The air is thick with tension inside the small, cubbyholelike office just above the main floor of Criminal Records in Little Five Points. Shannon Mulvaney and Andrew Quinn are here to discuss their record label, International Hits. The problem is that neither wants to talk about International Hits.
On Jan. 22, the label released two much-anticipated albums, the Selmanaires' The Air Salesmen and Anna Kramer's The Rustic, Contemporary Sounds of Anna Kramer & the Lost Cause. The Selmanaires and Kramer are popular local musicians, and Mulvaney and Quinn understandably want to talk about the records, not themselves.
But International Hits deserves attention because it is one of the few Atlanta rock imprints in years to garner major-label distribution, thanks to its 2007 deal with Sony-backed RED Distribution. Quinn worries aloud, though, that talking about it is "practically jinxing it."
"If you want to come and make us important after we've succeeded, then let's have a talk," he continues.
When asked how many copies they sold of the Selmanaires' 2005 debut, Here Come the Selmanaires – the album that arguably put the label on the map – both men refuse to respond with a number. "Nobody asked Black Flag how many records they sold when 'TV Party' came out. It just doesn't fucking matter," Mulvaney says.
"We're a necessary evil in some respects," he continues, softening his tone. "To make important the guys who run the label ... . There's nothing fascinating about what we do."
Yet Int'l Hits may be in the best position to capitalize on the music industry's current interest in the Atlanta rock scene and bands such as the Selmanaires and Anna Kramer. Indeed, the stakes are high. If the label can sell thousands of copies of The Air Salesmen and The Rustic, Contemporary Sounds, then, as Quinn cleverly puts it, "everybody has a merry Christmas."
Those same artists might blame the label, however, if it falls short.
For the past several years, Int'l Hits has been just one of dozens of small record labels that support Atlanta's thriving rock scene, along with indie-pop imprints such as Two Sheds Music and punk labels like Douchemaster and Rob's House. But none of those other imprints have a distribution system comparable to RED.
"With [just] indie distribution, maybe a thousand people are going to hear the Selmanaires and Anna Kramer," Mulvaney says. In the past, International Hits used two indie distributors, Revolver and Morphius. But with RED, Kramer's and the Selmanaires' albums have a chance to land in record stores across the country.
A successful sales campaign for those two bands could have residual benefits, too. In the future, local bands might not have to sign with labels outside of the city to reach a national market. Those artists could deal with local companies such as Int'l Hits, which could provide a launching pad as effective as Sub Pop in Seattle or Merge in Chapel Hill, N.C.
But being a trailblazer doesn't come cheap. RED expects Int'l Hits to publicize itself by giving away free promotional items – posters, T-shirts and promo copies of its albums – to tastemakers in the music industry. These things cost money, and Quinn and Mulvaney aren't rich. Both have day jobs: Mulvaney is a store clerk at Criminal and plays bass in Kramer's backing band, the Lost Cause. Quinn is a graphic designer and leads another Int'l Hits band named the Roy Owens Jr. Local electronic group Noot D'Noot rounds out the label's roster.
As working-class musicians who run a record label, Quinn and Mulvaney run huge personal risks by working with RED. "We're maxed out in every possible way: personally, financially, spiritually," Quinn says. "We're putting our money where our mouth is in terms of those two bands right now."
The Selmanaires and Anna Kramer & the Lost Cause offer contrasting perspectives on the Atlanta scene. The Selmanaires draw from a potpourri of influences -- '60s pop, tropicalia, '70s post-punk, dub and even Daryl Hall & John Oates -- to make unpredictable and danceable indie rock. Anna Kramer & the Lost Cause play fiercely rhythmic rockabilly and country-rock that is endemic among the city's roots-rock underground.
Two years prior to The Air Salesmen, Int'l Hits released the Selmanaires' debut, Here Come the Selmanaires. It became a local phenomenon and a top-selling item at Criminal Records for several months. Several record labels inquired about signing the Selmanaires, but the band says it was contractually obligated to deliver another album to Int'l Hits.
"I mean, I heard from a lot of people after the first record came out – some major labels and some big indie labels," says Tommy Chung, who plays in the band with twin brothers Herb and Jason Harris, and Mathis Hunter. "But it seemed like once we said, 'Oh, we're under contract,' that scared them all off."
The Selmanaires like being on a small label such as Int'l Hits, but they also hope the label can deliver a bigger audience for The Air Salesmen. Their debut didn't really sell outside of Atlanta, and the band doesn't want the new album to meet the same fate. "That's one of our goals with this next record is to get more of a national audience with the RED Distribution and a little more promotion," Herb Harris says.
The Air Salesmen arrives with some momentum – last year, the Selmanaires opened several East Coast shows for Deerhunter, and were the opener on a fall U.S. tour with the Black Lips. Sprawling and musically ambitious, it contains numerous sociopolitical references. The title itself is an anagram of the Selmanaires' name, as well as a commentary on how corporations would privatize the air if possible.
Taken individually, each song, from the cool disco-punk atmosphere of "Nite Beat" to the emo hardcore of "Reason and a Change," leaves a winning impression. As a complete album, however, the sonic shape-shifting of The Air Salesmen can be overly confusing. "One of the themes is dealing with the effects of modern living," Jason Harris says. "Even just the fact that we have so many different influences is a very modern condition, because we're exposed to so many different kinds of music. I think it's almost an underlying theme of what we do: coming to grips with being a modern human being."
If The Air Salesmen is an ambitious though somewhat jumbled mess, then Kramer's The Rustic, Contemporary Sounds of Anna Kramer & the Lost Cause is deceptively simple.
"We like a lot of the older music, and we like an older sound," Kramer says, citing the Kinks, Merle Haggard and Gram Parsons. Her 2005 self-titled, self-released debut hewed closer to Parsons' alt-country ambiance. But on The Rustic, Contemporary Sounds, she and the Lost Cause (Mulvaney and drummer Adam Renshaw) mostly rock out. "We just wanted to enjoy ourselves," Kramer says.
Even with a handful of memorable songs, however, Kramer & the Lost Cause is still a band best experienced live in concert. Luckily, she and the band plan to do a lot more touring this year.
In some ways, Kramer and the Selmanaires present two separate challenges for International Hits. It will attempt to introduce Kramer, a beloved local musician, to a national roots-rock audience unfamiliar with her, while it simultaneously tries to capitalize on the indie-rock buzz the Selmanaires already have generated.
Perhaps International Hits could even help the Selmanaires earn a deal with a bigger indie or major label. "We want that to happen," Quinn says. If, for example, "Warner Bros. wants to come along and take the Selmanaires, and make them megastars and make them rich, I hope that happens."
Near the end of the interview, Quinn apologizes for his and Mulvaney's prickly attitude. "We're excited, we're optimistic, but we're just a little bit defensive right now," he says. "We're just waiting to see if anybody likes these records."