INTERVIEW: Sarah Sexton, OIM Records

Will Shenton

The Bay Area music scene is, and will likely always be, inextricably linked to local politics and economics. As people decry the role of gentrification in the mass exodus of artists from San Francisco, Oakland and the rest of the East Bay finds itself undergoing similar changes. Rents are too damn high, and the cultured weirdos who keep their respective cities interesting simply can't afford it anymore. Yet despite all the setbacks, the creative scene in the Bay is as vibrant as ever—if you know where to look. Oakland's newest label, OIM Records, is determined to keep it that way.

Founded as a collaboration between local concert guru Sarah Sexton, musician Angelica Tavella, and producer Jeff Saltzman, OIM takes its name from Sexton's booking and promotions company Oaktown Indie Mayhem. In the year since the label's inception, they've signed acts as diverse as Hot Flash Heat Wave, Foxtails Brigade, TV Heads, and Lila Rose, among others, and today are excited to announce the addition of The Tambo Rays to the family. The Oakland-based brother-and-sister act will be releasing new music with OIM this summer, and we've been told not to miss their upcoming show at The Independent in SF on Friday, July 8 with Midi Matilda and Panic is Perfect.

I met Sarah for a cup of coffee on Telegraph to talk about the birth of OIM Records, how she ended up in the Bay Area music biz in the first place, and the challenges of feeling responsible for artists (and, in many ways, an entire scene) that you truly love.

 Sarah Sexton | photo:  Odell Hussey

Sarah Sexton | photo: Odell Hussey

ThrdCoast: How did you end up in Oakland?

Sarah Sexton: I’m from the South, I’m a southern child. I was born in Texas, raised back and forth between Alabama and Florida. I finished school early, around 16, and was not doing well down there [laughs]. I knew I needed to get out of there and away from all those crazy people, so I decided to go to art school and randomly picked Seattle. I hadn’t been to that area of the US, and it seemed really cool. It totally blew my mind, life is just so much better out here. Like, this is the West Coast, and the West Coast is badass. Cool people, the police weren’t as bad—I mean, the police would just harass kids down south. Seattle was a far cry from that. I mean, they have a weed festival [laughs].

So I stayed there for a couple of years, and then made my way down here. The plan was to go to Berkeley, and somehow I ended up in Richmond for over three years. Not The Richmond in San Francisco, mind you. Richmond [laughs]. It was a little crazy. So, right off the bat I didn’t really see the appeal of the Bay Area. And then I split up with my partner at the time, and he had always said, “No Oakland, it’s too dangerous.” To which I always said, dude, we’re in Richmond [laughs]. So I found a place in downtown Oakland, before it was like a million dollars for a closet, and I just fell in love with Oakland. I was like, holy shit, this is the fuckin’ Mecca. That was in 2007.

I started going to shows, getting out and meeting people, and finally building a friend network out here. I was really inspired by how much art and music and creativity there was out here. I was always an art kid, and I mostly did painting and writing—it’s funny, I always loved music, but it was never my art form. I used to organize poetry slams, and I was really into it. We even had a few poets from our events go to national competitions. So I always loved building family by helping people share art and their love for art. It was already in my blood to bring people together for that sort of thing, and when I started getting into the scene out here I broke into it by screening independent films and putting together art shows.

I started doing these shows every other month where I’d come up with a theme and I’d bring together 30 or so artists in all different mediums. We’d have a chef come in, we’d screen videos, we’d do dance and performance art, and it ended up being basically a four-hour, immersive variety show. They were badass, people loved them. Unfortunately, they didn’t really end up making financial sense, since I was working to put them on and I was lucky if they broke even. So I needed to find some other outlet, and I knew someone who was looking to put on shows at their cafe.

The musicians were always the artists at these events who kept coming back and clamoring for more. There weren’t enough cool spots to play. So I started booking shows about once a month, at Rooz Cafe and at Actual Cafe, and then eventually at Awaken Cafe on Broadway. Our first sample of shows at Awaken did really well, so the owner offered me a full-time job as their music booker. I did that for about two and a half years with my booking company, Oaktown Indie Mayhem, and then I was just spent. I couldn’t do it anymore. I learned a lot about the scene, but it was exhausting [laughs]. It’s been kind of hard stepping out of that world, but now I’m just putting that energy towards the label.

TC: So how did OIM Records come to be?

SS: I met Angelica [Tavella] because she wanted to do a music crawl, Oakland Drops Beats, which she started in I think 2014. I participated in it with her for the first couple of years. Inevitably, over time, I just had too much going on and dropped off of ODB, but it worked as the driving force behind our friendship. We really jived with one another.

That summer, she was working on her EP with our third partner, Jeff Saltzman. They also jived really well, and that first EP was badass. She kept in touch with him about the Oakland scene, and he was looking into it as well. Jeff started in entertainment law, but he spent a decade or so managing metal bands. He helped build up Testament, he produced records for Blondie, he produced The Killers’ Hot Fuss… he’s done a lot of very cool shit. So he’s got a really cool and diverse background in music, and he was ready to work with some local folks. He was sick of LA [laughs].

Angelica suggested that we meet, since she knew I was really into the Oakland scene and that he was looking for something in that vein, and we immediately hit it off. He’s like an older man version of me [laughs]. Or I’m a younger girl version of him, whatever. He’s a very interesting character. So we decided to do this compilation together, and we had a lot of fun on it and wanted to keep working together. We started to put together the idea of starting a label, and we were wondering what to call it. Nothing was coming up, and finally he suggested OIM, after my company. It just felt right. Ever since then, I’ve been slowly redirecting my energy towards the label.

TC: Who do you guys have signed so far?

SS: We just announced our signing of Hot Flash Heat Wave, which we’re really excited about. We have an LP in the works with them that is fucking incredible. It’s dreamy and lo-fi, but still really clean… oh man, they just croon. So we’re very excited about that, the LP will be coming out in late 2016 or early 2017. We’re not gonna rush it [laughs]. We have Be Calm Honcho on the label as well, they’re this great, summery pop group with an amazing vocalist. You have to see them live. They’re a three-piece, but they feel so big and they have a great energy. We’re going to be releasing our first song with them on the OIM compilation, and it’s so good. I think people are gonna really, really love it. All their songs have such great hooks, they’re so catchy, you can’t help but just get stuck in their sound. We also have another single and a video with them coming out in August. Again, really amazing.

Then we’ve got TV Heads, which is Angelica’s project. It’s her, her partner, and a friend, they all grew up together. We just released their debut single called “Chin Up” on Impose, which is just gut-wrenching, it’s so good. They’re indie rock, indie pop, but they have this really deep sadness, almost turmoil behind all the synths. You can feel the pain and the light at the end of the tunnel all at the same time. Their EP is coming out next week, and they’re about to kick off a pretty big West Coast tour to support it.

Foxtails Brigade is also on the label, they’re brilliant. If you don’t know much about them, Laura’s got a really interesting background. Her dad’s a horror film director, so she grew up in this totally weird environment, and you see it in her. She’s like this little porcelain doll meets Wednesday Addams. All of her stuff has this dark twist on it, you almost expect her to start singing some cute little folk song and then threaten to kill you all in the same breath. Just a little murdery [laughs]. They’ve been such unbelievable artists to work with. Theirs was the second full-length we put out, and they’ve been there every step of the way. They’ve really been a template for all the new artists we’re signing, that this is a team and a family and we’re all in it together.

Then there’s Whiskerman, their album was our first full-length release. It’s a beautiful piece of work. I’m really grateful that it was our first. Of course, there’s also Lila Rose, we just put out a single with her a few months ago. It was particularly special to me, because Lila and I have been close friends for several years. That song really ended up feeling like the anthem for our new year.

One of the big things we thought about prior to starting OIM was, if you don’t have a ton of money going in, what are you really offering to these artists? Because that’s a big part of it, you need money to be able to do the things you want to do. As a band, unless you have a lot of time, you need a publicist. Even if you have a studio, you need the engineer, you need the mixer… there are just so many things that cost money. So as a label, you have to be a resource to these artists. You’re their support system, and I think all that stuff is imperative. Being able to say, “I don’t know how to do this, let me check with the team,” is a big deal for a band.

I can say this generally about art, but specifically with music, there are a number of times I can point to in my life and say, “that album kept me alive.” Whether it was being profoundly sad and needing something to help me through it, or the happy moments, when I needed an outlet to just dance and celebrate and put a smile on my face, music has always been there. So, even though it has been a ton of work, it just makes more and more sense the deeper I get into it.