Something people tend to ask a lot if you work in, with, or around music is: How do you find new music? If I told you all the things I do to send myself out of the way to listen to new artists and stay up to date with what is coming out, it would make your head explode. Some of that involves listening to people whose taste in music I like and one of the foremost among those people is is Susan Busch, Director of A&R at Domino Records.
There are some people whose careers you can become a little obsessed with and, for me, Busch is one of those people. I’ve been watching Susan’s career since she was at Sub Pop Records in the indie music boom of the aughts. She’s one of not nearly enough women doing A&R in the music industry.
While we couldn’t remember when exactly we met (her best guess was that it was probably one year at CMJ in New York when that was a thing), I do remember a few things about her that made a huge impact on me, however. First, she was also from Texas (she grew up in the El Paso underground scene of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, surrounded by At the Drive-In, the Texas/Mexcian border town goth scene, and, of course, Morrissey). And then there was FNMTV and No Age (record scratch). If you were wondering how darlings of the L.A. DIY scene No Age ended up premiering a video on MTV’s flagship music program in 2008, that was me using about a decade worth of cred in the building and dealing with indie labels and bands to make it happen. It required a lot of people, including Busch, convincing bands to go along. Was it a good idea? Depends on who you ask. But we can confirm for you that it was a very fun day.
I became obsessed with Busch’s music taste after I heard Beach House’s Teen Dream, which is by far and away my favorite album of the 2010s. She fought hard to bring the band to Sub Pop, convincing everyone on the label that they were a good signing and then just stepping back and letting the magic of that album exist.
I asked Busch to talk to me about her career and everything except how she finds new music because if she told you it would make you want to curl up into a ball and die. Below are some excerpts from our conversation.
I always felt like the relationship I had with Sub Pop was so different from other labels. At most labels, I talked to one person, but at Sub Pop, it felt like everyone wanted me to know everyone. I got the impression that they let you, Tony Kiewel, and Stuart Meyer create the label's taste in the '00s era.
Busch: "It's interesting because there's always a Sub Pop sound. I don't feel like the years I was there necessarily had that. I loved all of the grungy years, even some of the dark years — even the Pleasure Forever [the band formerly known as SLAVES] records, sign me up. I came in as a radio promo person; I started in college radio. I looked at Tony, who was the head of A&R then, quite a lot because he had the same trajectory as me. It felt like a place where you could pitch anything, and there weren't any roles. The way I got to be on the A&R staff was being annoying and sending them music constantly that I'd find on blogs. I would be like, 'The Walkmen are great. We should sign them!' They didn't get signed, but they did get picked up. Eventually, a few of those happened and they let me join the team. But none of the stuff I pitched had a throughline. So it did feel a little experimental — we can put out a Murder City Devils record and a Postal Service record, and it all makes sense here for some reason."
That Beach House album is one of my favorite things in the world, and I’ve always wanted to ask you about hearing it for the first time and everything about what it was like for you to work on it.
“It took me so long to sign that band. Not because of anything other than having to convince the A&R staff at Sub Pop that it was going to be a thing, and it was interesting. I’d already loved the previous records on Carpark. I sat with the Teen Dream demos for so long. The band and I had a mutual friend who ran a place called Otto Bar in Baltimore who sent me a burned CD of the demos. I couldn’t get it through to the A&R team, which made me feel so crazy [laughs]. They don’t tour a ton, but I finally saw them at SXSW, and it was one of those disaster area shows at Emos; they were running late, they were playing the small room. They threw their stuff on stage and played, which that band does not do [laughs]. It didn’t even sound great. It wasn’t this magical show, but I knew I wanted to sign them. I dragged people throughout SX to see them, and I was just such a pain in the ass about it to Jonathan Poneman [Sub Pop co-founder] that they let me do it.”
That’s how I got a lot of shit done at MTV: just being a pain in the ass about it for a long time!
“It feels so funny to me now that that was how it had to go. Those demos came in and sounded pretty different before they were done. I have to tell you, they’re not the kind of band you sit in the studio and give notes to. And that’s not what I’m here for most of the time. Some bands truly crave the feedback, and I’m so happy to do it. It’s a part of my job I enjoy. But there are bands who have a special magic about what they do, and anything I say isn’t going to make it better. I want to work with them because I know it’s there, and we can give them the tools to amplify it. With Beach House, it was like now they have the money to go into the studio with producer Chris Coady [TV on the Radio, Yeah Yeah Yeahs] and you couldn’t have afforded that before — so do it. There were some changes, and sure I gave some notes on the mix, but not much. Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand have a unique relationship to what they’re doing. They know when it’s done. That record probably could have been more polished or had a bigger, crazier mix, but it wouldn’t have been the same.
“I was such a fan, and I still am, of the band and everything they do. It’s hard sometimes when you’re a fan. It makes it hard to tell them what to do. I’m kind of quiet by nature, and to be in an environment with them — they don’t just talk to hear themselves speak [laughs]. We had lots of fun, and it was quite an experience, but I always had a feeling like I’m going to let them run the show and be here to support whatever they need. I felt like there was enough oxygen being taken out. I just wanted to witness it and enjoy it. I’m so glad we had that time together. I left Sub Pop right before Bloom came out, and it was fucking brutal. They made it at Sonic Ranch [in Tornillo, TX], so I went out to see my folks. I knew I was leaving and hadn’t told Beach House yet. So I went to the studio to hear the record and bawled.”
In the 2007-2012 timeframe, how did Sub Pop go about picking singles? Because singles were real singles for indie rock then.
“I also ran the radio department for most of that time, and I have to tell you, I was not great at that job [laughs]. I don’t have that personality. You have to be such a bulldog to be a commercial radio play plugger. You’re sitting across from the person who programs the biggest commercial alternative station in the country, and they’re checking their email while you’re playing a single. It’s horrifying. We used to debate about what single to pick. The Shins’ Wincing the Night Away was a big one. Picking singles on that record — we would sit in the conference room, and everyone had their thoughts on it. Management came into it quite a lot, to be honest. If the band were big enough that we were thinking about radio, they had a say. “Phantom Limb” was the first single. We had to chop it down, and it wasn’t super obvious. I feel like we did fine; it did okay. But we would pick the song we all loved the most.
“There were some things I’d walk in feeling super confident about, like the Band of Horses tracks ‘The Funeral’ or ‘Is There A Ghost?’ I’d be like, we’ve fucking got this! Well, [laughs] not always! It kind of got played. But those were obvious singles, the standout tracks on the record. Were they the best song on the record? Maybe not, but they were the ones that would pull in the most people.
“When I stopped doing radio and just doing A&R, we hired someone from Reprise to come in eventually. He was so much better at it than I was. He was like, this is clearly going to tick the boxes and started making radio mixes for things. It was like, ooooh yeah.”
What year was it when you moved to Domino? And what was your first record there?
"2012, and it must have been Matthew E. White Big Inner. There's no throughline for my first few signings: Matt White, Alex G., Porches, and White Lung all came in short succession. Coming into Domino, I was thinking about being at a global company. Sub Pop is global, but we did a lot of split territory deals, and you don't do those at Domino. I had to think about what's going to work all over the world. I had to feel out a different way of approaching signings because I had different ears on it, in a way."
After having done A&R for a good chunk of time, do you see a throughline in your taste in music now?
“I do, but it’s not genre-specific. That makes it tough to qualify. The stuff I did early on was like No Age and Male Bonding — harder, heavier stuff. The most successful projects, which I loved so much, were Beach House and Fleet Foxes. Everything that I worked on, especially at Sub Pop, was stuff that wasn’t popular yet. It felt like grabbing on to something I felt a lot of people were going to understand. They might not yet, but the songs are so good that people eventually have to get there. The same thing has carried over to Domino. Someone like Alex G., the first time I saw him, he played with his back to the crowd [laughs]. But they were great songs. Something about them touched that little space inside my 13-year-old body that’s like, ‘I love this so much!’ Thinking other people will too is the only thing that carries through everything, finding the moment in a song or an album that makes me feel like more people need to know about it and hoping they like it.”
That's' such a romantic way to look at it, and it feels like so many A&R people don't get to look at signing that way anymore because it's an analytics game now.
"Oh my god, I know. I get pitched these tools quite a lot. I see their value, and if I worked at a major label, of course, I would use them [laughs]. It's a different way of making a living and understanding that you have to rely on data because you don't have the luxury of saying, 'I'm going to throw this at the wall and see if it sticks because I think it's fucking awesome.' But I've never used them. It's not that I'm not curious. When I see something is starting to go, I think it's cool. If it seems like it's viable for us and is something I love, I take a peek. But usually, if it's already starting to go, it's gone. Majors and even indies are ending up in these ridiculous situations where a song has a million streams on Spotify, so they offer a six-figure advance even though there's nothing else going on. I'm not going to do that."
The Ela Minus record you’ve been working on is a current obsession for me. I know it’s not an American record, but there’s something about how that hits me that speaks to American music.
“Ela is Colombian. I think she’s endlessly fascinating. She grew up playing drums in a hardcore punk band in Bogata. You can find these videos of her as a little kid playing in bands that toured all over Latin America, from 12 on. Then she went to Berklee College of Music in Boston, so she’s lived in North America for a while, I want to say maybe eight years or so. What I was drawn to is that she made a super political record way before the world blew up. This record has been done for a year, so the fact that it’s so timely now feels eerie. It’s interesting that people are so self-reliant now that they can make records, not using a studio or other people. She made everything using physical things. It’s all synthesizers and hardware; she doesn’t use a computer to make her records. She builds them too. She makes synthesizers. It feels tangible like she made something that can be played. When I went to see her, that is what made me want to work with her. I felt like, oh, you’re doing this. There are going to be mistakes, and it is not going to be the same every time.”
What’s been getting you through the pandemic, musically?
“It changes regularly. In the beginning, I made this quarantine playlist because I needed my brain to go somewhere that’s comfortable for me. It was hard to think about listening to new music for a while; I wanted comfort. I’m still going to a lot of that, like Deerhunter, Beach House, old Oasis records, and Pulp. Things that make me think of being a little less worried. It vacillates between wanting comfort and very angry things. I’ve been listening to a lot of Unwound. It’s helping me hit reset, too, and remember the records I love and why I love them — and find the throughlines to what I’m doing now. These are timeless records for me, so I hope what the artists I’m working with in the present are records that in 10 years I can throw on another playlist and feel centered and good about things.”