Monday, November 17, 2008

Part 1 Continues with Chris Wrenn of Bridge 9

For me to properly introduce this man I feel like there should be a sold out stadium full of hardcore kids with their fists pumping in the air... All the house lights blacked out as I began the overly reverbed big voice over the PA - Here he is ladies and gentlem, boys and girls- hardcore kids for all ages. The man who played such a key role in the release of hardcore from the death grip of the Bulldog's hands. A man who has played a major role in the reformaion and rebirth of hardcore over the last decade. A guy who took an idea that was older then he was, built out of his CT bedroom and into one of the most respected record labels in hardcore ever..
(cue the spotlights on the man running out of the tunnel with the mic in his hand)

Actually, to say the least I've been a fan of Chris "work" since B901. I've always thought he came out at such a great time and really stuck with it until he was able to really "tear down the walls" so to speak with the American Nightmare releases. It was his steadfast work ethic, eye for detail and aesthetic authenticity that brought some of the best of the new era out to the world, as well as keeping a legacy to the old world and releasing some amazing records and projects like the Schism book. Chris's dedication and love for the core, coupled with his intimate relationship with hardcore and today's scene made him an obvious choice for an interview in my ongoing works. I hope you stay with me for the duration as it only gets better from here.

There seems to be a void in sincerity and concentration in Hardcore if you ask me. I’d like to hear what you’d like to see kids focus on?
Where is there too much focus these days?

Hardcore has gotten too easy. The barrier of entry is so low, that there is no quality control. Finding the hardcore scene used to be difficult and when people got there, they didn't take it for granted, because they had to earn their way there. Not to say that it was a closed subculture, but it was a place that you didn't jump into right away. Kids leave hardcore as quickly as they come in these day - but while they're here, they cherry pick their favorite parts whether it is mosh parts or a particular style or look and then apply it to whatever mutation of hardcore punk they've created.... I think that the internet has homogenized hardcore like a fast food hamburger. The easy access of information has watered things down. Kids have so much music available to them, that they don't connect with it on the same level, making it easier to drop when something cooler comes along. I think kids need to focus on the content and the message, not on the trends and bullshit.

You created Bridge Nine out of thin air. You’ve had time to hone your business skills and the ropes have left their burns on you. Which labels had the most influence on you when you were working on the earlier releases? Who has been an inspiration or motivation to what you’ve done since?

I started going to shows in 1991 and started B9 in 1995, so in the grand scheme of things I was still pretty young and new when I decided to put out my first 7". In regards to "bigger" labels at that time, Revelation was still a force and I was a huge fan of their earlier catalog. Victory was getting huge in terms of hardcore and it wasn't hard to be swept up in that wave of mid 90's bands like Earth Crisis, Strife, Snapcase. Equal Vision was also a big influence - I liked their bands as well and dealt with Steve Reddy quite a bit (EVR printed our merch in the early days). Smaller labels like Indecision, New Age, Bloodlink... All were an influence to me. All of those labels did their own vinyl which included limited editions, which I like. Record collecting is fun. Revelation made a series of huge 24"x36" posters in the late 80's for their bands, and that was a direct influence on my deciding to make a similarly sized poster for a few of our bands. It's a cool thing for a band to have, no one makes posters that size anymore, so I'm glad to do it. I have no formal business background. I studied art and design and had to learn through trial and error how to handle a business. Fortunately, it has been over a long period of time - I started very slowly and have grown over the past 13 years, and I am still learning new things all of the time. I am constantly being inspired and motivated - seeing someone like Johnny Cupcakes (Boston based designer) accomplishing everything that he is, is inspiring. I just read Richard Branson's autobiography - that is inspiring. Getting a care package from Aram's (former Champion / Betrayed member, current label guy) label React! and seeing the quality and attention to detail of everything included, that is inspiring. Every time B9 accomplishes something new, or innovates something, or creates a cool opportunity for one of our bands, I become more motivated.

As time moves on certain customs of our culture are dying out. Which custom would you like to see get a rebirth in 09? If only for aesthetics, what do you miss most of all when you walk up to a show to when the first note of the first band hits?

If someone asked me to describe the physical aspects of hardcore culture, tangible things that I think have played a significant role and should continue to exist and be promoted, it would include several things that have been eliminated by the convenience of the internet. First, and one of the most important, the photocopied show flyer. Flyers that I have collected over the years, are in some cases the only physical evidence that a show even happened. A good flyer features artwork and design by someone involved in the scene and is a documentation of the event. A cool flyer will always be relevant - something that you want to collect, or tape on your wall, to remind you of a show that you went to or one from before your time that you wished you had seen. It can be a showcase for a talented illustrator and a social commentary for an artist. I've always loved flyers and that is why I use a background compiled of flyers on the B9 messageboard - just to continually reinforce something that I think is important. Those myspace and messageboard bulletins that have since replaced the widespread use of flyers might be cheaper and more convenient to design, post, and copy, but they disappear just as quickly as they came and they don't leave a permanent record. Another dying custom is the fanzine. I've commented on this before - there are a ton of great interviews online with current bands that will be lost to time, if they are not reprinted in a tangible form. The only reason why I was able to reprint the issues of Schism Fanzine, 18 years after the fact, was because I was able to track down the original copies. Being able to hold an almost 2 decades old fanzine allowed me to scan & compile them in book form. The current generations of hardcore are going to have a hard time piecing together their history a decade or so after the fact, when 95% of the interviews and photos and commentary and editorials related to their scenes are deleted when each and every current HC websites, myspace pages and blogs are no longer online. Even if people started printing tangible fanzines at the end of the year with a "best of" format, that would be a start.

How do you do it? What drives you to be someone who stands behind the scenes and makes some of the biggest wheels in our scene turn? What still motivates you to get up and live for this the way that you do?

The challenge has always been the motivating factor. Every part of being involved in a label like B9 has been a challenge at some point, and trying new things, developing new ideas, taking risks has always been exciting for me. I didn't go to school for business, most everything in that respect has been trial and error. I also have help from some really hard working people at the B9 office, who really help make the wheels turn. Karl is B9's label manager, and has become the life's blood here at B9. Seth is our multi-tasker, keeping Karl and I on point. Matt keeps our mailorder department in check, and Jamie, our latest hire, helps handle all of our publicity and promotional responsibilities. I also give everything that I do 110%. I got up for YEARS at 6am so that I could drive my wife to the commuter train and then head into the office by 7am, so that I could get to work early. Most people that I know got to work around 9am, and by getting in an extra 2 hours every day, I was gaining a years head start over a 4 year period, roughly the time that B9 was based out of Salem, MA. Having an extra years worth of time to focus on my projects was invaluable. I don't get up as early these days but I feel that having done so during that time was critical.

Name 3 things that people would never associate with your job but being a big part of the behind the scenes work.

This is a tough one. When you start an independent record label, you're responsible for everything. If anything breaks, or goes wrong, or needs to be addressed - no one else is going to fix it. For many years if I didn't figure out how to handle something, it just wasn't dealt with - I am very fortunate to be surrounded by people who are just as good at problem solving as I tried to be. Lately, I've had the opportunity to spend more time developing new projects and sourcing out new merch that B9 can provide for our bands. For years, I've wanted to make die cut clear stickers like the one that I used to put on my skateboards when I was younger. I finally found a place and made them for Verse and Have Heart. The 3'x5' banners that B9 brought out earlier this year - this is something that literally does not exist for independent bands. If you want an Iron Maiden or Metallica tapestry - you can get a pretty cheaply made one easily. I was able to source out a banner that is not only a high quality material (with grommets in each corner - my Led Zeppelin one growing up didn't even have that) and I was able to do it at a quantity of only 500 pieces per band. And just over the past month, I've been able to switch over to B9 branded t-shirts, tagless tees that have our logo and sizing information screenprinted into the inside of the shirt - something that no other label has done, to my knowledge. I've only been able to explore some of these ideas because I've got such a great group of people working with me - for a long time, I was wearing most of the hats, so I was too burned out to be creative. Over the past year or so, I've been able to think outside of the box more than ever before. Designing stuff like this is one of the many rolls that a label can play. I recently saw someone post "let's show the world that we don't need labels anymore" on the B9 board... They were promoting their own self released EP. In 2008 - there are a lot of things that bands can do for themselves, and it's pretty amazing. It's possible for a band to finance their own recording, set up their own online store, and distribute their own music and merch. But what happens when the band goes on tour? Who's going to pack up their mail orders? Mail order fulfillment is one service that a label can provide. The band loses a cut to the label when we fulfill their merch, but their store doesn't have to close while they're on tour, or kids don't have to wait 5 weeks to get their order. When a band works with us - they get more than just their music and merch out. They also tap into 13+ years of relationships and bands. While we don't book bands on tour, we get great hookups for our bands on tours because of the bands and agents that we know. Most hardcore bands start out with a few years of relationships and connections. When we sign a band, they can tap into opportunities far beyond their own circles, and hopefully realize their potential faster because of it.

If you could put out 1 release that came out on another label what would it be? (fantasy release)

Considering B9's pretty humble beginnings - I've had a chance to do a lot of records that I would consider fantasy releases. 7" EP's with Sick Of It All, Agnostic Front, Project X, New Found Glory, LP's with Slapshot & some bands that I've had the opportunity to work with early on, like American Nightmare, Have Heart, Death Before Dishonor... I guess a fantasy release at this point would be some long lost / never release EP from Bad Brains or 7 Seconds.

Today I’d say the Edge is dull. I’d say its nothing more then a bath towel to keep the kids dry til they “grow up” and want to be more like everyone else. Would you say we’ve homogenized the edge to the point that the “rebel” factor has completely died out?

The Edge has gone through SO many waves of popularity. Early 90's, it's not cool to be Straight Edge. Mid-late 90's, it's cool to be Edge. Early 2000's, it's not cool to be Edge. Mid 2000's, it is. Late 2000's, seems like it's not as cool anymore. For the most part in hardcore, it has been safe and cool to claim Edge when you're a teenager and once you have the chance to legally drink and are onto college, peace. Pre-Straight Edge, if you didn't drink you were an alien. With the Edge, you're part of something punk and different and you can tell people "you just don't understand". I adopted the Edge in 1994 when I was 18 and have never second guessed it since. I don't want to contribute my money to those industries, and I don't want to become a statistic because of their use. I'm not saying anyone is wrong by not being Straight Edge, do what you want in your own life, but considering how many people die because of the tobacco and alcohol industries, and the drug trade, I decided that I didn't want anything to do with that. And that did not change when I turned 21, or when my friends all started breaking edge, and being Straight Edge in my life became more abnormal than "the norm". It just boils down to the fact that people are apathetic and just don't care, or they decide that facilitating their social lives is a worthy tradeoff for their health and well being.

I want you to name 5 bands that mean nothing to anyone the way they mean to you and why.

1. Suicidal Tendencies - as a teenage skateboarder - their s/t debut was mandatory.

2. Dead Kennedys - when I was in high school I took the train into NYC and bought "Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death", DK was a highly influential band to me. I picked this up because one of the guys in Slayer used to wear a DK shirt in magazines.

3. Sick Of It All - for me in the early 90's, SOIA was the band of legend. Their shows were crazy and violent and they were one of those bands that I had their first couple of albums, knew every word, and counted down the days to when they came through town.

4. American Nightmare - I saw this band come together first hand, had the opportunity to release their earlier material, and accompanied them on their first tours in New England, California and Europe. They were my friends, roommates, and their first records helped set off the momentum that carries through B9 to this day.

5. Champion - these guys released a bunch of records with B9, and I got to tour with them all over... There is a bond with the guys in this band that I don't reach with most bands, and I know I'll be friends with those guys for years.

At the end of the day when you’re sitting on your porch with your lemonade and your grandkids are asking about your life, what do you share with them about your time in hardcore?

I'd tell them about how hardcore instilled me with the DIY ethic. It showed me that if I wanted to see something happen, that I could just do it myself. Like I mentioned before - I did not go to school for business - but I ended up starting one anyway, and I've received a better business education and have actually applied what I've learned more effectively than a lot of MBA's that I've met. With this knowledge, I've been able to apply what I've learned to other business opportunities, so that I could profit elsewhere and not have to squeeze B9 for my paycheck. I'd also tell them about all the opportunities that I've had to travel. Hardcore is a unique subculture in the respect that a moderately known band, who have sold maybe a few thousand records (not even a blip on the mainstream music radar screen) can tour on multiple continents. Take a band like Champion - a band who sold maybe 10,000 copies of their album while they were touring - a TINY number in the grand scheme of distributed music - yet they were able to tour all over the U.S., Europe, Japan, South Korea, Australia - and multiple times. I don't know of any other subculture like that. I'd tell them about visiting Japan with Terror, Australia with Champion, and Europe with a few bands including American Nightmare, Champion and Slapshot.

What is the most fundamentally important aspect of hardcore that you see drifting away? How do we fix it?

I think that people need to have a better understanding of their history. Since hardcore punk is a culture - just like any culture, you need to know your history, how things got to the place that they're at. You don't need to know every band that ever was, but you should know all of the major ones. If you claim edge, you should be familiar with Minor Threat and Ian Mackaye. If you're a touring band, you should know Black Flag, they practically laid down the DIY touring network. If you like hardcore with a little metal crossover, you should know Agnostic Front and the Cro-Mags.

And now the counter to that, what is the latest element to hardcore that you find to be an insult to all you love and dear and when does it end?

Not so much hardcore - but the kids who appropriate their images from hardcore, but give nothing back. I went to school in VT and there were tons of kids who dreaded their hair, wore drug rugs and smoked weed all the time. But none of them were vegetarian (literally, none), they had no agenda whatsoever than to snowboard and get high in between classes. They stole the superficial hippy style but had no substance. I feel like that same thing is happening, but with hardcore.


Aaron said...

I really enjoyed reading this interview, I found it very interesting and not the usual boring inteview questions like most people seem to ask these days.

Very well thought out interview.

malfunctionrecords said...

great interview chris wrenn is a great dude