Sumerian Records Founder Ash Avildsen on Success, 'Sumeriancore' and His Famous Father (EXCLUSIVE)
We're talking seventh floor corner office at Sumerian Records' new Wilshire Ave digs, people. I'm not saying that label CEO and boss Ash Avildsen has ascended to Les Grossman-esque heights, but the former vocalist in Prosthetic Records artists Reflux (whose guitarist Tosin Abasi now scores Guitar World covers as the braintrust of instrumetalists Animals As Leaders), DC area show promoter and booking agent, now has hit "player" status.
As the principle owner and operator behind Sumerian, it's associated management company Sumerian Entertainment and the now wildly successful Pantheon Agency, he's personally overseen or had a hand in the careers of artists diverse as Asking Alexandria, Born of Osiris, dubstepper Borgore and wrestling hero, The Ulimate Warrior. He's also launched the Summer Slaughter touring franchise and has even opened Soundcheck Hollywood, a lifestyle music and merch shop on Sunset Blvd.
Basically, the guy's killing it.
Aggressive. Arrogant. Creative. All them other silly adjectives. Say what you will, Avildsen has built an empire rooted in complex musicianship, great songs and genre-shaping artists. He's also made his opinions known on a host of hot-button topics including Spotify and various file-sharing services...let alone calling out Dance Gavin Dance frontman Jonny Craig for some crap on this Summer's Pantheon-booked All Stars Tour via Twitter. With a new album coming in early 2013 from Asking Alexandria, big plans coming together for '13's installment of Summer Slaughter and some new business ventures, the kid from DC is showing no signs of slowing down. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Ten years ago, you were the singer in a band called Reflux. Now it's like the line from the Talking Heads song: "And you may say to yourself, how did I get here?"
Ha.. Yeah.. I mean there's usually one or two very surreal moments each week whether it's a meeting or a piece of news or a song I'm working on with a band where I go "wow.. this is really fucked up... awesome" A lot of times people say they think I'm older than I am, not because of how I look but what I've accomplished... That's another reoccurring surreal moment.
How old are you now?
30. I'll be 31 in November. This has been the fastest year of my life. I think that time accelerates – as you get older, it seems that time gets faster. We're doing California Metalfest for the sixth year. The sixth year of Summer Slaughter. The sixth year of Sumerian as a label.
This last year has been one of milestones for you. Can you point out some?
We broke a million in sales, collectively, in the U.S. for Sumerian. Moving to this new office space was a big deal. Having a Billboard top ten record [Asking Alexandria]. I'm having meetings with people I always held in high regard and being on the same level, I guess is really exciting and inspiring. I thought I'd be a little older by the time I'm sitting in some of the circles I am now.
Do you think there's a Sumerian 'Sound' or 'Brand'?
A label brand for sure. I promoted shows before I ever started a label or became a booking agent. I was a show promoter in the Mid-Atlantic region: DC Maryland, Virginia. This was when you couldn't go on Facebook or MySpace to promote stuff. There was a term we used called 'Street Heat' which described when a band had a real buzz out in the streets. I used to go around to shows in DC passing out flyers on my scooter, always paying attention to what kids were in to.
When I was growing up doing that there were definitely a few different labels that had real brand power in the scene that I was focused on... Those were Victory, Trustkill and Ferret. Even if no one really knew who the band was, if they were on those labels, there were kids who wanted to see those bands because they were on the label. The same with local bands who wanted to open for those bands. There was an unspoken excitement about the show. I think that's a really special, powerful thing that's been lost in a lot labels these days for various reasons. I think we are very fortunate to have a living brand power with a lot of kids and that's something I hold very close to heart.
What is "Sumeriancore"?
As far as the "Sumeriancore" thing, I have a love-hate relationship with that tag. When I started the label, everyone was telling me metalcore is dead, everything was thrash metal or New Wave of Brit/American heavy metal being regurgitated or it was straight death metal and no one wanted breakdowns anymore. I never believed that. I just believed that it was evolving and there was going to be a new cast of characters and it was still going to grow and it was going to change. The bands that had real songs were going to be the ones that stuck around. Killswitch Engage's Alive or Just Breathing is the greatest metalcore record of all time. I never subscribed to the thinking that metalcore is a bad word. Metalcore is like any genre of music, it can be great or it can be shitty. Bands like Born of Osiris. Veil of Maya, The Faceless, After the Burial, they've been dubbed 'Sumeriancore' by the press and some of the fans. I don't think there's a contrived sound but there are similarities... They all have a fresh sense of melody in their riffs. Their chugging patterns are not the same regurgitated rhythms.. but make no mistake, The Faceless is not any type of "core" band.
Watch Born of Osiris' 'Recreate' Video
You are the A&R the guy here and it is all based around your tastes. What excites you these days?
Two of my favorite records I've been listening to a lot this year have been the AWOLNATION and Imagine Dragons. They're not metal records but they are great songwriters. I get off on songs. Technical ability is awesome but there has to be songs. There has to be a song within all the shredding and technical playing. There's a saying I like to tell bands all the time: "A little more right hand. A little less left hand." Less is more sometimes. I'm a sucker for anthems. Guns N' Roses is my favorite rock 'n' roll band. I can hum you 25 Guns N' Roses anthems. At the same time, I love avant-garde ambient music too.
Are there bands you wouldn't sign to Sumerian?
It's a fine line when you diversify as a label. Roadrunner and Epitaph were able to do that. People ask me "Why don't you start another imprint to put out the stuff that isn't as heavy?" I don't agree with that. It's a fine line but I don't want to subcategorize bands and releases I like because others might not like them. I love Josh Grabelle but I will speak my mind on the Trustkill scenario. It's always terrible when bands feud publically with their label over things like money – you'll never see that with a Sumerian band.
However, on a musical label, I think where Trustkill suffered was they had a great brand in the underground but once they started signing a lot of emo bands, poppy bands and "mainstream" rock bands – which is fine to do as long as those bands are unique and successful but every time you go out on a limb and extend the olive branch potentially risking the brand power and those bands fail to break then those "diverse signings" can really risk the brand power... especially if you're not balancing it out with new, credible heavy signings.
Putting out a country record would be a challenge. If I thought I found the new Johnny Cash, I'd put his record out. Lana Del Rey is sort of the female Johnny Cash and I would have put her record out. To me when it's too close to a band that we already have, then that's when I have to draw the line.
Unlike a lot of labels in the heavy genre, you don't release a lot of records.
That's a big part of our success. We don't rush things. After our first two releases: the first Faceless and Stick to Your Guns records, it was almost a year before we put out Born of Osiris.
What were the biggest failures you've had on the label?
Truthfully, the ones we didn't passionately listen to. I prefer to not call out names but anyone who does their sound scan research can find out on their own.
Asking Alexandria. Top ten record – #9 on Billboard. We're putting out the next record out early next year and there's a very good chance it going to debut top five. Getting them and I See Stars on Jimmy Kimmel was a big deal. When I signed I See Stars they were still in high school but they wanted to start touring and in that genre time is everything so we convinced their parents to let them do road school and drop out of high school to let them start touring. That's always a very touchy topic and a very dangerous move. I remember we flew out the parents for the Jimmy Kimmel show and that was a monumental moment. There's certain things that a band can do that really make an impact with parents. Being on the cover of a magazine is one of them but being on a nationally syndicated TV show is one of those things that really resonates with the parents. 'Wow, what the fuck? My kid actually is a star.' We flew the the mom of the singer and the drummer out to L.A. to see them on Jimmy Kimmel.. after the performance, she was at my house with the band and we were watching the show together. The mom was tearing up. It was one of those life moments I'll remember forever. Mom having a beer, watching her kids on TV and I'm sitting there thinking: 'Wow, she's finally OK with the fact that I talked her into letting her kid drop out of high school!'
Let's talk about your family background. Your dad is John Avildsen (director of Rocky, Lean on Me and The Karate Kid). I know this isn't your favorite question but did you ever feel like you lived under the shadow of his success?
One thing I would say that always pissed me off was when I was coming up in the business and I was a promoter, because I was doing a good job I would get bigger bands people would associate that growth and success with my last name, which is the furthest thing from the truth. One, he doesn't have anything to do with the music business and two, I don't have any kind of relationship with him. Under the shadow? It was awkward when I was a lot younger.. when people in school and stuff would bring him up, 'Hey, what's up with your dad? I love his movies.' He's an incredibly talented director but I don't really know him. The last time I saw him was in court in New York over child support. I was a little kid, probably eleven or twelve. I was in the waiting room with him, waiting to go into court and there was nothing. No eye contact. No communication. That's another one of those moments that makes you go, 'Man, I will have my day.'
What would you say to him now?
[Laughs] What's that line from the Paul Simon song: "Hello darkness my old friend"? I should probably figure that one out. I met my half-sister a couple years ago and she ended up telling me where he lives. He's here in California. I'm thinking about driving up there and meeting him. He's getting older and I don't like 'What if?'s' At least that will allow me to turn the page.
In the past few months, we've seen small independent labels like Hydra Head and huge labels like Roadrunner either go out of business or be absorbed into major corporations. How is Sumerian going to last?
I'm not going to sell. I'm not going to fuck over my bands like that. Obviously, you can go bankrupt if you invest too much money into the wrong bands. There hasn't been any band that's fulfilled their recording contract that we wanted to re-sign that we've haven't. When we put out the first Faceless album, it was a one-album 50/50 profit split deal and they had offers from everybody. We hadn't even put out a record yet! This was down to my friendship with Michael Keene and his belief in me as a visionary and an agent. Then they resigned for the second album and then they resigned for the third album. Asking [Alexandria], we just did some new stuff with their deal. They resigned before their deal was even up. We just did that with After the Burial and Born of Osiris. Veil of Maya is next. This whole thing was always built on the concept of 'By Artists For Artists.' If you look at some of the most successful people in the business, they were either in a band or they were a tour manager. John Reese from the Mayhem Festival, the biggest heavy metal festival in America. He was Guns N' Roses' tour manager!
What people in the music business do you have the most respect for?
Ahmet Erteghun is definitely one of them. I actually met Ahmet when I was a little kid long before I could even understand how epic an A&R guy and label owner he was. My mother was actually good friends with him and got him to listen to my 9th or 10th grade demo tape, which is just.. really f'n funny haha. The way he went out is the most rock n' roll way ever. I don't want to die of cancer. If I make it into my '70s and I just fall at a Rolling Stones party, hit my head and die, I'm good with that.
Stayed Tuned for Part 2: Asking Alexandria: The Controversy and Chaos! The Future of Metal! More!