Indie Beat: Lio Kanine on Ten Years of Kanine Records

A commemorative fan zine and tape Kanine Records put out in honor of its tenth anniversary. 

Next month, May 10 to be exact, Brooklyn’s Kanine Records will celebrate its tenth birthday. Officially launched by dog-loving husband and wife duo Lio and Kay Kanine (not their real last name) in 2003, the landmark Williamsburg label has since been responsible for discovering some of indie rock’s most successful bands, including Grizzly Bear, Chairlift and Surfer Blood.
Last week, the Kanines celebrated the anniversary with a well-attended party/showcase in Williamsburg. In addition to a commemorative fan zine and tape (pictured), the show featured performances by some of the label’s newest acts, including Valleys, Lodro and X-Ray Eyeballs. We caught up with Lio afterward and asked him about Grizzly Bear’s slow climb, a certain zeitgeist-defining iPod commercial and the Pitchfork review that made him quit his day job. Ten Years is a big deal, have you been thinking about the early days and how far you've come?
Lio Kanine: Yeah, and it doesn't even feel like ten, which is the weird thing. We started Kanine as a hobby, so we never expected it to grow into something this big. It's pretty crazy. In the beginning Kay was still finishing grad school and working as a paralegal. I was working at ADA at the time and doing club nights in Williamsburg and on the Lower East Side. When we put out our first records we were just wondering if anyone would care. And then it just kind of grew from there. It’s all been really exciting.

What are some of your favorite memories?
 One that sparks up the most happened while I was on a trip to San Francisco. You know when you're starting a label, people always tell you that it's never going to work and that you'll never really launch a band. But I was in San Francisco for a conference in 2008, and at the time we had been under consideration for an iPod commercial with Chairlift. The way it works is they make five commercials with five different songs and don't tell you which one they're going to use. One day I'm walking by an Apple store and hear Chairlift's song playing inside ["Bruises"]. So I go in and they've got the commercial playing on the monitors. I looked at the girl behind the counter and said "That's my band!" And she just looked at me like "Huh?" [laughs].
But for me that was a moment where I felt like I could cry. My phone was ringing off the hook after that.  It was a huge break for us because we were able to tell people that they didn't need a major. After the news broke, there were all these people coming up to me at the conference saying "Oh my god!" and shaking my hand. I just grabbed two wine bottles and went back to my hotel room and freaked out.

Speaking of Chairlift, is it true you convinced them to move to Brooklyn from Colorado while they were still unsigned?

I had been emailing back and forth with them. They're from Boulder and were saying that really the main places to play were coffee shops. So I told them they should come to New York and play some shows here. The next thing I know I get an email from Caroline [Polachek] saying "We moved to New York!" [laughs] I didn't mean move!
I remember going to their first show at Cake Shop and it was basically just me. But we worked with them doing residencies and working on songs. To see a band grow from that to where they are now is really mind-blowing.

I know the records must be like children to you, but is there any one that has particular personal significance?

Definitely the first Surfer Blood record [“Astro Coast,” 2010] and the first Grizzly Bear record [“Horn of Plenty,” 2004]. Those are both records that we were working on before anyone even knew those bands existed. Same for Chairlift.

Was there a moment when it hit you that Kanine was a real business that could sustain and not just a hobby?

It was probably when the Pitchfork review came out for the Surfer Blood album. We were all up waiting for it because we knew it was coming and then they posted it at 2:00 AM and it got "Best New Music." We were all celebrating over the phone. After that I went into the office the next day and I thought "You know, I can quit all my other jobs and just focus on this. This is really happening."

That's interesting because you did already have the Grizzly Bear record and the Chairlift record under your belt at that time.

Yeah but you have to remember that the Grizzly Bear record was not a hit at first at all. They were doing weird folk stuff, which is part of what we liked about them, but it took people a while to get into it. We were working that record for three years like it was brand new. They've come a long way from those days. I remember Kay and I were at their first show at Zebulon, which was a little club in Williamsburg. Our jaws were on the floor. We just thought "These guys are too talented."

I imagine you've seen a lot of changes in the Williamsburg music scene since 2002-2003.

Oh yeah, a lot has changed. When we started there was no loft scene, for example. There would maybe be a loft party once in a blue moon, and now there are 50 loft parties every night. But in some ways, I think maybe things aren't as different as some people portray them. Everything in music goes in cycles— it's like fashion. In the early 2000s the post-punk sound was huge and now kids are rediscovering it again and rediscovering the '90s stuff. So it goes back and forth. The only difference is we have more condos. There's a lot more people here, too. The music scene in Williamsburg is bigger and more healthy than it's ever been, I think. There's a million more bands and a million more clubs and venues.
Do you still worry about the same things you did in the beginning or do you find yourself facing a new set of challenges?
You know, I think it's the same, really. I worry about the same things I've always worried about. Getting the bands on tour, getting good press for them, making sure the records are out there, making sure the vinyl turns out great. And then of course you have to make sure you're getting paid so you can pay your artists. So it hasn't really changed that much.

I do think streaming has obviously been a big development. But at the same time, it's like if kids are going to buy records, they're going to buy records. If they're not, they're not. I think the show is a more important part of that now. Before I think kids valued the press more and would buy records just based on press. You could have a weird, mysterious band and sell a couple thousand that way. But now I think they want to go to the show first to see if they like it. So you have to make sure the bands are touring more. Tour date is more important than release date. There are 10 new bands every day on every blog, so the show I think is what can make people take notice.
What will Kanine be doing in 2023?
 Hopefully putting out great records and continuing to grow and get our name out there to people who love good music. We love what we do, so I hope 10 years from now we're still killing it.