Fat Elvis Record Interview
An Evening with Sean Russell, Talking Coloured Vinyl and Record Production … by Jenell Kesler
Tonight I have the pleasure of speaking with Sean Russell, the owner of Fat Elvis Records based in Knoxville Tennessee. Sean is a record producer and distributor, known for his work across a variety of genres producing and releasing albums and singles for the likes of Timothy Eerie, Cheval Sombre, the glam artist Gyasi, along with Chelsea Lovitt and a host of others.
Jenell: Hey Sean, nice to finally sit down with you face to face.
Sean: Thanks! I have been looking forward to this for a while. Glad to be here.
Jenell: So, was this a calling? How’d you end up in the control booth?
Sean: (I’m not really in the control booth..I just release records. I don’t produce or record anything. I just help by putting money towards the music the bands record to make it a physical product instead of a digital download or stream). I started the label back in 2012. I had dreams of doing it as far back as the mid ’90s but wasn’t in a financial position to do so. In 2012 I finally decided the time was finally right, so I started Fat Elvis Records.
“I work with artists to put music out on vinyl that might otherwise go unheard.”
Jenell: Would you please explain exactly what it is that you do and are responsible for?
Sean: To put it in a nutshell, I work with artists to put music out on vinyl that might otherwise go unheard. So many musicians these days have music they have created, and then have no way of releasing it on physical media. The art ends up on a hard drive, a streaming service, or as a download on a website. I give this music a chance to heard on vinyl, often for the very first time. I’m not a musician myself, but I have always loved music. This is my way of putting my mark on music.
“I let the artist be an artist.”
Jenell: To that end, you’ve also been responsible for creating first-time on vinyl for several bands, including Cheval Sombre’s first album, are you in a position to tweak established music, or is that a street you don’t go down?
Sean: I feel like I am the luckiest guy in the world. The upcoming Cheval Sombre record is a dream. I have been working with Cheval Sombre for nearly 3 years. We put out a 7 inch last year, and I was honored when he asked me to release the self-titled debut LP on vinyl for the first time
I don’t usually tweak anything. I let the artist be an artist. They create, I just work on the other end of actually getting it released.
Jenell: How do the artists find you, or do you find them?
Sean: On occasion, I will get an email from an artist or a band with a link. Lots of them are decent artists. Unfortunately, my limited budget only allows me to release a few records a year. I appreciate all sorts of music, but I have to have a gut feeling that it is something I want to put out. If I don’t feel a certain passion for the music I put out, I can’t expect others to do so either.
Jenell: Say a band walks in with an album’s worth of material, what’s the average time between recording and getting the material out to market?
Sean: It usually takes about 12 weeks. There’s a lot of work that goes into putting out a record. You have the lacquer cutting, the plating, and the manufacturing. After that, you have the packaging, where you have all the elements put together for the final product.
Jenell: I’m sure CD’s are a dream when it comes to ease, though if possible, I’ll always go to vinyl. Are there inherent issues with either or both?
Sean: I can’t really speak on CDs, I have never released one. Records on the other hand [laughs] can have all sorts of problems. Pops, clicks, crackles, and static where they shouldn’t be is the main one.
Jenell: You and I’ve been talking about record lacquers and stampers recently, would you mind going into the process of delivering files to the record manufacturing company and the steps necessary to create a vinyl record?
Sean: Once the artist has the music ready you need to have a lacquer cut. This is the most important part of the process. The artist has spent a considerable amount of time recording and has it ready to be released. You need to have someone that you trust to do it and to do it right. These lacquers are what will eventually be your record.
In the beginning, I used to send the music to the pressing plant and let them handle this process. After doing this a couple of times, I found a mastering studio in nearby Nashville which is in my opinion the best in the business. I will never use anyone else. I might as well give a shout out to Wes and George at Nashville Record Productions.
After the mastering studio has cut the lacquers, they will send you an acetate reference disc to listen to and make sure everything sounds just the way you want it. Once it’s approved, the lacquers get sent off to be plated. Once the lacquers are plated, they create a mother in which the plant can make the stampers that actually go onto the presses used to make the records.
Soon after this, you will get your test presses in. You listen to these to make sure there are no pops, clicks, crackles, or roars where they shouldn’t be. It’s another important process. You need to listen, take notes, and then compare with another copy to make sure you are hearing an actual flaw in the stampers and not a flaw in the copy you are listening to.
A good pressing plant will listen to these test presses before sending them to you to make sure they pass their inspections before passing them along to you. They can then figure out what is making the unwanted noises and attempt to repair them. Sometimes it’s a speck of dust that may have been on the mother once they created the stampers, a scratch on the stamper or sometimes it can be a faulty plating process from the lacquers, in which you need to start all over.
Jenell: (laughing) This is a long question, but bear with me, which sells better, coloured vinyl or black? When I was much younger, audiophiles would only accept black vinyl, as there was an inherent warmth to it, that the additives necessary to create coloured vinyl were more brittle. Is that aspect still true, or have you all worked past that issue?
Sean: Like you, I have always been led to believe that black vinyl sounds better than color vinyl. But I can’t really tell a difference most times. However, I have a few noisy coloured vinyl records. I can’t say for sure if it’s the vinyl, the pressing plant, the turntable, or the needle. I see you have a high-end system. One day we will have to compare and come to our own conclusions.
Jenell: I’m lucky enough to own the stampers for Luna’s latest album. How many pressings are you able to get out of one set of stampers? And what do you do with them once you’re finished?
Sean: A set of stampers usually lasts for about 500 records. The pressing plant I use used to send them out with the final order. They have recently stopped which is a bit of a letdown. The collector in me always liked to have them, even though I just file them away in a drawer.
Jenell: Let’s talk about 7” records for a moment. I have a rather large collection that I’d never part with, yet in the same breath I’ve never played them. Do you find 45’s to be more of a vanity, something folks can purchase at a show and take home as a memory?
Sean: Yeah, they are more of a vanity. I love the collecting part of them. They are quite fun. I will agree they take a lot of work to listen to, but I enjoy playing them. I hope they don’t disappear. It’s doesn’t seem to be looking good for them right now. They are cheaper to produce, cheaper to buy, but they seldom make a profit.
Jenell: Are you hands-on, or do you delegate responsibilities for some aspects of the production? I ask this, because there are very few judgements by others that I’d trust with something I love.
Sean: I always leave it to artists to create. I may throw out ideas for colored vinyl or possible cover ideas, but it’s 99.9% of the artist’s creation. I’m just there as an extra set of eyes or ears.
Jenell: And album art, that must drive you crazy sometimes? Timothy Eerie’s jacket had a very homey DIY feel, while Chelsea Lovitt’s jacket seemed a rather complex photo shoot.
Sean: Unless the artist has a designer in mind, I try to use my brother Aaron at Fistful of Tigers to design what the artist has in mind. He does fantastic work on the labels and covers and tries to make them all sorta match up.
Timothy Eerie had his own cover design ready and had a graphic designer layout the text and such. Fistful of Tigers designed the Chelsea Lovitt cover based on a photoshoot by Nashville photographer Laura P. Partain.
Jenell: Orders from the EU or Australia seem to present another wall, how are you giving listeners their access to your material?
Sean: Good question, right now I am kinda at the mercy of the United States Postal Service and whatever price they are charging this week. Sometimes the shipping charges can cost more than the record. I have recently found a European distributor, and I am hoping I can work out a deal with them to make it easier for music fans located in other places than North America. I think it will happen.
Jenell: Sean I wanna thank you for taking some time, though before I let you go, you’ve gotta let the readers know how you came up with the inspired label name, Fat Elvis Records.
Sean: It’s catchy huh? The label name was the hardest decision I had to make. It seems all the good ones are taken.
After a few weeks of tossing around names, I was reading an interview with a band about their tour vehicle. They named it Fat Elvis. I loved the name, and did a quick Google search for Fat Elvis Records and found that it was already in use, but it hadn’t been used in several years and the only web presence it had was an abandoned MySpace page.
I was kinda up the air on it, not sure if I should use it or not, so I had a backup plan of Knuckleball Records. I gave the question to the artist of my first record, the Blackfoot Gypsies, and they told me it had to be Fat Elvis Records. I’m glad I stuck with it.
If I was starting out today and had to do it over again, I think I would use Tiny Spaceman Records or Daisy Glaze Records. Tiny Spaceman because I like the name and it reminds me of the Twilight Zone episode “The Invaders” and Daisy Glaze because I like the sound of it and I love Big Star.
Jenell: Again, thanks for the time. Now where can folks find you on the worldwide web, what’s cooking on the back burner, and where can your records be ordered?
Sean: Thank you so much for having me. It was a lot of fun!
Almost anywhere you can type in Fat Elvis Records, I am there.