Key Acts: Pavement, Liz Phair, Yo La Tengo, Cat Power, Belle and Sebastian, Interpol
Since being formed in 1989, New York label Matador Records has had quite a charmed run. Sure, there were a couple of failed marriages with corporate partners, and any label that’s cranked out about 800 releases is sure to have put out a few duds along the way. But from its very beginnings, Matador's name has somehow remained synonymous with so many of alternative music's most interesting and daring acts.
Matador began life late in 1989, in the apartment of founder Chris Lombardi. He was soon joined by longtime Homestead Records manager Gerard Cosloy, who bought with him an array of connections to artists. Two of Matador's first-ever acts, and their two earliest successes, were both bands who were due to sign to Homestead, and followed Cosloy to his new digs.
Those bands were Superchunk and Teenage Fanclub. Late in 1990, the outfits released their debut albums —Superchunk’s self-titled set, Teenage Fanclub’s A Catholic Education— just weeks apart. The unexpectedly-strong sales from those records allowed Matador to ‘professionalize’ their operation (they moved into an office), and gave them enough cash to offer the princely singing sum of $600 to a young band named Pavement.
The release of Pavement’s debut Slanted and Enchanted in 1992, continued Matador’s rapidly-growing profile, and when the label stumbled upon a singer-songwriter from Chicago named Liz Phair, things exploded.
Corporate Dalliances, Plural
In the wake of the grunge explosion, the music industry was in a state of upheaval. Major-labels were desperate to cash-in on the underground’s rise above ground, and Matador entered into its first corporate marriage, this one with Atlantic Records. “The way Atlantic was set up, they were really ill-equipped to work with our type of bands,” Cosloy later lamented.
Of course, after the Atlantic union dissolved in 1996, Matador turned around and hopped back into bed with another: Capitol Records. Three years later, with Capitol on the verge of bankruptcy, Matador cut the corporate cord oncemore.
The Who's Who of Indie Music
Whilst the various business-related dealings were going down, Matador were releasing a string of amazing albums. Matador’s mid-’90s signees included long-established New York guitar-rock outfit Yo La Tengo, Thalia Zedek’s bruised art-rock juggernaut Come, idiosyncratic lo-fi legends-in-the-making Guided By Voices, and a harrowed young songsmith Cat Power.
As the decade progressed, Matador branched out to acts from other countries: Japanese Shibuya-kei pop visionaries Pizzicato Five and Cornelius, and Scots Belle and Sebastian and Mogwai. It’s a collection of some of the biggest names in indie music history, and, taken as a black-and-white list, it makes it seem like Matador has had the magic touch. In choosing its artists, the label largely kept to a single rule: only signing bands who’d already put out really good records.
“There’s something infinitely more attractive in an artist that already has a completed album, that has a record that we already know and like,” Chris Lombardi told me in an interview in 1999. “We’re not A&R men in the archetypal sense: we don’t handhold the artists, sculpt them in the right image. We simply let them be as they are.”
Matador in the New Millennium
Whilst the label’s long run of success and their ever-present cachet largely has come through their unbroken relationships with a handful of acts —Stephen Malkmus, Yo La Tengo, Cat Power— Matador have proven themselves to be alive to the changing times.
With their 1999 divorce with Capitol, the label was banking on the fact that the imminent rise of the then-brand-new MP3 technology was going to “level the playing-field,” and that being in bed with a major was, for an independent label, no longer a necessity.
Recent years have found some of the label’s biggest successes: Cat Power going from fringe freak-out queen to Madison Avenue darling, Interpol arising out of New York in matching all-black outfits, and Pavement’s deluxe reissues introducing a whole new generation to their slacker majesty.
In 2010, Matador celebrated their 21st Birthday with a three-day festival in Las Vegas, in which acts from the labels past (including Spoon, Superchunk, Guided by Voices, and the reformed Pavement) rubbed shoulders with a new wave of lo-fi signings in Girls, Harlem, and Kurt Vile.