Many of us spend our time in high school experimenting with controlled substances and barely passing AP European History. Amy Madden started a record label. She ran Fiddler Records from 1996 to 2006, signing bands like Dashboard Confessional, New Found Glory, and The Higher. Since then, she’s had her own zine, helped start an online magazine, penned some of your favorite advertisements, and wrote a book. She’s clearly no slacker.
Her book, A Million Miles, tells the story of a young woman touring with one of her favorite bands. It’s heavily influenced by Madden’s own time working with the musicians on her record label. Madden called me up and we chatted about the book (obviously), Jonah Hill (strangely), and her favorite commercials.
You started your own record label when you were 16. What was that like? What inspired you to do that?
It was crazy. I should probably think of something better to say than that. It was a crazy idea and it worked out. I don’t know how it managed to, but it did. I was inspired by the other local record labels around where I was growing up. Different bands would put out 7” I just thought it was the coolest thing and I wanted to do it too. I started to book bands and ask lots of questions and just started my own label.
What kind of music did you listen to when you were growing up?
Horrible pop-punk and ska… [laughs] I mean not horrible… but I love the Mr. T. Experience and Screeching Weasel and just east bay pop-punk.
Obviously starting your own record label is a huge undertaking. Was there something you wanted to change in the music industry? Were you upset that there were not enough pop-punk focused record labels in your home town? Or did you just do it for fun?
It was a combinations of “that’s fun, I wanna do that” and I felt really proud of where I came from. I felt like there were all these great bands that weren’t on labels. In south Florida it felt like it was harder to get attention because it’s difficult for people to get to Miami is a really strange place to grow up musically if you’re not into rap or latin rock. I had more of a “this is our scene, let’s make it cool” kind of vibe, but I definitely wanted to do it because I thought it would be fun.
Who was your favorite band to work with?
I feel like that’s like asking a parent about their favorite kid. Honestly, though. They’re all different. I think I’ve done the worst thing and leaked out that Recover was my favorite to work with. Just because the Recover EP that I put out on Fiddler just felt so right in so many ways. I loved Name Taken and I loved The Higher.
Who was the most exciting to sign?
They’re all exciting! I know that’s totally a cop out, but it’s kind of the same experience as working with them because you’re dealing with four or five different personalities within a band. Your day to day interaction with them is so different from band to band. Different bands care about different things. Name Taken didn’t know what they wanted for artwork. So it was a fun process to sit down and explore what they like and what they don’t like. Other bands, which was equally as fun, would come to you with a vision, and they want the vision, and it’s your job to make the vision come true. With signing them it’s the same process. It’s like, what’s gonna pop up? Who’s gonna get excited? They’re all just so different.
You’ve done a couple of different things in your life. You were running a label, you published Death + Taxes, then you went into advertising. What lead you away from the music world?
I closed Fiddler in 2005. It was not working out. I had problems with our distributer, and getting paid, and it was just too much. At that point I was kind of able to say “Oh, well I’ve should have done this” and “I should have done that,” but by the time you’ve seen what you should have done it’s kind of too late. I closed Fiddler, it couldn’t really run on its own anymore, and I needed a job. I was hired to start Death + Taxes and I loved it, but I still had this lingering feeling that I didn’t finish college and I was getting closer and closer to 30. So I left Death + Taxes to get my official college experience. When I was in school I discovered that I loved advertising. I didn’t even know that I loved it, but I had loved it my whole life. I thought it was normal for people to like commercials, but apparently that was just me.
It made me realize that everything I had been doing at the label and at Death + Taxes was just art direction, and marketing, and advertising. I had my own tiny agency. We were just making bands instead of selling cars.
Since you really love commercials, what is your favorite commercial that you haven’t written?
That’s a really good question. I think right now there is a commercial that won every award, which is something really advertising people only care about. It was by the safety commission for Australia and it was called Fun Ways to Die. It has these amazing little characters that talk about dumb ways to die. Like walking onto railroad tracks or jumping into a shark tank. It’s a really long way to go for a ham sandwich, but it the end, it’s hilarious. I just love that it’s a song and it’s animated. It just feels so old. If you went to a brand and told them, “we’re gonna do a song and it’s gonna be animated,” they’d be like, “what is this, 1985?” Yeah, if you Google “fun ways to die,” you might get a chuckle out of it.
I feel like Australia is the place that you go to die. It’s a dangerous place. They have all those weird spiders and snakes and all of the other terrible things that can kill you.
Yeah. And the song is so good. It gets stuck in your head for days.
What’s your favorite commercial that you’ve written?
I did three commercials for an investment company called Vanguard and they’re spoofs of movie genres. Those were hands down my favorite. I keep seeing them, I don’t want to sound crazypants, but I keep seeing versions of them… Like there’s a Geico commercial that’s very similar. Then there’s a Progesso commercial out… It’s like, I made these five years ago! Either somebodies lurking or it’s such a great idea that we all had it.
I also worked with this strange fruit drink called Fruit Today, where I got to do animated spots with fruit bats and they had British accents. Those were really fun too.
So, finally getting on topic, what inspired you to write this book?
I just, I had to write it. I don’t know. I feel like I had this unique experience. As I got older and I got further away from music I realized how unique it was. I just started writing down memories and somewhere along the line the memories became fiction. It got more interesting, plus I didn’t want to incriminate anyone. It just became a book. The further I got into advertising, the more I got to play with words and thoroughly embrace copywriting, the more I thought I wanted to write something of substance. Not just headlines and one page of copy. The book became my passion project, everybody in advertising has their passion project. Usually those copywriters all have a novel, so it was really cliche.
It’s interesting to me that you said you felt like you needed to do it. When I was looking at your website the landing page says “AMY MADDEN IS A WRITER.” Have you always seen yourself first and foremost as a writer, or is this new?
It’s old and new. They very first thing I ever did in music was that I had a zine and I used to write about bands and do interviews and write about shows. I loved it. The zine really evolved into the label and then the label became doing Death + Taxes and then that became doing advertising, then it was like. Okay, I’m back to where I was and I’m writing again. I think I’ve always been a writing, but I think it’s one of those terrifying things. Like saying, “I’m an artist” opens you up to a lot of serious criticism. I think I just waited until I was ready.
It’s interesting that you decided to make it a Young Adult book because I feel like YA is having such a renaissance right now. Were you influence by any young adult authors?
Not really! It’s strange, but my favorite book in high school was Ender’s Game, which is technically YA, but I don’t think that genre really existed when I was younger? When I was a young adult, Young Adult didn’t really exist. It’s strange. If Catcher in the Rye came out right now, would it be a YA book? Or would it just be general fiction? It’s a sticky wicket as they say. I mean, I read The Hunger Games and I loved them. I think it’s cool that there’s a big thing happening with Young Adult books where they get popular and get made into movies. But, I think every little genre and every little scene has their minute, and that’s whats happening right now.
If your book was made into a movie, who would you want to direct?
That’s such a good question and embarrassingly something that’s talked about in my household. So, I love Cameron Crowe. I love him. If I could have Cameron Crowe direct my life, he’d be my guy, but he already has Almost Famous. If he did my book it would just be like the 90’s version of Almost Famous. It would feel too similar.
There’s a couple of people, like directors and what not, reading my book and at the end of the day, I just want someone who is going to stick true to the story and bring the characters to life. Plus, I don’t know even know if I have a favorite director? I love Cameron Crowe, but he’s not my favorite favorite, but I realized yesterday that Jonah Hill is my favorite actor. It seems like the most unlikely thing in the world, but I sat back and thought about his movies and was like, okay. Jonah Hill is my guy.
There’s two directors who work as a team, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, they did 21 Jump Street and they’re doing the TV show The Last Man on Earth. Their sense of humor of just so on the nose for me that I die laughing. I don’t know if they have any punk rock experiences because it’s kind of necessary to get the vibe of falling asleep on a hot pleather seat.
You love Jonah Hill… Who would he play?
I don’t know, that’s the other thing. It’s more like an arbitrary thing. He could potentially play the band’s manager. He’s kind of older than the band and he’s gotta be the cool guy. I don’t know. I just kind of wanted to send my love out into the world.
I read the preview, isn’t the band manager the guy who’s kind of creepy?
Yeah, I mean he’s not creepy… Well, maybe he is.
One of the band members is described him as creepy. So a creepy Jonah Hill?
Well. I think one of the band members says “that guy give me the creeps” I think maybe “the creeps” and “creepy” are different. Now I’m splitting hairs over the definition of a creep, but he’s not to be trusted. He’s not, hide your kids hide your wife creepy. He’s like, that guy kind of rubs me the wrong way.
I noticed while reading the prequel that it seems like friendly non-romantic relationships are really important in the book. The idea of having family that you’re not related to and having all of these sibling like bonds with people came up a bunch of time. Did you have similar relationships with the band you worked with on your label?
Yeah, absolutely. More so when I was on tour. I definitely felt brother sister vibes, like 100%. I still, even with bands I don’t keep in touch with or people who aren’t in the band any more, when we meet up and have coffee, that bond is still there and you never forget it. But, as my label went on, I got older and the bands got younger and it turned into this weird mom relationship. Every once in a while when someone would call and check in they’d be like, “hey, mom!” and I was like no. We’re not doing that. I’m not your mother.
The relationships get real confusing because you spend so much time together and you depend on each other for everything. Everyone is so all over the place.
The book is obviously based around your experiences touring. How much of it is real and how much is just good fiction?
I’d say about half. Just guessing. The thing to remember is that the bones of it are real. The driving and waking up in a different place everyday is real… and then the feelings are real. Everything that the main character talks about and everything that she feels, I totally went through. If you use her as a lens, you can definitely see into my life when I saw 19.