All Things to All People
All Things to All People Vol. 18 August 11, 2016 14:18
I've been meaning to write for quite some time about why I hate sports. I'm sure there are a lot of you out there who are very much not on board with this statement, so let me explain.
I got my PhD from the University of North Carolina, which happens to be a part, along with Duke University, of one of the bitterest and most contested rivalries in all of spectator sports. It's a longstanding tradition at Carolina that graduating seniors are guaranteed tickets to the UNC / Duke basketball game. This is a HUGE deal. Even when both teams are completely in the toilet, the UNC / Duke game always sells out and is always hotly contested. Fortunately for me, the "graduating seniors" rule includes graduate students completing their degrees. Despite the fact that I only paid the most minimal attention to basketball the entire time I was at UNC, I decided to take advantage of this perk during my last semester of grad school.
I have to admit that it was pretty cool. I'd been to a couple of basketball games before, but sitting in the student section was wild... the energy level was actually comparable to a big hardcore show. There's definitely a kind of power in groupthink... you get a bunch of people in the same room all thinking and feeling the same thing and the power and momentum of the group can sweep you away. Further, it was a really good game. UNC pulled way ahead at the half, but Duke chipped away at the lead throughout the second half and finally won the game on a buzzer-beater 3-pointer. The stadium went completely quiet... there were over 20,000 people in that room and you could have heard a pin drop. It was amazing.
I had a lot of fun at the game, but I went alone and was surrounded by people I didn't know, so I had a lot of time to reflect on what was happening around me, and something kept happening during the game that really bothered me. Every time the refs would call a foul on a UNC player everyone in the student section would scream "BULLSHIT!," even when the UNC player had clearly committed the foul. Every time a UNC player missed a shot and a Duke player was within arm's length, everyone would scream "FOUL!" I felt like I wasn't watching the same game as these people... I was watching a really exciting contest between two evenly-matched teams, while they were peering into some alternate universe where UNC was always right and Duke was always wrong.
I taught English at UNC throughout my time there, and it wasn't lost on me that these were the very same students whom I was trying to teach critical thinking skills in my classes. The same students who, instead of thinking honestly, deeply, and rationally about the questions I asked them, consistently groped blindly for what they were "supposed" to say. At that moment it dawned on me what I was up against. One semester or even one undergraduate curriculum wasn't going to cure these students of the habits of mind that fandom taught them. Logic is grim, complicated, and doesn't always tell you what you want to hear. Fandom is simple and straightforward and you're always surrounded by like-minded people.
Once I observed this habit of mind I started seeing it everywhere: people who idolize bands and refuse to consider that they may have ever written a bad note; or, conversely (and much more common in punk and hardcore), people who have written off bands and refuse to consider that they may have ever done anything worthwhile; people who stick to ridiculous premises like "vaccines cause autism" or "global warming isn't happening" despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary; religion; nationalism and patriotism; the preference for certain consumer products over others... I mean, I could go on all day. Once people decide they are on a certain "team" they are committed to their cause at all costs, whether or not their allegiance is based on anything rational or even real.
By far the most insidious of these calcified habits of belief is political affiliation. Nowhere is the fan mentality more apparent than when it comes to American politics. Really, it's probably worse when it comes to politics than sports because the political divisions in the US correlate with much deeper social and cultural differences, while it's pretty arbitrary whether you decide to become a fan of the Minnesota Vikings or the Chicago Blackhawks or whatever. The force with which a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat can believe that Republicans don't have a single good idea (or vice versa) is mind-boggling to me. However, it's the fan mentality at work. Donald Trump says it? Then it's wrong. Bernie Sanders says it? It's right. No further consideration or investigation needed. If you really want to understand the political gridlock in the United States I think that you have to think about this fan mentality. When you see a black-and-white world where your team is always right and the other time is always wrong, there simply isn't space for compromise.
So that's why I hate sports, and why I hate contemporary American politics even more than I hate sports. There are few things in this world I like more than a good conversation or a stimulating argument, and these institutions propagate exactly the kind of bullshit (a carefully chosen word) that gets in the way of me having more of those things.
And now a tale from the record-buying front...
In my last blog post I wrote about my recent interested in Mixcloud, but in addition to Mixcloud shows I also like a handful of more traditional podcasts. I'll spare you the list for now, but over the past few months two of the podcasts that I listen to have featured Walter Schreifels, and on both episodes he mentioned a radio station called WLIR.
One day I was sitting in the back room of the store when I got an email from the secretary for a boat manufacturer in Edenton, North Carolina. Edenton is a tiny town on the northern bank of the Albemarle Sound in eastern North Carolina and is, almost literally, in the middle of nowhere. The email mentioned that her boss had a collection of several thousand records that once belonged to a radio station that his brother helped run in New York in the 70s and 80s. I wrote back and asked for more information and she couldn't tell me much about the records, but she did tell me that the radio station's call letters were WLIR.
When I looked up WLIR on Wikipedia I nearly fell out of my chair. In particular the following sentence had the record collector in me salivating: "As punk and new wave rock started to become popular at the end of the 1970s, most rock stations in the United States ignored these genres. WLIR, again, bucked the trend by playing artists from these genres." Reading further about WLIR's new wave years, I learned that, "WLIR became the first radio station in the country to play U2, The Cure, The Smiths, New Order, Duran Duran, Madonna, George Michael, Men at Work and Prince." I asked if this was the same WLIR whose records she had and she confirmed that, yes, it was, and that her boss's brother had run the station throughout the 70s and 80s.
One cold, rainy morning in early February I drove out to Edenton, which is a couple of hours away from Raleigh. The entire time I was driving I tried to convince myself that this wasn't what I thought it was going to be, that this was going to be a collection full of the same kind of dross that I see in at least half of the collections that I look at. However, another part of my mind spun little tales about what might be there. I mean, if you were a punk band in New York in the 70s or early 80s and there was a big commercial station playing music kind of like yours, wouldn't you take a chance and send them a promo? Let's say you're Agnostic Front and you've just released United Blood, or you're a band called Chronic Sick from across the river in New Jersey and you just put out your first single... wouldn't you drop one in the mail on the off chance they'd play it?
As I weaved my way through sleepy downtown Edenton and down toward the shore of the sound, I had no idea what I would find. When I pulled up I saw what could only generously be termed a building. By this point it was raining buckets so I knocked on the door a couple of times but quickly just opened the door and let myself in. No one seemed to notice. The wood-paneled office was eerily quiet, and I could hear big, fat raindrops falling in through the barely-functioning roof. After poking around for a minute or two I found a quiet, dingy little office where a 95-year-old man sat at a shiny new iMac. This was the owner of both the boat manufacturing facility I was in and the record collection that I came to look at.
He told me a bit about his life. He grew up in New York and had been in advertising on Madison Avenue through the 50s ("Mad Men was a very accurate show," he told me), and eventually his love of sailing had brought him to Edenton to start a company that manufactured custom, high-end sailboats. His brother, he said, was in the media industry and ran WLIR for a few decades until he lost control of the frequency through some sort of strange bureaucratic coup that I didn't really understand. His brother, though he was younger, had advanced-stage alzheimer's so it was left to him to deal with the records. Apparently they had been deposited in the boat factory sometime in the early 90s.
Finally, he said, "do you want to see the records?" and he led me to a room where I saw this:
My heart leapt and sank at the same time. The spidey sense I have for records definitely dinged and pointed my attention toward the copy of The Smiths' The Queen Is Dead on top of one of those giant stacks (you can see it on the right-hand side of the photo above)... this was the fabled WLIR library. However, the room smelled of mold. It was raining and water was literally dripping onto the records. They had been stacked horizontally for twenty-five years... the mix of emotions was profound.
The owner guided me through the collection, which they had sorted by condition. They had several hundred sealed records sitting on a counter. The Smiths LP was in a pile of several thousand records that, he told me, had jackets that were "not in good condition," which actually meant that the jackets were stuck together and the paper was so brittle that it would crack like a popadom. The other, larger stack (easily 5-8000 LPs) he insisted were in good condition, but honestly weren't much better. Jackets were stuck together, many were water damaged, all smelled musty, and of course the big problem was that after being stored in those stacks for so long warping would be a huge problem. He left me to it and I started sifting through the stacks, unable to use Discogs because I had no data reception in such a remote location.
I pulled a box of 100 or so LPs that I knew would be worth the effort of cleaning up and selling. One of the first things I found in the stack of sealed records was a sealed original Braineater pressing of the Wipers' Over the Edge, and the other big score was several sealed copies of the Labrynth movie soundtrack, which was a particularly hot ticket item since David Bowie had just died. I found lots of bigger-name '77 punk like the Jam, the Rezillos, and the Buzzcocks... TONS of promos from labels like Sire and IRS. Some stuff I grabbed just because it looked cool, which resulted in probably my favorite discovery of the trip, the German synth-punk / proto-industrial artist Tommi Stumpff:
It was impossible to go through everything there, so in addition to the records I cherry-picked, I also convinced the guy to let me take one or two of the big vertical stacks of records you see in the pic above, the idea being that it would serve as a representative sample and I could use it to figure out what kind of deal I could make for the entire lot. I made my way through that stuff over the next few weeks, but there were no great shakes there. There were plenty of OK LPs, but lots more promo 12" singles for long-forgotten power-pop bands, and given the issues with the records' general mustiness and the fact that one out of at least every five records was severely warped, it just wasn't worth the effort to go back and get the rest of them. I'm sure there are plenty of gems there, but it's only one out of every 500 or so records, and I can't take 10,000+ records into my possession just to get a few dozen interesting items. Further, the owner was convinced that he could find someone who was a fan of the station to buy the entire lot for nostalgia purposes... he thought that there had to be some rich New Yorker who grew up listening to WLIR and would want to put the collection in their basement or something, but I don't think any rich people would want to fuck with 10,000+ moldy records.
Oh, and you may be wondering why I started this by bringing up Walter Schreifels. Well, on both of the podcasts that I heard him on, the hosts asked him why he thought Gorilla Biscuits' music was so much more accessible than the music of the other bands of their time and place, and both times he gave more or less the same answer. He said that there was this radio station out on Long Island called WLIR that played all of the hip new British music like the Jam and the Smiths, and that he discovered all of that at the same time he was discovering Agnostic Front and Minor Threat. His songwriting, he insisted, was a fusion of those two sets of influences. So, the copy of The Queen Is Dead that you see above could very well be the exact same copy that was played on the air and inspired Walter Schreifels. Wild, huh?
I've had a lot of response to my last blog post, which has been really nice. I feel like I must have been fishing for compliments because people have been so nice to me. Honestly, though, it has been a difficult summer. About two years ago I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, which up until this summer I thought I'd kicked with a combination of meds and therapy. Basically, I get caught in these cycles of worry that I can't break... my mind keeps thinking about all kinds of terrible scenarios and I can't force those thoughts out of my head in order to concentrate on the things I need to be thinking about at any given moment. Even worse, my body is constantly in fight or flight mode... all of my muscles are clenched tight, my heart races... it's that feeling when you feel like you're about to be in a fight, but I feel like that almost all the time. Not only is it terrible in and of itself, but even when I manage not to feel keyed up I feel sore, exhausted, and irritable because I've been in this anxious state for so long.
Over the past few weeks my anxiety has come back with a vengeance thanks to a kind of perfect storm of stress factors. If there are two things that can send me into this spiral it's money problems and worry about disappointing people (hence the title of this blog), and I'm dealing with both of those things in full force right now. I've mentioned in the email newsletter that they demolished the rehearsal studios where my band and almost all of my friends' bands practiced here in Raleigh, and I've been trying to find a new option. Basically, what I've been trying to do is find a new commercial space that can serve as a rehearsal studio and also serve a handful of other Sorry State / Raleigh punk functions. I've been looking at properties, talking to realtors, trying to figure out business plans... it's a lot to handle and it's occupied almost all of my attention this summer. Now I'm finally close to the point of signing a lease, but unfortunately this is coming at the slowest part of the year for retail and we have basically no spare cash. The last few weeks of July and the first few weeks of August are always tough and I'm always low on money, and this year is no different. I found a space that I think could be the future of Raleigh punk rock and I've put in an application for a lease, but it will cost me over $4000 to move in. Right now I just don't have that money, and it's frustrating. Further, not only do I not have the liquid cash, but Sorry State has a pretty substantial (to me at least) debt, so I wonder if I should even be starting a whole new venture when I haven't actually figured out how to make a profit or even pay myself with the store and the distro. Not that my goal is to make a profit, but when I lose money (and I always do) the bills have to get paid somehow, and that's when the anxiety starts. I see this point on the horizon where I want to be, but I can't figure out how to get there. It may work itself out, but in the meantime I've been spending pretty much every waking hour making myself sick with worry about whether and how I can make this work.
I wish I could just figure this out and get it settled, because when I get in this anxious state I become numb. Worries consume me and I lose the ability to feel. The worst is that I just don't enjoy anything. I try doing the things that usually make me happy--listening to records, reading, playing guitar--but I feel like I'm just going through the motions, or like I'm watching a movie of someone else doing these things. That's probably why there aren't any notes about what I've been listening to in this entry... I've been listening to plenty of music because I'm always listening to music, but I haven't been feeling music in the way that I want to. So, sorry to leave off on such a depressing note, but that's it for now. Hopefully I'll have some better news next time.
All Things to All People Vol. 17 June 28, 2016 17:01
Well, it's been quite a while since I've written one of these, a fact that has not gone without remark from those of you who check the site regularly. I apologize for that. I suppose there are a combination of reasons that have kept me away from blogging. The first is that we did a little bit of remodeling at the store. A month or so ago I acquired a huge, very awesome collection of about 3,000 jazz LPs, so I added some new bins, moved things around and created some new displays to accommodate all of the jazz records. That's kept me quite busy, especially when you add in sorting and pricing all of those records (which is a project that will probably be ongoing for the next year or so).
The other reason I haven't written is that I think I've been a bit depressed. There has been a lot of heavy stuff going on in my social circle lately and at times it has kind of gotten to my head. I touched on the whole Brandon thing in the email newsletter and that definitely spun my head around super hard for a few weeks there. Thinking so much about "The No Way Years" has me doing a lot of reflecting on how my life today is different from what it was like in those years. Maybe it was just where I happened to be at in my life or maybe I was just lucky enough to be part of something truly extraordinary, but everything was just so exciting during those years. I lived for hardcore. While I did other things, it felt like the most important thing in my life was hardcore... playing in bands, putting on shows and putting out records. That fire isn't really with me as much these days. That might be because I'm older or because after running the store for three years I'm kind of burnt out, but I'm definitely lacking some fire. The other thing is that a lot of my close friends are either having or recently had children. I never really thought that I would want children and I'm still not sure that I do, but again looking at several of my friends undergoing this enormous life change has me reflecting. For most people raising children is the most important thing they will ever do. It seems like it's a sort of capstone achievement in your life. However, I've devoted my life to punk rock, and I'm increasingly questioning the wisdom of that decision. After more than a decade doing Sorry State it's certainly grown in size and scope, but as a business it's patently unsuccessful, slowly accumulating debt and always taking up more of my time and causing more stress. Maybe I'm just bad at business? I'm sure that plenty of people would consider Sorry State enormously successful, but I can't help but think about the fact that without my constant attention and without periodic infusions of cash (which more often than not come from my minuscule personal income from teaching) the whole thing would collapse within a month, and within a few months people would barely ever remember it was here.
Maybe I'm also bitter. I certainly get angry when I think about how easy life is for some people. I mean, obviously I could have it worse... I'm a white male in the United States after all. But I've never had a trust fund. I've never had a relative die and leave me a bunch of money. I've always paid my own bills. When Sorry State was planning to put out our first 12" I got a second job to pay for it. I've never not worked a full time day job for the entirety of Sorry State's existence, and I guess that after all of that time with my nose to the grindstone, I'm just tired. Tired and a bit bitter that I don't have much in the way of personal wealth or conventional achievement to show for it. Again, that's not to demean what Sorry State is, but when I look around at my friends giving birth and fucking dying it forces me to take a different perspective on what I've chosen to do with my life, and while it's been fun I can't help but think about all of the paths I didn't take.
Everything above probably reads like a melodramatic resignation letter, but it isn't. I'm not quitting. I'm just giving a bit of a voice to the little demons inside my head constantly whispering that I'm not good enough, I'm not smart enough, and that people don't like me. Now I'll get back to being myself and writing about music.
Over the past few months I have started to discover the genius of later Darkthrone. I've often spoken and written about what I call "the first album fallacy," i.e. assuming that a band's earliest stuff is their best, and in some cases only worthwhile, material. So many great bands suffer from this fallacy when, like the Stranglers or the Jam, their second, third, or fourth album is the one you really need to hear. This isn't precisely the case with Darkthrone; their first album, the death metal-oriented Soulside Journey, is widely dismissed, but their black metal albums like Under a Funeral Moon and Transylvanian Hunger are justly regarded as some of the most seminal records in the genre. However, I rarely hear people talk about their most recent material, which is brilliant.
We often assume that extreme music artists mellow with age, but such is not the case with Darkthrone. I wonder if, particularly with metal bands, part of that mellowing is a natural outgrowth of getting better at your instruments and wanting to write music that is more complex and less immediate. Maybe it's because they don't tour, but Darkthrone don't have this problem. If anything they've gotten uglier and more primitive with age. Their black metal period was so revolutionary partially because it was all blurred lines and soft edges. However, on newer records like Dark Thrones and Black Flags the seams show. You hear the band's influences crashing together in the oddest ways, full-bore Discharge-inspired hardcore awkwardly giving way to more melodic, even epic, influences from bands like Judas Priest and Mercyful Fate. Despite the fact that they've been playing together for something like 30 years now, they sound like a high school band trying to mash together their most beloved influences despite their apparent incompatibility. Early Inquisition stuff like Invoking the Majestic Throne of Satan has a similar quality about it, and it's one of my favorite little conceptual threads in the history of black metal, if not metal in general.
I should also note that my discovery of these albums is owed to my sporadic but still very much present interest in picking up cheap used CDs. I imagine the vinyl for these albums probably runs $25 or more a pop and I definitely wouldn't have taken a chance at that price, but for six or seven bucks it was well within my budget for risky musical purchases.
In my last entry I promised that I would write about Record Store Day, and while I no longer have the energy for a point by point refutation of the specious arguments against RSD, I should probably fulfill that promise and write a few words.
One of the reasons that I started a record store was because there were no record stores in my area that were precisely what I wanted a record store to be. One of the reasons that the store is still there after three years is because I recognize that there aren't enough people out there who are precisely like me to sustain the store, and I've had to recognize what works and what doesn't and focus on the former in order to keep the doors open. I've always been leery of Record Store Day as a customer, so the first few times that we participated in RSD we were only dipping our toes in the water. We basically only ordered the punk records that we would have ordered anyway even if they weren't RSD releases, all the while fielding phone call after phone call from people looking for One Direction records and Ghostbusters picture discs. Eventually we started ordering some of those types of releases, then more of them. Nowadays we order quite a lot of them, and despite what you might hear from your oh so knowledgeable local record nerd, they sell. This past RSD, our sales for Saturday and Sunday were roughly equivalent to what we do in a typical MONTH. We also make a concerted effort to sell through as much of our RSD stock as well possibly can, and by Monday morning we had only a few dozen pieces remaining out of the 500+ we had on Saturday morning.
Now, there are a number of problems with RSD. One big one is that we have to pay for almost everything up front, so it's often a budgeting nightmare to get together the cash for everything. Further compounding those problems, some distributors will ship your order up to a full month early. We have to pay when the order ships, so we're often in the position of dropping thousands of dollars for product that we can't sell for several weeks. Second, I have to place our orders several months in advance, well before these releases are announced to the general public. This makes it very difficult to gauge demand. What does and doesn't generate the most demand is consistently surprising to me... I mean who would have thought that Ghostbusters record a few years ago would have been such a thing? And, of course, there is no returning unsold product, so if you end up ordering a dud you are left holding the bill.
However, even given those issues, Record Store Day is great for Sorry State. I mean, you have to be smart. You need to order the things that your customers are actually going to buy, but that's really the only difficult part. The folks who run RSD do a great job with the other most difficult part of running a store, and that's generating interest in and demand for records. People want desperately to buy records on RSD. They come into stores looking to buy, and if you serve them well they WILL buy. Yeah, you won't see some of them until the following RSD. However, for many of them it's their first time buying a record, and if you make the experience a good one for them, they will be back. You can't please everyone, but if you work hard and play your cards right you can please a lot of people and turn a lot of people on to buying records.
To me, Record Store Day is basically the one day (though now there are two) of the year when the music industry functions like it should. The people who put out the records make something and they market it appropriately so that people want it, and then the local stores like mine try to get people to come buy it from us. It's the way that other industries work... Coke and Pepsi spend millions on developing and marketing their sodas, then your local grocery store tries to get you to buy it from them rather than the store next door. So much of running a record store is an uphill struggle. Getting people to know the store is there, convincing people that buying records is a worthwhile thing (particularly difficult given that pretty much all music is available online for free or close to it)... those are the things that I struggle with every day, but on RSD those things are taken care of and I can focus solely on getting good records and putting them in people's hands. If there were even one day a month like that my job would be criminally easy, but in the meantime I'll definitely take twice a year.
One more thing for this entry. A lot of my music listening time lately has been taken by this app / site called Mixcloud. I listen to a few podcasts, but by and large podcasts don't have actual music in them because of intellectual property rights issues. Mixcloud somehow works things out so that rights holders (theoretically, at least) get paid, but other than that it pretty much works the same as any other podcasting app or platform. There is a lot of user-generated content of questionable quality on there, but my preferred feeds are the ones that archive radio shows that originally aired on some form of real time / terrestrial radio. I've always loved radio ever since I was a kid, but the problem is that the music on the radio just sucks. However, when you have a great DJ playing great music it can be like sitting in a friend's room and having them play their favorite records for you. Mix tapes are cool and all, but I like hearing people talk between the songs as well, contextualizing things juts a little bit and increasing the human connection to the music. Here are some of my favorite Mixcloud Feeds:
My very favorite show is Damaged Goods, which just happens to be done by Sorry State's own Seth along with local Raleigh personality Matt Dunn. Seth and Matt have been doing Damaged Goods for years now and they pretty much have the format on lock. Matt controls the playlist for the first hour, focusing mostly on new releases in the garage and punk realms, then Seth takes over for the second hour and plays stuff that's similar, but he tends to focus on older and more obscure bands, as well as slightly more esoteric stuff like minimal synth and KBD punk.
The key to a good radio show is consistency... When you tune in you want to feel like you're visiting friends, so you want to know what you're getting. Seth and Matt know this and there are all sorts of little things for the regular listener, like how Matt always starts his set with a song by the Fall (and always announces it by saying ("that was a band from Manchester England called the Fall"), Seth always starts his set with a song by Billy Childish, they always change their silly DJ names several times per show, and they always do a little snarky rundown of the silly music news of the week. Listening to this show has become one of the highlights of my week and if you like a lot of the stuff we carry at SSR you'll probably like it a lot too.
30s Punks Go For It
30s Punks Go for It is a podcast hosted by Candice from Mystic Inane and Patsy, and it focuses on somewhat more obscure music and is radically freeform. There's plenty of punk, but you're just as likely to hear progressive jazz like Miles Davis or Eric Dolphy, the best of 60s psychedelia, and other weird and forward-thinking music from across the globe. I like how 30s Punks kind of dissolves the very concept of genre... so many people will only listen to hardcore or jazz or soul or whatever, but Candice does an incredible job of weaving together tracks that are radically different in many of the ways that we often think about music, but share a clear and undeniable sensibility that links them together.
The Village Subway
Another excellent show that happens to be based in Raleigh is The Village Subway, hosted by my buddy David Schwentker. Like Damaged Goods, The Village Subway airs on Little Raleigh Radio (a Raleigh-based internet streaming station), so it's recorded live but archived on Mixcloud. David's tastes seem to tend toward the garage / Total Punk end of the punk spectrum, but his playlists are usually dictated more by what artists are coming to Raleigh over the next few weeks than anything else. This is great for a Raleigh-ite trying to decide what shows are worth our time and money, but it's great even if you just want to be up to date on what the new hip punk bands are.
NTS Radio is a London-based terrestrial (I think?) station that also archives content on Mixcloud. They have a lot of well-known DJs, in particular some good celebrity DJs. My favorite of them is Henry Rollins. Now, say what you will about Henry Rollins, but at this point I think that he may have been hosting radio shows for significantly longer than he was in Black Flag, and if you ask me he's probably better at DJing than he is at fronting a band. Like 30s Punks Go for It, Rollins' show is radically eclectic, though he tends to lean a bit heavier on the classics than the obscurities that Candice favors. On the last one of his shows that I listened to, he transitioned from Coltrane into Motorhead, and it was absolutely sublime. That should tell you right there whether or not you need to listen to this show. There's also a very good metal show hosted by Fenriz from Darkthrone that you can also listen to, but I wish Fenriz talked a little more and gave you a little more to go on... most of the time he just tells you what song he just played or is about to play and leaves it at that. He definitely has great taste though.
The only criticism I have of NTS is that if you subscribe to their feed you get ALL of their shows crowding out everything else in your feed, which can be kind of frustrating. I wish I could just subscribe to Rollins's and Fenriz's monthly shows and not have to sift through the half dozen shows that they upload every single day.
Finally, another London-based terrestrial station, Soho Radio, also archives their numerous (mostly) genre-based shows with (mostly) celebrity DJs on Mixcloud. My favorite is Gary Crowley's Punk and New Wave Show, which is pretty much straight fire, focusing on '77-inspired punk and related music like mod revival, two-tone, and dub, mostly from the UK but also occasionally from the US and Europe. The only issue is that while most online radio shows that I've listened to tend to have too much music and not enough talking (I guess you don't get to be a record collector by being a huge extrovert), Crowley's show has the opposite problem... in particular, much of the show is taken up by reading aloud posts on the show's various social media feeds, which can be a bit tedious. Still, the music they play is so good that it's worth sitting through all that.
In addition to these regular feeds that I subscribe to, you also see other content pop up from time to time. For instance, when someone whose feed you follow likes an episode you also see that in your feed, so the social component can really lead you to some good stuff. That's how I found out about Rollins' show, as well as how I found out about this excellent mix of '70s punk that I'm listening to at the moment.
All Things to All People Vol. 16 May 05, 2016 12:22
Mark the date: April 2016 is the month that broke all of my systems.
I write this on a sunny Wednesday morning in May. There were thunderstorms all night and the internet has gone out, which is probably the only reason that I'm writing this right now. It's also the reason that I don't feel like someone is sitting on my chest for the first time in many, many weeks.
I dare say that Sorry State has acquired a reputation as an efficient enterprise full of hard-working people. This is definitely true, but as the person running the show I'd put more emphasis on the "efficient" part than the "hard-working" part. I don't know if it's always been the case, but over the past several years I've learned how to excel at setting up processes that don't require much thought. Things that seem to require a lot of effort to other people just seem to happen for me because I don't force myself to come up with that extra bit of force required to overcome the static friction that points you toward naps or Netflix or drinking or whatever it is that people do... getting things done is my habit. It's just what I do.
However, in April 2016 there was simply more to get done than I was able to do. Thanks mostly to Record Store Day, Sorry State's sales in April 2016 were roughly double what we do in a typical month. This is great, but it also means that there was twice as much work to do. I did get some outside help by hiring some additional temporary staff and letting Seth and Jeff pick up a few extra shifts here and there, but largely we completed (or are still in the process of completing, in some cases) double the amount of work with the same amount of staff and infrastructure. It's been exhausting, and while we've continued to fulfill our promise of 24-hour turnaround for nearly all orders, some other things have started to slip, namely the writing that I do for the web site and newsletter. This is a shame because the writing that I do for Sorry State is perhaps my favorite part of the job. It's invigorating... it makes me feel energetic and alive to think deeply about music and shape my thoughts into the little paragraph-long blurbs that you see on the web site and the newsletter. Without the rejuvenating nature of that task, Sorry State has sadly begun to feel a little bit more like work than it typically does.
However, things are looking up. I just turned in most of my grades for the term (annoyingly, several students took incompletes so their [and, consequently, my] work will drag on for a few more weeks), which means that I don't have to think too much about teaching for the next 3 months. Honestly, I don't really know what I'll do with myself. I've still been in catch-up mode mostly, working around the clock to try and clear the backlog of work that was generated during our very busy time. However, beyond that I'm not really sure what I'll do. One option is taking all of my energy and dumping it into Sorry State. We've done a lot of big used buys lately, so we have a whole lot of vinyl that hasn't been sold yet because it hasn't been processed, cleaned, and put on the floor. Another options would be just relaxing a little bit. I'm not very good at that, but I do want to get back to working out every day. I've always really enjoyed working out, but I let it slip somewhat during April.
Another goal is to join what I call the "punk jet set." Since there's so much work to do around the shop I've rarely gotten out of Raleigh since the store opened two and a half years ago. In the meantime, it seems like US punk culture has changed somewhat, with fewer bands going on lengthy tours and more people traveling to big regional and national festivals. Sometimes even just big single shows, like the recent Death Side gigs in New York. I wish I could have gone to those, but of course they fell on Record Store Day weekend so there was no way that I was making it. Anyway, if the bands aren't going to come to me I'm resolving to go to the bands, seeing more gigs and connecting with more of my out of town friends. So hopefully you'll see me at an out of town punk gig soon!
A few things I've been listening to lately:
I picked up a few Record Store Day releases for myself (despite what everyone else was saying, there were some good ones this year... though more on that later... I'm planning on writing my next blog post about Record Store Day), the most extravagant one being this Lush box set. Honestly, Lush is a band I never really paid much attention to in the past. While they were on my radar, I was a couple years too young to have really gotten into them. In fact, I was just a couple years too young for shoegaze in general. While I was old enough to have heard many of those bands, I was a teenager with raging hormones who just wanted music that was as loud and as fast as possible. So, I'd watch 120 Minutes religiously every Sunday, but really I was just sitting through all of the shoegaze, Britpop and college rock on the off chance that they'd play an old Black Flag video at 1:45 AM.
However, since Record Store Day I've probably listened to Lush more than any other band. I don't know what it is, but they're really scratching an itch right now. While I'd heard the band before, I think that my ears had to adjust to their slightly quirky sense of melody. When I checked them out before none of the songs really stood out, but now their best tracks feel like impossibly long strings of hooks.
Over the past few months we've slowly acquired the largest part of a friend's really stellar record collection. Among said collection was pretty much every single Killing Joke record. Consequently, Jeff, Seth, and I have all been listening to more than our fair share of old Killing Joke records. Honestly, I'd never really checked out their later stuff too closely. I heard the first album sometime in the late 90s and of course I absolutely loved it. However, I picked up a copy of their second album, What's This For shortly thereafter and wasn't too impressed. Well, it turns out that I deprived myself of some absolutely killer music. In particular, their 1985 album Night Time has been in constant rotation, particularly the brilliant single "Eighties," which even had a video:
"Eighties" is probably most famous as the song from which Nirvana "borrowed" the riff for "Come As You Are," but I think it's a brilliant song in its own right. As you can see, the sleeve on my copy is damaged, but I'm not too worried. The vinyl is fine and if I decide I want a nicer copy it doesn't look like they're too expensive.
Also in that same collection was a heap of Virgin Prunes records. They're a band I hadn't really checked out at all before, but I brought home most of them and gave them at least a listen or two. Much of it was too abstract for my tastes (A New Form of Beauty Parts 1-4 was a particularly tough listen, reminding me of very early Cabaret Voltaire), but man, "Baby Turns Blue!" What a track! I don't know if I could stand a full album of tracks this hot, but I do wish there was more in their catalog as exhilarating as this. Oh, and if you're intrigued by this group you should definitely check out some of their truly bizarre live vids on YouTube.
This was a very cool walk-in to the shop: Inferno's Tod & Wahnsinn LP, original pressing on Mülleimer Records. Inferno is a band I have a long history with... in fact, my old band Cross Laws used to cover "Escape from Society" (you can even hear a recording of it here). Honestly, I much prefer their Hibakusha LP, but this LP does have its charms, particularly given that this original pressing sounds quite a bit punchier than any version I've owned before. However, it's also kind of shitty in a lot of ways, with crummy drumming and sometimes really obvious, boring songwriting. I suppose the adjective I'd reach for to describe this is "charming," and while that sounds condescending I really do love this record.
Finally, my absolute favorite take-home from the shop in recent memory: Kuro's Who the Helpless 8". I'm so glad that Sorry State has developed the kind of reputation that prompts people to come to us when they want to sell their treasured rare records, because having things like this randomly come across my path is one of my favorite parts of having the store. As is the case with Lush, Kuro is a band I've certainly heard plenty of times in my life, but never really grabbed me in the same way that a lot of other Japanese bands did. I'm not sure if the context is just right at the moment or if it's just that this original pressing sounds so fucking powerful (and indeed it does), but I can't get this record off of my turntable. The noisier Japanese bands from the 80s were so ahead of their time. While Who the Helpless came out in 1984, it seems like they're exploring a lot of the same ideas that D-Clone would be working with on their Creation and Destroy LP some 30 years later. Basically, Kuro were taking the focus on sonic texture from noise and musique concrete and grafting it onto a frame of furious hardcore. While D-Clone (at least on that record) have a brittle, processed sound that's very much engaged with current possibilities of digital sound (re-) production, Who the Helpless is all analog warmth. I can't think of a single better distorted vocal sound in the history of punk.
OK, I think that's enough for now... I want to get this online because I haven't posted one of these in ages. Hopefully I'll be much more regular with the blog now that my life has calmed down somewhat!
All Things to All People Vol. 15 March 26, 2016 20:22So, I realize it has been a really long time since I've written here. I've kind of fallen out of the habit of jotting down little bits to write about out and working on them slowly during the week, and on top of that things have been extraordinarily busy for me. This is that brutal time of year when the semester really heats up and Record Store Day looms large on the horizon at almost precisely the same time, and things like sleep and time to reflect (which is really where the genesis of this blog comes from) are in short supply. I'm sure that no one wants to hear about how busy I am, though, so I'll get to it.
I'm sure that by now many of you have seen this article about the current DC hardcore scene that appeared on NPR's web site. Like a lot of people, I was a little bit surprised to see such legit underground music covered by NPR (though it's not unprecedented... my own band No Love has even felt the gentle caress of NPR music), but at the same time there were some parts of the article that annoyed me just a little bit. Now, I realize that writing this may well come off like I'm trying to take some kind of credit for something that I literally have nothing to do with, but I'm going to go ahead and take that risk because it's prompted me to think a little bit about journalism in general and the way that real-life events get subtly distorted in order to fit them into a coherent narrative. That being said, the main passage in the article that bothered me was this one:
Donegan says the evolution of the scene, and its drastic overlap in band membership, happened organically. The main actors grew up together in those northern D.C. suburbs serviced by the red line train. Donegan and Mendoza went to middle school and high school together and have been playing in bands since they were both 15.
Now, there is nothing that is technically factually inaccurate in that paragraph, but it stuck out to me because I've been friends with Connor (Donegan) and Ace (Mendoza) since they were pretty young, and they're both from Raleigh. I mean, at the end of the day who really cares that the middle school referenced in the paragraph above was actually in Cary, North Carolina* and not in the northern suburbs of DC, as the paragraph clearly implies? It is an insignificant detail, but knowing that one particular detail upsets the entire narrative. The author clearly wants to cast this current wave of DC hardcore as a native movement, but it's so much more complex than that. Sure, there were plenty of bands in DC before Connor and Ace moved there, but those two individuals moving to that city clearly provided some kind of spark or catalyst for the current explosion of bands there.
Which leads me to wonder, why did it take two people moving from Raleigh to DC to kick-start this bigger movement? Maybe it was just the show of faith that their move implied. In other words, maybe everyone looked around and said "well, if Ace and Connor thought this scene was cool enough to move here pretty much just for hardcore, then maybe it does have a lot of potential." I have no idea if that's actually the case or not, but it does make sense. Here's another theory that may or may not be true, but also seems to make sense: Connor and Ace, being from the Raleigh area, were imprinted with some of the values and assumptions of the scene here, and bringing those values and assumptions to DC changed that scene. In particular, I'm talking about an attitude toward releasing music on physical formats.
I'm pretty sure Ace and Connor were both around 19 or 20 when they moved to DC, but even though they were so young they both had already played on multiple releases that made it to vinyl. Why? Well, obviously it's partly because they're both very talented and played in good bands, but there are good, talented bands all over the place, only a fraction of which get to release vinyl. However, Ace and Connor happened to grow up in Raleigh, a town with To Live a Lie and Sorry State, two established DIY hardcore labels. Now, I didn't put out vinyl featuring either Ace or Connor (though Will at To Live a Lie did put out the Abuse. LP, which featured both Connor and Ace, and the Last Words LP that featured Connor), but they did grow up in a scene where it was normal--perhaps even expected--for hardcore punk bands to put out vinyl. Again, I have never talked to either of them about this and I have no idea if this is the case or not, but it does seem to me that Connor and Ace brought that attitude toward releasing music with them when they moved to DC. This is interesting because the author of that article clearly views physical (particularly vinyl) releases as an important legitimating factor that not only corroborates the value of the current DC scene, but also separates the now-established bands like Red Death and Protester from the newer crop of bands who, by and large, only have demo releases. But there isn't some secret hardcore board of trustees that decides when your band is good or well-established enough to release vinyl. Putting out vinyl isn't that hard, but it does need to be something that is in the realm of possibility. This is why records always seem to come in waves from certain scenes and/or locations... once someone figures out that putting a record isn't that hard, not only the information on how to do it but also the confidence that you can do it spreads throughout the entire social network.
The author of that article clearly tries to position the current crop of DC bands as some sort of rebirth of the native DIY spirit that spawned the early 80s harDCore scene (despite the fact that the people in the actual bands are clearly reluctant to make this comparison). However, from my particular perspective as someone who is 1. old 2. owns a record label 3. is from North Carolina and 4. happens to know that one little factoid mentioned above, that doesn't really hold water. DC has continued to be DC ever since the early 80s, so why is this explosion of creativity happening now? From my perspective, it seems like Connor and Ace brought a little bit of Raleigh's secret sauce up north. The whole "rebirth of harDCore" narrative is compelling--particularly to an NPR audience who might actually have heard of Minor Threat or Fugazi--however, as the paragraph I quoted above illustrates, it requires a slight distortion of the facts for this narrative to make sense. At the very least it's not the whole story. Who knows how many other similar distortions are in this article, or any other that you might read for that matter? The act of shaping these narratives out of quote unquote "real life" requires us to make these kinds of concessions to simplicity, orderliness, and coherence. No one can write the whole story.
I mentioned to my friend Scott that I felt uneasy with this article, and he just replied, "history is written by the victors." That pithy little idiom makes the writing of history seem like an act of willful distortion or even malice, but this completely benign example that I outlined above shows that that doesn't have to be the case. I'd imagine that it's much more often the case that things work like this... that subtle distortions or omissions allow us to tell a better and/or more coherent story, and those distortions or omissions set us drifting slowly but surely away from the truth.
One of the notes that I have for what I was going to write about in this entry reads, "STUDENTS WHO THINK THEY UNDERSTAND TEXTS VS PUNKS WHO THINK THEY UNDERSTAND RECORDS." I think that I wrote that about three weeks ago and I now have only the foggiest notion of what I was planning on writing about. I think that what I was referring to was this interesting phenomenon I experienced as a literature teacher: the texts that students claimed to like were the ones that they thought they "understood." Whenever I came into class and students told me that they liked something that we had read, I knew that either 1. they had completely misunderstood it, or 2. that they really did understand it and we wouldn't have anything to talk about.
I've always seen it one of my chief objectives as a teacher to foster a sense of curiosity. Students--particularly as they're entering college--tend to see learning as a process of ingesting a piece of knowledge, gaining ownership or mastery of it, and then moving on to the next piece of knowledge. Perhaps that's one way to describe the learning process, but I've always been a fan of intractable problems... of delving deeper and revealing more and more complexity. Consequently, my favorite pieces of literature (not to mention my favorite records) are the ones that I'll never understand. After all, if I "get" something why do I want to bother with it any longer... I won't get anything new from revisiting it. However, when a text reveals itself slowly it warrants more and closer attention I can come back to it again and again because I'm never "done" with it. More than anything, I hope that I leave my students with an appreciation of this feeling... the ability to enjoy being slightly confused.
I believe that I was thinking about this phenomenon as it relates to the life cycle of punk bands. History is littered with flash-in-the-pan bands who are immediately popular because a lot of people have the same reaction that my students have: they like things that they feel like they understand. A derivative band might get popular not simply because they are riding the coattails of a more popular earlier band, but instead because people hear them and "get it" because they've heard it done--to some degree or another, at least--before. Certainly one can point out numerous instances of less innovative bands being more popular than the bands they borrowed a great deal from. I'm sure Pavement's sales numbers dwarf those of the Fall. The mainstream wasn't ready for the Ramones in the late 70s or even the early 80s, but by the time Green Day came around in the early 90s that strain of melodic punk was legible--maybe even comfortable--to the wider public. There is then a further part of the cycle where the general public moves on, the critics reassert control of the narrative and the pioneers get valorized and, ultimately, canonized. Right now Green Day is a nostalgia trip while the Ramones are "serious" music. It's a pattern I see repeated over and over in the history of music and its criticism.
A few weeks ago I watched the above documentary about Twisted Sister and I highly recommend it. I have basically no attachment to Twisted Sister's music, but the documentary was fascinating. What makes it interesting is that it focuses on the now-extinct culture of (mostly cover) bands that played in bars. Cable TV and home video pretty much completely killed the whole idea of going out to see live music for something like 98% of the American public, but seeing live bands used to be a really big part of culture, particularly in certain regions of the US. Interestingly, though, while a band could make a really good living playing sets of mostly covers to hoards of barflies, once you were on that circuit you were branded as a cover band and no matter how good you were, your band was essentially blacklisted from the mainstream record industry. In other words, no one wants to hear a cover band's original tunes. The movie is essentially the story of how Twisted Sister made that difficult and unlikely transition, and it pretty much ends precisely when they finally get the major label contract they had been pining after and working toward for years. It's a really enjoyable documentary and I highly recommend it, particularly if you like a little more than the established Behind the Music narrative from your rock docs.
Since this blog has already documented the growth of my home stereo system I might as well tell you about the newest addition: a CD player.
Until a few days ago I only owned a few CDs... aside from a handful of Sorry State releases and a few other bits of detritus, my CD collection consisted of the following:
- GISM: Sonicrime Therapy
- Judgement: Just Be
- The Fall: The Complete Peel Sessions
- The Fall: Box Set 1976-2007
Anyway, since I picked up this CD player I've gone out shopping for CDs a few times, and it's great. I'm sure part of the fun is the fact that, since I own my record store, I rarely go to other record stores anymore unless I'm traveling. However, I've also really enjoyed the fact that CD-buying is really a much different experience than vinyl-buying these days. Shopping for CDs in the year 2016 reminds me a lot of shopping for vinyl in the 90s. First of all, CDs are cheap... most places sell used CDs for $4-$7, and most of the places that sell used CDs don't seem to bother looking up every single item on Amazon or discogs and trying to sell it in their store for the highest price they see online. Second, the music available on CD is very different than what's available on vinyl. In particular, there's so much 90s stuff that is near-impossible to get on vinyl but is crazy cheap and widely available on CD. Shoegaze is a perfect example... I don't really like much shoegaze enough to pay the premium prices that vinyl commands, but $4 for a Ride CD? Sold!
I really think that CDs are poised to occupy--at least for a time--a much-needed space in the music industry. Buying CDs is a way to have a small investment in a particular title. The structure of subscription services like Spotify and Apple Music, where you pay a flat monthly fee for access to their entire catalog, means that I have no investment in any particular title. I might check something out, and if it doesn't appeal to me immediately I probably won't even listen to the whole thing, much less revisit it. Vinyl, on the other hand, is a huge investment. Because it's gotten so expensive (the good titles anyway), I better damn well like a record before I spend the money to pick it up on vinyl. However, CDs allow me to take a risk in a way that still forces me to engage with the music on a slightly deeper level. If I invested four dollars into this thing I'm going to make some attempt to get some value out of it, but I'm not going to be heartbroken if it's ultimately just not for me.
I realize that, in nearly every case, I'm paying those four dollars despite the fact that I already have access to the very same music through subscription streaming services. Anyone who has spent any time selling music, though, will tell you that there is absolutely nothing logical about music buying habits.
To wrap things up, here's a photo of some records that I've been enjoying, most of which have only recently been added to my collection. Maybe next time I'll muster the energy to write about some of them in more detail, but right now I'm so stressed out that I don't really want to think deeply about music, I just want to sit back and let it wash over me.
I actually don't really know where Ace and Connor went to middle school, but I'm pretty sure they're both from Cary... if it wasn't Cary then I'm almost certain it was in the Raleigh area.
All Things To All People Vol. 14 March 05, 2016 15:24
So, it's been a few weeks since my last entry here, and I apologize for that. Ideally I'd like to post an entry once per week. I have developed a pretty good habit of noting down potential topics when they occur to me so that I have something to write about when I sit down to do so, but lately the problem has been time. As you probably know, I hold down a full time job in addition to running Sorry State and playing in No Love (as well as messing around with a couple of other musical projects). In order to maintain all of these activities my life feels like a perpetual, delicate balancing act. Generally, I wake up around 7:30 or so and get to work on teaching and school-related stuff, then try to be working on Sorry State stuff by noon, which I continue to do until sometime in the evening. Sadly, I don't really get to think about No Love too much outside of our weekly band practice on Sunday nights. However, this past weekend we played two shows with Night Birds, so not only was I in band land for more than 48 straight hours, but there was also tons of work to do leading up to the weekend. We got shirts printed and then we tie-dyed them ourselves, we made other little merch like buttons, and we finalized and duplicated a new tape release for the weekend.
In my old bands I would have probably done most of that myself, but No Love is really good about divvying up responsibility, so the main thing I had to do was finalize the "mix tape" portion of the cassette release. Basically, we have a whole bunch of new songs but 1. we don't have really strong recordings of them and 2. we don't want to totally give them away because we don't want them to feel old when we eventually re-record them properly for a release. So, my solution to that was to do a hip-hop-style mix tape. It's full of sound effects, weird transitions, and other goofiness, and instead of the full songs it's (sometimes lengthy, sometimes short) snippets that give you an idea of what our stuff will be like while being a pretty distinct thing from the actual songs themselves. It bounces around between a couple of different demo and practice tape sessions that we've done and kind of highlights little parts of the songs that I thought were interesting. I didn't put a ton of work into it or anything, but I'm really pleased with the way it came out and I think that it's an interesting listen, particularly if you've seen us live a couple of times over the past year or so. I'm not sure what we'll do with it... right now it's exclusive to the weekend tape, but maybe we'll put it up on the No Love BandCamp site for free at some point.
No Love at the Milestone in Charlotte this past weekend; killer photo by Whitmire Photography
Anyway, this weekend was completely invigorating, by far the best time I've had at shows in a very, very long time. I know not everyone is into Night Birds, but I think they're a great band. I think part of why I like them so much is that their points of reference are largely the same as mine. While I'm older than anyone in the band (except maybe Joe?), I think that all of us found our way to hardcore through a lot of more melodic 90s punk, and while we're all USHC nuts we still retain more than a little fondness for a big hook, whether it comes from the vocal or the guitar (or preferably both at the same time!). Also, given the fact that they have similar backgrounds to me and I've known most of them for quite some time now, they're very easy to hang out with. I wish we'd been able to hang out more, but their long drives to play these shows precluded much of that. Anyway, they're a great band and I'm especially proud that No Love seems to have won their respect by the end of the weekend. I think that all four of them bought our single, and they don't strike me as the type that would make that gesture if they didn't actually like the band.
The corner of my home office
All of this focus on band stuff and actually having fun at shows for a change (something that's been a bit of an issue with me for the past year or two) has prompted me to reflect a little bit on my "punk journey." My main (read: only) form of relaxation is sitting on the couch in my office listening to records really loud, and whenever I lie on my back I see the corner in the photograph above. On the right are the first four releases on Sorry State and on the left are the three 7" releases by my first band, Cross Laws. (There's also a small, framed GISM flyer but I'm not really talking about that right now.) I remember when I framed these it was because I thought they very well might be the only things that I ever actually put out, either as a record label or a musician. Since then I've put out a whole lot of releases and the process has lost a lot of its novelty, both because of familiarity and because the whole process of putting out records in the year 2016 is so fraught. I've been trying to figure out whether my issues with this are a matter of me over-thinking things and focusing on my own (admittedly, anomalous) perspective or if punk has actually changed significantly in the decade or so since I started the label and my first band. So, I guess that's what this post is about.
Sitting and staring at these seven records, it occurred to me the other day that while most people seem to think that records are all about artistic expression, in reality they're at least as much--really, probably more so--about communication. People like to view the artist as having some unnamable thing inside them that has to be released, but the whole point of releasing that thing isn't just the catharsis, it's that an audience needs to receive that message. In order for the record to meaningful, there has to be something significant communicated from the author to the audience. In some cases, that communication happens through the lyrics: say, Crass's political messages, Minor Threat's "personal politics," etc. Sometimes what's communicated isn't a "message" in the sense that we usually use that term, but more of a formal statement. Disclose, for instance, probably didn't see the main point of their band as communicating the anti-war messages that formed the largest part of their lyrics; rather, I think the main thing that they wanted to communicate was that Discharge's music was a kind of archetype, one that can be extended, elaborated on, or even just inhabited in any number of interesting ways. For really significant records, the things that get communicated are often total game-changers, while other records might add to an ongoing conversation in a subtler, more incremental way. This sense of "conversation" is why exploring the contexts of music I love has always been so important to me. While what a piece of music communicates in the here and now is always going to be important (and god knows something like the Stooges' Funhouse can still tell people plenty about how to be a band in the year 2016), I find that my appreciation of music often grows significantly as I understand the musical "conversation" that shaped and birthed the records I love.
Anyway, I bring up this whole theory because staring at these seven records has made me realize how much my attitude has changed in the intervening years. When I put out these records I felt like I really and truly had something to add to the conversation. When the label started there was virtually no one putting out the kind of records that I wanted to buy. There were labels like Tankcrimes and Deadalive that were kind of close, but I felt like the world needed to know what a good record was, and I alone had the capability to show them. What I can't figure out is whether that was sheer arrogance or whether I was just lucky enough to recognize that I was connected to something special that was worthy of being communicated. God knows that Direct Control was a great band that people needed to hear, and moreover they deserved to have records that looked as cool as the music contained on them. God knows that the Koro record needed to be widely available in a cheap version that looked and sounded as close to the original as possible. I felt the same way about all of my own bands... we had things that the world needed to know, and the best way to let them know was to put out a record.
These days my attitude has changed considerably. I've uttered the sentence, "does the world really need a No Love record?," more than once at practice. As I see it there are two main reasons that I have this feeling. The first is that I feel like No Love is something of an anomaly, that we don't really have a conversation that we're contributing to. My previous bands--mostly Cross Laws, Logic Problem, and Devour--were all strongly connected to a well-defined community, and it's this community of DIY hardcore that I felt like we were communicating to. No Love doesn't really have a community like that; or maybe I just feel slightly alienated from it. It's difficult to tell. I always feel like we don't fit with the bands we play with. Even though most of our songs (especially our new ones) are really hard and fast, when we play with hardcore bands I feel like we don't fit because we're so melodic. However, despite our focus on melody (particularly vocal melody), when we play with straight up melodic bands I always feel like we're an odd duck too. We're playing with Sheer Mag tomorrow and even though we all love that band I think it'll be weird; indeed, it was slightly weird when we played with them in Richmond last year.
One of the reasons that playing with Night Birds was so exciting is because they're the closest thing we've really had to a band with a similar approach and set of values, even if they don't overlap 100% (and who would want that anyway?). I actually talked to Brian from Night Birds about this a little bit, and he confirmed that they had, in some significant sense, to make their own audience. They've grabbed some people from the retro 80s HC scene, some people from the Fat Wreck-type melodic hardcore scene, and I'm sure plenty of people who don't want to pigeonhole themselves into any particular community. The point is, though, that they couldn't just expect to have a certain audience because they're a USHC band or a d-beat band or whatever, they had to actually convince people what they were and why they should like them. That's a hard thing to do, and it's not something that No Love are really able to invest the time and effort into doing. Fortunately Night Birds have established a path somewhat, but I'm not convinced that it's a path we can easily follow. Further, not having a clear audience or community makes it difficult to figure out precisely what I want to communicate to whoever listens to the record.
An illustration from Swift's "Battle of the Books"
The other big issue is just the sheer volume of records that come out these days. We get dozens--sometimes hundreds--of new releases in stock every week at Sorry State, and we're just a tiny little shop in Raleigh, North Carolina. How does one get to be noticed and actually listened to in a world that is just exploding with content? One of my favorite authors, Jonathan Swift, wrote a kind of parable called "Battle of the Books" that deals with precisely this issue. As printing books got cheaper and more accessible in the early 18th century there was a sudden and sharp increase in the amount of written content available, much the same as what the internet has facilitated in the past several years. In this story the ancient books (i.e. the ones written in ancient Greece and Rome) in the King's Library battle the "modern" books (i.e. those written in the print era). The story is really an allegory about two competing approaches to knowledge. For those who support the ancients, you reach truth and knowledge by a kind of subtractive method. Real knowledge is out there in its purest form, and really what we're trying to work through is the inevitable dissonance between that purity and the way that it's expressed by humans. It's a kind of Platonic theory of knowledge, in other words. For the moderns, knowledge is part of a linear march forward. We're constantly innovating and adding to the world's body of knowledge, and each new piece of writing makes the world's store of knowledge bigger and, consequently, better. For the ancients, more words are just more of a barrier between us and that real, true, wisdom that we should all be striving for.
Maybe the attitude represented by the "ancients" is simply an inevitable effect of getting older, and a kind of nostalgia for simpler times. I often talk with people about how when we were teenagers records meant so much. We only had a few, so we listened to them over and over and learned them inside out. The older you get, the more rarely that happens, and it's hard to figure out precisely why. However, the point of all this is that the question remains for me: will me putting out a record (either as a label or as a band) simply crowd out the other, more worthy records that people should be listening to, or will add to a conversation in some substantial way?
All Things to All People Vol. 13 February 17, 2016 08:47
So, last time I wrote about a collection that I worked on quite deliberately--if only intermittently--but today I'm going to write about a "collection" that I've built quite by accident. In fact, I didn't even realize I had all of this stuff until a few days ago. A few friends were hanging out at my house listening to records, and I think that maybe we were talking about our favorite Rattus releases. I mentioned that their Ratcage LP is my favorite, and then I thought to myself "man, I think I have a lot of Ratcage releases... I wonder how many I don't have?" It turns out I actually have most of them. This collection isn't "complete" by any standard, but I think that it's interesting because I really just acquired each of these individual records because they were really good, which is a hallmark of how consistent this label was in terms of quality.
So, I guess now that I'm here I might as well go through these records individually.
Victim in Pain is obviously the real big-boy record here, and it's easily the most desirable release on the Ratcage label. There are a lot of reasons for that: 1. it's an awesome record, 2. Agnostic Front have retained a consistently high profile since its release, and 3. it's never been reissued with the "controversial" original cover artwork. I picked this guy up at a record fair in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, of all places. I generally always try to make it to record fairs that happen within a few hours drive of Raleigh. I rarely leave completely empty-handed, and I've had more than enough major scores at these things that I still very much consider them worth my time. Anyway, this was being sold at a table manned by a guy who must have been at least 70 years old and had, almost exclusively, country records and stuff by old crooners from the 50s. But I flipped through his bins anyway because I'd driven an hour and a half to this stupid thing, and I was kind of shocked to find this copy of Victim in Pain there. The only catch was that it had a price tag of three hundred bucks on it. Now, it's a nice copy, but not $300 nice, so I asked him if he'd go lower. He said he'd do $250. I said I'd do $150 and then left his table to look at other bins. A few hours later I was making a second pass and he said he'd take the $150. Not the best deal ever for this record, but it was a price I was comfortable paying and, like I said, it's a nice copy of one of the all-time hardcore classics.
Incidentally, my copy of the Neos 7" is not the Ratcage version, but actually the rarer original pressing on Alandhiscar. I include it here because for me a collection like this is as much about the music as the artifacts. I'm not so much interested in making sure I have every discographical entry on Ratcage ticked off; rather, I'm interested in hearing everything the label put out and figuring out what made it tick, and if I'm not mistaken this is the same music as the Ratcage pressing. Anyway, I bought this on ebay sometime in the mid-00s, if I remember correctly for around $30. I remember my buddy Matt (who played drums in Cross Laws and Devour and sang in Stripmines) mentioned that he bought one on ebay for $30, so I checked ebay and managed to find one for right around the same amount. I'm not sure if someone related to the band or label was unloading dead stock copies or what, because that's really cheap and both my copy and Matt's are dead mint with all of the inserts. Until Matt sold his copy to the store I had no idea how collectible and expensive the original pressing of this record was. Anyway, along with the Deep Wound EP this is a landmark release in the history of blistering fast hardcore, made all the better because it has a really nasty, snotty punk vibe that connects them to the previous generation of punk bands from the west coast of Canada.
The Rattus LP took me a surprisingly long time to find, probably because I placed some ridiculous restrictions on myself when I decided that I wanted it. Every once in a while I decide that I want a record but I don't want to pay more than a certain amount for it... I'm not sure if that comes from having seen it go for a similar amount at some point in time or if I just pluck a number out of thin air, but I can be quite stubborn about it. It took me years to acquire a copy of the Necros' Conquest for Death LP because I was determined not to pay more than $30 for it. $30 was also the magic number for this Rattus LP, and when one popped up on Discogs with nice vinyl and a water-damaged jacket I jumped right on it. I absolutely love this material, too. Rattus are a band with a long, complex, and beautiful discography and if I had a better collection of their records I would love to devote an entire post to them, but this is the only record of theirs from the 80s that I own. These are essentially re-recordings of classic tracks with the short-lived four-piece lineup. I think that a lot of people prefer the classic 3-piece lineup and I guess that the vocalist on these tracks isn't as strong, but the recordings are so loud, clear, and chaotic, reminding me a bit of Chaos UK's Short Sharp Shock LP, but with much, much better songwriting and a faster, more furious attack. At any rate, this is a real gem. I should also note that, like Victim in Pain, the layout on this one is a simple black and white photo with a single crimson spot color. If there's a better look out there for a punk record then I sure haven't seen it.
As you can see, my copy of the Beastie Boys' Pollywog Stew is the 12" version and not the more desirable 7" version. We've actually had the 7" come through the shop a few times over the years but I've never bothered to upgrade. In fact, I can't even remember the circumstances under which I bought this 12". It must have been part of a larger score that I got cheap or I found it in a shop or something, because I certainly wouldn't have sought it out on my own. It's an OK record... the first track is deceptively ripping, but after that it gets a little bit goofy for my tastes. It's not anything I'm planning on getting rid of, but as someone who is more or less indifferent to the Beastie Boys' later career that is just an OK hardcore punk record.
Next up is Heart Attack's Subliminal Seduction 12". Unfortunately how I acquired this one has also been lost to the sands of time (it may have been a blind buy from Plan 9 back in the day?), but it's no mystery why I keep this around, because it's awesome. Heart Attack are probably best known in record collecting circles for God Is Dead, their first record which some argue is the first NYHC record and everyone knows is a bonzer of the torpedo variety. Anyway, they'd changed a bit by the time they released Subliminal Seduction. In particular, things are a little slicker, a little more melodic, and a little more beholden to UK punk, particularly the UK Subs and stuff like that. I'm a sucker for heavily UK-influenced US bands--Channel 3 and Kraut are two other biggies that spring immediately to mind--and Subliminal Seduction is a particularly excellent representation of the style because it retains lots of the fast-and-hard sensibility of the band's earlier stuff. It's honestly not dissimilar to the peak era of the Freeze either. Great stuff regardless.
The Virus is something I took home from the store. It came in as part of a big collection of 80s punk and hardcore... there were probably 100 or so LPs in the collection and I owned every single one except for this and the Follow Fashion Monkeys LP, so obviously the guy had great taste! Those are the best kinds of collections to buy... I get to keep one or two things myself, but I'm not tempted to keep so much of it that I don't make any money off it. Anyway, I already knew Follow Fashion Monkeys and was stoked to finally have a copy (it's another one of those records I was determined not to pay a lot for), but this Virus was totally new to me. I wouldn't call it a great record, but it's a totally ripping, straightforward USHC record. It's kind of weird that it's from New York because it has a real west coast sensibility. The singer also shouts in a kind of surfer drawl that reminds me of bands like Anti, Wasted Youth, China White, and that ilk. Definitely an interesting record, and I think I cherish it all the more because it came to me in such an unexpected fashion.
The final record here is the Crucial T 7", which was the last record I acquired but the first one released on the label. A regular customer sold this to the store and encouraged me to check it out if I hadn't. He described it as "Jim Morrison fronting a NYHC band," and I have to say that's pretty accurate, at least for half of the record. Two of the tacks are mid-paced with those baritone vocals, and while the Morrison influence is palpable it also reminds me of a more straightforward version of the Birthday Party (or maybe Nick Cave's band before that, the Boys Next Door?). The other two tracks are pure NYHC rippers that sound to me an awful like the Mob, and are so crushing that even if you aren't interested in the mid-paced tracks this is still very much an item of interest to the NYHC connoisseur.
According to Discogs, there are a few things I'm missing. There's actually a copy of the Beastie Boys' Cookie Puss EP sitting in the new arrivals section at the shop right now but I don't think I'm going to grab it. I think we only priced it at like 8 bucks (it's the version in the generic DJ sleeve), but it's just not a record I'd ever really listen to. If at some point I decide that I need it for completion's sake I think I can always grab a pretty cheap copy online. The second release on the label was a 10" by a band called Crazy Hearts. I've never heard of them or the release, but I have to say that given the quality of the rest of Ratcage's discography I'm intrigued. I was also surprised to see that Ratcage did a US pressing of Raw Power's fourth album, Mine to Kill, in 1989. While I love the first two Raw Power LPs, their third record, After Your Brain, has never really grabbed me so I've never ventured beyond that. Mine to Kill does have some cool artwork, though, so maybe I'll give it a try at some point. [Update: just snagged a $10 copy on Discogs, so we'll see!] The label was apparently also resurrected in the early 90s for a couple of CD releases, but I'm not interested in those for several different reasons.
So, that's my Ratcage story. Like I said, it was never a quest for completion, but my thirst for information and context brought me 90% of the way to completing this "collection," which I find really interesting.
One last thing for this week's blog. I haven't talked about business stuff in a while, so I thought I would mention one of the few things that really gets my goat when customers do it: ask for partial refunds after (sometimes well after) they've bought something. I never really thought about it before I was on the other side of the retailer / customer divide, because it seems logical on the surface. If you buy something and you're dissatisfied, why not ask the seller for a few bucks back to make you feel better about the purchase.
However, as a seller this is really annoying, and in the case of online marketplaces (and increasingly brick and mortar retail) it seems like extortion. When a customer writes asking for a partial refund, I always feel like the implication is "give me some of my money back or I'll leave you negative feedback, write a shitty Yelp review, or make some other action that negatively impacts your business." I have an extremely generous return policy. Basically, if you ever want to return a record for any reason I will be happy to give you a full refund and even pay return postage if you bought it through the mail. However, there's no way for me to accurately gauge how much a record should be discounted based on a customer's level of dissatisfaction. Further, in most cases there's almost certainly another customer out there who would be perfectly happy to buy the record for the original asking price, and giving a partial refund deprives me of that opportunity to sell a record at the full price.
Last Black Friday someone bought four copies of that Lush Ciao double LP on ebay, and despite the fact that they were double-boxed the buyer complained that they all arrived with a small corner ding. The buyer punished me about it relentlessly, sending what must have been a dozen messages through ebay, complaining about how they bought these records to resell and now they couldn't because they weren't mint, fully acknowledging that I make no claims to be a record distributor and that my packaging went well beyond their expectations, but yet still refusing my offer of a full refund with return postage. Essentially, they just wanted me to refund a bunch of their money for something that was not only no fault of my own, but that I had taken particular care to avoid happening. Eventually I got them to agree to send the records back (which it took them two months to do), and when we put them out in the store at full price (with a note about the barely noticeable corner ding) they sold immediately to happy customers.
Why am I ranting about this? I don't know... it just really bothers me the way that the feedback system of sites like eBay and Discogs--and increasingly brick and mortar stores through sites like Yelp--creates this completely uneven power differential between sellers and buyers. Anyone who has dealt with me knows that I am a straight up person who will go well out of my way to make someone happy, but when someone comes at me with an entitled, "the customer is always right" mentality it makes me want to hold back what they want merely out of spite. Maybe that makes me an asshole. Maybe that makes me punk. But having the power to, very occasionally, act like an asshole is one of the handful of privileges of owning your own business.
All Things to All People Vol. 12 February 09, 2016 15:13
In my last blog post I wrote about record collecting, in particular how my attitude and approach to collecting was shaped by a couple of key events. I had planned to continue that discussion by talking about some of the collections I've completed, but when I started flipping through my records I realized that I have more complete collections than not... I guess it's just the type of person I am. When I hear something that grabs my ear I want to hear all of the important contexts and understand it as deeply as I can, and the most obvious context is the rest of that artist's work. So, when I find a new artist or band that I like, one of the first things I generally do is acquire as much of their discography as I can and/or seems relevant to my interests. Once I realized that writing about my complete collections was kind of futile, I thought about writing about my collections that remain frustratingly incomplete (and there are a few). However, at some point I realized that I don't need some grand conceptual framework for these posts... I can just write about whatever I want for as long as it remains interesting to me. So today I'm going to write about my Screeching Weasel collection.
My Screeching Weasel 7" collection
Once I started thinking about writing about my Screeching Weasel collection (I call this pre-writing in my classes, by the way!) I came to the realization that Screeching Weasel might be the band that I've liked for the longest consecutive amount of time. I can't remember exactly when I heard them for the first time, but I must have been 14 or 15 at the oldest. I can't remember whether I first heard them buy buying Boogadaboogadaboogada blindly (most likely because Mike from Green Day always wore their t-shirts) or either from a dubbed tape from this nerdy kid at school. I definitely had a dubbed tape with My Brain Hurts on one side and How to Make Enemies and Irritate People on the other, but I don't remember which came first. At any rate, of all of the favorite bands I've had in my life Screeching Weasel have perhaps endured the longest... all of the other bands I've called my favorite at some point have become incredibly distasteful to me at some later point. Def Leppard was my first favorite band when I was a little kid, but once I discovered punk I had to kick pop/metal to the curb (I've since figured out that was stupid). I loved Bad Religion in high school, but at some point the pretension got to me and now How Could Hell Be Any Worse? and No Control are the only ones that get any play, and it's mostly the former at that.
I guess that, as one-dimensional as their music seems on the surface, Screeching Weasel have never really become unlistenable to me because they retain elements of just about every style I've liked. When I was in high school I liked a lot of pop-punk and melodic hardcore, and obviously they were hugely influential in those scenes. Throughout most of my 20s all I wanted to hear was early 80s-style US hardcore, and for all of their poppiness that was a palpable influence on the band, even on their much later records. Frequently, when I'd discover older bands--Adrenalin OD, the Canadian Subhumans, the Freeze, and many of the bands on Killed by Death just to name a few--I was shocked at how much they sounded like Screeching Weasel in places. Or, I guess, the other way around.
Anyway, you'll notice that the collection above only contains 7"s. I never made a conscious decision to collect Screeching Weasel 7"s rather than LPs, but in retrospect it makes sense. First of all, I had all of the full-lengths on CD and/or cassette. Second, when I bought the bulk of these Lookout! Records was still in business and all of the full-lengths that came out on that label were easily available, and hence they didn't have the exotic appeal of the 7"s. The exceptions were/are their first LP and Boogadaboogadaboogada. I didn't really know that their first LP existed until it was reissued on CD in 1997, and when I finally heard it I thought it pretty much sucked. To this day I've probably only listened to it 2 or 3 times. Boogadaboogadaboogada was also pretty hard to get... the Roadkill Records version has always been valuable, and as a record store owner I can tell you that the Lookout! version doesn't pop up all that often either, probably because it was a reissue and, hence, pressed in smaller quantities than the records that were originally released on Lookout!. As far as I can remember, we've only had one copy come through the shop in the two and a half years we've been open and I snagged it for myself. So, I never really actively tried to "collect" Screeching Weasel's LPs, near and dear to my heart as they are, though looking at my shelf right now it looks like--barring the first album that I don't really like--I have everything up to the underrated Bark Like a Dog on vinyl, with the exception of How to Make Enemies and Irritate People, which I just ordered from Discogs since there was a copy on there for $14.
Anyway, I remember distinctly when I bought three of these singles. When I got to college and had regular access to the internet for the first time in my life, of course one of the first things that I did was go to the computer lab and look up all of my favorite bands. Very few bands had web sites in 1997, but Screeching Weasel had a very impressive, elaborate, and well-done fan site called Weasel Manor. Unless I'm remembering wrong, it definitely started out as a fan site, but eventually Ben Weasel became involved and it seems that he still retains the name "Weasel Manor" for at least part of Screeching Weasel's official web site. By this point Ben Weasel was involved with the web site, and he was actually auctioning off a bunch of dead stock SW merchandise. Now, if ebay existed at this point I'd never heard of it, and to me auctions were things that were headed by guys who talked really fast, but I sent an email to Ben Weasel's AOL address indicating how much I would pay for dead stock copies of Punkhouse, Radio Blast, and You Broke My Fucking Heart. I can't really remember if it was a nailbiter or not, but I won all three. Not only did this mean that my Screeching Weasel 7" collection got off to a roaring start, but it also meant that I had directly corresponded with Ben Weasel himself, which was no small thrill at the time.
The rest of these, I'd imagine, were acquired by pretty conventional means. I can't help but keep both of the cover variations for Suzanne Is Getting Married even though I'm not generally one to hold on to more than one version of a record. Formula 27 and Jesus Hates You were bought new when they came out. I remember being particularly excited about Formula 27 because not only did it mark something of a return to the slightly rawer, more anthemic, and less self-consciously Ramones-y sound of records like My Brain Hurts, but also because Ben Weasel mentioned the Tick, one of my teenage obsessions, in one of the songs. Incidentally, the Riverdales also have a song, "Dyna-Mole" from Storm the Streets, named after one of the Tick's villains, and Ben is wearing a membership button from the Tick fan club (an organization to which I also belong) on his leather jacket on the poster insert to Storm the Streets. It's the little things, people!
Anyway, this collection does remain incomplete. As far as I can tell there are three main items I'm missing. The first is something of a red herring: the split 7" with the Ozzfish Experience. This record doesn't actually exist (except as two test pressing copies), but sleeves for the un-pressed vinyl do occasionally change hands. The second is the split 7" with Moving Targets. This was, apparently, a promo-only release from What Goes On Records, the UK label that re-released the first self-titled album and Boogadaboogadaboogada in that country. Discogs says that only 100 copies were pressed, but judging by the fact that you can still nab one of these for the princely sum of $13 I doubt that is actually the case. I'm not really sure why I've never grabbed one of these before... I probably didn't know it existed until the Discogs era, by which point I wasn't really actively trying to by Screeching Weasel vinyl. The lack of a picture sleeve also significantly decreases the appeal for me.
The third thing I'm missing is the one that has frustrated me the most: the Happy, Horny, Gay, and Sassy 7". Even if I didn't own the two 7"s above I'd still feel like my Screeching Weasel 7" collection was complete with the addition of this double EP, but this particular recording also holds some weird sentimental value to me. The kid I mentioned above who may or may not have introduced me to the band (but who definitely introduced me to two of their best albums) also gave me a tape that had a live recording of Screeching Weasel. He wrote on the j-card that it was a recording of the band playing at the King's Head Inn in Norfolk, VA, which is a club that I used to pass on my bus route to school every single day, though it closed shortly before I got my driver's license and I never got to go. I used to listen to that tape all of the time and fantasize about what it must have been like to be at that show. Well, fast forward a couple of years and I finally hear Happy, Horny, Gay, and Sassy (perhaps I downloaded mp3s, or was it perhaps re-released on Kill the Musicians or Thank You Very Little?) and immediately recognize the same live recording I'd obsessed over during my teenage years. Turns out the kid was a liar, but I still really like the recording.
So, I can't believe that it took me that many words to tell it, but that's the story of my Screeching Weasel 7" collection. Unless the price drops significantly on Happy, Horny, Gay, and Sassy or one walks in to the store, it's likely to be the full story of my collection for some time to come.
This past week I found out that In the Groove Records in Raleigh closed (though the space is already home to a new record store under new ownership). I don't really have much to say about it... the record business is a tough one, and while it's rare to see stores closing rather than opening these days I think that had more to do with the demands on the owner, Greg's, personal life than actual business stuff. Anyway, one bin of consignment records in In the Groove's tiny storefront (which was about the size of a walk-in closet) was one of Sorry State's first ventures into retail in a physical space, and if it weren't for the opportunity that Greg gave me it's likely that Sorry State wouldn't be a physical shop today.
Like a lot of people, I recently watched the Making a Murderer series on Netflix. After finishing the series I still have no idea whether or not the guy did it, but it occurred to me as I was finishing the series that what this really is is a story about stories. Maybe I'm sensitive to this because of my training as an English professor, but what is so frustrating about the story is the fact that the narratives offered by the various people and groups in the series are both (generally, at least) plausible and wildly inconsistent with one another. Human brains are, essentially, story-making machines... we constantly tell ourselves stories in order to make sense of the world, even though much of the time these stories aren't really true in the strictest sense of the term. And when you get down to it what lawyers and police do is create stories... things happen, but real-life events are messy with countless contingencies, confounding variables, and other things that get in the way. Both lawyers and police take some messy, sometimes illogical cluster of events (in the case of criminal law, those surrounding a crime) and come up with a story that makes those events make sense in terms of one another. All of these stories are, more or less, fictions, but sometimes they have so much of the ring of truth in them that we are willing to send people to prison or even kill them based on these stories.
I just got finished reading the above book, The Black Count, by Tom Reiss. I liked it, though it was, in places, a bit "History Channel" for my tastes... in other words, there was a lot of detail about battle scenes and things that I don't really care about. Basically, the book tells the life story of Alexander Dumas's father, who was born Haiti, then known as the French sugar colony of Saint-Domingue. Dumas's father was a white nobleman and his mother was a slave. Despite his interracial background, Dumas was accepted as a member of the French nobility when he returned to France, even becoming something of a celebrity. Eventually he would come to a very high position of command in the French Revolutionary army, though an apparent personal incompatibility with Napoleon quickly destroyed his career once Napoleon seized power.
Anyway, what I found interesting about the book is that it described a time before racism was institutionalized. I mean, it's not as if racism didn't exist in pre-Napoleonic France, but it was a totally different beast, and it was really only with the establishment of French bureaucracy under Napoleon that racism (against people of African ancestry, at least) was codified and legitimized. Over the course of the story of Dumas's life you literally see racism being born in France. While that is certainly depressing, in another way it's quite hopeful, because in there is the unstated (and more or less unsupported by the author) assumption that racism doesn't have to exist. There was a time before it and, presumably, there can be a time after it. That's all a gross over-simplification but as someone who grew up in the American south, the end of racism is something I find it really difficult to be hopeful about at all.
All Things to All People Vol. 11 January 25, 2016 15:18
I've really been struggling this week with what I'll write (if anything) about the Death Side reissues that just came out on Feral Ward. When they came in Jeff asked if I had originals of them and I replied, "yeah, I have every single Death Side record, including compilation appearances." That seemed to really impress Jeff, and there was a time when I guess that would have really impressed me if someone had said it to me. Actually, I remember the first time I saw Forward I overheard a couple of punks walk up to Ishiya and ask if he would sign their Death Side records (he politely refused). I remember being really blown away, thinking to myself "wow, they have Death Side records... how is that possible?" However, I can't think of the last time that I put on a Death Side record for my own listening pleasure, and I don't really see it happening again any time soon. It's not that I don't like them anymore, but it's almost like I've just had my fill. Sort of like at the end of a really good meal when you push your plate away and say "no more." It's not as if the meal has lost any esteem in your mind, you just don't really want any more of it, and would rather go and do something completely different like take a walk or read a book or take a nap or whatever. That's the way I feel about Death Side right now... I've had enough, and I'd way rather listen to any of the many, many records that are still new and exciting to me.
So does that mean I'll be getting rid of those records? Absolutely not, though I'm not really sure I have a good argument as to why. Part of the reason, certainly, is that I bought a lot of those records in Japan and they serve as souvenirs of the times I got to visit there. They're also, in a way, souvenirs of a certain time in my life when I was just learning about Japanese punk and hardcore and it seemed like the most exotic and exciting thing in the world. It was also a lot of work to figure out exactly what Death Side's discography was and track each record down. I remember, though, when I got the last record I needed (the Smashing Odds Ness compilation 8") there was a weird feeling. It wasn't so much happiness or relief or even disappointment... it was just sort of like "ok, that's done." That record does have a pretty good Crück track, though, haha!
The last piece of the Death Side puzzle
Anyway, this got me thinking about the handful of "complete" collections that I have. I've always kind of been a collector (like a lot of people, moving through baseball cards and comic books on my way to records), but when I first got really interested in music "complete" meant something different than it did now. Mostly, it meant getting every one of a band's major studio albums. I've always been attracted to bands with a little bit of heft to their discography, and in my teen years I spent a lot of time chasing down Screeching Weasel and Bad Religion records. These were the dark ages before the internet when there was no real way to tell how many records these bands even had. Every time I went in a record store I'd look for releases by my favorite bands... I'd always go to the "B" section and look for Bad Religion, the "D" section and look for Descendents, the "S" section and look for Screeching Weasel, etc. Record stores didn't tend to be very good about stocking catalog titles, so every once in a while there would be a record that I hadn't seen before and I'd always grab it (no matter the format... I'd happily take CD, vinyl, or cassette, as each format had its advantages and disadvantages) and spend a lot of time figuring out how it fit into the context of the other records I had by that artist.
Once I got to college and particularly after I got my own computer (which would have been around 1999) I started to discover discography web sites, which really changed my attitude toward completeness. Two very essential documents that re-shaped by attitude were the Revelation Records discography compiled by Kevin Finn and the Leatherface discography compiled by this guy Tim (the Rev discography you can still find here; I couldn't find the Leatherface web page after a bit of Googling, but the author of that site still does a blog called ibuywaytoomanyrecords.com). Straight edge hardcore was, at best, a passing phase in my listening habits, but I used to look at that Rev discography all the time nonetheless... the way that it compiled detailed pressing information, identified all of the unique versions of each record, and established a clear hierarchy of which versions were better or more desirable was really mind-blowing. I mean, I knew even then that, say, Warzone's Lower East Side Crew 7" was very rare (I don't think I'd ever even seen one at that point), but knowing that there were only 200 on green and only 6 (!!!) with the rare alternate sleeve was really intriguing to me.
While that rev.txt document was extremely novel at the time, I think it's interesting to note that Discogs has effectively moved the needle of the entire record collecting world to be more in line with this style of collecting. Years ago it was only the most fanatical collector who would search out particular pressings of, say, your standard classic rock records, but nowadays early (and especially first) country-of-origin pressings of classic rock records command substantial premiums. I credit this almost solely to the way that Discogs categorizes and displays information, highlighting the plethora of different versions / pressings of each release in their catalog. If you like a record and you look it up on Discogs (which is typically one of the top few Google results when you search for a record by its artist and title), seeing that there are multiple versions of that release just tickles some primal thing in the human brain that makes us want all of them, or failing that the best one. I can't help but think that things would be different if allmusic.com or rateyourmusic.com had better Google rankings than Discogs; we might live in a record collecting world that emphasized breadth over depth. But I digress...
As for the Leatherface discography, that one was intriguing for a different, but overlapping, set of reasons. First of all, I was really, really into Leatherface. I'd seen them live on their first US tour with Hot Water Music and they really threw me for a loop... I hadn't been that energized by punk since I first started going to shows and it was all new, novel, and infinitely exciting. Second, even though the community that collected Leatherface records didn't seem to overlap much at all with the Revelation/straight edge set, I could see a similar sort of hierarchy of desirability emergent in the author's description of Leatherface's discography. Some things, like their first album, Cherry Knowle, were really common (Cherry Knowle had been licensed by several different labels already and was even in print on BYO Records at the time), their proper studio albums were a bit more difficult to find, and their EPs and singles (of which there were many) were even more difficult to find. I'd encountered the EP thing a bit in the past, I remembered, as record stores with healthy "import" sections (like Tower Records, which had a pretty decent store in Richmond) always had these weird slimline CD singles by Bad Religion that were only pressed in Germany and included songs you couldn't get anywhere else. More intriguingly, though, there were a few Leatherface records that were really difficult to find. In particular, there was a rejected test pressing of their 4th album, Minx, that included an alternate mix, and there was a 12" single called Not Superstitious that included that track as an a-side and the bonus tracks from the CD version of Mush on the b-side. I distinctly remember that the author of the Leatherface discography really teased the budding record collector in me with that last item... unlike the other records listed in the discography, this one didn't include a picture of the sleeve, and the author noted that while he had heard of this record he'd never seen one in person and wasn't convinced that it really existed.
Eventually I got all of the Leatherface records (well, except the rejected test pressing of Minx, though I do have one of the accepted test pressings!). I'd find online vendors from Europe and Australia, set sale lists posted on weird message boards, and of course ebay. Occasionally I'd really score. Twice I found distros that still had dead stock copies of long out of print releases, so I remember buying 20+ copies each of the Eagle and Little White God singles, which I either traded for things on my wants list or sold on ebay to fund other purchases. Of course, the last record I actually acquired was the infamous Not Superstitious EP. One popped up on ebay when I happened to be working a particularly lucrative summer job and I bid hard, as the kids say. If I remember correctly I spent $75 on it. I don't think I told anyone that price because I was so embarrassed at having paid that much for a record. But it meant that my Leatherface collection was now complete because I owned an original vinyl pressing of every single one of their releases.
Incontrovertible proof that it exists!
That's what "complete" has continued to mean to me to this day, though I recognize that it means something quite different to a lot of people. A lot of people are into collecting all of the different versions of particular records (or even particular artists' and labels' entire discographies), and I must admit that I like hearing about this and follow a few blogs and Instagram accounts that focus on this style of record collecting. The best of these is the Endless Quest blog, whose author has an unfathomably large amount of Bane and Integrity records. I could not care less about Bane and only like a couple of Integrity records, but I still really like the blog. With the author's intense focus on pressing variations and vinyl color, it's obvious that he's spent a lot more time with the rev.txt document than I have. I've dabbled in the "alternate version" game a bit (and I still have a few alternate sleeves and other interesting variations), but you have to draw the line somewhere and I draw it at owning one nice original copy of the records I really enjoy.
I did want to note quickly the end of one of the best European distros, Spain's Trabuc Records. I got an email from Trabuc earlier this week with the following note:
Yeah, that’s right, i’m done with the label. After 13 years i feel it’s time to move on. Personally I’ve dedicated my 100% to this project but the flame doesn’t burn like before. I’ve put aside personal stuff and life needs because this project was always first and i feel i need to change that. Financially, can’t really keep going like this either. Records don’t sell that good, money is always short and releases has been delayed many times, toghether with the accumulated debt put a pressure on me i can’t bare anymore, so i’m forced to give up and find a proper job, like my granma always said.
I have to say it's a real bummer to hear about that, but I completely understand. Running Sorry State is really difficult as well. There are certainly perks, but the amount of pressure only grows as the store, label, and distro continue to grow. Unfortunately, we've never mastered making money either, so it's difficult to pay down our considerable debt (much less actually pay myself), particularly when each new release continues to sell more poorly than the last one. It's also kind of striking that I haven't really seen any online chatter about Trabuc shutting down. Maybe if I read Spanish I would have seen more of a reaction, but I don't think I've seen a single person mention it. At the very least, I think that it's a clear indication that distros (and, to a lesser extent, labels) occupy a much smaller and less influential space in the world of punk these days, and it may even indicate that one or both of those institutions is not long for this world. I hope that's not the case, but the fact that no one even seems to care about an influential institution like Trabuc is really troubling.
All Things to All People Vol. 10 January 18, 2016 10:17
Last week I was on another record buy when I had a little epiphany. I'd made a house call to look at the record collection of an older woman in her 70s. She had about 100 records, but most of them were the records that you would expect someone that age to have, so I wasn't really interested. However, I did find about 15 records that were worth buying... OK copies of most of the Beatles albums (including a white vinyl copy of the white album), as well as a couple of blues records and an old Nina Simone LP. Nothing mind-blowing, but solid enough stuff.
Once I'd told her that I couldn't buy all of her records, she asked me something like "what kinds of stuff would you have been interested in?" I'm not sure if it's the specific way that she asked the question, the particular mix of records that she had, or what, but it caused me to think about this question of records' value in a way that I hadn't really thought of before. My standard answer to that question is the old "supply and demand" routine. I explain that Beatles records have a very high supply (tens of millions of copies have been pressed), but also have a consistently high demand, which means that they always have some degree of value. There's lots of stuff--particularly music from before the rock era--where there is a huge supply and almost no demand, and of course the stuff we all want is the stuff with a small supply, but a lot of demand.
Since this woman had primarily older records, it occurred to me to re-frame this argument slightly to talk about artists who were ahead of their time vs of their time (as well, I suppose, as artists who are behind the times). Artists who are "of their time," at best fall into the "high supply, high demand" category. Artists like the Beatles, Michael Jackson, Led Zeppelin, not to mention the first wave of big punk bands like the Sex Pistols, grabbed the momentary zeitgeist, and while demand may see occasional peaks and valleys, it's probably going to remain relatively consistent as long as people are interested in that era. However, the really valuable records are by artists who were very much ahead of their time... who may have been ignored in their day because their music was too weird, too raw, or had some other momentarily undesirable quality, but latterly aspects of their style became really important to wider strands of music. One key example of this is old blues records. While the interest in that stuff at the time it was being made was minimal (for a whole slew of reasons, not the least of them being the racial politics of the time), that stuff became hugely influential to 60s and 70s British and American rock, and consequently shot up in value. Similarly, post-bop jazz artists who made dissonant, difficult music were under-appreciated in their time, but the dissonant harmonies and jagged rhythms of, say, Miles Davis's later records (and even those of the next generation of musicians influenced by him, like Captain Beefheart for instance) eventually became commonplace in popular music. Those sounds were, simply put, ahead of their time, and the supply/demand balance shifted as a result.
None of this is earth-shattering analysis, I realize, but it constituted something of a revelation for me. In particular, it made me think about the critical reputation of some of the music I've been involved with, particularly the resurgence of early 80s-style USHC that's clogging up a lot of used record bins in the world. Even within that sphere there are bands who were ahead of their time (Government Warning, Wasted Time, Career Suicide), many bands that were very much of the time, and more than a handful who were somewhat behind the times. I'll avoid naming names in the latter categories so as not to upset anyone, but it's an interesting rubric by which to assess things.
Maybe in the future I'll try to think of artists who seem to exist out of time... who are so brazenly disassociated from meaningful context that the rules above don't really apply to them. There are a lot of them out there but I'll leave it for another day. I think the Fall might be a big one, though.
THOUGHTS FROM THE BINS
Every time I see the cover of this record (Gordon Lightfoot's Sundown) I think that Bryan Cranston and Chris Pratt had a baby.
After writing my screed on that Brian Eno book last week I decided to listen to the one Phil Manzanera LP that we had in stock at the store, 1982's Primitive Guitars. Eno doesn't appear on this one (at least he's not credited on the back), but man is this Eno-esque... whatever "treatments" are on the various instruments seem to have been ripped straight from the Eno playbook, as has that very "white funk" bass playing style. Between this and listening to the Scott Walker-penned tracks on the Walker Brothers' Nite Flights I'm starting to realize that I seem to be transitioning into an "art rock" phase.
It's back to punk for my next selection, though. I've had this LP from Cynecide on my Discogs want list for a few years now and this is the first copy that's popped up in the United States so I made sure to grab it right away. Actually, I couldn't even remember very well what this actually sounded like. My buddy Dennis (who played bass in Cross Laws) had this record way back when and I remember hearing it once or twice. While I remember liking it, that feeling is only recollected through a haze of various substances consumed during late-night listening sessions and the many years that have elapsed since then. Well, it arrived the other day and I have to say that this is awesome. Totally hard-charging, heavy punk... it has that distinct heaviness and toughness that has defined Detroit music from time immemorial, but with a pop sensibility that a lot of tough-sounding bands lack. It's sort of like a tougher, more Detroit-informed version of a lot of my favorite '77 UK punk. I'm looking forward to getting to know this one a little bit better over the coming weeks.
While formatting this post I decided to check if this is on Spotify, and lo and behold it is, along with a heap of other Cinecyde releases. Looks like I have some work to do!
My other big musical discovery of the past couple of weeks is this LP by the Bizarros. This one actually came in as a used copy at the store (as part of an impossibly clean punk/new wave collection that we acquired a couple of weeks ago). I was in the process of transferring a new stack of freshly-priced LPs to the bins and my friend Scott asked to flip through them before they hit the floor. I obliged and he picked up this Bizarros LP, noting that it was the cleanest copy that he'd ever seen. I told him I hadn't heard it before and he made me stop what I was doing it and put it on immediately... and of course I was floored and immediately took it out of inventory and earmarked it for my collection. Hailing from the mystical land of Akron, Ohio, this LP came out on Mercury in 1979, but has a distinctly pre-punk vibe. It's very Stooges-informed, and has something of the same DNA as Rocket from the Tombs, Dead Boys, and Pere Ubu, but it's a bit more musically sophisticated than Dead Boys and not nearly as artsy as Pere Ubu. It's loud, fast, and tough all the way through without a single bad song on it... it's crazy that I'm 36 years old, have been into punk for over two decades, but there are still records out there that are this good that I haven't heard before.
Want to hear something really annoying that's happened to me with a couple of very, very cool projects over the past couple of years? A really cool band emails me saying, "Hey, we have new material. Would you like to put it out?" I reply saying "yes, absolutely." The band responds saying that they need it out by a certain date. I tell them that date is completely unrealistic and no comparable label will be able to meet that deadline. They say thanks, but they're going to go with a label that says that they can get it out on time. The record comes out a year or more later, easily twice as long as I would have taken to get it out. It sucks losing out on cool opportunities because I'm honest and realistic and won't promise the moon when I know I can't deliver.
Until next time.
All Things to All People Vol. 9 January 12, 2016 09:56
Since updating everyone on my reading habits has become a regular thing on this blog, I thought I'd write about my current reading material, this biography of Brian Eno called On Some Faraway Beach by David Sheppard. I'm about three quarters of the way through the book and I'm quite enjoying it. It's definitely written in a peculiarly English way, with this occasionally jarring combination of (pseudo-?) academic prose and off-the-wall punning that seems ripped straight out of a vintage NME. The book has shed a lot of light on a number of parts of Eno's career that I hadn't known about before. I'm a huge fan of pretty much everything he did up to Music for Airports (and I do like some of his ambient stuff as well), but I honestly didn't know much about his tenure with Roxy Music even though I've gotten quite a lot of play out of their first two albums over the years. There was quite a lot of detail about that as well as Eno's early solo career that gave me a lot of new context for some of my favorite records ever. I've also learned about a lot of bands / projects that I didn't know about before. In particular, the book implies that Phil Manzanera is one of the most important collaborators of Eno's early solo career, and I'm itching to explore a bit of his solo career as it sounds right up my alley. The first thing I checked out, though, was the 801 Live album.
Of course I recognize the refrain "we are the 801" from "The True Wheel" off of Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy), but apparently at some point Phil Manzanera decided to take the 801 concept/name and turn it into a functioning band comprised a lot of people from the whole glam / prog scene that Eno was part of. Even though his own attempt at being a live frontman with the Winkies had gone disastrously, Eno volunteered for lead vocal duties (along with synthesizer) and they worked up a live set comprised mostly of songs from Eno's and Manzanera's solo records. While Eno left the project after just a season or so of live dates, they did release the well-recorded live album above. I've really been enjoying these tougher-sounding, more guitar-oriented versions of the Eno tracks in particular, and the Manzanera tracks definitely have me intrigued about his albums as well.
Reading On Some Faraway Beach also has me thinking back to another book about Eno that really blew my mind, Eno's A Year with Swollen Appendices. Basically, it's Eno's diary for the year 1995... it just explains what he did every day, and there's occasionally some of the pontificating and theorizing that you might expect if you know anything about Eno. I remember that one of the things that really blew my mind reading that book at the time was what I'd call the texture of Eno's life. He just sort of blithely went from project to project, and sometimes projects of incredibly disparate texture. One day he might be in the studio producing U2, then have to put together an installation piece for the Tate, then meet with some computer programmers about making computer-generated music. What really struck me was that none of it seemed like work. It seemed like, in essence, Eno was getting paid just to be Eno. People would be working on these projects and they essentially just wanted to come in and give his particular Eno perspective. What a way to live, right? It makes me wonder if most--or even any--people eventually get to this point where they have the level of expertise that they don't really have to work, they just have to come in and do their thing (which no one else really can do because they don't have their background) and never really have to put their nose to the grindstone and do things they don't 100% feel like doing. I mean, I write this realizing that I live an incredibly privileged life and I spend most of my time figuring out how to help college students write better and how to sell records, but it still feels like I work all day every day. It definitely doesn't feel like I live the life of a professional artist.
Since we just started a new year, I've been telling everyone that my new year's resolution is "less work, more punk." I suppose part of that is wanting to move toward this Eno-type of lifestyle. Over the past few years I've been very conflicted about whether my job as a teacher or my life as a punk is more important and/or what kind of balance I should try to achieve between the two, but I'm slowly coming to the conclusion that I want to work as little as possible and devote myself to living punk. I'm a very long way away from it, but that's the goal.
Continuing my discussion of different "types of punks" from last week, I've been thinking about my identity as an aesthete. This week I picked up a really good collection of punk, new wave, and classic rock. This was a really good collection, and the person clearly had taste. A lot of times people's collections seem more accumulated that curated, but this person had really put a lot of thought into the records he owned, and giving them all up was obviously a big decision. After we loaded the records into my car and I wrote the check we just kind of hung out and talked about music for a couple of hours. I think the guy kind of needed that as a way to honor not only his collection, but all of the time that he spent assembling and caring for it.
I mentioned last week that I am a record nerd, and it's taken me a long time to kind of come to peace with that aspect of my identity. Of course it can seem materialistic to be so into stuff, but it can also seem vapid to define yourself so much by the things you like (as opposed to what you do or who you are). But, appreciating art is probably my favorite thing to do in the world, whether it's sitting in front of my record player, watching a live show, going to an art museum, or reading a great book. To me, this seems like the highest form of sociability. When human beings create art we are putting ourselves out there at our very best... by putting our stamp of approval on something as an artist we are saying "this is me, this is the way I see the world, and this is what I value enough to give back to the world." So, appreciating art is basically taking the time to listen to people when they are attempting to be their very best. Thinking about it this way it seems like much more of a noble pursuit.
As I was just about to post this I got the news that David Bowie had died. It seems like every time I post one of these things there is some other hugely important figure to eulogize. Obviously I love Bowie and hold much of his work very, very dear, but I've been thinking about him a lot lately as I've been reading that Eno book, which goes into some detail about the "Berlin trilogy" they worked on together in the 70s. Not having been alive at that time, the book really made me appreciate how brave those records were. High art is something that the public didn't expect from pop stars in the 1970s, but Bowie (along with others, certainly) changed that paradigm and blurred the lines between high and popular art. The artist's life that mentioned above is something that Bowie seemed to live every day, and according to news reports he even "staged" his death to some degree. That's rather morbid, but it's also very exciting and interesting, and I would expect nothing less from Bowie.
All Things to All People Vol. 8 January 04, 2016 17:34
I mentioned in my last blog post that Terminal Escape wrote about Blackball, and then whattayaknow, a week or so later they actually write about one of my old bands, Infección. Reading other people's reviews / assessments of your work is always weird, but Robert's description of Infección probably jibes least with my perspective as a member of the band than anything I've ever read about one of my musical projects. Usually when I read reviews of my bands it's clear that the writer has listened to it at most once or twice and consequently it's easy to dismiss whatever they say, but I don't know if that's the case here. Of course I'm honored that my guitar would be described as D. Boon-ish... actually one of my big goals with Infección was to play with minimal distortion and have a brighter, trebly-er guitar sound that made much more substantial use of the lighter strings. However, I have to take issue with the fact that he describes us as so weird. Maybe the recording came out weird (I did it myself and I have basically no knowledge of home recording), but I feel like Infección is probably the most straightforward, pop-oriented band I've ever been in.
Infección had two main inspirations: the Shitty Limits and Sudor. After driving the Shitty Limits on their final US tour I had a moment of realization that the personal and musical issues that hampered the band I was playing in at the time, Devour, weren't a necessary part of being in a band, so when I got back from that tour I left Devour with the idea of starting a new band that was a lot more fun. Bobby Michaud was obviously my #1 pick for drummer (and he remains my favorite punk drummer), and I had spoken briefly with David about him singing in a Spanish-language band a few months earlier so I hit him up with the idea. If memory serves, Rich from Whatever Brains either heard some of my home-recorded songs or heard us practice and offered to join on bass, which infinitely more melodic sophistication to my simple, straightforward punk songs.
I remember when we played our first house show there was already a buzz about us. Aside from maybe Crossed Eyes, there hadn't been a Raleigh band that came from the hardcore scene but had melodic elements. I think that people were already growing sick of the retro hardcore thing and we got an immediate positive response, and people continued to react really positively every time we played. While the recording on the tape certainly could have been better, I felt like that initial batch of songs pretty much accomplished the goal I set out for, which was to merge the riff-y, straightforward, classic punk style of Shitty Limits with the energy and urgency of Sudor's early releases.
Unfortunately the band didn't really progress much beyond that. We wrote two additional songs that didn't appear on the demo, and each served to expand our palette. One song was a short, blisteringly fast song built around a slightly discordant series of notes delivered in rapid-fire triplets. The second was a mid-paced, new-wave-influenced song that was, by far, the most pop thing we did. Once I figured out that Rich would add richly melodic basslines to whatever I did, I pushed myself to write even simpler guitar parts, making the guitar hold down the rhythm (which is usually what the bass does) and freeing up the bass to carry the big melodies. It's a strategy employed by a lot of my all-time favorite bands (most importantly, Wire), and I was really pleased to be (an admittedly small) part of a song I thought was really great. However, as we were doing a new recording session with Will from Whatever Brains (with an eye toward possible release as a 7" or 12"), Bobby announced that he was moving to Atlanta, and unfortunately Infección never practiced or played live again. As a matter of fact, we didn't even finish mixing that session.
I might have mentioned this in some respect before, but lately I've been having a lot of meta-type thoughts about punk. Here in Raleigh we're in the midst of a bit of a venue crisis. There are a couple of bars that are supportive of the punk scene, and I am eternally grateful to them for letting punk happen in their respective establishments. However, to me bars simply are not punk, particularly since nearly every bar in this area (with the only exception, I believe, being the Nightlight in Chapel Hill) is either unwilling or unable to do all ages shows.
When I started the record store I hoped that it would be a shot in the arm that would take the punk scene in Raleigh (and, more broadly, in North Carolina) to a new level, but that hasn't really happened. In fact, nearly the opposite has been the case; while there are still a ton of great bands in the area, there have been barely any DIY punk shows to speak of in the past year or more. Touring punk bands now routinely hit up Greensboro before Raleigh, and I think we've pretty much lost our reputation for the wild explosions of energy that shows here were doing the mid- to late-00s. I think that part of the reason the store hasn't sparked some kind of NC punk renaissance is that, particularly in the era of downloadable music, a record store really only services a small corner of the punk scene.
It's always been the case that people are attracted to punk for different reasons, and the different priorities and values of these camps causes a lot of the conflict in punk. Some people are attracted to punk because of fashion; people on the outside of this group might call them poseurs, while people inside this group wonder why everyone else doesn't dress punk. Some people are attracted to punk because of its association with radical politics, and they grow frustrated at other punks' political apathy and/or inertia. And then there are the record nerds, which I realize, retrospectively, is the group I identify with. We are the keepers of the flame, the ones who curate and preserve the artifactual evidence of punk's existence. it's a noble pursuit in the abstract and my little group often grows frustrated with people who don't "support the scene" by buying stuff. However, the flip side of this perspective / attitude is that punk can become just another market, another set of goods and services to buy. When I opened the store I thought it would be a meeting / hangout space for the punks, but really it's just that for a certain kind of punk: the kind who both likes and is able to buy stuff. I certainly don't want that to be the case, but when a space is billed primarily as a store I can see how it would seem weird to go there without the intention of buying something.
So, in light of all this thought I've been trying to wrap my mind around how a DIY venue might be possible. Would this be the mythical meeting place that brings the punk scene together? Would it be something else for people to complain about, take advantage of, and eventually take for granted? Would it be more trouble than its worth? Would it spell my final and complete financial ruin? I have no answers to any of these questions... in fact, they strike me as the kinds of questions you can't answer without the requisite experience.
All Things to All People Vol. 7 December 21, 2015 15:39
So, last week was the first time I've missed my weekly blogging appointment. I wish I had a really interesting excuse, but unfortunately it was just the weight of the normal grind, which is amplified at this time of year because the store is really, really busy (which is a good thing!) and I also have to finish up my end-of-term stuff and grade what seems like a million student papers. I've always found it quite annoying that the two busiest times of year at the store--the Christmas holidays and Record Store Day--coincide almost perfectly with the end of our fall and spring semesters, which means that for a solid 2-3 weeks I am working almost literally around the clock, with nary a moment to myself to collect my thoughts. Maybe this is a pretty universal human calendar though? It seems like just about every culture has some sort of winter festival, and I'd imagine that most of those cultures also attempt to squeeze one last bit of productivity out of everyone before they let them chill out for a little while and take a break. Regardless of where this schedule comes from, thankfully I'm mostly over the hump now. Grades have been submitted and the mail order has slowed down now that there is little hope of packages arriving before Christmas, and now we hopefully just have a few more really busy shopping days at the store before I can take a break for a couple of days. Then, of course, I start preparing my spring courses.
Lately I've really been feeling this new recording that Wisconsin's Failed Mutation posted to their BandCamp. Astute readers will recognize that Failed Mutation already have a few releases under their belt, including a demo tape (later pressed to 7") and a cassingle on Not Normal, but this new material is pretty next level. Eric, who plays drums in Tenement, plays guitar in Failed Mutation and if you've ever gotten into a conversation with him you probably realize what a USHC head he is. Well, those influences shine in Failed Mutation, but there's a certain something that not a lot of bands these days have. In a word, perhaps I'd call it quirkiness... the songs are built around all of these super tight little tempo and timing changes, giving it a feel that's kind of like a tougher, sped-up version of early Wire (and hence, by extension, it also has shades of early Minutemen and Minor Threat as well)... all of those whiplash changes also wouldn't make a Gauze comparison out of place, either, though the vibe of Failed Mutation is very different. Oh, and those double-tracked vocals sound totally awesome as well! Last I heard there weren't any plans for a physical release of this material, but I really hope that changes because I've been wearing out this BandCamp player.
Logic Problem live... somewhere
The other day I was texting back and forth with Nick G≠ because some old Logic Problem practice recordings had popped up on shuffle. We got to talking about how much time we used to invest in music back then, and that in turn got me thinking about how life seems so much more accelerated nowadays. For the roughly two years when Devour and Logic Problem were going strong I generally did 2 2-3 hour practices per week with Devour, and Logic Problem would usually practice all day on Saturday or Sunday, sometimes for eight hours or more (with a meal break in the middle). I also lived 45 minutes from the practice space, so add in one and a half hours of commuting to each of those practices. You would think that was enough, but I also put tons of work into the bands outside of actual rehearsals. I had a little handheld Tascam recorder that I would put in the corner of the room during practice, and as soon as I got home from practice I would edit these tapes down, comparing different takes of songs we were working on and saving any of them that had any value whatsoever. That's in addition to all of the time I spent booking shows, working on artwork, writing songs at home, and of course just daydreaming about the bands.
Now, it's not hard to imagine that I had the energy to do all that. After all, the scene was positively buzzing with energy. There were good shows every weekend, other bands that were all pushing each other to get better and better, and just a general sense of energy and excitement. What I really wonder is how I found time for anything else? When did I work? When did I sleep? I mean, I probably did far less of those things than I do nowadays, but right now No Love has one 2-3 hour practice session per week and it's tough to make it to that, much less actually play guitar and/or write songs outside of practice. Nick used to drive 3+ hours each way to every single Logic Problem practice, but he told me he often can't find the energy to drive 20 minutes to his practice space in Atlanta.
Maybe all of this is just part of getting older. Maybe I just have different priorities... god knows I do plenty of work, but now it's putting 50-80 hours per week in at Sorry State, which leaves very little time for working on bands. I can't help but crave that sense of excitement and energy that came with the explosion of hardcore in the late 00s, though, as well as the different kind of gratification that comes from pouring so much of your energy into artistic expression rather than the less creative (but still really stimulating!) life of running a business.
I've seen the above article from the LA Weekly pop up in my Facebook feed a few times over the past week, and I have to admit that it's really been getting my goat. People love speculating about the economics of the music industry, and I have to say that from my perspective as the owner of a record store most people are either completely wrong or have ridiculously unrealistic expectations.
The gist of the above article is, "I used to buy vinyl for really cheap, now it's really expensive!" I hear this attitude a lot around the store, and there are a few things that bother me about it. First of all, it seems a very close argumentative cousin to the "I only like their early stuff," cooler-than-thou posturing that I really hate. People love to think that they are the first ones at the party, particularly if it means denigrating the experience of the people who arrived later. Another thing that bothers me are that these very same people who complain about prices not being the same as they were 10, 20, or however many years ago are often the very same people who brag about selling collectible records for exorbitant amounts of money. You can't have it both ways, you know? Either you are the person who values this thing that no one else values (and hence it has no real monetary value), or you're the digger who finds the diamond in the rough that other people overlooked. It doesn't make sense to acknowledge that records are worth a lot of money now, but also to expect to routinely find them for far, far below their market value without any work.
If you really are a bargain hunter there are tons of places you could be putting your attention. The market for hip-hop and dance 12" singles is non-existent and you can buy them for pennies. The same goes for a lot of 90s punk, though the Destroy All Art compilation may change that. There are still tons of cheap thrills to be had out there for the person who is willing to invest the time.
The other day Joe from Don Giovanni stopped by the store and we had a long talk. He told me that over the past couple of years he's pretty much stopped buying used vinyl and focused all of his attention on buying used CDs. I think that Joe and I are about the same age, and we both got into vinyl not only because of its inherent aesthetic qualities (bigger artwork, etc.), but also because in the 90s new LPs were about 30% cheaper than new CDs. Nowadays the ratio is the opposite in the used market; even relatively common LPs are quite expensive, while used CDs are dirt cheap. Sure, you occasionally hear about "collectible CDs" (just like there were plenty of collectible records back in the 90s), but in general you can still walk into a used CD store and get piles of GREAT music for a fraction of the cost you'd pay for vinyl. Of course you don't get the coolness factor that comes along with vinyl, but it's all about the music, right?
Now, I'm not going to start buying CDs again any time soon (I'm kind of proud of the fact that the only CDs I own are the Fall's Peel Sessions box set and Judgement's Just Be), but it strikes me that if people really were interested in music being easily available on a cheap physical format, there should be a lot more CDs in punk. The fact that there aren't is a signal to me that, for most people, the physical format only has value as a collectors item, and not as "media," i.e. as a way of encoding or transporting information.
Speaking of physical formats, there has been an interesting thread on Viva La Vinyl over the past few days about "The Death of the DIY Distro." The thread was prompted by Yannick at Feral Ward announcing that Feral Ward would be shutting down its distro and continuing only as a label. There's a lot of interesting information in that thread (and I stepped out of my usual lurker mode to write a few things, since I feel like I have some expertise on the matter), but one interesting thing someone said in that thread was that "cassettes are the new 7"."
This makes total sense to me because cassettes are really perfectly suited to the current economic state of punk. The key difference here is the way that cassettes are manufactured, which is very different from the way that vinyl is manufactured. Vinyl is all about economies of scale, because most of the costs are in setup. In order to make a vinyl record, you have to have a lacquer master cut, then there's a complex process of using that lacquer to manufacture metal parts that actually stamp the grooves of the record into a chunk of raw vinyl. For my last LP release, the Whatever Brains' 4th LP, this part of the process (lacquer mastering and electroplating) cost $650. In addition to those costs, each pressed record cost $1.35 each (printing jackets, insert, labels, download cards, etc., are of course additional costs). If you're pressing 2,000 copies that $650 is spread across them, meaning a setup cost of $0.33 per record. However, we only pressed 300 copies of the Whatever Brains LP (which is almost certainly the maximum number we can sell), yet the $650 setup cost is the same, which means setup cost $2.17 per record. Which means we paid $3.52 for each record before the jacket, inserts, etc. You can see why small-run vinyl is so expensive.
Cassettes, on the other hand, are essentially manufactured in the same way that you dub tapes on your home cassette deck, only on larger machines that make several cassettes at a time at a higher speed and with better fidelity. Thus, there are essentially no setup costs with cassettes aside from the nominal charge for creating the master copy (which was less than $10 for my last cassette release), and consequently 50 vs 100 vs 500 cassettes have essentially the same manufacturing costs per unit. This style of manufacturing is perfect for the small-run, boutique market that most of the punk I'm interested in these days exists in.
So, going forward you are likely to see more cassettes on Sorry State and fewer vinyl releases. I would love to only make 150-200 copies of a vinyl release, but doing so would mean we'd have to charge significantly more per copy. While I don't necessarily have a problem charging $8 for a 7" or $18 for an LP, it's tough to find bands who would be willing to have their releases cost so much more than other bands' releases. However, I can't simply going on pretending that I live in a 1,000-copy pressing world when, in reality, I live in a 200-copy pressing world. Someone will be left holding the bill for the gap in those numbers, and as the label owner that person is me.
I'll finish on a lighter note. The great Terminal Escape blog just posted the Blackball promo tape this week, saying some really nice things about it:
These three tracks are a promo for a 6-song 7" to be released on Sorry State. Test pressings have been approved and they sound awesome, so if all goes well you can expect that out in January. In the meantime, keep rockin' these three tracks.
All Things to All People Vol. 6 December 07, 2015 16:56
I hate to complain about anything having to do with Sorry State, but it's shaping up that this blog is the place to do that, so here's another one. One big part of my job as the owner of this whole enterprise is what is euphemistically referred to as "customer service." Let me start by saying, 99.9% of the time the customer is always right, and customers for a punk business like ours are generally way more forgiving than they actually need to be. Every once in a while we do get a punisher (though that is usually by other channels like eBay or Discogs), but it almost doesn't even matter what the customer's attitude is... apologizing for mistakes (mine or others') is emotionally exhausting. Things go wrong... packages get damaged or lost, orders get mis-filled, and records are defective, and as the customer service person for Sorry State I'm the one who has to deal with that. And mostly it means eating shit over and over and apologizing for said mistakes. I guess that I'm a perfectionist, because every time we get an email or a phone call saying that a mistake has happened (even if it wasn't precisely our mistake), it feels like a punch in the gut. All in all it's a relatively small part of my job because we don't make all that many mistakes, but it really makes me sympathize with customer service reps whose entire job is to be (at best) complained at and (at worst) yelled at and berated all day long. Clearly I would not be well-suited to such a profession.
So, this week I also wanted to talk a little bit about how I listen to music. The other day I decided to put a little sofa in my office / record room at home and it sits right across from my main stereo setup (the picture you see above is the view from said sofa). Every time I make a slight change to my stereo setup it always prompts me to spend a little more time in front of the stereo, which I've been doing quite a bit lately. This is, by far, my favorite way to listen to music, but unfortunately I don't get to spend nearly as much time here as I would like.
In my life, the place I've probably spent the most time listening to music is the car. Really, the car is probably where I first fell in love with music. I've also driven a lot in my life... when I think about how many miles I've put on each car I've owned, I think that I've driven well over 500,000 miles in my life. Conservatively estimating an average speed of 50 miles per hour, that means I've spent somewhere upwards of 10,000 hours driving, nearly all of it listening to music. My first car had a cassette player and I had a big box of tapes with me at all times, most of them home-dubbed affairs with the kind of combinations that you make when you're a 16-year-old trying to figure out punk in the pre-digital era. I distinctly remember a tape with Screeching Weasel's Boogada Boogada Boogada on one side and Fugazi's In on the Kill Taker on the other, I'm pretty sure with Thee Headcoatees "Ça Plane Pour Moi" single added to the end of whichever album was shorter. My second car had a CD player, so I carried around one of those giant CD booklets that hold something like 180 CDs, and this collection pretty much permanently occupied the car's passenger seat. Since, even after I got my first CD burner, ripping vinyl was still more or less impossible, I listened almost exclusively to full-length albums all the way through, which is something I wonder if kids today really develop a taste for. Nowadays I'm good at ripping vinyl and I have an iPhone, so I have pretty much everything I could ever want right at my fingertips. Frequently this is too much choice and I end up listening to my entire library on shuffle.
I still love listening to music in the car, but I don't take as many long trips as I used to, and now that I've invested a bit of time and money into creating a good home stereo setup I'm increasingly irked by the shortcomings in car listening. Some things are great for the car... mostly things with big melodies, so it would make sense that '77 punk bands provide my favorite road trip music. However, I've really come to notice how much road noise at high speeds obscures the low tones, particularly in heavy music. For instance, I've been listening to Napalm Death's Mentally Murdered EP a lot in the past couple of months, but I haven't even bothered to put that album on my phone because all of my favorite parts of that record--mostly Lee Dorian's vocals and Mick Harris's bass drum work--occupy the lower frequency range and would be completely inaudible in the car.
The other primary location of my music-listening is at the gym. However, listening at the gym has some of the same fidelity problems as the car (since they're always blasting dance music), and more importantly the point of listening to music isn't so much to enjoy the music for its own sake, but rather to distract me from the necessary discomforts of exercise.
So, that brings me to my home setup. I'm perpetually broke, so what I have has evolved very, very slowly, in much the same way my record collection has grown and evolved over many years. I first started making an effort to fine-tune my setup after hanging out with the guy who does electronics work for the used turntables and receivers we carry in the store. He's a big-time audiophile so he has spent, I'm guessing, tens of thousands of dollars on his stereo system. After hearing music on his system my mind was blown... it literally felt like I was in the room with the band. I also could distinctly hear what every instrument was doing. Rather than being smashed together into a big, unified roar, I could hear all of this dynamic interplay between the different instruments, even on records that I thought I knew very well. I asked him for some advice on how to improve my setup, and he suggested upgrading my components one-by-one, starting with the the beginning of the signal chain (i.e. the turntable and cartridge) and working my way toward the end (the speakers).
The first component I upgraded was my turntable. I saved up a bit of money and bought a Pro-Ject Debut Carbon DC with an Ortofon red cartridge. Even with my crummy thrift store receiver and Sony bookshelf speakers I immediately noticed a big difference in sound, namely that sense of separation that I noticed on the audiophile system. The only thing I don't like about it is the fact that you have to lift up the platter and manually move the belt to change between 33 and 45RPM. This probably isn't a big deal to the average mustachioed lover of album-oriented rock, but I have a huge (and, I must say, pretty killer) selection of punk singles, not to mention the fact that the 12" 45 is one of the great formats for hardcore punk. If I had it to do over I might buy a different model of Pro-Ject that has an easier speed-change mechanism (or is compatible with a less expensive speed box, since the only one that works with my table costs $600). Oh, and this also makes it annoy me even more when bands print the wrong speed on their labels. I was just listening to the Mansion LP, which spins at 33, and then I went to listen to the new Power LP. The label says it's a 45 so I picked up the platter and changed it to 45, but then the intro came in and the music was obviously way too fast, so I had to pick up the platter again and change it back to 33. First world problems, I know.
Next, I upgraded my speakers. One Saturday morning I went to an estate sale that was advertising a ton of audiophile gear, as well as a whole heap of classic rock vinyl that would be really good for the store. Despite getting there at like 5AM I was still 3rd in line, which meant that I didn't get to nab a $1000 Marantz turntable at 1/4 the price. However, while all of the other customers at the sale raced to claim the main audio components, I noticed that the big floor speakers hadn't been grabbed. I knew nothing about them, but I figured that if they were part of this guy's setup they must be good. Turns out they're a pair of Vandersteen Model 1Ci's that retail for $1249; I got them for $100.
The next components I upgraded were the receiver and an additional pair of speakers. I haven't really put much research into these, but often when I'm buying someone's record collection (particularly someone who hasn't actually listened to the records in years) they'll throw in their stereo equipment as well. I got a pretty good stack of hard rock and new wave from a guy who told me at length about how much research and effort he'd put into his stereo system (I've since forgotten all of the details), and when I hooked up his old Fisher studio standard receiver and Infinity studio reference monitors they immediately sounded way better than my previous gear. In particular, the bassy, modern sound of the Infinity monitors provided a nice counterpoint to the thinner, airier sound of the Vandersteens, and I feel like this setup lets the combination of power and subtlety that I appreciate in punk really shine through.
Now that I have my system much better-tuned, listening to records is an entirely new experience. I generally listen at a pretty loud volume where I can almost feel the air that the speakers push hitting me in the chest, and there are few things I find more pleasurable than hearing a well-recorded "thwack!" of the snare drum played at precisely the right volume. I also find myself getting completely lost in the subtleties of arrangements. Records I've had for years sound new again. The other day I was listening to "Demystification" by Zounds (a song I must have heard hundreds of times before) and I noticed the subtle Hammond organ in the background during the chorus for the first time. Listening to a first pressing of the Stooges' Fun House is a revelation... it feels like you're sitting on the floor between Scott and Ron Asheton. For an album supposedly recorded completely live, there's actually a good amount of post-production, like the double-tracked drums on "LA Blues." I'd always felt like that song was an afterthought on an otherwise perfect record, but appreciating the song's density and the disorientation between the two drum tracks in the two stereo channels makes the song feel like the darkly psychdelic climax that I'd imagine it was intended to be.
So, reading back over the above section it's a lot more gear-y than I really intended. I am, by no means, implying that you need top-notch gear and original vinyl pressings of records to truly appreciate them. What I was trying to get at was how my listening habits have changed over the years... not so much in what I listen to, but how I listen. When I was a teenager it was all about the hook, about screaming along at the top of my lungs on a late-night drive back from a show in a far-off locale. However, when I listen now it's primarily about the playing... about the subtle nuances that players coax out of their respective instruments and how a bunch of players work together to create a unified sound. It's not necessarily a more sophisticated or a better approach to listening to music, but it's different and, I think, worth noting.
All Things to All People Vol. 5 November 30, 2015 18:20
Well, this blog is (at least) a day late because of all of the madness surrounding Black Friday. I'm pretty sure that the rest of the world thinks that Americans are completely insane, and I'm sure there are also plenty of punks out there who think that punk labels, distros, and stores that participate in it are ethically suspect, or at least have their priorities seriously out of whack. I definitely understand that perspective, but I also have a responsibility to myself and my employees to take advantage of the opportunity that Black Friday presents. Consumer psychology is a weird thing... I wish that it didn't exist and that people made all of their spending choices completely rationally, but that isn't the world we live in. The fact is that, for whatever reason, people's wallets are more open at this time of year, and the significant uptick in sales that we experience during the holidays goes a long way toward making up for the money we lose throughout the rest of the year. As I stated way back in Vol. 1 of this blog, Sorry State is not a money-making enterprise, but I'd really like it if it didn't lose so much of my money. Having Sorry State sustain itself at at least the break-even point would significantly reduce my stress level, alleviate much of the potential for burnout that I run the risk of every day, and allow me to contribute even more to the health of both the North Carolina and national/international punk scenes. If that makes me occasionally come off a bit like a scummy capitalist, then I guess that's something I've grown comfortable dealing with.
That line of thought makes me think of another issue I want to address: advertising in corporate / mainstream media. I remember the first time I experimented with running a Facebook ad. The telltale "sponsored" notice appeared at the top of my post and someone replied saying "sponsored post... gross." That really made me question myself and I didn't run ads on Facebook or other non-punk media for a long time. However, once the store opened and I started trying to reach people outside the punk scene I realized that Facebook was probably my best opportunity for advertising. Particularly this past weekend I've begun to notice lots of other punk labels and distros following suit. While I feel guilty every time Zuckerberg & co. suck money out of the Sorry State bank account, the fact is that Facebook advertising is so effective because punks look at Facebook. I think that Facebook basically sucks, but it's kind of a necessary feature of life in the internet age. I wish the punk scene didn't use social media as its primary means of communication, but unfortunately it does. I still advertise in zines like Maximumrocknroll and Razorcake, but I'm skeptical about how effective these ads really are. Instead, I think of them more as donations to institutions that I want to support.
In a way, the existence of this blog is a stab against punks' (and, indeed, my/Sorry State's) over-reliance on social media. It was born out of an impulse to do something that is mine, and mine alone. I don't have the time, energy, or expertise to effectively distribute a paper publication, but ideally this blog should do something similar by allowing me to write in a forum that isn't shaped by all of the oppressive contexts of social media or even the conventional blogosphere.
By the way, if you're wondering how our Black Friday went, I'd say it went pretty darn well. There were a few titles I ordered that flopped... why I ordered copies of the Goo Goo Dolls' A Boy Named Goo is beyond me (maybe because there's been so much talk about the band on Viva La Vinyl?), but I'm honestly shocked that the double LP of Zombies BBC sessions didn't sell better. We consistently sell new and used copies of Odyssey and Oracle, and a well-packaged, professionally sourced collection of vintage BBC sessions seemed like a no-brainer, but not a lot of people pulled the trigger. You can't win 'em all, I suppose.
For the past few days I've been reading the book Loitering: Collected Essays by Charles D'Ambrosio. It's really been knocking my socks off. Over the past few years I've discovered a passion for reading essays that doesn't show any signs of abating. I think that one of the thing that has made me so eager to read is the joy of discovery... there's so much stuff out there that I haven't come across. Despite having a PhD in literature I'm virtually ignorant of contemporary literature, so I end up getting book recommendations from a mish-mash of sources... articles in magazines like the Atlantic, things friends mention on social media, and even algorithmically generated recommendations like Amazon's related product feature or Goodreads' recommendations. I think that the latter is how I discovered D'Ambrosio, and reading the brilliant introductory essay to this collection gives me a similar sort of thrill as when I hear an exciting record that I've never heard before.
Thinking about my developing passion for the contemporary essay reminds me of a conversation I had late one night with a couple of touring bands who were staying at my house. Someone was asking about all of the descriptions I write for the web site... "do you really like all of the records you write descriptions for?" is probably the most common question I get about Sorry State. My stock answer is that my method when writing descriptions is to try to match the record up with the people who would enjoy that record the most. This requires a kind of psychological transformation wherein I try to get myself in the frame of mind of the person who truly loves this record. If I'm listening to the new release on Beach Impediment or Warthog Speak that requires me to become, in some sense, a perpetually angry, hard-moshing, finger-pointing hardcore kid that I might have been ten or fifteen years ago, but am not anymore. Similarly, when I listen to some new genre-bending experimental release I try to become the person who values originality above all else, who craves the new and the novel. I've become really adept at switching between these different modes, but it's a dangerous game... sometimes I feel like I can't remember what it is that I really love.
Anyway, what I'm getting at here is that one of the beautiful things about art is that is allows you to inhabit, to some degree or another, another person's subjectivity... to see the world through their eyes, to hear through their ears, to notice the things they notice, and to temporarily try on their assumptions, biases, priorities, preferences, and/or grievances as if they were a different set of clothes. The well-written personal essay sparks this process with a depth, intensity, and subtlety that I find endlessly gratifying.
I'll wrap things up with a note about music. I realized after I published my last entry that I'd actually written about Voivod in two consecutive updates. Ooops! In an effort to change gears, I'll talk about one of my other big musical obsessions of this past summer: Bloodbrothers by the Dictators. It's weird how an album that you've heard numerous times in your life can hit you all of a sudden with a completely different kind of impact, and that's exactly what happened with this record. A totally beat-to-shit used copy came in the store and I spun it one day and was just blown away. I've owned this record two or three times in my life, and somehow it always ended up in the sell pile. However, since my obsession with this record blossomed it's hard for me to figure out how I ever could have heard the song above (or, indeed, any of the half dozen other stone cold bangers on this disc) and not acknowledged it as one of the most perfect songs of all time. My only working theory is that the opening track on the record, "Faster and Louder," is kind of a dud... it's not a terrible song, but the hooks don't deliver the same deep gut punch as the stronger tracks like "Baby Let's Twist" and "The Minnesota Strip." Anyway, enjoy the track above... god knows I do.
All Things to All People Vol. 4 November 23, 2015 12:04
HOLY SHIT THERE IS A NEW CAREER SUICIDE SONG! That one really came out of nowhere, and what's even cooler is that it's awesome (not that I expected anything less). Jonah is back on the drums, so it sounds like the earlier stuff since, if I remember correctly, Jonah ended up playing drums on a lot of those recordings anyway. It's hard to convey what an important band Career Suicide were to me in the early 00s. Along with Direct Control, they seem to have been almost wholly responsible for resurrecting true early 80s style hardcore, and I know they preceded DC by quite some time as I vividly remember talking about CS at length the first time I hung out with the Direct Control crew. Anyway, timeless band... can't wait to hear the whole album!
New CCTV song as well! I know nothing about where this came from or what it's intended for... I just happened to come across it on youtube. I have to say I remain 100% into the NWI stuff... I worry that at some point it's totally going to jump the shark and not be cool anymore, but I think we have a ways to go until that happens. In the meantime I'm going to eagerly gobble up everything this scene has to offer.
So I just heard the news that GISM is going to be playing a reunion show in the UK. At first hearing it, this seemed like pretty incredible news. I mean, I love GISM as much as the next guy, and their first two records in particular are some of the most singular and endlessly fascinating objects (both musically and graphically) in the history of punk. However, after about 5 seconds of reflection I realized that I just do not give a fuck about reunion bands anymore. Poison Idea are also playing in Richmond (about 3 hours away from me) next year, and I'm not even if sure if I'll go to that. I remember thinking about driving up to CBGB to see Poison Idea the last time they came out east and I decided not to do it... I have no idea how that show was, but I'm sure I would have thought it was awesome regardless. This time, I feel like the best-case scenario is a competent band playing a well-rehearsed, well-selected set list. And honestly, who cares? Anything that was interesting about Poison Idea or GISM is long gone, and I'd much rather spend my time going to see a band that is making good music right now. Honestly, I'd way rather see a bunch of friends put together a Poison Idea or a GISM cover band as at least then I'd (hopefully) be at a DIY punk show that I actually felt like being at.
Speaking of DIY punk shows, THERE ARE BASICALLY NONE IN RALEIGH RIGHT NOW AND IT SUCKS! My friends and I speculate endlessly about the reasons for this. The dominant theory is that there were a few years where people got lazy about booking all ages gigs and instead just had 18+ and 21+ shows in bars, so there's a whole generation of younger kids who didn't discover the scene, and hence didn't move into shithole houses where they want to have shows. I'm not sure if that's all 100% accurate... maybe it's just that "the kids" find it more gratifying to post on social media and play video games or whatever it is that teenagers do these days rather than listen to punk and participate in the punk scene. And, really, what does the punk scene have to offer them? When I discovered punk it was a way of owning my misfit status, of signaling to the world that I wanted something more than what it seemed on the surface to offer. Nowadays there are probably more efficient ways to accomplish the same social goal without all of the historical, political, and cultural drama of punk. But then again I'm old and terribly out of touch with the kids, so there's a perfectly good chance that I'm extremely off base.
I've never been one to post about my "scores" on message boards, but I do like writing about my scores, so maybe this blog is a good place to collect those thoughts? The pic above is a few things that I have acquired for myself lately. The Zounds and Headcleaners records were just things that I came across semi-cheap online... longtime favorites that it's nice to finally own on vinyl. The other two are things I was kind of chasing after.
Voivod has become something of a big band for me over the past couple of months. I've always liked them, but the older I get the more I find myself listening to metal. I was on a pretty heavy Hellhammer / Celtic Frost binge in the spring and summer, and around this time Voivod really started catching my ear as well. I think that I've owned all of their LPs up to Nothingface at some point or another (some of them multiple times) but always ended up selling them because they never really clicked with me. However, all of a sudden Killing Technology was the only record I wanted to hear (and thankfully an original copy came in to the store this summer and I managed to snag it), and now that I've kind of worn that out Dimension Hatross is sounding even better to me. Really, it's kind of weird that Voivod are even classified as a metal band. Aside from their haircuts and clothing, their songs are short and economical as many hardcore bands, and they've never been shy about acknowledging their big debt to early Die Kreuzen. Anyway, I was stoked to grab a copy of this for a decent price after poking around online looking for one for a couple of months.
The other big score for me is that Human Sufferage 12". This band was from Columbus, Ohio, and they have been something of an enigma for me for a long time. I think that Mike from Direct Control played me this LP 8 or 10 years ago. I remember a beer-soaked night hanging out with him and Musty when Mike told me that this 12" was the only record he had ever bought online in his life. I remember that it ripped, but pretty much everything rips when you're partying, right? Anyway, I always kept an eye out for Human Sufferage's stuff, and a few years ago I happened upon a sealed copy of their 2nd LP, Thank You, Mother Dear at Goner Records in Memphis and immediately snatched it up. (That record is available on youtube here.) Mother Dear is pretty good, but I knew this first 12" was the one I wanted, and the fact that I never even came across mp3s or a youtube video of it made me itch to hear it all the more. Once it finally arrived I was treated to some solid, punky, early 80s USHC that's pretty much just the way I like it. For some reason they remind me a lot of that old California band Anti, or maybe even Sex Drive-era Necros. It's basically sped-up punk... or maybe what came just after that, i.e. bands that were dyed-in-the-wool hardcore bands, but still had a lot of influence from punkier bands like the Angry Samoans. Anyway, it's not the best record of all time or anything, but I've been spinning it constantly, and it's nice to listen to something that's so out of the echo chamber of the internet.
OK, since this is already a day late I'll leave this version here. Lots to do this week grading papers for my teaching job and preparing for Black Friday weekend at the store!
All Things to All People Vol. 3 November 15, 2015 18:27
This past week I gave a little lecture / Q&A for an Intro to the Music Industry course at NC State, the college where I teach. I'd actually done this before; I met the professor because Jeff took the class last semester (not that I think Jeff wants to be part of the "music industry" as such, but hey, you gotta take something, right?), and when he heard Jeff worked at a record store he asked me to come speak. It's a weird thing to do, for a number of reasons. First of all, to say that I'm involved in the "music industry" is pretty laughable. I don't make any portion of my income off of music, I have no connections to people who are in the "music industry," and my pathway to where I actually am is so idiosyncratic that I doubt anyone could learn anything useful from it. I decided to structure my talk around the changing place of physical media in the music industry, so I brought a bunch of Sorry State releases to show to the class and talk about how our approaches to packaging and the way we think about physical media have changed in general since we started. When I gave the talk to Jeff's class it went pretty well, but the talk I gave the other day was pretty wretched. The students clearly didn't give a shit and a couple of them were clearly struggling to stay awake.
Anyway, the topic is interesting to me, probably because rather than actually being a part of the music industry what I am in reality is a hobbyist who has turned the corner into a full-on obsessive. I was telling the students that the word "media" is almost a misnomer nowadays. A medium is an agency or means of doing something; in the case of records, they are a means of playing recorded music. However, with relatively few exceptions people don't really use records as a means of playing music anymore. Instead, records are this weird fetish object... a symbol that stands for something they aren't, whether that's status, fandom, a relationship to a band or a lost childhood... who knows. The point is that few people are buying records because it's the best way to hear the music they want to hear. This makes the record seller's job very difficult, because rather than selling music, what we're selling is whatever it is that generates the record's symbolic value to the person who buys it. That's very difficult to figure out, because it's different for every person and even changes over time. I've often thought that if I worked as hard as I do selling records but sold something else like hardware or plumbing supplies or caskets or fucking vape juice or anything but records I'd probably be a millionaire.
This morning I watched this really cool 1978 documentary about Magazine and the Buzzcocks. I'm sure this documentary is old news to most of you, but I've never really been one for YouTube (I just don't have time for it, really) so I've only just now come across it. Unlike a lot of rips of TV programs this old, this one is top-notch quality, and also captures two of my absolute favorite bands of all time at their absolute peak. A particular highlight is at the end of the documentary where the original Buzzcocks lineup reunites to play "I Can't Control Myself." Being that these two bands are two of my favorites, I've often wondered what would have happened if Devoto had never left the Buzzcocks. The question is particularly interesting as this documentary really highlights the "two sides of the coin" relationship that Pete Shelley and Devoto seem to have. Imagining a band that combined the intellectual heft of Magazine's first three albums with the razor-sharp pop sensibilities of the early Buzzcocks singles is almost too much for me to even contemplate... if such a band had existed, surely they would have inspired world peace a la the ending of Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, right?
I've been listening to a lot of Voivod lately. I don't really have anything interesting to say about Voivod other than that they are really, really good, particularly Killing Technology and Dimension Hatross. I've loved Killing Technology for years, but I never really spent much time with Hatross. I just picked up an original, copy, though, and I'm remedying that situation post-haste.
And since Voivod always makes me think of Die Kreuzen, I'll post the above video as well. If you've never watched this before, stop what you're doing and devote your undivided attention to this video right now. These 13 minutes may actually be the peak moment of the entire history of human culture on the planet earth. These men are gods. If anyone wants to start a religion based on early Die Kreuzen HMU.
Sorry this is kind of a short one, but I'll have to end there. My brain is fried this week from too much work, too many record descriptions, and not enough real excitement. Now, I'm off to see Priests and Shopping in Durham... should be a good one!
All Things to All People Vol. 2 November 08, 2015 13:35
I just found out that I will be teaching at 8AM again next semester. I'm pretty upset about it. In my last post I talked a little bit about Sorry State's monetary philosophy. Since I have never taken money from Sorry State, that means that I have to work a full job in addition to running the store, distro, etc. Lately it has become extremely difficult to balance these things. This fall my teaching schedule puts me on campus about 30 hours per week. I could probably deal with that, but I also teach at 8AM, which means that I have to wake up around 6AM, which means that I need to go to bed at like 10PM if I want to get a full night's rest (which, I assure you, becomes more and more important the older you get). Needless to say, that bedtime is not really conducive to the rock and roll lifestyle that I would like to lead, and I've had to miss a ton of great shows this fall because of it. Thankfully my on-campus time will be reduced next semester, but I was really hoping that I wouldn't have to keep waking up before dawn several days per week.
One day I would really love to quit my job and focus full-time on Sorry State, but I have no idea if that will ever be in the cards. I think the main reason I'd like to quit my job is not so much so that I could be a full-time punk (even though that would rule) or certainly not because I think punk owes me a living, but rather because there's so much more that I know that I could do if I had the time and/or the money. Lately I feel like I've really been pushing against the physical limits of how much one person can work, and not only does it suck being exhausted all the time, but more importantly I feel like I'm not doing as well as I could be doing. The store could have more cool records, there could be more cool shows in Raleigh... there's so much more that could be happening if I weren't chained to a desk for such a large portion of my waking hours. But that's life under capitalism, right?
Wriggle photo by Will Butler / Fastcore Photos
The first really good recent band I recall seeing from Greensboro was Holder's Scar. I mentioned this when I talked about their debut EP on To Live a Lie, but I actually avoided checking them out for a while thanks to their kind of tough-sounding name and the fact that they were from Greensboro. When I finally did listen I was pretty blown away by their complex, heavy, and dissonant hardcore. Holder's Scar are great and well worth checking out, but to me they seem almost like a transitional band, with the key members working through their influences and perhaps not quite having found the exact scene that they truly connected with.
Things really started popping off with the next two Greensboro bands I saw, Wriggle and Bad Eric. Whereas Holder's Scar is heavy hardcore with some metal still in the mix (think Neurosis, Rorschach, and that kind of thing but with extra d-beat influences), Wriggle and Bad Eric are pure hardcore bands. Wriggle are nasty and chaotic, with something of the unhinged quality of early Black Flag and prime-era Void, and when you combine that with a distinctly North Carolinian sensibility you get something that reminds me quite a bit of Eye for an Eye-era Corrosion of Conformity. I liked Wriggle's demo tape so much that I did a short run of them on Sorry State, though they're now sold out. I can't wait to hear what's next for them as well, as they played a bunch of new songs on Tuesday that were a touch more melodic and had more interesting guitar/bass interplay inspired by anarcho-punk like Zounds. As for Bad Eric, they're the brainchild of Eric Chubb (who is in all four of the Greensboro bands I'm writing about), and you might have run across them already as they've toured the most out of this group. Like Wriggle, Bad Eric is pure hardcore, but a bit tighter and more straightforward. While the vocals are much tougher, musically they remind me a lot of Direct Control as their riffs tend to be built around similar chord patterns and their songs around similar dynamics and tempo changes.
The latest band to emerge from this group is Menthol, and they're my favorite of the bunch. While Menthol consists of pretty much the same personnel as the aforementioned bands, from what I hear this is guitarist Tyler's brainchild. It makes sense that Menthol would be my favorite because they're definitely the weirdest band of the crew. While they're still hardcore/punk, I think that Menthol reflects the members' increasing connections with the national / global punk scene, in particular midwest bands like Coneheads, Ooze, Bug, and Lumpy & the Dumpers. If Holder's Scar feels like a band still finding their place, Menthol sounds like a band who knows where they fit in the global punk community and realizes precisely what they have to offer to that conversation and culture. They made a few copies of the above recording on cassette for this week's dates, but the plan is to repress some copies on Sorry State so that more people can own this ripper on a physical format.
So, that's a quick little primer on the Greensboro, North Carolina hardcore scene. I'm sure there are probably some errors in there, but I don't know these folks super well... I'm just a particularly interested outside observer. However, it's scenes like this that make me excited about punk, and if you like being excited about punk you should check these bands out.
Speaking of being excited, that's not a feeling that I've had much of lately. In particular, I've been feeling really awkward and isolated when I try to talk to people at shows. I am overworked, exhausted, over-committed, and stressed nearly to the breaking point. All I can seem to think about is work, whether it's my teaching job or trying to run Sorry State, and when I talk to people lately I feel like I'm either complaining/whining or punishing them about the minutiae of all of my various commitments. I feel like I'm just not a fun or interesting person to be around because I don't have the time to do interesting things or even think interesting thoughts... I'm just a task-completing machine. Mostly I have just been trying to avoid actually talking to people, because all I can think about is how jealous I am of their lives. I see people like the Greensboro crew and the Austin crew at the Glue / Strutter show and they're all making killer music, traveling around, and having fun. As for me, it's probably been about a year since I've written a song. I can't remember the last time I picked up my guitar outside of shows and band practice. Sometimes I feel like I can't even remember what fun is. I do have some hope that the spring will be better, but it's been a very difficult fall for me, and it looks like I have at least another month in the weeds before things quiet down at all.
Here's a review of the recent book All Ages: The Rise and Fall of Portland Punk 1977-1981 that I wrote on goodreads:
I loved all of the minutiae in this book. Basically, the author started a kind of anarchist-style collective in Portland during the titular years, and the book contains all kinds of interesting info like meeting minutes, budgets, etc., that provide the kind of granular detail that most punk history books don't. Those parts are great, but basically whenever the author starts talking in generalities I start to hate this book. He has a habit of lapsing into casual sexism and homophobia (a product of his times, I guess) and ranting about incredibly abstract, mostly irrelevant topics for pages on end. The worst was his capsule history / critique of anarchist theory at the very end of the book. Fortunately the book is organized into small sections so if you smell something fishy you can just skip those parts, and even if the writing were completely abysmal (it's not) there's a wealth of primary source info here that's just fascinating. There are a lot of books about the history of punk I'd recommend before this one, but if you want to read everything about this topic (and I do) you'll certainly learn a lot.
I'm pretty into books and I like to see what other punks are reading, so if you're active on Goodreads friend me or whatever here.
That's all for this week! Who knows what I'll write about next week? Only one way to find out I guess!
All Things to All People Vol. 1 October 31, 2015 13:45
So, welcome to my new blog, All Things to All People. I suppose I should start by saying why this blog exists. First of all, as you can probably tell if you follow Sorry State closely, I really like writing. I do a lot of it for Sorry State, but for various reasons (most of them technological), that writing tends to be very tightly structured. Generally, the main things I write are record descriptions and my parts for the newsletter, which are great, but it doesn't leave me much room to write about other things that I care about... like music that we don't have for sale on the site, shows I go to, and other random stuff that might fly through my head at any given time. So, All Things to All People is meant to be kind of a clearing-house for things that I want to say that don't fit elsewhere on the site.
I've had a few blogs in my life, but one of the reasons that I decided to start a new one right now is because I've been thinking about media and punk. I've been running Sorry State for a long time (over a decade now!), but one of the things that I feel like I've never quite gotten a hold of is promotion. Maybe it's from being raised to be self-effacing to a fault, but I am an absolutely terrible hype man. I've been attempting to combat this problem a bit by drumming up some press coverage for my upcoming releases, but by and large this has been an abject failure. I was thinking about why this is the case, and then it occurred to me that Sorry State is its own media outlet. People tell me all the time how much they like the newsletter and I know that a lot of people rely on it to introduce them to new music, much as people used to rely on zines and radio shows back in the old days. Basically, what I'ms saying that even though it isn't billed as such, Sorry State is as much of a zine as it is a record store or a label or a distro, so maybe it's about time I started to get comfortable with that and embrace it.
As for the title, honestly I don't think it's very good and I may end up changing it later. I didn't want to name it after a song because that felt kind of cheesy, and for some reason that phrase popped into my head. I think it's because I really admire people that have strong convictions and stand up for what they believe in. I, however, am not one of those people. I am an adapter, and I feel like I'm always shifting my identity in subtle ways given the demands of a particular situation. Maybe that's because I spend my life traveling between two worlds--punk and academia--but even within punk I sometimes feel like I'm one person with my crusty friends, one person with my nerdy friends, one person with my "garage rock" friends, etc. So, going along with the aversion to hype that I wrote above, the title of this blog is basically in insult to myself for being spineless. Yay me.
I woke up this morning to find out that Dickie Hammond from Leatherface died. I've never been one to write my own little eulogies on Facebook every time a celebrity dies--why does anyone care what I have to say about it?--but Leatherface were a very special band to me at one point in my life. Honestly, I virtually never listen to them anymore. A few months ago I realized that I would skip them every time they came up on shuffle on my phone, so I actually deleted all of their music from the music library on my phone. I think that's probably for the best. I spent so many years drilling Leatherface's songs into my head that maybe it's better that I have a good long break so that I can come back to them later with fresh ears. I feel thankful that I did get to see the band with Dickie on guitar since he was such an important part of the seminal lineup, but honestly those were not the best Leatherface shows I ever saw, mostly because they were lacking Lainey's powerful drumming. Anyway, I didn't know Dickie but his music was very important to me, and I think it's particularly sad to think that the magical way that his playing combined with Frankie Stubbs' will never happen again.
Above is a Leatherface deep cut that I grabbed off of Spotify. I probably could have chosen an even deeper cut given the fact that I have a pretty gnarly Leatherface vinyl collection, but I've always been partial to this song, and it's one of the ones I tend to reach for when I pull out my Leatherface records. Apparently it's a cover, but I've never heard the original.
In happier news, Nick G≠ hipped me to this jam a few days ago and I can't get enough. It's really weird, but I think that if you can get down with Whatever Brains do it probably won't be too much for you. It is more rock & roll, though... parts of it remind me of Destroyer's most Bowie-esque material, but filtered through the dark camp of the Birthday Party and early Roxy Music. Anyway, hopefully I can get some copies for the store or at least one for myself.
Watched about half of this documentary about the Gun Club, but I couldn't make it the whole way through. If you can't get the rights to the music of the band you're covering, why would you proceed with making the documentary? At least this was a bit better than that Replacements documentary, which made me want to stab myself in the eye.
So, this month (October 26 to be precise) saw the 2nd anniversary of our retail store opening in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina. I'd completely forgotten about it until I saw someone else mention it on Facebook, but it's a proud moment I guess. I think that I can now safely say that I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into when I decided to open the shop, but we renewed our lease for another two years so I guess I'm going to keep at it.
Given the anniversary, now seems a good time to mention something that I think about a lot: money. Every once in a while I'll catch a subtle comment or just get the vibe that people think that I'm all about money and that I do all of this for my own personal gain. That is not the case at all. Especially compared to other distros we might seem really big or "professional," but I assure you that we are 100% DIY. Sorry State is the result of thousands upon thousands of hours of hard work, and there are no trust funds or invisible financial backers behind us. There is also no hope of riches in our future. I have never paid myself a wage or salary from the store or label. I do occasionally snag records for my personal collection, but not nearly as often as you think (maybe 3-4 new records per month plus the occasional bonzer that I can't let go of). I work a full-time job (a pretty poorly paid one, I might add) in addition to running the store and label, which means that every day I wake up at 6AM, work all day, and then after my main job I do work for the store until 7 or 8PM, and I generally spend most of my weekends at the store too. I am perpetually behind on everything, broke, and exhausted. I don't say this to brag or for your pity, but rather to make it clear where your money is going when you buy something from Sorry State.
Sorry State does not exist to make money; Sorry State makes money so that it can continue to exist.
I am a punk. I take punk seriously and it means the world to me. If I ever have to choose between my personal ethics and values (which have been shaped largely by punk) and running Sorry State, then that is the day we close up shop for good. Sorry State has never done anything I consider shady or slimy, and I'm proud of the things we have accomplished and all of the art that we have helped--to some degree or another--to support. I don't wear my politics and values on my sleeve... I don't have a logo in the Crass Records stencil font and I don't go around sloganeering, but I hold my values dear and I will continue to uphold them. I'm not sure if any of this is actually making sense or not, but I just want to put that on the table and (hopefully) make it clear what I'm all about.
I'll leave it there for now. The plan is to make this blog a weekly thing, so look forward to more disconnected musings next week!