SALT LAKE CITY TRIBUNE

Return to Eddie Spaghetti

The Little Label that Could
By Dan Nailen
The Salt Lake Tribune


HEBER CITY - With a can of Red Bull to his right and a diet Coke to his left, Chris Neal is ready for business: running an internationally distributed record label.

Neal needs only a couple of small rooms in his Heber City basement to run Mid-Fi Recordings, the label owned by and run for the benefit of road-dog rockers the Supersuckers. With a laptop, cell phone and fax machine, Neal can wheel and deal with his Webmaster in Virginia, the band's Bay Area booking agent and its Los Angeles-based publicist. He organizes the band's 1,000-member fan club and 15,000-name e-mail list from an unassuming log home on Lake Creek Farms Road.

The bucolic setting belies the sales pitch for Mid-Fi, because while Neal lives the quiet country life with wife Stephanie and 4-month-old son Carter, he is focused on furthering the career of the Supersuckers, one of the most raucous and rocking American bands of the past 15 years.

The band is originally from Arizona, now based in Seattle, and a regular visitor to Utah for more than a decade. Led by frontman Eddie Spaghetti, it also regularly plays acoustic-based country songs and concerts, and has performed with Willie Nelson and Steve Earle.

Whether the band is delivering over-the-top rock shows or acoustic country ballads, fans count on the Supersuckers for an exhilarating testimony to what Spaghetti calls "the evil powers of rock 'n' roll."

Songs about hot rods, drugs, booze, lost love and life on the lonely highway make for great tunes in the Supersuckers' hands and great brand recognition in Neal's hands.
Image means a lot for any business. It's no accident that the Mid-Fi Recordings P.O. box at the Heber City post office is 666.

From meeting to Mid-Fi: When Neal and the Supersuckers met , Neal was working essentially as a talent scout for RCA Records in L.A. after stints as a national sales manager at Rhino Records and helping easy-listening star John Tesh build his label. The Supersuckers were looking for a deal after a run on indie label SubPop Records and an aborted leap to a major, Interscope Records.

"You picture this big company putting your record out, and you going and playing much larger venues and selling a bunch more records," Spaghetti said, describing the band's decision to try life in the so-called "big leagues." "Everything was the opposite of what we were hoping for."

Interscope never released a Supersuckers album, and Neal, meanwhile, was frustrated with life in L.A.

"I got really tired of not feeling passionate about bands that were coming through the front door, and having to go to meetings and be excited about something that I obviously didn't like," said Neal, describing his state of mind about five years ago. "When the Supersuckers came through, it blew me away. Here was a band that had already sold a significant amount of records, I believe maybe 150,000 at the time. They were missing some elements, such as, if you went to their Web site, you got tour dates that were outdated. They didn't really have an e-mail list. They didn't have a fan club. Just those little things."

Those "little things" kept RCA from signing the Supersuckers, but Neal and Spaghetti struck up a conversation that would change their lives.

"Just sitting down and talking with [Spaghetti] four years ago, the more I talked to him and the more I got to know him, and from their history, I was more convinced that they didn't need to sign with a big label," Neal said.

Mid-Fi Records was born. The Supersuckers continued touring while Neal quit his job at RCA, sold his house in Laurel Canyon and put L.A. in his rearview mirror.

This must be the place: The Neals had a vacation condo in Park City while they lived in California, so when the opportunity with Mid-Fi Recordings came up, it was an easy choice where to go.

"I just loved it out here and would come out here all the time," Stephanie Neal said. "When Chris hooked up with the band, that meant we could live anywhere. And that meant I could live in Utah."

It also means Neal gets to work at home and be a stay-at-home dad when he's not on the
road with the Supersuckers. Sometimes, Stephanie and Carter join him on tour; Carter is already a veteran of a Supersuckers tour with Pearl Jam.

The walls of Neal's home office are dotted with music royalty - Willie Nelson, David Bowie, Neil Young and, of course, the Supersuckers. Neal's "War Room" is packed with his CD collection and plenty of Grateful Dead memorabilia. The floor is covered with Supersuckers and Eddie Spaghetti solo CDs and vinyl records, posters for record storesand Supersuckers products available through the band's Web site, including a giant foam hand, shot glasses, key chains and T-shirts.

Neal and his '68 Ford Charger have become familiar around Heber. Many of the label's financial dealings and the fan club are run through a Heber City bank, and Neal hits the post office nearly every day to check on P.O. Box 666.

Jerry Duke, who has worked at the Heber City Post Office for 25 years, said there are many small entrepreneurs around Heber thanks to the Internet and eBay. Neal, though, stood out with his crates of CDs and tubes of posters.

"We like to ask all of our customers, the ones we see all the time, what they do," Duke said, noting that the workers sometimes listen to Supersuckers and Spaghetti solo albums, "and some of them we really like!

"This one was a little different. We asked him what he did, and he said he managed a rock group, so we kind of follow what he does. . . . Quite an interesting fellow."

Making it work: Neal's a fellow with ideas, because for a small, self-reliant record label, every little bump in sales or extra tour with a big band can make a huge difference in the label's health. Each Supersuckers release sells about 20,000 copies, Neal said, and the Spaghetti solo albums, like the new "Old No. 2" release, sell about 10,000 copies. That helps keep the bills paid, but Neal is constantly working from his Heber basement to get Supersuckers songs licensed for soundtracks and video games, and line up more tour dates.

Often, Neal's marketing ideas for the Supersuckers and Mid-Fi Records are far from the traditional record-biz ways. The band has done in-store performances at bakeries and health-food stores. It sells advertising space on its tour trailer. It bought bus bench ads in some cities for "Old No. 2."

"We definitely claw every month to make ends meet, but they do, and it's very rewarding to not owe any money to anybody," Spaghetti said, describing the benefit of having Mid-Fi and Neal working for his band.

"It's really just a small business, and we're peddling records. Unfortunately, we're peddling a nondisposable commodity, instead of like a small beer company where, if they like your beer, they come back and buy more next week. You sell a record, you usually sell that record once, to one person."

It is Neal's job to get more people to buy Supersuckers records and see the band's concerts, and he loves the job.

"The friends you have in Los Angeles aren't really your friends," Neal said. "They always want you to hear their demos, or they've got a kid who's a great piano player and they want you to watch them play. Here in Utah, I never get that. No one's asking me to listen to their kids' tapes.

"I couldn't imagine doing anything else, and I wouldn't want to do anything else. I told Eddie, 'I hope this lasts forever.' There are so many things I want to do."