"Durham needs a Thai restaurant," says Kaia Wilson emphatically. We are sitting in her backyard drinking warm decaf coffee in the sun while her two eager dogs run in the grass. "That's our next business venture," she jokes. For now, Wilson and her partner, artist Tammy Rae Carland, have their hands full with Mr. Lady Records and Videos--an independent label that has managed to build a national, as well as local profile out of a quiet house near downtown Durham.
In 1996, Mr. Lady was only an idea. At the time, Wilson, an Oregon native, was well- known for her queercore punk group, Team Dresch, which had disbanded. She and Carland were living in Greencastle, Ind., where Carland was teaching art. ("In the middle of nowhere," is how Wilson describes Greencastle.) But Wilson still had a craving to make solo records, and Carland, an independent video artist and filmmaker, was interested in finding a way to make her work and that of other artists like her more accessible to the music market. Both women also felt that there was a need for a women-run dyke label, one where the music and videos involved would reflect feminist ideals and good politics.
When Carland accepted an offer to teach in UNC-Chapel Hill's art department, the two chose Durham to start their new venture. With financial help from Revolver Distribution, which Wilson had worked with during her stint with Team Dresch, Mr. Lady was born. "It was relatively easy to do," says Wilson of turning their idea into an actual business. "It only got harder as we went along." Mr. Lady's roster eventually grew to include releases by The Moves, Tami Hart, Sarah Dougher, The Haggard, Le Tigre and, of course, Wilson's band, The Butchies, resulting in the company now--five years later--using a larger distributor to make their records readily available nationally.
The video distribution facet of the label is less publicized but just as exciting, in that Carland has provided a means to obtain art videos and films that are otherwise difficult to find or far too expensive to order. Mr. Lady enables the work of Sadie Benning (formerly of Le Tigre), Cecilia Dougherty, Leah Gilliam and Carland herself, among others, to be delivered to your front door for $20 or less. While many of these independent video and filmmakers--many of whom also teach--have screened their work internationally, they're also recognized for producing talented and moving work on sexuality, queer politics and feminism.
Wilson is quick to credit Carland for maintaining the "business side" of the label while she scouts for new talent. "She's the one that knows what she's doing and has everything together when I'm on tour [with The Butchies]," says Wilson. Actually, they're both workaholics, constantly churning out new ideas, aided by interns, friends and family, not to mention the graphic design know-how of Butchies drummer Melissa York.
The Butchies, fronted by Wilson with Alison Martlew on bass and vocals and York keeping the beat, just released their third record, 3, in April, and have a 7-inch single coming out in October. Aside from playing to packed local shows, The Butchies were chosen by Indigo Girl Amy Ray to back the tour for her acclaimed solo album Stag. The Butchies not only appear on the album but also joined Ray for her successful, highly publicized Stag U.S. tour, culminating in a sold-out show with Ray at the Cat's Cradle this spring. They'll also be joining Ray for some of the summer's biggest women's music festivals: Michigan's Womyn's Music Festival and Chicago's Ladyfest in August.
Mr. Lady's Triangle showcase last May featured performances by Tami Hart, Kiki & Herb and Le Tigre, and was also a sold-out event. (Fans of Hart could be overheard talking about making the 10-hour drive to Chapel Hill just to see her play.) It probably didn't hurt that several months earlier, Hart's record, No Light In August, was in a New York Times article, "Pop Critics List the Worthwhile Albums Most People Missed."
At the same time, national attention hasn't stopped the label from remaining close knit. JD Samson, Le Tigre's newest member, is a fan of the label's family-like atmosphere. Le Tigre, a combination of '80s drum machines, primitive samplers and punk attitude, is fronted by Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna (aka Julie Ruin), along with Samson and 'zine guru Johanna Fateman. Their most recent release, the EP From the Desk of Mr. Lady, charted in the Top 10 on college radio. Live, Le Tigre's shows combine unique visuals that flash onscreen behind the band, while all three savvy femmes take turn delivering lyrics to songs with titles like "What's Yr take on Cassavettes?" ("Genius ... Misogynist.") In their April 2001 issue, SPIN magazine listed Le Tigre as one of their top 40 bands. The trio, who've undeniably boosted the label's profile, are releasing their second full-length album for Mr. Lady this October.
Recently, Mr. Lady ventured into the spoken word territory by releasing a CD from San Francisco's Sister Spit, titled Ramblin Road Show's Greatest Spits. Sister Spit is the brainchild of Sini Anderson and Michelle Tea, both ferociously outspoken critics of political and cultural injustices. Along with 15 or so other women, such as Jan LeCroy and poet Eileen Myles, Sister Spit's debut is a literary celebration of outspoken and courageous feminists.
Also forthcoming from Mr. Lady are releases by hardcore punk duo The Haggard and singer-songwriter Sarah Dougher, while new videos include Dougherty's piece about writers Laurie Weeks, Leslie Scalapino and Myles. Carland is working on a new video of her own titled Yoko Hearts Gertrud, although there's no release date set. Mr. Lady will also be distributing a documentary about Amy Ray's successful Atlanta-based label, Daemon Records. As the label continues to expand, its diversity and the quality of its releases are appealing not just to gays and lesbians but to music and video fans of all persuasions.
"A lot of people say that we've pigeonholed ourselves into being a label that's only for dykes, and originally that seemed to be our core audience," Wilson says. "But the more records we put out, and with us being so outspoken in feminism and queer politics, we've gotten a bigger audience who aren't freaked out or insecure about us talking about being lesbians or voicing our opinions."
Bands like Le Tigre, which has received international attention, have managed to expand Mr. Lady's audience, which in turn is changing the perception of Mr. Lady as an "exclusive" label.
There is a lot to be said, however, for such a label emerging from the South, where tolerance for alternative lifestyles is not nearly as great as in, say, New York City, and where the indie rock scene seems to be largely male dominated. While North Carolina natives and feminist-lesbian writers like Dorothy Allison and Mab Segrest have set a precedent for Mr. Lady, in a way, you could say that Mr. Lady has grown from a community that perhaps needed it the most.
At the Mr. Lady house, a makeshift sign--a gift from fans--hangs above a desk in the office. At first glance, it just looks like a giant ransom note of cutout letters. It reads, simply, "Mr. Lady and The Butchies: We Support You." In turn, Mr. Lady's response to this show of support has been to continue to produce and disseminate cutting edge music, film and video with a distinctively pro-female bent.