New Jersey-based Hi-Tide Recordings sprang out of a passion by its founders to hear the latest in rockin’ surf sounds – now it’s grown to become a multi-faceted record label and lifestyle brand… By Craig Brackenridge
Husband and wife team Vincent Minervino and Magdalena O’Connell started Hi-Tide Recordings in 2016 and since then the label has evolved into something altogether more expansive. Their tagline is ‘Surf, Lounge And Exotic Sounds’ and that pretty much captures their essence, with releases ranging from the surf guitar of The Volcanics to the garage goodness of The Surfrajettes and onto the jetset sounds of The Tikiyaki Orchestra and castaway rhythms of Slowey And The Boats.
Alongside DJ’ing together (as DJ Hi-Tide) and promoting their own live events, the label has a booming back catalogue and an immaculately styled range of merch and clothing. The whole package has grown into something of a lifestyle brand – even if that was never part of the plan. “None of this was intentional,” chuckles Vincent at this happy accident, “who thinks to try to sell music to people in 2016?”
Even recent challenging global events have failed to slow them down as they unleashed their largest number of releases in a single year. With more big news on the horizon – and the welcome return of live music somewhere along the road – Vintage Rock spoke to Vincent and Magdalena from Hi-Tide HQ in Bruce Springsteen’s hometown of frozen Freehold, New Jersey.
We spot that the label’s first release, Black Flamingos’ Flamingo Twist 7″ (2016), is a combo featuring the same Mr Minervino on drums and wonder whether this led directly to the label’s formation? “Yeah, you’ve discovered our secret,” laughs Vincent. “Black Flamingos recorded a couple of tunes for a 45 in 2015 and we sent them to every label we could think of that released surf music at any time in history – all these labels that we had seen on the back of surf records. They all responded in much the same way: ‘we’re not really interested in vinyl projects, it’s expensive,’ etcetera. So we decided to conceptually start Hi-Tide as something to just stamp on the Black Flamingos’ record.”
Black Flamingos’ debut album Neon Boneyard followed, and then Plato Zorba and Canadian beach bums The Men In Gray Suits joined the roster. Things were growing surreptitiously. “It was not something we set out to do,” agrees Magdalena. “We laugh about it often because here we are with two dozen artists on the label and the number of releases under our belt is in the sixties now. The catalyst to really thinking about the label as a means to get music out there to existing surf music fans was because there were so many new artists in the genre that needed an outlet.”
A video featuring Toronto all-girl surf combo The Surfrajettes tackling Britney Spears’ Toxic pushed things on even further. “People fell in love with them, but it was not something that they were pursuing to get physical copies of their music out there,” explains Magdalena.
“Logistically it was not ideal, so we started helping them with the distribution of their music, which began with just an EP CD that they had out at the time. The relationship grew with the release of the Party Line/Toxic 45, which is now in its fourth pressing.”
“A lot of bands struggle when it comes to the logistics of releasing a record,” adds Vincent. “Everything from getting it mixed properly to the mastering process, submitting it to pressing plants and fulfilling mail orders – it can be too much for some.
It started because we wanted new music from our bands, so we approached them and said, ‘Hey, we’ll deal with all that annoying stuff for you, just send us the mixes and we’ll take it from there’. That’s the role we have started to play with our acts.”
This enthusiasm to give bands a platform is something that Magdalena feels strongly about: “These are bands that we want to listen to and share with people. If there isn’t physical music out there for us to share, then we don’t feel that they have reached their full potential.”
“Slowey And The Boats is a good example,” adds Vincent. “When we first heard them, that was one of the first releases where we thought, ‘yeah, we’ll take that and put it out in the world’. A lot of these bands don’t even realise how special their music is. We have to tell them that we want more. My good friend Spike from The Hula Girls is always telling me that I’m the guy that’s annoying them to make music.”
The look of the label’s output is very distinct and has even drifted into the production of an exclusive line of glassware for the discerning cocktail drinker. This unique range of merch comes with the added bonus that it is actually attracting new listeners to Hi-Tide’s bands. Was this part of the plan all along? “I’d like to say that everything was really calculated, but it was not intentional from the start,” says Magdalena with a smile. “I will say that the design aspect is a detail that is super important to both Vincent and I. A lot of the work started with Fred Lammers, a fantastic designer that we worked with who did a lot of event posters for us. That’s where the signature Hi-Tide look really started, but he decided to retire so we started branching out to artists like Scott Sugiuchi and Alison Coté. We love having these just really visually interesting, era-specific nods to the past. I’d say the art is now one of the biggest label focuses, aside from the music.”
This passion for Hi-Tide’s visually exciting creations is also something that Vincent feels is important: “It is a place where a lot of brands cut corners. When bands are promoting their shows, they’ll quickly do something in Photoshop, but I’d rather pay a designer $100 to make a great poster so people are like ‘woah, there’s some magic to this’. If you do that on a long enough timeline, then people start to pay a little more attention.”
This goal does not come without some heartache along the way, and Vincent agrees: “It hurt a little bit at first when you’re putting out a record and you don’t know if people are even going to buy it. Our Black Flamingos album Neon Boneyard was a $600 project just for the artwork, but we invested in it because we wanted it to look like something people had to have and we continue to do that.”
This attention to detail is present across all of the label’s releases and soon other US acts such as Aqualads, Satan’s Pilgrims and Televisionaries were next to join the fold. The net was cast further out into the ocean and European talent such as Surfer Joe, Los Coguaros and Les Agamemnonz were dragged aboard, alongside far-flung bands such as Argentina’s Los Frenéticos and Japanese beat monsters Lulufin The Woo Hoo. The realms of the label’s sound also started to evolve.
“In the past couple of years the label has branched out, but initially it really did start out as an instrumental surf music label,” explains Magdalena. “That was largely what we were putting out, but then we kind of stumbled upon a couple of opportunities to work more in the exotica realm and now we have more vocals that are present in the releases.”
Vincent has a clear idea of what he’s looking for when considering new artists: “There’s a few filters that we use other than just hearing something and liking it. You won’t hear aggressive surf, it needs to have melody and musicianship. We look for bands that are transportive, with a little more emotion.”
Both believe that this type of mood-changing music has never been more important, particularly since the global pandemic began.
This inevitably brings us crashing into the subject of live music, something that has become a very big part of Hi-Tide’s business. In 2014, the year they got married, the duo created the first Asbury Park Surf Music Festival at the iconic Asbury Lanes bowling alley. A repeat event, at the same venue the following year, was also a success but the closure of Asbury Lanes forced them to look elsewhere in the iconic seaside town in 2016 and Vincent remembers how this also became something of a turning point: “There was some interest from this bar that was on the north side of Convention Hall and they put a little stage out on the beach. We reached out to Messer Chups from Russia and that’s kind of what shifted this into a national and international event.”
This much-loved gathering continued until 2019 – and then there was a major change. A vastly renovated Asbury Lanes reopened and Hi-Tide returned to where it all began, now with the added bonus of a hotel, The Asbury, attached to the venue. “They have a pool space, an upstairs bar space and a rooftop movie theatre, this whole complex – so that gave us the idea to make it a full-on weekender,” says Vincent. “That’s when we brought The 184.108.40.206’s over from Japan. We also had Deke Dickerson, Bloodshot Bill and The Neanderthals.”
Along with an expanded programme of events, the weekender was also rebranded as the Hi-Tide Summer Holiday. Vincent smiles as he recalls how the weekender progressed: “Our vision was to activate the whole town and have people that were on holiday go, ‘Is there something going on? Everyone’s wearing Hawaiian shirts and drinking Mai Tais’. We started to realise that now the label was growing and the event was starting to become a big label showcase.”
The success of these events even led to the Hi-Tide Winter Holiday – a three-day session in Pittsburgh in February 2020. With public gatherings now firmly off the agenda, the question has to be asked about what it’s like living and working together, particularly in a lockdown.
Does this 24/7 operation bring its own challenges? “It’s funny, I think a lot of people would be like, ‘wow, that’s a lot of time you spend together’, but for us the label has always been a really fun thing to do as a couple and it has never felt like work,” grins Magdalena. “There are the less exciting things, like the numbers side of it, but really it has been this joint effort from the beginning. We enjoy it and we have a good time.”
Despite what many would call a challenging year, Hi-Tide have continued to grow and a new distribution deal with the Universal Music Group puts a full marketing team behind their future releases.
This new arrangement also offers fresh possibilities for the label’s roster, as Magdalena explains: “One of the things we are pursuing is doing more placement with our music in TV shows, commercials and movies. That’s definitely an opportunity we are really excited about.”
Vincent is also keen to ensure that, without live promotion, last year’s releases aren’t forgotten: “We don’t want those records to be seen as back catalogue and we want to continue to highlight them this year and make sure they get out there properly.”
No doubt 2021 will be an even busier time, with new releases from The Hilo Hi-Flyers, Slowey And The Boats, Les Agamemnonz and Greg Townson already in the works.
Whatever the future holds, Vincent has a clear focus on Hi-Tide’s goals. “A lot of what we consider when we do these projects is thinking about someone finding these on a shelf somewhere in 50 years and being like ‘Hi-Tide? What’s that?’ That’s a really old-fashioned way of leaving a legacy, but that’s literally what a label is. When you see Hi-Tide, it’s like ‘I have something else from this label, I should probably buy this’.”