For Love of the Scene: Skybucket Records Tenth Anniversary

Skybucket Records celebrates it's Tenth Anniversary this Friday and Saturday night at Bottletree Cafe.

Skybucket Records celebrates it’s Tenth Anniversary this Friday and Saturday night at Bottletree Cafe.

Sometimes, when you love a thing, it can break you. This is the lesson Travis Morgan, founder of Birmingham record label Skybucket Records, learned as he sat in the emergency room waiting to be seen for muscle fasciculations brought on by stress and extreme sleep deprivation. “I used to stay up until two or three in the morning and get up at seven in the morning every day, working,” Morgan recalls. “I burnt out so bad, my body was telling me, hey man something’s got to change. It had been going on for days and I finally went to the hospital because I thought something was seriously wrong with me.”

This weekend Skybucket is celebrating its tenth anniversary with a two-night extravaganza at Bottletree Café, and Morgan, who works as a video editor for Metro Monitor during the day, and dons his Skybucket cap in whatever free-time he can muster, is recalling the emotional roller-coaster the preceding decade has delivered him. “It’s been a wild ride the whole time, a lot of ups and downs,” he says, “There’s a lot of times when I’m like ‘God, why am I doing this!’ A lot of moments where I feel like it’s tearing my family apart because I’m spending so much time doing this. It requires so much work, and I’m such a perfectionist, I’m not going to settle for anything less than what I’ve been doing, so how am I going to balance this, how am I going to financially do it, how am I going to find the time to do it. But at the same time, there’s been a lot of big accomplishments, a lot of small accomplishments.”

The first of those small accomplishments was the release of the CD compilation Here’s To Last Summer, and like the beginning of many great endeavors, it happened almost by accident. “There were a couple of guys doing a magazine and we had pitched them the idea of putting out a CD that comes with the magazine. We made this thing with that intention, so we didn’t have a label in mind at the time, but then, because they didn’t get their stuff together, we needed some way of releasing it. Then it was, ‘Well if we’re going to put a CD out, we need to put a name on it.’”

At this point, the unnamed Skybucket Records consisted of Morgan and his childhood friend Justin Lee. “He’s a very artistic, creative dude. He and I hand-made everything, but he was really into how the shaping of the packages would be,” remembers Morgan. “We worked on all that stuff together, different kinds of folds and stuff, but he was more of the visionary. We filled front and back of four pages of legal pad both sides with names, funny words. The idea was just to find something fun that sounded cool. We picked Skybucket because it sounded happy.”

Together, Morgan and Lee threw themselves into their new label with abandon, trying anything that occurred to them. “We hadn’t signed anybody, there wasn’t really a roster in mind,” says Morgan. “I don’t think we put anybody on that first CD that we ended up working with. We didn’t have a tattoo made yet or anything like that, it wasn’t anything permanent, we could really go where we wanted to go. We were in this guerilla phase of the label, screenprinting stickers and putting them places. We had this graffiti tag, Spectre, and we would put these ghoulish looking things out with the tag Spectre on them. Then we would make these pieces of music that we would record together, just this really weird shit, and we would make cassettes and go into Walmart and leave them in the cassette players. Ten years ago, there were still cassette decks at Walmart. So we would leave those in there and put the name Spectre on them.”

Travis Morgan has released nearly 35 records under the Skybucket label. Photo by Elizabeth Mullins.

Travis Morgan has released nearly 35 records under the Skybucket label.

Many of Skybucket’s early releases happened organically, as friends in the local music scene needed outlets for their output. “Taylor Hollingsworth, who is a good friend of mine from a long time ago, he and Justin and I were hanging out together,” says Morgan. “He was playing with Cutgrass and Verbena, but he had these four-track recordings of his own stuff that he really wanted to come out, and Justin and I agreed. We handmade a few hundred packages and we sold all of them. We did everything by hand. That was maybe 10 months to a year after Here’s To Last Summer.”

Another of these early releases was the One Night Record Project, which had been created by Les Nuby, Will and Reed Lochamy and a number of other local musicians. “They would all get together, come up with a theme and write and record an entire record in one night. They did three of them, and they were talking about the third one, and I said, ‘Hey, I want put out the third one.’ In the end we put out all three of them on one disc, because they were short enough.”

It was around this time that Morgan and Lee’s relationship began to degrade. “One Night Record Project was the last thing Justin was a part of. We sort of had a falling out. He wasn’t interested in it any more. Our relationship wasn’t very good at that point. The business side was affecting the friendship. We reconvened years later, but it took a little while.”

Alone now, but still determined, Morgan needed Skybucket to break through to a new plateau to prove that all of his effort was worthwhile. That break-through came in the form of 13Ghosts’ album Cicada. “That’s what really changed everything, in my opinion,” states Morgan. “We really didn’t have much money to put behind it, so I, through the process of doing these other records, learned how to do publicity to a very small degree. I had a very basic understanding of what it was — okay, I’m trying to get these bands mentioned on these webzines and DIY publications and maybe some weeklies. I just blindly sent it to Pitchfork and all those places. Pitchfork is really a trendsetter when it comes to these things. Then, I ran into my friend Lucas who happened to be in Birmingham playing, and he told me talked to this writer who was asking about the album, and he told me, ‘Monday you’re about to have a review on Pitchfork for 13 Ghosts.’ I had no idea! Sure enough, Monday we got a 7.8 on Pitchfork out of nowhere. I was like, ‘Ok, this thing can be a lot bigger that it has been. I can take it a lot more seriously.’ A lot of magazines started asking for copies. I started working really hard on trying to get distribution. It’s all baby blocks, I didn’t know what I was doing, ever, and I still don’t. I just do what I think is right and try to keep on moving forward.”

With increased national attention, and a critically regarded album under his belt, Morgan started casting around for new material to release. “ I’ve never signed a band because I thought they would make money. The main thing I’ve realized is always a requirement is that I actually want to listen to them, regardless of where they’re from. That’s how the Barton Carroll records came to be. I had read on Merge Records’ message board that Barton would give you a copy of his solo album if you approached him. He was playing at Zydeco with Crooked Fingers and I asked him for it. I was listening to it for a year and a half, and after the success of Cicada, I called Barton. I found out later he had some kind of plumbing nightmare going on as he was getting this call asking for his record to be put out. He’s on the phone with me and he didn’t want to let it go, and I was kind of intimidated, like, ‘Is he going to take me seriously?’ We were both intimidating each other.”

Morgan is past being intimidated now. Skybucket has released nearly 35 records in their decade of existence. When he looks forward to the next ten years, he sees a continuing challenge, especially in the face of the music industries turmoil, but he also sees an opportunity to continue to uphold the art that sent him to the emergency room. “ I’ve had to majorly slash budgets, but I’ve been tinkering around with the accounting, and I think there’s a happy medium in budget level and what these bands are able to do. I want to build out a management side and keep working with some of the same acts that I’ve put out records with, assisting them, potentially even start managing them. I want to continue to be a major proponent of the scene here. I really want it to thrive, want to get behind all efforts that are doing the same thing, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the things that I’ve got my hands in, but helping to promote all the other avenues that are helping the scene too.”

If that sounds like a cause worth supporting to you, I urge you to come out to Bottletree this Friday and Saturday night, February 8 and 9, to see a packed lineup of excellent Skybucket Records acts, including Belle Adair, Barton Carroll, Terry Ohms & Them, Through the Sparks, The Magic Math, Delicate Cutters, Brad Armstrong (of 13 Ghosts) and Vulture Whale. There will be a mini art gallery of rare and unused Skybucket materials, Skybucket videos on the projectors, and comedy between sets. Tickets are $10 a night, or $18 for both, and the shows start at 8:30 p.m. It’ll help Skybucket, it’ll help Bottletree and it’ll help you to get so much good music straight into your face.

For more information on Skybucket Records, visit www.skybucket.com. For tickets visit www.thebottletree.com.

About Sam George

Sam George is editor-in-chief of You Hear This, and the former editor of r3vrb.com, BHAM.FM, and Birmingham Weekly. He is also a contributing writer at Weld for Birmingham and B-Metro magazine.

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