Aberrant Records by Steve Gardner
Noise For Heroes #17 in the fall of 1989
Aberrant Records has been one of the most fascinating labels on the planet for the last several years. Run single handedly by Bruce Griffiths, who lives in Sydney, Aberrant specializes in putting out records by bands who make it a point to try to do something that others haven't done. Loads of bands make this attempt, but the impressive thing about Aberrant bands is that by and large they succeed in making something that's good as well as different, and in some cases it's fantastically good. And this is not to imply by any means that all Aberrant bands sound like is some howling in the wilderness behind screeching atonal guitars or some such rubbish like that. Aberrant bands are diverse...sure there are noise merchants like King Snake Roost, but there is also powerful rock and roll like Examplehead, or melodic (though still edged and charged) stuff like Toys Went Berserk, or frantic punk like World War XXIV. And of course the biggest claim to fame for Aberrant (until they recently broke up) was that Aberrant brought us feedtime, a band that really defies categorization. The Aberrant story is well worth reciting, given this background, and who better to tell the story than Bruce himself? So sit back and we'll let Bruce do the talking...
The first record Aberrant released was Flowers From The Dustbin
. It came out on November the 19th in 1983. It was sort of a one-off, although at the time it came out I had a lot more bands that I wanted to put on record, but I didn't have enough bands to do a double album, which Flowers at one stage was going to be. So what happened was Flowers came out and because I'd gotten my money back on it and there were bands left like Suicide Squad, for instance, that I would have liked on the first one, and there were bands with tapes around and a few more bands had re-appeared like Vigil-Anti and Wrong Kind of Stoneage, and I would have liked something from their earlier incarnation, Identity X on the first one. And the Happy Hate Me Nots were existing at that point. So after the first one there was enough good music around to do a second one. But I certainly was not planning to build up a label from the start.
What motivated me to do it was the fact that bands by nature are transient things and they come and go, obviously, and all this music was really important to me, and I wanted to be able to walk into a shop and buy a record with the various bands that are on the first few compilations, and I couldn't, so the only way I could own a record by those bands was to release it, so that's how it came about. What made me think that I could do it was the fact that the Buzzcocks had done it in England many years before with their own New Hormones, Desperate Bicycles had done it with their label. So in England it had been established that it was possible to go out and do it yourself; the whole sort of punk do-it-yourself ethic. And locally, the people that made me think that I could do it myself was the Double Think label and the M-Squared label, even though both of those labels lost a lot of money, that was because at the time there wasn't a distribution network that could effectively get the records around. And also both M Squared and Double Think concentrated on singles, which are a really great way to lose money if you don't have an effective way to distribute them. But I did some math and it worked out that if you put all these bands on a compilation instead of doing a lot of singles, the costs of obtaining the music by all these bands came down. The costs of doing seven singles for seven bands is far greater than doing one compilation with two to three tracks each by seven bands, so financially it was possible. And a lot of other people had inspired me and proved that it was possible to go out and do it; that you didn't have to be a major label or anything like that.
I don't actively search for bands that would fit Aberrant; they also tend not to come looking for me because I do not encourage it at all. I don't want people sending me demo tapes, and I've gone out of my way not to have my phone number listed because I don't want every band and their dogs ringing me up saying hey, so you wanna do our records. I'm not trying to build up some massive label; I just go along to a gig and see something that blows my head off sufficiently, and if it's not on a label and I would really like records by that band and think records by that band should be available, I'll approach them and say "Look, I'm interested in releasing something".
The attributes I need to see in a band: well, one they have to seem to be easy to work with, relatively together. I'm not interested in working with people that are egomaniacs for instance, or outright assholes; I can live without all of that. And obviously I really have to like their music; I have to think that this band is doing something that has impressed me a lot and it's going to impress a lot of other people. Also the band should have a reasonable profile or at least have the potential of a reasonable profile. The band should be playing live or be willing to be playing live so that people have a chance to find out about them. When you're dealing with music that's not generally going to get airplay such as King Snake Roost or that sort of thing, it's nice if the band is playing live because it makes it a bit easier. There's going to be a group of people there who are going to go and buy the record because they've seen the band.
My role in getting the record out is pretty much doing everything. Usually in the bulk of cases I have booked the studio time and organized the engineer. Or if there is a producer to be organized as there may be with the new Toys Went Berserk album I'd be organizing that as well. So yeah, I help them find the studio, get a producer and chase up two inch master tapes and all that sort of business. As far as the band having to front the money, for a lot of the bands on Aberrant the recordings have been funded by advances from me. A very large number of what was on the first three compilations, I put up the money to record and that was recouped in their royalties later. It depends on how expensive the recording is going to be. If it's going to be outrageously expensive; for instance if they're talking about spending thousands on a single, there's just no way that you'd ever get thousands back, so in those instances I might just do a straight loan that might be repaid. But quite a few records have been completely paid for, recording and everything, by Aberrant.
Up until recently mastering and pressing has been done at EMI. Lately there have also been some cuts done at CBS. The problem that feedtime have encountered is that due to people who claim to understand...and the other bands I should say, although some of the records sound great that have been done at EMI...but with this sort of music you're dealing with people who generally don't deal with loud, noisy distorted music. They're people that generally spend their day cutting David Bowie albums and Robert Palmer records and what have you, and so their idea of how a record should sound can be radically different from how you want your record to sound. If you listen for instance to the Rough Trade cuts of Shovel and of Cooper S and if you hear the Megadisc Dutch cut of the feedtime album, they are much clearer, much punchier and harder cuts, and basically what happened here is they decided "well the record should sound like this" and so they put certain eq's that time proved were not good.
The sleeve artwork is generally done by the bands. To quickly run through the Aberrant records, the first three compilations were done by me, as were both Trousers in Action eps. Positive Hatred was done by me. After that there was a run of the bands doing their own artwork. The Kelpies bootleg was done by me. The new Examplehead Powertools was mine. I'm usually sort of a consultant or advisor because I've got a background that involves finished art, so I know how to present the finished art so it's going to look good. Things like the first Examplehead cover was totally their idea. feedtime do all their own artwork; Toys Went Berserk do all their own artwork, although often I'll sort of stick my head in and say "how about using that color" or sometimes Bill will ask "what color will work here" or that sort of thing. But I think that record sleeves are pretty important so I try to make a point of the sleeves being good. I'm just fortunate that most of the bands I work with have some kind of artistic connections. I'm not sure why that is, but feedtime, King Snake Roost, Toys, and Venom P. Stinger, they all either have artists in the bands or they're sort of involved with artistic people; their friends are very creative as well as the people in the band. For instance in King Snake Roost, Peter does a lot of painting and David's into photography. There's lots of people that are involved in other creative outlets other than music in some of these bands. Venom P. Stinger similarly are involved in the Melbourne underground art scene. I must stress that's not art as in pretentious stuff, you know. But it means that you're very likely to get a good record cover when you deal with the sort of bands that are in those circles, whereas your normal pub rock band or whatever probably aren't going to know people who are into anything else.
Financing is not a hassle because I've been working since 1980 and have not had a holiday and don't tend to spend much of my money on myself so it's just financed by savings, which is really good because it means I am not at the mercy of distributors and wholesalers and what have you waiting for money to come back in order that I can get records to come out. The question about taking a while between the record being recorded and coming out; in the case of Examplehead that's because they are absolutely the most untogether band in the world when it comes to getting artwork out of them. We wanted to put the single out first, so that took ages to come out because no amount of hassling would get a single cover out of them. And because the single was delayed it meant the album was going to be put back because I didn't want it coming out on the back of the single; I wanted the single to be out for a while and have a bit of an impact. And the Examplehead album got held up a bit because I had to do the artwork for that, and if you see the cover it's very complicated artwork; there are a lot of little powertools to be cut out and stuck down and what have you, and I've got my own work which has to be done as well, so doing that artwork had to be squeezed in between all the other things I had to do. The King Snake Roost record was going to come out in 1988, but we held it back because it's not really a good idea to release underground kind of records in December here; they just get swamped amongst a lot of mainstream stuff and the very few avenues you have for publicity close up; the free sort of "what's on" rock newspaper here closes up over Christmas. Various sympathetic dj's go on holiday and shows stop and people go away; it's just not a good time to release music like King Snake Roost or feedtime in December, so it was held back until January because that was just a better time.
I probably do have a lot of money tied up waiting for records to be sold, which is a worry, it would be nice to have it back. Fortunately money is not that tight; I've never been in a position where I have not been able to do something because someone owes me money. The only horror story I have is concerning a label called Shamless which apparently means shameless in Sweden; this guy ordered 50 copies of the Not So Humdrum album and took them back to Sweden with him, and I never received any payment for them. So if ever anybody's in Sweden and encounters this chap called John, well, kick him once for me, at least.
It's a bit of a struggle for the bulk of Aberrant bands to get consistent gigs. The one band that has very little trouble is Toys Went Berserk because they pull a reasonably big crowd and they also have a sort of a promoter behind them...the guy that manages the Hellmenn. He's been very good at getting them into a number of venues and getting them quite a few gigs. Bands like King Snake Roost, Examplehead and Venom P. Stinger have a lot of trouble getting gigs. I can't speak for Venom P. in Melbourne, but I don't think they play all that often down there. Up here there are very few places in Sydney that the bands can play. It sort of comes down to who will fill the venues, or at least the people who run the venues and their perception of how many people will come along. They just don't give bands a chance in terms of...like a band could be on at a venue; they'll give them a gig, and that same night up the road there'll be These Immortal Souls playing their one and only Sydney gig, so naturally all the people who would go and see King Snake Roost who they know "Oh, we can see them in a couple of weeks", so they all go to the one and only These Immortal Souls gig. So the venue turns around and says, "Well you're no good, King Snake Roost, nobody turned up", when if in fact there would be quite a reasonable crowd given the competition. But venues don't take the competition into account; they blame the band when there is no one there rather than looking around and saying "well, this is an unfortunate juxtaposition of gigs". Luck seems to have been against some of the noisier Aberrant bands.
As for venues most open to them; well there's fuck all, really. The Palace Hotel used to be the best, but it closed down. All that is really left is the Eagle Star Hotel which is a free hotel in the inner city. There is also the Journo's Club (probably got the name wrong - ed) which isn't free, but both of those venues are really good as far as bands that aren't playing straight predictable music. They'll give a lot of bands chances, and it's paying off for both the bands and the venues.
People like Joe who manages the Hellmenn; he has been getting some of the Aberrant bands into venues out in the suburbs, but it's not that they're actually open to the bands; Joe comes to them with a package that has the Hellmenn or Massappeal headlining and then he'll slip in whoever underneath as the support.
The bands that have given me the most satisfaction to work with...I'm not really sure I would want to specify there. I don't think I would bother working with any of the bands if there wasn't some degree of satisfaction. Obviously I'm satisfied that the music they're releasing is great, and they're good people. There certainly have not been any bands that I have wished I hadn't bothered about later. I would like to think I had enough suss and foresight to keep well away from bands that were going to create problems later, and certainly with 26 or whatever it is releases thus far, I have not released anyone that I've turned around and thought "that was just far too difficult and those people were real pains", because everyone has been fine. Possibly the most satisfying was feedtime, because they became extremely close friends as a result of working with them, and I guess part of the satisfaction with them was the fact that they achieved recognition; they were licensed to Rough Trade in America, they're now licensed to Vinyl Solution in England and Europe, to Megadisc in the Benelux countries in Europe, so I guess that was satisfying in the way things happened, and a lot of people as a result of my involvement and us working together came to appreciate this band that I thought was really special. Should people start appreciating other bands on Aberrant to the same extent, then I guess there would be a similar degree of satisfaction from working with those bands, but all the people I currently work with are really great to work with.
(I asked Bruce to describe a little of the action that went into the making of the compilations...) There was a lot of running around banging on doors to chase up tapes that I knew existed; for instance the Kelpies and Velocette...those were tapes that I knew people had, so there was quite a bit of running around trying to get those tapes. There was even more running around trying to get photos. I can't remember the exact number of photos that is on the Flowers cover...it's two hundred and something. There was a hell of a lot of running around trying to chase up photos for all three compilations, because for some of those bands barely existed. There are hardly any Kelpies photos in existence, and because the band was no longer playing, that made getting photos of them very difficult. Likewise for Velocette. You had to deal with people that were sort of uncontactable. A lot of these people just were not on the phone set because they weren't exactly wealthy people. So you had to spend a lot of time running around the city knocking on doors and giving people notes at gigs and that sort of thing. Photos of What!? were also incredibly rare because they'd only ever done one gig. Getting the bands in the studios was also something else that had to be done for the first two compilations...studios had to be booked and people organized and people that were totally unfamiliar with recording studios had to be put in recording studios and what have you. In some instances the bands no longer existed and therefore were kind of a low priority to the people involved. On the Why March When You Can Riot compilation, finding that X tape was a major effort because nobody in X knew where the tape was, and it was just running around in circles for a long time before someone gave me a connection that gave me another connection that had the tape with those tracks. The Local Product tape sort of went missing; it supposedly existed and then disappeared, and we were going to cut their tracks off a cassette, and a week before the record was going to be cut, one of the guitarists was going through his things to find some photos and he found the 8 track master, which meant that we could go in and remix them and thus get much better quality. Things like Johnny Dole and The Scabs, the master tape for that was totally inaccessible. It's relatively complicated tracking people down, because if you know that something exists because someone's given you a bootleg cassette dub, and you think "I would like to use that", you then have to trace these people to get permission and to get a quality recording that will make the songs sound the best possible.
There are not plans for anymore compilations, partly because of the amount of work involved in doing them...it's just an astronomical amount of organization. All the artwork on the covers and everything was done by me, which means typing up all the lyrics and all that...it's just far too much work for me to fit in. And the other major reason for no more compilations is that there just is not a need. At the time those records were done, there was sort of a backlog of great music that needed to come out; there were bands that had tapes that were lying around, of which there is nothing now; all the really good things have come out in some form. Or there were really good bands that were about to disappear and were being overlooked, and I wanted them captured as well. But the way the situation six years on from the first compilation is that all the bands that really excite me are on labels. There are more labels happening now; there's Waterfront catering for a lot of things...a pretty broad range; anything from your Chad's Tree and Rabbit's Wedding right on through to Hard-Ons and Massappeal. So a lot of those fast, hard, but slightly more conventional guitar bands; your punk rock based bands that I was dealing with, a lot of them have a home in Waterfront. There's also not as much of that stuff around that's particularly noteworthy these days. I don't think the quality of those bands has improved. There are bands around that are not on labels, and I think justifiably so really. The bands that I'm involved with, they've obviously got an outlet. And then you've got Black Eye releasing the records of people like Lubricated Goat and Thug. There's just not much around. The point of those compilations was music that was unavailable and bands that were not available, and that's a situation that is no longer existent, so the compilations aren't relevant.
There's a minimum pressing of 500 of anything, although the smallest I've ever done was 300 copies of the first TIA ep. That was because at the time EMI was doing my pressings and they would press as small as 300. But now that CBS does the pressings they've got a minimum of 500 on a first run. Toys Went Berserk, everything has been pressed in at least 1000. feedtime's Shovel was originally pressed as 1000. A further 500 were pressed and another 300 have just been pressed. feedtime's self titled album; on Aberrant there have been 800 of those pressed. feedtime themselves did 750. World War XXIV was 1000. Things like the Kelpies, the first Examplehead album, King Snake Roost records, are generally 500, because they're limited interest. Positive Hatred and Exserts...most of them have been 500. Usually the first pressing of everything is 500. It's sort of based on whether the band is known and what exports are likely. I'll usually contact exporters and find out "how many of these are you likely to want" and base it on that.
In the case of Toys Went Berserk, most of the records are sold in Australia. All of the early records, the bulk were sold in Australia. But feedtime, King Snake Roost, and Examplehead now, a lot of their records are (or were) getting exported. feedtime no longer get exported because they are licensed everywhere, but 50% of feedtime records went overseas before the licensing. It would be more than 50% of King Snake Roost records. And the Examplehead album Powertools, a lot of them have gone overseas.
King Snake Roost have just been licensed to Amphetamine Reptile in the United States. I've had one label approach me regarding Venom P. Stinger, very very interested in hearing what their next recording is, their next thing will be an album and this label is very keen on that album. Toys Went Berserk really haven't been pushed overseas yet as far as looking for licensing. At the moment I'm working on a license within Australia with what is actually an independent company that has become very large through a number of successful bands. The attitude of this company is really good; the way they view the music scene and the way they work; they're not a big hype-y company...they're not full of shit and into all the general industry wank. So at the moment Toys have only been talking within Australia because that's where they have received the most recognition, and it would be good to get them somewhere here and then think about the overseas. But the other bands are generally ignored within Australia, so it would be a complete waste of time to try to get King Snake Roost or Venom P. Stinger licensed to some Australian company; they just wouldn't be interested. I am interested in getting these records available in Japan, but as yet I have not had a contact...I don't have any names or anything for people in Japan that I can follow up.
I completely set up the feedtime arrangement with Rough Trade...the band just dropped all the material in my lap and said "Look, you're one person, you can deal with all these people overseas" because they had their own lives and enough things to worry about without having to make international phone calls and all that sort of business. You just sign a contract and there's a set royalty. You provide a duplicate of the master tape and a duplicate of the filmwork for the record sleeves. They press up the record and pay you a set royalty, and if you're really lucky as we were they pay you an advance up front.
(I mentioned the quote from Jake Riviera of Stiff Records, who when asked about the fact that so many Stiff records when out of print and were impossible to get said "It's a record company, not a museum"...) I hadn't heard that before, but yeah, that's a good view to have. It's not something I had modeled my operations on. The reason a lot of the records are only available for a short time is that there is a very limited interest in some of these things. It would be really silly to run out and press more than 500 Kelpies bootlegs, or Positive Hatred album, or Exserts albums, because the interest here is small, the bands no longer exist, and there's no way that people are going to find out about these bands other than friends playing the record, or someone in the record shop saying, "look, listen to this record", but obviously a record shop is full of records, so relying on every record shop to play your record to every possible likely person is not a good way to sell records. So it becomes a matter of, sure, I could press another 500 copies of the World War XXIV album, for example, but they'd just sort of trickle out of my bedroom. My bedroom has more than enough current records in it without repressing old things that are just sort of going to hang around. You might be selling one or two a month of these records where the interest has pretty much been and gone, but to repress these records ties up a lot of money that could be used in other places, and it's not a sensible way to do it. I'd much rather get on with doing new things. The records were available, people had the chance to buy them, and if people missed out, well that's just bad luck. I'm interested in making new things available, not sort of taking the hands of people that missed out because they weren't interested at the time. In a lot of the cases, sure there were people that happened to be in the wrong place at the time, but there are also a lot of people that aren't interested at the time; they know the records are available and they have an apathetic attitude where they won't buy them because they think, "That'll still be available, we'll do something else", well that's just bad luck. I'm not interested in making records available so that those people whose attitudes at the time was basically fucked and have come to the realization that they should have bought these records can get them. Well, bad luck.
The three compilations were to document a particular era and particular bands that had not received documentation. Fortunately bands like feedtime and King Snake Roost are around when people are receptive to what they are doing and they can get bits of press and in years to come people will still know that these bands existed. In the case of the stuff on the compilations, no one would ever know it existed, and I just thought it was important. (As for the sense of history evident in the compilations...) In a lot of the cases the recordings were old, so it was relevant as to when the recordings were done and why, so that people could put it into some sort of perspective. Frank at Waterfront is consistently telling me that I should repress the three compilations and occasionally it crosses my mind to do a boxed set of all three, but the amount of money that something like that would tie up would be astronomical, not to mention the amount of space it would require for the records. That's stuff that's been and gone. The records were put out for the fans of that music, and in the bulk of cases I think the real fans have got the records, and sure there's going to be people in New York or Tokyo or London who did not have access to the records because of their geographical position at the time. I can't keep records available to satisfy everybody on the planet that might wish that they could hear the first X records.
(I asked what makes Aberrant releases sell...) Ha ha. What makes you think that Aberrant releases do sell? In the case of KSR and Venom P. Stinger I would say that their live performances are what get people interested in their records. Toys Went Berserk sell a lot more records largely because of radio play I would say. Advertising you can forget about...there's just not the market here to spend a lot of money on advertising, particularly for bands where the bulk of their records go for export. A lot of word of mouth; a lot of Aberrant records seem to trickle pretty consistently in sales. For instance Examplehead's Aheadofstyle album; that's getting no airplay and yet there's a pretty constant turnover of that record; there's a constant turnover of the first Toys single. And there was a turnover of Grong Grong for instance. These records that don't get airplay, there's obviously people hearing them and playing them for friends, and that's where the interest is being generated. I'm not of the opinion that reviews actually sell records (sound of hissing air as fanzine editor's ego deflates). I think that reviews might interest people in stores to order records, but I don't think that reviews influence the actual record buys as such, because the number of really great reviews Aberrant records have had with Aberrant addresses underneath probably outnumbers the amount of mail I've had from people wanting to buy those records. So obviously people aren't reading reviews and thinking "I need these records", and writing away.
What would happen if one of my bands made a commercial breakthrough and started selling thousands of records? Well, I would be very happy. It would mean that after six years I would actually be getting some money for doing this, so there would be a massive sense of achievement. I think it would be a breakthrough, because it would be a way of pushing the other bands as well. People would suddenly notice this strange little label, and they might investigate the other bands. I don't think anything would change much. I'd have to reassess the way those records were produced...we wouldn't be sitting around here putting 5000 records in sleeves...I'd have to arrange a distribution deal with a major label in order for that to happen. It would probably mean less work carrying records and all that sort of business. Toys Went Berserk is definitely the most likely to have a major commercial breakthrough. While feedtime were very big in an underground sense in America, that is not the same as hitting the level of your REMs. I think Toys Went Berserk have the potential to get up there and they're a hell of a lot better, too.
I don't think of quitting my job to run Aberrant full time. At the moment it's impossible to make a living off Aberrant; the records sell tiny quantities, and they way I work is a straight profit split where the band gets 75% of the profit and I get 25% of the profit, and when you're only selling 500 to 1000 records and your releasing 6 or 7 records a year, you are not talking about a lot of money, so it is definitely impossible to make a living. If somebody like Toys Went Berserk suddenly reached the level of somebody from Australia like Midnight Oil (this is VERY unlikely), and were being recognized overseas in a similar way, it would be possible to run Aberrant full time. But the problem with running the label full time as your source of income is that you have to constantly think about money, and I think that interferes with the quality of the records, because instead of thinking about how good the music is you think about how many copies it will sell, and I don't really feel like that is a basis for running Aberrant; it has not been up to now and I don't want that to start. Because then you start signing bands that you don't want to know about but you just know they're going to sell x amount of records. And I don't want to do that.
I often feel like I've bitten off more than I can chew...I'm generally completely snowed under with Aberrant work. I would like to be able to back off a bit, but there's just too many things to be done. There's always some deal or something to be chased up. I am never looking forward to putting more time into Aberrant; it takes up far too much time as it is. Plans for 1989...with any luck, Venom P. Stinger will be recording their second album for Aberrant. Bloodloss from Adelaide will be doing an album; that'll be their third. The first two were on Greasy Pop, so it will be their first Aberrant release. Bloodloss are a fantastic band from Adelaide...one of the very few bands that exists in Australia that was not on Aberrant that I was very keen to have on Aberrant. There's feedtime's final album, suction, and an album from Toys Went Berserk. Somebody once asked feedtime what the Aberrant bands had in common. The thing that strikes me about all the current Aberrant bands is that the bands are really unique. They are not like any other bands in Australia, and in some cases are not like any other bands anywhere in the world. They are not easily categorized or described. As you know yourself, no one has ever really succeeded in describing feedtime. There have been many and varied attempts, but they're a very difficult band to describe. Examplehead and Toys are probably the easiest two, but again, they don't immediately sound like anybody else.
(It's 1996 now and I look back at this article with some fond amusement. Aberrant bands had a huge influence on the direction of a lot of American bands that are now on labels like Amphetamine Reptile and Tough and Go. Most of these bands haven't got a quarter of the imagination or talent of those original Aberrant groups that influenced them, and most of them never even bother to mention where they got their ideas in the first place. Aberrant was a jewel of a label, and those lucky enough to have most of their releases should consider themselves very fortunate indeed!)