Magna Carta Records – Peter Morticelli
By Simon Lukic
Transcribed by Murphy
When it comes to the world of Progressive Rock/Metal Peter Morticelli is a name that many of you should know. Not only is he the President/Co founder of Magna Carta Records his history as a manager (from The Rods to Vinnie Moore), booking agent and recording artist should be enough to warrant respect. If you’re still not sure of his credentials then feel free to pick up something released by Shrapnel Records during the eighties for a little proof – you’re sure to find Peter’s name associated with it in some way. The following interview focuses on Peter’s foray into the music industry and the creation of one of the most unique labels currently in operation – Magna Carta Records. Sit back and enjoy the read…it’s quite a story.
Hello Peter. Can you tell me about your initial interest in music?
Yes. Well that goes back a long, long way. I came from a family that was involved in music in terms of performing and playing and so I was just kind of following what I thought everybody did. I figured everybody was a musician. When I was younger, I was very interested in the American folk music movement. You know, acoustic guitars, all that kind of thing. When I was in my early teens the Beatles came along and of course that really had a big impact on me. I was very taken by the whole thing, so I began paying attention to that kind of music. When I was about 18 years old I actually had a recording contract and I recorded a couple of singles. It was the era of the single and I played for quite a long time after that with a couple of popular bands that you’ve probably never heard of. Then at a certain point I kind of became disenchanted with the whole performing thing just because I didn’t think I had any talent. (Laughs)
So what happens next?
I began to think that maybe I wasn’t keeping up with all these great musical performers that were coming along so I thought that maybe the best thing for me to do would be to kind of hang up my ambitions of being a performer. I actually went from there to owning some record stores. This was a long time ago, around 1970 or 1971. At that point in time in this country at least it was a time when people had a hunger for music that was just incredible. Everybody, day after day, you know, would just look and look and look for some new record that had just come out that might be amazing. Young people were just buying music as fast as the record companies could put it out. So I had like 3 little record shops in different college towns in this country and we’d often meet a lot of musicians that came around and people would contact me and say “Hey, you know, we’re going to have an event at our college or we’re going to put on a concert. Do you know any great bands”? Or “How can we get a hold of this band or that band”? I realized at a certain point that it actually could be a business. So I got rid of the record stores and became a booking agent. I booked bands all over the United States, and I really liked that kind of work. Somewhere along the way I got side tracked from being a booking agent and began to be a personal manager of bands. I really thought that that’s what I liked even better so I began to deal with bands that were recording bands and bands on the major labels here. I really thought that that’s what I wanted to do. So I did that for a real long time. Then right around the end of the 80’s I began to have this crazy idea of having a record company.
So what year was this exactly?
Around 1989 or 1990. The reason Magna Carta came about was because I became so disenchanted in dealing with the major record companies as a manager that I said “You know? I don’t want to have to play this game anymore. I’m sick of it. I don’t believe in it”. The people that you had to deal with were not the people that I wanted to deal with and you ended up having to do these things that I didn’t feel good about and I wanted to just be away from it and to just kind of be on my own. And that’s why I started this label knowing that it wasn’t mainstream by any means. It was very artist oriented and that’s the way I wanted it because I didn’t want to have to play those games with radio and promotion men and all that kind of stuff that was going on at the time in this country. I just wanted to kind of set my own standards and have my own set of rules and just kind of exist on the periphery of the business. And for better or worse, that’s what happened. So here I am.
That’s an amazing story! Everything seems to have gradually evolved for you over the years…
Yeah. You know one thing would overlap another. It was always transitioning and really the hardest part was to let go of one aspect and focus on another. For example, I owned the booking agency from 1972 to probably around about the year 2001…I mean I owned that booking agency for a long time. I was a personal manager from probably 1977 until the mid nineties and all the while, even after I had started Magna Carta, I was desperate to get away from being a personal manager at that point because I didn’t want it. I didn’t have time for it. I didn’t enjoy it anymore. But yeah…I’ve been able to be in this business since I was a teenager and you know, at certain parts you wonder, “Okay, well why do I keep going back for more and more punishment?”
But on the other hand it’s at the point where I don’t know how to do anything else at this stage of the game, you know? If I were to turn around tomorrow and try to figure out what to do for the rest of my life I wouldn’t know what that would be because I don’t know anything else. (Laughs)
Fair enough. So what is it about progressive rock that you loved so much?
What I really loved about it was the fact that the bands were so enduring. I mean this stuff, as un-cool and as un-hip as it may be, never goes out of style to a particular audience. And that’s what was so appealing to me when I finally determined what it was that I wanted to do as a record label. I didn’t want to just have a regular record company that was, kind of into all different things. I wanted it to be a specialty thing and I wanted it to be something that had the potential for longevity. I also wanted to be involved with musicians that really could play.
So, I didn’t like Jazz – it wasn’t a big personal favorite of mine as I really did like the sort of heavier aspects of rock. So it made a lot of sense to me to really focus on that. I don’t think that at that point when I did this that there was anybody else doing it, but I do remember being laughed at on a regular basis by distributors and various other music industry moguls when I described to them what I was about to do.
So even though you had a foot in the door, it didn’t help to get the initial ball rolling?
Yeah. Well you see that was the big thing because of all the relationships that I had and my partner had, I took a partner (Mike Varney to be exact) on kind of very early in the life of Magna Carta….
So this partnership got things moving?
Actually, to take a step back, he was a friend of mine who I had said “You know? I have this idea for a record company and this is probably something you should do”. Cause at that point I was still, you know, heavily involved as a personal manager and I actually didn’t see myself in that role. I thought it was going to be someone else that I would just say “here’s this concept. Why don’t you run with it”? Instead he said “that’s ridiculous. This is something you should do”. So I said “yeah, you’re right. Let me do it”. So I started it and then one day he came to me and said “you know what? I do want to be involved with it”. So I said “alright, well let’s do it together then” and that’s how it happened. He had a lot of industry experience as well and so that’s how we began. And you know even though it was kind of like ground zero where we were starting from, we definitely had experience in the business, from another aspect, and a lot of contacts within the business as well. That’s why it was easy for us to be laughed at early on by a lot of music industry people because we did definitely know a lot at that point.
Peter & Mike Varney
I became aware of the label through Magellan and especially Shadow Gallery. When did you think things started to kick on in regards to the bands you were bringing to the label?
Well you know to be quite honest with you, when we first started the label, there were hardly any bands that were suitable for the label. One of the first things I did was take out advertisements in music magazines. I remember advertising in Kerrang magazine in England and a few other places because there were no bands really. There were just a very small handful of bands and this was in the era….probably 4 or 5 years before the internet and e-mail really became a part of peoples’ lives. As a result we became aware of a very underground scene where people were trading tapes and literally writing letters to one another about “hey! Did you ever hear of this band”? So….Magellan was a band that was under a different name. Shadow Gallery was a band that had sort of a different style but they needed direction and Cairo wasn’t a full band.
So the bands were still very much at the early stages of formation?
It was just some guys that, you know, when motivated and directed, became what they became. A lot of these early things that we worked on were almost creations and they worked out really well. Of course the musicians were usually in situations where they didn’t have any other opportunities to make music and to record, so for them it was really an amazing opportunity even though none of us knew what it could lead to. We just didn’t have a clue. We were just kind of making up our own rules.
So what were the early days like for you?
When we first started was there was really no market for it in the United States and there was a kind of limited market for it in Europe, but our biggest market was Japan at that stage of the game. The Japanese really couldn’t get enough of this stuff and for our first few years in business, it really was based in Japan. It wasn’t until the early or mid 90’s that we began to put out records in the United States. Then everything really changed quickly because Europe got more interested in it and the United Stated got interested in it very quickly and the interest in Japan actually got to be less and less. So things really changed kind of quickly.
For a number of years there, Magna Carta became a haven for many side projects – the various members of Dream Theater being the most obvious one. Do you think these projects raised the labels profile?
Yeah I really do. You know, the thing about it was that we were just basically charting new territory as there wasn’t a roadmap that we could follow. What did happen was that other people came along and said “oh wow. Well let’s do what they’re doing”. They may have had more money behind them and certainly they could take a look at us and learn from our mistakes and our successes. So other people began to get into the mix at that point. But we did attract musicians that wanted to experiment and wanted to be doing something different than they were doing everyday and that was a good thing.
You managed to get some interesting players together?
You know something that was a real plus for us was that we knew a lot of great players and so we would put combinations together that normally wouldn’t happen. That was our biggest strength and also the thing that was difficult for us to overcome. It’s not like bands come to us all the time. They don’t. We’re constantly looking and looking and looking and trying to put things together because in our own history, our most successful titles are for the most part, things that we just kind of conjured up and put together. You know, the Levin/Bozzio/Stevens, Liquid Tension Experiment, Attention Deficit material. All the stuff came out of thin air.
And was that the idea behind the tributes as well?
Yeah, that’s right. There were several reasons for doing that and it kind of went like this. We were tinkering around and having fun and thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could get this guy and that guy and we have them play all together on one song? That was one of the reasons why we started doing the tribute groups. The second reason was we felt that if we could put our new Magna Carta artists, like the guys from Shadow Gallery or Magellan, put them in combination with well known players, that it would shed more light on our guys and hopefully their own CD’s would sell more. The third reason was that we hoped the tributes would generate money which would then give us the funds to do other projects. Magna Carta is a true independent label and we’re not owned by or partly owned by anybody else or another big company or anything like that, so every dollar that gets spent from Magna Carta is literally out of our own pockets. That’s one of the reasons behind doing those records. So we did that and we put out 3 or 4 out in quick order and they were successful. Of course the bandwagon began and other people said “oh wow. Let’s do the same thing”. What happened was when something like this starts, the new guy on the block says “well lets do the same thing except we’ll pay more money to the artists so that they’ll come to us and do it”. So it got stupid and we basically said “you know what? Let’s get away from that” because even though it was great fun it just got watered down with some really bad stuff. Also the musicians then thought “Wow! We can make a lot of money from this” and as it turned out sales were declining and people were paying more and more for these projects. So it just didn’t make sense in the end.
What about Drum Nation and in particular the recently released VOLUME III? Is there a reason why you went into a heavier direction with the modern day Metal players? It’s something a little new for the label.
Yeah. Well I mean here’s the reality. As a label you can only go back to the same set of players so many times before people are going to just kind of get fed up with that approach. So we looked around and asked where are the virtuosos? Where are the guys that are notable for being the leaders in their particular field, their particular instrument? We just didn’t see them. We couldn’t identify them. So we thought at a certain point, someone has got to become the next generation and we said if we can’t really name them and it’s not apparent, then lets choose some and maybe the public will say “okay. These are the new guys”. And that’s really how we approached DRUM NATION III. We said lets find the best guys that we can find out there and essentially put them in front of people and say “okay. Here you go. What do you think”?
Was it of interest to you that they were on the heavier end of the rock scale or didn’t that matter?
Well you know it’s strange because at least from my end of things, it just didn’t occur to me. I mean I didn’t think they were any different than any of the guys that we had worked with when we first started, you know? And that’s something that a lot of people don’t understand about my particular approach. To me progressive music is music that’s unusual and challenging. It doesn’t mean that it has to sound like Genesis or Yes. A few years ago we started sort of an off shoot label called Magnitude and Magnitude, for me, was progressive music except that it wasn’t on the heavier side. It was more improvisational. It was more influenced by Jazz and Blues and more organic types of music as opposed to heavy. And because I don’t define things like that in my own head, I’m not sitting there saying “You know the drummer from Lamb Of God is in a really heavy band”. To me I’m thinking Chris Adler is a fantastic player and he really has amazing ideas and so I want to work with him. That’s how it is for me. So, yeah, I knew we were getting guys from newer bands and obviously I recognized the fact that a lot of these bands were considered, you know, the new Metal or the new heavy bands, but I just thought these are great young players and I want to do something with them.
I think it’s a fantastic CD and it’s a really cool attitude that you have. What about the new bands that you’re working with? You’ve got Age of Nemesis, Anthropia and a whole bunch of others. Would you like to talk about them for a bit?
What bothered me about a lot of the bands in our early years is that these guys were what I would call pretend bands. We always referred to them as being pretend bands because they never went out and played. They didn’t go out and play live and they didn’t go on tours. Part of it certainly wasn’t their doing as there may not have been a market or venues for them to play, but I almost don’t know if that’s true. I think that if they had gone out and played they would have had an audience. But, you know, they were coming up with a million different excuses about why they couldn’t play and I really didn’t think that helped the credibility of the bands or the label.
And at a certain point I really got turned off to signing new progressive bands because they didn’t play anywhere. I began to look around and I saw all these other bands that were playing 200 dates a year and playing interesting music. Guys that were, from a technical perspective, quite good. And again, you know, my sort of inability to categorize people led me to sign a bunch of bands that were considered “jam bands” in the United States. That was a title of a particular style of band that was a new thing in the West. 10 or 12 years ago these guys were playing all over the country all the time night after night and this is the thing that appealed to me. I realized that we couldn’t put them on Magna Carta because we would enflame those people that would follow the label because of the progressive aspect of it, even though in my heart I felt that these other bands were in their own right progressive. So we put them on this other label called Magnitude and we stopped looking for the young progressive bands at the time. Then a little over a year ago I was attending this industry meeting that happens every year in France called MIDEM. There I had the opportunity to meet a young musician who had a band and he had vision of what he wanted to do. I was really impressed by this guy and he had this band called Anthropia. I said if this kid exists over here in France, there might be others, so we signed that band and then the year before that at the same function we had come across this group from Hungary. At the time they were called Nemesis but they later changed their name to Age of Nemesis. So one piece began to make sense in relation to another piece and suddenly we had two of these really good bands. Then we found out about a band from Brazil and soon we found out about another band from Italy and I thought to myself that there’s something going on. It’s not huge at this point and may not even ever be huge, but there are these guys that are really motivated. And they want to do things different than some of their predecessors, they DO want to go out and play live and they’re not afraid to put themselves on a stage and try and make it happen in front of people. So we had these new, young progressive bands that I think are amazingly talented and like I said, we don’t know if there’s ever going to be an audience of any size to embrace them but we want to try.
So you’re excited again but in a different way?
Yeah. In fact all the things that were making me unhappy about some of the older bands, those aren’t the things that are problems for these newer bands. I mean the young guys now, they want to go out and play and they want to be seen, so that aspect of it is really positive.
Peter & Terry Bozzio
So where is Magna Carta making the biggest impact nowadays. You spoke about Europe earlier?
In Europe now our profile is probably as high as it’s ever been and, you know, our distribution situation is really good there. Japan, you know, like I told you, Japan was great for us for quite a while when we first started.
Why the lack of interest?
First of all the economy went bad there. Another thing is that the Japanese rock music scene was completely based on music from the West for a long time and at a certain point, about 8 or 10 years ago I think the Japanese record companies said “you know what? We’ve had enough of this”. Additionally, the Japanese press was very aware of the fact that Japanese music wasn’t very cool. So I’m quite sure there was a very conscious effort between the press and the record companies there to kind of create their own thing. They made a big point of getting Japanese domestic artists to create enough of a buzz or interest where they began to rely less and less on music from the West. So now it’s pretty non-existent. It’s very difficult for companies to get any kind of distribution in Japan and have any kind of presence. If you can get something happening there, it’s a good thing, but it’s almost nearly impossible now.