Under/Over: An Interview With Eric Friedl Of Goner Records

It’s not always easy to step out of our comfort zone, which is what some of us are forced to do sometimes, given our surroundings and situations. In 2020 businesses began dissolving, unable to stand the burden of their own weight, as unemployment rose due to the increased lack of jobs. All this due to one thing: the pandemic. For some, the past year has proven quite difficult but they’ve been able to maintain their businesses by thinking outside the box. This is just another issue that’s continued to affect the growing number of dwindling record stores throughout the country. But like almost any other industry, there are those few that have been able to sustain themselves with a little bit of elbow grease and ingenuity. One store, in particular, is Goner Records. It’s that shop that also doubles as a record label out of Memphis, Tennessee.

What first began as a record label in 1993, with the debut release by garage rockers Guitar Wolf, and soon after releases by his own band The Oblivians, the label later became a punk staple by dropping other albums by King Khan, Reining Sounds, Digital Leather, and more. Over ten years later, label owner Eric Friedl partnered with Final Solutions frontman Zac Ives to purchase a record store to accompany the label. That same year Friedl launched Goner Fest, Memphis’ yearly event that would go on to showcase many Goner-related bands. Fast-forward to 2021 and it’s business as usual. Sort of.  

How have you maneuvered through the past year?

It was really an interesting year. Just like everyone who has a business, when covid hit no one knew if anyone was going to buy anything if anyone had any money to buy anything. It turned out that we were really lucky. My partner Zac (Ives) did a really amazing at getting grants and loans that were out there, so we were fine and we managed to keep our staff and keep going. That was a big deal when other places were laying people off for their own good, kind of thing, so they could get unemployment which would be more than they would make at the job. Other people weren’t as lucky as we were, and we’re a pretty small crew anyway, we run it pretty lean and we were able to make it work. We do our festival in September and we had to kind of learn how to do online streaming and festival stuff which we started a little bit before that but not to the extent of doing a 3-day festival. The festival is insane in person, but we’ve done it for so long we kind of know what we’re doing. I work with people that are in TV and when I was describing it to them, they were amazed that we would try to do what we did, especially with the equipment that we had (laughs). But it worked!

Everything really came together and we took some experience that we’ve had with other online festival-type scenarios and tried to take the good stuff, focus on that. Gonerfest 2020 was really fun and really worked. It was a lot better than we expected. We had no idea if it was going to work.

Let me stop you right there for a moment. I always make it a point of asking people first lately: How are you doing mentally through it all?

Today has been pretty rough but for whatever reason, this whole thing has bummed me out. In general, it’s good, I’ve got two young kids and everything is about them anyway – a nuclear war could be happening outside and we’re trying to chase after them. They come first so that’s how it’s been. The little one is actually in school, which is great. He’s 5; they tried doing the virtual thing at the end of last year but they’re too young to try and do that.  We figured out a way to keep him in school, he’s doing really well, and my other son is doing virtual schooling & doing fine. He’d much rather be around with his friends but it’s been ok. My wife got laid off from her job back in March and it was sort of a blessing in disguise…maybe. She wasn’t very happy there and they gave her some severance. She’s had some time to explore other things. It’s a lot of stressful stuff.. I just worry all the time about getting sick all the time. Anytime your throat feels funny and you think you have COVID, it’s just something else. We’ve been fortunate not to get sick. A lot of people have it a lot worse than us. We’ve been hanging in there, I think everybody at the job have had their times when it seems like times are harder than others. But sales kept coming, people didn’t stop spending money with us – either mail order or once we’ve figured out how to get people in the shop safely – we’ve had a crew of younger people shopping with us buying pretty mainstream stuff but they’re still shopping.

Like a few other labels, Goner Records has become a staple of punk, encapsulating its true aesthetic. What have you been forced to change during 2020, the past year?

We really didn’t change a whole lot because at first, just like everybody else, we shelved our releases thinking no one was going to buy anything and then we realized that if we didn’t put anything in the pipeline we’d have nothing to sell down the line. People pretty much kept buying stuff so we put everything back in line to come out. We put everything back in line to come out and pretty much kept things as normal as we could. That ended up working. We got grants to cover some of the lost revenue; we are down from other years but considering, we stayed the course and it’s going reasonably well.

This year you released five album – including Archaeas, Quintron + Miss Pussycat – that’s not an easy task for a record label in 2020. How are you going to handle that going forward with the label?

It’s changing, it’s really hard to sell records and it keeps getting harder. Especially because we sort of used to have a niche, more, garage-punk type of stuff and we’ve expanded beyond that. If you sell to the same 300-500 people every time and they know what they’re getting, and you know they’re going to want it, we vary it up enough that people, in general, will check out the label but not everything is going to be their cup of tea. You kind of have to sell to different audiences and that’s a little bit more challenging but it’s fun. If we get along with the artist and we like their music, we want to do their projects. We’re doing another record with Low Life from Sidney, Australia. Their record didn’t really catch on like we thought it was going to (2019’s Downer EDN) but we really like their thing. We’re also doing a Michael Beach record this year. He’s from Melbourne and he does a more expansive pop type of thing. We’re just staying the course. We did a John Wilkins record in 2020, and he passed battling COVID, and releasing that seemed natural to us. He played our festival twice and he’s from the area. It’s Gospel, or maybe religious-themed Blues is closer to what it is. We’re going to do some reissues of the Reverend Fred Lane next year, and if you can have two radically different reverends (laughs), and totally irreverent reverend, coming up next year. I don’t know if you know his stuff.

No I don’t, I’m not familiar.

In the 70s in Birmingham, at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, there was a Dada surrealist group of people that emerged in opposition to the fraternity culture and put out some really whacked-out art, music, all kinds of stuff. The Reverend Fred Lanes was one of the things that came out of this group. Two of the records came out on Shimmy Disc in the 90s, and at least one of them came out on a smaller label that they had done themselves, but it’s very bewildering. It’s very strange. It’s kind of like big band jump music with strange lyrics and a little beyond that. It’s fun stuff. It’s a little out there for Goner but it fits into the overall aesthetic perfectly.

You talked about Goner Fest earlier. Re-evaluating things, what do you see happening with Gonerfest in the future?

I had just realized the other day that we had started selling tickets before Christmas for the last few Goner Fests and that actually kind of why we could make the online one work. We had already sold tickets to people at full cost and we said, “Hey guys, this looks like it’s not going to happen. We can give you your money back or we can use your money to make the festival happen.” Some people said they wanted to come visit Memphis and asked if  we could put it towards a future festival but 90% of people said, “I just want to see a Goner Fest so put my money towards that.”

That’s amazing.

This year, we just kind of plowed through December. We’ve been doing these Goner TV shows every two weeks and that’s been keeping us really busy, and we haven’t been focusing. Usually, by now we’re starting to plan Goner Fest (laughs) but we’ve had our heads into this TV stuff. I don’t know, we’re hoping that people can travel and visit but who knows? I don’t know how much to plan ahead on that. Maybe we’ll see how vaccines work and try to start taking it a little bit later so people can make a better decision too.

2021, we’re in it now. Do you envision things picking up or still staying the course as you mentioned?

I’m optimistic, I don’t know. I know so many people are out of work that it  doesn’t seem like everything can keep going on as “normal.” But people that have been shopping with us have continued to come in, continued to spend money. You think that when things start getting better, if people can go out and feel like they’re free again, there will be an explosion of people doing fun stuff. I hope so. Maybe these stimuluses will keep everyone going for the time they need to, before they need to get jobs, and they’ll spend some of it on records like I probably would if I was 21. We’ll see….I think it will pick up! I’ve been pessimistic and happily proved wrong through this whole thing so I think things will look up.

Now it can’t be a complet interview without talking about the Oblivians! We can close it out with this. Is there any room left for the Oblivians? You’re talking four studio albums, 7 other live bootlegs, best of worst releases, a number of E.P.s… Ever miss touring and live performances or are you going to leave things open-ended with the band?

I think it’s open-ended. We haven’t really talked and said “Hey, you know, that wraps it up.” We get together and it’s fun, and we did the other record because it was fun. We had material that we thought was Oblivians material rather than the other bands that everybody’s been doing. We’ve got to play some fun shows, not so much last year but 2019. It’s still a thing but when and where it will raise its head again, I don’t know. We got to play some shows in Arizona, we played with Shannon & The Clams, and ESG in North Carolina. Before the lockdown we had some fun shows and I think we’re still all up for it. We have a blast hanging out with one another but it’s obviously not the main thing for any of us anymore.

(In the end, it seems Eric and the rest of the Goner family are staying positive and focused. Good luck has smiled upon them the past year but it didn’t come without ingenuity on their part. With the way the past year has treated most of us, Eric’s hopefulness left me with a bit of my own positivity. Yeah, we can all get through this, or at least try as much as possible. He did leave me with a little bit of wisdom though.)

It’s tough. We have to figure out a way to keep going. It’s like the Oblivians thing; if it’s fun, keep doing it. If it’s not, find something else to do.

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