An Irishman walks into a bar and … saw some “Mexican rock’n’roll” that changed the landscape of L.A.’s music scene. Oh, not the punchline you expected, huh? Well, this is the story of what happened when Reb Kennedy caught a show by ‘Lil Luis y Los Wild Teens. He was impressed with the energy they had on stage: “Their attitude just blew me away. They’re weren’t particularly skilled at their craft at that time, but it didn’t matter. Their energy was fantastic!” He realized that they were a band he wanted to promote and record, and so began the story of Wild Records.
Kennedy had spent years honing his ear for new talent. He had always been interested in rock’n’roll – he remembers his family listening to Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison. He started searching the back catalogues of Elvis and began collecting records at the age of 12 (he estimates that his collection is about 50,000 strong at this point, and is stored in at least three different countries). He eventually moved from Dublin to London and worked at Rough Trade Records; he was there when The Smiths were signed to the indie label. He witnessed the highs and lows of the rock’n’roll scene there, and when he felt like it had started to die out he made his way to the U.S. He ran Demarco’s 23 Club in San Francisco for a few years, a club legendary for showcasing acts like Patsy Cline and Jerry Lee Lewis. He focused on booking original rockabilly acts – like Hayden Thompson (after whom Kennedy named his son), Johnny Powers, and Eddie Bond – to round out the Western Swing and Honky-Tonk vibe of the club. But he was also keeping an eye out for young rockabilly bands: “But that was very difficult there because there weren’t any artists that really fit what I wanted.”
Luckily, ‘Lil Luis Y Los Wild Teens did have that special sound he was looking for. Since then, Wild Records has grown to include a roster of 23 acts, from Gizelle, their resident “Queen of Soul,” to the punk Black Mambas, to rockabilly acts like Omar and the Stringpoppers. Despite what a lot of people think, Wild Records does not categorically sign only Latino bands. However, the sound that Kennedy looks for seems to be emanating from the Latino community. Another common misconception is that Wild Records is a strictly rockabilly label: “We’re very influenced by rockabilly, obviously, but we also have R&B, soul, rock’n’roll, garage, punk, and all the bits in between. Yet despite the diversity in influences, we do have a unity among the individuals and a special sound.”
What many have dubbed “The Wild Sound” may be due to the quick turn-around from recording session to consumer availability. Kennedy told me that usually only about 5 days elapse between when the recording starts in the studio and when they send the product off to the manufacturer. They focus on capturing the raw energy and soul of the band on tape, with only minimal mixing. What’s more, the camaraderie among the bands on the label “gives them a sense of unity as a family, more like Stax than Sun in that respect,” Reb adds. Apparently those that drink together, stay together.
This had led many to talk about the “Wild Family,” a term which Reb told me he hates only because it sounds so corny. But, he admits, “oddly enough it’s true. I pay the rent for some people when they can’t scrape by, I get them out of jail, and I deal with their break-ups and relationship troubles because that’s the relationship I have with these artists.” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he has a degree in early childhood development. He agrees, “I’m trained to deal with emotional problems, instability, and childishness. I’m very patient with people in my circle, and that definitely helps me manage everything that goes on every day.”
The sense of family among Wild Records artists is explored in a new documentary about the label called Los Wild Ones, directed by Elise Soloman. The movie is getting rave reviews as it tours the country as part of numerous film festivals. Unfortunately, I missed its world premiere at SXSW this year, and I hope I can screen it soon. It won the award for “Best Feature Documentary” at the 2013 Phoenix Film Festival. Kennedy told me that the response has been overwhelming, in a good way: “I’ve seen it 9 times at festivals around the world, and every time the whole cinema cries 2 or 3 times. And people laugh a lot too. It’s a very special thing. It doesn’t capture everything, but what it does show is my family of artists and the honesty of what we are. Some of those people who have been critical of our label have called me to say ‘I totally misunderstood what you do. Now I get it.’ And that’s very satisfying.”
The documentary also shines the spotlight on issues of going digital. Kennedy has never liked putting out CDs, but it was necessary when the label began. Over the years, he explains, vinyl has become more popular, which in some ways is a great thing: “Listening to a record versus a CD … there’s no comparison. The sound of the 45 is unique and captures the true soul of the artist.” But it has its drawbacks too. Given the pace at which Kennedy likes to make his artists’ work available to the public, the manufacturing of vinyl takes much longer and is more expensive. Plus, he says, even though vinyl is selling better, it’s still not selling the quantity he’d like. His concession has been to finally consider offering a digital download along with the record. They’re hoping to release the first vinyl w/ digital download this September – a 10″ record by Omar and the Stringpoppers.
Due to the great reviews the documentary has earned, there seems to be renewed interest in this “little label that could.” Sustaining the momentum, Kennedy has organized the label’s first 2-day weekender. Right now, go over to your pen-and-paper calendar (or if you really insist, fine, use your computerized one) and set aside July 19th and 20th so you can be at the Observatory Theatre in Santa Ana to see it all go down. The Wild Weekender promises over 30 acts, not all of which are Wild artists. Kennedy has catered to the diverse interests of the artists and the fans by also booking a solid psychobilly set from 2-7 PM on Saturday. You can also show up as early as 8 AM that day (but with the hangover you’ll have after Friday night, I wish you luck) to peruse the swap meet. You’re encouraged to bring anything and everything, and it will cater to a family-like atmosphere, like that of Wild Records itself. You can’t beat this deal, either: for only $30 you get the whole shebang, or you can check out one day for $18. Kennedy told me that pre-sales were strong, so don’t hesitate to secure your tickets now by clicking here. I think the publicity the label has garnered recently due to the success of the documentary is going to make this a event a hot commodity. Click here to check out the complete list of artists who will be performing.
I have to say, it was a pleasure talking to the man behind this success story. I myself am a fan of how these young acts are keeping alive the raw spirit and rebellious energy of America’s roots music. Having been stuck in Texas for the last 10 years, I’ve sadly missed having the chance to witness what I’ve heard are some pretty crazy Wild shows. I’m told the liquor flows readily, instruments may get smashed, fans cheer and shout things that I cannot print here without being censored. It sounds like real rock’n’roll to me, and I can’t wait to witness it firsthand July 19th and 20th. Stay tuned to the Wild Records website or the Los Wild Ones Facebook page for updates on when you can catch the award-winning documentary at a screening near you.