by Paul Goracke

NorthSide: Nordic Roots Revived

Rob Simonds has long been ahead of the pack and blazing his own trail. Along with Don Rose and Arthur Mann, Simonds co-founded Rykodisc--the first CD-only music label--in 1983. He was head of sales and distribution until 1993 when a merger with Palm Pictures formed Ryko Distribution Partners; for this new distribution arm of Rykodisc he became CEO. Four years later when Ryko decided to close the Minneapolis, Minnesota office, he decided he didn't want to leave the Midwest for the East Coast Ryko headquarters. So he did what any of us would do if given the chance--leave a hugely successful company to start a new record label specializing in bands from Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark who mix traditional folk tunes with varying degrees of modern techniques.

Okay, so maybe most of us wouldn't, but it's a good thing Simonds did; in the space of 2-1/2 years, NorthSide has released 42 albums by 26 different bands and solo artists intermingling centuries-old traditional songs with jazz, rock, classical and even big band influences; this is the Nordic roots revival.

The Beginning

Ryko Distribution Partners has intentionally maintained a small roster of labels--right around 30, whereas other distribution companies handle as many as 700. By doing so, they can afford to pay more attention to each label and make the albums more available than simply "call about special orders." It allows them to focus on labels they consider to be best in their musical niche--labels such as Green Linnet, Blood and Fire, Hannibal and of course Rykodisc--and it also brings in a continuous flow of packages from domestic and foreign labels hoping to expand their markets.

[ hedningarna ]

Hedingarna "Tina Vieri" MP3 64kbs, 38sec, 314kb

Out of the resulting "sculptured pile" of promotional albums that had accumulated in Simonds' office, a package from Sweden caught the eye of Jay McHale, a Ryko receptionist at the time. Respected in the office as a knowledgeable musicologist (and a big fan of anything Swedish, particularly This Perfect Day and other Swedish pop), he received no objections to borrowing the albums to give a listen. When he returned the next day, Simonds asked him which he recommended as best. McHale's response: "Pick any out of the box; they're all amazing."

On that recommendation--and the thought that his wife might be interested, considering she spoke Swedish--he brought the albums home and started playing them around the house. It wasn't long before the beats, pace and sounds of folk-based bands such as Väsen, Den Fule and Hedningarna had them both addicted and wondering in amazement how music that was so good wasn't yet available in the States. The answer turned out to be quite simple: none of the musicians had thought that anyone outside their countries would care--certainly not anyone in America.

When Swedish band Garmarna toured the United States, Simonds took the opportunity--as any fan would--to see their live show. There he met Drew Miller, whose Omnium label had been releasing Garmarna's albums stateside. The two bonded almost instantly over the band and their similar musical tastes; it was only a matter of time before they decided to join forces. Their inevitable collaboration began in January 1997, and in May four albums were released: Den Fule Quake, Hoven Droven Groove, Hedningarna Hippjokk and Väsen Spirit. NorthSide Records had officially entered the public eye.

A few days after the Minneapolis office closed in August 1997, Michele Delfino--who had worked for Ryko since 1989 and RDP since 1993--joined the NorthSide team as Marketing Director. The trio constituted the NorthSide staff (with Miller titled Label Manager and Simonds--obviously--President) until April 1999 when Nisse Ulven, another former Ryko employee, took on the position of Sales Manager and Booking Agent.

[ omnium ]

The Bands and Music

The bands on NorthSide share a common core of folk and traditional songs, but they each take it in a different direction. Styles range from stark and simple to complex and sophisticated, from classical to trip-hop to rock and jazz (sometimes all within the same album). Throughout it all is a consummate musicianship and a palpable love and respect for the music. Quite common is the sound of strings, and the distinctive sounds of instruments such as the nyckelharpa, hurdy-gurdy, and hardanger fiddle. Like many fertile beds of musical activity, the Nordic players participate in many different bands, producing new mixes of talents and blends of sound; it is not uncommon to find a NorthSide artist with a solo album who also appears on two other albums from different bands.

And yet, it is not possible to claim that one person will like every NorthSide release--the diversity is just too great. The classical influence of Väsen may seem too locked to tradition, the rock edge of Garmarna or Hoven Droven too aggressive, the trance and trip-hop of Hedningarna or Sorten Muld too modern, the chant and drone of Wimme too spare. But one man's trash is another man's treasure, for these may be precisely the traits which will bring fans to these selfsame bands.

To help us orient ourselves within their catalog, NorthSide has produced two sampler albums--Nordic Roots and Nordic Roots 2 were released after the completion of each of NorthSide's years of life. Not only do they provide an excellent overview of the bands available, they are a great value at more than 77 minutes and 20 songs each for the amazing price of $2.99 (which prompted the subtitle "cheaper than food").

While NorthSide primarily acts as a distributor--licensing albums from Nordic companies such as MNW, Grappa, Silence and Rockadillo for American and Canadian sales--they also behave as a label, supporting tours and developing relationships with the bands. Instead of simply forwarding boxes of imported compact discs to music stores, they take the time to translate most of the liner notes and lyrics into English and redo the packaging.

While some of the covers just seem to fit in with a common "look" they try to give all their albums, many of the NorthSide releases use works by Nordic photographers for their covers. A NorthSide release is visually identifiable on many levels: the jewel cases are clear, and show the the artist name and title through the hinge. Consistent font usage on the spine of all CDs makes NorthSide albums readily identifiable on your shelf, and the NorthSide logo printed on those annoying top-edge stickers makes them just as easily found in retail bins--similar to the effect of Rykodisc's trademark green jewel cases, NorthSide discs are fairly easy to spot at ten paces. Lately, they have also begun printing the artists' national flags on the back, reminiscent of Real World's categorization by continent and country.

[ garmana ]

Garmana "Vulture" MP3
64kbs, 50sec, 399kb

The Branches

Before NorthSide, there was Rykodisc. And before Rykodisc, there was East Side Digital. East Side started life as an import company for Japanese vinyl, but when the first compact discs came out, Simonds started importing them--bringing into the U.S. some of the first CDs seen on these shores. With the release of They Might Be Giants' self-titled debut (only the CD; the cassette and vinyl were on Bar/None), East Side became a label and distributor and continued on through the birth and growth of Rykodisc. Eventually, Ryko Distribution Partners took on East Side's distribution responsibilities, allowing them to concentrate on being a label and supporting their artists.

Even though they went through an "alt-country era," East Side releases are primarily prog "weird stuff"--Fred Frith, Henry Cow, National Health, Bill Lloyd. A major portion of their current catalog is dedicated to The Residents; not only is East Side remastering the band's entire back catalog, but they are responsible for new works such as Gingerbread Man and Wormwood. This arrangement has also been a pleasant one for the Residents--while a number of small labels would be happy (even ecstatic) to release their albums, few would make the effort to remaster old albums or support the band fully as artists. Fewer still would actually be able to pay them on time.

The most recent major addition has been the work of Wendy Carlos, including New Age/ambient precursor Sonic Seasonings, the original score to A Clockwork Orange in its first-ever CD release (which includes the impossible-to-forget rendition of "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony) and the 4-CD Switched On Boxed Set--remastered and first-time CD releases of the first electronic synthesizer recordings of J.S. Bach's compositions (and the first classical recording to be a certified "Platinum" seller).

[ the residents ]

At first glance, East Side has little in common musically with NorthSide: The Residents, A Clockwork Orange and prog on one hand; Väsen, polskas and folk traditions on the other. But it does make sense if, like a "magic eye" picture, you let your focus loosen a bit. A surprising number of regular East Side buyers have subconsciously recognized the similarities and "crossed over"--purchasing a NorthSide title, then gradually becoming regular East Side and NorthSide customers.

A much easier fit with the NorthSide sound is Omnium, Drew Miller's own label. Primarily a vehicle for Miller's "folk-punk rock-n-reel" band Boiled in Lead, it has also sported titles from 3 Mustaphas 3, The Ukrainians, Cordelia's Dad and kora masters Dembo Konte and Kausu Kuyateh (for a time, Omnium even distributed a title by eP favorite Sadhappy). Due to the labels' near-overlap in taste, some albums and bands which could have been on Omnium are now released on NorthSide.

Rather than fold his label completely into NorthSide, Miller has chosen to focus Omnium even more on "world music that rocks." If there were no NorthSide, Hoven Droven would probably be an Omnium release; so would Garmarna's latest, Vengeance, since their previous titles were already on Omnium. The last three Omnium releases have been The Reptile Palace Orchestra's follow-up to their surprisingly successful Hwy X, The Oysterband's Here I Stand, which finally--on their tenth record--captures the sound and energy of their live performance, and Balkans Without Borders, a Balkan-flavored collection which benefits 1999 Nobel Peace Prize winners Doctors Without Borders and includes tracks from Brave Combo, Mike Watt and Masina, Boiled in Lead and many others.

[ balkans w/o borders ]

Boiled in Lead "Nasrudin" MP3
64kbs, 29sec, 235kb

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