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Fat Possum reinvents itself with indie rock

/ Source: The Associated Press

In its first decade, the independent record label Fat Possum was known for unearthing forgotten or unknown blues musicians and bringing them to an appreciative, if small, audience.

Label owner Matthew Johnson’s roster began to dwindle over time, however, as notable acts like Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside, among others, passed away.

“It just kind of got depressing a little bit, you know,” Johnson said. “I got the blues.”

So Johnson has been reinventing his Oxford, Miss., label, taking it away from the blues — with some exceptions — and in new directions.

“Beyond,” a reunified Dinosaur Jr. album released in the spring, could be the biggest splash for Fat Possum. But others are proving popular.

Andrew Bird’s latest album, “Armchair Apocrypha,” something akin to indie rock, charted on the Billboard 200 after its March debut and has sold more than 30,000 copies. The retro blues group The Black Keys has had commercial and critical success.

And the label recently released the first four in a series of Townes Van Zandt reissues.

Johnson, 38, said he feels criticism every time he tries to do something different. Unearthing old bluesmen was one thing. Pair them with modern-day rappers or rock ’n’ roll acts, and he gets accused of being sacrilegious.

He got the same sort of reaction when he began releasing albums by indie rock acts like Heartless Bastards, deadboy & the Elephantmen and Fiery Furnaces.

“Everyone’s like, well, you’re a blues label,” Johnson said. “We didn’t really know what we were doing when we were making those blues records, so I don’t know why we have to know what we’re doing when we’re making these other records. I mean, no one ever said to Atlantic (Records), ‘Oh, you can’t do this because you started out with jazz.”’

Johnson said he’s not seeking out voices from a particular genre. He and the Fat Possum staff have a pretty simple way of choosing what to release.

“If I’m not into it, we don’t do it,” Johnson said. “It’s sort of like the whole office has to feel it, you know what I mean? We have to like what we do. It’s still a pretty wide range. I think Andrew Bird is real different from Dinosaur Jr. But I like them both.”

Johnson hooked up with Dinosaur when the band sent a four-song demo after the original lineup reunited last year to critical acclaim and sold-out shows across three continents. The new album met his criteria.

“I was blown away,” Johnson said. “It’s smokin’.”

Lou Barlow, bassist for Dinosaur Jr., said he prefers to put out the band’s latest album on a smaller, independent label. Dinosaur and Barlow’s other bands have had deals with major labels before and he sees no reason to return to that grind.

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“I think it’s great,” Barlow said. “I guess after seeing both sides of it, I prefer the independent label.”

Johnson didn’t get rich pushing the blues for a decade, suffering a bankruptcy before rebuilding the label into a viable financial enterprise with a reputation for cool.

He said mostly abandoning the blues for other genres has been like starting over. The label’s artists are starting to sell, but increased sales means increased spending on promotion — gambling that the extra expenditures will bring returns.

And in the era of shrinking record sales due to Internet file-sharing, every album sold counts.

“I don’t think there is a harder business,” Johnson said. “If there is I don’t want to know it. ... It’s still very difficult, but things are going better than they ever have, I think.”