The latest from the Radar Brothers, "Eight," won't be… (Merge Records )
The Radar Brothers are the kind of band a label doesn't know how to handle. The problem? The Jim Putnam-led local outfit doesn't sell many records.
And it's a pattern. The Radar Brothers have long been regulars on the L.A. scene, conjuring up an increasingly otherworldly take on Laurel Canyon folk-rock, but the band's 2010 Merge Records album, "The Illustrated Garden," simply didn't move units, as they say. The numbers are bleak. Fewer than 1,000 copies sold in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan.
"I wear many hats," Putnam says of being a rock 'n' roll survivor. "We all have jobs. Some of us have children. It frees us up from falling into that neurotic trap of, 'We really need to make money doing this.'"
Breaking even, however, would be nice. For the release of the band's eighth record, simply called "Eight," Putnam and Merge have opted to experiment.
Here's the plan: Cut out CD sales. "Eight," available Tuesday, will be sold as a digital download and a vinyl package. A compact disc will be included with the vinyl release, but the hope is that financial losses will be minimized if there is one less format that has to be packaged and sold.
Putnam says they're "guinea pigs." For Laura Ballance, the Superchunk bassist who co-founded North Carolina indie Merge Records more than two decades ago, this is a tentative first step into the future of music distribution.
"CDs are getting to this point where they're just a plastic piece of garbage," Ballance says. "I'm beginning to view them more and more that way myself. Vinyl is back. People love vinyl. It's a much more enjoyable physical object."
Yet it's also indicative of a music industry with a shrinking middle class. Merge in recent years has had numerous top 10 albums, including releases from ambitiously orchestral Arcade Fire, the taut rock of Spoon and Zooey Deschanel's throwback pop project She & Him. But a band like the Radar Brothers?
"It's gotten to this point where one of our small bands would sell 3,000 records and we could count on that," she says. "Now those same bands might sell less than 1,000. There were a number of years where you'd sell more of these smaller artists. It was enough to certainly break even on what you invested in the album."
Putnam has seen both sides. He and his brother run the famed Scotts Valley recording studio Universal Audio, and Putnam often tours with the Silversun Pickups, working as the monitor engineer for his rock star pals. He says touring with the Pickups is "damn luxurious," but romanticizes the Radar Brothers tours, noting that "just getting in the van and seeing the countryside feels healthy."
But the belief that indie bands can always do well on the road is a myth, says Putnam.
"It used to be that bands of all different tiers could put out records, go on the road and support them," he says. "It's becoming more Third World. There's the ghetto, and there's the bands who have made it. … You're either making a lot of money or you're not making any money. I don't know how much of the in-between stuff there is anymore."
Despite the tough times, the Radar Brothers have never sounded this inspired. "Eight" sees the band turning into more of a revolving cast of supporting musicians, with the likes of Brian Cleary and Ethan Walter adding interstellar keyboards to the repertoire and Dan Iead bringing a meatier guitar punch.
Tracks range from the psychedelic piano reverie that is "Horse Down" to the more abstract, disorienting "Ebony Bow." Moments such as "House of Mirrors" and "Reflections" are melodic contradictions, alternating among Putnam's fragile voice, melancholic shading and an undercurrent of spacey effects that attempt to pull the songs in a more upbeat direction.
Putnam attributes the more layered, colorful sound to a complete overhaul of the band. Formed in the mid-'90s with the core lineup of Putnam, Steve Goodfriend and Senon Williams, the latter two split after the recording of 2008's "Auditorium." Since then, the Radar Brothers have been more of a Putnam-led collective.
"When we made this record. I was going through hard stuff at the time and wasn't very motivated," he says. "This helped me a lot. I let a lot of creative control go. I just let this one be more chaotic."
As the band prepares for a hometown show Saturday at the Echo, Putnam admits being curious whether Merge's experiment to strike the CD as a stand-alone product will work. He's also realistic.
"If you want to make money doing music, you need to go for popular formulas instead of being true to yourself," he says. "When you're true to yourself, you can't control whether or not it catches on."
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