Los Angeles' hippest new record label is, at present, working out of a back room in Venice. Telephones ring constantly at this makeshift office for Texas Hotel records. A pair of dogs run underfoot and an Amazon parrot screeches from its perch in the corner.
"The Texas zoo," Michael Meister says as he tries to shoo the animals into another room.
Texas Hotel started up three years ago when Meister and Susan Farrell--who together owned the trendy Texas Records shop in Santa Monica--pooled their money to help a favorite, undiscovered band make a record.
Since then, Texas Records has closed but Texas Hotel has blossomed. The label's original band, Downy Mildew, has been joined by a half a dozen other young bands and the well-known punk/poet Henry Rollins. R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe has joined in, producing a number of Texas Hotel albums. And industry experts are predicting that the label's latest discovery, Poi Dog Pondering, is on the verge of national success.
Meister, Farrell and a third partner, Stephen Tesluk, had almost no experience in the business when they began, but the young trio has done enough things right to earn kudos from Rolling Stone magazine and attract the attention of executives in the glass-and-steel towers of the major labels.
"Texas Hotel is very small, but it is one of the best," says John Axelrod, who signs bands for Atlantic Records. "They find great talent."
These are good times for independent (or "indie") record labels scattered across the country. Such small companies are succeeding by taking chances on emerging bands, especially those whose music does not fit traditional categories.
Bar None Records in Hoboken, N.J., has scored a hit with a quirky, beatnik duet called They Might Be Giants. Coyote Records, in Manhattan, has the Feelies. DB Records in Atlanta gave birth to the B-52s and continues to nurture Southern bands.
"People at the major labels are looking more seriously at the indie labels because so much music outside of the mainstream has been so successful lately, like Cowboy Junkies, the Replacements," says Michael Hill, a manager for Warner Bros.
Texas Hotel happened on this scene haphazardly. Meister and Farrell had stocked their record store with albums from independent labels, albums you couldn't find at the Wherehouse or Sam Goody's. As Texas Records became known for its devotion to indies, such young bands as 10,000 Maniacs and Concrete Blonde showed up to give concerts in the store.
Meister and Farrell met a number of good bands that hadn't been signed, so they got to thinking. Farrell had done some management work for Motley Crue. Meister had been a dance club disc jockey. Tesluk, who wanted in on the deal, had played bass in the band Thin White Rope.
They figured that was enough to go on.
"If we had stopped to think about all the things that could have gone wrong," Tesluk, 29, says, "we would never have done this."
The three new record executives began with $15,000 borrowed from their parents, enough money to bring a few bands into the studio, distribute the resulting albums and chip in for concert tours.
The label made its debut with Downy Mildew in 1986, and the partners went looking for more. They listened to music at clubs and to tapes that bands sent in. They listened for the "Texas Hotel" sound.
Rollins came along in 1987. He'd already made a name for himself as lead singer for Black Flag, one of America's premier punk bands. At Texas Hotel, he gave the label its first widespread publicity with the song "Drive By Shooting."
Rollins recorded the song under the name Henrietta Collins and the Wifebeating Childhaters. The lyrics attracted some notice:
We're gonna get in our car
We're gonna drive to a neighborhood,
Kill someone we don't know.
In following months came Hetch Hetchy, an exotic-sounding pop group, and a Georgia dance band called the Kilkenny Cats. Dave Kusworth, of the post-punk Jacobites, signed on too.
"What I like about Texas Hotel is that everything's very idiosyncratic," Warner Bros.' Hill says. "It's very free-for-all, very unique."
Unique doesn't always mean Top-40 success, though. At least not right away. Texas Hotel has sold roughly 100,000 records since it began, and the profits are barely enough to stay in business. As they acquire more bands, the partners are learning how to survive in a tough industry.
They have to keep their bands happy. They have to arrange studio time and concert schedules. Most big chain stores won't stock independent labels, so they badger small stores to push Texas Hotel albums. They schmooze with agents and record executives.
"I never do anything I can't live with, but sometimes you have to bite your tongue," Farrell, 30, says. "We've learned about lawyers. That's really discouraging. We've certainly learned about major labels and they are more disgusting than we ever thought."
Last year, the label got its biggest break yet when the partners met Poi Dog Pondering.