The Return Of Vinyl Frenzy -- Seven-Inch Singles Are The Hot New Item For Rock's Underground

There has always been something special about vinyl records - something which has outflanked all efforts to drive the music-lover on to CDs, CD-ROMs and online resources. Vinyl's first comeback came from hip-hip artists and their use of old-style platters for scratching and spinning. Then, came the re-mix, the reconstructions of a hit; finally, large-scale dance music hit vinyl.

At the same time, on a grassroots level, the old "45" staged its own renaissance. Soul stars may no longer prize seven-inch singles. But, with Motown Records as one model, Seattle's SubPop made a name with its "Singles Club." Although now owned partly by Warner Brothers, the label still retains a commitment to "sevens," and releases 45's every month.

Newer, though, is a fresh rock fetish for sevens. It is less an echo of the old Top Forty than a format for rock's underground. In the Northwest, the singles come from well-known names: Seattle's PopLlama, eMpTy, Up, and Flydaddy; Bellingham's Estrus; Olympia's K Records; Portland's T/K Records and Candy-ass.

Tim Kerr Records' T-shirts even read "Keep Vinyl Alive."

In increasing numbers, such sevens are found all over America, publicized by very different means. Some are sold mail-order through Xeroxed fanzines, others via Web pages and Internet newsgroups. It may be a long way from national charts and import punk. But today's seven-inch records are again prizes, with funky label names, colored vinyl, zany artwork.

Says Sean Tessier, a buyer for Orpheum Records: "I just came back from driving across America and I bought up local sevens everywhere. They are everywhere; it's like baseball cards."

For an independent band, vinyl offers clout. It is good for cover versions and throwaways and for smaller or less serious projects. Even if you sign up with a major label, giving tracks to a little one makes you look good. Consequently, many sevens feature "rarities" - one-time-only tracks, "B-sides," special guest stars.

In Silicon Seattle, low-tech vinyl fever is growing. KNDD-FM DJ Marco Collins (founder of the elegant label Stampede) is joining Terry Farrell and Greg Belnap (who launched their indie El Recordo with vinyl) for a sort of local super-label. Farrell: "We're gonna do as much vinyl as possible."

Then there is the label-at-large, like Villa Villakula.

Named for Pippi Longstocking, the girl-book heroine, Villa Villakula is physically based in Boston. Yet its founder is the artist Tinuviel, who - with Slim Moon - started Kill Rock Stars in Olympia, and gave riot grrrls their global vehicle. Her new label still features Northwest talent, most notably Sleater-Kinney, currently the critics' darlings.

After one vinyl album ("Move Into The Villa Villakula") and a double seven ("Stargirl"), demand led Tinuviel to press CDs. Yet, with handmade art and insert sheets, Villa Villakula keeps its punk credentials. Songs are juxtaposed with spoken word, "quiet metal" and acoustic numbers. Says Tinuviel:: "The common element is girls. We're determined to get girls' voices heard, whether they use music, visual art or words."

For such purposes, vinyl is a good medium. Shelley Austin works for Britain's Wiiija Records, which produced and distributes numerous sevens (including, recently, one by Seattle's Action Suits). Says she, "It's a great international outlet, even better than a World Wide Web page. It may be just snobbery, but fans love sevens. Not only as aesthetic objects, but as projects. They don't just buy ours; they make their own."

That's the case with Seattle label Collective Fruit, one of the city's most respected indies. Today, the label releases its latest seven: a "split single" with, on one side, the Model Rockets' "World Won't Let Me" and on the other a cut by the band TubeTop titled "The Rules."

Collective Fruit is indicative of the trend, since it moved from CDs into sevens - or, as they say, "from high-tech to low-fi." The label was founded in 1994 by two fellow expatriates of Salt Lake City. One was musician Nabil Ayers (Unspun, The Lemons), who had just finished college in Tacoma. Joining him was Jason Sutherland, journalist, artist and designer.

Sutherland was wooed to Seattle by Ayers. "I was working for a publisher in Salt Lake. But Nabil was so into starting a label. After enough prodding, I threw my stuff in the car."

The pair rented office space and a telephone line; they chose a name out of the dictionary. Sutherland designed a label logo and they had some lunches. Then, they started pressing up CDs. Laughs Ayers, "On paper, your profits look insane. You can make 1,000 CDs for under $1,500, with the costs of artwork and all included. Sell 'em for ten bucks apiece and you're gonna make it."

For the first few projects, the theory held. Fruit's initial release was "The South End All-Stars," 18 bands hand-picked from Tacoma. It did well, got some commercial airplay, even garnered mentions in the mainstream press. Ayers: "Even our release party made a couple of thousand!"

Several CDs followed: "As Daylight Fades" by jazzman Alan Michael, a CD by Unspun, and one by Medicine Hat. But each one was met by a different problem. Alan Michaels is Nabil Ayers' uncle (his father is Roy Ayers, the great vibes player). That CD was recorded for Passport Jazz; when they went broke, Michaels passed it on to Ayers. Says his nephew: "It was great, but the genre was different. We just didn't know what to do with it."

Still, things went OK - until Medicine Hat. During the time it took to press that band's CD, both their bassist and booking agent quit. ("They were so popular we could sell 'em at gigs. Then, there were no gigs - and no one booking 'em.") By the end of '94, the Fruit re-grouped.

They decided to focus on sevens.

The jump into low-tech paid off quickly. Their first 45 was by PopSickle, a new band from Coffin Break's Rob Skinner. It did well - and that encouraged the duo. But Ayers was committed to playing and touring, and Sutherland had his writing (plus a job at REI).

Luckily, Lance Paine then entered the picture. Paine, too, is a musician (The Young Lovers, Micro Mini). But he also had the label bug; he wanted to record the promising Super Deluxe. His first partner fell through, but not his project - which he took to Ayers, a friend of a friend.

Although Super Deluxe were soon "discovered", and signed by Tim Kerr for T/K Records, they agreed upon a seven for Collective Fruit. So Paine joined the Ayers and Sutherland team. By day, he now works in Issaquah, at Diversified Systems Group, on CD-ROMs. By night, says Sutherland, he's "our total schmoozemeister."

Nabil Ayers plays glittering, high-tech drums; he records in state-of-the-art digital studios. At work, Jason Sutherland does copywriting online. Lance Paine helps make software every day. So why, in private life, have they reverted to vinyl?

Paine, who grew up in Wenatchee, says that vinyl links him to childhood. "As a kid, I haunted a store called DJ Sound City, mooning over all their racks of Top Forty sevens. My dad built a special red box for my collection."

For Sutherland also, it's more than the business advantage. "Sevens are just more fun. They're low dough; we can get more of 'em out there. It totally motivates us to have the turnover." (By the summer's end, Collective Fruit plans three more singles).

Ayers agrees with his partners - and, with much of America. "For me, seven-inch records are just way cooler. We can do more of 'em; each one needs less commitment. And it's finally made our label special. When bands want to work with you - what could be better?"

---------------- SEVENS AVAILABLE ----------------

Collective Fruit singles are available at Orpheum Records, 618 Broadway, 322-6370 and Fallout Records, 1506 E. Olive Way, 323-2662, or by mail order ($3.50 each including postage) from P.O. Box 4415, Seattle WA 98104-0415, (206) 632-4099. Villa Villakula can be reached at P.O. Box 1929, Boston, MA 02205, (617) 524-1260. Wiiija Records' World Wide Web page is: