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March 1, 2003

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Wilmington, Del.'s Jade Tree operates largely outside of the mainstream fray. Promotional hype held to a minimum, records are sold inexpensively, and profit motives are secondary to furthering the vibrant spirit of independent music. The label works within a tenacious do-it-yourself framework, and it succeeds in releasing some of today's most anticipated and treasured underground records.

Jade Tree's inception came in 1990 when hardcore punk aficionado and then-Rochester Institute of Technology photography student Tim Owen enlisted the help of friend Darren Walters, a University of Delaware English major, to embark on a new independent record label.

The two scrapped the tiny, 45s-only labels both were running individually and pooled their energy into one larger, less-genre specific outlet. Loosely modeling their fledgling label after Chicago's successful and respected Touch & Go and Washington, D.C.'s revered Dischord Records, Owen and Walters hoped Jade Tree would also become an operation recognized for quality music, anti-corporate sentiment, and distinctive record packaging.

"At the time we started Jade Tree, I was done with music altogether," Walters says. "I had decided to give up doing the label I had and concentrate on becoming an English teacher. But Tim wanted to start something new. For whatever reason, he saw music changing on the horizon and thought that he should change with it. I thought he had a great idea, and I told him I'd love to help him out."

Jade Tree's first release came in August 1991 in the form of the early-'90s hardcore template "Culture Shock" recorded by the now-defunct Richmond, Va., outfit Four Walls Falling. The set boldly announced the label's arrival on the scene and offered Owen the chance to feature his photography.

Despite the inaugural album being a politically gripping, no-holds-barred wallop of a record, Owen and Walters committed themselves to having a diverse roster of bands and refraining from documenting one style of music or geographic location. Their only unwritten stipulation was the music had to come from the underground.

"When we started formulating our ideas, basically we both thought, 'Hey, it doesn't matter what it is; if we like it, we're going to put it out,' " Walters says. "That was our major tenet, and it still is."

Identity Crisis

Naturally, it would take time for Jade Tree to truly flourish, and for several years the label would not be the full-time, seven-days-a-week operation it is today. Soon after starting Jade Tree, Owen relocated to New York to embark on a career as a band photographer and Walters was in the process of completing his degree. The label had no home headquarters and was
still without a face or personality.

"I don't think we had an identity for the first 20 releases or so. I think we kind of look back at the first five years as an identity-free label. We managed our goal well, which was to put out whatever the hell we wanted. Still, people didn't know what we were, and it was still very genre-specific at that time. "

By releasing records posthumously as well as records by bands with trace amounts of underground appeal, Jade Tree floundered until September 1995. With the release of three disparate albums "Hello Bastards" by New Jersey pop-hardcore outfit Lifetime; "No More Dreams of Happy Endings" by the Washington, D.C., metal band Damnation; and "Familiar, Forgotten" by Delaware mope-rock outfit Walleye, Jade Tree's popularity increased exponentially. The label finally had a tiny roster of current bands that had made names for themselves in the underground scene with their explosive live performances.

The Promise Ring's Impact

One year later, in September 1996, Jade Tree released a recording titled "30 Degrees Everywhere" from the fresh-faced Milwaukee outfit the Promise Ring that would enter the indie community with a bullet and would go on to help define the standard for the '90s sweater-tugging emo sound that many bands and labels lionized. As Jade Tree continued to release records by the band, both the label and the Promise Ring's popularity at the time were inextricably linked to one another.

"That was a period when we felt like we really couldn't miss," Walters says. "We liked these bands and it was even easier than ever [to release records]. Anyone we wanted would do a record with us, and we seemed to like all these bands. I mean we weren't the biggest, but it was just starting to take off and it was sort of the beginning of our dream."

The ardor and care Owen and Walters put into making a dependable and relevant label has worked in their favor and in the favor of the bands with whom they work. With more than 80 releases in its varied catalog, ranging from lo-fi acoustic records to emo to traditional punk rock, and with nearly a dozen bands currently touring the U.S., Jade Tree continues to assert itself as one of the more respected and defining current underground U.S. labels.


Andrew Katchen