes, liberally teetering between pop rock, punk, and country.

That output is only 10 albums. Could it have been bigger? "If I had quit my day job or really rolled the dice and bet everything on the label," Zappa says. He passed on some bands because he didn't click with them as friends; he passed on others because he had "limited resources." When talking about the latter—and dodging questions about which bands exactly—he wrings his hands, as if his fingers want to scream about the one that got away. It has to be the most painful coin flip for any small-record-label owner—what if your friend's band is so good that you simply can't do them justice?

Zappa sees things differently. The label puts his spare time and connections to good use; even if he hasn't landed any super-size acts, he's chosen to help his friends rather than fall back on the cushy office job. And he's compelled to live up to the DIY credo that influenced his Jersey punk years: "The ultimate in ethics: Doing a label without screwing anybody." Even 2000 miles away, Zappa is still making moves for his friends in Texas and elsewhere. Beyond promotion and distribution, he's landed Glurp artists' songs in movies (The Life of David Gale), TV shows (Friday Night Lights), and ads (EA Sports), thanks to connections with TV and movie music scouts.

At Microsoft, he manages Spaces, a Facebook clone that's much bigger outside the U.S. It's not his first web-savvy job, but when Zappa says that the music industry's online shift "will make the [Glurp] job a bit easier," and then rattles off all kinds of obscure networking and music sites, it's obvious that he's looking at the web from Microsoft's perch. This could prove useful in his determination to keep the boutique label rolling; he aspires to continue his spare-time labor of love in Seattle with whatever new friends he makes here.

But Zappa doesn't put much effort into A&R. He jokes that perhaps he could discover a great new band hidden among Microsoft's bazillions of employees, but even two years into his Seattle residence, Zappa asks for help and tips about area bands during our conversation. His continued hopes for Glurp are at the mercy of the trade he made: 10 years of Austin music know-how and grass-roots connections in exchange for job security and rushing home at night to be with his kids.

"[Glurp] is still something that my wife and I are really passionate about," Zappa says. "It's just about finding the time. We never want to commit to a project that we can't do justice."

And with that, Zappa says good-bye to his Austin friends in Callahan's band at the Triple Door, probably still wondering where the hell his kids will go for kindergarten.recommended