Punk that sells - Epitaph finds the perfect balance between the light stuff and the hard stuff
By Tom Laskin
Epitaph, a seriously off-stream punk label from the outset, experienced severe growing pains back in the early '90s when the Offspring's Ignition and Smash both sold in the multi-millions. The decidedly alt music factory, led by Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz, was no longer underground. And -- horrors -- the dollars that the tuneful Offspring brought in came, in large part, from the same jocks and mall rats that SoCal punk had stood against since the glory days of Black Flag and X.
Oh well, things change, and the survivors in the music business -- no matter what their philosophical pose -- are the ones who change along with the times. If the new pop-punk sound is self-involved, unimaginatively produced and dominated by perky, forgettable kids like the irrepressible membership of Sum 41, then Epitaph, which helped cast the pop-punk mold, is willing to go along for the ride.
At least part of the time. Witness the label's latest peppy punk offering, 1208, a furiously up-tempo, sonically slick foursome that includes Black Flag founder Greg Ginn's nephew and has already received the endorsement of Pennywise, one of Epitaph's paradigmatic melodic punk outfits. These fellas' new one, Turn of the Screw, sounds a lot more like old Offspring than any of them would probably care to admit, but an occasional anthemic blow against the starmaker system (see "Next Big Thing") and some ambiguous anti-authoritarianism (the roaring "Smash the Badge") keep 'em slightly separated from the spiky-haired pretenders lining up to become the next Sum or Good Charlotte.
Fifteen-year-olds who are tiring of the MTV-endorsed guitar bands will understand their work thoroughly, and yet they maintain a soupcon of independence from the common run. Now that's a good marketing strategy.
What's nice about Epitaph, though, is that Gurewitz and his employees don't simply play the latest trends. They're not greedy, and with bands like 1208 helping to secure the label's financial future along with the slower-paced but similarly inclined pop-rock duo the Special Goodness (who, in hard-core D.I.Y. fashion, recorded their new eponymous disc at home on two-track analog equipment), Epitaph can keep on releasing other, more outré and aggressive musical offerings to its indie-label devotees.
Last year the label took a chance with the late Joe Strummer's raucous Mescaleros and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, two quality, genre-trashing acts that cater to a more discerning public. Those were excellent moves, as was Epitaph's earlier involvement with the gutbucket-blues-reviving Fat Possum imprint and its recent teaming with Minneapolis-based indie hip-hop heroes Atmosphere to release Seven's Travels, a staple of 2003's best-of-the-year lists.
Can the pairing of well-meaning -- and, alas, musically predictable -- pop-punk and more demanding material keep paying dividends? I don't see why not. While other indies thrive on obscurity or make deals with major labels that inevitably hamstring creativity and, in many cases, screw up the balance sheet, Epitaph keeps making good choices.
A prime example is Gurewitz's new electro-punk project, Error, which brings him together with a most unlikely partner, Nine Inch Nails cyber ghoul Atticus Ross. For one thing it's dance music (albeit of the violently Dionysian sort), and for another it embraces the synthesizer-powered, black-on-black esthetics of the Goth set. The six-song EP resembles the work of Goth warhorses like Ministry and NIN rather closely, but the irony dripping from a lyric like "fifty little pentagrams is just a beginning" on the standout track, "Jack the Ripper," is a delicious departure from Goth's usual humorlessness. And, thanks largely to Ross' participation, the music has all the hellfire energy and headlong-into-the-abyss propulsion of the best industrial Goth. Great, creepy stuff, and not at all the kind of thing the granola-munching and Howard Zinn-consuming followers of Bad Religion would ever expect out of their favorite guitar-hero-cum-label-mogul.
Another up-tempo new offering: the HorrorPops' Hell Yeah, which is on the Epitaph-distributed Hellcat imprint. Here the beats are basic rock 'n' roll and, as the band's name implies, the style is swinging psychobilly that mixes stand-up bass boogie with punk power chords. Singer Patricia's apparent channeling of Gwen Stefani (she's given to the same nasal purring and half-sighed declaiming) makes the results far more accessible than the work of more adventurous forefathers like the Cramps. Still, there's no doubting the sextet's commitment on each of the high-octane tracks, and their fun factor is very high indeed. Get a video on MTV, and they're going places on their own terms. That's a cinch.
With commerce and musical diversity blending so well at Epitaph these days, it's hard to believe that the label is cruising toward its 20th year of existence. Most competitors ossified creatively -- or simply dried up and blew away -- in half that time.
But Brett Gurewitz is a bright guy. Over the years, he's resisted the temptation to stick with the tried and true and consistently gone his own way (indeed, he exited Bad Religion for several years, even though it was a great meal ticket). He's also maintained his integrity in the process. The floundering major labels could learn a lot from him; trouble is, they're too mesmerized by the old maximize-your-profit model. Part of Gurewitz's secret is that he never has been.