Not far from where the old train tracks dead end at the lumber yard in industrial Burbank, there’s a nondescript warehouse that, if one is lucky enough to get inside, turns out to be both a museum-quality, wall-to-wall archive of rock ‘n’ roll, punk and B-movie poster art and the home of Alive Naturalsound Records, a rebel independent imprint with one of the wildest rosters of rock and blues bands in the known universe.
Alive, whose artists include everyone from psych-funk cult hero Swamp Dogg to ’50s-era R&B wild man Andre Williams, along with a host of deliciously primitive contemporary rockers, also issued the earliest recordings by the now internationally acclaimed Black Keys. It is a wildly disparate and unlikely success story, one achieved by a horde of musicians drawn from a coast-to-coast talent pool.
“Most of our artists come from the Midwest or the South, some from the East Coast, although there are a few exceptions,” co-owner Patrick Boissel said. “We recently signed a young East L.A. band called the Bloodhounds. Their sound could be described as a garage-punk take on ’60s British blues, with a Latino vibe. They're also good-looking, charismatic dudes with street cred.”
Today, Alive seems more and more to be bearing down on the traditional American idiom of the blues, a fact underscored by their recent designation by Blues magazine as “the hottest label in the blues.”
“Although we're known for the blues these days, Alive is essentially a rock ‘n’ roll label. We're pretty diversified stylistically. We sign a lot of young bands, but we also have a handful of veterans in our roster, like Swamp Dogg and Paul Collins,” Boissel said. “I think that a young artist like Lee Bains III encompasses well what we do. His debut album for us has a lot of soul and heart, his sound combines rock ‘n’ roll, soul, blues, garage punk and even country.”
With more than 70 artists in their catalog, Alive’s emphasis on offbeat, underground and extremely intense, original music seems as if it would be a tough sell in the digital download era, but Boissel keeps the faith.
“Digital can represent over 50% of our sales for a young band, and streaming is becoming bigger every day, but real fans of music and collectors tend to buy physical goods,” he said. “If it's a battle — digital is probably winning, but resistance is not futile. We do a lot of special products for the collectors like starburst vinyl, bundles with T-shirts and posters, lyric sheets, that sort of thing. I think there will always be at the very least a niche market for what we're doing. And we've never stopped doing vinyl. In the old days we needed to add bonus tracks to make the format attractive to buyers, now we're having problems keeping vinyl in stock.”
Alive is little sister to the legendary Bomp! label, a groundbreaking mid-1970s experiment in insurrection that introduced the world to a new brand of gutter-bred musical genius (releasing discs by the likes of Iggy Pop and the Zeros). Its founder, the late, great Greg Shaw, became a beloved household name throughout the rock ‘n’ roll underworld and gained Burbank unlikely status as headquarters for rock ‘n’ roll cool.
“I moved here from France over 20 years ago. Suzy Shaw, the co-founder and owner of Bomp! and I run Alive Naturalsound — we're partners in life and business,” Boisell said. “People will probably think it's funny, but I've had offices in Paris and Barcelona, and without a doubt I prefer Burbank. It's a safe, peaceful place with nice neighbors and good services for business people. Everybody kind of watches out for each other, and if you want to get to Hollywood it's only 10 minutes away. Great location, we wouldn't want to be anywhere else.”
JONNY WHITESIDE is a veteran music journalist based in Burbank and author of “Ramblin' Rose: the Life & Career of Rose Maddox” and “Cry: the Johnnie Ray Story.”