Interview: Tom - Dead Beat Records

While many labels in the genre of Garage Punk Rock 'n' Roll seem to come and go, or stagnate around the same tired, THUNDERS rip-off merchants, DEAD BEAT has prospered through years of hard work, sincerity and, most of all, progression. Tom, the label's owner, has always gone about the business of releasing shit-kicking Garage Punk records with genuine enthusiasm and continually brings new bands from around the world to the larger public's attention.  I can't say I like all the bands he releases, but I like the way he goes about running a label; it's the embodiment of the Punk ethos.

..OK Tom, before we start, tell us a bit about your background – where you were raised, was it a musical household?
I grew up in the town I recently relocated back to, Strongsville OH.  It’s a smaller middle class suburb of Cleveland.  Pretty normal up bringing.  Me and my brother were latch key kids because both of my parents worked.  Not a musical household at all.  I started getting into music in middle school and started buying a lot more music in high school.  Punk, metal and rap at the time.  At the time, rap was very new and pretty underground.

..How did you discover Punk Rock and what turned you onto it?  Did you have an ‘awakening’ that took you from another form of music and directed you down the Punk Rock Road? 
I was an avid BMX biker in middle school/high school and I discovered Punk through a lot of the skateboarders and bikers that I used to hang out with.  They were more of the outcasts of the school, that fit with me being into flatland BMX.  It was WAY before the X games, when the BMX/skateboard scene was a complete counterculture.  It's pretty funny now to see a small skateboard shop just opened up in Strongsville.  Times have changed a lot since then.

..Were you actively involved in Punk before starting Dead Beat Records – be it playing in bands, writing for zines, doing a distro, putting on shows etc?
I was involved more on a show going participation level.  I began going to Punk/thrash shows when I was in high school.  When I began college me and my high school buddies would always go to shows and buy all the merchandise (T Shirts, Records) that we didn’t have.  So we supported the bands that were touring. 

..Why, when and where did you start the label?  Was it to release a specific record?  Did any other labels of the day provide you with any inspiration or advice?
The label began during my last year in college about 14 years back in Kent, OH.  It started with me and two of my college room-mates.  One of them moved with me out to Los Angeles, and quickly returned to OH after he didn’t care for the big city.  We wanted to do something that gave back to the scene that we were involved in.  We talked about opening a record store, opening a club etc.  But starting a label seemed like the easiest thing to do that didn’t require a lot of money up front.  Hence Dead Beat was born.
After we made the decision to start the label, we thought out ideas of bands to contact to release a record.  I had been a big fan of J CHURCH, as had the other guys, so I wrote Lance from J CHURCH a letter and asked him if he’d be into doing a 45 on Dead Beat as the first release.  He agreed and we were stoked.  I’m still amazed that the band is still around.  Most smaller bands don’t have a 15+ year life cycle.
At that time labels like Simple Machines, Dischord and Touch and Go were labels of inspiration.  Simple Machines published a book called the Auto Mechanics Guide To Putting Out Records.  Basically a how to book on running a record company.  That DIY booked helped us a lot through the early stages of manufacturing a record.

..What were your ambitions for the label back then – did you have any long-term goals/ideals?  Did you ever expect the label to reach the level it’s at today?
Back when the label started the goal was mainly just to put out records by bands that I liked.  That’s still what I enjoy about releasing records today, but it’s become more of a business in the sense that on top of running the label, I have the mail order and distribution that are additions to the label that weren’t there early on.  No, I didn’t think that it would grow into the record company that it is today.  But I guess it’s inevitable after putting 14 years into something.
I think all labels that stand the test of time and have long term longevity have to start as a hobby and a labour of love.  If you start a label to make a bunch of money, you’ll lose interest and quit pretty early on, because in order to get to that point you have to have a big back catalogue.  And that’s built over the years of releasing records - not in a year or two.

..What was your first release and what are your opinions of it in hindsight?  Do you still get the same sense of excitement with each new Dead Beat release as you did with that debut?
As I mentioned above, the first release was with J CHURCH.  The single was call "She Has No Control.”  We sold a few thousand of them, which is REALLY good based on today’s standards.  Today, most bands/labels are lucky to sell out of 500 singles.
One of the most fulfilling parts of running the label for me is discovering bands that no one else is aware of and unleashing them on the world.  I like to find stellar undiscovered talent and there are a few that I’m talking too right now, that are just like that.

..Yeah?  Looking forward to those!!  What about distribution?  Do you handle it all, or do you go through Mordam or any kind of equivalent?  Is distribution the toughest part of doing a label?  Has there ever been a particularly black moment when you’ve thought, “Ah fuck it, it’s not worth the hassle”?
Dead Beat is distributed through a number of independent distributors all over the world.  I don’t work with Mordam, because they’re an exclusive distributor, meaning if you work with them you can’t work with any other distributors.  And I prefer to work with a number of different distributors.  It helps spread my records all over the world.  Plus Mordam doesn’t like their labels to trade around with other labels.  And trading helps get A LOT of my stuff all over the world.  In turn I get other people's merchandise and sell it through the mail order/distro which helps keep the funds coming back into Dead Beat.
Ya, I think all labels have gone through a “fuck it” phase where you wonder if all the time and hard work is worth it.  I did get to a point where I questioned if Dead Beat would ever grow to the point where I’d be able to do it full time.  At that time I was working a full time job.  So I’d be packing records early in the morning before going to work; than coming home and answering e mails, packing more records, going to bed and doing it all over again.  Luckily I stuck it out and am doing Dead Beat full time now.  Have been for a little over two years now, and the days of me questioning the success of my label are long behind me.  I’ve got to the point where I have a bigger back catalogue and the label is fully supporting me as it continues to grow.

..When signing a new band, what do you look for?  Define a ‘Dead Beat band’?  Is there any kind of band within the Punk sphere that you would not sign?  Have you had the chance to sign a band, turned them down and then later regretted it?  Likewise, any bands you have signed and regretted?
I wouldn’t say that I go after any certain kind of band.  I get a lot of stuff in through the mail order/distro.  So I listen to a bunch of stuff that way.  Also I keep up on the scene via fanzines and web zines.  So if I hear something about a cool band I’ve never heard before, I make an effort to track down some of their music to check it out.  Some of it is really good, and some of it is mediocre scene hype.  If I dig something, I’ll contact the band and see what their future recording plans are.  Occasionally I get a submission from a band that is exceptional and I release their record.
As alluded to before, ya I think that any label that has been around for ten years or longer has a band that they regret signing.  I do as well.
Have I signed a band, tuned them down and than regretted not signing them?  No, but I have had the opportunity to work with some bigger bands that I passed on.  Don’t regret not signing them though.

..What about contracts?  Do you have ‘official’ contracts or are they based on word of mouth?  Who pays for studio time?  Have you ever worked with a band that demanded more of you than was originally agreed?  C’mon Tom, name the arseholes!!
It works differently for each band.  Some bands have contracts, some don’t.  If I license a record, I usually don’t do a contract.  Back when the label started, I paid for all studio costs.  Now the bands take care of the recording.
I think ALL labels that have been releasing records for ten + years have at least one asshole band story.  Dead Beat is no exception.  Names??  Nah.

..I’d just like to talk about some of the bands you have signed, starting with THE WEAKLINGS, which used to be signed to Junk Records.  How did you hook up with those guys?  The album you released, while being a cracker, did seem a little more restrained than the band’s releases on Junk – have they mellowed a bit with age? Dead Beat actually reminds me a bit of Junk Records – is that a comparison you agree with – especially as Dead Beat has out lasted Junk?
I got in touch with THE WEAKLINGS through Tim as Waxvaccine Records in Portland.  He told me THE WEAKLINGS were looking for a label to put out their new album.  I told him to have them send me a copy, as I had always been a big fan of the band.  They always used to play with the B-MOVIE RATS, HELLBENDERS and HUMPERS when they came through LA.  So I got to know Bradley and Mark pretty well.  I dug the record they sent and put it out.
Is ‘Rock N Roll Owes Me’ more restrained?  I don’t think so.  If anything it’s just more mature.  When they wrote those first two records they were a lot younger.  To me, their songwriting just matured into more of an AC/DC, STONES direction and away from the adolescent Punk stuff that they were writing on their earlier records.
Ya, I knew Katon from Junk before he started the label.  I met Louie a few months after they put out their first few records.  Nice guys.  I totally thought that their label was going to be around for many many years.  I’m sure you heard what happened when Dexter from THE OFFSPRING (the guy that funded ¾ of Junk's releases) pulled the financing away from them resulting in the eventual demise of the label.  I ran into Lou a few months back, and said he’s thinking about trying to resurrect Junk on his own.  Said he misses the fun and comradery of running a label.  I told him be cautious about who he signs, as the scene has changed a lot since they stopped putting out records.

..Just recently it seems, you have taken on some extreme, under-produced, dirty noise rock bands – ALUMINUM KNOTEYE, THE FEELERS, TRACTOR SEX FATALITY, THROBBIN' URGES etc.  Personally, I find it just too noisy and disjointed, but you seem to be leading the charge of this kind of stuff.  What has the reaction been to these releases?  Can you explain how this sound fits in with the vision of Dead Beat Records?  It’s certainly a change from the likes of HELLBENDERS and B-MOVIE RATS.
Well, like THE WEAKLINGS, I guess my musical interests have grown a lot as well.  The Garage/Punk/Rock scene has grown, and so have my tastes.  Dead Beat has always been about documenting the Scene.  Bands like AKE, THE FEELERS, TRACTOR SEX FATALITY, DEAN DIRG, THROBBIN' URGES etc. are a part of the CURRENT scene of bands that are doing something different.  To me these bands are fresh and new and bring something different to  the standard Garage/Punk/Rock sound.  I’m not about re-hashing bands that have the same sound.  If I put out a band that sounded like the B-MOVIE RATS or THE HELLBENDERS today, I think that would be taking a step backward, because the scene has moved so much past that since those days.  That was what I was alluding to when I was talking to Lou from Junk (see my comment above) when I said the times have changed.  It’s not 1999 any more.

..You’ve released quite a few bands from mainland Europe also – GEE STRINGS, NEUROTIC SWINGERS and the fantastic DEAN DIRG instantly come to mind.  Do you find the European bands any different to deal with than Americans?  Do you feel European bands have a different sound and feel from Americans?  And how come there are no UK, Australian or Kiwi bands on your books so far?
Yes, Dead Beat has always had an international perspective.  I just put out bands that move me.  With DEAN DIRG, to me they have something special.  They have their own sound and energy, and write exceptional songs.  I would have put them out wherever they lived.  US, Japan, wherever.  They just so happen to be from Germany.
As far as UK bands, there are only a handful of bands that have moved me in the last few years.  I was talking to THE REAL LOSERS from the UK about doing their last record, but they decided to go with Trick Knee.
Same with the Oz bands.  Haven’t really heard anything that blew my mind coming from there in the last few years.  Just listened to a CD that came with the latest issue of Carbon 14 fanzine.  It's called ‘Monsters of Australian Rock’.  It had 23 songs on it and almost all of the songs were from contemporary, rock 'n' roll bands.  The best track was from RADIO BIRDMAN.  So that’s not saying much about the current scene down there. 
If you know of any bands from OZ that you think I haven’t heard and that will blow my mind, I’m all ears.

..How many of each release do you press?  Is it a set figure or does it vary?  What about the vinyl – you only do limited pressings of that?
I always start off with 1000 of each format.  If it’s a CD or LP only I do 1000 them.  If it’s an LP/CD, I do 1000 of each one.

..What’s been the best selling Dead Beat release? And what about the worst?  And what about the ONE band, of all-time, that you would have loved to work with had the opportunity arose?
Best single has been the LESS THAN JAKE/ J CHURCH split single.  Best album has been the "Viva La Vinyl" #1 LP.  Compilations used to sell much more 10+ years ago.  Sales on compilations have drastically decreased in the last few years, but that LP sold really well.

..I understand you have just left Los Angeles and relocated Dead Beat to Ohio.  Why the move?  Is it a drastically different way of life between the two cities?  Have you found that you are missing LA life?  What kind of premises does Dead Beat now operate in?
Move was mainly for financial and personal reasons.  I have been wanting to buy a house for a while now.  But with the current real estate market out in Southern California, there’s no way I could buy even a mid-sized condo out there.  And I wanted to own a home that has a basement to house some of the label's inventory.  And none of the homes in the LA area have basements because they’re not earthquake proof.  Plus the overall standard of living in the Midwest is much cheaper.
So part of the reason was to settle down and buy a home, and the other part is just to get out of the city.  I’d been in LA for about 13 years, and I was ready to move out of the hustle and bustle and head back to small-town living.  After the years and years of seeing the traffic, the drug dealers, the crime, the smog, I was ready to head back to the suburbs.  And I wanted to settle down a little closer to my family, as I only saw them once a year when I was living out there. 

..Being a label owner, what do you think about downloadable music from the Net?  Is this the next step forward, or just another method of hearing/purchasing music?  I guess you remember when CDs hit the stores and the majors in particular were forecasting, quite mistakenly, the end of vinyl.  One of the joys of buying CDs/records is the search - be it second-hand shops, bargain bins, record fairs or on-line.  Downloading a track just seems too cold… too easy.  That something you agree with? 
I don’t think that paid downloadable music really affects what I’m doing.  I don’t think fans of my label are looking to download one FEELERS song or anything.  I think they are looking to get the entire album with artwork and all.  What I think hurts what I’m doing more is the people that down load my stuff through Soul Seek, Limewire etc.  Because the band and I don’t see anything from that.  And with Punks/rockers in general being pretty tight on funds, I think a lot of people keep up on music via Soul Seek which is essentially illegal.

..Are you personally an avid record collector? Tell us a bit about your own record collection.  You a fan of bootlegs?
Well my vinyl collection is huge.  Thousands and thousands of LP/7’s.  My CD collection is pretty small.  Under 100.  I have been buying records for years.  Helps to have worked at the biggest Punk record store in LA and the biggest independent record store in LA (at that time, before Amoeba opened).  So I’ve got early access to a ton of great stuff.  Plus I still continue to get a bunch of great stuff in through the mail order/distro.  So the collection continues to grow.  I try to weed records out of the collection once a year of stuff that I rarely, if ever, listen too.

..Have you ever played in a band while running Dead Beat?  If not, do you have any musical aspirations?
Nah, never played in a band, and I don’t plan to.  The label takes up so much of my time, I don’t really have the desire to be in a band.  I like to express myself more through the cover art that I help design and finding some of the better up and coming bands in the scene.

..Where do you stand on censorship?  Some of the Dead Beat stuff has been quite controversial – especially to an outsider who might not fully understand the nature of the music.  Should Punk Rock still offend, and if so how far should it go? Has any record shop/ distributor ever refused to stock one of your releases on the grounds of it being too offensive?  If not, would it concern you?
That’s a good question. I have been listening to Punk for so long, I’ve almost been de sensitised to the offending aspect of the genre.  But someone who has never heard say "Snuff Movie” by LIVEFASTDIE might be offended by it.  I have never had a record store or distributor that has refused to carry anything on Dead Beat.  I have had a distributor refuse to carry a few non Dead Beat titles based on the cover art.  I think you either run a label where distros keep an eye out for the offending aspects of what you release, or you run a label that they see your label as not being like that.  And I think the store/distros see Dead Beat as a label that’s not like that.  It more about the music, than non-PC messages or anything like that.

..What are your opinions on politics and music?  I think Politics and Punk are intrinsically linked and the former certainly enhances the latter.  A lot of Dead Beat stuff seems pretty apolitical – would you say that a fair observation?  Would you sign an overtly political band if the music rocked in typical ‘Dead Beat’ style?
Ya, that’s a fair assessment, mainly because I’m pretty apolitical.  I don’t really follow politics much.  If a band came along and their music was awesome and they were political, I’d consider putting it out.  But it depends on the extent of their politics in the lyrics.  If it was too political, it would probably just turn me off because I’m not really interested in it.

..What’s next for Dead Beat?  Are you going to get into the DVD market? What are your next releases?  You have any international bands lined-up?  You ever thought about doing any reissues?  
Well the HAUNTED GEORGE - Bone Hauler CD just came out.  It’s an awesome CD.  Up next is the 2nd full length on Dead Beat from Germany's THE GEE STRINGS.  Than a full length from THE TERMINALS out of Lincoln., NE.  As far as other international bands, outside of the GEE STRINGS, I’m doing an album with THE INTELLECTUALS from Italy and another TAXI album.
Nah, no plans to get into the DVD market.  I’m more interested in releasing music than videos.

..Where would you like the label to be in ten years time?  You have any long-term goals?
Well one of my biggest goals is already accomplished.  And it was a HUGE goal.  And that’s to build the label to the point where I could live off this and do it as a full time job.   Now, it’s just to continue to put out ground breaking records from bands that I believe in.  To continue to put out records that will be relevant in the years to come.  Lately I’ve been into the idea of releasing bands' debut full lengths.  I think I have a knack for catching bands early, and releasing their debut before they are considered big in the scene.  And I help build them up to becoming the bigger bands in the scene.

..Make a few long-shot predictions for Punk Rock in ten years time.
I think that Punk Rock will stay underground in the sense that true underground Punk bands will not follow along the legal lines of posting their music up on downloadable sites like itunes or any of those pay per song sites.  They’ll only make their music available via the LP/CD or 7” format, and that’s the only way you’ll be able to pay to hear their music.  The ones that don’t follow in the MP3 for sale format. 
Also, I think vinyl will continue to be a part of the underground Punk scene and the format will continue to stay vital.

..Lastly, what advice do you have to those thinking of starting their own label?  Do you have any regrets about starting Dead Beat?  What has been the single most positive aspect of doing the label?
Probably the greatest bit of advice I have for new label owners is to start up a mail order.  Dead Beat wouldn’t be where it’s at now if it weren’t for my mail order and distro.  The distributors that sell my titles are gonna sell what they sell.  But by me selling other people's product through mail order and to stores, it’s just a secondary source of income for the label.
The most positive aspect of running a label is definitely the freedom.  It’s nice to be able to get up whenever you want to run the label.  Usually I’m up bright and early at seven to check e mails and start the day.  But it’s nice that if I go to a show the night before and I’m out til 2am, that I can sleep in til 9am if I want too. 
As far as regrets, there aren’t really any that I have.  The label, like most businesses, goes through its fair share of ups and downs, but there’s nothing that I really regret about the way I’ve run the label.

..Any final comments?
Ya, there’s plenty of great music out there.  Don’t just settle for what certain labels release.  Discover bands on your own.  There’s plenty of killer bands bangin on trash cans in the garage.  You might be surprised at how good some of those bands are.

Dead Beat Records
14802 Cortland Way
Strongsville, OH 44149-4991

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