Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Interview with Michael Phillips from Escapist Records

As the music industry has continued to change over the last decade or so, and as major labels have in large part stopped sniffing around the hardcore and punk scenes to find the “next big thing”, it’s been a lot of fun to watch the almost meteoric rise of bigger indie labels like Deathwish, Bridge 9, No Sleep, etc. While I certainly respect those labels tremendously and enjoy a lot of their artists, few things get me more pumped than when I discover a smaller, up and coming label that consistently puts out quality releases. One such label is Escapist Records out of Cleveland.

Having dipped my toes in the waters of running a small DIY label myself, I know first-hand that it’s usually the case that more money is going out the door than is coming back in (or maybe that’s just me, haha). Anyway, Mike at Escapist has steadily built up an incredibly solid roster that should appeal to all kinds of people in that it pulls from all across the spectrum. He’s got indie bands, he’s got melodic hardcore punk bands, he’s got more metal leaning bands. Some of his artists are comprised of established vets, some are brand new up-and-comers; some of his bands tour a ton, others mostly play locally. It really represents an awesome cross-section of the DIY scene, and as such, serves as almost a microcosm of the underground community. And the bottom line is, you can tell the guy is in it for the right reasons; he fucking gets it.

One month from today he’s throwing a ten year anniversary show in Cleveland at The Foundry which will feature most of his roster (Light Years, Harvey Pekar, Foxfires, Reverse the Curse, Wasted Blood, etc.). In addition, there will be an exclusive split 7” available from My Mouth is the Speaker and Reverse the Curse, as well as giveaways from many local businesses he partners with on different aspects of production. So hey, if you’re in the Midwest, get your ass to Cleveland!

Anyway, we’ve been chatting it up about all things Escapist over the course of the past couple weeks. Check it.


Talk a little bit about your roots, how'd you become involved in punk and hardcore?

Growing up, I had a neighbor down the road that was a couple years older that me. He skated and I was just getting into that whole world.   He listened to a lot of metal - Slayer, Iron Maiden, and Faith No More - but also punk and old school hardcore - Black Flag, Operation Ivy, Husker Du. He would always be playing music that I had never heard.  To me there wasn’t really a difference between a Slayer song and a Black Flag song; they were both fast and loud.  At the time, I had no idea there was a world of smaller DIY bands out there, let alone in my own city.

When I went to high school I met a few other kids that were super into punk and hardcore.  We would hang out at lunch and talk about bands we heard.  They would talk about going to small DIY shows at local places like The Euclid Tavern, The Grog Shop, Peabody’s, Speak N Tongues, etc.  I tagged along to one and was hooked.  I started to immerse myself in Cleveland’s underground music scene and making friends with faces I recognized from going to shows, many of whom I still know to this day.

So Cleveland has always had a little bit of a notorious reputation in terms of its hardcore scene….OLC, Integrity, obviously. I know for me coming up in Detroit there were times when I felt a little intimidated at shows from time to time. What was it like for you cutting your teeth in the hardcore/punk scene in Cleveland?

For me, it was one of those things that I heard about when I first started attending shows. People would talk about avoiding certain shows or venues, but I never really thought to take those warnings to heart. This was probably because I didn’t really get mixed up in scene politics or any of the drama that went along with the Cleveland hardcore scene. It’s funny because I had/have a lot of friends that ran in different circles within the hardcore and punk scenes here and some of them didn’t get along with each other for whatever reasons, but I was able to float between them with ease. Maybe I was lucky in the people that I met and the ones I avoided. Haha. But yeah, I definitely witnessed my fair share of fights and for the most part I kept myself clear of any violent situations. Even when going to shows in nearby cities - Club Laga in Pittsburgh, The Shelter in Detroit, Forward Hall in Erie, etc. - I did my best to avoid the riff-raff and make friends with the sincere kids involved with the scene for the right reasons.  In the end, a lot of what happened was hyperbole but there certainly crazy things that happened, which you’ll be able to hear about in the Destroy Cleveland documentary that is coming out this year.

I’ve been involved of a couple very humble label ventures of the years so I’m always curious what motivates others; how did the ball get rolling for you at Escapist? Was it something you’d be pondering for a while, or was there a particular band you saw or heard that made you say “Fuck it, I’ve gotta do this thing”?

Starting a label was something that I always wanted to do from the time I really started getting involved with the scene - writing for zines, doing a college radio show, and booking shows.  Seeing that other people could do it locally and in smaller cities and not just in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles really inspired me.  It seemed like the next logical step.  I was living in Pittsburgh at the time and booking shows, and the topic of covering Integrity came up.  I knew a lot of bands that were heavily influenced by them, not just because I grew up in Cleveland but all over the world. And yeah, it basically became a “Fuck it. I’ll do an Integrity tribute album.”  I reached out to Dwid and he gave me his approval to do so and at that point the ball was rolling with talking to bands I knew and others that I thought would be fitting. It sucks that a few that had intended to do something fell through or never materialized - Pulling Teeth, Shipwreck, Bleeding Through, Dead Wrong - but I still feel it is a very solid release and helped set the label on its path.

Your roster is really diverse, running the gamut from dirty hardcore bands like Withdrawal to more indie punk oriented stuff ala Reverse the Curse with a lot in between. Do you tend to pursue bands you’re friends with, work with bands that send in demos, or a mix of different things?

Diversity is something that I feel makes Escapist unique from most labels.  I grew up listening to my mom’s Beatles and Bob Dylan records and checking out any record I could find from my local library.  Duran Duran, Weird Al, Billy Joel - it didn’t matter what genre, I just wanted to hear new music and look at the layouts. As I was discovering music I never restricted myself to one genre. In the 90’s and early 00’s it seemed that a lot of kids were just hardcore kids, just metal kids, or just punks.  But I didn’t feel that it should be that way, which is reflected in the variety you find on Escapist. There isn’t an Escapist sound and I like that we aren’t pigeonholed like many other labels are with regards to that.

When I first started the label, releasing primarily CD’s, I was pretty na├»ve.  I worked with bands I pursued on my own or discovered through various message boards, so I didn’t really know them well.  I didn’t really put much thought into how we would sell the albums and promote the bands and get them on tours.  I got lucky with a distro deal, but the rest was a crapshoot.  The lifespan of the label bands was pretty short and it made it difficult to push a band that either broke up before or shortly after releasing their album.  There was a brief period where I thought about completely stopping the label but it was the idea of working with a band I was friends with that inspired me to revive Escapist.

So I went vinyl-centric and I began working with friends - Light Years, Harvey Pekar, Foxfires.  As things have developed and grown I have begun working with bands that I have either pursued myself - Territory, Sworn Vengeance - or ones that have reached out to me - Purgatory, Wasted Blood. At this point in the label, it’s kind of a mixed bag. The Internet has made the world a much smaller place so finding new music is no issues now.  Before you had to go to shows and see the opening bands or look at the liner notes to albums and see whom your favorite bands thank. Nowadays you can just go online and find a hundred similar bands in the blink of an eye.

Related to the web, we’ve talked before about how the Internet can be a double-edged sword of sorts….on the one hand it makes it easier to get stuff out there, on the other hand bands and labels are judged on silly things like number of likes or whatever. From your perspective, what are the most effective ways for bands and labels to use the internet and social media to promote themselves?

I have a love/hate relationship with technology.  When I started the label there was pretty much only Myspace and message boards. There was no Facebook, no Instagram, and no Twitter. There are so many resources nowadays it's unreal.  It is very easy to get your information out to the masses.  But as the Internet has grown the attention span of fans seems to have shrunk.  You can’t rely on everyone seeing what you are doing at any given moment.  So the most effective way to stay relevant is to constantly be active, both on and off the Internet. If you book a tour, you better promote it online. But you also better make sure you have local bands passing out flyers and promoting it. You have to have a presence and you have to find ways to stay relevant or you’re just going to be forgotten just as quickly as you were noticed.  The music scene is vastly different from the one I grew up in. You no longer have to go to the shows to discover new bands and make friends. Everything is at your fingertips and only a tap away.

I think I speak for a lot of older hardcore kids when I say I was beyond stoked last year when I saw you were re-issuing Turmoil’s classic “The Process Of”. Talk to me about how the re-issue came together. Also, do you know if they have plans to do more, or was it the re-issue, TIHC, and then they’re putting it back to bed?

The Process Of is one of my favorite hardcore records of all time. Everything about that album - from the music, the lyrics, the production - is flawless.  The original pressing that Trustkill was long out of print and although there was a repress on a European label, they changed the artwork, which I felt was iconic to that album.

As for the process, I reached out to Century Media about the possibility of re-issuing it on vinyl and they put me in touch with their licensing department and the band.  We discussed what my vision was for the release and how we could make it into something a bit unique and special seeing as it was 15 years from its release.  They liked what I had in mind and gave me the go ahead. In the midst of that discussion they informed me they were asked to play This is Hardcore the upcoming year, so it would be a great combination to have those two things happening at once.

In addition to re-issuing the LP, I was able to secure the rights to release the final three songs the band recorded and released (though never on vinyl).  We made this a limited 7” to accompany the release for the diehard fans.  I had a lot of fun working with this 7”.  I got a friend that works for a local screen printing company to make screens for the covers and we hand screened the covers.  I made all the inserts on a copy machine.  Everything was cut and folded by hand.  It harkened back to the 90’s DIY style of releases, which I thought was cool considering the band and release.

As for what the future holds for Turmoil.  I know they had hoped to do a few more shows but managing the schedules of individuals with full-time jobs living all over the US can be difficult. I attempted to lure them out of hiding for my ten-year showcase this August but they had prior commitments.  As far as I know they haven’t laid it to rest.  Hodges told me that if they got a European offer they’d be there in a heartbeat… so there is hope for more.

I noticed you have been doing most of your pressing through Gotta Groove who I believe are based right near you out of Cleveland. How do they compare to other plants you’ve worked with and how much of a big deal is it to have a plant pressing records for you locally?

Everything I have done since the label went exclusively vinyl has been done with Gotta Groove and I have been extremely happy with everything.  I remember reading about the plant when it opened in 2009 and thinking to myself how great it would be to be able to work with a local company, something I try to do with as many aspects of my releases as possible.  So in 2011 when I started planning the Light Years EP it was a no-brainer.  They have been an amazing partner and always handle every release perfectly. It’s awesome to see them getting these huge pressing jobs after seeing them essentially start from scratch.

As for how they compare, I can’t speak of other companies but I know there are a lot of gripes with pressing plant turn around times.  However, I have never had anything take longer than I was originally quoted.  It really boils down to planning and time management. Additionally, I know Gotta Groove have taken steps to speed up the process and make sure there are as few delays as possible.  I have a number of friends that run labels who use other pressing plants and often vent about being frustrated with turn around and quality issues.  I’ve suggested to a few that they give Gotta Groove a try.  And when they do they tell me they’ll never go back to any other plant because of how smoothly things went with Gotta Groove.

Besides the sonic diversity on your label, you have some artists that seem to hit it pretty hard in terms of touring and others who I assume have a lot of life responsibilities who play locally and maybe do some weekends occasionally. For you, how do you balance marketability, a bands level of activity, and how you feel about them as musicians and as people when you decide whether or not to work with artists?

I think you hit the main point of contention for me with your last statement.  Before working with a band I usually have a long string of emails and phone calls.  In these conversations we end up talking about what my vision for the label is and what the band is looking to do.  I know the reasons I got involved with the hardcore scene and what fueled my passion to be involved. When I work with bands - whether they are hardcore or pop punk or indie - I look for that same passion and sense of sincerity.  I’ve been contacted by a number of bands and either initially or over the course of the conversations I could tell we were in different worlds and that it just wouldn’t be a good fit.  When a band comes into the fold of Escapist Records I refer to them as part of the “Escapist Family,” which is exactly how it feels.  I’ve become such good friends with the members of the bands that are on the label, even the ones I didn’t know prior. We all talk regularly and hang out when we can, even if we are in other cities.  After all of that, whether a band is “marketable” or not doesn’t really matter to me. Whether they want to spend nine months a year on the road or just playing locally/regionally isn’t something that sways me too much.
You’ve got a new Foxfires LP on the docket, as well as new releases and/or re-issues from Reverse the Curse, Wasted Void, Purgatory, etc. Talk a little bit about each release, why you’re pumped on it, and what those bands are bringing to the table that people should be stoked on.

The Foxfires LP has been a long time coming.  It wasn’t long after The Golden Age 7” was released that they told me they were already writing new songs.  And I was like, “It has to be an LP and I want to do it.” The new songs are so damn good, and they have built on that rock and roll meets hardcore vibe and added nuances to their sound to make it sound fresh and modern.  And the recording quality of the LP is so far superior to anything they have had before - both Will Killingworth and Carl Saff did an amazing job with the recording and mastering. I’m extremely excited for people to hear the entire record and I know the band is itching to get out and play the new songs.

I am digitally re-releasing the Reverse The Curse LP that the band put out in 2011, Hither & Yon.  Escapist released Existent earlier this year and that was supposed to be released by their former label but the label just never pressed it. The band got the rights to both releases and we made Existent happen and now we are making Hither & Yon available digitally. Reverse The Curse is a band with so much talent when it comes to songwriting. It blows my mind that they aren’t huge; they should be opening for Brand New.  It’s unfortunate that they lost some stream with the label issues but I think their next release is going to be the one that takes them to the next level.

Wasted Blood is a band that reminds me of when I first got into hardcore.  They’re a bunch of young kids from Ashtabula - a town about an hour from Cleveland that also gave us Homewrecker - playing heavy hardcore and having the time of their lives. It is insane how driven these kids are for their age; most of them just graduated high school this year.  The VOID LP deserved a proper vinyl release in addition the cassette (Toxicbreed) and CD (Black Void) release it was scheduled for getting and I am proud to be making that happen. A lot of kids into newer hardcore - Code Orange, Expire, Harms Way - are going to love this record when they finally hear it.

Purgatory is a band that actually came to me about releasing a record together. And the funny thing is I had already said, “No more records this year” before they hit me up.  But the songs are just so damn good I couldn’t say no.  I literally just got the masters for the 7” and I am totally floored by how heavy the songs are. Old school hardcore fans into All Out War and newer kids into Xibalba will be eating this up. Can’t wait to get this out and have them tour in support of it.

That’s all that is on the books for now, but I do have hopes to do another reissue in the future assuming I can secure it.  It’s not quite as old as the Turmoil LP but an album that I feel defined an era of hardcore and has never been released on vinyl.

Lastly, you’ve got the 10 year showcase coming up in August. I’m guessing you’re thinking of it as a celebration not just of all the bands you’ve worked with, but also the people who have supported the label and hell, your own hard work! Looking back on a decade of doing records, what are you most proud of and what would you say have been the biggest lessons you’ve taken from it?

Celebration is absolutely how I would describe it. I wanted to do something fun and involve as many bands as possible.  Plus, a lot of friends have helped me with the label over the years and I think this is a great way to say thank you to them.  Initially it was just going to be a show with as many label bands as possible but it has turned into so much more thanks to the awesome sponsors I have partnered with - all of which have been extremely supportive of the label for years.  Now on top of an amazing lineup we are able to offer a free split 7” thanks to Gotta Groove to all that attend plus a bunch of awesome raffle prizes: free records, My Minds Eye Records gift certificate, and more. I’m way stoked on how it turned out.

Reflecting back on the past ten years is a bit surreal.  I can’t really say there is any regret or any one moment I am most proud of.  If I am proud of anything it is the friendships formed as a result of the label. When I started I didn’t know how long it would last and there have certainly been moments where it hasn’t been easy and I thought about just giving up on it.  In the end, its something I am extremely passionate about and I continue to focus on the positive experiences and friendships it has given me.

Thank you so much for taking the time to ask me questions about the label and the bands.  Meeting people like you who understand and appreciate what goes into running a label and being in bands at this level makes doing this so rewarding. So thank you so much for your support. It means the world.

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