Super Secret founder and Sonic Transmissions Festival underwriter expands operations
Larry Lynn grew up so poor he had to mix hot water and ketchup together to make tomato soup when he went out with friends. By marrying Ann Blevins, he joined a wildcatter family with oil fields in Midland prosperous enough to establish a base wealth for future generations. Founding Lynn Drilling, Larry staked his own claims an hour east of Austin in Giddings during the Seventies, making significant contributions to the family through both oil money and two sons, one of them noted NYC DJ Will Automagic.
The elder sibling, Richard Lynn, sits in his East Austin home listening to a vinyl box set of Kinks albums from the Sixties. He’s dressed in his customarily nondescript T-shirt and shorts, an outfit conducive to spending four or five nights a week chasing live music locally as he has for nearly two decades. His modestly furnished two-story house includes a Mercedes-Benz SUV, but otherwise betrays no signs either way of resources.
More telling of his passion are the dozens of framed photos of rock icons on the walls, mostly of the Who and his hero, AC/DC’s Angus Young, as well as a Daniel Johnston piece of which he’s particularly proud. Lynn runs three homegrown record labels, a nascent book/film company, concert series Austin Jukebox and performance art program Austin Cultural Exchange, and now funds this week’s Sonic Transmissions Festival (see sidebar, at right). Music distribution and publishing companies may soon join the roster.
By the time you read this, Lynn might well have added a radio station or concert promotions business.
“That’s what happens in my life,” he says emphatically. “I’ll think I know the path I’m going down, but for one reason or another I’ll take a sharp turn, on a moment’s notice. I guess I like the chaos and the thrill of it. Where you just go blind into something, full speed, as fast as you can go.”
Super Secret Records began spontaneously in 2001.
“I just did it without thinking,” Lynn says. “My favorite local band at the time was Manikin. I was just a fanatic. They were playing at a warehouse in Houston one weekend and after their set, which was great as always, I was like, ‘When’s your record coming out? I can’t wait to buy it!’
“Alfie [Rabago, guitarist], in his typical manner, said, ‘Eh, it seems like too much trouble.’ They were just not into it. I said, ‘If I start a record label, will you let me put it out?’ I don’t think they believed me. So I was driving back home thinking, ‘I don’t know how to start a record label.'”
Manikin’s self-titled debut christened SSR in 2002.
“I put out three or four records [a year] for like 13 years,” he says. “Just in my spare time, one at a time.”
At first, Super Secret’s catalog documented Austin’s punk and indie underground, bands that commanded the tiny stages of Blue Flamingo and Bates Motel in the Nineties, and Beerland and Trailer Space in the Aughts. Street punks the Eastside Suicides, Slum City, and the Put-Downs all released albums or singles on Super Secret in its initial three years of existence. By the early portion of this decade, the label was putting out three or four albums and numerous 7-inches annually, including the debut 45 by garage rock heavyweights the OBN IIIs. Alongside 12XU and Western Vinyl, Super Secret became a key cog in the wheel of Austin punk and indie rock.
The rate of production changed after Lynn retired from his day job in 2014.
“I started traveling around the world until I got sick of that,” he admits. “I was gonna shut down the label – maybe move to Hawaii, because that’s always been something I planned to do eventually. I pictured myself laying on the perfect beach, perfect weather, perfect water, got my huge house behind me, got my dogs – everything’s great. But I know what I would say: ‘All right! Any bands playing tonight?’ I’d be bored.”
Since then, Super Secret has dramatically expanded operations, with more LPs coming out in the last two years than in the first 10. Lynn broadened the imprint’s musical POV as well, bringing on Evil Triplet’s psychedelic maelstrom, the modern folk of Adam Ostrar, and post-punk songcraft of Quin Galavis. Moving beyond Texas borders, he also sponsored an album by jazz-informed No Wave legend James Chance & the Contortions.
If that release schedule wasn’t already wall-to-wall, a Trailer Space performance by improv trio Knest inspired Lynn to start Self Sabotage, a label dedicated to experimental music. Meanwhile, inability to find music by Nineties indie rock Texans Transona Five compelled him to start Sonic Surgery, a reissue imprint.
Lynn also runs Austin Jukebox, a quarterly concert convergence that recently flew in Cleveland art-punk pioneers Pere Ubu for the first time in 20 years, then followed it up with the local debut of beloved Australian psych-pop act the Moles. Monthly gathering Austin Cultural Exchange includes everything from music to poetry and painting, and burgeoning film division Sound & Sight Repository is headed by Goodnight Brooklyn director Matt Conboy.
No notion goes unconsidered and anything can be on the table, as in the case of Lynn underwriting the third annual Sonic Transmissions Festival – the locally based/internationally sourced jazz and experimental musical cluster curated by Norwegian-born bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten – after having his mind boggled by the 2016 edition. That tendency can vex his employees, who now number up to 14, including consultants.
“They start shaking their heads sometimes, like, ‘Why are we doing that?'” laughs Lynn. “My answer’s usually, ‘Because we’re not already.'”
We Can, So We Do
“Richard will sign acts he knows aren’t going to quote-unquote make it,” notes Ray Colgan.
Stationed at the Super Secret office in the Museum of Human Achievement, the veteran bandleader chuckles. Hired to troubleshoot, the Crack Pipes vocalist now handles Sonic Surgery.
“That’s one of the things I love about working here,” continues Colgan. “I don’t have to think constantly about money, commercial appeal, and the commodification of music. I can go back to ‘What can I do to make this a better experience for these people? What can I do to help them?'”
“In some ways, we’re interpreters of what Richard says,” explains Ismael Archbold, another longtime local musician who came aboard two years ago to assist Lynn and now shepherds Self Sabotage, Sound & Sight Repository, and Austin Cultural Exchange. “Sometimes he’ll say something, and it’ll be a collapsed version of a long conversation. That’s part of the job description – keeping up with the boss.”
“He’s a chaos communicator,” says Knife in the Water’s Aaron Blount, who Lynn credits as his adviser. “He throws so much stuff at you, but you can’t say, ‘That isn’t realistic,’ because that will drive him nuts and he won’t let it go. He wants unrealistic things to happen, and they do.”
“He does mull things over,” says Archbold about Lynn’s decision-making. “In fact, if people press him for an answer, especially if it’s a yes or no, he’ll just say no. ‘You want an answer now, so I have to say no, because you’re not giving me time to think about it. But if you really want me to think about it, let me think about it.’
“He also does things off the cuff. It’s part of the fun of all this: We can, so we do.”
“They tell me, ‘Please don’t start any more labels today,'” grins Lynn. “‘Please don’t sign any more bands right now. We’re very full.’ I mostly don’t, but I sometimes do, because the thrill of it for me really is that initial idea. When you have that idea it’s really exciting to talk about. Then I usually turn around and say, ‘Can y’all do that while I go and have more ideas?'”
Crawling From the Wreckage
Lynn grew up in Midland, after which his family relocated to Austin in 1978 when he was 12. After Westlake High School, he received a bachelor’s degree in finance from Texas State University in 1989. Despite the family wealth, his music enthusiast mother insisted he get a job, so Lynn went to work for the federal government as a banking regulator.
Originally based in Midland, he worked his way back to Austin through Dallas and San Antonio. At night, he hit the clubs. Initially, the guitar scene at Steamboat on Sixth Street and capital city groups like Sister 7 caught his ear. That changed when he found himself at punk dive the Blue Flamingo in the mid-Nineties.
“There was no stage, a microphone in the middle of the room, and it was crowded. Everyone’s in leather jackets,” he recalls. “I was forced right up against the mic. So I’m standing there, and there’s a band I later found out was the Chumps, who turned out to be maybe my favorite band of all time. Sean MacGowan, the lead singer, comes out, grabs the mic, grabs me by the back of my head, pulls me up to his face, and screams the opening lyrics to ‘Goddamn American Eagle.’
“Afterward, the Motards came on. I made it about halfway through their set. It was so crowded, I had to get down on my hands and knees, crawl under people, and just dive out the door. I ran to my car as fast as I could, telling myself, ‘Oh God, I’m never going back there again. I got out alive!’
“A couple of nights later, I found myself back at the Blue Flamingo.”
The “love affair” with music and the people who make it that began that night drives the way Lynn does business. He doesn’t sign contracts with his artists, and the label pays for not only recording, mastering, and manufacturing, but also for merchandise and tour support – all without requiring the artists to reimburse. Lynn also doesn’t set budgets for individual albums, believing that the specter of hitting a financial target inhibits a band’s ability to produce great work.
“In essence, I say, ‘Record where you want, how you want, when you want, and when the record is done, we’ll put it out,'” states Lynn. “I have a business background, and musicians don’t like business, so I try to take that all off of them. We’re working to create an atmosphere that will allow great art to be made, not an atmosphere where a lot of money will be made.
“Money won’t make you happy, but great art can.”
Ever heard such a proclamation from Sony or the Universal Music Group?
Patron of Punk
Patronage enjoys centuries of tradition, from feudal Japan through Renaissance Europe, from the Medici of Florence sponsoring Galileo Galilei to the Roman Catholic Church commissioning Michelangelo to paint the walls of the Sistine Chapel. Leonardo da Vinci, Ludwig van Beethoven, and William Shakespeare all benefited from patronage. Where would PBS be without the Ford Foundation or Sesame Street without Michael and Susan Dell?
Without prompting, roots rocker Will Courtney, trance psychsters Suspirians, and jazz master Ingebrigt Håker Flaten all apply the phrase “patron of the arts” to Lynn.
“He’s given us a chance to express ourselves,” says Suspirians’ Marisa Pool. “It feels good to have someone having your back.”
Courtney, whose 2016 local release turned so many heads Lynn is promoting his upcoming disc to other labels, agrees.
“He’s been really open to anything and seeing where we can take this,” he says.
Flaten expresses surprise as well as gratitude.
“I’m lucky to be in a position that I can go in a studio to record a solo bass album and see it released without complications,” remarks the bassist. “Anywhere in the world that’s kind of a unique situation.”
“We’re in the middle of this crazy growth,” Lynn marvels. “I’ve told my employees recently, ‘There’s no option for status quo.’ We’re working with Fields magazine to help them with some fundraising. We’re gonna work with SIMS on some stuff, because I think it’s a great organization.
“One of the things I feel like we haven’t done a lot of yet that I’d like to do more of is impact the community in a positive way. We’re always looking for ways we can give back.”
Sonic Transmissions Festival III showcases a weekend of punk, cumbia, and jazz Sept. 14-16: www.sonictransmissions.com.