Exclusive: Interview with Jac Holzman

Jac Holzman, early '60s

Anyone who is familiar with the history of The Doors knows how instrumental Jac Holzman and Elektra Records were to their success. Rarely have a label and an owner been mentioned so prominently in the history of a band.

Elektra is celebrating its 60th anniversary. In the first ten years of its history Elektra was known for its folk music albums before moving off into Rock ‘n’ Roll. The history of Elektra is documented in the forthcoming book Becoming Elektra which covers the years from its inception in 1950 until 1973 when owner/founder Jac Holzman sold it to Warner Music Group. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Jac.

JC: What about pop music made you think it was an expanding market?

JH: I don’t think about markets. It is not the way I work. I think about the music I am interested in. Do I like it? Do I think I can work with the artist? Is it going to be fun to do? Is it something I have heard before? If I get the right answers to enough of those questions I just proceed. I never think about markets. You can’t chase markets. At least I can’t. Maybe some other people can. Clive Davis does a pretty good job of it.

But it wasn’t pop music, I use the phrase over and over again until it makes me nauseous. I just followed where the music took me. I listened to everything that came in and I just made my choices. It’s that simple. It’s not a complex (thing). After awhile you develop certain kinds of techniques and acts, but that wasn’t a problem for me. I don’t consider markets.  I don’t try to figure out where things are going because nobody can really do that. I can tell if I think a song was going to be lasting or not, if it has the kind of quality that I am looking for. It is always about the singer and the song.

JC: It seems Elektra used a very innovative approach to promoting The Doors, such as the billboard on Sunset and making the Break on Through film. Was this a conscious attempt to be innovative or was it more of using the tools available at the time?

JH: I don’t think you can make conscious attempts to be innovative. You’re innovative or you’re not innovative. And innovative is a matter of. . .was the person innovative who followed me and decided to put posters up on the Sunset Strip? I don’t know. I won’t argue that one way or the other. But I had a particular problem and that was I had to convince people in Los Angeles that we were serious about this group and I put it up on Sunset Boulevard where everybody who’s involved in entertainment and music would see it. It was a fresh tool at the time. Everybody did it after that. But I had that billboard for over a year and when Jim died I did a special billboard for the group and left it up there for six months.

JC: How important was it to the success of a band to bring together the right production team such as Bruce Botnick and Paul Rothchild with groups such as The Doors?

JH: Absolutely, Rothchild was the only person who I thought was smart enough to deal with every member of the band. He was a terrific producer. He knew how to get the effects that he wanted. He didn’t say. . .as I heard of a producer saying one day, I wanted more magenta. He knew how to get it. He could tell you where magenta lay. And he was terrific. Botnick had never heard the material. So Bruce brought the band into the studio, which I am surprised about but he just never heard it. Everyone was rehearsed for two weeks. So that they were so into the material. . .not overdone. . .so into the material so that we could just move through it fairly quickly. It was about a seven day album.

JC: If Arthur Lee and Love had toured more would Elektra have supported The Doors as heavily as they did, or would Love have been the main focus for Elektra, or would there have been a dual push of the bands?

JH: I would have been thrilled if Arthur had done more. We go with what’s happening.  When you see a band that’s essentially self-destructive, there is not a hell of a lot you can do for them. The Doors picked. . .there were a lot of things available to Love back East, they just canceled out of them. . .The Doors said ‘yeah, I would like that, we would like that.’ So they took the gigs and created a minor sensation in New York. We’re more than capable of handling more than two artists at one time.

As a lot of history in my period indicates and especially during (Bob) Krasnow’s period we can. . .the thing that most people don’t understand is how financially stable we were. We were financially stable not from popular music, but from sound effects and above all classical music. Nonesuch was enormously profitable. So this is one of those rare cases where classical music funded my explorations into rock n’ roll. The whole investment in The Doors, including all the initial marketing was under $25k. That included making the record.

Jac Holzman today

JC: You couldn’t do that today. . .

JH: No, you can’t do it today because everybody. . .because the galoots have gotten into the system. Galoot is spelled g-a-l-o-o-t.  If that isn’t a word you have seen, it’s a good word. I like it (laughs).

JC: Most Doors fans know the stories about Jim Morrison. Are there any stories about the other members of The Doors that might be insightful or stick out in your mind?

JH: They were all individuals, but when they were together they were a true band. And they shared everything equally and nobody stood out as more important than anybody else. They’re all characters and there have been enough stories about them that I really have nothing to add to the stories that have been written, but they were just fine with me.

They were pussy cats. Jim was a pussy cat. He tried to get me drunk from time to time, but I was smart enough not to drink with Jim. It was a very, very pleasant time and when all the ruckus came up because of New Haven and Miami we never judged them. We took that time to go back into the studio, do Morrison hotel.

JC: The late 60’s was most famously known for not trusting anyone over 30. At that time you were in your mid-30’s and working with some of the most volatile personalities, Jim Morrison and MC5 come to mind. Was there any of the generation gap feeling between you and any of the bands?

JH: Ha-ha. . .Well you’ve got to understand that I had been doing this for over fifteen years and I had. . .and that was a real plus. If I had just been a neophyte in the business, would they have trusted me?  No, I had no track record, but here I had a track record.  They. . .and my track record as far as they were concerned had nothing to do with my age.  It had to do with what I had released over the years. Krieger was a Sabicus fan. The fact that we had those artists on our label meant we’re special. So that wasn’t difficult. And besides, we had Love and The Doors frequently said if they could only be as big as Love we’d be happy. But we didn’t have a hit single with Love. We had singles – 7 & 7 Is was probably the biggest hit they had.

I was lucky I had my eardrums at the end of those sessions. But it was, it was easy with them. You know something that other people would get worked up over. I just didn’t get worked up.  I’d smooth the ruffled feathers where they had smoothed by Jim’s occasional behavior. But Jim was most of the time a pussy cat and every once in awhile he’d get the wrong combinations of drugs and/or alcohol inside him and he would go off. It was like someone lighting a fuse.

JCBecoming Elektra isn’t the first history of the label (the oral biography Follow the Music was published in 1998), and it was at your suggestion that Becoming Elektra be written. What part of the story do you think was missed before?

JH: It was Jawbone’s idea and it came to them because I was distributed by a company called Publishers Group West as were they. Publishers Group West filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy and I was looking for someone to continue and distribute this book. Jawbone raised their hands. So they took the book over and then they. . .I think when they realized we had a 60th year coming up, they said what about a book? And, I said how would you do it that’s different? And they said, well we’d put a lot more pictures in it and we’d want to run all the covers and that was a very important point to me.

I knew Mick Houghton and his writing because he had written the book that came with the Elektra box set Forever Changing. Which was a wonderful large book, beautifully laid out, very well done. So I suggested him and then he and I did eighty hours of interviews and about a hundred hours of editing and god knows how much time writing captions and selecting photos, and going through the all the finished photo layouts to make sure that they made sense and that we had the right jackets up there. It was an incredible amount of work.  I have hundreds of hours in that book, but I am glad we did it because it turned out splendidly. I saw your review, by the way. I thought the review was excellent. Thank you.

JC: How do you think the Sunset Strip compares today to the 60’s as a place for bands to get exposure?

JH: I don’t think it has any factor at all. The Sunset Strip is dead. It’s a memory. It blazed brightly in the mid-60’s and early 70’s and then it just became a memory. There was nothing about the Sunset Strip to sustain it. When people would be. . .like the low riders. . .I am not saying this was the low riders, but people driving by in their cars, part of the scene. That’s where the scene was.

There was a small scene in Hollywood. I found Love at Bido Lito’s. That was the scene and people wanted to be seen there and they preened, and dressed up, and all kinds of good stuff. It was fascinating. But, I don’t think it is a place for bands to get exposure right now. Maybe. So I don’t know where the scene is in Los Angeles. The scenes are really in small clubs and not in a place like the Strip which is really more of a tourist trap than anything right now. Whenever the tourists get into it, it always changes in character. The same happened to Greenwich Village. Look at it today. It’s not a scene either.

JC: What are you involved in today?

JH: Well, I’m involved in helping the Warner Music Group embrace its digital future.  I work very closely as senior advisor to the Chairman Edgar Bronfman. I am working on all kinds of stuff I can’t talk about (laughs).

JC: What plans do you have to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Elektra?

JH: In addition to all this I am working on Elektra 60. The reason I am doing Elektra 60 with so much vigor as I am is. . .first of all I am surprised I lived this long. . .but, putting that aside I love indie record making. I really believe in it. If I can inspire one person to go into indie record making and then succeed in it, the whole effort would have been worth it to me. The other thing is that I want to provide a platform for the new Elektra.  So that people can connect the history and what is happening with the new Elektra now.

They have two big hit artists in Cee Lo (Green) and in Bruno Mars. Bruno Mars is a remarkable artist. He writes great songs. He can write anthemic songs. He writes simple songs and connects them with his heart, which is really unusual in anything that feels related to hip hop. So there’s that and Cee Lo has got this high voice and this great attitude, and this terrific fuck you song which had me in hysterics.

I knew the problems he was going to have. I had that problem forty years ago with the MC5 with Kick Out the Jams Motherfuckers. We had two versions of the thing. . .they had two versions of the thing. The solution is the same. The celebration of Elektra’s 60th involves a lot of stuff. It involves the Elektra60.com website. If you haven’t gone through it, go through it. It is really interesting. The timeline is the most commanding feature of the site. It connects then directly to the Elektra site where we are mutually housed. We are changing that to give us a separate pedestal site from the current Elektra with ways to navigate back and forth easily. We are going to have a whole bunch of stuff up there.

There’s (a section), which is the entire history of, very simply told, the history of pre-recorded music in the whole starting with the player piano and ending up with files and the internet. It’s maybe four pages. Lots of photographs. The stories of each of the Elektra presidents over the years and the artists they brought to the label. We’ll have a children’s music section. We have one coming up, folk instrumentals. We have one on at the fringes or oddities from the Elektra catalog. Things like ­­­the Morse code course.

I did all kinds of weird stuff, but it was stuff I was interested in. I just hope there were enough people out there with tastes similar to mine that this would make some sense. So the modules are. . .these little modules are what we call the categories are many. We have the Zodiac Cosmic Sounds of the Rubaiyat, which was the 40th anniversary multiple record set which took artists from my era and Geffen’s era and had Bob Krasnow’s current artists from 1985 on do an interpretation of these artists and their songs. It’s a wonderful, wonderful album. Very well done.

We are going to have a feature, Ask Jac. The question of the week wins something special. I will continue to write articles. At one point we will take my book Follow the Music and publish one chapter a week, downloadable. There will be an Elektra memorabilia and photo gallery. There will be some Elektra presentations that no one has ever seen before, except Elektra distributors and sales people.

Plus all the production credits for the people who made this site happen. We are also going to have a special feature called Lost Treasures of the Timeline. The artists that doubled under that didn’t make it. We have had another suggestion for that. That category came about as a result of people saying where are the Pixies? Well the Pixies wouldn’t give us a track, but I know where to get a track now and I will talk to the guy who owns the label and I’ll get it.

JC: Thank you for talking with me.

JH: Thank you.

This was the first interview done as The Doors Examiner and was first published in September 2009.

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