No Sleep Forever
The Story of Chris Hansen and the Rise of No Sleep Records By Jason Gardner
There are many cliches that exist about the music industry, both inside and outside of the realm of bands, managers, merch folks and the like. Many of them revolve around aspects of touring, the rigors of ‘making it’, whatever that might mean in today’s environment, and the relationship any of those people might have with what we will simply refer to as ‘the label’. Stigmatized more and more as bands have re-aligned themselves post-major label stardom, or in some cases foregoing the standard band-label relationship altogether, the general idea of a label has changed considerably in recent years. But that hasn’t stopped Chris Hansen, owner of independent cult-label No Sleep Records, from putting his hat in the ring per se to take his stake in getting the music he loved, and still loves, out to the willing ears of listeners.
“Throughout my high school, and teen years, I was always interested in music, and always knew I wanted to be a part of it in some way,” says Hansen. There’s no ritzy tale of our meeting in a hip cafe or even joking about things over the phone – Hansen’s intense schedule of overseeing practically everything for No Sleep has left our conversations resorted to an email exchange. But even through the typed words Hansen sends back, his story still rings with profound drive and passion for the people depending on him most – his bands.
After following a path that led him through a intern position at Fearless Records and working mail-order its sister company Smartpunk, Hansen’s first full-on experience of label work started back in 2005 when he was a part of Revelation Records, doing much of the same work he had already been doing but at the same time learning the ins-and-outs of the label business. The next year, he eventually would move onto Trustkill Records – and in the process would spark the creation of what would end up becoming No Sleep Records.
“While driving from California to New Jersey for the new job, I stopped in Kansas City to see some friends, and while going to lunch with my friend Rick Robinett,” says Hansen. Robinett was aware of Hansen’s interest in starting a label, and showed him an EP from a band Robinett was working with at the time. That EP would end up being Our American Cousin’s How’s This For A Diploma, which he made his first release back in October of 2006. “So without Rick, and the Our American Cousin release, the chances are the label would have never gotten started.”
The releases would come a bit slow for Hansen, as he would use any money he could scrape together to put out bands on the label, all while working and learning at Trustkill. Even when it was his hobby, as Hansen says, “I put my all into it.” Roughly a year into the No Sleep moniker, Hansen would put out things here and there, but it would be what is listed in the No Sleep catalog as NSR005 that would arguably be his first eventually big find in a little pop-punk band from Pennsylvania.
“I had just given up on trying to be in a full-time band,” admits Dan Campbell, or as most people would refer to him, Soupy, of The Wonder Years. Campbell’s meeting of Hansen was seemingly accidental to say the least though. “I had just transferred into a four-year college. On one of the first days at this school, I reconnected with an old friend I used to skateboard with who also went there. His name was Chris and he had long hair, so later that week when I got a MySpace – yes, it was 2006 – friend request from a dude with long hair named Chris, I assumed it was my buddy,” jokes Campbell. Turns out, the exchange would lead to Campbell getting Hansen to check out The Wonder Years’ split with Bangarang. “He saw potential in what we considered us just screwing around and offered to put out our next record.”
Hansen would end up being laid off from Trustkill in 2008, resulting in him moving back out West to focus on No Sleep, with the occasional design job on the side. As No Sleep would grow, Hansen would put out releases by other small bands he was discovering, including La Dispute, Monument to Thieves and Double Vision.
“Chris approached us sometime after we released our first EP, my timeline is permanently blurry so the exact moment escapes me, and expressed interest in releasing whatever would end up following that particular EP,” reflects La Dispute vocalist Jordan Dreyer. Though the band had only ever discussed such things with people they had known closer to home in Michigan, Dreyer could tell Hansen wasn’t someone trying to take advantage of what La Dispute had built through the release of Vancouver and the touring that followed. “Through engaging in that dialogue, it became pretty apparent that Chris had his head and his heart in the right place in regards to his label and the bands he chose to work with, how he presented and supported them and the label and the like, and that was all we were really concerned with when it came to choosing partners artistically across the board, so we decided we'd give it a shot.”
But as far as origin stories go, Hansen’s devotion to the job at hand seems most prevalent in the backstory of a band that technically isn’t even a part of the No Sleep roster – Touche Amore.
“I first met Chris when he was working at Revelation Records,” says TA vocalist Jeremy Bolm about his history with Hansen. “My best friend Joey Cahill, owner of 6131 Records, was also working there at the time. I'd go visit Joey and get lunch and Chris would come along.” At the time, Touche Amore had a demo on their hands and was looking to get it pressed – resulting in Hansen offering to release it for them. “Chris Hansen once drove to my mom’s house and we sat on the living room floor and put together the first Touche Amore 7”,” recalls Bolm. “It took a whole day, just the two of us working our asses off to make it possible.”
As the underground took more of a look towards what Hansen was doing with No Sleep – fostering bands essentially on his own and turning them into household names with those tuned to what was up and coming – the attention began to reap rewards for both Hansen and his bands. As both No Sleep and its bands were growing, Hansen was able to leave behind his storage unit setup to have his own office and warehouse to run No Sleep. Bands were getting bigger, with The Wonder Years making the jump to Hopeless Records after their release of The Upsides and La Dispute cracking the Billboard Top 200 with the release of Wildlife this past fall. But with the relative success Hansen has seen in the past few years, his mindset for how he does things hasn’t really changed all that much.
“From the inception of the label in 2006, until 2010, it was a completely one man run show,” says Hansen. “In 2010, [...] it was time to enlist help in various things that didn't need my hands on all the time, which helped me to focus on the things that do need my attention at all times. The only way I can actually "breathe" and have help is to have a small group of people helping me that are like-minded, and have those same beliefs – in the community and what No Sleep is all about – that I do.”
But the weight of doing everything himself certainly has reflected well upon the perception on the label in the eyes of the bands Hansen has worked with both past and present. “Chris being a one-man operation during our tenure at the label meant that nothing ever really got convoluted,” says Campbell. “If we discussed how something would look, that's how it looked because we planned it out with the label's marketing department – Chris, got it approved by the label's president and general manager – Chris and Chris, got it mocked up by the label's art department – Chris – and then had it sent out for printing by the director of operations – Chris [again].”
“Chris has never given us a hard time about the wild ideas we've had when it comes to packaging for releases. He just says, "Let’s do it." It may not be financially the best choice for him,” jokes Bolm, “but he's always willing to make it work. From what I've seen through our relationship, is that even though we're not a signed band to his label, he's always treated us as one of the family. That kind of mutual respect is worth a lot.”
When it comes to Hansen’s concern for any of the bands on his label though, Jon Simmons from Balance and Composure might sum it all up best. “Chris pretty much is only concerned with if the band is happy or not and thats the best scenario to be in when signing to a label.”
Even though he has put a lot on himself since day one, Hansen doesn’t seem likely to change his work ethic even since he has brought more people on to lend a hand – and with good reason. “While I do not think having a large crew is a bad thing, I feel that when a label has a lot of people doing various things it leads to a lot of complications and issues along the way. It's like the saying too many cooks in the kitchen or whatever – mistakes happen, things get ignored or forgotten because someone will think ‘someone else has it’. Having a small crew means that everyone is taken care of, and everyone knows what they are responsible for. In the end, I would rather have more work to do myself than worry about someone else handling it. Knowing that everyone is taken care of is more important than an onslaught of employees.”
That idea of support doesn’t just run through the interior of the No Sleep offices in California though. The community, or as Hansen sees it No Sleep’s extended family, goes much farther than what Hansen and the rest of his team do at the office. “I believe that if you are a part of a community, you need to do your part to make it a better community. No Sleep is a family, and everyone does their part not only for themselves, but for their “brothers” and “sisters” on the label. Bands should help each other out, should support each other in whatever way they can. And I am thankful that that is what has happened and is [still] happening with the community that No Sleep is.”
The tightly-knit community of No Sleep bands doesn’t suffer from any sort of changing of the guard as time has gone on either. It could only be argued that the quilt of bands, both past and present, have helped bolster a community supported with art, friendships and mutual respect from both sides of the stage.
“When you're passionate about something that you don't want obscured by the effects of other people's financial concerns,” declares Dreyer of the obvious financial strains facing smaller bands, “you do it in a way that takes them out of the equation. You build a network of friends and like-minded people. No Sleep works in large part with bands that understand that, and the community within is just another manifestation of that idea.”
“If it wasn't for No Sleep Records, we wouldn't have met La Dispute as early on as we did,” says Bolm of his first meeting with the Michigan-based post-hardcore group. “Their record came out shortly after our 7" and because we were label mates, I offered to help them out on their first west coast tour. We played together in LA and hit it off.” Bolm also recalls being helped out earlier in their career while on tour by a band called Former Thieves, who at the time were not a part of No Sleep. “I think the whole community is based off like-minded people all doing things for the right reasons and avoiding heads entering asses. It's inspiring and exciting to say the least when your friends do well, and I think everyone is just all rooting for one another.”
“It just made me feel like we were a part of something,” adds Simmons on the web of music his band is a huge part of. “We were exposed to many bands through No Sleep that we now love and if it wasn't for Chris we wouldn't know the[m].”
“There's something there that ties everyone together,” says Dreyer of the relationship among bands, and also between bands and Hansen. “Chris is on the same level as everyone, which I think adds to that sentiment. He's not a suit in some office or a faceless phone number. He's a regular dude who loves music and art and hanging out with friends.”
“It is an honor to have helped build so many friendships, and to honestly create an environment that bands enjoy,” says Hansen. “I love everyone on this label, and everyone loves everyone on the label. This is a family, and I hope that it always stays that way. You don't have to be blood to be family... yes I said that.”
What does this all mean for the listener though?
The varied line-up of No Sleep is arguably impossible to pin down to one particular genre, vibe or even age group. Recent releases from No Trigger and Xerxes further push the boundaries this label has never really followed, creating a palate of sounds for people to indulge in. And for the most part, people seem to be more than willing to check out, and ultimately support, bands just because they are a part of this label.
“It kind of works like Drive Thru used to,” reflects Simmons. “People were just so excited about all the new music they would give it all a chance and that's how I feel Chris's operation is because he is always looking for new bands – and it works.”
“People [are] referencing No Sleep as what a label should be, back to the days where you could count on a label for various releases and bands that you knew were of some sort of quality,” says Hansen. “Maybe not a band for your tastes, but you'd still check them out knowing the label it was attached to. As a kid this is what I did with such labels as Revelation, Jade Tree, Polyvinyl, Epitaph, Drive Thru and so on, so being named one of those kind of labels was an honor.”
“I think thats the sign that the label is doing something right,” says Bolm as he reminisces about the earlier days of Victory Records – a time where the label released Snapcase, Strife and Earth Crisis. “When I was a lot younger, before the internet was a source of music, the only way to find out about new bands was by looking at the thank you lists or by finding the roster of the label who released the CD you just bought.” This would lead to Bolm’s “accidently purchas[ing] Baby Gopal and Electric Frankenstein [laughs]”, but also led to him discovering bands such as Deadguy and Bloodlet.
“It wasn't point and click,” adds Campbell. “So yes, when I was younger, I would check out every band on every label because someone was giving that band a stamp of approval and I wanted new music. Today, it's different. I can find all the music I want on my own and most labels sign a lot of bands that I think are trash, which is why I think it's really significant that in 2012, No Sleep has that stigma where every new band they sign is worth checking out. A lot of people write good songs. Not everyone can do what it takes to get those good songs to connect with listeners. Chris finds bands that do have what it takes and helps them make it happen.”
The variation of sound between bands does cause for a bit of a mess when it comes to trying to define from an outsider’s standpoint what exactly Hansen is trying do with No Sleep. His passion though has fueled a demeanor that is honest and deliberate with his mission – to support those who truly embody a passion for music. “With the releases that have been released, and the releases that have yet to come the vision has always, and will always be the same – to release records from bands that truly love what they do, and create a record that they would listen to,” says Hansen. “While No Sleep is filled with artists of many genres, they are all of quality in their world, and are all bands I thoroughly enjoy. My hopes have been, and always will be, that it is okay to listen to more than one kind of music. You don't have to listen to the current trend of music just because your friends do or cause it looks like you are supposed to like it. Be yourself and listen to what makes your ears, mind and body happy.”
That being said, he has taken the connection between music and listener and taken it one step further in the idea of a community. After some started calling No Sleep a ‘cult’, Hansen took the label, literally, and turned it into something that helps that community idea flourish – with a year-long release subscription and branded label merchandise to boot. “With the subscription service and the "Cult" branding, I believe it helps to show people that they belong to something, that they are a part of something and are appreciated with everything they do,” says Hansen. “The punk community has been around for a long time and will continue to survive in some shape or form in our minds. No Sleep, being a part of this community, is required to do their own work to help keep it alive. We all want to belong to something right? We're all fuck ups on our own path, but we walk the path together in the end.”
Yet, whether people decide to take part in that extension of the label or not, Hansen knows that the ultimate manifestation of his ability to continue to do what he does, and allow bands to do what they do, is through the listener’s willingness to support the bands and the label in whatever way they can – and he is the first to express his gratitude for that support by doing whatever he can, whether it is taking on more work for his bands or doing something simple like tossing in free CDs for mail-orders that have been held up too long.
“I appreciate everything that you and others do for us, and I want to show that along the way however I can. Even the small things in life make someone smile, I believe. We appreciate everything that has happened for us, and we know that nothing that has happened for the label or our bands would have happened without you.”
So in the current age of musical saturation, high-tech hijacking and perhaps the diminishing role of the label in the future plans of some musicians, what does Hansen see as the driving force behind this entity that he has created?
“Working at various labels before I started No Sleep, I have seen the ups and downs of this industry, and sadly it is a dying industry. There are many aspects to what we do, and there are many different kinds of art that are involved. First, you have the music that the artists create. Second, you have the art that accompanies the body of music, and lastly you have the art that is the perception of the people that will hear what is created. I strongly believe that if we ever forget those aspects, then what we are doing is a pointless task. No matter how closer we get to a "digital" era, we should always maintain a sense of all aspects of art. If even one person wants a physical copy then it's worth making – at least that one person will see the full vision that the band had in mind when creating their current "masterpiece".
It hits everyone differently when the words ‘digital era’ are said. No Sleep fans might remember when Wildlife leaked a week or so before release, which Hansen sees more of a fact of our current lifestyle trends as opposed to anything else. “Think about this before you steal a record, or don't support a band or label you love. The year is 2012, the price of gas is $4.50 a gallon in California – the price you are paying for a record is still between $10-$20 as it has been for many many years.”
When it comes down to the bare honesty Hansen has in asking people to continue to support his label, his intentions are pure. As much as he is aware of the work he puts into the machine itself, he is as aware of the parts helping to keep it running – the bands creating the art and the people who put their part into supporting the music he has helped get out to the masses.
“You are why we do this, and you are a part of the same community that we are in. Help the community survive by not only attending a show but by purchasing some merchandise so bands can keep touring. Help labels to continue releasing quality music and order the releases you like on CD or vinyl. I hope that with 2012, and the years to come, we can continue to build in this community, and help our artists grow with us along the way. Every day this industry changes in some way. For example, our digital distributor just purchased our physical distributor, that says something. All we can do is to figure out what is needed to survive along the way. As long as we can keep the lights on, and continue doing what we do – we will.”