Flipping Tapes: Getting the Wrap on Poncho Records

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Poncho Records Compilation Cassette Volume 1, Photo by Brad Allan

If you’re tuned in to the Halifax music scene, chances are you’ve given Poncho Records Compilation Vol. 1 a spin or two.

Poncho is a small indie label, run by Justin Murphy – who you may recognize as the frontman of Halifax’s favorite psychedelic sons Walrus. The compilation pulled tracks from local favorites like Monomyth and Best Fiends, plus reached outside the Maritimes for songs from Ontario acts like Organ Eyes and Psyche Tongues.

When Walrus isn’t touring all over eastern Canada and the United States, Poncho keeps Murphy pretty busy. He’s put out tapes for local bands like Shadow Folk, the Age and No Bodies, while recently working with Montreal’s Snooker Emporium and Victoria’s Jon Varley.

We caught up with Justin Murphy to talk about the ins-and-outs of running a small label in the Maritimes, how talented friends can bring a label a long way, and making the Poncho compilation.

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Justin Murphy of Poncho Records, Photo by Brad Allan

You guys do tapes for so many different artists. Are you always reaching out to work with people?

Lately it’s been people e-mailing me for the past two releases, Snooker Emporium and Jon Varley. Snooker Emporium e-mailed me and I knew a couple of the guys from playing [in] Montreal.

I already liked his band, and he asked if I wanted to do a tape for them, so I said yes. Two weeks later, another guy, affiliated with Snooker Emporium, said he had this Jon Varley tape and wondered if I wanted to put that out. I liked that, so I put that out.

It’s harder to put out stuff that’s farther away and do well, because you’re not connected. It’s a weird thing.

It’s hard to market to a non-local fanbase.

You have a hard time of seeing how it’s even doing when you’re away.

You can check the metrics on Bandcamp, but hard to see if you’re moving any units.

Exactly.

So is there any way to choose who you’re gonna release a tape by?

I generally have to like the music, but mostly it’s just friends. There aren’t too many people who I’d put their tape out if I didn’t know them. It just started as Walrus, Sheepman, Shadow Folk, and the Age.

We were all putting out music so we thought “let’s start a label to put everyone’s music out.” I’m still putting out all their stuff, and now I’m very busy. It’s very time consuming.

It’s hard for a small label money-wise. There are always people who ask if I’ll put something out for them and it’s like “well I’d love to… but, I don’t want you to have to pay.” I was fronting cost for tapes for a while, and it wasn’t working out that well.

That seems like the maritime ethos at this point. People aren’t connected by mutual sound as much as you grow up with some people, and that’s who you want to work with.

Exactly. I don’t find the bands really sound alike. Maybe a few that share some members, but…

Like Gnarwhalz and Shadow Folk don’t sound anything alike.

Exactly. But we’re all in the same bands, so having a label just makes it easy.

Do you see yourself as a label or more as a distro at this point?

I see it as a label cause we’ve stayed true to the number of bands. We don’t move enough stuff to be a distro. The making music part of it would make me label it as a label…
I haven’t put out so much stuff to be a full-time small label person. It’s so hard to tell how a release is going to do. Some sell so much better than others.

Any kind of sense you have been able to make to it?

I don’t know. The ones that sold the best are the compilations, which makes a lot of sense because there is so many bands on it. It wasn’t a local thing, it was all over the place.

Some of the others have sold really well in the United States and Europe. When I’m on tour all the tapes sell really well. But on Bandcamp, I’d say like 80% of the sales come from the States.

And it’s cool to get that support from outside the country. I mean, that must have been cool the first time you got an order from Europe.

Oh, yeah… Some of the countries (I get orders from)… I made friends at blogs, this one called It’s Psychedelic Baby Magazine, who I’m always sending stuff to, and their writer is in Slovenia, which feels strange to me, but the internet is a crazy place! You wouldn’t meet these people with a small record label in any other realm.

Do you have any tapes coming up soon?
We’re doing a CD/tape release for the Age. The tapes are in production. At some point Shadow Folk and Sunny Beaches are doing a split… And I’m slowly racking up bands and songs for the next compilation. Because that thing worked out the best and made some money for the label. Hopefully people will rally around a second one – that would really help me put out new releases, pay for shipping.

It’s nice to have that sort of flagship project too.

Yeah, and we got some cool bands on it. As soon as we put out the first one, I got so many messages from eager bands saying “Oh man can we be on the next compilation?” and I was like “whoa, let me settle down please.”

Do you have any standard for what you’re looking for in a song on the compilations? Or are you just trying to fill it with songs you like?

Yeah, basically I don’t really go searching for songs. I normally just rely on my friends, because they’ll take up the majority of the track-listing. And then I just message bands I know asking if they have an extra song kicking around.

I’m very rarely picking and choosing songs. Last year when I was doing the compilation I was trying to get nineteen bands to record a song and do it by a deadline, and it was like hell. It was a week before and I had six songs.

I didn’t even have my own song yet. And I had release shows planned, and I was packaging tapes right before the show, and it was a nightmare. This time I’m just going to get songs, and then worry about releasing it. It seems to make a lot more sense.

That’s good, and you’re pretty lucky to have the friend group that you do in the city.

Yeah, they take up like 7 or 8 bands (on the tracklist). And then some of them will do a few (songs). My friend Keith McFadden, he plays in Walrus now too, and he plays in Best Fiends, and he just messaged me this song one day, and was like “Yo man, what do you think of this song? It’s sorta this side project I’m doing.” And it was unreal. Sounded like Donovan or something like that. So he’s going to put a song with Best Fiends, and that side project, so that’s cool.

It’s cool to have a place where your friends can release their music.

You can buy tapes and stream Poncho’s discography at ponchorecords.bandcamp.com

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