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An upswing at Moodswing 

A local label aims at getting Atlanta's indie-rock scene seen

Atlanta's Moodswing Records has grown. Just a little over a year ago, Moodswing's corporate nerve center and distribution hub -- in an unassuming corner of the Thomas & Bohannon Printing Company's Buckhead backroom -- only needed one short set of shelves to house its cardboard boxes of shrink-wrapped CDs and slipcased vinyl.

Now Moodswing and its two tall, metal shelves have a more prominent presence -- both in the backroom and the Atlanta indie rock scene. And with a string of recent, higher-profile releases -- plus a brand new EP, Noon Under the Trees, from nationally known local act the Rock*A*Teens -- Moodswing hopes to increase its profile nationally without changing its local focus.

"The original goal," says Chuck Petrakopoulos, Moodswing's straight-talking founder, "was, I suppose at a young, idealistic age, wanting to annihilate all corporate music and make sure Capitol or Sony Records didn't get any bigger. But we really haven't accomplished much of that."

Instead, Moodswing -- founded in 1994 at Georgia Tech by Duluth native Petrakopoulos and fellow punk-show promoters Russell Jackson and Jeff Sousa -- has grown, slowly but surely. In the early days, they released home-duplicated cassettes of bands with names like Batch of Gimps. These days, the label has built a name for itself by sticking close to its namesake philosophy of putting out first-rate CDs of whatever music suits their mood.

For the most part, what suits Moodswing happens to be some of Atlanta's most consistently creative indie rock. While there's no one particular sound to Moodswing release from bands such as Ocelot, Dropsonic, Some Soviet Station and The Close, the label's overall aesthetic tends toward angular, emotional, post-punk-influenced rock. And as a business, a fiercely independent spirit prevails.

"I think Moodswing has done a good job representing the Atlanta scene," says Patrick Hill. Hill, who is booking agent for East Atlanta venue The Earl, also plays guitar in Red Level Eleven, a band with its own Moodswing release (a split single with The Close) on the way. "There's not a Moodswing sound, but the sound in the bands they release are pretty indicative of the sounds that are coming out of the indie-rock scene in Atlanta. Atlanta, as opposed to, say, Athens, is a more noisy, rocking scene. If you listen to what's on Moodswing you're going to get a pretty good idea of what's going on in Atlanta," he says.

Hill, of course, knows that these days anyone with a computer can self-release a CD of professional quality. When asked why he'd opt to put out a single with Moodswing, he refers to something a musician friend of his said: "'Putting it out on Moodswing would be cool because they're documenting the scene I'm a part of.'"

In terms of getting proper promotion and distribution, though, putting CDs out on small independent labels often can have little advantage over doing it yourself. Moodswing has become increasingly aware of lessons to follow and of the evolution the label has, by necessity, undergone.

"It's a grass-roots label," says Kip Thomas, who co-owns Thomas & Bohannon and handles everything from graphic design to label publicity for Moodswing. In recent years, Thomas -- who plays in two Moodswing bands, Chocolate Kiss and Haricot Vert -- has taken on an executive role to help Moodswing run more like a viable record label. "We really don't know what we're doing and the longer we do it the more we find out how infantile the label was even two years ago. ... Even indie rock is a business and there is a big machine with cogs and you have to play along with it. Through trial and error, we've learned some proper order. And even at this point we realize we have so much more to learn."

Now, after a string of well-received releases that helped the label figure out how to handle press, radio promotions and distribution, Moodswing feels confident in its ability to give the deserved attention to a release with the sales potential of the Rock*A*Teens' new EP.

Moodswing first pursued the Rock*A*Teens -- who mainly record for well-established Chapel Hill-based indie Merge Records -- because Thomas felt the band deserved more hometown attention. And, of course, it doesn't hurt that the Rock*A*Teens, an established band willing to tour widely, will likely bring wider attention to Moodswing and the Atlanta indie-rock scene in general. "I wouldn't say it will put us necessarily on the map," says Thomas, "I'd say we'd have to follow up with maybe another prominent release -- because it probably takes two or three -- but it will help."

Rock*A*Teens drummer Ballard Lesemann, who also serves as music editor for Athens weekly paper Flagpole, recognizes the same sort of brand-name development going on at Moodswing that allowed iconoclastic indie labels like SST to develop such a devoted base of fans willing to buy just about anything it put out. "When a label gets known for putting out a certain type of quality with a certain type of sound or edge or philosophy to it, they're probably going to be successful," says Lesemann, "if they can get by month to month financially without being ashamed of who they put out. Moodswing have carved their own niche. It started out from a pocket of complex, instrumental rock. Many labels -- Moodswing, [Athens-based] Kindercore, [Atlanta's] Daemon -- start by people putting out records by friends, then go out from there. So I think they're moving in the right direction by branching out, but their best reason for success is that they're loyal to their local scene bands."

Increasingly, bringing Atlanta artists to national attention is a primary goal of Moodswing. Often the success of a city's indie-rock scene is tied closely to an effective label -- Seattle's Sub Pop, D.C.'s Dischord, Chicago's Touch and Go. Putting all the pieces together, though, is a daunting task -- particularly in the current musical climate, where indie-rock's profile has been relatively low. And Atlanta's indie-rock scene, in particular, has a long way before it's recognized on par with those in cities such as Seattle or Chicago.

"I would like it more than anything else if my friends could become -- not rock stars, but successful at what they were doing on a scale outside Atlanta," says The Earl's Hill. "There are a lot of deserving people. I think Moodswing is on the right course, but I don't think one label in a town as big as Atlanta is going to be enough. It's not like the Rock*A*Teens are Sonic Youth. One big band can help put a label on a map, but for that to happen, Atlanta bands need to go out and tour and promote. There are probably two or three bands from Atlanta that, if they were from the Northwest, people all over the country would know about them right now. Because [the problem] is not just a lack of labels in Atlanta, it's a lack of booking agents, a lack of infrastructure."

Thomas and Petrakopoulos are hopeful but realistic about the success of promoting Moodswing and the Atlanta scene. For now, success means breaking even and the satisfaction of putting out music they're proud of. "We're both musicians," Thomas says. "We really do understand where bands come from and how much work they go through creating songs, practicing, playing shows, beating it out for what they care about and trying with all their might to create thoughtful, original songs. So when we want to put out their album it's because we do see where they're coming from."

"We're people with dreams of staying involved in music," continues Petrakopoulos. "Time has grown us into this label. Putting stickers on bathroom walls for seven years does something for you in a town. That was our way of growing: putting stickers on walls, putting out two or three records a year, walking around acting like we knew what we were talking about, fucking shit up and enjoying playing music. That's all it's been. I'm happy to see the growth of Atlanta -- I knew it was going to grow because I've been here and seen it. And instead of falsely growing a label or getting capital funds, we've let it grow as the music scene has grown."

Somebody better buy a third shelving unit -- sounds like Moodswing is going to need it.

The Rock*A*Teens play their EP release show Sat., Oct. 6, at The Earl, 488 Flat Shoals Ave. 10:30 p.m. $7. DQE opens. 404-522-3950. www.badearl.com. For more information on Moodswing Records, visit www.moodswingrecords.com.

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