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Published: 2002/10/23
by Dean Budnick

ATO: An Overview

{Editor’s Note: This article was slated to appear as a sidebar in the current issue of Relix, to accompany the Dave Matthews Band feature. Alas, sometimes there just isn’t room for given sidebars, particularly when the main story goes long. So feel free to check out my DMB article and then come back to this. Or you can sample this as an aptif before reading that piece. Of course your third option is to ignore my preceding prattle altogether and just read the darn thing]

ATO Records came together during the fall of 1999 through a partnership between Dave Matthew Band manager Coran Capshaw, his long-time associate Chris Tetzeli, former DMB tour manager Michael McDonald and Matthews himself. McDonald and Tetzeli provided the impetus for the label and took the lead on day-to-day operations but Capshaw and Matthews retained active roles in both the creative and business realms. Indeed, the musician supplied the label’s formal moniker, According To Our Records.

ATO’s first singing was Welsh performer David Gray, a longtime favorite of all four partners. “ In our brainstorming sessions when we’d talk conceptually about the label the name that came up more than any other was David Gray,” Tetzeli recalls. “We were drawn to artists that we love and would love to get behind but couldn’t get arrested in the US. That summer Ambrosia [Healey, former DMB publicist] sent us White Ladder because she knew our whole camp loved David Gray and we were thinking about a label. She said, He’s made a record on his own in his apartment in London and he’s selling it himself in England and Ireland, would you guys be interested?’ It was just too perfect.”

Following the March 2000 release of White Ladder, the label set out to build recognition and support for Gray at its own pace. “Part of our intention with ATO,” Tetzeli affirms, “is to put our plan behind an artist and record and see it through. It’s the antithesis of throw-it out to radio and see what happens.’ With David and White Ladder we tried to go down every alley, to see it through on every level.” Ultimately this approach proved successful as word-of-mouth and eventually word-of-radio, yielded a groundswell, and Gray whose previous US release sold 3600 copies earned platinum status with White Ladder.

The label followed up its debut with four signings: Ben Kweller, Gov’t Mule, Patty Griffin and Chris Whitley . As this diverse roster suggests, the hallmarks of an ATO artist are musicianship and songcraft. “All four of us sign off, there are no 75% decisions,” Tetzeli affirms, “And it’s more than sign off, the mission of the label is to get behind stuff we’re completely passionate about. It’s just human nature too. I think we do a better job because of our attachment to what we’re working with.” This passion is significant for Matthews who notes, “I would go out of my way for everyone we signed, so any time I throw my name behind them it’s a pleasure. I would go to the end of the earth for Patty. I don’t do in-stores for Ben Kweller although I would if he asked me. But I don’t expect him to ask me because then I’ll have to tease him.”

A steady pace of releases will continue in the fall. In addition to its sophomore offerings from David Gray and Gov’t Mule (as well as the DVD of Mike Gordon’s documentary Rising Low), Tetzeli is proud of the forthcoming soundtrack to Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony. The film, which chronicles the significance of music in the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa (Matthews’ homeland), won two awards at this year’s Sundance Festival. “It’s an incredible soundtrack to an important film,” Tetzeli raves, “There’s an addictive and universal quality to the grooves and melodies. Plus, it’s an all-star cast in terms of South African musicians.”

However, as ATO’s stature continues to rise, Matthews emphasizes that its founding ethos continues unabated. “We really built the whole company around David Gray and we had to fight for him which was a great thing, to get ourselves going by having to prove ourselves. Now with each new artist, we’ve had that same inspiration. That’s the way we think about it, we’re building our record company around this person. Patty is doing us the favor of allowing us to work on her record. We don’t have the advantage of someone like Columbia Records which has ten examples of every kind of music and knows how to do every kind of music. All we can offer is a home and hopefully our sheets are up to scratch.”

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