SA Issue 4: Josh Rosenthal and Tompkins Square Records
Tompkins Square released Ian's approachably epic three disc set: To What Strange Place: The Music of the Ottoman-American Diaspora 1916-1929, which was partially responsible for bringing his work to international attention. Initially, that's what drew me to TSQ, but what I found when I started poking around in Josh's catalog seemed, to me, to be the signs of an almost obsessively subjective collection of releases which piqued my curiosity.
A historical set like Ian's might sit aside a contemporary compositional fingerstyle guitar record of James Blackshaw's, or a solo piano record by free jazz underground saxophone legend Charles Gayle or a different kind of solo piano recital by Macarthur Fellow, Ran Blake. When looking at the catalog objectively, it's hard to find the connections that would lead you to believe that they all come from the same curatorial mind. But, as I spent more time with the discs, I realized that the releases had a strong and unique definition of Americana that Josh had either consciously or unconsciously created; a group of great American fringe dwellers, weirdos, and other musical figures that could never easily fit into what we've been told is the great pantheon of American music.
My own reduction of Tompkins Square's output to a cultural prototype made me imagine Josh as some sort of ultimate custodian of the unheard music; a "hero of the underground". I had half imagined him with a big, bushy beard, quoting early 20th century Anarchist tropes and bemoaning the American weirdo archetype. What I found in the brief conversation that follows, though, was that the custodian can take many shapes, can come from the least likely places and ultimately, can find a way to achieve a kind of mainstream success (the label has been nominated for five grammys including their most recent, ‘He Is My Story : The Sanctified Soul of Arizona Dranes‘, nominated for Historical Album of the Year) without sacrificing one person's strong commitment to a personal vision of what people should know about American music.
As always, I’m beginning and ending each conversation with the same questions for each of our highlights, in order to show the many directions different people’s passions can take them.
SOUND AMERICAN: First of all, can you give me a little background on you and your history with recordings? What was your first experience with music and how did it develop into the business of Tompkins Square?
JOSH ROSENTHAL: I started in the business at 16 years of age, as an intern at PolyGram Records in NYC. It was 1984-1985. I worked in the college radio promotion department. In the 18 months that I worked there, they released the first round of Velvet Underground reissues, John Mellencamp, Van Morrison, Trio, Richard Thompson. It was an amazing experience. I was working at my high school radio station at the time. Upon graduation I became Music Director at my college station in Albany, WCDB. I was hired upon graduation as a promo guy for Columbia Records, and worked at SONY Music for 15 years in various capacities. Left in 2005, started the label that same year.
SA: Wow...so you did a lot of big label stuff initially. Looking at the Tompkins Square catalog, I can't imagine that what you're putting out now (Charles Gayle, Ran Blake, fingerstyle guitar, comps of historical music) would find a home at Sony of PolyGram or Columbia. Have you always been interested in promoting lesser known artists or did you feel like there was a need that wasn't being met in your initial work with the labels and radio stations that you're now trying to fill? What was the reason for Tompkins Square coming into existence?
JR: I worked on a lot of stuff at SONY that still inspires me to do what I do now. For example, working on the Robert Johnson box set in 1990. That was really the first reissue of music from that era that connected widely with the general public. Also, I pestered Legacy to do the Charlie Poole box set, which would never happen today, and will never happen again.
I started my label after I left SONY in 2005. Just wanted to try something entrepreneurial, having worked for the man for 15 years at that point.
*You may have noticed that there is no dedicated mixtape for TSQ and Josh Rosenthal. Sometimes you have to recognize when something exists in a better form than that which you can make, and so instead of a Sound American playlist, Josh and I have decided to point you to the TSQ soundcloud, which streams a great amount of the labels music: https://soundcloud.com/
Follow Tompkins Square on Twitter: www.twitter.com/tsq2
Visit Tompkins Square Records: http://www.tompkinssquare.com/