Several months ago, Tracy Blackburn of It’s Alive! Media & Entertainment discovered your favorite crusty chronicler’s work online and e-mailed me a thank you letter for a piece on a band they promote. Ever since then she has helped keep your favorite record reviewer up on artists in the LA area. One of the people she clued yours truly in about was Lisa Fancher, CEO of Frontier Records.
As Ms. Blackburn stated: “She’s one of the only (if not THE only) woman to head a record company for 30 years. She’s got some great stories to tell.”
Fancher seemed a perfect candidate for an edition of my “Girls Rock” series. Why not remind people that there are attractive women on both sides of the recording studio window? Josh Mills, founder of It’s Alive! Media & Entertainment also agreed that Fancher is an interesting subject: “Lisa Fancher is the real deal. It’s amazing she had the forethought and the chutzpah to start a record label in 1980 at a time when running an independent label was simply not something just anyone could or would attempt to do. Thirty years later – she’s still defying the odds, doing it her way, and making great music available in an era when most popular music just plain sucks. Frontier Records does not suck.”
Indeed, Frontier Records was founded in 1980 by Fancher. It was the first indie record label to musically document the emergence of the hard-core punk rock scene of Los Angeles and then later expanding into other areas such as the “Paisley Underground” guitar-based bands such as Heatmiser, Thin White Rope and other unique acts.
How did this all begin? For the benefit of anyone who has not previously read other interviews, Fancher recaps: “It all began when I was working at Bomp Records in the late ’70s. I returned from the UK after trying to live there and pretty much had no idea what I was going to do with myself. Due to the way Bomp was paid by its distributors, sometimes I got no paychecks for five or six weeks, then got them all at once. I was a fan of the Flyboys after interviewing them for the LA Herald Examiner (where I freelanced reviews of live shows and records) so I decided to take them in the studio and make a record. This was 1979 but the record wasn’t released until March 1980.”
Now that we’re all on the same page, here are the other questions:
Phoenix: What is your preferred title? (I notice different sources call you different things.)
Fancher: As this isn’t a corporation I can’t call myself anything fancy. Well, I can but c’mon—CEO? I just use owner or president. I don’t care!
(She gives the question further thought and adds: “Not just bitch but Fuckin’ Bitch! Just kidding, kinda.”
Phoenix: Who inspired you musically and otherwise?
Fancher: I like any music that’s good; I still discover old bands and new bands all the time. I heard Guster in a Target commercial and bought their latest record . . . still love a great melody in any genre. I’ll never stop getting that high when you discover a new song or LP that puts your head on backwards and I just have to tell everyone. Personally I am inspired by anyone who tries to do anything; it’s not success that matters but getting off your ass and trying to accomplish something. Success and failure are exactly the same, believe me.
Phoenix: Who are your favorite acts? Why?
Fancher: I always say my favorite ’60s band is the Kinks and my favorite ’70s band is Roxy Music. But I love anything that’s dumb like the Trashmen or the Dictators, though the latter was smart guys trying to come off as dumb. I like the bands that are so original that they’re light years ahead of their time like the Cramps and Devo.
I love really complicated lyrics and melodies that bear repeated listening, and no one is better at it than Kurt Heasley of the Lilys. It’s criminal that he’s not a superstar! I love really lame Merseybeat bands and I love all glam rock. I love good punk bands like Jawbreaker and the Marked Men. I like Kanye West because he’s nuts but no one is a better singer than Cee-Lo Green. DJ Dangermouse is a real idol; I would love to meet him.
Phoenix: There was an edition of my “Five-Star Flashback” series on The Kinks earlier this week! I did a piece on the Merseybeat band The Big Three awhile ago as well. If you ever meet DJ Dangermouse tell him I love The Grey Album! So what were or are some of your favorite female acts and why?
Fancher: I love crazy belters like Brenda Lee and Wanda Jackson. All female country stars, okay vintage ones. You know they lived that sh*t even if they didn’t necessarily write the music. I believe the more pain you have endured the better singer you are. I don’t mean like music lessons good, I mean the singers that break your heart because they’re so real like Billie Holiday.
All girl bands are a hoot; everyone knows I followed the Runaways around a lot. I knew the Bangs before they were the Bangles; there’s a whole ‘nother dynamic there that you don’t get with male bands and I’ll just leave it at that. I’ve been given some sh*t for not signing more female acts to Frontier, and my answer to that is “go start your own goddamn label.”
Phoenix: Just for fun, what was the first record you bought—45 (single) and album?
Fancher: I think I remember that the first single was “Laugh Laugh” by the Beau Brummels and the first LP was definitely HELP by the Beatles.
Phoenix: Yeah, my regular readers know I’m a big Beatles fan as well. Now, since the name of this series is “Girls Rock” the obvious question is, were there ever and/or are there now any issues regarding being a woman in the music industry and/or the punk rock world specifically? What are some of the difficulties of your job in general?
Fancher: I hate to burst anyone’s bubble but I never felt like anyone discriminated against me because I was female. They may have but I think my own big mouth and bad attitude probably hurt me a lot more than my sex. I have never been able to shut my mouth when I should have and I was never able to “play ball” with idiots who wanted to do a major label licensing deal that would require me to compromise or worse yet, make the bands I signed compromise. I have always just done my own thing, and I can’t really blame anyone but myself when things go wrong.
Phoenix: Tell me your favorite Frontier Records story/anecdote.
Fancher: This is rather bland and more than a little felonious but I went to the BMG convention at the Beverly Hills Hotel in 1993. I didn’t know for certain that they weren’t going to renew my P&D deal until no one would make eye contact with me. Meanwhile I spent a small fortune doing a video presentation for Thin White Rope which was shown in front of all the sales reps in a giant ballroom.
Instead of applause you could have heard a pin drop! Anyhow, my then retail guy and I plus a couple bands that were in town starting drinking heavily at the conference, then took it upstairs. BMG rented me a room for some reason so we basically threw everything inside the room out the window.
Then we commenced to take over Gene Loves Jezebels’ suite and threw everything in that room out the window, including full beers which we launched like missiles onto limousine roofs. I don’t think I ever laughed harder in my life. We were just so frustrated and furious to be treated like ghosts, when they could have just told me the label was dropped and told me not to attend. Anyhow, they thought Gene Loves Jezebel caused all the damage and I heard they were charged back for it on their royalty statements. Oooops!
Phoenix: Don’t sweat it. Who believes everything they read on the internet? Tell me, has your job in the music industry ever influenced your personal life? If so, how?
Fancher: That’s a good question! There’s certainly things I can and can’t do because I’m self-employed but I don’t know if this JOB has affected my personal life.
Phoenix: What has been your best moment with the label/industry so far? What do you consider your first success story with the label?
Fancher: Can’t think of a best moment. There was a time in the late ’80s when I had an awesome roster. They didn’t sell that well but it was great to be able to always be seeing the Pontiac Brothers, Thin White Rope, American Music Club, Dharma Bums and Young Fresh Fellows play live or recording records in some town somewhere. Those were the Frontier glory days in my book! First success was definitely releasing Group Sex by the Circle Jerks in November 1980.
Phoenix: What was the first deal you closed and how did that go?
Fancher: You mean record deal? That was the aforementioned Flyboys and it was a bomb. They broke up before the record came out and at the same time I had no idea how to market a record.
Phoenix: What about your first failure/worst moment with the label/industry?
Fancher:Oh gosh, there’s so many I don’t know where to begin. I had to take a job at MCA in 1998 when I did a licensing deal with Epitaph. I had zero money and had to let everyone go and close the office. Luckily I got fired after a year! I wrote advertising copy for the “Creative Department” which actually was a pretty cool trade, I felt like I had a marketable skill for once.
Phoenix: What is your favorite act on the label and/or favorite record?
Fancher: I could never answer that! They’re all my favorite. But I really love “Moonhead” because it took less than a week to record and TWR then helped me move into my house. The record is so mighty it just puts me in a trance. I never get tired of it!
Phoenix: Again, this is a series that focuses on females—any particular message for women out there interested in working in any aspect of the industry?
Fancher: Don’t settle for being anyone’s secretary or assistant! Stop that. Aim for being the boss.
Yeah, you have to start somewhere but women tend to be content with the bottom of the totem pole. They are generally publicists if they work at a major label; some jobs are considered “female” jobs. Same thing with bands, if there’s a women she’s usually playing bass or keyboards. (I said “generally”, people!) No female Jimmy Page or Jeff Beck guitar icon after five decades of rock ‘n’ roll? It’s not a genetic inferiority, but I’ll be damned if I know why it hasn’t happened yet.
Phoenix: What are you focusing on right now?
Fancher: Trying to survive financially. Freeing the West Memphis Three.
Phoenix: Yes; I don’t think people realize that you’re a bit of an activist. So what are your plans and/or hopes for the future?
Fancher: To still be here as a label in the near future WITH cash flow. I’m over this hard scrabble-fingernails-on-the-edge-of-a-cliff thing! I know everyone is in the same boat but after 30 years, it just wasn’t what I ordered up from Santa.
Phoenix: Thank you, Ms. Fancher.
(With that, the interview was at an end. Hopefully, 2011 will be a much better year for all of us!)
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.