"Ron Jeremy just happened to be doing a signing at the Castle store on Capitol Hill, so we met him there, proposed the project, and were told to get in touch with his agent," says Josh Wright, cofounder of Seattle-based indie record label Light in the Attic Records. "We had his agent on the phone and he's yelling at us, 'Ron Jeremy gets $20,000 to stand on a street corner!' But when we told him that Public Enemy had done it for a few hundred bucks, we managed to get him down to $750."
Hiring notable iconoclasts to compose liner notes isn't a typical expense for a young indie label. But LITA's reputation is built upon fastidious and loving reissues of out-of-print gems by pioneering funk, hiphop, reggae, and soul artists (with a smattering of '60s pop and Brazilian psychedelia). The label only has one contemporary band actively touring and recording, critical darlings the Black Angels, an Austin-based modern psych-rock band. Everything else is culled from the vaults.
Which is precisely why Wright, 30, a lanky, dirty blond with an easy-going demeanor and a suburban salesman's lilt, was negotiating with Ron Jeremy. It was 2004 and LITA was reissuing the soundtrack to Deep Throat, the FBI-rankling porn flick from the '70s. Like many blue movies of that era, the musical accompaniment to Linda Lovelace's depravity was seriously groovy. Light in the Attic thought it only fitting that Jeremy write the liner notes.
In the four short years since its inception, LITA Records has achieved a degree of success that most independent-label owners can only fantasize about. In addition to putting out a steady stream of beautifully packaged, critically lauded reissues, and the Black Angels debut, the label may also start handling its own distribution—a rare move for an indie that could save major costs. Indeed, they're already distributing releases for other boutique labels like Vampi Soul and Munster Records. What began as a teenage pipe dream has turned into one of the most intuitively successful labels Seattle has seen since Sub Pop.
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Wright and cofounder Matt Sullivan, also 30, have been friends since the fourth grade. During their formative years, they both worked at a 10-watt radio station at Bellevue High School, where their musical education began expanding beyond the FM soundtrack of their adolescence. "Because it was the '90s and we were in Seattle, labels would send us all sorts of good stuff," recalls Sullivan, an affable guy with a messy head of curly brown hair. "I don't think they realized our audience probably only consisted of two or three people." It was around this time that the idea of starting a label first came up. "I always wanted to have a label," says Sullivan, "but it was always the wrong time."
After graduation, they parted ways to attend college, with Sullivan landing at University of Arizona and Wright bouncing from Ithaca College to Washington State University. Post-college, Sullivan spent time interning at now-defunct Seattle label Loosegroove Records and mainstay Sub Pop. When he expressed interest in finding a label-based internship that would take him abroad, Susie Tennant (Sub Pop's radio-promotions director at the time) helped him secure a stint with Munster Records, a label in Madrid, Spain. "They did a lot of reissues—the Stooges, the Flamin' Groovies," says Sullivan. "That's where I became interested in the historical aspect of music and the idea of doing reissues."
When he returned to the states, Sullivan reconnected with Wright, who sheepishly admits he was just hanging out in Hawaii at the time. They discussed reviving their adolescent ambitions with a focus on reissues. Initially, they chose to get their feet wet in the business by producing live shows, promoting Seattle appearances by a number of cutting-edge acts like Saul Williams, Clinic, and Kid Koala under the name Light in the Attic. Eventually, the desire to launch a retrospective, eclectic label took priority. "With a show, it's all that work and it's over in two hours," explains Sullivan. "It became not worth the time and I was getting more interested in really getting the label going."
"The only shows we did after that were record-release parties," interjects Wright.
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Sullivan and Wright began transforming LITA into a label in 2002. Their first release came one year later, when they put out This Is Madness, the 1971 sophomore record by the Last Poets (widely considered to be the first true hiphop group). This was the release they nabbed Public Enemy for. Seven releases by '60s pop group the Free Design were next, along with the soundtrack to Lialeh (what Sullivan calls "the black Deep Throat"), thanks to a fruitful tip from local hiphop instrumental group the Sharpshooters (who have since split up). That referral ignited the pair's interest in more underappreciated works by black artists. "Everyone's reissued the Kinks and the Zombies," explains Sullivan. "These genres are just less picked over. If there was a Cramps record out of print, that could have been our first record, but this stuff just hadn't been acknowledged."
He adds: "We have about 15 projects in the works right now. Eventually they'll hit, but it gets really frustrating at times and sort of emotional so you have to take yourself out of it." Their upcoming calendar includes a long-out-of-print swan song by '60s acid-folk treasure Karen Dalton, and most impressively, the first two records by Betty Davis, wife of progressive jazz icon Miles Davis and the purported inspiration for Bitches Brew. They also have excellent forecasting skills and are currently courting local hiphop-stars-in-the-making the Saturday Knights. The same customers that picked up the Black Angels will also be interested in Deep Throat vs. Lialeh, a compilation of covers and songs inspired by the soundtracks featuring Karen O, Kool Keith, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, and the Super Furry Animals. Regardless of their more timely prospects, Wright and Sullivan remain energetic about their role as archivists. "The most fascinating thing for me is how deep these genres go," says Sullivan.
Given the attention Sullivan and Wright lavish on their releases, from the meticulous reproductions of original album artwork to the high-quality vinyl they use to the passion with which they promote their releases, taking themselves "out of it" seems highly improbable. The fiscal investment alone is notable. The cost of pressing the average indie release is around $2 per record, but because of the added expense of licensing, ornate packaging, and an average 18 percent royalty paid to artists, the pressing cost for LITA runs $3–$5. Every one of their 28 releases has broken even, or better—a highly unusual rate of return for an upstart label. Alternate revenue streams are generated via film and TV licensing. A Sharpshooters song was recently licensed to ESPN.
But that attitude is only part of what makes LITA an important label; it's also the fact that they are helping uncover lost history. "Light in the Attic is important because they preserve crucial sound heritage from a time when things weren't as overdocumented as they are now," says Kevin Howe, AKA DJ Sipreano, a Canadian tastemaker who assisted in compiling Jamaica to Toronto, a collection of songs by Jamaican expats who relocated to Canada in the early '60s.
"In the '60s and '70s, there were so many stellar bands that simply slipped under the radar because of racism, economics, or lack of promotion," Howe says. "LITA is giving these acts some long-overdue respect."email@example.com