KILL ROCK STARS has long been home to some of the boldest voices in independent and underground music, bringing icons like Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, and Elliott Smith to an international audience. Lately, though, the Portland-based record label has been seeking inspiration in a much different medium: stand-up comedy.
"I really feel like comedy is the new punk rock," says Portia Sabin, Kill Rock Stars' president. "When we were starting out, it was all DIY and it was all about regular people, who were passionate about feminism or politics or queer rights, who said, 'Get the fuck out of my way. I'm going to get up on that stage and say my thing.' Comedy's exactly like that."
Kill Rock Stars has snapped up some impressive and diverse comedic talent so far: the brilliantly absurd Kurt Braunohler, politically minded comic Hari Kondabolu, actress and 2 Broke Girls producer Laura Kightlinger, and Cameron Esposito, host of the popular Put Your Hands Together podcast.
"Releasing stand-up albums has been a thing that we thought we'd love to do and that we were interested in," says Sabin. "We never knew where to start."
The way they finally made the leap into the comedy world is, appropriately enough, a pretty funny story.
In 2012, the label's Twitter account retweeted a joke by Braunohler. The LA-based comic quickly responded, "If my 18-year-old self knew that Kill Rock Stars retweeted me, he'd be like, 'What?' then after I explained it to him, he'd die." Then he asked if they'd be interested in releasing a comedy album.
Within an hour, Sabin was sealing a deal that would culminate with the release of How Do I Land?, an hour-long set recorded at Mississippi Studios that provides a perfect spotlight for Braunohler's skewed worldview: "Next time you fart, just yell, 'Nothing but net!' It's confusing, and fun to say."
But it's not all fart jokes: The label is staying in touch with its politically motivated roots by working with folks like Kondabolu and Esposito, both of whom use their stand-up routines as an outlet to talk about important social issues.
"So much of what I talk about now is about marriage equality and the national conversation about gay rights," says Esposito, who will be recording her first Kill Rock Stars release at Mississippi Studios on May 30. "And I think about where I was when I was just coming out. I didn't know anyone else who was gay. So, for those gay kids that aren't sure what life could be like, I'm here to say, 'It's gonna be totally great. Here's some jokes about it.'"
Kill Rock Stars has been keeping tabs on the local stand-up scene as well. They recently announced their latest signing: former Portlander and Portland Mercury columnist Ian Karmel.
"The way [Kill Rock Stars] talk about stand-up, you could tell that they really admired it," says Karmel from LA, taking a break from his current job as a writer/performer on Chelsea Lately. "They loved the community of it, and the fact that comics show up at other comics' shows. There's nothing wrong with the industry here in LA, but people so often focus on, 'How can we make money? How can we make money?' It's super refreshing to meet people who love comedy for comedy's sake."
The label isn't immune to financial considerations, of course.
With sales of both physical and digital albums trending downward in 2013—an 8.4 percent decline, according to a Nielsen SoundScan report—the mantra for record labels is "evolve or die."
For the majors, that has meant encouraging artists to sign "360 deals," which allow the label to take a cut of everything from sales of concert tickets and merchandise to the licensing fees charged to have a song used in a commercial or TV show.
Indie labels, especially the smaller ones, tend not to be quite so cutthroat, forcing them to scale back their operations or to look for alternative sources of revenue. In the case of Kill Rock Stars, that's led to an unexpected—but welcome—second act as a comedy label.
They haven't given up on music, however: Plans are already underway for the release of a new Horse Feathers album this fall, as well as new full-lengths from Marnie Stern and Kinski likely arriving in 2015. But for Sabin, embracing comedy has been the perfect antidote to what she sees as a rather stagnant period in the underground rock world.
"In the last eight years or so, it's gotten to this weird place where it's super safe," she says. "I'm not gonna say boring, because there's still good stuff out there, but what happened to the anger, the passion, the emotion? That's why I think the idea of working with Kill Rock Stars is resonating so much with a lot of these alternative comics. We want you to be political. We want you be a strong feminist. We want you be out there with something to say."
Kurt Braunohler, Helium Comedy Club, 1510 SE 9th, Thurs March 27, 8 pm, Fri March 28-Sat March 29, 7:30 & 10 pm, $15-25
Cameron Esposito, Mississippi Studios, 3939 N Mississippi, May 30, 7:30 & 10:30 pm, $5
Ian Karmel, Bridgetown Comedy Fest, May 8-11, bridgetowncomedy.com
Hari Kondabolu, Helium Comedy Club, 1510 SE 9th, Sun March 30, 7:30 pm, $15-22; Bridgetown Comedy Fest, May 8-11, bridgetowncomedy.com