August 26, 2010

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Round Cat is no square peg
Label works to revive local music scene
By Michael Witthaus music@hippopress.com

Why on earth would anyone want to start a record company?

One clue is the beaming expression shared by Brendan LaRocque and Mike Szulc as the Ron Noyes Band’s “Last to Know” is cued up in the main room of Studio 114 in Bedford. Harmonica playing jumps from the speakers like a colt from the starting gate; anyone with more than a passing interest in the instrument will immediately recognize the frenetic soloist as John Popper, front man of Blues Traveler.

The track is a highlight of Noyes’ new album, Dust Bowl Diary, which is the first start-to-finish effort from newly formed Round Cat Records. Amazingly, Popper’s contribution is the second star turn for the young label. Guitar slinger Johnny A. played on the title track of Counting Down, the Brooks Young Band’s — and Round Cat’s — debut disc (though LaRocque and Szulc had a smaller role with that release, which was mostly complete by the time Young joined the label).

Popper and Noyes have been friends for a few years; the harp player sat in with him once at a Milly’s Tavern show. That’s one reason they got him to play on the record — plus good timing.

“Because he was working on a solo album, he was set up at a studio in New Mexico,” recalls Szulc. “We gave him a little direction, but obviously, he knew what he was doing. It was really exciting, because you don’t know what he was going to play.”

Finally sitting down to review Popper’s tracks provided an amazing sense of satisfaction, LaRocque says. “For us, a tiny little record label, and we’re actually mixing John Popper … for us as engineers, it’s exciting.” That’s not bad for an effort that began with an out-of-the-blue e-mail saying, in essence, what are you doing staying here?

Szulc graduated from Berklee in 2006 with a degree in engineering and production, while LaRocque completed a similar program at New England School of Art in 2003. But despite being from the same town, the two hadn’t met until Szulc came home after school to weigh his options.

He had big ideas about going to New York or California, but decided to see if his hometown had anything to offer. A Google search yielded LaRocque’s name. “I sent him an e-mail saying, ‘What’s going on in Bedford that made you stick around?’”

They met for coffee and talked about recording together; both are musicians. Soon, they began modest work on their first project.

“We set up a little makeshift studio in my parents’ garage; they were on vacation and we took it over,” Szulc says.

The two made a video of their experience and later showed it to Szulc’s parents. “Dad, this is what the garage would look like as a recording studio,” he told him. To Szulc’s surprise, his father offered some space on the second floor of his concrete contracting shop.

So, on the day after the 2007 Super Bowl, work began on Studio 114. It started as a small room, which still houses the bulk of their equipment, but it grew to take over most of the second floor and part of the attic. The pair found future company president Steven Farro on Craigslist in 2008, where he was looking for collaborators to help him finish some songs he was working on.

One day, Farro suggested starting a record company. He felt the studio/front office synergy would work well. Bands looking to get signed would have a place to record, and locating everything under one roof made economic sense as well.

“Our biggest asset is the fact that we have a studio,” says Szulc, who offers services to other artists looking to make a demo. Dylanesque songwriter Trent Larrabee is a recent client, and Courtney Williams is working on a full album, with Szulc and LaRocque providing some musical help.

But that wasn’t enough to start a label, recalls Szulc.

“We said, let’s see what kind of acts we can get around here. Then we heard Ron, and that’s when we kind of looked at each other and said, well, this could work. These songs are good, and we think we can make them better as engineers.”

“Whether we did remains to be seen,” adds LaRocque with a chuckle.

Noyes had released records on his own, but he was drawn to the idea of having someone represent him so he could focus on music. “There are a lot of things I don’t have time to do, between playing guitar, writing, rehearsing and gigging,” he says. “Booking and promotion kind of gets shuffled to the side. That’s one of the big things, having that weight lifted off my shoulders.”

This weekend, the band and the label will celebrate with a CD release party at Tupelo Music Hall in Londonderry. Securing the Londonderry listening room was a big deal, made possible mainly by Steve Farro’s incessant legwork. “We want it to be an event, as opposed to another concert,” LaRocque said.

The chemistry at Round Cat works because everyone involved is prepared to do whatever it takes for success — and they all love and play music.

“We’re all working for one goal,” Szulc said. “We’re going to call ourselves a record label, but the core of it is us all working together.”

Their lofty aspiration is to revive the area’s original music scene. “I feel like that’s the mission. I’m a music fan, I listen to music all the time, and I go out to these cover band places and I’m just turned off,” said Szulc. “We’ve got to get people wanting to hear new music and excited to see a band they’ve never heard before, to expect something more.”


Ron Noyes Band
Where: Tupelo Music Hall, 2 Young
Road in Londonderry
When: Saturday, Aug. 28, at 8 p.m.
Tickets: $10 at www.tupelohalllondonderry.com
Info: www.roundcatrecords.com and www.studio114.biz