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Hearts in Exile: An Interview with H2D Founder Chuck Warner

Justin Dimos

Hyped to Death founder Chuck Warner chats about the seductive siren song of obscure '80s post-punk and underground no-wave that sold maybe 500 albums or 250 singles or even ten tapes before fading into musical oblivion.

Fuck art. Fuck being a popstar. Fuck catering to the chatterbox intellectuals drunk on wine and sanctimonious bullshit. Fuck praying that stuffy record label plants think your sound could earn them millions. Hell if music should become some hot commodity you can wrap in some prissy bow and call merchandise. Let's show some backbone instead. Let's form a band that plays the music our friends and us love, consumers and snobs be damned.

Amen, said the DIY music followers of the late '70s and early '80s. Video was already killing the radio star, and musicians desperate for attention were clawing for their slice of the spotlight. Still, luckily, a small faction remained in the shadows, singing, strumming guitars, recording for as much as a cassette cost, laughing into the night.

Imagine bands composed of nerds who frankensteined instruments from household junk, bands packed with rejects who sang their minimalist message to empty venues, bands like the Homosexuals, Scissor Fits, and Desperate Bicycles, all who scoffed at stardom and flipped pretentious art poodles the bird. These were DIY musicians who harbored no grandiose illusions of fame and fortune. All they needed was a quiet kitchen, a few close friends, a duct-taped deck that worked, and the rest became history.

Here's your chance to eavesdrop on the bands that simply wanted to make the music they loved and encourage their comrades to follow suit. Their message was pure, their sound, raw, and their solidarity, undeniable. Like them, castaways and weirdos can now share their music with friends and delight in a sound that isn't poisoned by consumerism or popularity contests. One listen, and minimalist junkies as well as post-punk addicts will get hooked.

Allow me to introduce pusher Chuck Warner, founder and manager of the CD and CD-R reissue speakeasy, where us modern rejects, us part-time punks, us exiled hearts of rock can finally find the albums that document the independent spirit and seductive sound of the DIY music tradition.

The Homosexuals

Welcome Chuck, and thanks for agreeing to the interview. Let me start out by saying that I really enjoy all the Messthetics and Homework releases by H2D, and the real reason I wanted to interview you was to understand why this music has seduced me, really. Figured the best way to find out was to go to the source, the man behind the label. That's you, so let's start out by talking about how you got started down the reissue path.

My journey down this path really goes back to being a teenager and growing up in the Boston area. I always wanted to be a disc jockey, and when I got off to college, basically the first thing I did was walk into the radio station.

Being a disc jockey, playing records for people, being on the air, all of that was a real passion for me, but after a couple years of dealing with music in a commercial radio format, I pretty much soured on the scene by '77. It wasn't until end of '82 when I started doing regular college radio in Cambridge that I just fell in love with it all over again. There weren't any production values, I could say whatever I wanted and I could be as good or as bad a DJ on any particular day.

The great thing about being a DJ back then was that you had access to these great record libraries. Of course it's totally different now. Everything's on the Internet. Anyone can get an instant record collection in no time flat. Used to be there'd be one or two maniacal record collectors that everyone knew about in every city, and now, there's probably 100,000 iPods with more music on them than those collectors had in their entire record collections.

But in Boston in 1983, one of the things that struck me was that there were all these great bands that came and went and left nothing behind but demo tapes. That got me thinking about starting a label. I basically gathered up all the demo tapes, paid the bands $100 each in advance and started making records.

And that's when you started Throbbing Lobster?

Yeah, we did really well with the compilations for some time. I think there were around 15 records total, but only three compilations came out (and two died in the can). One EP sold about 7500 copies, the compilations sold 2500-3500 each and everything else basically lost money. The mid-'80s was when everyone started up an independent record distributor, and they all worked the same scam, which was make a big splash, order from everyone, sell that stuff, and pay people more and more slowly, until no one would give you new product, so you went out of business.

So from 1984-1988, I ran a Boston-based garage-rock label that cranked out LPs, EPs and singles before bad luck, bad guesses and distributor rip-offs bled us dry. There's still limited stock of almost everything we did, and given the horrible condition the indie record business, it now seems like a good time to put that back on the market -- and maybe help pay some bills for Messthetics.

What came next? Why start Hyped to Death then?

Well, I took 12 years off from the record-business, but in 1996 I was producing a syndicated news-radio program and because all the field recordings were done on DAT and edited on computers I realized what you could do with digital sound, and naturally my first thought was I could really do a lot with scratchy old records.

I started to put together cassette samplers of records from my mail-order rare record business that I hoped people would buy. I was just going through my boxes of records and needle dropping, and they were basically mix-tapes. The thing that really thrilled me about digital audio was you could nail every segué -- you could match the speed, you could get the timing just right.

But I was getting sick of the mail order business by 1999, and that's when I decided to invest in the first CD-R burner I could afford and start a CD-R label. (Sony had just introduced a CD burner for $999.) The cassettes had all been called "Hyped to Death" but with the CD-Rs, I split it into four series: there was Teenline for power pop; Hyped to Death for punk; Homework for American post-punk; and Messthetics for UK DIY and post-punk.

So what drew you to the CD business?

Experimenting with digital audio and getting excited about restoring the sound. Early on, when I started contacting bands, they'd write back, saying the record didn't sound this good when it was new, and it helped that the bands were really excited about how it sounded.

Thing is I've been around audio recording gear long enough that I have some very strong opinions about how it should sound in the end, and I made a decision from the start that I wasn't going to master anything to commercial CD standards. That whatever went into the songs from the vinyl or the tape, whatever dynamic range I had there I was going to preserve on the CDs.

People say, "Oh I'm into the reissue stuff, but I only buy it on vinyl because you know vinyl sound so much better," and vinyl does sound better ... than 99 percent of the current CDs on the market today, but not because of any analog reproduction. You record digitally, you send off the DAT to the mastering lab, they press your songs on vinyl, and presto, people say, "Oh man, this vinyl sounds amazing." It's true, but you can still preserve the whole dynamic range in CDs, too.

But I also get a chance to improve on the vinyl sound a lot, too. Used to be, when you were mastering a 45, as soon as you got close to four minutes, you would have to start sacrificing some of the sound, and the way you did that was by cutting the bass or compressing. Now, many of the guys that ran the cutting lathes were complete geniuses, too, and they knew just what to do with the EQ and compression to "fix" a lot of the crappy master tapes they were handed (which is why I still master from vinyl sometimes even if masters are available). But they all had to make compromises -- and I'm always happy to "uncompromise" that material as I'm able.

What exactly was the DIY movement of the late '70s and early '80s?

Well, from the end of 1976 through most of 1977, punk had been such a huge success in the UK that (possibly for the first time in the history of the music business) virtually everyone that deserved to be stars actually got to be stars. There was lots of money being made, so it's no surprise that all the top acts were signed to major labels or the major indies -- and even the smallest indies were making money.

DIY came from a hodgepodge of folks that in one way or another missed out on 1977 punk. Some were simply too odd, too idiosyncratic for punk's essential constraints, while others were too interested in playing their instruments the way they wanted to, or writing about things besides politics and rage, but, mostly, DIY sprang from a generation of kids who would have been in punk bands except they were still in school. Shouts of "Punk is dead!" were raised at the end of '77, and while no one really had any confidence about that, they did start looking at punk in a new way, and for starters, it was obvious that punk rock in general had become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the major labels and the mainstream music press.

In August 1977, the punks were still being snapped up by bigtime A&R reps, but the Desperate Bicycles' first self-released record arrived with DIY's rallying cry, It was easy, it was cheap: go and do it! -- and this sent two clear messages.

To the older, disaffected non-punks (who'd spent the last year unable to interest anyone in their vision of music -- or even find places to play) it was: "Hey, if you put out your own record you don't have to fit into anyone else's musical pigeonhole." While to the students it meant: "Who cares if you're not old enough to play in a pub -- you can still make music and put out a record. Doesn't matter if your hair's wrong or you don't have a leather jacket yet ... or, even, if you haven't actually learned to play your instruments yet." The essential message was that it didn't matter what anyone else thought -- you are in control.

I want to digress for a moment, because there was also another really remarkable bit of sociology going on in the background. For centuries, gay men from "good backgrounds" grew up in England, endured their arranged marriages, and enjoyed a parallel and completely separate social life among "gentlemen". Meanwhile there were always these extremely harsh social laws criminalizing any sort of homosexual activity, so there was a long history of double standards and looking the other way, and through all that time there were loads of great gay performers in the arts -- except that they were always at the risk of being exposed.

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