How Innovative Leisure Uses a ‘Simple Ethos’ for Putting Out Eclectic Records

On June 29th 2016

by Dan Reilly

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Ten years ago, Innovative Leisure founders Jamie Strong and Nate Nelson became friends while working at Stones Throw Records in Los Angeles. They also found out they had another, even more unique connection: Both of their parents met at Mesa State College in Colorado, though they didn't go to school there at the same time. Strong's parents moved to Wisconsin while Nelson's stayed in Grand Junction, where he was born and raised.

As much as the newfound friends loved their jobs, respectively handling the label's marketing and licensing, they couldn't bury the urge to develop their own acts. "We kept suggesting artists to sign while there, but at the end of the day we had our set functions and it was made apparent that A&R was not one of them," Nelson says. "With the blessing of the bosses, I started the label on the side to do more creative stuff."

And so began Innovative Leisure in 2010, with Nelson nicking the name from "an old videogame instruction manual" he found. He started by releasing 12-inches for Nguzunguzu and Machine Drum, and eventually, joining forces with Strong, they released the debut singles blues rocker Hanni El Khatib, who's now a part owner and the Art Director of IL.

In 2011, when they released El Khatib'sWill the Guns Come Outalbum, Nelson and Strong decided to go out on their own for good. "We signed Hanni, Nick Waterhouse, Allah-Las and Rhye, among others, and when those acts started to build, we cut bait with Stones and focused on IL full-time." Rhye, the alt-soul duo of Mike Milosh and Robin Hannibal, was a particular early success, with their lead single "Open" leading to a sort of buyout deal from Polydor in 2012, giving Innovative Leisure a lot more capital to work with when it came to building their label with acts that piqued their interests.

"Our general idea was to work with artists that we liked regardless of genre or current hype," Nelson says. "It's a pretty simple ethos, but not every label practices it."

That open-minded approach led them to sign Toronto jazz act BadBadNotGood, who they discovered through one of Strong's connections. "Over the years, I became friends with their manager Matt Langille from an event series that I helped start up for Stones Throw called Move, which took place in Chicago and Toronto.  Innovative Leisure was just getting off the ground and Matt hit me up to tell me about these jazz kids that he was managing now in Toronto and to see if they might be of interest to us.  Off the bat, Nate and I were quite impressed with what we heard, which at that time was mainly covers of hip-hop classics so we decided to fly to Toronto to catch their second show ever.

While a typical jazz gig might attract an older, stuffier crowd, Strong and Nelson saw the complete opposite. "It was mind-blowing. Here were all these kids moshing and going wild to jazz music, which was unlike anything I had ever seen before," Strong says. "Couple that with the fact they were – and are – some of the most amazing musicians that I've ever seen. There was this mix of jazz, hip-hop, electronic and hints of Krautrock that all somehow made sense. We both knew immediately there was something special there and would be a perfect match for us."

Innovative Leisure signed BBNG after the then-trio self-released their second album. After 2014'sIIIand a 2015 side project with Ghostface Killah calledSour Soul, BadBadNotGood are set to releaseIVon July 8th. As the Innovative Leisure guys tell it, they approached this LP the same way as most of the others they've put out, outside of helping bring in a few guest stars.

"We trust and believe in our artists for who they are and let them do their thing. We may offer some suggestions from time to time on potential guests to work with or opinions on certain songs over others, but BBNG is pretty dialed in," Strong says. "I helped line up the BBNG remix of Future Islands' 'Seasons' from one of our good friends at 4AD because I knew they could knock it out of the park. Sure enough, they did. All parties loved it and worked out a trade to have [Future Islands' vocalist] Sam Herring sing on one of their tracks, 'Time Moves Slow.'"

While they have a "few tricks up our sleeve" they won't divulge regarding the promotion ofIV, outside of it being our album of the month for July, the guys say Innovative Leisure will continue on its course of investing in the things they like, plain and simple.

"I'd love to say that we have a formula, but it's somewhat random," Nelson says. "We work with artists whose music we enjoy. Not everything sticks. The stuff that does stick, we work passionately on. I study Ahmet Ertegun's Atlantic style – work hard to develop artists that you personally enjoy and everything else will fall into place."

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