Waterfront Records by Steve Gardner
Noise For Heroes #21 in the fall of 1991
Over the past three years Sydney's Waterfront Record label has moved from a point where it was a significant player among many good but small Australian independents to the point where they are probably the biggest indie label for underground bands going in the country. If you don't count labels like Mushroom, who have really gone fairly mainstream and lost most of their steam, Waterfront is clearly the biggest. And they are certainly the most diverse, releasing records by bands doing everything from full on hardcore thrash to folk to power pop to almost cabaret type things.
Waterfront has gone through a number of changes over the years, with the types of bands being released reflecting the tastes of whoever happens to be most active at the time. These days if you pop into Waterfront's store it seems likely that the fellow who'll be most ready to talk to you is Chris Dunn, a likable and gregarious guy who's been in the Sydney music scene in one way or another since around 1977. Back in February Chris sat down with me over lunch on George Street in Sydney and spent an hour answering questions about his involvement in Waterfront. He told me that his first musical involvement (other than listening to records and going to shows) was as a roadie and doorman for the Hoodoo Gurus, making sure that the right percentage of the receipts ended up in the Gurus pocket, and he gradually evolved into their tour manager.
Meantime, Waterfront Records was being founded by Steve Stavrakis.
"The first record came out at the end of 1982", says Chris, "which was JFK and the Cuban Crisis' "Careless Talk Costs Lives". That was the first ep. Basically he was working at Phantom at the time. Phantom had their label going with the Passengers and all that stuff. It was a pretty prominent label, so obviously lots of bands brought tapes there, and Phantom didn't want to do it, or they wanted to do two songs instead of four, so Steve said, "Well, I like it, I'll do the four on a label." So it started that way."
"And he continued on that way by himself till about 1984, I suppose, when a guy called Frank Vilante got involved, and that's when bands like Skyscrapers, Decline Of The Reptiles, and Eastern Dark, that sort of morbid oriented sort of stuff came onto Waterfront, whereas Steve was never any part of that. He was more Anglicized...Elvis Costello really influenced him in new music. There was JFK, the Lonely Hearts, who were a sort of power pop band, Particles, a really weird sort of band, Sekret Sekret, who were an original Sydney sort of psych/punk band that merged into more singer-songwritery sort of stuff...they're pretty classic records if you can get a hold of them."I mentioned to Chris that the oldest Waterfront release in my collection is a split single with Leonard Samperi.
"Oh, yeah", he says, "and David Virgin, who was from Sekret Sekret. Yeah, the David Virgin side is sort of like Sekret Sekret without the electricity, acoustic sort of stuff. He sort of lost it, but he was a real talent. He spent about five or six years being in really good bands."I mentioned how unusual it seems for an independent label to cover such a wide span of music as Waterfront does...to find both Massappeal and the Jackson Code on one label is pretty incredible in this day and age.
"Yeah", Chris replied, "I think there are two reasons; for one, there's two people working for the label, and the other is that mine and Steve's tastes are so diverse. We're not narrow minded about music. We like music for the sake of it being music. If it's good for what it is and we like it, that's the basis for what we do. I've got jazz records and classical records and folk records and hardcore records at home. That's my taste. In some areas that obviously doesn't work, because it's very Sydney music or very Australian sort of music, and in other areas it works really well because it's sort of international music."In an interview in Party Fears a few years back, Chris said that his absolute favorite kind of thing is tough power pop and the Detroit thing, while Steve, he says, was never that big on the Detroit thing. Since Sydney seems to be lacking in the Detroit kind of sound these days, I surmised that the label's diversity was a help in getting them through the sort of musical slumps that it seems all scenes are prone to run up against.
"Yeah", he responded, "In some ways that's definitely right, but I think when you get to Melbourne you'll find that Melbourne's become a lot more rock and roll than it was. If a band called the Meanies are playing you should check them out and try to get their single at Augogo; they're fantastic...probably the first really great Melbourne rock and roll band, I think. Obviously Birthday Party were an incredible band, but out of this sort of new area of music I'd say that the Meanies are probably THE incredible sort of band. They've put out some great singles.""That's pretty weird, sacking your brother from your band!", I interject.
"Yeah, I know...especially your older brother!", said Chris. "But there's a single recorded with Mark Arm that he's mixing over in the states at the moment. From then on it will be whatever the new Tumbleweed will be all about. For me they're the most hopeful young rock and roll band around. They're still young all those guys; Lenny just turned 20 and his younger brother Jason is like 17 or 18 and Richard the drummer is 20, and the new guitarist is only about 21 or 22, so they're still really young."With a hundred record releases and then some under your belt, looking back there have to be some that really stand out as being everything you could ask for and more, so I asked Chris if he could pick those for me.
"Well, it's probably the same as you", he replies after a little thought. " "Out" (the brilliant Happy Hate Me Nots lp)...it's pretty equal between "Out" and "Long Live The New Flesh" (the Eastern Dark mini-lp), but as an album you have to say "Out", but the two best records would have to be "Out" and "Long Live The New Flesh", followed by...I always forget the name of this Hard-Ons single, but it's the best single they did, Damp 94... (he remembers the catalog number but not the title!)... Yeah, funny, that. "Just Being With You". It's like the prima donna of all Hard-Ons singles. It's the best sound, slower than any of their other stuff when it first came out, but it's just the Hard-Ons best. The new single is really good but it's not recorded as well as the other stuff is. But that's probably equal."The Jackson Code album is perhaps the best example of Waterfront's diversity; it's totally unlike any record I've ever heard released by a label whose primary reputation was based on rock and roll records. It seems amazing that two guys can manage dealing with releasing records that have to be geared to totally different purchasing classes.
"It was a very successful record", says Chris. "That was sort of Mark's offshoot band, sort of based on German cabaret; cabaret with the idea of mixing songs with acting and that sort of stuff. If we had it on CD it would have done even better."I wondered if in Sydney there was much of a crossover, where fans would buy the hardcore stuff that Waterfront puts out and also go for things like the Jackson Code. Because music fans would be very different in Australia than here if they did!
But Chris puts that idea to rest:
"No, not at all. It's totally diverse. I think there was a stage where I knew one person who came in and bought all the different Waterfront stuff, but I hardly know anybody who does. Before I started working at Phantom I thought everybody was like that. I thought everybody liked music and bought all sorts of different records, but only after I worked there for a while did I realize that that's not true and that most people are very narrow in their tastes. I mean, that's fine, but I can't be like that, I just like so much."People probably are a little less narrow in Australia than in the US, though, and part of it has to do with their national radio station, JJJ (or Triple-J as it's usually called). The previous day I'd driven out to the Blue Mountains with Triple J on the car radio, and although they stay towards the safe side of things, I heard rap, metal, folk, electro-pop, top forty, oldies and Aussie independents all in the same day, played by the same dj. The Jam's "Start" one minute, a track by Perth's Healers the next, and later the Happy Hate Me Nots "Something". You'd never get that here, and it's gotta help to hear many different things. I put this opinion to Chris.
"I think it's something to do with culture", he replied. "You don't hear all the black music on white radio in the states, do you? Triple J plays a lot of black music as well. The closest thing I can relate Triple J to is like a commercial college radio station in the states. Because they very rarely put on stuff like the Amphetamine Reptile stuff, like Helmet and all that sort of stuff, unless it's really late at night by a certain dj. They're very systematized about what they'll play. But if it's alternative and it's by a major record company, they'll play it."Since I'm going to be talking to the Happy Hate Me Nots' Paul Berwick the next day, talk turns to how things are going for them. I asked how "Out" did in the US.
"Well", says Chris, "From what I gather, for a band that didn't tour and really didn't get any airplay or any top reviews, it sold about 3,000 altogether. That's probably just a drop in the ocean for the states, but for over here it sounds pretty good. When you consider that feedtime's "Cooper S" album which was released at the same time and got every cool reviewer in America behind it and every college radio station played the hell out of it and it really didn't sell much more with all that extra press. So to me that sort of says it doesn't matter how cool a record is by standards of what the press wants, it's always up to the public to make up their mind about how good the record is as well."With the new Happy Hate Me Nots material coming out, Chris is back to looking for a US deal that'll put them out there with a little more visibility.
"Because we're going to go for it this time, no holding back. Big, long sixty day tours of America. You can take a month off and be tour manager! (laughs)"At the prospect of spending two months living in a van I sensibly change topics to a band that sadly won't be doing any more touring ever, the Eastern Dark. The Eastern Dark were responsible for the incredible "Long Live The New Flesh" mini lp, but before they could record more, a tragic car wreck killed their brilliant frontman James Darroch and sent bassist Bill Gibson and drummer Geoff Milne to extended stays in the hospital. Geoff is now in the Plunderers while Bill is in the Smelly Tongues. Neither band has approached the magic of the Eastern Dark. Since the wreck, a live lp had been rumored for months and months, and finally came out last fall. So I asked about how that lp came together and why it took so long.
"That came about since the accident", said Chris. "It was just loss of tapes, Bill deciding what he wanted, covers, time, just everything. Finally he got the tape he wanted, went into the studio, put it together, got the cover together, which was a chore in itself, and it finally came out after a long, long time, and it was quite a good recording from a cassette. Dutch East did it on a CD in the States. But they didn't send any promo copies of it out, which I thought was really weird, because I'm sure radio would have played it and more people would have bought it if they did that. It wouldn't have really cost them much."Waterfront is now starting to take on greater weight in the Australian scheme of things. They've arranged a deal with the Australian major label Festival for distribution of their bigger acts like the Hard Ons and the Happy Hate Me Nots, which means that records by those bands will be much more universally available in Australia. They're also into licensing a lot of records from overseas, something that can work out fairly well especially if the band decides to tour Australia. Licensing is also another method of keeping your label going when the local scene becomes a little thin.
"If the band tours it's likely to triple your sales", said Chris. "Like Chris Milne from Augogo was lucky enough to have Sonic Youth stuff and Dinosaur Jr. stuff, and when they toured he sold over 2,000 of all of them, which is really great for Australia. We've got Nirvana, Bullet LaVolta, the last two Rollins records, the new Tad album; we're trying to get them to tour. A bit different from stuff like Dave Laing does; we're wanting to sell things within Australia, rather than selling 50 in Australia and exporting 950. Though we did a Bitch Magnet single which we sold about half here and half overseas, and we're doing a Blood Babies single as well, which we're going to do about the same with. I think the demise of local bands, whether it's because we're getting old, or local bands really are just bad, I'm not quite sure, but perhaps in some ways we might be getting old and that spark isn't there any more. Because when you go see a band you assess them a lot more than you would when you were younger, because there's like a whole lot of young new bands coming in and I go see them and I think "Well, they're alright and within a couple of years and with a bit of playing they could be really good", but I don't think they're amazing when I first see them or anything like that. So consequently our local roster is basically Hard-Ons, Hate Me Nots, Tumbleweed, Hellmenn, Benedicts, Nunbait, and Mr. Floppy from Melbourne. So that's seven bands. Oh, and the Splatterheads, if they ever do anything ever again."I used to think that you could get to the point where you were too old and you decided that you just couldn't get into the music as much, but I went through a period in the mid 80s after the original punk thing where there was nothing that interested me at all, and I thought well this is it, I'm getting old and boring and stale and nothing gets me, and then I started listening to bands a lot again in 1987 and now I find stuff all over the world that's really good. I put this view to Chris to see what he thought of it.
"Well there's so much more coming out now than what came out then", he replied. "Multitudes of records are coming out. Maximum Rock and Roll has stopped reviewing tapes because they say they receive too many records to review tapes. Especially in the States putting out a single is really easy and more and more people are doing it. When I hear records from overseas I think "Wow, they're fantastic!". Like Monster Magnet are the band that has just blown me away...this incredible Stooges noise that's wilder than Mudhoney or something. That sort of came out of the blue. I've liked a lot of singles, like the latest Nirvana single I think's really good, and various other singles, but the Monster Magnet single is from a sort of newish band, and I just went "Wow, that's amazing!". I know that I haven't lost it, but just going to see local bands...I don't think Australians put as much into their music as a lot of Americans do. I think they're a much lazier people and they're really slack about getting up and doing things. It seems like these bands have been around for ages and ages and they keep on plodding along putting out records. They go "Oh, I can go to the beach, what do I need to do this for. We'll do it tomorrow.""Then there's the hump phenomenon that everybody in Australia talks about; how when you get to the point where you can play venues that hold 1,000 or more you're stuck, because you can only play one of those per city every 6 months or so, and there's only about 5 stops you can make and you've toured the whole country. So then you have to leave the country, and that's a hard step to make.
"There's big venues", he says, "But the hardest thing is to get more people hearing your music. There's like a wall that you just can't go any further where you can perhaps sell ten or fifteen thousand albums if you've got distribution through a major without getting mass airplay, but there's like this wall, where your next step is not 20 or 30 thousand, it's like 50 thousand."
"I don't know if you've heard of Spy Vs. Spy...they came out of the independent inner city Sydney scene and got picked up by Gary Morris who was Midnight Oil's manager and who paid for all their recordings, and they slowly worked their way up to where they weren't so much an inner city band any more but were playing to the suburbs. And they can sell about 30 or 40 thousand albums, but they can't seem to break through the pop single market and to get to that extra few more. Because they don't really have this personality on them, they've just got this really good live reputation, so whenever they can play a pub they pack it out, but if they tried to play the Hordern Pavilion it just wouldn't work. So they're an interesting side of things."But it's really tough when at some point you have to get down to making the decision to give up your job and do that extra push, and it's such a great risk...
"Well in Australia it's even more", says Chris, "Because for an American band, like on the east coast, you can fly to London for like 200 bucks, and then on to Europe. Australians are like a thousand or 1500 dollars before they even get out of the country. So that's an incredible hurdle. Here it's the first thing they think about is "when am I going to go overseas?" That's the band's first thought. Because Australia has a population of only 17 million people, and so many people from overseas forget that. Especially when you're trying to license a record. In America there's 250 million people and Australia has 17 million people. It's like selling records in Switzerland, or Norway might be the closest country to our size. But because it's such a vast land mass and it's so far away a lot of people have the idea that Europe is Europe and the US is the US and Australia is another market altogether. But it's such a small market. And so it's very difficult to make a living out of music here. You can do it in the States and Europe, but if you're just going to do it in Australia it's just impossible. The guys from Died Pretty can make a living because they've got American and British things, but you wouldn't call them a big band by any means. But Brett and Ron can live off their songwriting royalties. But it is a very hard thing to do to go over that mountain."I remembered hearing Chris speak of Died Pretty in nearly reverent terms when I was in Australia in 1987, and I wondered if he ever regretted not having certain bands like Died Pretty on Waterfront.
"Before they recorded for anyone else?", he replied. "Because obviously there's bands like Ratcat who we lost and things like that; I mean that's just the way of doing it, but we had Ratcat first. But there isn't a band that I wished we'd got that another label got. Recently, maybe? Not really. Chad's Tree was the biggest one I wished we had when we didn't have them and then we finally did get their second album. But we've always been very lucky and we got most of the bands we wanted to. Especially because we took on so many to begin with. I suppose you could say, yes, I wish Died Pretty was on Waterfront, but they did their first record before I was part of Waterfront, so that doesn't really count. So I think I've been pretty happy. I think we've had a pretty good share of the Australian music that's come out since I've been involved in it. Considering that that's since 1986 which is more the start of the demise of Australian music rather than the beginning, I'd have to say, no, not really."There's no set Waterfront policy on financing recording for bands. In the past some of them have gotten financing, others came to Waterfront with finished recordings and Waterfront signed them up and released it. These days, according to Chris, anything that they release on the Waterfront label proper (they now have their Seaside spin-off for bands with a smaller base of appeal) gets financed. They also try to steer the bands towards studios where they have a good chance of making a good sounding record.
"But that's one of my big hassles about Australia is that I don't think there's the studios, or not so much the studios, but the engineers, to make records that are of quality anymore", says Chris. "Back in 85 to 87 those records with Rob and Alan were really great records, but Rob really is the only independent producer in Australia and he can't do everything. That's one of the reasons I asked J. Mascis to do the second Protons single, because I wanted this record to be better than their first one and there was no one here who could do it except Rob, and I wanted someone different. I think J did an incredible job, considering the equipment he was using and the engineer and that the band was so young. Since the Hard-Ons single that's one of our biggest selling singles overseas. Because I think it's such a great sounding record. And Mark Arm did the new one for Tumbleweed for the same reason. 'Cos Kid Stephens did the mini album, and that's alright, but it's not as good as what it could have been. Again, to me it was a lack of Australian incentive to push the band. There were a lot of squabbles in the studio so they sort of broke up. We try to push them and say "do your best and make a record that's really really great" and so forth, but sometimes I think it's a lack of everything going on. That's why I think this experiment of getting Mark Arm to record the Tumbleweed thing here and then taking it over to the states to mix, we'll see if it comes out sounding as good as what a new young American band does then it really proves my point, and if it doesn't I don't know what the fuck's wrong."I thought this was a funny perspective, since I'm consistently impressed at how good Australian releases seem to sound compared to some of the dreck that floats out of American studios.
Chris replied, "Well, that might be because we only get the better sounding records here. We don't have to go through all the crap to come to the best American records. We only get ones that are reviewed really great. But you have people like Steve Albini and all the SubPop stuff that sounds so good, and the last Fluid record. That last Fluid record is INSANE! Hopefully he's going to do the new Hard Ons. Because the last Hard Ons albums is a crock of shit. Because there's no engineer in this country who could work with the band. There was no engineer who they could sit down with and say "we want to sound like this" and have him understand what they meant. And that's a big, big problem. Per head of population I suppose there's probably only one good engineer for 17 million people in America, too, but because their scattered all over every different area, you've got people like Kramer in New York, Albini in Chicago and Butch Vig down there, you've got the guy who's doing the Husker Du stuff in Minneapolis, Jack Endino in Seattle; they're the more name guys who can get really good sounds. Rob and Alan are really the only people here. But getting Alan Thorne as a producer is no good because he's such a wimp. You gotta get Rob in there to sort of get the guy going. Rob really is the only good producer around. You can hear that with "Out", where before "Out" he'd only done Detroit records, then he gets a band that's totally non-Detroit and he still makes one of the most incredible records you've ever heard. I played that the other day, and it's still just an incredible record."
"So for the Hate Me Nots it's alright because you can do that, but the next Hard Ons album has to be done overseas. I might want to give a band to Rob now and then, but you can't use him too much. I'm going to start encouraging bands to record basic tracks over here and sending them over there to mix. You just get more interesting sounds."That's a hell of a scary way to do things; you record a sixteen or 24 track tape and then mail it off overseas where it might get lost on the way, and it ends up in the hands of some guy you don't know other than that he's produced other records you like, and he mixes it and sends it back, and if you don't like it, you're back to square one.
Says Chris, "It is, but the chances of it being about 30 times better than if it was done here is the better way of doing it. All these bands want to go overseas and make it overseas. If they don't have a record that's going to impress people overseas, they're not going to get there. You've gotta have a record that somebody in some record company is going to listen to and go "Fuck, that's incredible, I want this band and I want them now!" And if you don't have that, what have you got? Nothing!"I mentioned that the Hard-Ons seemed to be grabbing a foothold in the US now...they're one Australian band that friends who are into independent music consistently seem to have heard of, and occasionally you even see a Hard-Ons shirt at a show in San Diego (although more often than not I'm wearing it).
"Well, they've toured twice", says Chris. "Both abortive tours, but those two tours have certainly made it. When I was at Tampa in my aunties place I went down to the local record store and they had Hard Ons records and Australian singles and they sold them all the time. In some ways what's hard for the Hard-Ons is that they have the same following in the States as they've got here, which is a kids market. Fifteen year olds think the Hard-Ons are this great sort of punk pop tough wild sound, and with the cartoons and all that and the different races of the members, it all rolls into a thing that's totally original. We have this Japanese guy lined up to try to do the new album, and he loves it. The same thing crosses over into places like Japan. That's what I think makes great bands; something that's totally original. In a lot of ways in Australia sometimes, that's gone, that originality of something special that makes them different from overseas bands. Now there's a lot of the young people wanting to be like the Pixies or the Wonder Stuff, or like Caligula, who are like the biggest thing in Sydney at the moment, but all they are is a cheap version of the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Faith No More. And if you don't have local people supporting local bands they're not going to get off the ground and become bigger locally to get overseas. The Kryptonics are a perfect example of that. I mean, they are a mean, mean live band. They are incredible. But no one goes to see them, no one. I mean, I think they are a bit dated as well and they need to come into the 90s, but they are a mean rock and roll band. They pump. Live I've never seen such a wild live band. God, they're incredible. And then you get a band like Ratcat who can't string two things together and their bloody huge. But that's sexuality as well; the same thing with the Hummingbirds, because of the girls. The Falling Joys are another band who are very Australian and they've got a girl in front. In one way that's what's happening in Sydney as well; if you've got a girl in your band you're going to be twice as big as a band with a guy in it."At this point the food's long gone and the waitress is looking at us like are we ever going to pay, so Chris picks up the tab and we wrap it up. Seems like we could have talked about the Australian music scene for a couple days and done a whole issue with the one conversation. If you're visiting Sydney, make sure you stop in the Waterfront shop and say hello to Chris. He'll steer you towards what going on that's good around town for sure.