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Jimmy Thomson, a tanned, lanky Virginian with a fedora carefully perched on his head, bends over the used bins at the East Village shop Big City Records. The singles he releases on his Electric Cowbell imprint are on the New Arrivals wall, but he stops to pull out the Daktaris’ Soul Explosion, the famously faked Nigerian Afrobeat “reissue” by the Brooklyn band who would become Antibalas, released by the gents who would go on to found Daptone and Truth & Soul Records. Thomson smirks: “This is the one that started it all. This record fooled a lot of people, including me.”
The same might be said of Electric Cowbell, which in its two years of existence has released a handful of singles that could trick listeners into believing each record’s music originated from different, far-flung parts of the world. “I understand people liking one thing and going to a section for that, but I wish people were more open-minded and could see the string from Ethiopian music to James Brown to Peruvian chicha,” Thomson said at a nearby café.
At age 45, it seems appropriate that he releases 45s almost exclusively, and his own history includes time spent in GWAR and the old SST band, Alter-Natives. One day, a Puerto Rican friend in Richmond, Virginia, asked him “to play drums in a science museum exhibit showing Ring of Fire, the volcano movie.” While he wanted to learn hand drums, he also wanted to avoid doing “drum-circle shit.” He soon learned to play the bomba and the plena while also picking up on the key rhythms that underpin Afro-Cuban music. “And I realized you can apply that to everything. I’m a musician first and foremost and can see how it can be integrated. I just see these things alongside each other.”
Electric Cowbell’s recently released CD compilation 101 Things to Do in Bongolia collects the label’s first eight singles, and the music within seems to emanate from anywhere but the Eastern Seaboard. There’s Thomson’s own group, the raucous nonet CSC Funk Band, and there’s also the ecstatic boogaloo of Spanglish Fly from NYC, the slinky salsa of Richmond’s Bio Ritmo, the Ethiopian swing of Boston’s Debo Band, and the funk of Superhuman Happiness’ Stuart Bogie. Through Thomson’s aesthetic and vision, one can see how all these forms can stand alongside one another.
Did we forget to mention there’s also an expansive instrumental track credited to Greg Ginn and the Taylor Texas Corrugators? The same shredder/visionary behind Black Flag and SST Records? It makes sense, considering that Ginn put out three Alter-Natives records back in the day. “I lost touch with Ginn, but then I sent him an MP3 of CSC Funk Band and he wrote right back,” Thomson recalls of the 20-year gap. “He wanted to do a single, and I had to. I loved being able to finally pay it back.”
The biggest presence on the comp is the multi-instrumentalist and conductor Bogie, whose marquee group remains Antibalas and who has recorded with big names ranging from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to TV on the Radio to Sharon Jones. Bogie was also the primary saxophone soloist for Broadway musical Fela!, yet he had enough breath left in him to form Superhuman Happiness. He relished the opportunity to cut a slew of 45s rather than hole up in a studio to make an entire album: “They are such a great format for dance singles; they allow you to make art for one song, so you can have a different cover for each tune you put out.”
Not all the music on Electric Cowbell was originally crafted in 21st-century New York City, though. The piquant Peruvian chicha of the ’60s Colombian group Los Ribereños (a legitimately old act, and not a Daktaris-esque put-on) is backed with a remix by an entity called the Greenwood Rhythm Coalition. Suggesting multitudes, the GRC is actually comprised of three cratediggers: WBAI DJ and journalist Monk-One; DJ Oneman; and E’s E.
The latter, known to his mother as Eric Banta, runs the Names You Can Trust imprint, which also releases 45s almost exclusively. A 33-year-old who cut his teeth on NYC hip-hop while growing up in the Bay Area, Banta moved east in 1999. “My association with music was from the collecting side,” he said. “I always wanted to make records, but I wasn’t a musician.” The 45 format made sense on a number of levels: “Singles are an easy buy, and it’s more affordable for a small label on a tight budget. It doesn’t cost that much to make them and the music comes out quick!”
NYCTrust’s aesthetic is rooted in Latin music, and it occasionally dips into boogie and Columbian cumbia: “Latin music always gets people moving, especially in New York. It’s easy to move to.” The biggest trip for him so far has been neither having orders from Germany nor appearing on Strut’s Sofrito: Tropcial Discotheque compilation, but from sending product back to Columbia: “To make that kind of a sound and have people in Bogotá dig it, that’s crazy for us.” So far, the label has no plans on releasing a CD compilation of the singles, but his aesthetic nevertheless matches that of Electric Cowbell. “What ties it all together for me is community,” said Thompson. “I look at the label as an art gallery and I’m having a group show. They all do their own thing, yet it all hangs together.”