New phonographers: Mint Records is making a casual comeback

by Josiah Hughes

August 7, 2013






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Mint Records has experienced a casual renaissance with a new crop of signings.

Greatest hits compilations, anthologies, and retrospectives aren’t always a death knell, but they do reek of contractual obligations or that an artist or record label’s best days are probably behind them. When venerable Vancouver imprint Mint Records was celebrated with the Fresh at Twenty book (below), an oral history released in 2011, the label could have easily been pegged as something to look back on rather than look forward to.


Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Longtime friends and CITR (University of British Columbia) coworkers Randy Iwata and Bill Baker formed the label in 1991 as an effort to maintain their friendship after college, and have since changed the shape of pop to come on a global scale. No one would blame them if they threw in the towel and set up a Mint museum.

Their back catalogue includes important releases from myriad subgenres, including the shambolic indie pop of Cub, multiple generations of power-pop from The Smugglers (fronted by pre-CBC car commercial guy Grant Lawrence) and the New Town Animals, the attitude-laced punk of The Riff Randells, the fucked up country of The Buttless Chaps, the alt roots of Carolyn Mark, the off-kilter melodic punk of post-d.b.s. group Operation Makeout, the wintery dream pop of Young and Sexy, the sombre post-punk of The Organ, the pop academia of Nick Krgovich’s cult classic act P:ano, and countless others.

Factor in Canadian releases from legends like Lou Barlow, The Mr. T Experience, The Groovie Ghoulies, and Pansy Division, the numerous releases from Nardwuar the Human Serviette’s band The Evaporators and, oh yeah, the generation-defining indie records from both Neko Case and The New Pornographers, and Mint Records’ discography is at once overwhelming and impressive. While they’ve continued to wave the banner with college-friendly releases from acts like Hot Panda and blues superstars The Pack A.D., the case could be made that Mint’s most influential days happened in the ’90s and the noughts.

But this year, the label seemingly underwent a signing spree, carrying the torch for a new breed of Canadian pop acts that include Edmonton disco-pop weirdo Renny Wilson, Toronto experimental dance-pop act Pick a Piper (headed up by Caribou drummer Brad Weber), Vancouver pop maestro Jay Arner, and the label’s latest addition, Vancouver psych/garage combo Tough Age. “It’s a scrappy bunch, these recent signees,” Tough Age frontman Jarrett K. says. “We’re all in the fight.”

Much of Mint’s new flavour can be credited to Shena Yoshida, who has worked at the label for the better part of the last six years. Finishing up a sandwich after an “awkward talk” she gave to a group of arts management students at Capilano University, Yoshida is affable and professional. Though her title is officially “label manager,” it sounds like she does the bulk of the work.

“My job’s really broad,” she explains. “I do everything from writing grants to planning events to talking to bands, or just organizing people, or writing press releases. Whatever needs to happen, I do a large quantity of it. I can’t take credit for everything but it’s kind of my baby right now.”

While she’s hesitant to admit that the label’s making a comeback, per se, she does admit that the label had been too focused on its past.

Photo: Mint’s new office space, courtesy of Mint Records.

“A lot of our releases were from sort of legacy artists that we have been working with for a long period of time,” she explains. “That’s really awesome, because that’s a big part of what Mint’s all about — like a huge dysfunctional family in that sense. But at the same time, we need to have new people and new bands that we’re really excited about and things that other people are really excited about to keep momentum going.”

That’s not to say they one day decided to go on a signing spree. Instead, it all happened organically. “My philosophy is that I don’t want to be hunting for things and doing them because we have to,” she explains. “We want to be doing things because we want to do them. Before, we were doing standard three-album deals, and, not to discredit that, but it’s a lot more challenging. Now, there’s a lot less pressure on everyone to sign a new artist that has a completed record and says, ‘hey Mint, do you want to do this?’ We put out different things and tried to do one-offs to see what would happen.”

Yoshida’s approach to signing new artists is astounding in its simplicity—she watches bands perform regularly around Vancouver and at festivals across Canada, and if she likes their music and likes them as people, she’ll consider them for the label. “Randy’s really shy, so he sends me out to festivals,” she says. “I’ll go to shows and then I’ll be like, ‘hey Randy what do you think of this?’ He trusts me.”

Photo: Randy assembles Pop Alliance’s jackets at Shena’s house. Courtesy of Mint Records.

The first artist brought on in Mint Records’ unofficial new crop was Renny Wilson, an Edmonton-based musician with a shit-eating grin not unlike his city brethren Mac DeMarco, Alex Calder, and Travis Bretzer. Where the latter three trade in soft rock tropes, however, Wilson applies his pop craft to weirdo dance music not unlike Ariel Pink’s disjointed disco.

Yoshida saw Wilson perform at Calgary’s Sled Island on a mutual friend’s recommendation in 2011, a show she describes as “mindblowingly awesome.” With initial plans to release his debut LP on his city’s fabled Old Ugly Recording Co., Wilson later reached out to Yoshida with advice for distribution, and was promptly signed to the label. “Renny Wilson was kind of the big turning point for us I think. He’s kind of a magical guy,” she explained. “He’s a freak, I love him. He got things rolling and really breathed a lot of life into my job. It was really fun to be here all of a sudden.”

“The label is very supportive, not to mention tolerant of my bullshit,” Wilson says, adding that he’s happy to be a part of the label’s new class. “I believe that Mint is on the up-spin right now, and even though I’m affiliated with the label, I don’t hear about what is to come before anybody else would, so ’tis only my speculation.”

Up next were Toronto’s Pick a Piper; band mastermind Brad Weber also reached out to Yoshida for help with a grant, and she ended up signing them. “I couldn’t get him any of the funding or support that he needed to move his projects forward because he had absolutely no sales history,” Yoshida recalls. “We ended up really liking his music, so we were both able to help each other out that way. Brad is so ambitious, it’s crazy.”

“I sent her our record and she loved it right away and basically offered to have us on Mint, which was amazing,” Weber recalls. “ I remember them from as far back as the mid ’90s, seeing the odd music video on MuchMusic as a youngster and noticing this label called Mint Records. It was so cool to have it come full circle and be a part of something they’ve been so dedicated to for so long.”

Renny Wilson’s Sugarglider and Pick a Piper’s self-titled album were both hints that Mint was fostering a new generation of Canadian pop outsiders. But one could argue that Mint’s new class wouldn’t be complete without the arrival of Vancouver pop great Jay Arner. His self-titled album, the sleeper hit of the summer, is at once timely and timeless, effectively connecting Mint’s present with its past via perfectly formed pop songs that span multiple genres and eras of rock music.

A mainstay in Vancouver’s indie scene, Arner had spent years as a background player in bands like Fine Mist, International Falls and The Poison Dart, among others. He also had a personal relationship with Yoshida. “Jay’s a dear friend of mine, I’ve known him for several years,” she explains. “We see each other at birthday parties and shows.”

After self-releasing a seven-inch, Arner would share demos with Yoshida as he completed his debut album. “Whenever I would see him I would be like ‘Oh my God, Jay, you have to let me help you out with this. Even if you don’t put it out on Mint, I love your stuff so much,’” Yoshida recalls. “Jay’s a genius.”

The enthusiasm was mutual, and Arner says Mint’s confidence in him has inspired him to work as hard as possible in pushing his self-titled debut LP. “This is cheesy, but they’re so stoked and they work so hard,” he says. “It’s inspiring me to do the same.”

Arner’s genius reaches further than his own music—Mint’s latest signees Tough Age, a group with former members of Korean Gut and Apollo Ghosts, had Arner’s touch all over their record deal. In addition to recording their LP and hyping it up to Yoshida, he also took their press photo. Trusting Arner’s instincts, Yoshida reached out to Tough Age frontman Jarrett K. and asked to hear the recordings.

“I didn’t know if Jarrett actually wanted to be on Mint, because he does all sorts of other things too,” Yoshida recalls. “He has his own label, and he’s a man of many talents. It was very humbling. I wasn’t sure if it would be this awkward thing, like ‘do you like me, yes or no.’”

From the band’s perspective, working with Mint was a dream come true. “Sincerely, Mint wanting to put the record out? That’s a more satisfying accomplishment than any goal I could still possess,” frontman Jarrett K. recalls.

With that in mind, the deal was secured almost instantly. “The Tough Age thing literally came together in a matter of weeks. It was super fast. It was very organic and natural, there was no stalking or awkwardness.”

That sort of easygoing approach to A&R is Mint’s M.O., though Yoshida insists that was the case long before she came on board. “Nothing’s really changed in that respect, we’ve always been a really tiny bedroom label, we’ve just put out some fairly large things in the past.”

Of course, a discussion about running a record label in 2013 wouldn’t be complete without bringing up the fact that people simply don’t buy music like they used to. “It’s a lot more dependent on grant funding now, because no one really buys CDs,” she says. “There’s not as much income there. It’s all about touring now. It’s sort of a labour of love in that sense.”

Photo: There’s a desk somewhere behind those LP boxes. Courtesy of Mint.

With that in mind, almost every aspect of running the label requires one grant or another. “It means that we went from having more huge grants to having to write a billion small ones, and I do a lot of that,” she explains.

For better or worse, worrying about grant money can deeply affect the sorts of artists getting signed to some Canadian labels. “I don’t like to think about that at all,” Yoshida says regarding how marketable her acts may or may not be. “I think there’s a lot of companies that do, where they have to reach certain sales numbers to stay in the funding program. I don’t want to point any fingers, but it’s pretty obvious who’s in the program and what they’re putting out and the results. But I think it can be kind of soulless. It just feels like a marketing job if you’re doing that.”

The tumultuous state of the music industry may be cause for concern, but it’s also helped Mint focus in on why they exist in the first place. “In terms of staffing, it’s made things smaller but at the same time it’s made things more cohesive. We get to pick and choose what we want to do a lot more. We have a lot more creative freedom now, it feels like.”

Ultimately, then, Mint’s strategy is simply based on highlighting people who know how to write good music. “I think well-crafted pop songs will never go out of style,” she explains. “Mint has an amazing history of that in various forms. If there’s one thing to connect everything, I’d say that’s it.”

The plan for the future is a simple one: keep releasing records when the timing feels right. “I’m kind of taking it record by record right now,” Yoshida says. “The whole thing is not to plan so far ahead that you’re stuck doing something that you might not be creatively bummed out with later on.”

While that strategy might not end up with blockbuster sales numbers, it will ensure that Mint remains a timely and focused force in the pop underground. “It isn’t really about selling a billion copies of anything, so in that sense everything’s a risk,” Yoshida says. “I’m more excited about documenting things that I think deserve to get out there than anything else.”

Meet Mint Records’ Newest Signings

This article originally appeared in the August 2013 Issue of AUX Magazine.

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Tags: Music, Cancon, News, AUX Magazine, Jay Arner, mint records, New Pornographers






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