Aquarium Drunkard's Justin Gage revisits his one big Alabama Shakes mistake

Aquarium Drunkard's Justin Gage revisits his one big Alabama Shakes mistake
Music curator Justin Gage (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Over the past decade, Justin Gage's ear for talent has earned him both acclaim and a career.

One of the first wave of music writers to make money with a self-funded music blog, Gage crafted his Aquarium Drunkard site into a brand one recommendation at a time. Since its birth in 2005, Gage and his small staff of contributors have separated the good stuff from the bad while earning a reputation for the site's taste in roots funk, folk and rock as well as for being the first publication to write about Alabama Shakes, who are contenders for multiple honors at Monday's Grammy Awards.


FULL COVERAGE: Grammy Awards 2016

The success of Aquarium Drunkard led Gage to a specialty show on SiriusXM radio, where for two hours each week he delivers a wildly inventive mix of music. He co-founded a record label, Autumn Tone, which issues excellent records under a partnership with Epitaph Records owner and Bad Religion founder Brett Gurewitz. Gage also serves as a music supervisor for production company Mutato Muzika, where he consults with owner (and Devo co-founder) Mark Mothersbaugh to pick music for various projects. Gage recently signed on to oversee the music for the forthcoming Hulu pilot "When the Street Lights Go On." Gage spoke to The Times from his home in Echo Park.

Ten years ago, being a professional curator wasn't really a career option. You seem to have carved out a way to both be a music fan and make a living at it.

"Curator" is such an overused word, and while I would never self-describe myself that way, it's apt. I think that whether it's the radio show, the podcast, what we're covering online or with the label, there is meaning behind the madness. It all does make sense if you look at it as a whole.

How did you first come across the Alabama Shakes?

A needle in a haystack. Remember when you could "check in" to a place? In 2011, I was looking through my Facebook feed and some guy who lives in Nashville checked in to a bar. When he checked in, [the post] was populated with a photo of Brittany [Howard, the band's frontwoman] playing that night. It's the same photo I posted on Aquarium Drunkard when I wrote about it — her in a housedress playing a Gibson SG.

They were just called the Shakes at the time. So I typed in "the Shakes" and came up with a ReverbNation page. It had two tracks, and I clicked on it and one of them was "You Ain't Alone." [I thought], "Good God, what is this?" I shot them an email. It went to Brittany. I said, "Hey, my name is Justin and I do this thing called Aquarium Drunkard. I found your page and I love your stuff. Do you have any more music I could hear?" She wrote back.

Did she know who you were?

She wasn't familiar with the music blog, but she knew Sirius radio. That's what caught her attention. And she also saw my signature, Autumn Tone Records. I gave her my phone number, and she gave me a call. I told her I really liked their music. She sent me 10 songs — the stuff they ended up cherry-picking for their first EP. I was like, "This stuff is so good. I've got to put this out on my label."

But I made the mistake of posting that song on Aquarium Drunkard. The response was insane. By noon there were already 40 comments. I'd also sent it to Patterson [Hood] from [the alt-rock band] Drive-By Truckers, because we were always sharing music. He shared it with [music management company] Red Light, and they reached out. Within two weeks the band told me, "Yeah, we're not going to do that record with you." They ended up getting a high six-figure deal and sold 2 million records worldwide.

Sometimes I'll get really excited about something and I'll want to write about it, but I'll have to weigh it. 'Is this something I want to go for on the label side?'

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One of your interests sabotaged another of your interests?

I've never posted on an artist again that I wanted to work with on the label side. That was a key moment. I saw what happened. And I'm not saying that everything's going to be an Alabama Shakes moment, but I know that labels and music supervisors go to [Aquarium Drunkard] every day.

When did you start to realize that professionals were paying attention?

Maybe 2008 or 2009. It went from, "Oh, cool," to "Oh ..." It was great that in music supervision they were finding stuff, but I would like to have that gig too, or place that song in a commercial. And I'm also putting out records, so if I'm posting all these artists while we're going for [a record deal], I'm not going to be able to compete with [labels] Matador, 4AD or Merge. It's a weird space to be in. Sometimes I'll get really excited about something and I'll want to write about it, but I'll have to weigh it. "Is this something I want to go for on the label side?"

How did you get your Sirius XM show?

They contacted me in 2007. The programmer said, "Hey, we've been reading your blog for years and we want to offer you a specialty show." I said I was interested but wasn't interested in flavor of the month. I didn't want to limit myself to two hours every week just playing whatever was new. They were totally cool with that. That has been probably my favorite part of the week since 2007. It's putting together a two-hour mix-tape.

It's yet another way to scratch a creative itch, but all this stuff plays into one another. Through that, I hear stuff I maybe wouldn't listen to otherwise. Or I will find an artist that ends up working for the label. The ecosytem all feeds one another.