As vinyl super-fans begin to erect temporary tent cities outside local record stores like Third Man Records and Grimey's for Record Store Day, just a few blocks away, United Record Pressing is gearing up to overdrive.
Established in 1949 (then as Southern Plastics), United Record Pressing is one of just a handful of record pressing plants left in America, surviving vinyl's 1990s dark ages only to thrive as the format's coolness was reasserted in the Aughts. The majority of limited-edition wax being hawked on Record Store Day was pressed at these 16 plants — for its part, URP pressed everything from OutKast's reissue of Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik to a Jake Bugg live EP — but how many of those plants can claim that they're putting out their own records as well?
Yes, on Saturday, United will indeed assist in making what Third Man Records is calling "the world's fastest record" — a live rendition of Jack White's "Lazaretto" that will be performed (at TMR), recorded, pressed (at URP) and released all in one day. But URP will also release two other records under their own 453 Music record label division: the 10th and 11th releases in their Upstairs at United series, featuring performances by synth-pop indie darlings Cults and 73-year-old blues legend Bobby Rush. As radically different as these records may be, both share in the historic legacy of URP's Motown Suite, where they were recorded.
"The idea had actually been pitched several times, really," Jay Millar tells the Scene from the Motown Suite's party room above the factory floor. "This guy Spyder, who runs our distribution company, was the guy who most recently pitched it, and when he pitched it, the timing was right."
Each Upstairs release is recorded in the party room, a midcentury relic that hosted record release parties and industry shindigs and looks like something out of Mad Men. Adjoining the room is a small apartment suite, affectionately dubbed the Motown Suite, where black artists and executives could stay when no one else was willing to put them up during the struggle for civil rights in the South — it's a story that is recounted on the back of each record.
"We wanted to do something to pay homage to this space, in both this room and the historical aspects of this room, but more importantly the apartment that's adjacent to this room," says Millar. "It is such a magical space to us and special space that we wanted to pay homage to it."
Part of that homage is in the vast variety of artists who have performed for the Upstairs series, ranging from inaugurating singer-songwriter Brendan Benson to Hawkwind-covering gruesome twosome JEFF the Brotherhood and piano-pop Brits Keane. But more impressive than the variety of artists is the care put into each recording. Each artist tracks his or her songs live in a single take, recorded directly to analog tape by the folks from local studio Welcome to 1979, while the pressing machines continue to rumble below. Fittingly, computers never enter into the process — everything is analog, from recording to the cutting. Even the judicious use of the tape is old-school.
"We don't let them keep multiple takes," Millar says. "So basically, when they record the first song, if they love it, awesome — we move on. If not, we rewind it and they record over it, so they can't go, 'Well, we liked the last take better.' Well, sorry, try again. Hopefully you'll like the third better than the first."
That kind of spontaneity has produced some wildly unique moments, including Bobby Rush's extended harmonica cover of "Come Together" that itself only came together moments before the performance. Though steeped in history and reverence, the core of Upstairs at United is about having fun with records and accepting the challenge of pushing the format's boundaries.
Millar takes that philosophy a step further with his own boutique Record Store Day release, RPM Turntable Football, a 10-groove football game released on Microfiche Records, a reissues label he co-runs with wife (and Warner Music manager) Marcia Millar. They've previously released lost-to-vinyl albums by Clem Snide, The Brunettes and Outrageous Cherry. For this, the label revisits a long-dead format of turntable games of chance, letting the fate of a needle drop pick your next move in the game. It's that kind of thing that makes Record Store Day fun — not necessarily the mass marketing of Aerosmith reissues, but music fans making something they want to have and hope against hope that others would want it too.
Although bragging rights on snagging that ultra-limited Django Django record come in a close second.
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