Though his roots are in Indiana and the alternative rock scene of late-‘80s Boston, John P. Strohm spent over a decade in the Magic City before moving up to Nashville to pursue a career in music law — during which he has worked with some of the most critically and commercially successful acts of the last five years.
Strohm’s main band, Blake Babies, which also includes guitarist Juliana Hatfield and drummer Freda Love, was originally active between 1986 and 1992, during which time they released three moderately successful alt-rock albums. After a brief reunion around the turn of the century (which saw the release of another studio album, God Bless the Blake Babies), the group disbanded.
This year, though, Blake Babies have been playing shows after finding, remixing and releasing a series of demos from their 1989 record, Earwig. As part of their reunion shows, the Blake Babies will be coming to Saturn. Recently, Strohm spoke about revisiting nearly 30-year-old songs, becoming a music lawyer and his time in Birmingham.
Weld: When did you live down here in Birmingham?
John P. Strohm: The band is from Boston, and I left Boston in 1991 and went back to my hometown of Bloomingdale, Indiana. I met my wife, Heather, who was in business school there. She is from Birmingham. She moved there, and I followed her in 1997. I was there from ’97 to 2011, so a good while.
Weld: The last reunion of the Blake Babies was around 2001. Why another reunion now?
Strohm: The short answer is for fun. It’s not for profit at this point. We’ve ended up in fairly different places. The last time we played was in 2000 or 2001 and made a record. That was after we had been broken up seven or eight years. Since then, we’ve all gone wildly different directions. Juliana has continued to pursue music and make records in different permutations, so it’s all familiar to her. I work in the music industry as a lawyer for musicians, including her. Freda is more in the academic world. She and her husband both teach at Northwestern in Chicago.
I think I tricked them into playing because I found this demo tape of songs we did for our first album. I proposed doing a crowdfunding campaign to pre-sell them, which we did, and I then proposed playing shows as an incentive for the campaign. Freda is usually up for stuff, but Juliana is always a little more hesitant. She has her own agenda because she has to think about how it could potentially interfere with other projects.
It seemed to line up, so we got together last summer to play some shows for the PledgeMusic campaign. The chemistry was still there. We really enjoyed each other’s company, enjoyed the shows and enjoyed meeting fans, so we decided to prolong it [through] a few shows this fall. Nashville and Birmingham were easy to put together because these were sort of hometowns for me. I know the club people and how to put something together.
Weld: And you have a bit of history with Saturn, where you’ll be performing.
Strohm: [Saturn owner] Brian Teasley is a good friend of mine, and I was one of the first people he called when he decided to open Saturn. I acted as legal counsel for his company in putting that together. I spent six months working on putting together the deal with [Saturn’s booking company] Bowery Presents and doing the work around getting the venue going. I feel a very strong sense of pride and a part of that whole thing. On a whole other level, it will be very exciting for me to stand on that stage.
Weld: Going back to the campaign, what was it like revisiting those demos?
Strohm: It was cool. I don’t spend a lot of time listening to music I’ve made in the past. It’s really rare that I visit that stuff. I think about music all the time and I work in music, so it’s not an accident. I’m really obsessive about music, but I’m just not usually thinking about things I’ve done.
We really forgot about those demos, and they had fallen into the cracks of history. When I got those songs, I dumped them and had a friend remix them. One of my friends who I used to work with at Magic Platter did the remix, Ross Gower. When I heard them mixed, it sounded completely fresh to me. I had gotten used to the album and how they sounded.
They were made in the ‘80s or early ‘90s, so we were trying to make records that would be commercially relevant at that time, and they sound a little dated. Hearing those tracks stripped of the sheen of ‘80s production and just raw. It sounded like it was, at the time, just a highly original, tight band that worked out some really good songs.
We honed our craft in clubs around Boston, and we were all around 21 at the time. It was cool to hear it. It’s the kind of energy I look for in the talent I scout out now. People who come up with something that’s uniquely their own or something that they’re giving a lot of love, sweat and energy. I feel like that’s what we were doing. At that point, I thought we should share it. At least with the people who care about the band, the small community of people who have continued to regard the band as special or important.
The feedback has been great. As far as getting together in a room and figuring out how to play those songs now and have them work almost 30 years after we recorded them is really interesting. They do hold up. We were so committed at the time to try and make something great. We put a whole lot of effort and work into it, and that included the songwriting. Some of the songs we just can’t play now because they just feel silly. Some of them are still great, and we feel like we can stand up on stage as older folks and play those songs and not have it feel ridiculous, which is a triumph in itself.
Weld: As an entertainment lawyer, you now have a dual view of the music business. What is like having that perspective?
Strohm: I went to Cumberland Law School in Birmingham, and I’m actually going back there on Monday to give a talk. I actually used to teach at Cumberland as well as the University of Alabama. I went to law school partly out of life panic. I had been playing music full-time for 10 years, and it didn’t look like it wasn’t going to be a livelihood, so I needed to figure something out. Law school was a way to hide out for a couple of years.
My dream at the time was to get in and learn how to work with artists. I think I have a good ear for finding talent that’s born out of the practice I’ve built, and I wanted to do that in a way that wasn’t beholden to a major label. I wasn’t sure how to get there, so I went to law school, and took a job at a big law firm in Birmingham for a number of years. I started just talking on music clients when I was at Bradley Arant and Johnston Barton in Birmingham, doing corporate law. The people I was working for were very generous in letting me do that. It was during that time that I got together with Bon Iver, Civil Wars, Dawes and Alabama Shakes — all of these clients that I started working with while I was still in Birmingham.
I put something together that was substantial enough for me to get into my current firm [Loeb & Loeb], which is for the music industry. I’ve built on what I do now and have developed even work in the country genre. I work with Sturgill Simpson and some of the more outsider country stuff, which has been great. I couldn’t do what I do on a number of levels if I hadn’t done that work of a musician myself. Part of it is being enough of a music lover to know when something’s really great and to see when something’s developing to know if there’s a career there. That’s one of the great challenges of doing what I do. I also have to understand creative musicians and the concerns they have. I wouldn’t have been nearly as adept at that if I hadn’t spent so many years talking with other musicians and making records and having those experiences.
Weld: You left for Nashville at the end of 2011, which was kind of the calm before the storm in the state’s music scene, which kind of blew up in 2012. What were some of the signs of things to come that you saw when you lived in Birmingham?
Strohm: I saw it well before I moved. I knew how much talent there was in Birmingham because I had been part of the music scene there for a number of years. The whole time I was in Birmingham, I was playing music with people. I wasn’t trying to have a career playing music at that point, it was more of just getting together to play a show and do something. I got to play with a lot of musicians in town and was well aware of how talented the people were. When artists started breaking out of Alabama, whether it was the [Alabama] Shakes or St. Paul & The Broken Bones or Jason Isbell or John Paul White from the Civil Wars, it wasn’t surprising to me at all because I was so tuned into that level of talent. It was very gratifying for me to see when I got to Nashville and was very happy to see people from Alabama were still calling me since I had left. I had to leave Birmingham to grow my own practice because Nashville is so rich with resources that you need if you are full time in the business. Even though it’s an amazing scene in Birmingham, being out of the center lane of the music industry was going to ultimately limit my ability to grow. I also had the opportunity to work in this firm, which has given me a platform to further legitimize what I do. But it fills me with pride to see how much stuff is going on in Birmingham and how many musicians have come out of the state of Alabama. After living there 14 years, I feel deeply invested, especially in the creative community where I dug my heels in.
Blake Babies will perform at Saturn on Sunday, October 16. For more information, visit saturnbirmingham.com