Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Baker's Dozen #12...Brendan DeSmet and Bill Tsitsos from Protagonist Music

Protagonist Music is an awesome label run by a couple of vets of the hardcore scene, Brendan DeSmet and Bill Tsitsos. Over the last several years they’ve had an amazing and very diverse run; putting out music from bands as wide ranging as Black Kites, Zann and Amber to Teenage Cool Kids, Algernon Cadwallader, and Coping.

Their label in many ways stands as a testament to how the d.i.y. community runs across borders and geography. Not only have they put out records for bands all over the world, but Brendan lives in Tucson while Bill resides in Baltimore.

Read on about one of the best and constantly refreshing labels around.

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?

Brendan: I had an older cousin who really introduced me to punk, although having grown up in Los Angeles; I would hear bits and pieces on KROQ Radio as well. Anyway, about ’84 my cousin gave me some mix-tapes with Minor Threat, TSOL, Generation X, Misfits, 45 Grave, Necros, 7 Seconds, and a bunch more on them. I was 11 years old, impressionable, and completely overwhelmed by it all. It seemed like a bad idea, and that really appealed to me. Once I started playing in punk bands during my freshman year of high school, it was cemented as part of my reality. I mean, I was still listening to new wave, heavy metal and early hip-hop throughout the 80’s too, but punk just attached itself and has stuck with me like an extra limb ever since.

Bill: Brendan & I are the same age, but I didn't get into “alternative” music until the late 1980s, mainly through a friend of mine who listened to the state university's radio station in Albany, NY. He bought a couple records (The Fall “Kurious Oranj” and Ministry “Land of Rape & Honey”) that I thought were amazing, and then we started going into the city with another friend of ours to buy records. Around the same time we started going to shows as well. I never thought that the music/scene was connected to “punk.” All the shows we went to see were called “hardcore” shows, so for me everything was hardcore, even when the music wasn't fast. I didn't have any identification with “punk” until I started reading MaximumRocknRoll around 1994, when every sentence in MRR was about defining what was punk.

What could have possibly prompted you to think it would be a good idea to start a money pit (record label)?

Brendan: What makes you think that we ever thought it was a “good” idea?!? Haha. You know, I purposely haven’t read the other label interviews you’ve done for this series so far, because I didn’t want to be influenced by their answers before giving my own…but I’m definitely looking forward to reading the other responses to this one. Anyway, in short, we talked about doing a label to possibly find some old 90’s hardcore releases to re-issue, and while that idea was germinating, other release opportunities arose, so we took them on. It was supposed to be short-lived, just a way to be involved for a while, and then it just kept moving along. So here we are 6 years on; neck deep in a money-pit, and wondering when it’s all going to implode. In the meantime, we get to work with a ton of amazing bands, and it feels good to have given something back, while ushering some great new music into people’s lives.

Bill: I have 2 answers: I really wanted the Absinthe discography to come out, but I felt that Brendan would not be a part of it unless I was pushing for it. So starting a label with him seemed like a way to apply constant pressure for it to happen. 5+ years and 30+ releases later, I don't really push for that discography to happen anymore. On a more general level, I made a conscious decision to try and “give back” to the scene by helping bands put out records. I view(ed) the label as a literal investment in the scene. Part of this (and everything else I do) was guilt-related: I spent so much time in the early 2000s on VLV (and earlier on Skylab) buying hardcore/screamo records for as little $ as I could possibly pay for them. By the mid 00's, I started to ask myself why I was seemingly so unwilling to put my own money into supporting the music that I liked so much. When I got a decent-paying job, I decided that the time to give back had arrived.

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?

Brendan: The label began as a labor of love and a way to stay involved with a scene we’ve enjoyed for many years. Salability really doesn’t figure into the equation, other than our desire to be wise enough with our resources so as to keep the ball rolling. In other words, we don’t want to sink the ship with one unsuccessful release and ruin the chance to work with more great bands…but just take a look at our catalog…we’re obviously not much for choosing bands or styles of music based solely on their marketability. We’ve been all over the map, musically speaking, and we don’t run the label very much like a business. The bands we work with are our friends, artists who have inspired and/or entertained us, and folks that we want to share with as many others out there as we can.

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?

Brendan: Hard to say, but I’ll lean slightly toward hearing the bands reaction. When it all goes well, their genuine appreciation is really quite enjoyable for me. However, it’s hard to downplay the fact that I’m just as excited for their releases to come to fruition as they are. I guess that’s why we do this.

Bill: For me, it's entirely about the bands' happiness. When I receive records, I invariably feel a sense of despair along the lines of “These covers are all dinged!” and/or “This vinyl is warped!” and/or “That took forever!”

In your experiences, what are the best places to press vinyl/get your jackets and inserts printed, and what are the worst places? Why?

Brendan: Oh man. We have been all over the place in our 6 years. All I can say is that Alpha Music in Florida ripped us off big time on pressing the Flashlights record, basically ruining that experience for us and the band. So beware of those fuckers. As for the many others we’ve worked with here and in Europe, the experiences vary by the business, and even project by project. Imprint Indie Printing are excellent. Rainbo Records is a slow but solid pressing plant. Dave Eck at Lucky Lacquers is an absolute gem, as is Josh Bonati at Bonati Mastering.

Your fairy godmother grants your wish and you get to put out a split with any two bands on the planet. Who shares the wax and why?

Brendan: On the planet, meaning functioning at the moment? Well, keeping it semi-realistic as far as our “scene” and excluding bands associated with our label, I guess I’d say Kite Party and Youth Avoiders.

Talk about the most frustrating and the most rewarding things about running a label.

 Reward = Having a hand in the creation of new art and expression, staying associated with the energy and possibility that lives in hardcore punk, and cultivating the friendships. Frustration = Everything else about it.

Reward = Helping out people & bands that I like while also remaining connected to the scene as I get older. Doing the label allows me to continue going to shows without feeling like one of the old men who I used to make fun of for going to shows when I was younger.
Frustration= see question #4

For people who are considering jumping in and starting a label, what’s the one essential piece of advice you would give them?

Brendan: Don’t do it! No, just kidding. Well, mostly. In truth, I think there are too many labels and bands these days. It has become much easier to access the public in recent years and easier to put your label/band out there without having had to work for it for any length of time. The advent of the digital age has sped up the process so much, that it has essentially created a population explosion while, in turn, stunting the actual “growth” of its participants. Bands and labels used to take years of transformation, mutation, and “aging” before they gained much public attention, which had the effect of killing off some of the weaker members of the herd. The immediacy and convenience of today’s scene has essentially destroyed musical Darwinism, and without much natural selection afoot, we’re all sifting through ever-growing piles of half-realized music. 

That being said, I still appreciate the DIY ethic, and the spirit that is embodied by “kids” taking charge of their own scenes and favorite local bands, and making them concrete by putting out records and tapes. That is the core of everything. I just hope it’s not a desire to wind up in Hot Topic or on Warped Tour that motivates the prospective record label these days, but it seems to have done so often over the recent decade or so. Get into it for the passion, keep it rolling with some responsibility, and remember that success is relative.

Bill: I have 2 pieces of advice. First, don't put out 7-inches unless you’re comfortable charging at least $6 (plus postage) to maybe make back the money that you spent. While making money is not my goal with this label, it sucks to put money and time into something when you’re pretty sure that you have no chance of at least breaking even. That just makes it financially harder to keep releasing records. About 5 years ago, I was talking to someone who runs a reasonably successful label, and he said that he just views 7-inches as a form of advertising for the label. He doesn't expect to sell all/many of them, but some people might see/hear the record, like it, and decide to check out other releases. So if you're comfortable with that approach, put out all the 7-inches you want. 

Second, be very careful about putting out records by bands that don't tour. We've done it, and sometimes I think it's worth it, because I love the music so much. But if you don't feel that strongly about a band, and they don't really tour, think twice.

I definitely feel you on the Warped/Hot Topic piece. Even on the more underground side of things, one of the biggest changes I have noticed over the last decade and a half or so is that punk and hardcore have become so much more professionalized (i.e. booking agents, package tours, etc.). While I can see how some of this is beneficial to bands, I also feel like it kills a lot of the more personal aspects of the d.i.y. scene. What would you say is behind this and how do you see it playing out?

Brendan: It's never a bad thing for bands/labels to handle themselves in a "professional" fashion, that is to say, not just fuck off and do things in a half-assed way because that's been the acceptable punk method, but to take pride in getting things accomplished. But then this under-current of possibility that punk could become your day job somehow, while obviously somewhat antithetical to punk in the first place, has been made all the more realistic for "kids" by it actually happening on a regular basis these days. I mean, I am absolutely all for people making a living in ways other than flipping burgers or sitting in a cubicle, but it does serve to further the commodification of the medium, don't you think? 

I guess I'm just looking for some genuine angst and energy in the bands I listen to, and that seems to be getting washed out in favor of the fashion and business aspect of much of what passes for hardcore punk anymore.

Bill: There will always be a d.i.y. component to punk/hardcore, and in my opinion, that's the best part of it. That said, I have felt bad that some of the bands on our label have not achieved the large-scale success that I think they deserve. For a while, I couldn't understand why Towers was not the biggest band in the world. I was talking to a couple of the band members about it once in NYC before they played ABC No Rio, saying stuff like, "You should be playing stadiums full of people!" 

They stared at me and said something about how that wasn't really what they wanted to do, and it really reset my approach and reminded me why I loved the band (and the d.i.y. scene as a whole), even though it means that we still have a box full of unsold Towers cassettes.  I wish for bands who want to take the "professional" route to have a good experience, but that route involves sacrificing a lot of the personal connections that are so valuable. 

In terms of the evolution of the scene, I also feel like things have become way less politicized. Brendan, obviously in Groundwork, and with both of you in Bury Me Standing, your music was very political. Some of the bands on Protagonist seem fairly outspoken whereas many are not. To what extent do your politics and the politics of the bands you work with factor into how you run the label?

Brendan: For me, personal politics do play some role in the way the label is operated, and to a lesser degree, in who we work with...but it's not as overt as writing lyrics for a band. There are no requirements for bands to have a certain political outlook or agenda to be involved with Protagonist, but we would never want to work with a band that had produced art/music that promoted a homophobic, sexist, racist, or otherwise bigoted viewpoint. And when I have a chance to work with bands that line up well with my sense of social justice, etc, then I'm all the more excited to lend them my support. Over all, I see the label as a much broader vehicle for expression than my own personal, possibly narrow, views on the world

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?

Brendan: In the last few months I’ve been listening to the Secret Smoker LP and the new Sed Non Satiata LP quite often. And if there was one release that I have returned to the most, it would probably be Teenage Cool Kids “Queer Salutations.” But overall, rather than one band, or one release standing out over the labels lifespan, it’s been our relationship with Tom Schlatter and his bands. We’ve had the pleasure of working with In First Person, Black Kites, and Capacities, and while I know this will embarrass him if he reads it, I can honestly say that our friendship is one of the most memorable aspects of this label for me. He is a killer musician and a genuinely awesome fella. So the beauty of the label is that, much like with Tom, we continue to connect with more and more amazing folks, developing new friendships that I hope will last, and those will ultimately define the character of Protagonist once it’s all said and done.

BillBig Kids “Hoop Dreams” evokes so many positive feelings about being associated with this music scene. It makes me think wistfully about things that usually gross me out, like hugging people & not showering. I played that record constantly for a long time, from when we initially received the recording until after the LP came out. 

From more recent releases, I played the Secret Smoker LP until my record player stopped working at 45rpm. That's the record that I referred to in the last question. I had no expectation that they would tour, but the music was so strong that I never questioned whether or not we should put it out. When they decided to do some touring this summer, it was a pleasant surprise. Also, the second Teenage Cool Kids album, “Foreign Lands,” took so long to come out that I didn't even listen to it for 2 years after we finally got it, because putting it out was such a shitty experience. Since then, I've really come to love it.

Also, I second Brendan's comments about Tom. I met him when I was house-sitting in Long Beach, CA, many years ago. He stayed at that house after a show on tour with This Ship Will Sink, but he was so sick that he just fell asleep in a room full of stuffed animals. Years later, Brendan sent me a link to the In First Person page on MySpace, and when I realized that he was in the band, I remember thinking, “Oh, that guy!” Since I moved to the East coast 6 years ago, it's been great to get to know him and to see him & his bands so many times.

How do things work with one of you guys on the East coast and the other out West? Obviously electronic communication makes it fairly easy to work with people anywhere in the world now, but do you guys ever set aside time to physically get together and plan out releases, handle issues related to the label, etc.?

Brendan: Since Bill still has significant connections to Tucson, he visits here at least once a year, and I have made several trips out east over the last few years as well. That gives us a chance to re-connect not only as label-mates, but also as good friends. Summer of 2012 we traveled together with Sed Non Satiata and Big Kids around the Midwest and east coast, and it was a blast! A few years back we met up at FEST in Florida, too, which was also a ton of fun. Obviously the many miles of separation has its downside, but we seem to get around that pretty well.

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.

Acid Fast “Rabid Moon” LP
Coping “Nope” LP
Plus several releases in the works that we can’t divulge quite yet.

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