It’s a sweltering day in Downtown Oakland. I see three teenagers take a wrench to a fire hydrant, not seeming to get anywhere with it, but I swerve my bike anyway just in case they succeed. A few blocks away, “Creepy Label Guy” Dren McDonald sits by an upstairs window above a restaurant that proudly advertises “Breakfast, espresso, grits, burgers, sandwiches, teriyaki, Chinese food,” and greets him each day with the pervasive smell of bacon. When I walk up the stairs to his second-floor office, I find a cramped space lined with CD racks, surreal paintings, Beatles, Residents, and Kiss dolls, and Rocky Horror toys mounted on the walls. I sink into a couch that John Gulino has to clamber over to get from one iMac to another, careful not to knock over one of the CD racks behind me. “It didn’t start off this way,” McDonald says. “We used to have lots more space. It hasn’t even been two years yet.”
“We” is Clamazon.com, a Web store for weird and hard-to-find music staffed by a handful of people. Swimming upstream against the dominant currents of consolidation and incorporation, the indie e-commerce site is one of three different businesses McDonald runs out of the little office. The others are RalphAmerica, which puts out merchandise for the eyeball-headed band of mystery the Residents, and the art-rock label Vaccination Records, which puts out platters by Idiot Flesh, Eskimo, Charming Hostess, Rube Waddell, Mumble and Peg, Ninewood, the Red Bennies, his own band Grand National, and other oddball acts.
Despite a mishap last year in which the entire Vaccination Records Web site melted down due to a broken fan (losing, along with everything else, a page making fun of me for making fun of people with goatees all the time), Clamazon rose out of McDonald’s growing interest in e-business after he took over the Residents’ merch biz. “We had been doing RalphAmerica for a while,” he recalls, stroking his goatee like an Occidental mandarin (okay, I made that part up). “And when I took over the company I changed it from essentially a mail-order service to an e-commerce business. There was a Web site before I took it over, but you couldn’t order through it by, you know, clicking on a button, adding to your cart, and checking out, and that whole process we’re all pretty familiar with now. So I changed it to that process, and in doing so I really learned a lot about setting up an Internet store.”
Then, too, he found that “with a lot of the bands that our Vaccination bands tour with, people were calling us and saying, ‘Hey, where can I find an Uz Jsme Doma record? Where can I find an Amy Denio record? I know your bands play with ’em, and don’t you guys sell ’em?’ So Clamazon just kind of came out of this natural demand. And of course, all of us have lots of friends that have labels, or know other bands that are on small labels –and you know, for the independent musician or independent label, distribution is one of your biggest problems. I knew how to set up a store, I had these people who needed help, and it just sort of started from there.”
McDonald gestures over to Mumble and Peg’s Erik Carter a couple desks away, who’s making calls for the Cork booking agency. “Then we decided it would be cool to also have used or collectible records because Erik was such a fiend about collecting music. I mean, he’s got more records than his house can hold, so he’s like, ‘Why don’t we just put some of my records up there? ‘Cause I’ve got like two or three of most of these things.’ So we made this collectible used section. And we’ve added to it: besides Erik’s collection we kind of keep an eye out for things, and we deal with cutout companies to find stuff that’s out of print that we know people are looking for. Stuff you might find at Amoeba if you really dig through the bins–but our search engine on the site makes it a little easier to find.”
Set up by Matt Lebofsky, also of Mumble and Peg, Clamazon’s search engine does a bit more than that. “It’s got all these different fields and categories, so you can do a search for Albini and see all the records we have that Albini produced. You can do a search for John Shiurba and you can see all the different projects that John Shiurba’s involved in,” McDonald says proudly. “It makes the site a pretty interesting… not only shopping excursion, but you can learn a lot about who plays with who and band family trees and stuff like that. Amazon may have their, ‘People who bought this AC/DC record also bought… Blink-182!’ But I think our little database works pretty well for someone who’s really into learning about bands–for people who like to dig.”
Those who dig will definitely find that the music available through Clamazon falls into a niche–one that’s pretty hard to define, but also one that’d be hard to find anywhere else. “We try to be as broad as we can, because all of our tastes are fairly wide,” McDonald says. “But what we’re noticing more and more is that our niche is falling into the stranger, esoteric kind of rock–more of the loud, noisy, experimental stuff. Everything from what you might find on Skin Graft Records or Vaccination to some of the noisier stuff on Charnel House or Noiseville or any of these labels that release limited editions of noisy, experimental rock. It would even go as far as stuff that you might find on Drag City, like US Maple or Thinking Fellers Union–bands in that category seem to be what we’re selling the most of. But we sell everything from electronic to metal to 20th-century composed stuff like John Cage to current pop stuff. So we have a pretty wide variety, but the niche that we’ve been finding is more of the abrasive kind of experimental stuff.”
I’m naturally curious as to what the eclectic-minded McDonald–whom I first encountered in his capacity as headman of the late, lamented Long Beach combo Giant Ant Farm–considers “pop,” figuring it must be a little left of anyone else’s center. He tries to explain: “Real poppy stuff, you know, like Of Montreal or… what’s some of that other stuff we got from Secretly Canadian that’s kind of along those lines? Songs: Ohio, maybe.”
“They’re not pop,” Erik Carter scoffs.
“Aren’t they?” McDonald insists. “They’re not pop like Waxwings pop, but…”
“They’re kind of like Fuck or Smog,” Carter says.
“Who else do we have that’s kind of pop, though?” McDonald ponders. “All that stuff on the, um… oh, what’s-her-name’s label.”
“Grimsey?” Carter suggests.
“…Grimsey label, yeah. All that stuff. Thanks for reading my mind. That sort of thing. Or Danielson Familie kind of weird pop, or Tommy Carns–we have his new album.
“When we were first getting started we did a lot of outreach trying to let a lot of people know about what we were doing here and trying to get a lot of labels on board,” McDonald explains. “We haven’t done a lot of that recently, mostly because we’re running out of room, and because we haven’t had to–we’re just getting contacted by so many labels.”
I ask him if they find themselves turning away acts as too mainstream, or just not the sort of thing they do, but he says that hasn’t been necessary. “I mean, on the site we give a pretty clear outline of what kind of music we’re selling. We’re not going to do very well with young country or hip-hop or things like that. Just about anyone who sends us stuff has a pretty good idea of what kind of music we’re doing here, or at least the genres we’re working with.”
Aside from selling records, the guys at Clamazon have three different Web radio stations running constantly: noise, electronic, and “a basic overview station of a lot of the different stuff we have on the site.” They’re looking at starting a fourth company to expand the merchandise business to bands other than the Residents, and they’re moving to a larger space in Emeryville soon. “It’s like twelve, thirteen hundred square feet. It should be much easier for us. Right now we can’t bend over to find a CD without knocking over another stack of records.” Not to mention all the other music-related odds and ends that pile up around them to sell. “We have a lot of zines that have CDs in them,” McDonald recalls off the top of his head. “We sell the documentary about Half Japanese, The Band That Would Be King. We have a lot of weird videotapes that Caroliner sent us that have nothing to do with Caroliner; they’ll just send us a box with no explanation at all, and we’ll get these things that are like wrapped in Depends or something, so we have all these videotapes from them of all this strange Japanese animation. We sell the Uz Jsme Doma pop-up book. And the latest homemade version of Fuck’s album Conduct; they have all these children’s books that they got used, and they kind of customize each children’s book so there’s different little relations to Fuck throughout the book, and then it comes with the CD inside. Weird little things like that are what we specialize in.”