“Since I haven’t played in bands in 10 years, I sort of live vicariously though my friends in bands,” Jeff Nelson jokes. The man whose incisive drumming backboned groups from Minor Threat to High Back Chairs is referring not only to his work with Dischord Records—which he founded with Ian MacKaye in 1980—but to Adult Swim, the label he started nine years later in the effort to find stylistic elbow room outside Dischord’s punk parameters.
A dozen-odd eclectic albums later, the Adult Swim pool has seen all sorts of different strokes. A high-flying early period, highlighted by two Girls Against Boys records as well as CD reissues from the storied D.C. weirdos of 9353, ended with a crash in 1993: High art costs and poor sales for the 9353 discs left the label’s coffers drained—and it didn’t help when an overseas distributor destroyed the remaining product without Nelson’s knowledge, effectively ending any chance of back-catalog recoup. Adult Swim went all but dormant until 1998, when Nelson collaborated with Last Train Home frontman Eric Brace to release that band’s debut album. And things have hardly been hopping in the five years since: Adult Swim’s output has consisted primarily of an annual Last Train Home disc. Now, though, a trio of new releases—12 Birds, an EP from Arlington’s Little Pink, plus albums from Last Train Home and New York’s Benna—seems to signal a renaissance of sorts for Adult Swim.
Nelson spent “a long fallow period” expanding his personal listening taste, mainly into country waters. “There’s still an awful lot of country that I can’t stand, but I’ve come to think some of it is incredibly good. A lot of the alternative country, in a lot of ways, reminds me of the early punk scene, in terms of the pockets of rabid fans around the country, great regional bands, certain important magazines, and great small clubs like Iota.”
Nelson’s broadening interest led to the label’s flourishing partnership with the roots-rollicking Last Train Home (the new Time and Water will be the band’s fifth release) and Little Pink. Not that Adult Swim should be mistaken for an alt-country imprint: The musical synapses in Benna’s record fire on the purest of pop-rock connections.
Though three releases within a month might seem a bit much for a one-hander operation, Nelson says the label doesn’t consume him. He’s working on book projects—including one on his long-running passion for D.C.’s Dumbarton Bridge and its bronze buffalos—and feeding an obsession with vintage Jeep Wagoneers. But the plunge back into Adult Swim was something he couldn’t pass up. “As sick as I am of the record industry in many ways, I just couldn’t say no when confronted with such great music, which is what drove me to start Adult Swim in the first place,” he says. “I’m just giving these artists a slight leg up, I hope.” —Patrick Foster