Label Focus: Jade Tree

Label Focus: Jade Tree

Behind most of your favorite artists and albums, there’s a record label staffed with passionate people working to bring that music to you. With Label Focus, we profile the record labels and imprints we love. Here we get to know the beloved indie outlet Jade Tree.

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Inspired by the do-it-yourself ethics of their punk rock heroes, what Tim Owen and Darren Walters got together to create back in 1990 can only be described as the true epitome of an independent record label.

After all, Jade Tree was the result of two high schoolers in Wilmington, Delaware dreaming big, taking the plunge and focusing all their efforts on what they believed in. And we should all be thanking them tenfold, because this is the label that released such era-defining records as The Promise Ring’s Nothing Feels Good and Lifetime’s Hello Bastards, along with collecting the raw nerve and sound of Mike Kinsella (later of American Football, Owls and Joan of Arc fame) and his buddies in Cap’n Jazz on the unpronounceable anthology Analphabetapolothology, now considered the absolute gold standard of the “twinkly emo” sound.

By believing in these and several other seminal post-hardcore, punk, indie and emo bands of the early ‘90s, Jade Tree managed to document a scene and a moment in independent music history that many hold high in regard, and that many consider the ultimate soundtrack of their formative years. And by recruiting friends to design album covers, photograph bands and engineer the recordings, the impact Jade Tree has had on the greater punk scene over the last quarter century is huge. They became the label that inspired young kids not only to start their own bands, but also their own basement label operations, tour booking and fanzine endeavors.

Although somewhat crippled when in 2009 distributor Touch & Go announced that they were downsizing due to a credit crunch, Jade Tree was never officially pronounced defunct. And after remaining silent for a number of years, Jade Tree announced their comeback with the signing of Philly indie-rockers Dogs on Acid in 2015. The label has since released exciting albums by vital punk bands Spraynard, Dark Blue and You Blew It!, and things are only looking up.

We caught up with Jade Tree co-founder Darren Walters to have a glance in the review mirror and, perhaps more importantly, look at what’s to come.

Tim Owen and Darren Walters, 2001

How did you get into the music business? What motivated you?

Both my partner Tim Owen and I had run smaller 7-inch only, straight-edge hardcore punk labels prior to joining forces and starting Jade Tree. For both of us, I think we realized early on that we didn’t have careers on stage, but that “behind the scenes” there was a plethora of opportunities.

Due to our involvement in the DIY scene, we were exposed to the ideas of doing things ourselves and so we knew – or at least thought we knew – that doing a label would be somewhat easy. It’s easy to say that for us both, it wasn’t one song or one band, but an entire scene of kids and bands who were producing content-zines, records, putting on shows, booking tours, etc, that compelled us realize that we could do something relevant.

What, if any, labels where your own role models when you started up?

Tim and I were, and continue to be, inspired by the likes of Dischord and Touch & Go, and their fierce loyalty to their artists and their ideals. These labels possess the guiding light for how labels should treat artists and how business in the independent community should be done.  In a nutshell, they created the template that Tim and I only hoped to improve upon in some small way. 

What does Jade Tree represent or stand for as an institution?

Jade Tree represents the vision of Darren Walters and Tim Owen. It is wholly the audio representation of what Tim and I like and feel is part of the fabric of our family and our internal make up;  Nothing on the label is false or guided by anything other than our desire to work with the music that we love and the people that we think are the coolest humans on the planet regardless of genre, geography or general belief systems.

Jets to Brazil, 1997

What is, in your opinion, the greatest achievement in the history of Jade Tree? What are you most proud of during your 25 years in existence?

Still being here 26 years later. When the label began, I was never sure just how long it was going to last, so when I think back to all of the amazing artists that the label has been lucky to work with, past and present, it blows my mind. It was my dream to run a label as a full-time job and when Jade Tree was just beginning and I was spending all of my spare time on the label, I could have never imagined that it would be a career for so many years and that records that the label released would touch so many lives. That is a huge testament to the power and importance of music.

Did you have an initial idea back then on what the label should be and how it could evolve in the future?

Absolutely. Tim and I originated Jade Tree in an era when independent music was still very rooted in strong connections to the label and the artists philosophy, geography and genre, and we wanted to expand beyond those realms. Our idea was that Jade Tree would and should represent our taste, regardless of whether or not the artist was straight-edge or Christian, metal or indie rock, or located across the country; as long as we loved and supported their music. I’m damned sure that Jade Tree has done just that!

What makes you decide to release an album or not?

We have always been especially fond of a killer live show and/or a personality that works well with us. An amazing drummer never hurts either.

Strike Anywhere, 2002

How do you see Jade Tree another 25 years down the line?

Vibrant, exciting, evolved.

The music industry goes through rapid changes these days. How have those challenges affected your work? And what is different running a label today compared to before you think?

Nothing, not even digital, necessarily affected our work. Of course the label pressed less or more vinyl, in one decade than another, but in more concrete terms, we never swayed from our original blueprint. At the heart of what Jade Tree is, it’s an independent label that reflects the founders personalities and preferences rather than trends. Tim and I enjoy all of our releases and we have never expected any one fan to like them all and that is OK.  We are the number one fans to please, and as long as we do that, everything is OK in our world.

Any regrets? Anything you would do differently if you had a second chance?

I’ve never felt there is room for regrets.  You can only move forward-never backwards.

The Promise Ring

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5 Essential Jade Tree Albums

 As picked by co-founder Darren Walters

Jets To Brazil: Orange Rhyming Dictionary

The best-selling title on Jade Tree, this record felt like it was going to be huge, but there was really a laid back feeling about the approach for everyone involved.  Despite all of the members having been in popular bands previously, their approach was low-key.  For instance, Jets To Brazil was playing very small basement shows as the record was being recorded and there was excitement, but there wasn’t ‘hype’, so it was difficult to gauge what was going to happen when it was released.  However, upon it’s release, things changed very rapidly.


The Promise Ring: Nothing Feels Good

The record that defined a generation and put both the label and the artist on the map.  A perfect encapsulation of the mid-nineties with iconic packaging designed by guitarist Jason Gnewikow. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that every song is a hit.


Lifetime: Hello Bastards

The landmark album in which Lifetime evolved into a melodic force without putting the brakes on their speedy brand of hardcore.  In a nutshell, the influential record broke new ground at the time of its 1995 release as the album laid a new blueprint for the future of punk.


Pedro The Lion: Control

We had been working with David Bazan for a while, but this record is the one that seemed to make the non-believers sit up and take notice of just how incredible a songwriter and musician David Bazan is.  A deeply complex album, it showcases the range of Pedro the Lion both lyrically and musically.


Cap’N Jazz: Analphabetapolothology

A compilation from what was at the time a little known band of kids from Chicago. Featuring Tim Kinsella (Joan Of Arc, Owls), his brother Mike Kinsella (Joan Of Arc, Owls, Owen, American Football), Davey VonBohlen (The Promise Ring), Sam Zurich (Joan Of Arc, Owls) and Victor Villarreal (Owls) who allowed us to release this material just after The Promise Ring and Joan Of Arc and released their first records on the label. Initially, this release gained little attention. Over time, however, this record has become a landmark release for Jade Tree and continues to grow in influence.

Kid Dynamite, 2003 (All photos by Mark Beemer)

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