Thursday, September 17, 2009

LET THEM KNOW: The Story Of Youth Brigade & BYO Records: EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW with SHAWN STERN

LET THEM KNOW:
The Story Of Youth Brigade & BYO Records
The Boxset: Available NOW on CD/DVD and LP/CD/DVD

Punk Rock changed the music business.

Yes, chuckle silently to yourself, but you know it’s true. Before Punk, the music business had drifted further away from the importance of the music and had become a safe haven for pretentious musicians and arrogant record executives. Once Punk kicked down the doors, everything was different. No longer was it acceptable to play a 25 minute guitar solo when a younger band with fresh ideas could knock out an entire 12 track album that lasted that same amount of time. It was no longer necessary to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars recording an album when many bands were doing it for a tiny fraction of that cost. And you didn’t necessarily need to be an accomplished musician to get your message across: all you needed was passion and conviction.

One of the most obvious, and most important, changes that Punk brought to the table was the resurgence of the ‘indie’ label. Before Punk, independent labels were laughed at. Artists who released albums on indie labels were deemed ‘not good enough’ for a major label deal. In Punk’s wake, indie labels began popping up in every city, in every state, in every country, anxious to release albums from the up and coming Punk bands that were beginning to draw crowds. In just a little over a year, opinions about indie labels had changed so much that when The Clash signed with CBS instead of an indie label, their legions of fans considered it a total sell-out!

In California, labels like Alternative Tentacles, SST, Bomp, Slash, Dangerhouse and Posh Boy were all the rage with the Punk, Post-Punk and New Wave kids. But alongside these labels, BYO Records remains one of the most important and long-lasting. Set up by the band Youth Brigade to release their own music as well as music from the very healthy Punk scene, BYO has remained true to their original ideals and is still a vital, forward-thinking label.

For the first time, the label has finally decided to take a look back at their amazing 25+ year existence in style with the release of Let Them Know: The Story Of Youth Brigade And BYO Records. This beautiful package features a gorgeous book, a must-see documentary DVD (with bonus features) and a jaw-dropping 31 track CD that contains BYO bands covering cuts from other BYO bands! There’s also a double vinyl edition that comes in LP sized packaging and includes the book, CD and DVD! Can you say “Hell, yeah!”?

I was able to pull myself away from the box and spend a little time with Youth Brigade frontman and BYO boss Shawn Stern to discuss Punk, BYO and this essential release.

SPAZ: What kind of music were the Stern brothers listening to growing up?
SHAWN STERN: When we were young, we listened to AM radio in the late ‘60s, Motown a lot. In 1970, we were listening to the Folk/Rock our parents were playing: CSNY, Janis Joplin, Melanie, Bill Withers, Cat Stevens, Jim Croce. We then started finding our own stuff, mostly Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Johnny Winter, Rory Gallagher, Robin Trower, the hippy and Rock stuff.

SPAZ: Do you remember when Punk first made an impression on you?
SS: Summer of ’77: reading an article in the L.A. times Sunday Calendar about the Sex Pistols’ American tour and San Francisco show by Robert Hilburn and then hearing KMET play Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True record in full. I realized that this was something I needed to see, so a few months later, in early ’78, we went to check out The Dickies at the Whiskey. That show pretty much convinced me and my brother Mark that we needed to stop doing Rock covers and start writing our own music.
SPAZ: When you first formed Youth Brigade, did you feel that you had more in common, musically, with the West Coast, the East Coast or the British punks?
SS: Well, I think things were so new we didn’t really look at it as who we were more influenced by or would emulate or have in common. I mean we loved English Oi bands (like) Sham 69, Angelic Upstarts, Cockney Rejects and 4 Skins. We also loved the Clash and The Stranglers, The Buzzcocks, The Jam and The Lurkers. But we were heavily influenced by the Punk bands we had been friends with and going to see play the two years we had been doing our first band the Extremes. We used to go play with and go see X, The Bags, Deadbeats, Weirdos, Dickies and a lot of the early Punk bands. And then, as the scene grew, Circle Jerks, TSOL, Social Distortion and The Adolescents. And when we heard Minor Threat that was a revelation as well. We, of course, listened to The Ramones, Blondie, Television, Dead Boys and Devo and saw them all when they came around, too. So it was really a whole “host” as the president says!

SPAZ: In the early days of punk, the genre was always associated with violence, be it an aggressive mosh pit or a fight in the parking lot. Did you feel that the scene would often attract the wrong types of people (i.e. those that were more into the violence or fashion aspect and not the music or message)?
SS: Well, there’s not much you can do about what people do. You hope that, regardless of what attracts them to Punk rock, eventually they’ll hear the music, the ideas and it will get them to think. Of course, there are those that just wanna stomp heads and so we were all a little crazy in our young days, but we had a lot of things to be pissed about and fight against. Ronald Reagan became president of America when Punk was exploding in California and a lot of the problems we have now are rooted in his conservative, narrow minded policies.

SPAZ: When you started BYO Records, had the band already tried signing with other labels or was it always part of the plan to release your own music on your own terms?
SS: It was never a “plan”: we didn’t really plan much of anything, I like to say our lives are kind of like a ping pong ball, we just get bounced into things. We just did things out of necessity: wanted to do a show, put it on ourselves; need to release a record, do it ourselves.
SPAZ: Was there a particular label you modeled BYO after?
SS: Ha-ha, nope, we never paid attention to other labels before we started. We just thought it was important to put out a positive message because the mainstream media portrayed Punk Rock as violent and mindless and we knew that wasn’t true. We looked to work with bands that were like minded people.

SPAZ: How difficult was it to balance your own musical vision (Youth Brigade) and run a label?
SS: Pretty much impossible because, in the ‘80s, we didn’t really make much money to support us bringing in people to run the label when the band went on the road. So, when the band was out, the label would suffer and vice versa. It’s gotten better in the ‘90’s, but we still have that same problem.

SPAZ: Youth Brigade has had long periods of inactivity, but did the band ever actually call it quits?
SS: Yeah, when we came back from our first European tour in ’84, our brother Adam decided he was going to go to art school. He left the band, we had a couple of guys replace him, Bob Gnarly from Plain Wrap was the main guy and we became the Brigade for a little over a year. The Punk scene was dying (late ’87) and the Metal scene was taking over the Sunset Strip so we broke up and stopped actively signing bands to the label. BYO was still in existence, but we let Southern Studios in UK press and distribute for us.

SPAZ: During Youth Brigade’s first couple of years, were there any contemporary bands that inspired you? Are there any bands out there right now that inspire you?
SS: As I said before, Angelic Upstarts had a big influence as did Sham 69 and playing with The Adolescents, TSOL, Social Distortion, they all had an influence I think. Nowadays I really like the bands we’ve worked with on the label, Nothington, Filthy Thieving Bastards, Swingin Utters, Throw Rag, The Briefs, NOFX, Old Man Markely, Off With Their Heads, Dillinger 4.

SPAZ: In the late ‘80s and part of the ‘90s, Punk went back underground. Was this a tough period for BYO and Youth Brigade?
SS: Oh, I think during the late ‘80s, yes, but we got back together in ’92 and things exploded. The success in the late ’80’s of Nirvana, The Pixies and Jane’s Addiction helped Punk Rock get attention and Bad Religion and Fugazi definitely carried the torch in those years. Then in ’94, Green Day and The Offspring got pretty huge. That led to the success of NOFX, Rancid, Pennywise and so many more bands and we all did well because of that. So, in many ways, it was our most successful period.

SPAZ: In recent years, I’ve noticed that British Punk has really taken a back seat to the U.S. scene. Do you think that American Punk bands are better these days?
SS: I don’t think there has been as vibrant a Punk scene in the UK since the late ‘70’s/early ‘80s as what we’ve had here in Southern California over the past 30 years. There are always some great bands coming out of the UK, but clearly L.A. has had the biggest Punk scene in the world since the early ‘80s and so many great bands have come out of here.


SPAZ: Do you think that the real and honest modern Punk Rock bands (such as those on BYO) have been overlooked in favor of the cookie cutter Pop/Punk bands that arrived in Blink 182’s wake?
SS: Well, I don’t really believe that Blink 182 and their spawn that followed are Punk Rock in anything other than style. They can cop NOFX’s sound and make silly adolescent songs all they want, but I really don’t consider that Punk Rock. Most of those bands have sold lots of records, but how many of them are still around 10-15 years later, let alone 25-30 years!? Most of them appeal to little kids who are usually done with them after a year or two. In fact, if you ask some kid who was listening to these bands when they were 12-14 about the music, they’re usually embarrassed to admit they even listened to them.

SPAZ: What do you think of the current Punk crowds?
SS: Well, for us, I think it’s great that we’ve been seeing new generations of kids coming to our shows and listening to our music, the old and the new, for the last 15 years. I think that Punk Rock has something to say and the fact that we’ve been doing this for over 25 years, I believe, is a testament to how much it means to people. People that grew up with us in the ‘80s are bringing their kids, so I think we must be doing something right.

SPAZ: Apart from revitalizing the indie label scene, do you think Punk has changed the music industry over the last 30 years?
SS: Well sure, it’s shown kids that they don’t need a big corporate owned record company to put out music; they don’t need to be force fed the drivel that so many of these companies put out to the masses of sheep that eat it up. For me, Punk Rock is about thinking for yourself and questioning everything and I think that belief has now taken over a lot of the music industry as well as other places. And that’s a good thing!

SPAZ: When did the idea for Let Them Know come about?
SS: We wanted to do something for our 25 year anniversary and, at the same time, we realized that kids are getting their music from downloads more and more and a lot of them are not paying for the music. So, we thought “What can we do to celebrate our anniversary and make it something that really is momentous as well as something that you can’t just download?” So, we came up with the double colored vinyl, documentary DVD and a 100 page hardcover book.

SPAZ: Did the Let Them Know project grow much bigger than your initial idea?
SS: Oh yeah,, but it’s definitely turned out better than we could have imagined. It’s by far the biggest project we’ve ever done and probably the best.

SPAZ: Are you surprised that there is still so much interest in what you do?
SS: I’m pretty surprised that we’re still playing music cause I didn’t think when I was in my 20’s that I’d still be playing in my 30’s let alone my 40’s and approaching mid-life. We’re really lucky that people like what we do and continue to support us.

SPAZ: Are you proud of what you’ve accomplished over the years since Youth Brigade formed nearly three decades ago?
SS: Yeah, we’re pretty humbled by how people seem to like what we do over all these years. Like I said, we never had any “plan” we just made music and had something to say. I guess we’re doing something right.

SPAZ: What’s next for BYO and Youth Brigade?
SS: We hit the road for dates on the east coast with Off With Their Heads, a few of the shows with the Casualties, then we go across Canada w/OWTH and The Bouncing Souls. We will play the Riot Fest in Chicago next month as well as the Fest in Gainesville and Fun, Fun, Fun in Austin in November. We’ll be hitting other cities in between. Hope to be writing new songs as well and make a new record next year.

SPAZ: What do you currently have spinning on your personal CD and DVD players?
SS: All kinds of stuff from Off With Their Heads, Nothington and all the songs off our new comp to Radiohead, Fugazi, Robin Trower, Jimi Hendrix, Tricky and lots of different stuff.

Thanks to Shawn Stern

Special thanks to Julie Lo

Fight to unite,
Stephen SPAZ Schnee

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