The Boston Phoenix
August 19 - 26, 1999

[Music Reviews]

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For the records

Bulb, Super 8, and Surefire

by Carly Carioli

Dirty Water 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 Middle East.

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 job."

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, Madbox.

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 864-EAST.

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