When Jade Tree started 14 years ago, Owen and his longtime friend Darren Walters were probably a whole lot like you and me. As a couple of bored kids growing up in the suburbs - with Owen in the suburbs of Washington, DC and Walters living in Wilmington, Delaware - music is what held it together for the two of them. That is to say, it's where they often found common ground and solace from the teenage ennui that filled their lives. By the late 80s both of them were so enamored by all that they saw and all that they heard in the punk scene, that they had begun running their own record labels and leading active roles in the Washington DC musical community that could be found just a ways down their respective roads. But as the decade came to a close, they seemed unsure of where all of this would take them. Eventually Walters closed down his label Hi-Impact, with Owen and his imprint Axtion-Packed soon to follow.
This wasn't the end, though. It was actually just the beginning.
After a few months of deliberation, Owen convinced Walters to join him in a new endeavor that, for reasons he's still not even sure, he decided to call Jade Tree. It was a rather simple start for a label that would find more success, both personally and professionally, than they would have ever dreamed. "Ruth Schwartz of Mordam once told us that you should never start a label to make money," Walters says from Jade Tree's current offices in downtown Wilmington. "She said that it would be the biggest mistake you could make in the world. That really sums up my thinking in those days. Tim and I just hoped for a great label that would make a difference in the independent scene. To make a living off of it as a 'business' was something we never expected."
Though relatively unknown during its formative years, Jade Tree still managed to offer up an eclectic and engaging roster: beginning with Four Walls Falling (whose debut album, Culture Shock, served as the label's inaugural release) and later moving on to bands like Pitchblende and Walter's own group Railhed. While these groups often seemed to be bridging the gap between floor-punching hardcore and progressive alternative rock - a genre people would later call "post-hardcore" - Jade Tree's initial version of this never did garner much attention. In fact, what eventually caused people to notice Jade Tree was a band whose day had already passed. Though long respected in the DC scene, the blistering four-piece known as Swiz had broken up by the time the label released their final musical statement, No Punches Pulled, in the summer of 1993. But it was to be that history would not forget this band, and as Swiz aligned itself with Jade Tree, it seemed that Owen and Walters were well on their way toward forging an actual label. Even if they were acting more as students than label impresarios at the time - with Owen perusing a career in photography at RIT in Rochester and Walters seeking a degree in English at the University of Delaware - momentum was now beginning to build. At least it seemed that way.
"I do remember there being a lot of youthful enthusiasm and excitement about what Jade Tree could accomplish," Walters says with a laugh. "We really believed that we could dominate and change the music world with our revolutionary ideas. But we were just two dumb guys in our mid-20s hoping something would pay off."
By 1994, it hadn't yet. Despite being picked up by Schwartz and Mordam two years earlier, Jade Tree was now becoming less and less a priority, as Owen moved to New York City to attend the School Of Visual Arts, and Walters staid back in Delaware mentoring learning disadvantaged children. But all of this would change when, later that year, a friend played for them a yet-to-be-released batch of songs by the band Lifetime. Though they had long been friends with the group, initially, they weren't all together interested. "We had always thought the band was terrible," Owen says. "But when I heard those songs I was blown away. I couldn't stop listening to them." Later dubbed Tinnitus and released as a single through the Lifetime parented Glue Records, these few songs left Jade Tree curious - and within months the members of the group wound up on the roof of their New Brunswick home excitedly negotiating with the label. The result was Hello Bastards, a landmark record for both band and label that would begin a string of significant changes for Jade Tree upon its release in the fall of 1995. Lifetime's arrival couldn't have been more ideal - a sign that greater things were about to come.
Shortly thereafter, Owen's friend Norman Arenas - who, along with playing guitar in the band Texas Is The Reason, ran a fairly acclaimed fanzine at the time called Anti-Matter - played him one of the demo tapes he had received for review. It was from a band in Wisconsin called The Promise Ring, and when Arenas popped it in, one can only imagine the look on Owen's face when he heard what came out. Gently strummed guitars, big emotive choruses, a singer who was convinced that his girl was from Mars - this was a sound that roughly approximated the lives of so many people they knew. Through the help of some mutual friends, Jade Tree contacted the band immediately and thus began a relationship that would last for nearly six years and eight releases, including a watershed album called Nothing Feels Good that may very well have started an entire musical movement. There really is no other way to put this: signing the Promise Ring changed everything for Jade Tree. There would be no more boring classes or overlooked records now. For the next few years, Jade Tree would become inarguably one of the most talked about independent record labels around - with Owen dropping his photo career and moving into a house with Walters back in Delaware to run the label fulltime.
From there they began churning out one hit record after another, touched off by bands like Joan Of Arc, Kid Dynamite and a group of underground alpha-stars called Jets To Brazil, who released their debut album Orange Rhyming Dictionary through the label less than a year after their formation. If you traced back the roots of all of these bands you'd find a tangled mess that lead to exactly where Jade Tree first began. Nothing had changed: it was still two guys, following their own rules, and finding success on their own terms. Even though interest from majors attempting to buy the label from them served as a substantial mindfuck (a mindfuck, mind you, that was happening on a weekly basis at that point), the two of them managed to stick to their own personal credo. For better or for worse, Jade Tree would be done their way or not at all.
"It's never made sense for us to try and compete," Owen insists. "We don't want to be like a major label. We've never signed a band hoping to hit a demographic or an audience or whatever. We've seen how a band or a label can get huge, but once you've peaked you're not going to get huge and then beyond huge. It doesn't happen. There's a ceiling on everything."
In the midst of the hysteria surrounding Jade Tree, history again seemed to repeat itself. Another unknown band, another tip from a friend, another chapter to be written. In the fall of 1998, an acquaintance of Owen's from Seattle sent him a record he was releasing titled It's Hard To Find A Friend by a band called Pedro The Lion. Chockfull of poorly recorded indie-folk songs strummed by some 20 year-old kid named David Bazan, it was an album too good to go unnoticed. Within a year, this same unheard of kid would become a full-grown man with a wife and a mortgage and a passionate cult following that would hang on his every word. Though Bazan was very happily recording for Owen's friend James Moroles of Made In Mexico, it was apparent that his next album would need more support than the tiny label could offer.
So, that summer, Bazan signed to Jade Tree. This was significant: in the coming years Jade Tree would become defined by doing things differently, searching for further sounds and less predictable partnerships. Soon they would sign new bands like Chicago's Milemarker, a collective of artists and activists who could be seen shaking their asses in front of venues as monumental as Capitol Hill or as personal as the Fireside Bowl. They'd discover a breathy enchantress named Maura Davis, who fronted a glacial-pop quartet called Denali. They'd even ink the much buzzed-about Pacific Northwest combo These Arms Are Snakes, whose members' back story has since become underground legend.
It's no secret that these artists chose Jade Tree due in part to Walters and Owen's staunch and unwavering convictions - and even if these pairings have left some of the label's longtime fans scratching their heads, they seem determined to define what Jade Tree, in the here and now, is all about. As it is, Jade Tree stands as an anomaly in the music industry. It's a place where those who have seen the other side can live to tell their tale - a diverse home for artists to create far from the corporate trappings their contemporaries often fall prey. But, perhaps most important of all, Jade Tree has become a place where two kids from the suburbs can give back to a community that, in so many ways, has given everything to them.
"I still believe in the power of music," Walters says, finally. "I know, or at least hope, that someone will see that anything is possible from our example. That sounds pompous, but I have learned never to underestimate the power of your contribution. I always felt that it was my duty to give back whatever I could. Punk rock saved my life. I owe it this much."
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