When Eric Friedl started Goner Records more than 15 years ago, he didn't exactly envision this: A thriving neighborhood record store in an era when such things are becoming extinct. An Internet community that unites like-minded music fans from around the country and beyond. A busy record label with up to a dozen releases on its calendar-year schedule, many of them high-profile items widely reviewed in the most-read national publications. A growing annual festival that draws hundreds of enthusiastic fans and books bands from such far-flung locales as Australia and France.
But here he is. With partner Zac Ives, Friedl is putting the finished touches on Goner's largest ever release slate with an October album from Chicago garage-rockers CoCoComa and a November dual CD/DVD documentary of Gonerfest 4. And, the duo is preparing for the months-in-planning Gonerfest 6, which launches Thursday with 35 bands playing for four days across four venues: nightly featured concerts at the Hi-Tone Café, day parties at the Buccaneer and Murphy's, and opening and closing "ceremonies" at the Goner store in the Cooper-Young neighborhood.
Settling in at their "corporate boardroom" — the crowded back office and storage room at Goner — Friedl and Ives survey all that they have wrought.
"We've kind of gotten carried away," Friedl says with a smile.
Goner began as a sideline for Friedl. "It was me in my bedroom putting out a record when I had an extra $1,000," he says. But when he partnered with Ives to buy what was then Legba Records (owned by Greg Cartwright, Friedl's former bandmate in the classic Memphis punk/garage band the Oblivians), Goner began evolving from Internet community and bedroom label into a multi-media mini-empire.
Now, Goner is expanding the definition of garage/punk by booking bands and releasing records that may not have fit an initial aesthetic focused on the loud and primal likes of the Oblivians, snotty Memphis punks the Reatards, and Japan's Guitar Wolf.
"My whole rationale at first was that I would put out things that no one else would put out," Friedl says. "Basically, Guitar Wolf, people thought was a joke. I thought it was great. Jay [Reatard]? [I thought], this has to come out. Once we started doing the label more consistently, we didn't have to put out things no one else would put out. We could just put out things that were good."
This change has meant the likes of local rock bard Harlan T. Bobo (whose songs are more personal and lyric-focused than most on the garage/punk scene), sunny pop band the Magic Kids, and no-frills Australian post-punk band Eddy Current Suppression Ring.
"Ultimately, we put out stuff that we like," Ives says. "If we like it, then we think there's some group of people who will be interested in listening to it."
This expansion is perhaps reflected in the accidental theme of Gonerfest 6 — France and San Francisco, with eight of the festival bands coming from France and the Bay Area.
"They took the Memphis/Oblivians kind of scuzzy blues-rock sound and figured it out," Friedl says. "About five years ago, they twisted it into something else. They got good at this idea of low fidelity, simple, melodic songs, and very direct guitar-based stuff."
It may seem odd for bands to travel so far for what is still a relatively small festival, but one of the best things about Gonerfest is that it's a place bands want to be.
"We're getting to the point where we can pay the bands better, but really the bands have to want to be here," says Friedl. "Part of what makes it cool is that it isn't just a paying gig. A lot of festivals, people go, how much you paying me? I'll do it. They don't really have a connection to the people putting it on or the town or anything. This brings a bunch of bands who are fans of the other bands that are playing, wanting to be here and wanting to check out Memphis."
Last year, Ives estimates the attendance at roughly 2,500 across four shows. This year, he says, ticket sellers at the Hi-Tone are estimating an even bigger influx of out-of-town attendees. The most interesting bands that are bringing them here include:
Box Elders (11:15 p.m., Saturday, Hi-Tone): A four-piece trio (the drummer simultaneously plays keyboards) from Omaha, the Box Elders are Gonerfest vets, but return this year as a full-fledged Goner band. Their debut, Alice and Friends, released on the label this summer. The band's take on garage-rock basics is ragged but melodic and more low-key than many in the scene.
CoCoComa (9:45 p.m., Thursday, Hi-Tone): Chicago couple Bill and Lisa Roe lead this rousing, energetic garage/punk band, whose next album, Things Are Not Alright, will be released by Goner in October.
Compulsive Gamblers (1 a.m., Friday, Hi-Tone): Former Oblivians bandmates Greg Cartwright and Jack Yarber now ply their trade in the Reigning Sound and Tearjerkers, respectively. But they previously paired up as the Compulsive Gamblers, a band whose take on garage rock often went in moody, eloquent, and idiosyncratic directions. Cartwright and Yarber united again under the Gamblers flag for this summer's Antenna Club Reunion. Now they'll give the Goner faithful a taste of something most of them never got to see the first time around.
Davila 666 (11:15 p.m., Friday, Hi-Tone): This seven-piece outfit from San Juan, Puerto Rico, is my choice as most intriguing out-of-town Gonerfest band and is the first one Friedl mentions when asked which Gonerfest debut he's most eagerly anticipating. Friedl says, "They've been touring for like three months, so they're going to be really on." There's a Stooges-like swagger to Davila 666's sound, but also a Stones-y swing at times. If they seem less noisy and less frantic than most of their genre brethren, it may be because they don't need to be.
No Bunny (midnight, Saturday, Hi-Tone): This San Francisco prankster — who typically performs in a bunny mask and not much else — is a purveyor of lo-fi garage rock that seems equally indebted to Chuck Berry and David Lynch. The show should be memorable, at the least. No Bunny is working with Goner on a 2010 release.
Reatards (1 a.m., Thursday, Hi-Tone): With original cohorts Ryan Wong and Steve Albundy, Jay Reatard takes it all back to the beginning with his first band, an Oblivians-inspired garage/punk assault unit whose first single was the 1998 Goner-released "Get Real Stupid" and whose first album was called Teenage Hate. Those titles equal truth in advertising. Expect a quick, loud, and frantic set.
Ty Segall (midnight, Thursday, Hi-Tone): The young Segall is a hyper-talented garage-rock formalist, something like Jack White with less blues and less romance but a similar musical facility. Once a one-man band, the San Francisco savant now fronts a three-piece garage/psych band. Lemons, his 2009 debut on Goner, is excellent.
Shitty Beach Boys (2:45 p.m., Friday, Buccaneer): This is an Austin band with a foolproof concept: surly, listless covers of Beach Boys classics. "We didn't know who they were," Friedl says. "We first heard of them at SXSW. They were going to do a battle of the bands against the Magic Kids alter egos, the Loose Christies, which is all Lou Christie songs, played very loose. They said, 'Hey, if you've got a slot, we've got the Shitty Beach Boys.' We thought that was great."
"I went and looked at a You Tube video of them playing these Beach Boys songs very poorly," Ives says. "The apathetic look of them playing these songs and really not caring made me laugh. So we got excited about that."
Sonic Chicken 4 (10:30 p.m., Saturday, Hi-Tone): "I'm really looking forward to Sonic Chicken 4. We've been trying to get them for the last couple of years," Ives says of his most anticipated fest newbie, part of the strong French contingent at Gonerfest 6. Based on Internet evidence, Sonic Chicken 4 appears to be a six-piece.
White Wires (9:45 p.m., Saturday, Hi-Tone): Of this promising garage-rock trio from Ottawa, Friedl says: "I'm excited about the White Wires. They have one record out. Real simple, straight-ahead, really catchy rock-and-roll. With young bands, part of the excitement is watching people figure out what they're doing. They don't have their whole shtick down yet. We asked them to play, and their response was, 'We're going to be there. That's great!'"