Last December, Memphis Record Pressing laid down its first record to wax. That LP, Youth Lagoon’s The Year of Hibernation, became the Vinyl Me, Please record of the month in January 2015. The new pressing plant is one of three to open within the past year, but only one of about 40 in the world capable of pressing a heavy load of quality records in a reasonable amount of time. In fact, no new vinyl-making machinery has been built in almost 40 years. But Brandon Seavers, one of the founding partners at Memphis Record Pressing and Bruce Watson, the co-owner and general manager of Fat Possum Records, began thinking about opening a new record plant together a few years ago. The two began working with each other in 2000 when the label needed a proper CD manufacturing plant.
“They knew we were good at production...We’ve done their CD work, but anytime they have a random project that comes up that needs to be printed or some kind of production project, they’d bring it to us and we’d find a way to get it done, even if it was outside the norm,” Seavers recalls from the plant in Memphis. So, Seavers explains, Fat Possum approached his company AudioGraphic Masterworks—a full-service CD and DVD facility he began with Mark Yoshida in 1997—about opening a vinyl pressing plant back in November 2013. “We had the problem that every label had—we were waiting [for our product],” says Watson from his office in Fat Possum headquarters. “At first it was three months. Then it was four months, then five, and then six months.”
He and Seavers also recognized how lucrative the vinyl business was becoming. “At the time, vinyl was hot,” says Seavers. “VMP was around for a while, but vinyl hadn’t really made the headlines. So we didn’t really know what was possible. And we didn’t know how difficult it was going to be, where we would find the equipment, etc.” But Seavers, Watson, and their colleagues managed to track down complete set of Southern Machine & Tool equipment in a storage locker in New Jersey in early 2014. They spent about four-and-a-half months negotiating prices with the former owners and, by June of last year, they had a deal and the gear loaded up on three flatbed trucks heading back to Memphis.
About 90 minutes south of Memphis, the interns and staffers shuffle around Fat Possum Records’ open workspace, allowing music to waver just below Oxford, Mississippi’s oppressive summer afternoon haze. A copy of Chris Hunt’s print from The Year of Hibernation hangs on a wall outside Watson’s office. Ignoring the outside clamoring and incessant phone ringing from behind his desk, Watson indulges in reminiscing about the early days of Fat Possum, back when it was strictly a blues label in the early ‘90s. Junior Kimbrough’s “All Night Long was kind of the first real Fat Possum record,” Watson says, going as far as calling it his favorite record on the label. “It was kind of the one that brought everyone together.”
Watson recorded that seminal album and R. L. Burnside’s Too Bad Jim (the VMP release for October 2014) in the same week in Mississippi’s northern Hill Country. “I’d never been to Junior’s juke joint,” he recalls. “You pull up and it’s an old abandoned church/gas station out in basically the middle of a kudzu field. You walk in and it’s got folk things all over the wall and someone just took paint and threw it on the wall. People are drinkin’ moonshine. Basically, we just set up, put the mics up, and recorded for three days straight and made it a record."
“It was Junior in his element. He was the king of that place. He had his girlfriend cooking fried catfish sandwiches on white bread and selling the cold beer, selling moonshine. If you needed change for the pool table, he was the guy with the change sittin’ in the back in his chair! Then he’d go play for about 30-40 minutes and then he’d come back and the Burnsides would get up and play.”
But since its inception as a blues label in 1991, Fat Possum has weaseled its way into the pop and indie rock scene, putting out records by The Black Keys, Band of Horses, Andrew Bird, and more. And with this collaboration with Memphis Record Pressing, Fat Possum has been able to shift its manufacturing from United Record Pressing and Pirate Record Press to its internal system.
Today, Memphis Record Pressing serves as the only major manufacturer in the mid-south area. Music consumers’ demand for records keeps growing (at least for now notes Watson cautiously), and Memphis Record Pressing maxes out about a two million records per year. With 35 full-time employees, the company has three major customers—Fat Possum, Sony, and Vinyl Me, Please—and also works with a couple of small Memphis clients.
They’ve pressed everything from the Hozier’s self-titled debut (recently on Seavers’s turntable) to Al Green’s beloved greatest hits collection. And coming up, the plant will press the new Youth Lagoon LP and a 7” from up-and-comers Sunflower Bean. “In this new world order that we’re in now, any one who has knowledge of vinyl equipment is in such demand that they can pretty much go wherever they want to,” Seavers says of Memphis Record Pressing and its staff. “They’re highly sought after and highly revered.”