Passion. Enthusiasm. Knowledge.

I thought that I had all three of those in abundance when it came to this thing we call rock or pop music. But I’ve just been speaking to Stuart Coupe from Laughing Outlaw Records in Australia and feel that Stuart has probably forgotten more than I would ever know about the subject. Actually, I doubt that he has. His memory is razor sharp and the man is like a walking, talking encyclopedia of all things music related. Anyone who is a regular reader of reviews in the major monthly music magazines or who checks out the music sites on the web will be aware that Laughing Outlaw have released more than their fair share of excellent albums in the U.K. this year.

I was expecting this to be a usual question and answer interview but Stuart has so much enthusiasm for music it is almost difficult to take in. By his own admission once he starts talking about the Laughing Outlaw label and music in general, it is hard to stop him. Not that you'd want to and it’s not a criticism. The man has such great tales to tell and his knowledge of bands from the 60s to the present day is so vast it made me feel like an absolute beginner when I spoke to him early one morning on the phone in Laughing Outlaw’s offices in Sydney.

I had my usual list of questions to prompt me when those awkward silences fall but I think that I maybe got round to asking three or four of those questions. There were no awkward silences and Stuart answered all of my questions in the course of speaking to me without me actually putting the questions to him. I could have gladly listened to him all day.

One of the questions I did manage to get in was concerning Stuart’s background. He is probably better known in Australia as a writer, “ Yes, I’ve either authored or edited 9 books and I’m currently finishing one off which is the history of concert promoting in Australia which goes back from the 1950s to the present day. It’s a look at the actual promoters themselves and also at some of the weirder and more interesting tours that have come to Australia.” This is where the first of Stuart’s captivating rock and roll stories came in the conversation. “A lot of people don’t know that Buddy Holly actually had a serious plane mishap on his way to Australia. He was actually in a plane flying from Brisbane to Melbourne a year to the day exactly from when he did die when it happened”. Now, I’m no expert on Mr. Holly but I’ve read a bunch of stuff about him over the years and that was the first time I’d heard about that incident. Looks like it’s going to be a compelling read especially when Stuart then relates the tale of how Frank Sinatra caused a commotion in 1974 when he verbally abused Australian women journalists. The Prime Minister was involved and Sinatra’s plane was refused to fly between cities. This is what we want to hear! Rather than recycle old stories we have all read time and again it seems that Stuart has hit upon a great way of presenting little known facts in this new book. Let’s hope it sees the light of day in the U.K. when it is published.

It’s not all music related when it comes to Stuart’s book writing skills though. He has edited a number of crime fiction anthologies although his two earliest books were ‘The New Music’ and ‘The New Rock and Roll’, which were published around 20 years ago. “‘The New Music’ was a rock encyclopedia looking at what was called post-punk or new wave. It pulled together talents such as Elvis Costello, Wreckless Eric, Tom Petty, when he was considered punk, Television and Patti Smith” explained Stuart. “So principally I’m known over here as a music journalist. I turned 46 on September 11th and I’ve been writing for a living since I was about 18. I think that I’m the only Australian to interview Bob Dylan twice and the only Australian to interview Brian Wilson twice so I’ve been lucky. I’ve done three Rolling Stones, but no Beatles, and I’ve missed out on Elvis Presley, which is a constant source of regret!”

Being a big Brian Wilson fan I just had to ask Stuart to fill me in on his interviews with the great man. Were the myths about him true? Stuart first interviewed Wilson around the time of his ‘Imagination’ album. It was, as Stuart says, “The most surreal day of my journalistic life”. His day started with breakfast with Iggy Pop in L.A. Then it was onto lunch with Neil Diamond. “That was weird enough” understates Stuart. When he arrived back at his hotel there was a message waiting for Stuart asking if he was free to go to Brian Wilson’s house that evening. The highlight of that evening for Stuart was when Wilson explained that the Beach Boys were working on a version of ‘Proud Mary’. The lucky Stuart ended up sharing a piano stool with the Beach Boy leader while he sang the song into Stuart’s tape recorder! But perhaps the best thing, for us at least, is that maybe because of that contact Laughing Outlaw have been asked if they are interested in licensing the new Wondermints (the band Wilson takes on tour with him and who have released 3 stunning albums of their own) album. Of course you can guess what Laughing Outlaw’s answer to that one was! So are the myths about Wilson true? Well, Stuart also recalled the time he asked Wilson if he still had the tapes to the legendary ‘Smile’ album. Wilson got visibly upset and disappeared into another room. After a while the strains of Phil Spector’s ‘Be My Baby’ were heard through the walls before Wilson rejoined Stuart and carried on as normal. So it looks like what we have read about Wilson in the past is true. Fascinating though to hear it from someone who actually lived it.

Stuart’s other passion apart from music (where does he get the energy from?) is contemporary crime fiction. He has edited and contributed to a number of anthologies on the subject. One was called ‘Hard Boiled’ but perhaps the most controversial of these is one called ‘Case Reopened’. Stuart asked 12 Australian crime fiction writers to pick famous real unsolved Australian murders and mysteries and come up with a fictional resolution to them.

Yet another area Stuart has been involved in is promoting tours in Australia. As he explains, “I think that I have a short attention span! “I’ve brought everyone from Harry Dean Stanton to Dick Dale, Link Wray, Lucinda Williams and Guy Clark to Australia for tours” So, an accomplished author, music journalist and promoter but still there is more. Stuart has also found the time over the years to manage bands. He was The Hoodoo Gurus’ (the legendary Australian band, formed in 1981) first manager before going on to manage Paul Kelly (the acclaimed Australian singer/songwriter who won Best Songwriter Award at The Australian Performing and Recording Arts Awards in 2001) for 6 years. He also started the indie label G.R.E.E.N. Records along with Roger Grierson in the early to mid 80s. Things have come full circle in a way; “It’s funny that Laughing Outlaw are about to release the last New Christs record because their first 45 came out on G.R.E.E.N. Records” recalls Stuart. After all the writing, promoting and managing Stuart decided that “I wanted a break from writing so I got lured into this new venture called Laughing Outlaw” he laughs.

I asked Stuart if he still had contact with those artists he managed or promoted in the past. “I see Paul Kelly from time to time. I saw him play last year. We don’t seem to cross paths that much. I see a lot of the Hoodoo Gurus. In fact I’ve seen them a lot over the last couple of weeks as the Dictators, who are on Laughing Outlaw in Australia, made their first visit here so all of the shows were full of Hoodoo Gurus! Would Laughing Outlaw sign the likes of Paul Kelly if given the chance? “If I could I wouldn’t hesitate for more than 2 seconds! But Paul is very safely encased with EMI here in Australia. But later this afternoon I’m having a meeting with Ross Wilson (Daddy Cool), a very famous Australian musician from the 70s and onwards and we're talking about doing his next record on Laughing Outlaw. The Hoodoo Gurus have got a new band called the Persian Rugs and they’ve put out a record through Shock Records. If the call came from any of them I’d release it in a shot. I’m currently trying to track down the master tapes of an album of which there were only 500 vinyl copies done in the 80s and it was a band featuring Steve Connely and Michael Berkley from Paul Kelly’s band. They were called The Joeys and the album was called ‘Pouch’. It was an album of them playing only Ramones covers with the exception of ‘Street Fighting Man’. It’s an early Ramones tribute. They are the kind of loopy things that I’m looking around trying to find”.

Laughing Outlaw Records was founded in April 1999, primarily, as Stuart explains, to release the Coronet Blue record. That album alone arouses interest. The band is centred around John Rooney (The Lonely Hearts) and Anthony Bautovich (the fabulous Orange Humble Band) and the album is produced by Rooney along with Mitch Easter who besides also playing in The Orange Humble Band produced the early REM albums as well as acts like Suzanne Vega. “Laughing Outlaw was originally going to be pretty much run by Jules Normington who had started Phantom Records and I was at a loose end, as I said, I wanted a break from writing and Jules called me and said he was starting this record label and he was thinking of signing the Celibate Rifles”. Jules wanted Stuart’s advice over the details of the contract as it had been some time since he had been involved in such things. They had a meeting and “two hours later we emerged from the meeting with basically me working for the label”. “The label in the form that you are aware of it now really started in March 2001 when Paul Glover, who is the other principal person involved in the label, and I and one of the other partners, C.J. went to South By Southwest in Austin. That was the point when we realised that we had the beginning of something with Laughing Outlaw, that we could do business around the world and we made some very good contacts. Really the mass of releases, and we release too many records but we can’t help ourselves as we are fans, really started after the South By Southwest thing. Up until that point I wasn’t sure if the label would continue. We had done a few releases that had been reasonably well received but over the four days of South By Southwest it was ‘hey, let’s really go for this!’ In some ways I actually think that Laughing Outlaw started then”.

Although with their remarkable release rate it feels like Laughing Outlaw have been around in the U.K. a long time they only started releasing records here this year. “We started in Europe in January. Paul Glover went after distribution set-ups in the U.K., Europe and America. We were led to Geraint Jones our representative in the U.K. who has done a truly fabulous job for us. I couldn’t be more delighted with Geraint and Steve Young at our distributors, Weatherbox. It still stuns us when I look at our website and see that Bob Harris has signed the guestbook”. Bob Harris has been playing some of Laughing Outlaw’s releases and has called Laughing Outlaw “one of the most exciting independent labels in the world”. Praise indeed. But it’s not only Mr. Harris who has shown interest in the label. Stuart is rightly proud when he says “The awareness for the label in the U.K. and Europe is fantastic. We’re in a position in Europe where there is great acceptance and we remain very confident that at some point something will sell very well. As a music fan it’s kind of flattering getting an e-mail from Robyn Hitchcock asking if we are interested in releasing his double Dylan album or Kimberley Rew asking if we are interested in doing the new Soft Boys record. Brian Wilson hasn’t e-mailed yet but you never know!”

The name Laughing Outlaw sums up the whole feeling of the music on the label so well one can’t help but feel that a whole lot of thought must have gone into the choice of name. Not so, Stuart explained that at one point Jules Normington was under some pressure to come up with a name. Glancing down at the cowboys and indians book his young son was looking at, Jules noticed that one of the characters was named the Laughing Outlaw. Problem solved!

Laughing Outlaw’s list of artists is, to put it lightly, impressive. The Orange Humble Band, power pop hero Michael Carpenter and leading light (and author of an excellent book about Gram Parsons) Jason Walker to name just a few. But in Australia the list is even more outstanding. They get the likes of Cotton Mather, Alejandro Escovedo and the Dictators on the label, which we don’t in Europe. “In Australia we do all of the Rainbow Quartz releases. Cotton Mather, Strawberry Smell etc. and we have a good relationship with Bloodshot so we’ve done ‘A Man Under The Influence’, the Alejandro Escovedo record, so there are certain things that come out in Australia but not in the U.K. on Laughing Outlaw” explains Stuart.

So with such a varied and talented bunch of artists on the label how do Stuart and the other guys decide whether an artist or band is suitable for Laughing Outlaw? “If we heard a demo, or a finished album, and we thought that if it wasn’t on Laughing Outlaw we would actually go out and buy that album because we want to own it and play it at home then it was a record we wanted to release. It’s so totally fundamental as; do we like it or not? Do we love it? I have no interest in releasing something that I wouldn’t play at home for pure and utter enjoyment”.

Basically if Stuart and Paul Glover feel passionately about a record they’ll release it. It works well. They both like psychedelic-pop and the more punky sounds of the Dictators and the New Christs. Paul’s tastes tend more towards the more ‘punky’ side of things (Iggy, Lou Reed and 60s garage bands). Stuart is more into the alt. country side of things. Of course, they both share a love of power pop. Together it’s a good mixture. But would they release an album on Laughing Outlaw that they felt would sell if they didn’t personally like it? It must be hard not to see the dollar signs and think that we’ll just let this one slip through to get a big seller. Stuart: “I couldn’t go out and tell people a record is great if I didn’t believe it and wouldn’t play it at home. I hope that one day a number of Laughing Outlaw records sell a million copies, I want that desperately, but I want it to be records where I can say it’s a fantastic record. I want to sell millions of records but I want them to be Henry Fenton records or Jason Walker records or whatever we’re passionate about. Maybe that sounds like it’s a crusade and all the good and bad things that go with that but that’s where we’re coming from”.

On their website Laughing Outlaw used to use the slogan ‘Australia’s Premier Power Pop and Alt. Country Label’. In their early days it was a fair description but their releases are increasingly moving away from those genres. Maybe Slick 57 could be classed as alt. country but then where would alt. rock group House Of Circles for example fit in? They can hardly be accused of having a foot in either camp. Initially there was more power pop than country on the label but Stuart brought his love of that genre with him to the label. The slogan was chosen as it just so happened that most of the music the Laughing Outlaw guys liked and released could loosely be slotted into these genres. Then more of the singer-songwriter albums appeared and, with a Robyne Dunn album, jazz started to get a look in. “I remember talking, recalls Stuart, with Andy from the Dictators and he mentioned that it would seem a bit weird if the Dictators album is released on Australia’s Premier Alt. Country label. Good point, Andy!” After spending some time thinking about it and realising that maybe people wouldn’t approach the label if their music didn’t fit into those categories it was decided that particular slogan would be dropped. Slick 57, for example, left a message on the Laughing Outlaw website which led to their signing to the label and the release of their excellent ‘ Ghost Of Bonnie Parker’ album. But maybe some other acts might not have felt Laughing Outlaw would be home for them with that slogan. Maybe Stuart’s umbrella when it comes to alt. country is more of a very large parasol and if Slick 57 have to be labelled either alt country or power pop than the former description would win out but now the restraints of that slogan (which was excellent in their early days) has been dropped maybe we will hear more good music from the likes of Slick 57, House Of Circles and Jack Howard which sits on the fringes rather than slots nicely into those genres.

With Mitch Easter producing as well as playing on a number of Laughing Outlaw releases and Michael Carpenter taking the same route it feels that there is a Laughing Outlaw family emerging. Stuart agrees “ I do actually use the word family quite frequently. I really do encourage that with all of the artists on the label. When they become part of the Laughing Outlaw family they are all given copies of phone and fax numbers and an e-mail address for everybody on the label. I encourage them to make contact with everybody else”.

Laughing Outlaw is becoming a collectors label now mainly due to the fact that if it’s on the label it’s going to be good music no matter what pigeonhole it falls into. There must be a certain amount of pressure involved to keep the standard up? “I don’t know if I consider it pressure, replied Stuart, I’m obviously, again, flattered that people would want to have all of the records. I think that as long as we keep to the notion of releasing records that we like then I think that we are going to be okay. There is nothing strange about loving Abba and Hank Williams. If you come to my house you will probably hear me play Brian Wilson then the Dictators then Martha Reeves then the Carter Family and I guess that’s the principal of the label. The thing that’s important about it is the sprit and the spark and the creativity”.

There was a point when the question was raised whether the same person who would buy the Slick 57 album would also buy the Jack Nolan album for instance. The idea was raised about starting an offshoot label to cater for different tastes. Stuart argued against this. “We’re putting out good records, we don’t need to go if you like the country stuff you buy the green disc and if you like pop music you buy the pink ones! Let’s just bang them out on Laughing Outlaw Records and let people decide for themselves if it’s stuff they like”. If the label was split Stuart feels that people might miss out on some good music. “Where would we put Henry Fenton for instance? It’s probably more pop than country but some people see it the other way round. And what is Alejandro Escovedo really? It’s not really a country record. I think if people went ‘I only like Laughing Outlaw’s country stuff’ then they would possibly miss out on hearing a bunch of cool stuff”.

With their passion, enthusiasm and good taste in music coupled with the fact that they allow their acts the artistic freedom I doubt they would get elsewhere it seems that Laughing Outlaw Records are going to around for a good while yet. It’s reassuring to know that there are people running record companies who care about the music they release and feel so passionate about it. “I’m one of the luckiest guys on the planet, states Stuart. “My job is waking up everyday working with great musicians and listening to great records”. Long may he continue to release them on such an outstanding label.

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