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Interviews

Bernard Stollman: The ESP-Disk Story

By Published: November 21, 2005

AAJ: That was Virgin Fugs [ESP 1038].

BS: Right, so at a certain point, Warner Bros. got interested and Ed got management—Peter Edmonson and Charlie Rothschild, who was Judy Collins' manager at the time. Our stance, as you know, again despite the notion that we are simply a jazz label, we wanted to take a broader place in music, to reach out—originality was the only criterion. Some of the most original, beautiful and artistic music comes from free improvisation, but it's not the only thing. Duke Ellington was said to be beyond category. I've always maintained it's not the mode, the style or the songwriter, it is originality—great art can emerge from anything. Hip-hop, sampling in its present form; it's rare but it happens, and you can hear it.

That is, of course, the big issue—can I hear it? I'm not at all certain that, because of my generation[al position] I am not part of the generation that's making this music or listening to it, so I don't necessarily have a frame of reference that works, and I'm pretty careful in that regard. We're not turning our backs on anyone, as far as we're concerned—we'll listen for originality, and wherever we find it, we'll try to support it. Our rhetorical question is always this: do you have something to say?

AAJ: That's the philosophy that spawned a lot of the one-off projects, like The Coach with the Six Insides [ESP 1019, an adaptation of Finnegan's Wake by playwright Jean Erdman and instrument-maker Teiji Ito].

BS: That could be called a digression or a detour, but I don't think so. We're role models for people who love music, so in that same boat, why restrict ourselves? Why not be open? It could be interesting from any direction.

AAJ: You did set up the Oro subsidiary later; how did that come about?

BS: Well, there were only four titles—All That the Name Implies, a group that was around for a nanosecond; Bruce Mackay [1069]; Todd Kelley [1097] and the Haryou Percussion Group [1067]. The idea was for a 'pop' label, and that's how we approached it, but we felt it was better to collect the music under one roof and let ESP be a unitary approach to a diverse number of ideas about music.

AAJ: You did mention some distribution deals in Japan and Europe. What happened there that was so specifically disheartening?

BS: Well, I made a three-year deal with Phonogram-Philips and actually flew over to Europe at one point. Something very strange happened—they had the opportunity to put out several titles, and then they dropped it. I never fully understood that.

AAJ: I've seen the Fontana-ESP records before, and it was always somewhat unclear what the story was behind those.

BS: Those were part of the deal. But you must remember this too, that the war in Vietnam was white-hot in 1968 when we made the agreement and there might have been pressure subsequently from the American government, because the Fontana license included records by the Fugs and Pearls Before Swine, and these artists opposed the war. It's entirely possible that Fontana-Phillips decided that they didn't want to put out records that attacked the American government. Not only that, but our pressing plant was bootlegging like crazy, and they might have been shipping them export, cutting the price—it's a riddle to this day.

JVC licensed us in Japan, and they had some kind of a problem—maybe the sales didn't meet their expectations or whatever, but they took a Billie Holiday album that they weren't supposed to have and they put it out, but they put it out off-peak and the sales were not what they thought they would be. There again, it is a mystery, and whether the US government got involved, I can't even begin to guess. We did have a staff member who was with the intelligence community, and he tried to wreck the company—well, he didn't have to try, as I was already wrecked by the bootlegging, but while he was there he worked constantly to try and undermine us and antagonize the artists towards us, everything he could do.

This would have been around 1972 or '73. I had moved to an apartment at 55th Street and 9th Avenue [the 300 W. 55th address found on some later ESP jackets], the top floor of an apartment building. We were trying to operate there, but we were out of business. We had been effectively out of business since '68, but for six years we kept going on money we had in the bank, and I guess we were just disregarding the reality of the situation. We went right on producing records, and that was nuts of course, but those records will stand today. For all intents and purposes, the company had stopped functioning in 1968.

At that time, we had the Pearls—both of the Pearls' albums were taking off [One Nation Underground, ESP 1054, and Balaklava, ESP 1075], and the Fugs were taking off, and three albums that were moving to the top of the pop charts and overnight we were broke. How that happened was that I got a call from Warner Brothers' Jack Holtzman, who ran Elektra Records and who sold his company to Warner Brothers. I hadn't known that, but he called me out of the blue and said "will you sell your company to Warner Brothers.?" I said we would think about it, but that I didn't think so. The reason I refused was because I suspected that the government had been pressing Warner Brothers to take over the company and shut me down.



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