Charter Mint 400 recording act Fairmont have been celebrating their 20th anniversary together with their 11th album, Liminal Spaces. Founding singer-songwriter-guitarist-producer-videographer-graphic artist Neil Sabatino’s multi-hyphenated talents also include founder of the label. And what a great job he does all around on behalf of the North Jersey indie’s many bands and his bandmates. They are longtime collaborator and multi-instrumentalist Christian Kisala, who appears on a majority of the band’s catalog; keyboarist Lisa Grabinski (Dharma Plums), who’s appearing on her second Fairmont album; bassist Matt Cheplic (The Bitter Chills, Splendid Engine) on his third, and new guitarist Evan Pope (The Maravines).
The Makin Waves 2020 Producer of the Year, Neil has amassed a catalog of 350 releases on Mint 400 since 2007. His great history in the New Jersey music scene includes his membership in Pencey Prep, an Eyeball Records label mate of My Chemical Romance, whose guitarist, Frank Iero, eventually joined My Chem. Pencey Prep dissolved after one album, Heartbreak in Stereo, which Mint 400 recently reissued. I spoke with Neil about his fascinating history and massive impact, as well as Fairmont’s 20th anniversary in the following interview:
Given how difficult it is for bands to survive, comment on how and why it is special and important that Fairmont are celebrating your 20th anniversary.
I think it’s just a matter of finding the right people to play with you and having goals set that we want to achieve in the short term every year. Like charting with radio or making top 10 end-of-the-year lists are nice but are not the goal we go into every year with. We start by just laying out what we want to accomplish, like writing a new EP or album, and what musical themes we want to explore. I think because we’ve been doing this for so long it’s a process that lends itself to things like switching up members or people within the band switching instruments. Right now, Christian Kisala has been with me for about 12 to 13 years and has been our keyboards, vibraphone, synth, and bass player when needed, and then, when our drummer, Andy Applegate, had health issues, Christian filled in on drums for our last two albums. Other players in the band, like Matt Cheplic, who we’ve been borrowing now for three or more years from The Bitter Chills, has been on guitar for two albums and bass on our newest.
It’s special when a band enjoys that kind of flexibility. It allowed us to bring in Lisa Grabinski and Evan Pope and let them play instruments they were comfortable with instead of forcing them to play an instrument that they might not have been comfortable with. I think it’s pretty great when you have a band like this of versatile people that can be moved around and it’s a main contributing factor to the band’s longevity.
How and when are you celebrating your 20th anniversary?
Right now, we have no plans for a live event because of the pandemic, but we are working toward a second retrospective of the last 10 years, and we will contribute two new songs to that. If we are able to, we likely will try doing a set of some songs from the last 20 years whether it’s a virtual concert or something later in 2021 at a real venue.
Have you written and released a song that relates to Fairmont’s 20 years together?
I think many of my songs have dealt with the struggles of being a songwriter. I think every album has a few songs that have been about band members or just the soul-crushing nature of the music industry. On our recent album, the song “High Water Mark” is pretty much the story of starting a band never finding the recognition you want, and the inevitable time in most aging musicians’ lives where they no longer can put the effort and heart into something they loved that just won’t love them back.
At what point in Fairmont’s history does Mint 400 Records come to fruition and why?
At the time in 2007, Fairmont had finished up a record deal with our third indie label since Fairmont formed. We had the rights to all of our recordings and wanted to house them all under the same entity. With that, we got a distribution deal, and luckily over a couple of years, the small distro we were with got eaten up by a bigger distro and then eventually eaten up by Sony, which put us in a great position to distribute our music. Along the way, friends asked us to help them out by distributing their music through our account. This just kind of overnight allowed us to form the label and help our friends. I think in the following year, I decided I might as well just do the label full-on so that Fairmont has bands we can work with across the U.S., Canada, and locally to trade shows and resources. At the time, we really offered nothing except distribution, some resources, and local shows, but that was enough to get us started. The main thing that made us hold off for so long was just people saying, ‘You can’t start a label.’ I also knew that with the unique artist’s view I had that I could be a label that was the opposite of everything that was wrong with other labels. We could be a transparent label run by artists for artists.
Describe Fairmont’s first album and share its release date, and do the same for Mint 400’s first release.
Fairmont’s first album was released in December 2001 and was called ‘Pretending Greatness Is Awaiting.’ This album was started in August 2001 and was originally eight acoustic songs, which was the first Fairmont demo. It was then given to the wonderful Dave Roth at Reinforcement Records who said they would sign us and release it. However, the plan was to do another eight songs in October 2001 that were electric to add to the release.
Dave Roth at Reinforcement Records had also helped out my previous band Stick Figure Suicide. At the time, Dave Caldwell of the band The Multi-Purpose Solution played drums for me, and ex-Pencey Prep & Sector 12 bass player Bruno Rocha joined the band as well to help me flesh out the first round of electric songs. So the epic 16-track album became our first release and official album.
The label Mint 400 Records actually started with Fairmont’s fifth album ‘Transcendence.’ As stated earlier, we finally had all of our recordings under our control and were finishing what we considered our magnum opus. Along with our previous albums, these were the first Mint 400 releases. It wasn’t until my cousin’s band, Brian Ristagno of Theodore Grimm, needed a label that we started to branch out and work with our friends and sign new bands.
Why was Fairmont’s name inspired by your wife’s hometown in Minnesota?
Pencey Prep, my former band was on tour staying with my in-laws in Fairmont, Minn., when we started to argue on our first tour. I had written a song or two while on that tour, and it seemed like our stay in Fairmont became the catalyst for me being kicked out of the band and moving onto something new. Really all of my best friends at the time were in the band, and as I started a new band, my future wife was my greatest source of self-esteem and drive to move on to do something new. So the band was named after her hometown as a tribute to her and because it was the town where the beginning of the end happened for Pencey Prep.
Was the name Mint 400 inspired by the off-road auto race, something else, and why?
In the book ‘Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas,’ Hunter S. Thompson is covering the race, and I just thought it was a catchy name. I kind of liked the idea of the logo using a script-ey font for the word ‘mint’ and big block letters for the ‘400.’ Also if you want to dig in, it was related to the label in that Thompson’s character existed on the outside fringes of journalism, and I think the label exists in a unique space where we do things really differently from other labels. Initially, I just used the name to pretend I was on a label with Fairmont and then willed it into existence when we thought seriously about having a label to house all of our releases.
During the course of Fairmont’s 20 years, how has the New Jersey music scene changed and why?
When I first started the band, the scene was pretty screamy and heavy, and we tried to be that for a couple of years with a whole host of different members coming and going. My voice just sounded awful with the mix of heavy music we were trying to do, and it really took almost two full years to realize even though we may be very unpopular, the only stuff I sounded decent on was indie-folk type music. We started to basically sound like a mix of Jay Reatard and The Front Bottoms but in 2002. We paid dearly for trying to be mellow but not in a moody emo way. We just did not fit in anywhere, and it was exacerbated by me trying to learn how to sing in those first couple of years. At loud shows, my voice just was awful and couldn’t cut through because I hadn’t taken vocal lessons and learned how to project at that point.
It was shortly after that switch of sound that we discovered the Hoboken scene and were more accepted than before. We really could only play Hoboken and NYC, otherwise, we always felt very odd musically. Just about that time, Jersey City also was becoming a great spot to play. We realized if Jersey just wasn’t into us, we had to tour and get out of there as much as possible. We really found more acceptance everywhere except New Jersey in spots like New England, Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Louis, and across most of the Midwest.
Fast-forward a decade, and it was like Jersey City became this incredible haven of creative people and cool spots to play shows. It really was the change we had been longing for where we weren’t just on shows with punk and hardcore bands. Because I had the label by then, I also was always looking for venues and cool spaces that would let me put on showcases. From that search, we had years of shows at various spots in Jersey City from the Iron Monkey and St. Bridgett’s Church on Montgomery to Pet Shop, FM, & White Eagle Hall. For a while, we were having luck also doing regular shows at Fontana’s in NYC. This later led us to find Stosh’s in Fair Lawn, Gentle Giant Brewery in Pearl River, and then branching out to Asbury Park and even New Hope, Pa. For us the change in the scene has been we were able to get away from more corporate-run venues that had rigid rules on how they wanted shows run, and we could do things the way we always wanted to do them. I’m not sure if that was because of an overall shift in the scene or because we got older and didn’t buy into the bullshit of pay-to-play or venues that ran things without the bands’ best interest in mind.
During the past 20 years, how and why have Fairmont and Mint 400 evolved, changed, and adapted?
I think the digital age brought on a lot of unexpected changes for bands. The exposure has grown exponentially to crazy levels, but the amount of money we were able to make diminished greatly. I think it’s a whole new ball game as far as surviving as a band and a label in this day and age. I personally believe as a record label, we have a model that was built for this. As a band, it’s been a change that has us being more productive because of the culture of people constantly looking for the next thing you are working on. At this point in the game, we are still here, and every year, Mint 400 becomes more relevant as we expose fans to more amazing bands so we must be doing something right.
What do you love most about owning your own record label?
I do really enjoy most aspects of it. I enjoy the process of finding bands and being able to put them on an organized path for gaining more exposure and building their brand. On the creative side, I love producing bands, creating album artwork, and directing videos. I really wish the financial reward was greater so this could be all I do, but at the same time, not depending on this to put food on the table has been a luxury that allows me to find and put out what I deem as high quality without worrying about what the consumer response to it will be. The label is a collection of some of the most talented people that I think exist, and it’s my pleasure to help other people get to know them.
You are what I call a multi-hyphenated talent in that you write and perform your own music; record, produce and release it, as well as that of others; create graphics and videos for Fairmont and other Mint 400 acts, and produce music festivals, concerts, and special events. What inspired and taught you to become a renaissance man, and how does that bode well for you, Fairmont, and Mint 400?
I think it’s all been a matter of necessity, and it just was a combination of my art background that lent itself to starting a record label. My background in college dealt with animation so I learned film editing, sound editing, and illustration as part of that. Around the same time that I was in college, I was also always the person in the bands that I was in that had to secure shows and book events so it just made sense that eventually, I was booking tours and then parlaying that into regular events not just for my band but others as well. It really comes down to the philosophy of if you want something done right, do it yourself. Not to say that anyone else is doing it wrong, but I definitely like to do things my way and have control over as much as possible. So to answer your question, my own stubbornness has made me into a renaissance man.
Which talent was first — visual art or music — and how and why do they feed each other?
I think it’s more a matter of doing one or the other at a certain point each year. I’ll be dead set on finishing an album and then pretty much all of my musical creative juices are drained, and that’s when I’ll turn to illustration and picking up on previous projects. Mostly with illustration, it’s come down to when art is needed for a purpose. I usually just get involved whether it’s for hire or a band asking me to do graphic design or even show flyers. I don’t know if I’m any good at either, but I definitely have my own unique style, and I have accolades I’m proud of with both things.
Having studied animation at the School of Visual Art in New York City, have you made any animated films and music videos?
I did work in animation for a couple of years, but it was mostly storyboarding with some shows like ‘Cyberchase,’ ‘Sheep In The City,’ ‘Saturday Night Live,’ and ‘A Little Curious.’ I did my own films while in college and pretty quickly got bored with how monotonous animation could be. However, on the video side, I’ve been pretty much doing them consistently for the last 20 years for my band and others. One of the few videos that combines stop motion in a music video is The Bitter Chills ‘Why Not Us.’ I would love to do more animation, and I have all kinds of things worked out to animate. It’s just a matter of finding the time. However, I do find that I have more of a love of film over animation. At some point, I’d like to see some of the film scripts I’ve worked on come to fruition.
Having studied in NYC, what made you want to continue to live and work in New Jersey?
I have been a Jersey person all my life. I just never wanted to live in NYC even though I was there for school and work in the ’90s. I did not stay in a dorm when I went to college. I drove to Hoboken every day and parked and took the PATH Trains. The same went for working in the city. Eventually getting double-taxed and paying so much to park, travel, and eat took a toll, and I was making triple the amount of money by finding a graphic design job in NJ over animation work in New York.
What are Mint 400’s greatest success, achievement, and impact and why?
Mint 400 Records is a collective thing that I am in the process of building. I think taking bands like Sink Tapes, Young Legs, SWiiMS, Tim Carman & The Street 45’s, among others from not really existing to releasing a catalog and gaining a fan base has been a success. Other things like running festivals, including The North Jersey Indie Rock Festival with two dozen bands on two stages, felt pretty significant. We have built a scene in North Jersey at Stosh’s and other places. Creating tribute albums and compilations along with the other 350 releases we have put out feels gigantic when I look back to the beginning starting with just my own albums. I think collectively the label is focused on artists and building those artists. I’ve achieved and am achieving what I want to with the label and my band so I don’t really care if it doesn’t meet the standards of success that other labels are striving for. I’ve known many labels that couldn’t stick around as long as we have and have a happy roster that feels supported. We’ll see what the lasting impact is, but at the very least, hopefully, someone somewhere is discovering their favorite bands brought to light by a small New Jersey label.
Do you have a favorite Fairmont album and why?
I think the 2008 album ‘Transcendence’ is pretty special. It was made using producer Bryan Russell, who went on to be Grammy-nominated, and he really helped us hone our craft. He also made the experience affordable and because of his flexibility, we were able to incorporate an orchestra and lots of guest people that helped bring that album to another level. It’s been the record that most fans have gravitated toward. Whether they realize it or not, the themes of that album have a more cohesive feel than any other album as it was written about a dear friend of mine who was being raised by a cult of Spiritualists. There is really an entire musical inside of that album complete with a reprise at the end. I’m pretty proud of that album, and I think at some point, we’ll revisit it and play that music again and possibly do more with it as far as repressing it or something along those lines.
How does Liminal Spaces compare to Fairmont’s previous albums?
I really enjoyed working on the songwriting aspect of this album. I enjoy especially working with Christian Kisala and Matt Cheplic as kind of the arrangers and editors of Fairmont songs. They definitely let me know when things are not working. I do think a couple of songs were rushed onto the album because we were all stuck at home during the pandemic, and songs had to be created without the benefit of lots of band practices to sculpt the songs further.
When not busy with Fairmont and Mint 400, you are a husband, father, and art teacher. What’s it like trying to balance all that successfully and why?
I have no idea how I balance everything, but unfortunately for the bands and the label, my wife and kids are top priority. Luckily, I have lots of drive and ambition, enough to spread around some for everyone. I also really love my job as an art and graphic design teacher and working in special education. It feels rewarding and is just as important as the other things I do. I don’t really feel overwhelmed or too busy ever so until that happens, I’m fine being all of those things.