Friendship Fever forever

For one couple, Sacramento’s newest indie record label becomes a second chance


Celebrate the launch of Friendship Fever at 6 p.m. Friday, November 4, at Red Museum, 212 15th Street. Suggested donation is $10, with Imaginary Tricks, Minihorse, Honyock and Pregnant Women on the bill. More at

The phrase “friendship fever” started out as something uttered among a tight music community of friends having a great time—Christopher Watson first heard it while on tour managing Sacramento underground rock trio Frank Jordan in the early 2000s.

“It’s like when the feelings of camaraderie and friendship are so high, and you’re almost starting to imagine things,” he said. “Maybe they’re greater than you think they are, maybe they’re worse, but they’re intoxicating. It’s like a fever dream.”

And now, it’s a local record label run by Chris and his wife Sabrina Watson. Friendship Fever’s already signed seven bands, so far a collection of guitar driven rock, nostalgic ’80s synth and country. They’re distributed by an indie-specialized arm of SONY, and the goal is simple: put music—and building a community through music—first.

“The big dream is just to put out really great art,” Sabrina said. “We just want to find people that are doing amazing things and help get them involved with a team that’s really invested.”

There’s no strict hierarchy at the label. Headquarters are Chris and Sabrina’s home, where they sit across from each other all day. The project is still young, but they’re banking on their own scrappiness, business experience and a network of artists and industry vets who happen to be some of their close friends.

“It’s all kind of incestuous and crazy,” Sabrina said.

In coming back home to Sacramento a few years ago, one of the hardest decisions they had to make was leaving behind their successful first label, Park the Van.

They ran Park the Van out of their apartment in New Orleans since 2004, jump-starting rock groups like Dr. Dog and selling 80,000 of its records.

Both got their starts in the music industry at around 17. Sabrina, a New Orleans native, helped with art direction on the first Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. They met while she was on the Sublime street team and Chris designed webpages for Skunk Records in Long Beach.

Park the Van was one of their proudest accomplishments. It was resilient, literally enduring Hurricane Katrina, despite the setback of having most of their product destroyed in the flood.

“We lost everything, but when you’re 22, you don’t really have everything, so that’s OK,” Sabrina said.

Chris left Park the Van in 2012. Dr. Dog signed to another label, Anti-, a few years before. Money got tight. The economy was still recovering. Chris was getting burnt out, and a long spell of depression began.

He got a job offer with a music tech company—digital promotion and multimedia for artists like Taylor Swift, Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus. It promised a steady paycheck, and an opportunity to do something totally different. He took the job, and the two moved to Sacramento.

The company culture turned out to be quite different from Park the Van.

“One of the first things my new boss said to me was ’bread before cred,’” Chris said. “It was the exact opposite of how I operated my entire life.”

Still, in the next few years, he excelled there. He was promoted to vice president of operations. He managed a staff of 40, and he was making more money.

At the same time, he felt like he wasn’t who he set out to be anymore. His personal dreams, goals and creativity were being suppressed. The depression increased. He started drinking and doing drugs. It all caught up to him about a year and a half ago.

“It almost killed me,” he said. He resigned from the company, moved in with his parents and spent a good six months wondering what the hell he was going to do.

Then Sabrina proposed an escape, and last February, they took a road trip to Morro Bay. What transpired was a list of ideas for a new record label, a second chance to make it work.

They recruited old friends like Mike Cloward. Cloward, too, brings countless lessons learned from his bouts in the music industry. He founded international label Devil in the Woods in 1983 and a magazine by the same name in 1988.

He sold off the mag in 2006 and ended the record label in 2010, releasing some 117 records and an innumerable amount of cassette tapes by then. The label’s name was an idiom for fear of the unknown, which fit Cloward’s vision of wanting to sign unseen bands.

It translates well to Friendship Fever, which is meant to develop burgeoning artists.

“It’s not like we’re doing this label to sign the biggest band,” Cloward said. “It’s about making sure we help them achieve their dreams. If we have some fun along the way, make some fans, that’s great.”

That includes Minihorse, a stargaze-y, introverted soft rock group reminiscent of Grandaddy, one of Chris and Sabrina’s favorite bands. Its five-song EP, Big Lack, releases Friday, November 11, with a full-length planned for next year.

The group picked Friendship Fever because Chris was the only label rep who talked about the songs.

“It’s interesting that actually engaging with the music is not the first thing on some people’s minds these days,” said Ben Collins, Minihorse’s vocalist and guitarist.

Then there’s Imaginary Tricks, a performance art project fronted by Mike Visser, who once fronted Frank Jordan. He’s an old friend of Chris and Sabrina.

Songs like “Bird” promise somber indie rock melodies filled with Visser’s raw introspection and frank expressions. When they’re performed live, they gradually build and layer with looped guitar and bass lines, then drums, vocals and his bandmate Harlan Muir on keys. Imaginary Tricks’ LP, Skommel, is due next year.

It was either Visser or former Frank Jordan guitarist, Eben Mahoney, that first came up with “friendship fever.”

“It was a term we used to say when we were kids,” Visser said. “Your buddies would yell, ’You like him so much, you got ’friendship fever.’ It was really corny and really endearing too.”

And after over a decade of carrying that phrase with them, it’s evolved in meaning.

“It really comes down to these great people that we’ve found in our lives that inspired us to do one thing or led us in the right direction, or helped each other when we needed them most,” Chris said.