Hot, sexy, and dead? - Page 2

Combing music's back catalogs for the next cult star with a distro called Runt

This is forcing labels to tighten up their catalog because places like that aren't ordering it." The closure of Tower, one of the biggest stockers of back-catalog albums, didn't help. "Eventually, it's going to reach a point that legendary items aren't going to be available on CD."

That's where Runt comes in. The latest Elliott Smith collection of tasty, previously unreleased scraps wafts through Runt's spacious brick loft and warehouse as Salvadori burns me a copy of Water's latest release, Judee Sill's Live in London: The BBC Recordings 1972–1973, beneath a Dr. Seuss–like shadow man painted by staffer Nat Russell, who fronts Birds of America and runs Isota Records, which is also distributed by Runt. Life is beautiful, as the Roberto Benigni film title goes, on this sun-dappled day a few rolling blocks from the Parkway, and the man from Arezzo, the same small town the Italian dark comedy was set in, is talking about 4 Men with Beards' upcoming vinyl releases of iconic albums by the Flying Burrito Brothers, Tim Buckley, John Cale, the Velvet Underground, Nico, the Replacements, and, as chance would have it, Smith — all with pricier gatefold packaging, if the LPs originally had it, and careful remastering at Fantasy. That sense of dedication reached its height with the release of Public Image Ltd.'s Metal Box on immaculately canned vinyl. "It was really crazy, but we really did it," Salvadori says, peering through thick black-rimmed spectacles as he picks up an original Metal Box, purchased off eBay and now significantly diminished in resale value thanks to the characters scrawled on its silver surface at the Chinese factory that duplicated it. The Runt crew procured the music rights from Warner Bros. before being told that the packaging permissions were owned by EMI/Virgin, which, it turned out, only had OK in the UK. Eventually John Lydon himself delivered the approval.

That journey — tracing a slab of decades-old wax on its manifold trajectories, to its multiple owners — is only one of many Salvadori has made. After his initial Cat Power success, he moved to Berkeley to study English in the mid-'90s. The touch-and-go world of struggling indies brought him back to Europe to distribute friends' labels. Then, around 2001, Salvadori and his fellow collector-geek pal Thomas decided to take their major-label contacts and get into the reissue business themselves, beginning with such offbeat releases as the Holy Modal Rounders' The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders and the Zodiac's Cosmic Sounds. Licensing albums from labels like Rhino/Warner Bros. seemed mutually beneficial, Salvadori recalls: "For us it's fine if we move a few thousand. Sometimes we get lucky and move more than several thousand, but for them it probably wouldn't be worth it."

Water also seems to be sparking revivals in the music of Sill and Reid, who remain the label's biggest sellers, as well as Ruthann Friedman, who began recording with Banhart and in early July had her first Bay Area show in aeons. Think of Runt, Water, and its offshoots as the logical extensions of your older sibling's mysterious yet well-loved record collection, guiding you toward what you must listen to next, be it a cry from Albert Ayler, a Cluster and Brian Eno collabo, or a forgotten solo disc by Neu's Michael Rother. Still, Salvadori hopes to someday get back to his roots, despite the costs and risks associated with nonreissues, i.e., newer artists, with ... say, have you heard the Moore Brothers, on Plain? "We didn't get too much luck yet, but I always hope the next record is going to be the one," he says. "They're so good!

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