I’ve always really admired the people who run punk and hardcore labels, particularly the people who do it on a d.i.y. scale and have a sense of ethics in terms of how they run things. When I first got into hardcore people like Sean from Immigrant Sun, EMS from SA Mob, and even Kent & Lisa from Ebullition were people you not only knew you could get awesome records from, but who would also include a little note in your order thanking you and telling you what was up with their label. Over the years some of my early favorites like Victory and Trustkill (now Bullet Tooth, LOL) have 0bviously went to shit, but there are still many labels from that era that continue on, as well as many newcomers who are carrying the torch.
This project is designed to talk to some of my favorite small-scale d.i.y. labels, both selfishly to get some insight on the nuts & bolts of doing it since I always fantasize about running my own label, but also to hopefully expose some new people to a few labels they might be sleeping on. I’ve asked each person 13 questions; 10 which I asked to everybody, and 3 which are unique to each label.
Most of these people are friends of mine; some I’ve known for years, some have distributed my bands records, some I’ve discovered just within the last year or so. All of them are putting out awesome records by amazing bands, and doing it on their own terms.
I’m hoping to post an interview a day for the next 13 days. Read on, be inspired, and go pick up some wax from these good people!
Ryan Canavan is a bad-ass, plain and simple. Dude has been doing it right for a long time. Hanging Like a Hex was one of my favorite zines back in the day; you know, that prehistoric era when people actually produced a physical product. The layout, design, and printing were always stellar, he always talked to the best bands, and his comical sarcasm informed the reviews and other writings contained within. Fast forward a couple years and the zine transformed into a label, which quickly started releasing some of the most massive sounding bands around: Ed Gein, The Minor Times, Achilles, Cursed, Engineer, etc.
While the volume of both the releases and the amps have come down over the years, Hex continues to churn out consistently awesome stuff. I’ve always wanted to pick his brain, this little series was the perfect opportunity. Now hopefully some day I’ll actually meet the dude in person; it’s been 15 years of letters, emails, and now Facebook messages, ha!
At any rate, I could think of no better person to kick this thing off….ladies and gentlemen, I give you the mighty Ryan Hex!
Describe how you stumbled into the punk and hardcore community. When did you know it was probably going to become a permanent fixture in your life?
Well, growing up in Syracuse in the early/mid-90s was really a stroke of good luck and good timing. At the time we had one of the best hardcore scenes in the country and there was a lot of energy and activism stemming from it. Bands were raw, powerful, angry, and took ideas from the stage to the streets quite literally. It was an exciting time to be a 16 year old dude. So I had the benefit of that being in my backyard. Additionally, my Dad was into interesting music, sort of by default, and I ended up listening to a lot of forward thinking bands in my early years (early 80's) like The Clash and Talking Heads, which informed my musical taste for the rest of my life. I got into hip-hop at an early age and by the late 80s was exposed to some of the most mind-blowing stuff from Public Enemy, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest. The overtly political nature of the golden age of hip-hop directly led me to seek out punk music, which was very politically-charged as well, coupled with the music I was listening to as a child. So music has been a staple in my life for as long as I can remember, it's just that music that has evolved from punk tends to be what I like the most.
It's cool to hear you talk about your father's influence because my dad was always the same way; forever spinning interesting vinyl and super supportive as I got more involved in music. Has it always been that way for you or have there ever been times when he (or anybody else in your family) have looked at a record you've played on or put out and been like "Now what the hell is going on here Ryan?"
I think it was a little easier on my Dad to support and encourage my musical interests because my parents have been divorced since I was a young kid so I only saw my Dad once a week. Having to hear all the wild shit I listen to just once a week was probably not too tough, unlike my poor mother who had to deal with it daily! But both my parents came from the generation where rock n' roll was emerging and driving their parents crazy, so they understood, I think, and really let me listen to whatever I wanted. Of course, once in awhile they would shout at me to turn it down... but who hasn't had to do that at some point?
What could have possibly prompted you to think it would be a good idea to start a money pit (record label)?
It's really a terrible idea. But I think many of us who start labels/money pits have a desire to share things we discover with a lot of people. So we have this little secret (an exciting band no one knows about) and spend a bunch of money to shove it in other people's faces because they just HAVE to hear this great new thing. Of course, when it doesn't pan out like we'd hoped I lose all hope for humanity because they obviously wouldn't know good music if it slapped them across the face, and, ya know, the world will probably end because of it.
When you consider signing/working with bands, how do you balance your own personal feelings towards the band and their music with what you see as the potential for the thing to actually sell a few copies and for you to recoup your money? Which generally takes precedence?
It gets tougher and tougher to answer that question because actually selling physical copies of records is becoming more difficult. I could just release stuff digitally, but what band can't do that already on their own? Plus, records are a hell of a lot better than digital files. So on one hand you have people who just steal your music, which sucks. And on the other, you have bands taking their music, recordings, and so forth into their own hands and really going DIY with it, which is good. And that leaves a small space where I really have to weigh what I want to put my money into and that I believe in it. I typically release records for bands whom I already know, am friends with, or have worked with in the past. Occasionally, I work with bands I've never met, but it takes relationship building, finding common ground, and a sense that we can make something cool out of this. So as long as the experience is positive I don't mind losing money on a record. And sometimes things just work out well. Like, releasing records for Ed Gein I had no idea that they would get really well known and tour non-stop. It just worked out well. And when I released a record for Lemuria I knew it would do well right off the bat so I didn't mind throwing extra money into the packaging. But I released those records for those bands because I legitimately like their bands and think they are all wonderful human beings, not because I knew they would sell.
What gets you more stoked…..getting YOUR copies of a record in from the plant, or hearing the BANDS reaction to getting THEIR records from the plant?
It seems selfish, but I like getting them back and checking it for myself. I put a lot of time and effort into getting everything together and I'm happy to finally see it finished. The band can have their own reaction. Having been on both sides of the coin, as a label person and as a person in a band, I enjoy the label experience more. It's like being a fan and then getting to put my name to that fandom in a real nerd sort of way. When bands I've been in release a record I get excited to have the record and then I never want to hear it again after a few listens, haha. Years later I pull it out again and think, 'hey, those were some pretty cool songs!'
In your experiences, what are the best places to press vinyl/get your jackets and inserts printed, and what are the worst places? Why?
I have always had a really positive experience with the good people over at Bill Smith Custom Records. They do a great job, even though they tend to be quite expensive. I have recently switched to a different pressing plant, only because I'm trying to save some money. But the quality, and professional attitudes of the Bill Smith folks is second to none. I used to use Musicol, and would recommend them to others. But I started hearing a lot of negative things about them. I think the issue was that they were a very small operation that did quality work, but once vinyl started getting more popular again they got overwhelmed with orders and couldn't keep up. That's just my guess. So, no offense to them because they never did me wrong, but I guess others didn't have as good an experience.
Your fairy god mother grants your wish and you get to put out a split with any two bands on the planet. Who shares the wax and why?
Quicksand/A Tribe Called Quest split. My favorite (tied) hardcore band with my favorite (again, tied) hip-hop group. I actually saw these two bands perform together at a free concert on a college campus back in 1995. And I feel as if both groups could write new material now and it would still be better than most anything out these days. Otherwise it would have to be a Rollins Band/Public Enemy split, and, well, let's be honest, as awesome as that sounds I'm not sure if either of those bands could write stuff now that holds up to their classic material. Maybe Chuck D/Henry Rollins spoken word battle 7"? The hardest voices in rock/rap duke it out? In 2013 that would probably still rule.
I've always thought your emphasis on hip hop was awesome because I feel the same way about a lot of that stuff from the late 80's and early 90's. And yet, I mostly subscribe to the "99% of current hip-hop is shit" theory. Is there any current hip hop you could recommend and would you ever consider releasing a hip hop record on Hex?
I am most definitely not the right person to talk to about current hip-hop as I really fell off after about 1994. Around that time is when a lot of gangster rap was getting popular and I had no interest in that. And I was getting so into hardcore and punk that any new hip-hop was a distant second to punk shows and bands. As far as current stuff goes, basically all commercial hip-hop is such ridiculously poor quality with no style, substance, or originality whatsoever. I straight up question if it's all an elaborate joke being played on people. Yet I know good stuff exists and there are rappers with talent and creativity pushing boundaries. I've heard a few things I like, but nothing that seriously sticks. I mean, when you're 12 or 13 you're very impressionable and that's a time in one's life where you find a lot of stuff that stays with you for life. And during those years I was exposed to what's commonly called 'the golden age' of hip-hop. How can anything current compare with that experience? It's all time and place and that made a big impact on me. As far as ever releasing a hip-hop record I don't think it would happen. I have a couple friends who do hip-hop type material, and I like it, but I'd only do them a disservice by my severe lack of knowledge on how to sell records to a crowd that would be into that stuff.
Talk about the most frustrating and the most rewarding things about running a label.
Rewarding: making something new that sounds interesting and rocks my ass off both musically and visually for people who rule at life that I get to share with strangers/friends. Frustrating: basically everything else. Oh, and can we talk about how terrible the post office is these days? It makes me never want to mail a record ever again, even though I really enjoy making packages for people... so, mark that as rewarding thing number two.
For people who are considering jumping in and starting a label, what’s the one essential piece of advice you would give them?
Obviously you love every record you put out or you wouldn’t spend thousands of dollars on them, but let’s be real here; what’s the one record from your catalog that you listen to the most/that has the most value for you and why?
That is truly hard to answer. It's an unfair question. I could cheat and say the Hex 10 Year Comp. because I got to basically make a mix tape of all my releases and let's be honest; it's a bad ass comp. People should buy more of it, even if it is a CD. I'm proud of the zine I made that came with it because it has a ton of label history in it and I am a history buff. I love a good story about how things came to be. But I also think of the releases I put out that are a lineage of friends I have who I think are extremely gifted, creative people and I continually get to work with them on new bands, and new projects. So people who have followed the label know there are a few people whose names pop up frequently on my releases because I have always appreciated their friendship and enduring creativity.
You've been involved in the (un)holy trinity of punk rock (playing in bands, running a label/zine, and booking shows) for pushing two decades now. As the scene around you has shrunk significantly, the likelihood of people actually buying records has fallen to all time lows, and (if you're anything like me) your body feels ready to snap in half after you play a show, what keeps you motivated and inspired to keep on keepin' on?
Yeah, I find it weird that vinyl is on a big upswing in popularity, yet fewer records are being sold? But honestly, I just keep doing what I do because it's what I know, and if I sit around doing nothing I lose my mind. I tried retiring from booking shows for a little over a year and I started getting really bored. And then the shows I was going to weren't satisfying to me. It's that old 'if you want something done right you have to do it yourself' sort of ethic. Even if I don't book nearly as many shows as I once did I still put something together when something good comes my way. And with releasing records there's obviously a big financial component to that and I have to be ultra-selective with what I do, which all labels ought to exercise that idea so less shitty bands release records. But I'll keep doing records if it feels right and it's a rewarding experience. Finally, with playing shows... I've always been a squirrely dude. Energy is not an issue. Remember, I'm vegan and straightedge.. I'm going to live forever. I also exercise quite a bit so I stay fit. It's when I don't play a show for awhile, then I got to shake the rust off and get back into the swing of things. Otherwise, I'm always good to go to play a set.
On the theme “Baker’s Dozen”, what do you have cooking for the rest of 2013 and into early 2014? Give us a virtual taste of what we can expect from you.
Well, within the next month the debut 7" for Taxa ought to be out. They are a band I knew only from other projects the members are involved in. They're from British Columbia, so it's far away and I'll probably never meet them in person. But I was intrigued when I randomly came across their page and they described themselves as a mix of Mission Of Burma and Unwound, two bands whom I adore. And they pretty much nailed it. Throw in some Shotmaker and there you have it. So I'm doing a small run of records for them and hopefully people will be into it. I think it's a really cool record. After that I will be assisting/co-releasing (with the band) the debut LP for Blood Sun Circle. This is the new band the three brothers from Engineer are doing. It's really intense in the same way Engineer was, but heavy in a very different way. Think something like Nick Cave, Young Widows, and Neurosis getting together. Those guys are the epitome of DIY- they own their own gear store, they build their own guitar cabinets, they record themselves, and they're basically going to self-release their record (with my help, of course). That, to me, is awesome and worth supporting. That will be in the Fall. And I hate to continually lead people on, but Rob from Achilles hit me up the other day and said they are starting to plan for recording in the Winter. So fingers crossed, they will actually have the time to follow through and we will finally see a new Achilles record. Finally, I'm looking to put together another Translate zine by the Fall as well. And if any other records or projects come together before then... well, I just don't know. Thanks for asking.