Laurel Stearns

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Last month I had the pleasure of interviewing Laurel Stearns from Dilettante Management and it was pretty incredible!. I met Laurel last year during the Coachella cruise, we were introduced by mutual friend Celeste Tabora (who we will feature in the future) and I remember being so amazed by the stories she shared about all aspects of the music industry. I was very excited to have her be my first Lust Love Leitmotif interview. We agreed to meet in her office in Downtown LA and as I entered Dilettante the first thing I noticed, aside from the amazing lofty industrial look, was tons of flowing creative energy. Laurel seemed super comfortable and happy to be interviewed and so it all flowed naturally.

Laurel, who was raised by her father in the Palm Springs area, describes herself as a free spirit first and foremost and has some of the most amazing stories about being a punk rock wild child and a passionate lover of music. She witnessed the making of amazing records by artists like The Pixies and Rod Stewart, and got her first management gig in the early 90’s working with The Descendents. During her early career she also worked with bands Gwar, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band and The Watts Prophets (who were being produced by Bob Marley before he passed). After being asked by Rick Rubin for some tips on who she was listening to, she realized she had a talent that was definitely worth something, and accepted a job at Capitol Records where she started signing bands and was appointed A&R. There, James Murphy produced a band called Automato for them (which went on to become Holy Ghost) and she started her own indie label called Cold Sweat, which could have cost her her job, but it opened the doors for great things like the first Health vinyl, the first Battles EP, and an album with partner by No Age back when they were called Wives. She also signed bands like The Decemberists, Interpol, Fisherspooner, Shout out Louds and Sparklehorse during her time at Capitol. Most of the bands Laurel has worked with, if not all, have had something in common: they were not very radio driven, in her words, “they were just very identifiable artists for who they were…not built on the foundation of a hit song, but more for what they were doing”. As the recorded music industry began to struggle in 2007, and regardless of having such success with previous bands, 200 people were let go and unfortunately she was one of them. This separation lead to her and three other colleagues opening of the Red Light office in Los Angeles to which she brought The Decemberists. At Red Light she was able to continue her collaborations with Steve Aoki and Dangermouse. After leaving Red Light and working independently with Red Fang, Lee Scratch Perry and the Slits, she decided to join the firm Prospect Park which she describes as “returning to the belly of the radio beast“. She took on White Denim, Jenny O and Father John Misty, who she recently parted ways with. While working with Jenny O, she was introduced to George Augusto and they founded Dilettante Management. Her current roster includes local band No, Linda Perhacs, Jenny O and Red Fang.

LLL: How would you describe yourself?

Laurel: Definitely a free spirit, I love people and what people do and create, there is a dark side as well, which I am aware of, but with that I still choose to think that most people’s intentions are positive and when they are geared towards the arts, which we are talking about right now, I am tirelessly fascinated by people who are motivated by creativity and wanting to shed light in that area in our existence. I think that when you’re in the presence of great art it just changes your entire state of mind. I mean you can be in the most fowl state of mind , you step in front of something beautiful, whether it’s a great song, painting or movie or book and you soften, some kind of shift happens, I’m not sure what the emotion would be, but when I look at art or music I don’t look at it like quantifying how much money I can make, I am emotionally affected by it. So I would say I am an emotional person, my emotions are in check, they have to be when you work in this business, I am driven by wanting to help facilitate what artists do, create opportunities and do it in a way that’s not embarrassing . Well thought out and seeing people being able to create and live the life that they want to live. I want to do it for myself too so it’s an interesting relationship between the artist and management . We should be aligned and have similar visions for a copasetic relationship

LLL: Has there been a woman that has influenced or encouraged you, or who you took on as a role model to pursue this career and follow your path?

Laurel: Well, this might stray away from your question/blog focus, but really there wasn’t a figure outside of my own father and I think it was because he raised me. The strong father figure omnipotent whether he was home or not, he was the figure. I was definitely a latchkey kid , very independent but also my father and I being born on the same day , we are so much alike, he too was very independent and a self starter. He was a loving dad, he provided , that was their role back then; a bit different than now. Mister mom was an anomaly in that time. He provided and made sure we had nannies and were taking care of ourselves. I didn’t realize how much my dad affected me and how much we are alike, he was so driven by his work and loved it. It’s funny because I’m named after a race track in Maryland, the Laurel Raceway , I used to think I hated gambling, my dad was always gambling, he was really into the horses, boxers, bookies and betting . Later in life I realized I actually do it everyday with my non hobby life; I bet on the artist to win. I am so like my father, oh my god!. He too was in a very people oriented work environment , in the hotel industry as a GM, so obviously this business is all about people and relationships and taking care of folks , the hotel industry it is about accommodating people on a very intimate level. You will be sleeping in this room tonight with us, so if you’re here you better be comfortable. It really mirrors a lot what I do, I mean obviously the arts are not like a hotel but when it comes to just the service that we would provide as managers just creating opportunities and infrastructure and the things that are really important for a successful career, I want to create an extended – stay , grand resort for artists. Being driven by my love for the arts, and wanting to see the art affect people as much as it has affected me. I mean, the feeling I got as a kid attending a live show was an outer body experience . My brother and I were left up to our own devise so often, I was in search of finding entertainment for myself and music provided that and it really stuck . Dancing in front of the television was a big deal.

LLL: Has there been a show or a performance that has touched you or impacted your life in some way?

Laurel: There’s so many, I would say Black Flag was probably as I child, I mean because I wasn’t even a teenager when I first heard that band, 12 years old?. That set me on the path. I thought to myself, this is it; just hearing that and then seeing/feeling what that was like live, I had found the environment for me, it was extreme adrenaline, I love adrenaline, Korean Horror, hardcore shows, as a kid, doing things I knew I wasn’t supposed to and getting away with it…my motto was everything was legal until you get caught . I get off on just being revved up in that way and it can also go on the opposite side of the spectrum, like listening to Bryan Eno’s, “On Land” and that ambient space .I work with Linda Perhacs , who’s new record is like a psychedelic Joni Michel , She’s channeling some pretty angelic tones. It just takes you into this crazy head space, it’s just this place that is all of your own, she has created a world that touches people and it has certainly moved me. Oh man, but definitely that Black Flag show…

LLL: Do you remember where that was?

Laurel: Yeah it was in Palms Springs, it was at a place I think it was called “Rumors “?, it doesn’t exist anymore. It was completely trashed, like ruined! which in those days hardcore was fairly new and no one knew what they were getting into when they would book a hardcore band , It was a discotheque and they [venue] were like OK, people pissing on the walls and slam dancing.
… Let’s see what else, there’s others, the punk shows like The Exploited at Mandiola’s Ballroom that turned into a full on riot shut down by squads of police and made the papers. Shows I went to in my very early youth like Social Distortion at The Vex, and seeing Mike Ness when I was this tiny kid and always going up to the very front of the stage and having the person next to you spitting on you and thinking , “This is the best thing ever!” . Things got more refined as time went on …Siouxsie, Echo and the Bunnymen, Nina Hagen, etc .

LLL: Oh I totally get you!

Laurel: the other night I was at Spiritualized and I was completely moved, Jason Spaceman moved everyone; Grace Jones at the Bowl was epic, I mean really epic. Grinderman at The Fonda, Nick Cave, flawless, These are all incredible multi dimensional beings. hmmm, what else?… Oh Pharoah Sanders at the Jazz Bakery blew my mind or the Red Hot & Cool show at the Edison in New York where it was just guest after guest you know, jazz freakout, Donald Byrd, Don Cherry, crazy crazy lineup. That list could go on and on! Helmet in the early days it was just like this incredible primal force. Jesus lizard, Nirvana at Jabberjaw, these tiny shows that felt like my entire being had been tenderized for life.
Nirvana at Raji’s , you know the back of that 7” at the sub pop series? my roommate’s head is blocking my face in the photo, BUMMER !
I feel really lucky to have been able to experience all of this. I’m not really nostalgic about things, especially things that are like Zeppelin and I wasn’t there, but of course I love the influences these bands have had in music, and of course all of that has been important for me. And I don’t know that I get nostalgic about things I have experienced either, I look at it as a part of the fabric that has given me different perspectives; it’s emotional but I don’t stay stuck in just thinking about the past . I’m always moving forward. I don’t do the “Oh! The Good old days” you know, I don’t do that. I’m very much in ….today rules!

LLL: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve had to face working in this business?

Laurel: That’s a good one, I would say, they are my own challenges, my own personal dialog that I create. The types of things that I really believe in and this isn’t to me, a job, it’s a lifestyle. This is something I chose that I am a part of all the time, you know, it’s really not a job; you don’t check in and out of. I don’t ever check out, I mean I might say “hey hold on for a bit, I’m at the spa”. The people, community, environments, etc are something you live and breath in. I hang out with a lot of the people who create these communities and go to the spa with them; So I would say the challenges have been brought on by myself and the kinds of artists I want to nurture. I mean, sometimes I’m in a place where I chose to work with an artist and they chose to work with me and it works and it goes broader than we ever imagined, and we have success. Then there are the artists that you think that might happen and then it doesn’t but those are hard, I’m not gonna name those, but those are hard and those are some of the challenges for me. But, I have the fortune throughout time to have cases that I do consider successes that are artists that I believe in; like selling out shows no matter what level they’re at or just seeing them earn a living by being a musician, I mean that’s a big thing, that’s a big accomplishment. I would say those are the challenges that I’ve set up for myself. It can be challenging when you are in a big company there are politics and a lot of things that you have to sort of navigate around when it comes to people’s ideas/egos .Those things, I really don’t have to do that much of that anymore because I’m my own boss, but when I wasn’t my own boss I had to try respect that. Although in essence I was a total renegade, I had my own agenda for sure, probably should have been fired I had broken my contract many times. With my indie label , I was in breech but had that drive to get certain artists records out , they needed to be heard. That was a challenge but I created that challenge so it didn’t really feel like one, it just took me where I needed to go .

LLL: How has being a woman helped and/or affected your career in music?

Laurel: I guess in some ways it can help, whatever people’s motivations are you know, if you are unique and interesting you might be able to get something out of being female by getting someone’s attention quicker. If they are paying attention to you more because you’re a female, that seems pretty uninteresting to me. I share what my intentions are and have used being female to my advantage on occasion but know that I can also back that up with a real base. When I was a senior director over at Capitol I was getting paid less than the other senior, I know that for a fact, and you know that’s hard to swallow. I don’t really understand where that comes from, if you’re both doing great work, why would one person be getting a higher salary? What I’ve also understood from this business is that even if you are doing great work, at least in the three times that I was getting asked to work at other labels, those were the only times I would get a raise. I would never get a raise based on the good work I was producing, The raise came only in the face of adversity …the company loosing to another company.
The female vs. male paycheck is less across the board in all professions, it’s not just the music industry it’s everywhere. I do not know why that exists, if someone is good at their job who cares?. When it comes to universal truth we’re all people that’s it. The male /female crap is archaic .

LLL: How has this industry impacted your personal life?

Laurel: Yes, well, umm luckily now I have an amazing man in my life that I live with named Roger Manning Jr. Celeste’s is a big fan of his!. You know he totally understands my world because he’s a part of it . So there’s zero impact there, and we both don’t want children so that is also very aligned when he has a responsibility to handle… like a TV show appearance or festival dates, studio work etc. I’ll go with him. SNL/Beck New York next week, I’m in! It will be working but not working, and I’ll be doing meetings and going to the shows and meeting people, it’s a really easy relationship to have in that way. In the past, I would say that the thing that affected was me making poor choices in people; who am I going to meet? I’m meeting people that, no disrespect , but in our business and community there’s a lot of drinking and a lot of drugs and I would make some pretty interesting choices sometimes when it came to relationships. But you know what? I don’t look back at any of it in regret. There were amazing people but I just needed to change. None of that was wrong and it was exactly where I wanted to be then, but I started to evolve and wanted to have my environment evolve with me. And I still love it all . being at shows, parties, etc I love all of it…I don’t really believe in getting old , I do believe in taking responsibility.

LLL: Was your father ever worried about you venturing into this?

Laurel: Yeah, I think he looked the other way a lot but in his heart he always knew “some weird stuff is happening”. There was definitely concern, but I don’t think anyone could have stopped me from doing what I was doing. If you put a lock on my door, I’m gonna crawl out the window . If I said I was going be over here tonight, I was actually doing other things over there.

LLL: Any romantic or sex stories that would not have happened had you not worked in music?

Laurel: Oh yeah all kinds [laughing]…

LLL: Would you like to share?

Laurel: No…[laughing]. throughout time I remember thinking about these different folks from different bands I’ve been with, and thinking , “wow if they all had a band they would have a super group and they could sell out the palladium!”. Granted, this is throughout two decades of being with different people over that time span. Who else am I gonna meet in this environment …doctors? I am serious serial monogamist.… I was not a groupie. These relationships would last like a year, a couple of years… you asked the question how does this path affect your personal life? well I probably should have answered , I didn’t spend a lot of time nurturing the intimate relationships, the work stuff was really a priority for me. Again, like my father I was work, work, work. My dad would come home , greet us , “Hey kids what’s up?” work work work work. I felt the same way. I had a guy in my life but I focused my energy towards the business which was probably why those relationships ended. That I just didn’t spend enough time nurturing them, or that they just weren’t meant to be.

LLL: Can you share some of your hopes and expectations for your future, both personally and professionally?

Laurel: ultimately keep doing what I want to do and am doing just that every day. I can’t talk about art that I don’t believe in, I just can’t, it’s just really hard for me. I can’t fake it. Some people are better salesmen, I mean I’ll be a great salesperson for something I love . being comfortable with my surroundings and being supported by amazing people, which I am; and just waking up every day and feeling like this is what I look forward to, just showing up every single day. I have no idea what the future holds, the future doesn’t really exist yet and the past has been so cool and I have really amazing memories; but to me it’s really every day being present and doing everything I can that feels good, to make sense in that realm and the environment that I am a part of . I show up and do whatever I can every day things will evolve , I love that feeling of change and growth.

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