On the night of July 20, 2002, Infinity Cat Recordings sprung to life by selling 11 copies of an album that hadn't even been made. Sure, their inaugural release had just been taped — live, for an audience of a few dozen at the long-since defunct Guido's Pizzeria. But the crude recording, made with a DAT machine taped to a back wall, hadn't been mixed, burned onto CDs or slipped into the photocopied sleeves that the band members would later hand-splatter with paint.
Selling records is sometimes referred to as "moving units." But in this case there were no units. And Tusky Mahloo by The Sex (ICR-01) wasn't an album so much as the promise of an album. In much the same way, Infinity Cat wasn't a record label, really, nor were the baby-faced brothers Jake and Jamin Orrall — then just 16 and 14, respectively — the electrifying, continent-hopping band they would eventually become. They were a pair of high school kids growing up on the West Side whose basement lair was as cluttered and chaotic as any teenager's hangout. Only theirs was heaped with stashes of experimental recordings and teetering towers of one-off music projects.
But the people who paid $5 that night, to have a just-recorded debut album by a trio of teens mailed to them whenever and however it was finally manufactured, did so because they believed one thing: Whatever the particulars of the finished product, it was going to be good.
And as The Sex became JEFF became JEFF the Brotherhood — a hard-touring duo with sold-out shows from Brooklyn to L.A. and a major-label record deal that's just kicking in — fans of the scrappy record label the brothers started out of their parents' basement a decade ago have continued to snap up just about anything they release for that very same reason. Jack White is often credited, and rightly so, with helping expand and deepen Music City's reputation. But long before Third Man opened its doors on Seventh Avenue, Infinity Cat had already become the heart through which Nashville's punk-rock arteries pumped their noisy, vibrant blood — helping make the city synonymous with a raw, restless strain of rock 'n' roll, and doing it on almost no budget.
How they got to where they are now is a story that could really only happen, at least the way it did, in Nashville.
A few blocks from Greer Stadium in the Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood, along a fairly unremarkable side street, sits a neat eggplant-colored house. A small etched metal sign beside the back door displays the company logo — a simple line drawing of a cat with a figure-eight floating halo-like above its head — but otherwise the low-slung ranch blends right into the neighborhood, a mix of single-family homes and commercial properties that includes nearby Gabby's Burgers and Fries.
Most days you can find Robert Ellis Orrall here, starting early in the morning and often late into the night. Although Jake Orrall is Infinity Cat's de facto CEO — no one has official titles — and makes the final decisions about releases, Bob (as most people call him) is the label's de facto general manager, answering emails, directing the staff, printing out orders and album one-sheets — sometimes all at once, while also fielding a reporter's questions across a counter that separates the kitchen from the business/songwriting/recording/chilling-out area, shouting over his shoulder as he stocks the fridge with sodas and flavored seltzer. With Jake on tour with JEFF the Brotherhood much of the year, managing the day-to-day operations falls to Bob. Not that he minds too much: "I love coming to work here every day," he says, beaming.
If you've ever promised yourself you'll never grow up, Bob Orrall is the kind of person you want to not grow up to be. On the wall above a desk that holds an iMac, a set of studio monitor speakers and a small bank of audio equipment, there's a large framed plaque commemorating 3 million copies sold. It's for Taylor Swift's eponymous debut, for which Orrall co-produced or co-wrote a total of six songs.
A few feet to the left hangs a bright orange Super Soaker water gun. Bowls of candy, antique toys, musical instruments, paintings, records, magazines and pieces of old cars litter the room, and a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun hangs from a window frame.
"I love the possibilities," he says. "I love hearing these kids making this great stuff. I feel real lucky."
Luck can be important. Part of the reason Infinity Cat is one of the few labels that can directly upload tracks to iTunes is that early on, Bob and Jamin crashed a party held to recruit labels for the new iTunes store. The kitten-size Infinity Cat hadn't made the highly exclusive guest list, but Bob feigned disbelief at the omission. Standing nearby, Jeff Walker of AristoMedia quickly caught on and played along with the ruse. Feigning outrage, he called Infinity Cat "one of the most important labels in town" to the unwitting Apple gatekeeper, who promptly waved the Orralls in.
The brothers say they don't hit up their dad for business advice very often. "A lot of Dad's experience, in that world, doesn't really translate," Jamin says. Likewise, Bob doesn't try to force his viewpoint — not that he could — and Infinity Cat is no shell corporation for his royalties. "There's no investment," he says. "I'm not putting money into this."
In 2010, Bob left Music Row, at least in the physical sense. For four years he had written songs, recorded demos and, in his spare time, helped run Infinity Cat out of the 1010 Music offices on Music Square West. In January 2011, he and the label moved to the house just off Chestnut Street. The relocation was not a big maneuver in itself, but soon after, as the steady climb of the label's flagship band began approaching some lofty peaks, things would begin to grow faster than anyone involved had imagined possible when they started.
"We were really inspired by Asian Man Records at the beginning," Jake says, referring to Mike Park's label out of Monte Sereno, Calif., as he reclines on a couch at the Infinity Cat house. "Just this guy putting out tons of punk records out of his mom's basement."
"And Dischord, obviously," Jamin adds from across a glass coffee table.
Jamin is the more talkative of the two, though neither is particularly talkative, at least around media types. Even offstage, Jake cuts an imposing figure, with his broad shoulders protruding assertively from under long locks of hair. While Jamin has caught up in height, he still looks every bit the younger brother. When the two interact, often in short, terse phrases, it sometimes seems there must be a telepathic connection filling in the gaps. Theirs is a bond strengthened by years of playing music together almost every day. Online haters have tried to characterize them as spoiled showbiz kids who never paid their dues, but don't believe it for a second: In their mid-20s they've already logged a lifetime's worth of shows — in living rooms, mostly empty clubs, dingy pizzeria basements and most recently, on a barge in the Pacific Ocean during a surfing competition.
"We were listening to a lot of Fugazi at that point," Jamin recalls. "And any punk band that came through town, any show we could go to, we'd buy as many records as we could afford. We'd take them home, look at the labels and order stuff through the mail."
Like many of the record labels they admired — often little more than names devised and slapped onto records to lend them some air of importance — Infinity Cat started as an outlet for Jake and Jamin to release their own music and their friends' music, with few ambitions beyond that. The purpose at first was to put whatever money they were able to make into their next release. If they liked a band, they'd put out a record if they could afford it.
"We're still at the same point," Jake snorts.
But running a relatively small operation lets Jake be nimble. According to Seth Riddle, general manager of Serpents and Snakes Records, the imprint owned by Kings of Leon, "The key for small labels [like Infinity Cat] is they react really quickly. They get things done." And that spontaneity is an asset.
Case in point: During a recent break from touring, Jake asks Jamin about taking some copies of their new single, a split 7-inch of Hole covers with the band Hell Beach, and making special tour-only sleeves for them. Although Jamin long ago relinquished his responsibilities — "I realized I don't want to run a record label," he says — he still acts as a sounding board for his brother's ideas.
"You want to?" Jake asks.
"Sure," Jamin answers quietly.
"What did you do with the Third Man single? Just cut out the letters?"
"Yeah, just printed it off on the computer, cut the letters out and Xeroxed it."
"Let's do 150."
They'll almost certainly sell every one, and by making a version of the single that was only available on one tour, they've created another necessary acquisition for their rabid fans, who will post about it on "The Brohood" or other Internet forums. There, aficionados like JEFF superfan John Cosby might go hunting for a copy, perhaps offering another record variant or piece of band- or label-related minutiae for trade. Those limited-edition sleeves with the hand-cut letters, and the differently colored vinyl for various editions of a single, are all part of the label's quirky appeal for Cosby, who lives on a farm with his parents in Tattenhall, England — what he calls "a sleepy little village" of fewer than 2,000 people about 35 miles southeast of Liverpool.
"They understand the value of scarcity and DIY," says Jay Millar, marketing director for United Record Pressing, whose back door is just a couple hundred feet from the Infinity Cat house. On any given day you might see him guiding a hand truck laden with boxes of freshly pressed records down the street.
"I think they've done an exceptional job carving their niche," Millar says. "They've got a diehard group of fans that will pick up anything they put out, and it's not just blind allegiance ... it's good, and they've earned the trust of their fan base."
Cosby says he's lost track of exactly how many Infinity Cat albums he owns. Many are on loan to friends around the world who belong to record-swapping clubs formed online. "Apart from the killer music, the artwork is always brilliant," he adds. "A lot of the early releases came with handmade/hand-stamped artwork, giving every [record] an individual touch — you feel like you've got a one-off!"
Even with brand loyalty so fierce and so far afield, Infinity Cat isn't quite where Jake wants it to be. Over his shoulder, his father's eyes, decades younger, peer out from an oversized cardboard poster that sits behind the couch — a blown-up cover of Contain Yourself, Bob's 1984 album for RCA.
"For a label our size, it's all about being a cool label," Jake says, offering Mexican Summer — home to recent tour companions Best Coast — as one example. "We've just never been one of those."
He has trouble defining "cool" — "listened to by art school students," he jokes at one point — but he's sure it has eluded Infinity Cat to this point, even as influential outlets from Brooklyn Vegan to Vice dutifully announce every new JEFF video, every new tracklist, every new "unveiled" piece of album art.
Cool or not, the label landed on a 2010 Billboard list of the top 50 indie labels in the country, alongside art school mainstays like Matador, Merge and Jagjaguwar. Jenn Pelly, now a Pitchfork staff writer based in New York, compiled that list. "Infinity Cat might not be fashionable," she says, "but in my eyes they're pretty radical." Demurring on the whole notion of "cool," she says, "Infinity Cat and the bands on that label are probably what make me want to visit Nashville more than anything else."
For his part, Riddle — who moved to Nashville 16 days before Jake and Jamin collected their first preorders that night at Guido's — doesn't mince words: "They're one of the coolest labels in the country," he says firmly. Then, to drive the point home, he adds: "Fuck, man, those are my favorite bands — period."
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