Interview, by Mike Stephenson, of the new owners of the Delmark Record label, Julia A. Miller and Elbio Barilari, took place at the labels offices in Chicago in 2018. Many thanks go to Steve Wagner and Jim Feeney.
JULIA A. MILLER: I’m Julia Miller and I’m President and CEO of Delmark Records and we are very happy to be the new owners and happy to be here and we are composers and guitarists and we are in the band Volcano Radar and we are here to re invigorate Delmark Records.
ELBIO BARILARI: I am originally from Montevideo, Uruguay and I am a classical composer, I work with symphonic orchestras all over the world. I do chamber music but I also my whole life play rock and blues and jazz, and for the last five years we have a band together with Julia called Volcano Radar. Volcano Radar is something that actually exists; it is an electronic device controlled by satellite to see what happens in volcanoes. We have been producing our own indie records for the band for the last three and a half years and we have been successful with that. We have 70,000 downloads of our three records, two with the band, one solo record by Julia, and at some point we decided that we could go to the next level and we started researching, and finally we knew that Bob Koester would be willing to sell Delmark and we started a very careful and long process with him. We are both working in music in other capacities. Julia teaches the Class Of Sound at the very prestigious School Of The Art Institute Of Chicago and I teach Latin/ American music and jazz history at University Of Illinois in Chicago, and I also have a world wide classical music program called Latin American Music. It’s taken up by 150 radio stations across the world. We have a strong connection with blues and jazz, but also with other fields of music, and also the fact we are musicians, that we can do this business from a musician’s perspective and we plan to keep it that way.
Julia: We want to support the musicians in their vision of what we would want to have in terms of the creative project, and in terms of the support of their releases and also we are interested in intra disciplinary work, so for example we are interested in collaboration with visual artists and different music collaborations, as well as bringing people together that may not have worked together before. What caused us to consider purchasing Delmark is that it’s not only a record label, it’s a studio and a catalogue as well and a living history, so we appreciate that and that’s what drew us to the project, and it’s also what sort of convinced I think the Koesters to go with us, because we wanted to keep all of the aspects of the business together. We weren’t interested in selling the catalogue or just buying the catalogue only, we are interested in keeping the studio running as a working studio and also producing new records, as well as appreciating the history and the historical catalogue and building on that. It’s a very unique piece of history and one with many parts. It’s not a typical label and so it’s not a business proposition that we went to with the idea that we would buy a record label. That’s not how we looked at it and it’s not what we were looking for. We were looking for a musicians’ label, as musicians and as creative artists.
Elbio: We could have started an indie label from scratch; it would have been cheaper for sure, but it would not have had the brand or the recognition and it would not have had the history behind it and it would not have had the inventory and catalogue, the building, the studio. People knew us in Chicago and people knew us in the United States and knew us internationally in different fields, but the moment we got into Delmark people could see this was for real and this was serious. Also we are working hard on a new business model, a twenty first century business model for the label. Of course we are going to have LPs and CDs and we are going to have reel to reel productions, so if you want one from the original master we can sell that to people, and we are also working very, very hard to get in place the system for downloads and streaming. Over the summer our website is going to be improved and revised and completely rebuilt to have that capability and to hit the markets everywhere, like Asia, and to renew our relationships in Europe.
Julia: We own the business and the catalogue and the inventory and we have an exclusive lease on the building that houses the studio and the offices and we hope to purchase it in the future. We are planning on re issuing much of the Delmark catalogue. But how we do it and what format we do it in, we will plan later. We are definitely going to keep the catalogue available.
Elbio: Right now we are planning some re issues like a very historical record by Anthony Braxton and another one by Roscoe Mitchell and previously unreleased material by Sun Ra.
Julia: We are looking at mastering things and transferring things that haven’t been transferred from analogue to digital. We want to make audio file quality recordings available of the back catalogue and we also want to make digital subscriptions available as it is a valuable resource and we want it to be available in that way. We are also looking at showcasing many of the historical catalogue recordings as concerts. When we would re issue them for example we could then have a contemporary group replay the album and then also include educational opportunities and get the contacts to the album as well as the re issue.
Elbio: We are going to put in place an internship program and the website is not just going to be a commercial website to sell the records. We are also going to have an historical content, like a blog talking about the history of Chicago music and promoting our artists. Since day one we have been building as much as we can information from our artists into social media. I think we have a chance to make a difference, working with a different business model. Some people say that you don’t need a record label any more and why do you need a record label now, as people can release heir own records, which they can, but it is completely different when you have the support of a known record label behind you and when the record label, as we are doing, promotes not only in the US but also overseas. We are already talking to our friends around the world. The big offensive overseas is going to be when the new website is in place.
Julia: Blues is very significant for the label. We have Steve Wagner here and he is continuing with us and we are very happy about that and blues is a main focus of what he does. We each bring different aspects to the business and its expertise. Elbio has a history in blues as well.
Elbio: I played in a blues band for several years and I toured Europe with blues bands and I have played with Clarence Edwards and Henry Grey. I toured Europe with those guys. I’ve played with John Primer in South America. My band opened for Buddy Guy and B.B. King in Montevideo. I grew up with rock and hard rock and listening to John Mayall and the Blues Breakers and the Rolling Stones. I went through the process of listening to the British blues players before I moved to Chicago and then heard the blues here. Jazz is also one of my passions.
Julia: I grew up with American country music and also bluegrass. I went on to train as a classical musician as an adult. My cousin was a professional Dixieland clarinetist so I grew up with that music as well and I have all of his records still and his instruments. I came to Chicago when I was eighteen to go to school and that introduced me to the blues at that time. I don’t have the professional background that Elbio or Steve has but it is a complementary history. We plan to seek out new artists to record.
Elbio: We get records through the post and proposals every day and they come to me as I’m the artistic director of the label, so people bombard me with proposals, blues and jazz and ambience and stuff. We are going to stick with the blues and the blues catalogue is going to be maintained and we are going to support traditional blues, acoustic and electric, and we are also going to support people with new approaches to blues.
Julia: We don’t look for talent per se. We think about how Bob Koester would have thought about it in terms of creative and interesting performance and people that don’t sound like other people, so we are open to listening to artists and open to also bringing artists together to do new collaborations and new recordings. We are reaching out to people in Europe all of the time and we expect to do that more. We want to offer a huge reassurance because we want to continue Delmark and we want to give it a future at a time when things needed to change, so we are going to maintain it and we understand the tradition.
Elbio: Just In the last month we have received blues performances from blues records from Brazil, the UK and Sweden. European and South American artists are looking at us, they see there is new administration here so they send samples and of course American and Chicago artists are also contacting us. The future looks very good.
Julia: As for our future reissues, we hope to keep the original artwork, and any tracks that may be laying around that Bob has done and that haven’t been heard could be part of it. As an example Roscoe Mitchell, we kept the original artwork and we went back to different original mixes, so it will be on a case by case basis. We will look at it as we go. There is a lot of material, a lot of possibility for bonus tracks and a lot of things that have not been released, a lot of alternative takes, and that is something we have talked about.
Elbio: We will have standard liner notes and we will give you a link and you can go to the new website and you will get extra information that you cannot fit in the liner notes. Liner notes are becoming obsolete, but we can expand to really nice heavyweight stories behind the music by referring people to the website.
Julia: That’s what Elbio loves as he is a writer, so working through the narrative is something he specializes in. I’m a collector and I love to go through all the material and pick out things to scan. We have found a lot of gems here going through all this stuff.
Elbio: Please reassure yourselves that Delmark is going to continue and that it is going to get stronger. We are going through the archives and we have found so much material like Luther Allison, Otis Rush and we have unreleased tapes of Otis Rush. Sun Ra archives also. Musicians come from different territories and we plan on keeping the blues alive and, in more mainstream post bop and mainstream jazz, we will be releasing a Geof Bradfield album, a neo bop type of thing, and we are going to release an album on a Cuban saxophone player and he recorded a CD with our band. We plan to record blues in different forms and shapes and pretty much the same wide range of music that Delmark covered before. We may have some Latin tinge jazz in the future. By blues in its many formats we have in our catalogue Big Joe Williams and we have his guitar here in a case, and we have folks doing the typical Chicago electric style and we have bands with different styles like Mississippi Heat for example. So we are completely open to new tendencies in blues music. So if someone comes with something new, we would consider it. I was a fan of Chico Banks and if he was alive I would have liked to record him. Blues has so many styles and influences. In Chicago there are guys that play more traditional blues and there are guys who mix it with r&b and some with a soul tinge. So if an artist approaches us we will consider it and we will be wider encompassing.
Julia: We are looking for special people and special performances and people that do not sound like other people and that is in the spirit of what Bob Koester was interested in too. He also was interested in performances that were kind of rough, in the Alan Lomax kind of model, very real and those performances become iconic touchstone performances. We appreciate those things and that is what we are looking for as well.
Elbio: I play a lot with people from Louisiana, for example like Larry Garner, and if he wants to do something with us how am I gonna say no to him, my buddy. Chris Thomas is another one. I play with people who have learnt their trade like Rudy Richards, the guitar player with Slim Harpo and really you cannot build a wall between the Chicago blues and the rest of the blues. As we know, most of the early Chicago blues musicians came from the south and the others, the parents came from the south.
Julia: We are always interested in hearing what is happening, but it’s more in terms of cultural support and a creative interest. Sure, people can always send in demos and things. The website we plan will support more material, so not everything is necessarily going to be released physically. We will retain CDs and LPs of course but we are going to do digital release and we are going to do streaming, so trying things to support people in different ways that may be a little more obscure. We plan to up the support of our artists such as using social media, like we post on Facebook, and we are offering a lot of radio promotions and we have PR people who are supporting us with our new releases, so that is something we are already doing.
Elbio: We plan to buy some space in Downbeat and we are sending out our recent releases to over 300 radio stations. Once we have the new website, we will be promoting in Europe as well. We plan to focus on South America too, like Brazil and Argentina and Uruguay, because blues is huge in those countries. South East Asia, China and Japan and Russia are also our targets after we have the new website.
Julia: As for the archive material we have here, we have been clearing it out and organizing. We have a professional archivist who is helping us. We have been going through stuff piece by piece and box by box, as maybe in the middle of that box you may find one gem. We will organize it so it can be in a state where it can be used. It is a very long-term project and it is important that we are new here. We were negotiating the sale for six months before we disclosed in May. So by the end of summer we hope to be really pushing forward, so that is our time frame. Six months sounds like a long time to negotiate but it’s not much time considering how big the deal is and how big the intellectual property is.
Elbio: I was cleaning out my future office and I found a huge folder with original charts from the sixties and we also found an original pressing of Anthony Braxton.
Julia: Once we have stuff archived we plan to have it available for use by students and scholars and our archivist will help us in options for grants to apply for, and also we may end up working with institutions. For example we had a lot of Bob’s films 16 and 32 millimeters and we have given them to someone who will catalogue them and go through them and store in his warehouse space and we will then be giving them to the School Of Art Institute once we have that collection organized. So things like that, developing relations with institutions, we are definitely interested in. How much of it remains here or how much goes into a library, as long as it’s used and accessible, that’s what we are interested in.
Elbio: We are going to start a jazz and blues program in Spanish for all Latin America through universities radio stations.
Julia: We are also planning a gallery here at the Delmark offices in the front area and we will be having visual art shows. We have collaborated in the past with painter Lewis Archenbach who does live jazz and improvises music documentations and we have talked to a couple of photographers. So having music related art exhibits, as well as small performances for things like CD releases and stuff.
Visit Delmark Record’s website at: www.delmark.com
Interviewer Mike Stephenson is a UK based blues journalist and photographer who has been a blues fan all his life. He has written articles on and interviewed blues artists and reviewed blues events in Europe and the US primarily for Blues & Rhythm but also for other blues publications.