Cosmic Thug RECORDS

Throwback to the future

Justin Collins explains the philosophy of Cosmic Thug Records by recalling an incident from his years of coproducing recordings with his musical collaborator, Adam Landry. “There’s a guitar solo by Ian Saint Pé on a Diamond Rugs record [Adam and I] produced,” Collins says. “Ian came in late, and the song was already tracked. We had one open track left for his solo. He played his first take, and we all loved it. It had a great reckless, in-a-hurry, not over-thinking-it quality, but he thought he had to redo it. We had the rest of the band listen to it and everyone else agreed that was it. They kept it and now it’s everyone’s favorite solo on the record.”
     For over a decade, Collins and Landry have been producing critically acclaimed recordings out of the small but productive Playground Sound studio. Capturing the raw feel of music being made in the moment is the hallmark of their style and central focus of their working philosophy. It’s an aesthetic approach the producing partners bring to their recently launched boutique label, Cosmic Thug Records.
     “I’ve known Adam for 11 years, and we’ve been making music together that entire time,” Collins says. “We met when I was making a record. He was recommended to me to come in and play guitar. We hit it off and became really tight.
     “He has building a studio at his house at the time. I think the first record he recorded there was one of mine. Adam was still trying to figure out the studio. He had acquired a tape machine, but he hadn’t fired it up yet, so we were still working with Pro Tools. Now it’s all analog. We haven’t touched a computer in I think 10 years.”
     That rejection of modern digital recording techniques isn’t an arbitrary decision based on hipster-ish ideals or musical snobbery. It’s a means to an end, a way to force musicians to put forth their best effort in the studio, as well as valuing the “feel” of music over the quest for so-called perfection.
     “We keep it simple by not having the options to layer and add stuff; fix things or redo things,” Collins says. “When we absolutely have to edit something, we usually record it again. We use a 1-inch 8-track tape machine, and we limit ourselves to just those eight tracks. It pushes people to be more in the moment. You have to make a decision right then. If you don’t like that take, you record over it and the first one is gone. It forces us to capture that raw aspect and bring out the best. When there are only eight tracks, it’s got to be good. We think all ideas are best when they’re first conceived, and it’s usually the purest expression of an idea. There are exceptions, and there are other valid ways of making records, but that’s how we operate.”
     “We keep it simple by not having the options to layer and add stuff; fix things or redo things,” Collins says. “When we absolutely have to edit something, we usually record it again. We use a 1-inch 8-track tape machine, and we limit ourselves to just those eight tracks. It pushes people to be more in the moment. You have to make a decision right then. If you don’t like that take, you record over it and the first one is gone. It forces us to capture that raw aspect and bring out the best. When there are only eight tracks, it’s got to be good. We think all ideas are best when they’re first conceived, and it’s usually the purest expression of an idea. There are exceptions, and there are other valid ways of making records, but that’s how we operate.”
     Their production style may seem antiquated by modern standards. Modern digital recording technology allows for scores of separate recording tracks that are eventually mixed down to the final record, but Collins’ and Landry’s work has garnered fans and resulted in highly lauded albums from many artists, including Diamonds Rugs, Sally Ford and the Sound Outside, T. Hardy Morris, Shelly Colvin, and most notably, Deer Tick’s 2011 breakthrough record, Divine Providence. Even though Collins and Landry explain their methods up front to the artists they work with, it doesn’t mean the full scope of their method is immediately understood.
     “People don’t always understand what they’re getting into with us,” Collins says. “Some people know what to expect because we were recommended to them by someone who has worked with us before, but others come to us because they like what they heard on another record we produced. We explain the process, but it doesn’t sink in until they experience it. Working with only eight tracks is the thing that really blows people’s minds. They’re like, ‘What? I can’t add three more vocal tracks?’ Or they ask us to do a second take and then find out they can’t change their mind and go back to the first take because it’s been recorded over. It can be weird at first, but once they get used to the idea, they think it’s great, and it’s always worked out in our favor, knock on wood.”
     After the success of Cosmic Thug productions (the name originated in an offhand comment by Collins’ ex-girlfriend), the team took another step forward in giving their sound a distinct identity. In late 2015, they partnered with California-to-East Nashville transplant Marchelle Brandanini to launch Cosmic Thug Records. The trio of musical partners began by rereleasing their existing albums under the new label, including Collins’ solo EP Home, Boy, Landry’s solo album El Scorpion, and two releases from Brandanini’s band, Pony Boy (The Devil in Me and Blue Gold). Schooly Dreams, a new album from Collins’ band, Justin and the Cosmics, soon joined these.
     “Adam and I have always talked about starting our own label because we’re really proud of our aesthetic,” Collins says. “It’s kind of a boutique sound, but the label is not exclusive to our productions. We want the primary focus to be on music we produce, but we also wanted to release songs from artists that kinda work the same way we do. We really believe in that sound concept, and we wanted to bring more attention to it.”
     To achieve their goal, the trio decided to produce small, limited-edition runs of “split 45s,” old-fashioned vinyl singles that spotlight a different artist on each side. “They’re just fun,” Collins says. “It’s fun to buy a record of an artist you like and then get the bonus of having the B-side be someone you’ve never heard before. We try to pair them up in a way that if you like the artist on one side, you’ll probably like the artist on the other side, too.”
     Released in December 2015, the first Cosmic Thug two-band platter was a Christmas single from Justin and the Cosmics and Pony Boy. They followed it with a single from Happiness and Vincent Van Gold; the former is a side-project band featuring members of Deer Tick and the latter is a trio comprised of Landry and Deer Tick’s Robbie Crowell and Dennis Ryan. Their third release featured songwriter and ex-Delta Spirit lead singer Matthew Logan Vasquez and indie popster David Vandervelde.
     “For some of the singles we have to deal with other labels,” Collins says. ‘We have to work through certain legalities, but because we’re such a small operation, other labels are generally cool with licensing the tracks to us since it’s free promotion for the artist. We’ve pressed less than 350 of each one and you can buy them directly from the artists, online at the Cosmic Thug website, or in local record stores. We package all the mail orders ourselves and always include fun stuff like a Cosmic Thug Records Fan Club card or other cool items.”
     Next up for the label is a twin blast from Pony Boy and Australian-bred East Nashville sadcore songbird Emma Swift. Also on tap is a Cosmic Thug showcase on Sunday, Sept. 25, at The 5 Spot. The show will feature performances by several Cosmic Thug artists, including Justin and the Cosmics, Adam Landry, Pony Boy, Emma Swift, and a special appearance by Robyn Hitchcock.
     “Our goal is to do three or four singles a year and see where it goes,” Collins says. “We’re just trying to nurture it and let it grow at this point. We’re not setting out any big-time dreams or goals. We’ll see what happens. It’s like everything else we do, the vibe and the feel is everything. We try to do more with less. That’s our protocol.”