Most indie labels are lucky if the first musicians they work with can draw 35 people at the local club, let alone have reputations that precede them. Not so for Godforsaken Music. Thanks to filmmaker and label co-founder Philip Di Fiore's work with Bernie Worrell (he directed the award winning documentary Stranger: Bernie Worrell on Earth), Godforsaken Music was able to kick off with a star studded affair that even major labels would be lucky to pull together. This first release was Baby Elephant: Turn My Teeth Up - and as terrible as the term "supergroup" is, Baby Elephant was a supergroup of sorts, bringing together the core group of Bernie Worrell, Prince Paul and Newkirk and throwing in guest appearances by David Byrne, Yellowman, Nona Hendryx, George Clinton and more. Here, Di Fiore talks about learning the ropes of the music business while working with such experienced artists, the surprises he encountered a long the way and what's next for Godforsaken Music.
Question: First, can you just tell me a little bit about how this project came together? I know you’re the director behind the very wonderful Stranger: Bernie Worrell on Earth – was the Baby Elephant record something that came to fruition while working on the film?
Answer: The Baby Elephant album was a direct result of the making of my film STRANGER and a couple of other factors. When I interviewed Prince Paul for the film, I realized how big of a Parliament Funkadelic fan he was - I mean, I knew he was a fan, but he basically said that he based his entire career and aesthetic on P-Funk. He also knew Bernie's work better than anyone I've met.
Around the same time, my brother Albert and I were kicking around the idea of starting a record label. Albert is a phenomenal engineer/mixer and through him we had access to one of the most beautiful recording studios in New York City (the now defunct Edison Studio). After the film was released, and nothing really improved in terms of Bernie's prospects to record new material, I asked if he would be interested in making some new albums for Godforsaken Music, and he thought this was a good idea. From a music standpoint, I wanted to give Bernie an opportunity to do something innovative and different than what he had done in the past. Prince Paul was a logical collaborator, so I reconnected with him and asked him if he'd be interested in working with us. For Paul, it was a dream come true to work with Bernie, and they got along instantly. It was great for me to watch them work because it was like seeing a bridge being built between two giants of different generations - a bridge that I thought someone would have built long ago.
Did you create Godforsaken Music specifically for the Baby Elephant record? Did you have any involvement with labels before, or was there a big learning curve involved in getting set up for this release? How did you handle it?
I had absolutely no involvement in record labels at that time. I did follow the state of music industry, and like a lot of other people, was starting to become pretty disillusioned with the big corporate music conglomerates. This was right around the time one of my favorite bands, Wilco, was infamously dropped from there label. To put it mildly, the big labels were acting in ways that were not intelligent on a business level or on a human or artistic level. The founding principle for my record label is that it's for artists and run by artists. I've had my film bought and then dropped because of a corporate shake-up, I've had people who have never made anything in their lives demand editing changes. I've been treated badly and I've been treated well, so I thought that I could take my sensitivity to these things and apply it to create a record label where artists could feel comfortable.
Having just come off making an independent film from the ground up, I had felt that I could produce and release music the same way - learn by doing, and putting one foot in front of the other. But just like making a film, the making of the album was monumental and there were a lot of rough patches along the way. I basically put my filmmaking on hold for the better part of two years and subjected myself to all of the things - good, bad and ugly-about the music world. I had to raise money for the album, schedule the sessions, make sure the musicians were happy, make sure everything was coming out to the best of its potential. The last thing I wanted was for me or any of the musicians to have any regrets about things 20 years down the line. Like, "If we only had more money we could have done this..." or, "If we only put a little more effort in, it could have been so much better". Those are things that keep me up at night whether creating music or movies.
Then once the album was finished, I had to shop for a distribution deal and come face to face with some of the more ugly realities of the "industry" side of things. The piece of plastic that is a CD is a commodity like eggs, or paper clips, or foam, and when I went to MIDEM (the biggest international music market, held in Cannes, France), I was honestly a little depressed. There were thousands of people there, and booths set up where people were shopping their wares, and intense meetings and negotiations. It was so far away from a room in a studio where a bunch of people were having fun, making sounds, laughing and having a good time. It was then that I realized that if I wanted to have a record label, I would have to swallow my medicine like a big boy, engage this process, and go get a distribution deal and market these albums.
There were some crazy encounters along the way- on three separate occasions, I had people offer me deals, and when I would call back a day or two later, they either left their companies or were fired. I felt like I was in a Peter Sellers film. It was a very odd time in the music industry. That's why I think the most important thing for an artist or label is to have pride in what you make or put out. On an indie level, you have to go through so many things that you're not going to like that you have to always remember that the project you've made is something you're proud of and warrants all of the effort.