Don Giovanni co-founder Joe Steinhardt on cultivating narrative truth, the label’s plans for 2021 and his new album with Screaming Females’ Marissa Paternoster
Joe Steinhardt harbors no delusions that telling a true story makes for easy marketing. And in a musical sea of exaggerated, marketing-driven narratives, that focus on honesty is what makes Don Giovanni Records so special.
Steinhardt, who co-founded Don Giovanni with Zack Gajewski in 2003, has fostered an eclectic, diverse community of artists and musicians creating work that spans multiple genres. This past 2020 brought powerful and provocative releases from Philadelphia poet, noise musician and activist Moor Mother’s whose Circuit City made many a year-end top albums list. The Cycle by Mourning [A] BLKstar, a self-described “multi-generational, gender and genre non-conforming amalgam of Black Culture,” arrived in May, a week and a half before the murder of George Floyd, as a timely reflection on the zeitgeist. There was also the S/T full length from pop punk band Teenage Halloween, who hail from Don Giovanni’s hometown of New Brunswick, NJ, archival releases from the vaults of American fiddle player Peter Stampfel, and much more. Connecting all these disparate sounds is Don Giovanni’s love of real music, fortified by the label’s commitment to helping each artist tell their own story.
AUDIO: Moor Mother Circuit City (full album)
“With narrative, it’s easy to try to bend it,” Stenhardt told me in a lengthy chat by a few days before the new year. “It takes a whole lot more work to figure out what your truth and reality is.”
Encouraging an artist to promote their work in a manner they’re comfortable with is more common for stars with complete creative control and self-curated think tank creative teams than it is for those on independent record labels. To that end, Don Giovanni offers a refreshing realization of what all labels should be doing for their artists.
The label has a busy slate of new releases planned for 2021, including a deep foray into archival releases and reissues. But before that, Steinhardt’s kicking off the year by releasing some music of his own. I Don’t Want to Get Adjusted to This World, his second album as Modern Hut, was just released on January 7th.
Adjusted is the first Modern Hut album in seven years. Steinhardt explained that his timeline of working on the anti-folk project, a collaboration with Marissa Paternoster of beloved Don Giovanni rock band Screaming Females, moves at a glacial place deliberately.
“That’s the fun of Modern Hut for me, I’m not on anyone’s timeline but my own,” he said. “I have enough things that are on a timeline or where evaluation is critical. Modern Hut is just something I really feel like I need to do every now and then when I have things I want to express.”
Adjusted is also Steinhardt’s first time writing creatively with Paternoster, a celebration of their longstanding partnership and a confirmation that they work really well together when making music, too.
“She’s a good partner of mine because she’s very patient with me,” Steinhardt said. “She’s really talented and good at cleaning up my roughness with her talent, but also understanding what roughness to leave in.”
While the album’s title, I Don’t Want to Get Adjusted to This World, sounds like a line from Don Giovanni’s mission statement, it’s actually taken from the title track, an old gospel tune and one of the three covers on the album. Steinhardt was never into covers until Peter Stampfel, a fiddler who played in hallowed New York yippie psych-folk group The Holy Modal Rounders and The Fugs, told him that “real bands play covers.” Stampfel has since released several new albums, and archival gems, on Don Giovanni. Steinhardt considers him a personal mentor.
AUDIO: Peter Stampfel and the Dysfunctionells Not In Our Wildest Dreams (full album)
Pressed to explain why he chose the name Modern Hut for a project that takes so long to move to the next phase, Steinhardt said that he used to play under different names until, one day, the words formed and he liked the way they sounded together.
“There’s certainly nothing modern about it,” he said, “but it is funny. The songs are not old, they just take a long time to gestate and record. I’m always changing the lyrics, changing parts and things. I will have a flash of brilliance, one sentence with no context. Over five or six years I have enough sentences, then I figure the context to put them all into a story or to an album.”
Steinhardt applies a mindfulness for reframing old work in modern contexts to Don Giovanni’s output, too. Among its several planned archival releases for 2021, the label is releasing the discography of a band called Vitamin that were around for a very short period of time in early ‘80s Boston.
“They did a studio session with Roger Miller from Mission to Burma and they had some live stuff, but nothing’s ever been released,” said Steinhardt.
Don Giovanni also plans to reissue two albums from Native American singer-songwriter Cherokee Rose, Buckskin and To All The Wild Horses, this year. Steinhardt stumbled upon a tape of 1993’s Buckskin years ago and has been a fan of Cherokee Rose ever since, but failed at tracking her down until a documentary filmmaker friend helped locate her so Steinhardt could reach out.
“They’re these incredible albums,” he said. “And so we got them remastered, we have new art for them. She has some liner notes. This tape, I just feel like it’s really incredible songwriting, and it feels like it’s just coming out now. She’s dealing with these deeply political themes on it that really feel like they were written today.”
In many ways, Don Giovanni’s increased focus on archival releases are a logical merging of Steinhardt’s disciplines, not just as a label head, but as an academic with a Doctorate in Communication (he teaches in the music business program at Drexel University). The ability to dive deep and rediscover forgotten sonic gems illuminates Steinhardt’s academic disciplines, while his willingness to release them speaks to Don Giovanni’s belief in providing a platform for real stories to be shared and celebrated.
“What I try to impart on the artists, and on my students, is that the best narrative is always the truth,” Steinhardt repeated, “and that narratives should be honest, not manipulative. Now, that said, there’s a lot of subjectivity to a narrative. There’s 10 different ways to tell the same story. So pick the one that you think people will buy into the most, but don’t create one to manipulate people.”
What does a manipulative narrative look like to Steinhardt? While he was wary of naming names in the music industry at risk of angering the pop music elder gods on Twitter, his vast knowledge of film history offers some examples. For one, he recalled the popular, but only partially true, story of Robert Rodriguez’s first film, El Mariachi, being filmed for just $80,000.
“There was a version of that film that was shot for $80,000 before being acquired by Miramax, which put another couple million dollars into the incredible film you’ve seen today,” Steinhardt said, explaining that there’s deception in what’s omitted when the true narrative is just as powerful. Just as inspirational a narrative to Steinhardt are the facts: ”Rodriguez brought a film to a film festival for $80,000, and made a multi-million dollar deal to get money to make his film into something that was able to be screened around the world and launch his career.”
VIDEO: El Mariachi film trailer (1992)
In this case, the danger with the phony narrative is that aspiring filmmakers might believe $80,000 will produce something of comparable quality to the version of El Mariachi that was released in theaters. “The way past the skepticism is to see where these narratives are coming from,” said Steinhardt. “But at some level, you need some level of media literacy to see if it makes sense for the actual final product.”
When Steinhardt and I first talked three years ago, I wondered if he believed the mission and values that Don Giovanni operates under could ever “trojan horse” the music industry, which is to say, subvert the music industry infrastructure from the inside. I mentioned this again during this recent chat through the lens of 2020, which has been transformative for artists who saw their touring revenue dry up, but still continued to reach audiences on platforms like Bandcamp and, for fractions of a cent per stream, on Spotify.
“I do remember talking about changing the system from the inside,” Steinhardt said, “and, yeah, I personally still really don’t think you can do that. People always talk about doing it, but I haven’t seen any meaningful examples of somebody changing the system from the inside. You just have examples of the opposite. ‘We elected this really radical politician, and the first thing he did was increase the police budget.’ Right, because they got in there and they realized, ‘If I want to stay here, I got to increase the police budget.’ That’s what happened in Philly.”
“We’re on Spotify, but I don’t think that’s an example of changing it from the inside,” he continued. “ I’m not on the inside of Spotify. I operate a record label in a world that’s dominated by Spotify. It’s not an option for me and the record label to leave the industry where Spotify is dominating. So I’m on the outside.”
While this conundrum speaks to how little competition there is among major platforms in the streaming music landscape, Steinhardt likens the centralization of digital music on streaming platforms to the consolidation of the live music landscape (which happened well before venues shuttered due to COVID-19). We still celebrate a nostalgic, romantic image of a city wherein a band would cut their teeth on a small stage, or in a tiny basement, and still have some organic channels for getting their work out there, bringing people together of all ages into the same space for a great evening.
“And that speaks exactly to what that decentralized world looks like,” Steinhardt said, “where it’s not like, ‘Oh, you can’t make it at Max’s Kansas City? You’re out of luck.’ Okay. I’ll go try CB’s. I’ll go try Maxwell’s. None of those work either? I’ll go play someone’s house. If there was a decentralized music service that anyone could have, Sony would have a fucking big one, I’d have a really small one, but people would have choices. And they could figure out where to put their music — online, or on Sony’s or on Bob’s, or on yours, and that’s what works.
“There’d be bands that would have to leave their own cities,” he continued. “I was in a band and no one wanted to see us where we existed, then we’d go play Columbus or Cincinnati and have a full room of people. It wasn’t like, ‘You can’t play at the one venue because it doesn’t work, sorry.’ And that’s a great example of decentralized versus centralized platforms — if the only musical venue were the Superbowl, then that’s what we would have.”
This analogy illuminates why Steinhardt believes listeners need more choices among digital music platforms. Just as anyone can open a venue, or throw shows at their house, a decentralized, democratized landscape is why music works so well in the first place. “But then you go online, and it’s not like that for streaming,” he said. “The original Internet was like that. Anyone can make a website. Streaming, it’s not like that at all, and that’s why it’s such a problem.”
So what’s the role of an independent label owner among all of this consolidation? Steinhardt thinks of himself as more of a documentarian than a curator, and he pushes back on that ‘c word’ because it implies that someone needs a level of skill to release music or book shows, that there’s a bar of entry.
“Merit, yeah, that you don’t need,” he said. “Anyone can and should be telling their stories and helping people to tell their stories.”