I have three older sisters, one of whom listened to punk rock music when I was growing up. She got me my first record when I was in 7th grade, it was a Bad Brains album. That record changed me forever. There is no going back. I never turned on the radio after that. All I ever did from then on out was look for more bands that had a similar sounds, meet people who liked the same kind of music, and go to shows 2 or 3 times a week. My first show was in 1987 when I was 13 years old on the Jersey shore, it was an Underdog show. A few hundred hardcore kids packed into a sweaty VFW hall, dancing, singing along, it was AWESOME. I’ll never forget it.
When I was in college at Syracuse University in 1993 I started a zine called “Truskill”. I did three issues of that, and in late 1993 began putting together my first album when I was 19 years old. It was a split label release with Watermark Records who my good friend Jason Jordan ran at the time, his twin brother was my roommate my sophomore year of college. Jason now does A&R at Hollywood Records, he just signed Breaking Benjamin, they rock. Jason and I loved this band called “Embrace” which was Ian Mackeye’s band before Fugazi, they put out only one album. I called up 14 of what I thought were the best bands of that time and asked them to cover one of the songs on the album, to eventually comprise a full cover album of this classic punk record. The theme of the album was a homeless benefit, so it included notes and information on shelters around the country, it was really cool. We even got most of the bands to contribute writings on the homeless problems. We designed it by hand, and it came out originally on vinyl, then later on CD format. It was called “Land of Greed, World of Need” based off one of the Embrace songs. The album included Rancid, Lifetime, Farside, Outspoken, Undertow, Ashes, Sparkmarker, Avail, and more. At the time, it was pretty awesome. Now you can only find it on Ebay I suppose. So that is how I started a label. In 1996 I graduated college, took two years off to do graphic design, tour with some of my bands, go to Europe and stuff. Then I started law school at Syracuse University in 1998 and graduated in 2001 and moved back to New Jersey.
What made you want to get into doing this?
I just kind of fell into it, with the first album (see above). I guess from there it was just something to do, like a hobby, when I was in college. College is pretty easy, so I had a lot of free time and wanted to do something with what I loved, music. After a few years at it, it started to become a lot more than a hobby. All of a sudden I had bands that actually toured, and started getting fan bases. From there, I’ve just tried to keep up.
Does your label, like so many others, feel the pressure to find the next big thing?
Of course. There are a lot of pressures from distributors, retail, press, etc, to find the next big thing. However, I don’t necessarily think about it like that when signing bands. I really just sign what I think is GREAT music and hard working kids. The art of signing bands is like making a mix tape (or CD) and giving it to friends because you want your friends to be into what you are into. It’s the same theory, just on a grander scale. I want everyone to listen to the bands that I love, but instead of making everyone in the world a mix tape, I sign bands and sell CDs to them.
Could you ever see TK being like labels such as Victory, Fueled By Ramen, or even Epitaph?
Well, I sort of think we are on par with what those labels can offer bands. While we haven’t had a gold record just yet, we have had numerous albums break the 100,000 sales mark. We also have bands on every big tour and festival in the US, Europe, Japan, Australia, and Brazil. We have won numerous “signing wars” with those labels. As for Victory, I am confident we have a MUCH better reputation with our bands than they do. FBR I respect a lot, they do great work. And Epitaph is another fantastic label, I’ve always been an admirer of that label, from the 90s through today, they put out great records.
Is it difficult to keep each band happy on your label?
Keeping bands happy is always a concern of mine. We work VERY hard walking the fine line between doing what we feel is the best for the label, and what is also best for the artist. I think we have a very solid reputation for keeping our bands happy. We have NEVER had a band go to a competing label, aside from major labels, which typically we are involved in those deals anyway. And aside from that, our artists resign with Trustkill for longer term deals because they are happy. But it’s still tough keeping everyone happy everyday, kids in bands sometimes don’t understand the business side of things, and they shouldn’t HAVE to understand it, they should just write music and play their hearts out every night, and let us worry about business. It’s a 24 hour job.
How important is each band's wishes in the grand scheme of things?
It is very important. We rarely do anything that would go directly against a band’s wishes. Sometimes there are things that benefit a band that they just don’t understand, so we try and explain to them why it will work out in the long run. We have been doing this for 10+ years so we’ve gotten good, we know what to do, and when, and why.
How realistic is it to maintain a personal relationship with each band?
Not all that hard actually. I speak with probably 10 of my bands every day, and usually, we are shooting the shit, and not even talking about business. Sometimes when a band gets bigger and more revenue is coming in, then managers and agents and lawyers get involved on a day-to-day basis, and that can sometimes strain the relationship. But I always attempt to keep a very friendly atmosphere with the bands.
What is the best part of being the president of TK?
Being able to give kids a means to play music for a living. When I sit back and think that most of the bands on Trustkill play music as their sole income stream, that just rules. I never thought I’d be able to have full-time bands, but here we are.
How many people do you currently employ at Trustkill?
Right now we have 8 people including me. Job titles are President, General Manager, VP of Sales, Art Director, A&R, Promotions, Chief Information Officer, and Publicity.
How does one go about getting a job out of college with a record label?
Make a kick ass resume and send it to every label you can think of. What I look for in a person is a well-rounded education, and real life experience. I could give a CRAP if you have a 4.0 GPA from Harvard, if you’ve never done real life things, like work, and travel, volunteer, etc, I’m not interested. Internships are also great, I did a few of them when I was in college and law school. Get out there and bust your ass, work for free, do whatever you gotta do to get experience.
What sort of qualities do you look for in bands?
We get at least 5 packages a day and we definitely try and listen to all of them. Some of them are pretty easy to skim over however, ha ha. You can take a quick look at some of them and just laugh them off, it’s pretty funny. As far as what we look for, that is hard to answer. First and foremost, fantastic music. We look for bands that are working hard, kids that aren’t lazy and aren’t looking to have things done for them. There is a misconception that when you get signed to a “big” label and you put your record out that all the hard work is over, when in fact, it is the opposite. When we put out a record, we expect our bands to bust their asses more than they ever have in their lives. If a band isn’t willing to drop everything in their lives, get in a hot, sweaty, and smelly van and tour, then we don’t want them. Musically, we’ve never narrowed our spectrum to anything less than just plain “rock”. We’ve have hardcore, emo, rock, metal, everything.
How does one run a label and what kinds of pressures or problems do you face?
My every day work is EXTREMELY varied. I don’t do the same thing every day. I do things like oversee all aspects of marketing, advertising, promotion, A&R, touring, licensing, financing, etc. As president you need to make sure everything is running smoothly, that bands are okay on the road, that the bands are happy, employees are happy and are doing their job, etc. It is a lot of work and pretty much ANYTHING I do throughout the day can be problematic. Every day I am putting out fires. Every day I wake up to a new disaster… some band is stranded because their van broke down, a band can’t get over the border, artwork is late, etc.
Has the time and effort been worth it and do you feel that Trustkill is a successful label?
Of course! I am working my dream job. Every day I am so stoked to get to the office and interact with all the people I work with, strike new and exciting deals, sign new bands, release new albums, etc. it’s a great feeling for sure. Do I think it’s successful? Yeah sure. But I also feel like I am just getting started. The things I want to accomplish with this label have barely begun.
What has been your favorite moment in Trustkill's history?
On paper, I would say it was this summer when the new Eighteen Visions album came out and it made it on the Billboard Top 200 Chart. We have never had a record do that, or come close. So that was awesome. However, it’s really day-to-day stuff that blows my mind… getting letters from kids saying a Trustkill band changed their life, or how they couldn’t imagine a world without Trustkill, that kind of shit is AWESOME. Makes a horrible day way better. Walking around a show and seeing a bunch of kids in Trustkill shirts, that is awesome. I don’t know man, I guess just the fact that Trustkill is kind of a “household name” in the underground music world is cool. I’m stoked on that. But the absolute BEST thing about running a label is when one of my bands comes to me at a show, or wherever, and just says “Hey, thanks for taking care of us man.” That makes me happy because I work super hard and it’s nice when people acknowledge it.
If you could sign any act right now, or any band from years past, who would it be and why?
That is a tough question. I would have LOVED to be in the A&R meeting when someone pitched the idea to sign a fat, ugly, sweaty guy named Meatloaf. Who in their right mind would have signed him? But someone did, and THAT is what I love about music. I wish I have the foresight to see talent like that. 30 years later his songs are STILL timeless, and amazing. Another meeting I would have loved to have been in was when someone pitched the idea to sign a rock band named Queen with a flamboyantly gay singer who wears spandex. The name alone would have set off red flags everywhere, especially in the 70s. But again, 30+ years later, all their songs are still amazing, timeless, and part of our culture. It’s a great success story. I can only hope I choose bands that write music as timeless as Meatloaf, Queen, Journey, etc.
Where do you hope to see Trustkill in the next five years?
I would love to continue growing, adding new positions at the label, adding new and interesting bands to the roster, expanding to different territories around the world and building the brand in all territories. And of course, selling more records couldn’t hurt either. After all, that is what keeps the lights on and pays our overhead.
Early on when the label started they used to do DIY style zines if I’m not mistaken. why did you stop this?
I think I ran out of things to say, to be honest. The stuff I was writing was very anti organized religion, and I pretty much said what I had to say, I pissed off a lot of people, ha ha. I think during the mid 90s and later, kids in “the scene” started to care less and less about politics and self-expression, and were focusing more and more on music, which is great, but I guess there just really wasn’t a place for my zine anymore. This, and the fact that I simply did not have time between running the label, putting on shows, and going to law school. I was a bit pressed for time.
How do you respond to people who claim/say that bands either A) sell-out or B) will be forced/pressured into changing their sound to be more marketable by signing to your label?
I find it hysterical. I’ve heard kids say how bands like It Dies Today and Eighteen Visions have “changed” and that somehow we, or me personally, are directly responsible for the change in musical style. That is just too funny. While I have been to band’s practices and been in the studio with bands a lot, I am by no means telling them what to write or what and how to record. I give every band on Trustkill the freedom to do whatever they wish. I wouldn’t have signed them in the first place if I didn’t have 100% faith in them and know they were going to deliver the best album they can. There is a natural progression when a band is given a bigger budget to record an album, which is what we give them. This in turn puts them in a better studio, with better producers, and gives them more time to work out the kinks in their songs, and make them the best they can be. Of course the music is going to sound DIFFERENT than their demo that was recorded in a kitchen in 5 minutes, I would HOPE it sounds different. Whether or not different is BETTER is personal opinion. Lastly, I also feel that bands we sign feel slightly pressured to deliver something AMAZING to stand up to our reputation as releasing strictly quality records. I would feel pressure too if I was in one of our bands, it is tough to go up against Throwdown, Hopesfall, Eighteen Visions, and more, all bands that release phenomenal albums.
Will you ever re-issue the Cast Iron Hike EP or ever maybe do a TK classics comp.?
Probably not. What is the point really? It does no justice to the current roster to be putting time and effort into marketing back catalog that barely sells anyway. There is only so much time in the day for me and the rest of the staff, and putting ANY focus on bands that broke up years a go is sorta pointless. While I LOVE all the past Trustkill bands and still love all the older albums, they had their time, and that was it. If kids wanna learn the history of Trustkill and check out all our older titles, all they need to do is go to our website and click “DISCOGRAPHY”, all our records are there, with links to purchase or download. Most of the old titles are ON SALE in our webstore for $5 and lower. We make it easy, and cheap, for kids to learn about our older bands and albums. Go ahead and check out the Racetraitor CD we put out featuring Andy and Petey from Fall Out Boy, or the Despair CDs featuring Scott from Terror, etc etc. There are great records in our catalog, and a lot of history, but when it comes down to it, I would rather be helping the current bands.
Approximately how many hours do you think you work in an average week?
I get to the office around 9:30 and work ALL DAY typically to 1:00 AM. I take breaks of course for lunch and dinner, but I put in at least 12 hours of work each day. There is a lot to do, and it never ends. I am ALWAYS the last one to leave the office. Trustkill is my baby and I would put in 24 hours a day if I had to, to keep things running smoothly.
Do you think it's possible for a record label to have too many bands?
Yes. A label can only sustain as many bands as staff it currently employs. If you have a 10 person staff and 75 bands, that just does not work. How can the radio person, or marketing, or publicist, POSSIBLY devote the time needed to a specific artist? As our roster grows, so will our staff. It is a natural growth that we will take slowly, but accurately. I will NEVER let the roster get too big without growing the staff at a proportional rate. It would be unfair to our bands. There are some labels out there (not naming any specifically) that I feel have WAY too many bands and they simply cannot handle them all and give EACH album the attention it deserves. And that SUCKS.
What is exciting you right now at Trustkill?
As of this moment I am ecstatic about the new Bedlight For BlueEyes song they just recorded. It’s no secret that this band’s singer was quite an amazing vocalist with unheard of range. The album they released last summer was incredible, I listen to it all the time. Then the singer quit in December and I was REALLY worried. How on earth were they going to find someone to fill those shoes and continue on? I’ve had other bands change singers after I signed them (Throwdown, Hopesfall, Most Precious Blood) so it wasn’t like I was going to give up on them. I realize these things happen, and bands just need time to regroup to get it going again. Well, not only did they find a singer who could do everything the prior one did, but he can do it EVEN BETTER! Holy crap I was floored when I heard the new song with Danny called “Waste My Time”. This band I have a feeling is going to deliver one of the best rock albums of 2007, mark my word. The song will be available on an Itunes digital EP called “Waste My Time” on August 8th, and also on the “Trustkill Takeover Vol. II” CD out October 31. At any moment during the day, this song is being played somewhere in the TK office. It’s that good.
Thanks AP.net for the interview! Josh Grabelle / Trustkill.
i love trustkill. its cool that the trustkill house is practically down the street from me. I have seen some of the dudes from 18V at Olive Garden before. so yeah its cool to have a label like trustkill local to ya.