For the records
Bulb, Super 8, and Surefire
by Carly Carioli
The office/warehouse of Surefire Distribution sits in a storefront just outside
of Union Square in Somerville, anonymous among the taco joints and auto-body
shops except for a Holly Golightly flyer taped to the front window. The door is
propped open. Inside, they distribute records by some 700 microlabels. About 10
in-house labels are distributed by Surefire exclusively; most of these belong
to the people who work there packing boxes full of CDs and singles and albums
for shipment to mom-and-pop record shops up and down the East Coast.
The place constitutes a demented, bewildering, self-contained musical universe
unto itself -- a home, as Ben McOsker puts it, for the kind of records that
probably have no business being made. McOsker's label is Load Records, which he
runs out of his apartment in Providence. Also at Surefire on a recent Thursday
afternoon were Dave Sweetapple, whose Wabana label has issued singles and
albums by Guided by Voices, Cobra Verde, Spare Snare, Fat Day, Six Finger
Satellite, Atom and His Package, and Calexico, among others; and Pete Larsen,
who from various points around the globe including Japan and Germany -- and,
currently, Boston -- has been running a label called Bulb. My own theory on the
genius of Bulb is longwinded and patently absurd; it will have to wait for a
later date. "Pete's been putting out the craziest shit for the longest time. I
mean, Prehensile Monkeytailed Skink?" says McOsker, invoking the name of one of
Bulb's bands with obvious admiration. "There's no reason for that to exist.
Nobody asked. It just exists."
When you speak with the folks at Surefire, it's inevitable that they'll talk
at least as much about one another's labels as about their own. The dividing
line is sometimes thin -- both Load and Wabana, for example, have put out
albums by the awe-inspiring Swedish psychopaths known as Brainbombs. These
labels' total output is something like a modern take on the ESP label back when
the Godz walked the earth, with all the weirdness you'd expect from punk squawk
subjected to the liberating influence of free jazz. On Load alone, the
permutations of this confluence include Lightning Bolt (death-techno live drums
and bass at tremendous volume); Dropdead (epileptic hardcore skronk);
Pleasurehorse (speaker-shearing noise with a faint pulse); Gerty Farish (a
boy/girl guitar-and-Casio duo playing punk as Dr. Seuss might have heard it);
and Childkraft (elementary-school Kraftwerk).
Since Load's inception, in 1993, McOsker has cultivated Providence's
scum/noise/freak-rock underground. He's turned John Von Ryan, the principal
auteur behind Providence's late, great spazz-garage band Thee Hydrogen Terrors,
into a veritable cottage industry -- from pre-Terrors material by Von Ryan's
Express through post-Terrors projects including a solo organ one-off and a
foray into guitarless, harmonica-driven distorto-blues with Olneyville Sound
System. Load also released Six Finger Satellite's weirdest disc, Clone
Theory, and subsequent releases have picked up the mantle of 6FS's most
screwed-up sides -- analog keyboard catastrophes, jerky guitar histrionics, and
quantum avant-disco mechanics. Although McOsker did put out one attempt at a
comprehensive scene overview with Repopulation Program -- which
collected tracks from pretty and popular acts like Purple Ivy Shadows, Scarce,
and Amazing Royal Crowns alongside, well, Violent Anal Death -- Load's heart
has sided with the darker strain.
"Nobody likes to pay for shows in Providence," says McOsker, who has a hand in
booking both Fort Thunder (an all-ages loft-space/silk-screening collective)
and the Safari Club. "And since people don't really want to pay for shows,
there's not as much incentive for people to generate this attitude like you've
gotta pack the place. There's an art school that nobody ever seems to finish.
So there's all these people hanging around and feeding off each other."
Among the best of the post-Six Finger lot are Arab on Radar, whose Queen
Hygiene II and Rough Day at the Orifice picked up where 6FS's The
Pigeon Is the Most Popular Bird left off: the guitars squeal like a sack of
bats; the singer cackles like the Wicked Witch of the West; and much like the
staff at Surefire, everyone seems to have a preoccupation with bad potty
training. The band's latest tantrum, Soak the Saddle (due later this
year; the band play the Middle East next Thursday, August 26), is so bizarre
that Chicago's neo-no-wave label Skin Graft has been trying to elbow Load aside
for the rights to it. A close second to the Arabs are Men's Recovery Project
(the line-up of late includes former Melvins dude Joe Preston), whose new
Bodies over Bosra takes a doom-filled trip through minefields of analog
synths and brain-damaged ax grinding. It's also a concept album about the
These are, believe it or not, the big-ticket items. At least as interesting
are the ultra-obscure one-offs that never went anywhere, the innumerable
oddities -- among them the Landed single, whose cover settles, once and for
all, that old argument about whether it's possible for a man to give himself a
blow job. Running through all this is a recognizable madness, if not a method.
Load's aesthetic, in McOsker's words, is an "inept, retarded brilliance." This
is not a label with delusions of grandeur -- Load's logo, after all, is a coat
of arms topped by a steaming bowl of shit. McOsker is currently in debt to
Surefire for production costs, and he's talking about selling his car in order
to finance his next two releases.
"I like rock," he says. "And I like a lot of bullshit, too, thank God for
that. It's not always the most salable music. I want my records to sell,
obviously. I'm really interested in seeing where I can take this, between what
goes on in Providence and other things I can find that will bring an aesthetic
to the label. I mean, people look at the ['60s electronic pioneers] Silver
Apples like they're some important band, but they couldn't have gotten hit by a
fucking car in 1968. They got laughed off the stage opening for the Lovin'
Spoonful. And it is what it is -- now you've got a bunch of mopy kids in
Michigan living and dying by that shit. But I think it's a similar thing to
what's going on now. I mean, I'm not really doing this for the history of it
all. There's a community, and we're all putting out similar stuff. There's a
reward, but sometimes it comes at a personal and financial toll. I don't have a
personal life anymore. I don't answer the phone anymore."
He's gotten off the topic. "I don't know. I'm glad I'm doing it, but it comes
at a cost. And I'm glad for that, too. Someone's gotta suffer for this
bullshit. I hate those never-workin' musicians, I'll tell ya that much. Get a
Like Load and Bulb, the Super 8 label was established in 1993, by Peter
Selznick, a former indie buyer at a record store in Billerica who eventually
gravitated into Surefire's inner circle. "I'm so used to hanging out at
Surefire -- as far as dealing with anyone about music, I just know what
everyone down there is talking about," he says over drinks in Harvard Square.
"It's very insular."
Selznick made a name for Super 8 early on by releasing singles by the
Grifters, just as they were being signed to Sub Pop, and Gaunt, long before
they were signed to Sire. Both pressings sold out; and since one of Selznick's
founding principles was not to re-press any of Super 8's releases, good luck
locating them. But by far Super 8's most exclusive release is one you won't
find in the label's discography -- the seven-inch he sent out as a wedding
invitation (for the record, it featured tracks by the Grand Island, the 914, El
Tianta, and the Rye Coalition).
In a way, that single brought Super 8 full circle; the impetus for forming a
label had come, Selznick says, after his break-up with a girlfriend prompted
him to drive cross-country to Minneapolis, where he stayed with some friends
he'd made at sludge-punk label Amphetamine Reptile. He also stopped by Get Hip,
a Pittsburgh-based garage-punk label and mammoth distribution outlet. When he
got back to Boston, he sent away to Simple Machines, which publishes a how-to
on indie-label ownership; it never came. Nonetheless, Super 8 ended up
releasing a string of singles and discs by the kinds of Boston bands who shared
his affinity for AmRep's skewed, malicious turbulence -- Kudgel, Slughog,
Like McOsker, Selznick's in the red. "I owe Surefire some money just from
manufacturing CDs -- mostly the Madbox CD. I made 700 of them and I sold,
maybe, 10. It's the CDs that are killing me."
Still, Super 8's latest full-length was one of its best yet. Last year
Selznick put out Naughty French Spot, the debut disc by Boston's the
Grand Island, which was a favorite around the Phoenix offices but
somehow slipped through the cracks (we were going to mention it eventually, we
swear). For the first time in Super 8's history, Selznick hired a publicist and
a radio promoter, and reviews poured in favorably comparing the GI kids to
early Fugazi -- a function of the band's dual vocalists, and GI's way of
turning off-kilter squiggles into shout-along anthems -- as well as to the
Volcano Suns. The band have already recorded the material for a follow up,
which to these ears evokes the slanted-and-disenchanted angularity of DC's
defunct Monorchid, only with a demented circus organist sitting in.
Selznick has since added two bands to his roster: GooLoo, the Big Blackest
thing to come out of Chicago since the June of '44 crowd took the piss out of
the Windy City; and Boston's the 914, who traffic in the kind of inventive,
skull-shearing scum metal that AmRep would've been all over a couple of years
ago. All three are hitting the road -- with Selznick in tow -- on Super 8's
first-ever label-package tour, which kicks off this Sunday at the Middle East.
The gig also serves as a record-release party for two new Super 8 singles: the
debut by GooLoo and a four-way split featuring the Grand Island, the 914,
Neptune, and the Never-Never.
The Grand Island, the 914, and GooLoo play a seven-inch-release party at
the Middle East this Sunday, August 22, and Arab on Radar play the Middle East
next Thursday, August 26, with the Flying Luttenbachers and Fat Day. Call