Interview conducted by Alex. Published on 6/23/2010.
Trustkill Records helped to launch the careers of such bands as Bleeding Through, Poison The Well, Throwdown, and Walls Of Jericho. As you now likely know, Trustkill Records owner Josh Grabelle has left the label in the legal hands of its distributor, and launched a new label, which shares the name of his publishing company, Bullet Tooth. We have a long history with Grabelle, as he was actually our first interview nearly ten years ago. We also interviewed him in 2002 when Trustkill first switched distribution companies. So here we are in 2010, and Trustkill is over (for Grabelle anyway), so we thought that it would be a good time to catch up.
Ok, so the obvious question is: Why are you starting a new label at this point?
Great question. Sometimes I think I'm crazy. The reality is that I love music, I love the bands I work with, I wanna see them be successful, and I'm confident I can get them there. I've always said that running a label is akin to finding that band you fell in love with when you were 13 years old and telling all your friends about them. That is really what we do here; we find a band we love and we tell the world.
The owners of Ferret Music recently made a similar move when they launched Good Fight Music. Did that development serve as any sort of catalyst for Bullet Tooth?
We've known that starting fresh was a possibility for the last year or so as negotiations with our former distributor [Fontana] were not going the way we would have hoped. At a certain point you just have to be realistic and make a move that makes sense for everyone involved. I think we've done that. Obviously we are tight with Ferret/Good Fight (Carl [Severson] was the best man at my wedding afterall), but they are a separate business.
So what happens to Trustkill now? Do you still own the catalog, or does the distributor?
Our distributor will continue to sell the catalog and perhaps continue to use the logo. We don't own any of the catalog anymore. My guess is that they aren't interested in being a record label and do not want to use what little resources they have on signing new bands, A&R, marketing, etc. It's a lot of work and most distributors want nothing to do with that. That's what they have us for.
If someone asked me last week to describe the evolution of Trustkill Records, I would have said something like: "Well, they started out very small as a DIY type thing, then quickly became one of the bigger hardcore/metal labels with successful releases from Poison The Well, Hopesfall, Bleeding Through, Bullet For My Valentine, etc... but then, just a year or two later, it seemed like they were floundering, with few albums being released, and even fewer making any sort of impact, commercially or critically." Would I be wrong?
All labels go through phases, good and bad. Every indie label that has been around for 10+ years (our friends at Epitaph, Metal Blade, Fearless, Equal Vision, and more) has their highs and lows and in order to make it through and come out the other side you have to know how to scale your business so you can get there. I'm comfortable enough to admit that we were the "hype label" from 2002-2006 and had the biggest success stories at that time. Since then we have signed fantastic bands and released fantastic records, though perhaps some performed underpar. Add to that the decline in the overall business and I suppose you could say we have made less of an impact. On the other hand, I would say that we have had successful releases in the last 2 years from Bleeding Through, It Dies Today, Memphis May Fire, the Saw VI Soundtrack, and more.
What do you say to those people who say that Trustkill started caring too much about business and money, and too little about music?
We never stopped caring about the music, if anything, I love music now more than I ever have. As for "caring about money", I'm not sure how you can run a business (this is the music BUSINESS afterall, not the music HOBBY) without being concerned about money. We have a small staff, provide health insurance, and have bills to pay just like everyone else. Money is a necessary evil.
Obviously there were some public disputes during the past few years with Bleeding Through and Hopesfall. In retrospect, do you maintain that both of the bands were treated fairly by Trustkill?
Hopesfall made a big stink a few years ago that we "pulled a track off their album." Well, the truth is, we do that for almost ALL our albums. When a band delivers their record to us we discuss with them what songs to put on, in which order, and perhaps what songs to hold back for international releases, bonus songs, soundtracks, etc. We told Hopesfall many times about that but apparently there was a miscommunication between their management and the band. It should not have been a surprise since we did the same thing on their previous album "A Types." I also saw something about how "We're broke because of Trustkill" which is obviously a preposterous statement to make. We had an agreement, which was VERY fair, signed by the band and negotiated with their lawyer, and we followed through on every commitment. We are a record label and NOT their business manager, I can't purport to have any knowledge of what they did with their own personal money. Until just recently I have been discussing with Jay Forrest (singer and only original member from The Satellite Years) about finishing a few tracks from the "Magnetic North" sessions that they never finished and releasing a new EP. I'm not sure what will happen with those songs now but we just sent Jay the studio sessions so maybe those will ultimately see the light of day. I always liked and respected Jay and I was happy he stuck it through and toured on the last album even with an entire new lineup.
As for Bleeding Through, I signed them in 2002 and released their first Trustkill album in 2003. It quickly sold 100,000 copies in about 1 year. As you know, this was a pretty huge sales number, especially for a label that was more or less just me at the time, and for a band that was not well known. The deal we signed in 2002 was, again, VERY fair. I remember talking with the entire band on a conference call as they were going over the deal and Brandan said, "Wait a second, this first advance is for all 3 albums or just the first one?" Then he was shocked to discover it was for JUST the first album. However, in 2004 we renegotiated the deal to give the band MUCH higher advances. This is pretty standard for some labels when a band has success, depending on the relationships with the band. If I had to point to one mistake, this was it. We committed contractually to advances that in 2004 made sense, but when 2008 rolled around and it was time to work on the "Declaration" album cycle, the advance made NO SENSE whatsoever. Without being too specific, let's say that the advance for this album was probably 4x bigger than what made sense for this band at the time. We SHOULD have dropped the band, however, it's not always that easy. We made commitments and our distributor was expecting the album. Unfortunately, it took us a little longer to get them the advance they were due, but we did pay it, and we released the album, and marketed it sufficiently. As of May 19, 2010 it has sold 25,000+ copies in the US and has done great overseas as well. I am proud of that album, proud of the work we put into it, and I feel it is their best record to date. I've been friends with their manager for 15 years or more and we still talk every week. I wish the band nothing but success as they are a legacy of mine, just like any other band I ever signed.
What the heck happened with Most Precious Blood? Their latest album has been on the shelf for a long time...
Justin became an orthodox Jew. Just kidding... kinda. Ha Ha. But seriously, Justin is VERY busy these days working for a non-profit Jewish organization (Bnai Zion Foundation), as well as opening an art school for kids in Brooklyn (we just made his website!), AND starting to dive into politics. He just (today) announced he is running for a seat on the County Committee of the Brooklyn Democratic Party within the 8th Electoral District in the 46th Assembly District. I'm proud of him. Matt got married and moved to Georgia, Rob lives in Albany (I think?), and Rachel is busy with work as well. Young kids can talk shit on bands all they want, but when you are 18 being in a band is easy; living at home, no bills, or a spouse or kids. When you grow up and you hit 30, life is vastly different, it is MUCH more difficult to keep a band together when responsibilities and real life smack you in the face.
The new MPB album "Do Not Resuscitate" has been recorded and done for quite a while (it's great by the way), but the artwork is still not done. I do hope when we eventually release the album the band will play shows and do some touring, but MPB is not the kind of band that wants to be in your face 100% of the time, they prefer some mystery like the hardcore/punk bands of the 80s and 90s and I respect that. They don't have a Twitter or a Facebook (or update their Myspace) and that is how they like it.
I just IM'd Justin and he said, "For this album we basically dug up all of our old hardcore records and ripped them off. This will be our final farewell record - until the next one. Do Not Resuscitate is easily our angriest record yet. Unlike fine wine, we haven't aged well - we've turned into piss and vinegar."
What's going on with Walls Of Jericho?
They are going to Europe this summer to play festival dates. We dropped the band over a year ago and I've heard nothing about a new album or new label. I still speak to most of them; Candace just got married and is living in Boston. Dustin moved to LA and is doing a lot of studio work. Chris is in Stick To Your Guns. Aaron is still married and doing what he always did, and Mike still has his studio. Once again, WOJ spent almost a decade on Trustkill and we released 4 albums together that I am proud of, and I really think they made a huge impact on the scene. I wish them well.
How about Soldiers?
They actually just finished recording a new 5 song EP right now that we will be releasing this summer. Get stoked! It's gonna be called "Hit The Bricks" and it has a few mosh parts on it.
I'm going to name some bands. If you could briefly summarize why they and Trustkill parted ways...
This Is Hell – We signed TIH for 3 albums. The first album "Sundowning" did great and I really think kids loved it. The second album "Misfortunes" I thought was good but I think failed to measure up to "Sundowning". When it came time to discuss a 3rd album it just didn't make sense for us so we let them go. Of course we still love those dudes and are working on the new Soldiers stuff.
Throwdown – We signed Throwdown in 2003 and released 3 full length albums and a DVD. They fulfilled their contract. That's it. They signed with E1 and released a new album and as far as I can tell have not played a show since the album came out. I love the new direction the band went in, though I may be in the minority there. I also still listen to Haymaker once a week!
StoneRider – We signed these guys originally as Fight Paris. They kicked their singer out and Matt Tanner moved to vocals/guitar. After they recorded their 2nd album we all decided it was so different than the first that they should change their name. We followed through with releasing the album, got them on a fantastic tour, but things seemed to have fallen apart after that. I didn't see too much work ethic from these dudes so we dropped them over a year ago. They are really good dudes so I truly hope they do something, but as of yet, I haven't seen much activity save for a few local Georgia shows.
Sick City – I loved the record we put out for these guys. Unfortunately they couldn't get much traction in the US, their management/label in Canada folded, their singer quit, and so we let them go. I really have no idea what they are doing now. I hope the singer Josh does SOMETHING cool, considering I saved him from drowning on the Jersey Shore a few years back... He was walking on a jetty, fully clothed, and got eaten by a rogue wave. After smashing into the rocks a few times I managed to pull him out of the water. We had a good laugh afterwards.
Terror – As most people may know I have a lot of history with Scott Vogel. He sang for Despair in the mid 90s and we released 2 albums from them. I went on tour with Despair in Europe and the US and we had a blast. I signed Terror in 2004 and we released 3 albums, a DVD, and a "best of" album. They fulfilled their contract and that was it. I think Terror are one of the best hardcore bands EVER and Scott is one of the best frontmen going. When the history books are written these guys will be the flagship band.
Fightstar – We signed these guys for the US a few years back as we have a great relationship with their manager (same dude that manages Bullet For My Valentine, Iron Maiden, etc). I met Charlie Simpson (singer) in NYC and loved his enthusiasm for the band and the music. We released the album "Grand Unification" in 2007 and got them on a tour here with Funeral For A Friend. We spent A LOT of money in tour support to get them here and a week into the tour they flew home. That was really it for us and we decided not to work on their next album. If I'm not mistaken they have released 1 or 2 albums since but with no US label or support.
What are your thoughts on Poison The Well these days, since they're pretty much the band that initially helped Trustkill blow up?
They're good dudes and I wish them the best. As far as I know they have sort of pulled back and are not a full time band. Their last few records were not necessarily what "the kids" wanted to hear but they write and record music they THEY like, so you gotta give them credit for that, whether you enjoy the new albums or not.
Since Trustkill's formation, have there been any bands that you had an opportunity to sign but didn't, and now you regret it?
Of course. But everything happens for a reason. No label can sign every band they like, they have to pick and choose. If I passed on a band I liked in the past that likely opened up a slot for a band we DID end up signing.
On the flipside, what have been some of your biggest disappointments over the years? Any signings you now consider mistakes?
I fully back every album we ever released. The only mistakes I can point to are signing bands with great songs and great music but with lackluster work ethics. There are a few bands we have signed because we loved the music but we ended up working harder than they did. If the bands don't love their music as much as we do then it's not gonna work. If you are in this scene you have to tour, a lot, and that takes skill and ambition, which some bands just don't have.
Trustkill has a gold record via Bullet For My Valentine's "The Poison"... has that been your biggest achievement?
I would say so, yes. BFMV are an international phenomenon and deserve every ounce of success they have and will get in the future. They are super hard workers, great people, and have the focus and drive to make it. It's funny though, when I was originally doing that deal in early 2005, all I got from a few of my bands and some friends was, "What a gay name" or "These dudes are just an Atreyu ripoff" or "Fuck those dudes, they have gay tribal tats and wear shorts on stage" and so on and so forth. But I did the deal anyway and proved everyone wrong. I love when that happens.
Aside from the aforementioned BFMV record, what have been the five biggest Trustkill releases from a sales standpoint?
Bleeding Through "This Is Love, This Is Murderous"
It Dies Today "The Caitiff Choir"
Bleeding Through "The Truth"
Poison The Well "The Opposite Of December"
If Josh Grabelle 2010 could give some advice to Josh Grabelle 2000, what would he say?
Go practice law instead of dicking around with hardcore. Ha Ha. Just kidding, that's what my Mom would say, not me. Maybe I'd say "label flip" or "too Jew no care ever"?
When Lambgoat interviews you in 2020, what will we be talking about?
I hope we will be talking about more successes with new bands, and how kids appreciate music enough to pay for it. That is really all I can ask for. Maybe I'll also drive to the Lambgoat office in my all electric car, with the first female US president in office, unemployment at an all time low, and no overseas wars, but that may be too much in just 10 years. One can only hope!
Thanks again Alex and please keep up with us at www.BulletTooth.com and feel free to email me (I always respond to emails) any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.