While interesting music scenes surface all over Denver, congress between them can be rare. But that’s changing.
One person crossing those bridges is Joseph Mezey, founder of Denver’s Chops Records. Mezey, a.k.a. “Nofrendo,” is seemingly omnipresent at Denver’s live venues, catching everything from jazz to electronica, rock to soul to hip hop. As the one-man-band CEO, producer, engineer and DJ at Chops, he realized early on, before he even incorporated the label last year, that there was a limit to how much one can do alone.
“All I’ve done for the last two or three years is go to see people in different musical scenes across the city and share information with them,” said Mezey. “Through trading ideas, you sometimes end up in musical collaborations with each other.”
Sometimes, these relationships are born in your own backyard. The search for a home where he could raise his 4-year-old daughter Annabelle and set up a recording studio led Mezey to fortuitously purchase a house next door to a kindred musical spirit. “My father, who’s a music professor, was visiting one day and somehow he and J. Reed (Juan Lee Reed) got talking outside before I’d even met the guy and found out he was a neighbor,” said Mezey.
“I talked to his father about music,” said Reed, a trumpet player, “but I wasn’t sure what to make of this lanky dude next door. I didn’t know if I liked him at first.” Reed had just endured his own attempt at starting a label, an experience he refers to as a failure filled with valuable lessons.
He and Mezey discovered they shared the same approach to music. “If you put yourself in a box as a musician, you’re going to limit who you get to play with,” said Reed. Applying this methodology to business, Reed joined Mezey in getting the label off the ground and incorporated in March 2010. Besides being a partner, Reed now serves as the label’s COO. Next month, Chops will release Reed’s album, “Rhode to Heaven.”
Chops is committed to the model of releasing albums on vinyl with accompanying digital downloads, and to avoiding an over-produced sound. But other than that, the road ahead for the label is wide open. “We don’t want to specialize in any one kind of music,” said Mezey. “One of the advantages of social media is musical collaboration. And one thing we definitely encourage is collaborative effort.”
We sat down with Mezey and Reed recently to talk about what it’s like to run your own record label.
Reverb: Was it one particular lapse of sanity that inspired you to start your own label?
J.M.: With any passionate love affair, sanity is left to the wayside. So, when I decided to take what I was most passionate about in life, music, and make a career out of it, a record label was my first choice. Ever since I became a DJ over 10 years ago I dreamed of pressing my own records to play in the club. Now I’m producing and writing music more than DJing, so it made sense to start a label to release my work and (that of) others that are in tune with the right vibe. I chose vinyl as my medium for the historic value it has in human culture. Wax cylinders were the first medium of recorded audio in human history. I only hope to continue the legacy and capture the time and atmosphere of what’s going on around me in my releases.
What do you look for first — a sound or an artist?
I’d say a little of both. The first recording artist that I signed, Juan Lee Reed (aka J. Reed) just happened to be my neighbor when I moved into my new house two years ago. He had chops like Freddie Hubbard, Maynard Ferguson and Miles Davis combined, and I knew I had to record with him. With his skill I knew he could pretty much do any style and make it fresh. Andy Nicolai, who will be recording his debut album with Chops Records this year, had a well-rounded sound for being so young, he just turned 21 last week. After hearing two of his original songs I knew I had to do an album with him.
What’s the biggest challenge and biggest perk of running a label?
Coming up with the money to buy equipment to record, press records, and market and advertise was a huge challenge. This last year was the first I had the money to do it all myself. If there is anything I want to invest it in, it’s music and art, though. At the end of the day, I do get to choose what gets pressed and what doesn’t, so that’s a big perk.
There are no middlemen between you and your artists — have you ever had to bring the hammer down, what’s that dynamic like?
I think J. Reed and Nicolai could tell some stories already about me trying to keep things cohesive in the camp, but it’s all about communication. There have been times when I have had to seriously talk my artists out of a tree in terms of heightened tensions with money or bookings, but I’ve always been very clear that I’m not about drama, I just want to make good music. I’ve told J.Reed plenty of times in the studio I’ll push him outside his comfort zone in terms of music and styles that he can play, and that goes for anyone I work with.
How many hours a week do you devote to your music and your label, and which of those are the most enjoyable?
Almost every hour that I’m awake. I have a full-time day job that takes 45-plus hours away from my family and business, so anything left in between is precious to me. I have to sacrifice sleep at this point just to get tracks recorded and mastered, to promote shows and make relationships with club owners so that my artists can be booked and the business can grow. On top of recording, mastering and distributing music, we’re also promoting concert events, club nights and other engagements to promote musicians and artists on our roster. The best part of this is, I get to play with some of the most talented and amazing musicians in the world. I went from watching and listening to my favorite musicians like Spellbinder, Venus Cruz of Future Jazz Project, Lady Speech, Bianca Mikahn, Lamp, Big Wheel and Girl Grabbers, to getting asked to play and make music with them, which to me is the greatest honor as a musician and artist. My favorite thing about owning a record label is just knowing that, “We make music” — which is our basic mission statement. And that’s all I ever wanted to do with my life.
Denver-based writer Sam DeLeo is a published poet, has seen two of his plays produced and is currently finishing his second novel.