I first met Trevor Larocque at the big HMV in Toronto. He was the baseball-cap-wearing new guy full of jokes in the Dance department, and I was the busy Marketing Supervisor dabbling in various shades of red hair. He said, “I’m Trevor; I used to be the biggest KISS fan,” and produced an embarrassingly uncool photo of himself as evidence. After I inspected it (and laughed crazily) he pretended to be suddenly serious, and asked me, “So…do you think you’d want to be friends?”
Outgoing and hilarious, all warmth and sharp wit, he was openly excited for everything Electronic to Rock. But while I, and many of our peers graduated to desk jobs with the majors, Trevor failed to land his ‘perfect gig.’ Somewhat desperate, he hatched a plan to start up a small label — and with partners Enrique Soissa and Amanda Newman — launched Paper Bag Records. Taking advantage of contacts, and the right times and places, they signed a lesser-known Stars, Broken Social Scene and Tokyo Police Club, and lived as large as they could — on exactly no salary.
Now, 10 years later as the sole owner of Paper Bag, Trevor has built up a thriving roster to include Austra, Young Galaxy, PS I Love You and dozens more. His ever-growing ‘PBR’ (as it’s referred to by committed staff), has become a respected player in the Canadian music landscape, adopting a “slow and steady” approach in lieu of chasing “quick grabs.”
In a room full of moving boxes — with new son Felix close by — Trevor reflects on his last decade of serious, hard work. It’s never been, he says, for the sake of uncovering huge stars, but to lend a hand to the equally hardworking musicians he calls friends.
I asked you this long ago over beers and yet surprisingly (laughs) I can’t remember: What the meaning behind the Paper Bag Records name?
There was this list of 40 really terrible names — so terrible — and this one basically came from [Toronto record store] Rotate This!, which has always, and still to this day puts your records in brown paper bags. I mean, I think we were close to being called Dental Records at one point, so I’m really glad now that we picked this one over that one (laughs).
It also says something about your outlook toward music, right? That old school, familiar paper bag…
Yeah, totally. And this was just coming out of the 90’s when vinyl was nothing, but Rotate This! kept carrying it regardless of the trends.
So, I remember when I was at Zomba, you were all, ‘Dude, can you get me a job here?’ but then I moved to the States for awhile and when I came back, you owned your own label. What happened?
Starting a business always comes out of desperation. You’re so desperate to work in the industry you want to work in and when the Zombas and the Universals are turning you down because you maybe don’t fit the mold they want filled, the only thing you’ve got left is to create your own mold. We were all unhappy with the places we were in in the industry — me and Enrique and Amanda — and thought we’d try to do it on our own. But how many people say that and then how many people have it actually work? We just swallowed all our doubt and moved forward and hoped that it would.
You can’t just be a music fan and have that be enough though. There has to be some business sense there, too?
No, there was no business sense. All we knew was that we had a bank account and we knew how to write checks. That was it. We spent money like water…just totally blew threw it.
So what got you off the ground then?
You have to count on the first couple of releases to really make an impact. At least, that’s one way — I don’t think it’s the only way. There are lots of labels that quietly put out releases until they finally hit their stride and have a great back catalog.
What made you even think you could do this in the first place?
I worked at Outside Music at the time and I had a really good sense of what was missing in the indie world. I was the middle man between distributors and retailers and I could see what was getting support and what was selling-through. Three Gut Records was the hot label at that time and people were really digging in and championing it. As a Sales Rep, I could see that The Constantines and Cuff The Duke were selling and that people were interested in local stuff. It was a community with a loyal following and that’s what we wanted in on.
So what was the beginnings of your community?
Broken Social Scene and Stars and those guys were friends and we kind of got in there with them.
And so for you, success came from signing those two bands out of the gate?
Definitely. Oh, absolutely. It was all about those early decisions.
You were looking for community but obviously the music had to hold up…
Well, yeah. I was a fan of Broken Social Scene’s record, Feel Good Lost and I met Kevin at Soundscapes and I mentioned we had a label. He said, ‘Hey man, that’s great; we may be looking for something new for this new record of ours,’ and gave me a copy of the album. I listened to it, then passed it to the others to listen to, and we were all like, ‘Wow, this is pretty stellar; let’s go after it,’ and we did. At the same time, Stars had done their second LP, Heart, and it all just sort of happened at the exact same time. Both were released within about five months of each other.
And is that how you do things today? Is it still about drawing on community and friends of friends or are you out there just doing a ton of scouting?
Well, I don’t want to say exactly how I do things (laughs) but I will say there are a lot of bands that come to us and want to get signed but we tell them that there’s things they need to do first: Look around you; see what the other bands on this label have done to pique our interest. After that, we need to know who your people are and if you’re all good people. Just because you’re in a band, it doesn’t mean you’re good people or that you know what you’re doing. The people are equally as important as the music.
Was that something you had to learn though?
Yeah. It wasn’t always like that. In the beginning it was just all about music and then you get into a relationship with the people and realize you can’t work with them. When I bought the company out in the seventh year and became the sole owner, it became about only being around the people I wanted to work with and people who wanted to work with me. I want to achieve something together rather than having one-sided relationships where it was me working really hard and people coming down and saying, ‘When will we have something that’s going to sell-through?’ It doesn’t work like that. The two-way street model is how things work for me now.
It always comes back to intentions, and why someone wants to get in the music business in the first place.
Yeah. And you know, there’s things on the artist side, too. They might gain popularity and suddenly it’s like they’re the only ones who ever had this happen to them. It’s so unattractive. Just be humble about where you are, happy that you have a team of good people around you, and work together with them. Putting on a rock star air and clouding your vision with it is…well, lame. It’s been done so many times.
When you surround yourself with good people and truly appreciate the simple things, many of life’s problems just ebb away, don’t they?
This is it, man. And when you grow up you realize that the hot band of the moment might just not be worth it.
Have you passed over hot bands of the moment for that reason?
I’ve definitely gone after bands then realized that they don’t fit my vision. That’s nobody’s fault; it’s just my gut feeling.
So tell me, are all the labels out there that call themselves indie truly independent? Do they not have people to answer to no matter what their size or ‘vision?’
Well, we are truly independent, absolutely. As far as the others, I don’t really know and I don’t really care. I only care about what we do here. Paper Bag Records is, and will continue to be different than every other record label in Canada. If you look at this 10 year anniversary party we’re putting together, I dare you to come up with another label that’s put on something quite like this. I doubt you will.
And what makes you so different? ‘Passion’?
I think it is passion…and I think it’s dedication. I think it’s knowing who to work with who will bring about good things. And this isn’t a dig against any of the other labels at all; I just think differently about it than most other people. Thinking about records strictly from a sales or radio standpoint is how the others might approach it — and those things are great and are important — but if you look at my roster, you can see that it’s not just about that. It’s about asking myself whether I like the music and the team, do I see room for growth, and can I help out?
What’s been the biggest success for you in Paper Bag’s 10 year run so far — not sales or radio play but simply, what’s been your greatest achievement?
Oh, wow…Buying Paper Bags solely for myself after years of negotiating with other people and working so hard to try and make something good. To be able to make your own decisions, to have them actually pay off, and to see your label change and become what you envisioned from the get-go is what has made me most proud. And of course, just having an artist say, ‘I want to work with you’ makes me feel pretty proud, too. Reputation has to be built up and little things can tear it apart. Ten years in, after ups and downs and losing bands to other labels, having someone say, ‘We know the great things you did for them and we want to stick with you,’ is so great.
So was the label getting away from you at some point?
Totally. You just can’t have too many people running together at the top; it doesn’t work. It’s not their fault and it’s not mine; it’s just human nature. It has to be one voice and one vision and that’s it. Maybe it’s only about egos, I don’t know…I think we were just listening to different mix tapes (laughs).
(laughs) Well, we all know that can wreak havoc!
You know, my label is my favorite mix tape, actually. There’s so many different styles — Austra, Tim Hecker, Elliot Brood, Cuff The Duke — and they vary so much in sound, but like with any mix tape, you throw in different types of songs and you’re happy to have them all in there. It’s what I always wanted.
Do you still get as excited about music as you did when we were back at HMV and we’d discover something new and cool?
Totally. Every day. I feel really lucky to be doing what I do and to work with the people that I work with. My team is awesome; I’m a lucky guy.
2011 was your biggest year yet — tell me why.
Well, let’s see…We signed Austra and that was a big success. We signed Elliot Brood and Cuff The Duke and those were two successful records. Then there was The Rural Alberta Advantage and Young Galaxy, too. We put out five really solid records.
It seemed like suddenly there was so much going on at once.
Yeah, there was. Things just started to come through. You start planting seeds, right? With Young Galaxy, I signed them when they had a second record with no label only because they were already talking about a third record. Taking faith in that and believing in them, I re-released their second record in the hopes that the third one would be really great. And it was; Shapeshifting was totally amazing. I don’t know if that’s record label common sense or if it’s gut feeling.
Did you ever feel, maybe early on, like, ‘This business is a total crap shoot!’?
I don’t know…I always felt like we had something.
You’re pretty confident, huh?
Oh yeah. I don’t make the decision unless I feel confident in it. It’s not that I won’t take chances but I rely on my gut to tell me if it’s a good situation.
So what’s the ultimate goal here? Are you building an empire for wee Felix to take over one day?
Sure, man…Felix is gonna take over this shit! (laughs) I’d love him to, but he might not care (laughs). I know I’ll always get excited about people making new music, so I don’t feel like this is something that’s going to go away anytime soon. I feel like with each new year that we just get stronger and stronger. Sure, we were kicked down a couple times by our big bands getting attention and then losing them, but we had to just keep trucking forward. I guess we’re doing something right in the end. The bands that want to stay with us are here now. They know — and I know it in my heart and in my soul — that we work really hard.
Paper Bag Records will celebrate their 10 year anniversary September 27-29 with the PBR10 Concert Series at The Great Hall, Toronto. To buy tickets and to view the full line-up of artists performing from the PBR roster (like You Say Party, Born Ruffians, Slim Twig, The Acorn, The Luyas and Austra) visit the official Paper Bag Records website.