By Alex. Published on 10/30/2002.
Lambgoat.com's first interview ever took place back in September of 2000 with Josh Grabelle, owner of Trustkill Records. Now, over two years later, we thought it would be cool to check back in with Mr. Trustkill, since these days, TK is probably the most talked-about "hardcore" label around. Josh kindly took some time out to discuss rumors, deals, and all things Trustkillian.
Let's get the big stuff out of the way. I guess it all started with Buddyhead, but there have been rumors floating around for months that Trustkill has sold a portion of the label to Sony or Columbia, etc. What is really going on? Are you still 100% in control of the label?
Buddyhead was wrong... surprise surprise. I have signed a distribution deal with RED, who is wholly owned by Sony. In the past they've distributed Epitaph and Roadrunner, and currently distribute Lookout, Fat Wreck Chords, Victory, Metal Blade, Artemis, and about 15 other labels. They are awesome people. In the "industry" they are actually considered an "indie", even though they are owned by a big company. You see, the definition of a "major distributor" is a label that owns their own distribution, and since Sony is not a record label, then RED is not major label distribution. But it's all semantics, and the only people that care are the "too-punk-for-you" type kids, so it's no big deal. RED is still a pretty huge company and have a lot of power, which is why I chose to go with them, and not stay where I was. They first called me about two years ago when Walls Of Jericho were kicking ass on the radio charts, doing big tours, and gaining a lot of really big press. One of the main dudes calls me and goes, "So hey, how come your bands are doing better than ours?" It was pretty funny. So here we are, two years later, and we finally signed a deal. It was about a six month negotiation process, there was lots of paperwork. In the end, I got a really good deal, so I am pretty excited. Rumors started flying around that Trustkill was being bought out or whatever because my lawyer and I had meetings with all the majors to see what kind of deals they were offering, and most of these majors wanted to just buy me out 100% and keep me on as President. We just went around to everyone to see what they had to say. I guess it would have been kind of cool, I mean, I get a bag of money and then get paid to run a label. But it seemed too premature for me, and I like to be in control. If anyone has been following the label, you know that I have been running this all by myself for eight years now, so I am kind of a control freak. I just couldn't imagine not being able to make daily decisions about my own label that I started from scratch. It would have been reeeeally weird. So I said "fuck it", let's see what we can do with the label to get amazing distribution, but keep me in control. And that is what we did. RED is helping me out financially so I can sign the bands I want to sign and give them what they deserve, and I can pay my bills. It's a win-win situation for everyone, and RED is just as stoked to have me as I am to be with them. It is a lot easier to get my records into bigger stores now, and do things for my bands that really want to play music as their jobs. I appreciate all the years and hard work that Lumberjack (my previous distributor) gave me, but it was time to move on. I still love all those guys and gals, and I tell all the upcoming labels that ask to go with them because they are awesome. But for Trustkill, where the label and all the bands were heading, it just didn't make sense anymore. If anyone is curious, I still run the label out of my basement in New Jersey, I don't have any huge high-rise in NYC or anything. I wake up, throw on some boxers (yes, I sleep naked), and walk downstairs, it rules. There aren't any Sony dudes hanging out in my basement with me looking over my shoulder. It is just me, Kyle, Timmy, and Tyson and Giselle (my two dogs, they're cute) doing what we do everyday, nothing has really changed. I've just been a hell of a lot busier lately moving over my entire back-catalog to RED, it is a royal pain in the ass.
How will these changes affect your average Trustkill consumer?
The changes really won't negatively affect any Trustkill consumers at all. All the prices of my CDs will be the same, in fact, they will probably be even cheaper. I'll explain; when I sell a CD wholesale to a smaller distribution like Lumberjack or Revelation, the CD has to go through multiple channels to get to a bigger store. At every step in the chain of distribution, someone has to make their cut. So, the price keeps going up. A CD that I get $6 for from a smaller distribution, ends up being $16.98 at Tower or Coconuts or something. It kinda sucks, but that's what happens. With RED, there is no chain of distribution, the CDs go direct from them to the big stores. As a result, I can still set my own price for every CD I release, and keep the prices low. The only one to get a cut is RED and maybe a "one-stop" if they use them, so the chain of distribution is smaller. And RED still sells to all the indie stores so everyone can get Trustkill CDs. Any store that does not have an account with RED can go through Trustkill directly. It's pretty simple. The biggest change is that kids everywhere will be able to buy Eighteen Visions and Hopesfall and all the other TK band's CDs. You see, hardcore kids that complain about labels selling CDs to bigger chain stores are usually kids who live in larger cities and have access to indie stores whenever they want. But the reality is that most kids in this country that listen to hardcore don't have mom-n-pop stores to shop at, all they have is Best Buy and Wherehouse and shit. So the only way for them to get smaller label's CDs is to mailorder them, and a lot of people don't like doing that, or don't even know that they can do that. If a TK band wants to go on tour in the US and not lose their ass, they need to be able to play the Midwest, and the South, and other places where there aren't huge cities. If these kids can't find Trustkill CDs in these areas, then nobody will go to the shows. Now they can, and this really helps the bands, and that is what I always wanted since the beginning. I've always wanted to be able to have bands that can tour all the time. When I first started going to shows and listening to hardcore, I would go to "Tape World' at the mall and buy all the In-Effect and Hawker tapes like Token Entry, Sick Of It All, Pagan Babies, and more. I didn't realize that there was other hardcore out there because the music wasn't readily available to me. I want my bands to be readily available to everyone, and so do they.
Is the backlash among Trustkill fans something you consider when pondering dealings with major labels, etc?
Of course. Kids these days are very finicky, they will turn on you in an instant. But I didn't sign a deal with a major label, so there is really nothing for kids to turn their back on. Trustkill is still the same label run by the same dude that goes to the same shows every week. In fact, I have already released two albums through RED and I haven't heard a single bad thing about it. The only new things I hear from people is, "Oh cool, I can actually buy your CDs in stores now instead of having to wait a few months until your bands come through to my city." Even if I had signed with a major, as long as I didn't change the music I was putting out, or jack my prices up to $18.98, then I wouldn't see a problem with that anyway.
"Selling out." Words uttered by kids all the time. How do you define it?
"Selling Out" means changing what you believe in or what you do to appeal to someone else. A lot of bands have signed with major labels in the past and kids called them sellouts. I won't say who I think are sellouts, but bands that went with majors who never compromised their music, ended up maintaining their ethics and kept their fans. Bands like Samiam, Jawbreaker, Quicksand, and others, went to majors and never changed a thing. Why would that make them a sellout? Because they wanted to make a living off what they love? That is absurd. The guys in Hatebreed, Thursday, and Poison The Well, started these bands because they wanted to make music and tour. Now they are doing that for a living, and I think it is fantastic. None of those bands have changed their sound or their ethics. I commend them. Anyone who calls them "sellouts" are just jealous, or too selfish to share their favorite bands with the rest of the world.
TK's expansion in the last few years and its efforts to remain DIY: this has always been an issue with growing underground labels that are blessed with popularity and talent. Are you conscious of this dichotomy? If so, what do you to appease both sides (growing, but still being DIY)? Is it possible to be a large indie label and still DIY without compromising hardcore ethics or adopting a larger "corporate" music business model?
I think DIY is a great thing. That has always been my motto, I mean shit, if it wasn't, I would have hired people a long time ago, but I never did. Like I said before, I've been doing this alone for 8 years now. When a label is "blessed" (thanks Alex), it is inevitable that it is going to grow and its bands are going to thrive. More opportunities arise in the realm of bigger tours, endorsements, promotional campaigns, and more. The most important thing to me about running a label is keeping my bands happy. That to me is the DIY and "hardcore" ethic. The bands I sign WANT to get bigger, they WANT to sell more records, and they WANT bigger tours. If I can do these things for them, then I have succeeded. What isn't DIY about me calling up a few bands, managers, and booking agents and getting one of my bands on a tour with a big band? What isn't DIY about me designing my own ads and calling up a bigger magazine and submitting it to them? I think it is possible for an indie label to be large and still maintain the indie ethics. At the major label level, they release 5 or 10 new bands every 2 months, and 9 out of 10 of them fail miserably. The ones that fail, get dropped, and their careers are ruined. When I sign a band, they are here to stay. If an album doesn't do too well, they don't get dropped. If I had enough faith in them before I signed them, and I liked them enough to sign them, then I am not going to drop them.
Has hardcore shifted away from the music and message, and focused more on commercialism, bigger budgets, etc... ie. Style over substance?
I think maybe kids these days are forgetting, or better yet, not researching, their roots. It can be partly blamed on the fact that the general public's taste in music is changing. In 1991, when I turned on the radio and heard a Nirvana song with heavy tuned-down guitars, I was like "Oh my god, this is the end of the world." Nowadays, every other song you hear on the radio is Linkin Park or Papa Roach or Godsmack, all with huge heavy guitars and screaming. It's pretty crazy if you think about it. 10 years ago, a few kids would get together and start a hardcore band, and the thought never crossed their mind that they could do real tours and make a living out of it. Now that this is a possibility, and the thought is resting on the back of everyone's mind, bands have a different thought process when it comes to signing to a label, developing a sound, etc. I think kids have also gotten a lot smarter about things, meaning, they know about publishing, royalties, licensing, and other "ins and outs" of the music "biz". They know there is money to be made and they don't want to be a catalyst for some fatcat in a suit to buy his third yacht. So this new thought process has made our lives a little more difficult, because young bands see other bands that have similar sounds getting huge tours, huge recording budgets, huge endorsements, and they go, "Hey, I want that too. Get us that stuff." And sometimes we (indie labels) can't do it. Going back to the "roots" thing, a big problem with that is the introduction of the internet to the hardcore scene. Kids are doing zines less and less, and most of the information kids read about bands is read off the internet. Nothing is tangible anymore. A news bit is posted on a website and it is gone one week later. I still have stacks upon stacks of hardcore zines from the late 80s, I can go back and read every one and see exactly what all the bands were doing, what records came out, what labels were "cool", etc. How are kids going to research the music that is coming out today? This is a big problem. When I started listening to hardcore and punk rock when I was 12, not only did I buy all the new shit that was coming out, but I did some research and went out and slowly bought all the records that got the scene where it was at that point. I went out and picked up all the Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Misfits, Descendents, and Dead Kennedys records. I'm not sure if kids these days are doing that, and it's kind of sad in a way. I mean, I love it that all the kids are buying the new Hopesfall album (for instance), but the young kids should know the history of it all, how it all began, where it came from, and spend some of their money on the classics.
TK has obviously grown quite a bit since you began the label. Has the way you've searched for potential artists to add to the label changed since you've started? What about the criteria you have when looking for talent? Has that changed at all?
Yeah, it's changed a little bit. Over the years, I've gotten kind of agitated at some of the bands I've signed because I always ended up putting in more work than they did. Bands like Picturesque, SeventyEightDays, Idle Hands, and Spark Lights The Friction were all amazing bands and amazing people. They had the potential to go far, but never capitalized on their talent. I worked my ass off for those bands, and they quickly broke up right after the records were released. This happens all the time in the music world, but it sucks when it happens to you. I don't know if you ever noticed, but people don't buy records from bands that are broken up, especially if they didn't make a huge impact (see previous question). And bands that are only around for a few months generally don't make a big impact on anyone. So nowadays when I sign a band, one of the most important things is that the band will stay together, and the kids are serious about keeping the band going. I spend too much time, energy, and money on a band for them to break up right after I release a record. My criteria has stayed the same though, I mean, I still only sign bands I love. Trustkill has gotten big enough where I have gotten press kits from pretty big names that have been dropped by majors, and I could probably sell quite a few records if I signed them, but I don't. I still just sign bands that I feel are 100% genuine, are cool people, and are playing and writing music that has an emotional effect on me.
TK used to do vinyl for its releases. That stopped a while ago. Why did you decide to do that? Why outsource your vinyl releases to Good Life?
I'll be honest, vinyl is a pain in the ass. It is very expensive to make, and sells for half of what a CD sells for. Plus, most kids these days don't even own turntables. Now, the question is: Do kids not own turntables because the more prominent hardcore labels have stopped making vinyl? Maybe. Who knows. Don't get me wrong, I used to love vinyl, and I still have all of mine, I've never sold any of it. If I had the space, I might even have my turntable hooked up and I could listen to all of my old Chain Of Strength and Misfits vinyl and whatnot. I actually did press a lot of vinyl in the earlier years (go here to see it all), but as the years went on, I realized that it just wasn't selling as much as it did in the past. It seemed like all kids wanted was CDs. I licensed a few of my albums to Goodlife Records, Genet Records, and Sobermind Records, over in Europe. That was cool because the kids in Europe still appreciate vinyl, there is still enough demand over there to make it worthwhile. Recently, I have licensed vinyl in the states to some smaller up-and-comers like Ides Of March Records, Warmachine Records, and One Day Savior. I still do some vinyl and I've never said that I wouldn't do it in the future, but if another label asks to do vinyl for a certain album, sometimes it's easier to have them do it. Plus, in the case of the smaller labels, it helps them get their name out, and I usually only have friends of mine do them. Sometimes hardcore kids put too much emphasis on vinyl, they use it as like a rule of measurement of how "cool" a label is. If people measure a label by how much colored and limited vinyl they make, that is pretty silly. But the little kid in me still loves cool looking vinyl and I am talking to a band right now, that if everything works out, we are going to make some reeeeally kick-ass looking vinyl. It's gonna be fun. I also license my albums to smaller companies in Asia who manufacture cassettes. Right now, everyone who is reading this that is under 16 is going, "They manufacture what?!?!?". That is right, cassettes! The things we used to buy when vinyl wasn't cool anymore and before CDs came into the picture. It's funny too, I gave Most Precious Blood a bunch of their album on cassette, and they put it on their merch table at shows, and kids are like, "Oh cool, MPB trading cards!". Ha ha ha, they have no idea what it is.
How did Trustkill end up teaming up with Hot Topic for the TK CD Sampler?
As much as hardcore kids love to bash the whole "Hot Topic phenomenon," this store has been the saving grace of Trustkill. Let's go back to the fact that most places in the country don't have mom-n-pop stores... however, there is a Hot Topic store in every mall in the country. There are very smart people working at that company, and they invest a lot of time in learning what kids want. Before my deal with RED, I had a really hard time getting my CDs into chain stores, it was damn near impossible. But the people at Hot Topic knew that kids wanted Eighteen Visions and Poison The Well stuff (and the rest of the TK bands), so they ordered it all from Lumberjack. Kids around the country would hear Trustkill bands on the radio, see them live or on the internet, read about them in a magazine, but could never find their CDs in their local record stores because they weren't there. However, now all of the Trustkill stuff was finally available in Hot Topic, a place where every kid could go to find stuff. In the last year, Hot Topic has sold more Trustkill CDs than the big chains because they are the only stores in the malls that are carrying it. Now that the chains have wised up (heh heh) and have begun to carry Trustkill CDs, they may have some competition. I mean, yeah, the store is kinda cheesy, they sell all kinds of goth crap and goofy shit, but in order for hardcore to survive in a time where all networking has been boiled down to merely the internet, it is a great place for kids to buy hardcore records and merchandise. The exclusive Hot Topic Trustkill sampler was my idea, I just called them up and said, "Hey, you wanna do a Trustkill Sampler?". We had it out a few months later and it was a pretty big success. All the bands loved it, and the kids seemed to really like it too, and the best part was that anyone who wanted it could find it. I also gave away for free over 1000 of them on various websites, festivals, and other places. I think the interactive portion that my friend Todd did for it really set it apart from the other samplers there, and helped it a lot. Again, kids in larger cities are kinda spoiled when it comes to record buying, we take for granted that we can drive 5 minutes to the "cool and hip" indie store and pick up all the latest obscure records. I did the Hot Topic sampler so all the other kids in the country could hear my bands. You know how when you hear a new band you really like you make copies for all your friends and tell them all about it? Well, running a label is the same exact thing, just on a larger scale... I want everyone to hear all of my favorite bands.
The last time we spoke to you, you were juggling law school and TK. Am I correct in assuming you're now doing Trustkill full-time?
Yes, I am doing Trustkill full-time now. I never thought in a million years I could be a hardcore kid and still pay the rent. It's pretty sweet. I started the label in 1993 when I was a sophomore in college in Syracuse, NY. I put out my first record in the summer of 1994, graduated college in 1996, and then started law school in 1998. I graduated law school in the spring of 2001, so it has really only been one year that I have been doing Trustkill full time, the last 7 years I have been in school. Everyone always asks, "How the hell did you do the label while you were in law school???". Well, it was pretty difficult, but I managed to do it, and if it ever came down to it, I just wouldn't sleep, no big deal. I would have classes in the morning, come home at about 2:00, study for a few hours, eat dinner, and then work on the label all night. When I started law school the thought had crossed my mind to quit the label, but I knew that if I had done that, I'd be kicking myself 10 years later wondering how far I could have taken it. Obviously, now I am super happy that I kept it up. In fact, after law school I interviewed for a federal clerkship at the courthouse in New Jersey, and got it. About one month before it was to start, I called my judge and told him I was going to run my label instead. He was kinda pissed, but understood. In the end though, having a law degree has helped me out a lot with running the label. In law school my concentration was Intellectual Property (copyright, trademark, patents), and this area of law is extremely practical when you are dealing with bands, managers, booking agents, lawyers, etc. Of course, all my friends from law school went out and got jobs starting at six figures, and here I am running a hardcore label with a $65K loan to pay off… uuuggghhh.
Have you hired any employees yet?
Yes, a few months ago I hired my friend Kyle to help me out with the webstore. You see, for the last few years Lumberjack was handling all of my mailorder, but I wanted to launch my own webstore and start handling it all myself. Obviously, I couldn't run the label and be stuffing CDs all day, and Kyle didn't have shit to do, so I hired him. Then it got a little out of hand, and Kyle couldn't handle it all, this was when the new Eighteen Visions album came out in August. So we hired our friend Timmy. You have no doubt seen both of these losers before, as Kyle roadies for Nora, and Timmy roadied for Nora and now roadies for Dillinger Escape Plan.
Kyle and Timmy Trustkill
Kyle and I went to our first show together in 1987 when we were like 12, and have been friends for like 15 years or some shit. Both Kyle and Timmy used to like hardcore, but now they just play this really weird music all day. I swear to god at least 5 times a day I turn around and go, "What the fuck is this??!?!?"... and they then tell me it's some band that I've never heard of with some weird name like Mooney Suzuki or some shit. They're weird. Kyle is dressing up as Chunk from Goonies for Halloween, funny thing is, it's not all that far fetched, heh heh. Oh yeah, and I just hired my friend Dave who lives in Colorado, to do website maintenance. He played bass in the band I used to be in, and is a skateboard/snowboard fanatic. I think the only stuff he listens to is Gang Starr or something.
Are there any current Trustkill bands that are doing nothing but playing music for a living? How many records does one really need to sell to "make a living" playing in a hardcore band?
Well, it all depends on how you want to live. Most of my bands are music lovers that would rather sleep in a gutter and be able to play music, than have to work a 9 to 5 job every day. Right now, every band on the roster is a "full-time" band, except for Nora (those guys are losers and have real jobs… yeah, you heard me). As long as the band is smart about how they spend their money, it really isn't all that hard to make a living out of it. No band can tour 12 months out of the year, so a lot of the members of the bands have jobs that they can go back to when they are home for a few weeks in-between tours. Jobs like working at a radio station, screen printing, hair salons, making buttons, stuff like that. Of course, the transition from being a part time band to a full time band is tough, and it takes sacrifices. Most Precious Blood is a perfect example: Tom is a forensic psychologist, Justin works at the biggest radio station in NYC, and Rachel does really disgusting things with dead bodies. They all have amazing jobs, and yet, decided to drop everything in their lives to get out on the road. Justin would call me every night and be like, "Dude, do you think this is a good idea?". And I would tell him that if he doesn't take advantage of the opportunities he has right now, he is going to look back at his life 10 years from now and be like, "Man, I could have been touring around the country with my favorite bands, playing the music I wrote to thousands of kids, and get paid for it???". I paralleled it to my decision to run the label instead of practice law, it's kind of like a no-brainer. It's tough to decide to drop a job that keeps your life stable and secure, for a music related "job" that is plagued with instability. But I think that every person that does it, is happier in the end.
From the days when TK had Harvest and Endeavor, to now with Poison The Well, Most Precious Blood, and Eighteen Visions, you've always housed bands that were quite appealing and popular to the hardcore crowd. Why do you think that is?
I'm not sure to be honest. Maybe it's just that these bands were really fucking good, and all it was going to take was to have someone release their music on a national level for everyone else to figure it out. When I signed PTW and 18V, nobody had ever heard of them. I had heard them, and I loved them, and I wanted everyone else to hear them too. If you mean why do hardcore kids in particular like the TK bands, that probably has to do with the fact that I am a hardcore kid, and have been listening to hardcore bands for 15 years now, so I know what I like. I don't write the music or tell anyone what to play or sing about, so if kids like the Trustkill bands, it really doesn't have all that much to do with me.
What do you think it was about PTW's "Opposite Of December" that eventually caused such a huge buzz?
I think it was just a really emotional album that touched people on a number of levels. It was raw, it was real, and it was genuine. People could relate to the lyrics, the music was phenomenal, and when kids met the guys in the band, they realized that they were just like you and me. I was stoked to see the album in Revolver's "Top 69 Rock Records", that was really cool. That album was definitely a turning point in the history of TK. I mean, I remember talking to the guys in PTW when the album first started gaining some buzz and we were like, "Man, imagine if it sold 10,000 copies?". Well, it ended up going well beyond that number, so our hopes came true and then some. The fact that that album had such an effect on all the new bands that were coming out in the last two years was amazing. It was like every single press kit I got from a band listed them as an influence. It's almost become cliché to say that you sound like PTW, because at this point, it seems like every band has some similarity to PTW. It's sort of like saying you sound like Hatebreed because you have mosh parts, you know?
Personally, I really liked "Tear From The Red," but of course many PTW fans felt the band had compromised their sound. Do you ever get the sense that there isn't much loyalty in hardcore?
Of course. I always said that in hardcore you're damned if you do, and damned if you don't. If you are in a band that gets really big, and you make your next album sounds the same, kids will hate it. If you change a lot, kids will hate it. So in the end, what you need to do, is just play the music that you want to play, and don't pay attention to what other people think. It is the only way to maintain your sanity. When "Tear From The Red" came out, the dudes in the band were so nervous, they called me and asked me what kids thought about it because they didn't dare go on the internet, they didn't want to read what kids were saying. Granted, most of what kids were saying was positive, but still, PTW wrote an album that they loved, so it didn't matter all that much what people thought. Eighteen Visions did the same thing... I mean, they released "Until The Ink Runs Out" which is at this point a metalcore classic, but how many albums can you put out that sound like that? They had to move on, so they did. I think "Vanity" is the absolute, without a doubt, best album I have ever put out. I love it. I still listen to it every single day. As for PTW, it's funny, I've been reading things kids say on the internet about how "Trustkill made them change their sound" which I think is the funniest shit I have ever read. I was down in Florida hanging out with them a few months before they recorded TFTR and they played me some practice tapes of the new material, and I thought it was phenomenal. I was so excited for them to record again. For a kid to think that I have the power to "change" my band's sound is actually kind of flattering. I mean, it's downright preposterous, but funny. And really, their new record doesn't sound all that much different than the last. All these kids were shocked when Jeffrey sang on the new album, but I kept thinking, "Did you ever listen to the last album?!?!?" I mean, there was a lot of singing on "The Opposite Of December" and it seems like kids forgot. It didn't seem like a big leap to me.
A lot of TK albums now come with stickers comparing the respective band's sound to that of more mainstream bands (18V to STP, PTW to Deftones). Are we correct in assuming this tactic is a way of getting the "TK" bands out to the public? Do those stickers really make a difference?
That is a "marketing tool" that I actually stole from Big Wheel Records. I remember seeing a Piebald CD that had a sticker on it saying what bigger bands they and sounded like and toured with, I thought it was an awesome idea. Rama over at Big Wheel knows what he's doing, he's a good guy. These days there are just an overwhelming amount of new CDs that are released every week and you have to do something to make yours stand out and get noticed. The sticker thing I do now I think is a great idea and it does make a difference because although we (me and people "in the know") might know exactly who is in Most Precious Blood and what bands they were in and what they sound like, the average kid in a store doesn't, and if he did know, maybe he would buy the CD. Before I make any of those stickers, I always ask the bands what bands they think they might sound something like, I always get their input. In fact, I usually make them pick the bands to list, so nobody gets upset about anything. I mean, you don't think I would have listed "The Cure" for Most Precious Blood, do you? That was all Justin, not me. The kid has a "Siouxsie and the Banshees" tattoo on him for Christ's sake.
There was some "controversy" when Hopesfall joined the TK roster. What was behind that? Was it the fact that they were well established in the Christian hardcore scene?
As many people know, before Trustkill the record label, there was Trustkill the fanzine. A lot of what I was writing back then was very anti-religion. I consider myself a "cultural Jew", meaning, I appreciate all the history of the Jewish people and take pride in it, but as far as all the God stuff is concerned, it's all crap. I am an atheist, and always have been. So I would write about my feelings on religion in the zine, and even made some tee shirts a long time ago with the word "TRUSTKILL" and the T's were upside-down crosses, things like that. I was pretty outspoken about it. Trustkill Records has always been a pretty personable label, meaning, people seem to know about me, it's not some faceless, heartless, corporation or anything. It is just me and some shitty logo. People don't equate a label like MCA or Epic with any political agendas or opinions, but it's different when it is a small indie label. So although the label was never a soapbox for me or anything, people still knew the history of me as a person, and how I feel about things. Funny thing is, some of my favorite bands are very outspoken Christians, such as Living Sacrifice and Sensefield. When I decided to sign Hopesfall, it wasn't about where they went on Sundays or anything, it was about the same thing it has always been about; the music, the lyrics, and the people. I met them at CBGBs in NYC and thought they were an awesome bunch of guys. Their music was just so powerful and emotional, I really wanted them to be part of the TK Family. If they were a bunch of axe-murderers, then yeah, I would be a little hesitant. But they were Christian, and I really don't have a problem with how people think, until they act on it. They believe in God and that is fine. I don't, they know it, and we're all happy. I make fun of their accents because they sound funny, and they're from the South. But seriously, those guys are the funnest bunch of people to hang out with, they rule.
Eighteen Visions: Why do kids love to talk about them so much? What's your take on the whole thing?
Ha ha ha, we talk about that all the time. A few months ago, when 18V weren't doing a lot of touring, James calls me and he was like, "Dude, how is that we barely even play shows and kids still talk about us incessantly?". It's weird, I think kids just love talking about them. The band can just sit home and do nothing and kids still talk about them like crazy. They get so much hype, it would cost me thousands in publicity to get that kind of press, heh heh. I think it's because they are doing something that hardcore kid aren't used to. The band loves it, and they feed off it. The title of the new album, "Vanity", is just a mockery of what kids think about them. The best part is that now the band is touring full time, and they've never been bigger. Their shows are huge, most shows on the last US tour were sold out, and they are having a blast. Not a single person has said anything to the band at any of their shows, and they wouldn't dare to. Have you seen James lately? He's a pretty big kid, and beat up probably 3 or 4 people on the last tour. He doesn't take any shit, so it's probably a good thing that kids are too scared to say anything to him, otherwise, it would get messy. He is also my personal hairdresser, as well as my wife's. He can hook up a good "lid."
You guys aggressively pushed 18V's "Vanity" (full-page ads in Alternative Press, etc.). How has the response been, both financially and critically?
The response has been phenomenal. The album is selling really well, has gotten amazing reviews all over the place, the band is getting press in huge magazines, they're getting bigger tour offers, bigger endorsements, etc. When I first got the album and listened to it, I was blown away. I knew it was going to do well, and I was determined to make it to. I went all out with this record because I was positive it would do well, and it did. In 8 weeks it has already sold double what their last album has sold in 4 years, so that is pretty good. Aside from whiny kids on messageboards and stuff, I really haven't heard a single bad thing about it. Every review I have seen in a magazine is great. CMJ said "Vanity is the quintessential metalcore record of the year", and San Diego Punk said "Vanity is destined to be yet another Trustkill classic". We are shooting a video this December with Darren Doane (straight-edge director who has done videos for PTW, Blink 182, AFI, Snapcase, Thursday, etc) and we are really excited to get that out to people. If you've ever seen 18V live, you know they are just destined to make a kick ass video.
Most people know that Poison The Well has moved on to a new label. You must have mixed emotions when you spend years promoting a band, and, because you've done your job well, they leave Trustkill to maintain momentum. It's as if a particular band's success is good for TK, but too much success screws TK in the end if a band jumps ship. Your thoughts?
I have always tried to keep my bands on the label, rather than sell them off to a "bigger" label. I have had plenty of offers to have my bands plucked from me, and have always turned them down. I think that is a big mistake a lot of labels make. I mean, no matter how "cool" Trustkill might be, it's really only as "cool" as the current roster. I have had a lot of really amazing bands on the roster in the past, but kids forget quickly the bands you used to have, and only measure your "cool guy status" by what you are doing now. Poison The Well were on Trustkill for 3 years, we did two albums together, they got really big, got some huge offers, and they took them. I would like to think that if we had waited until my new deal went through, that they would have stayed with Trustkill. All I can hope is that they don't lose any of their fans with their new album on Atlantic. Like you said, "loyalty" is kinda lacking these days, and kids are quick to turn their backs on their favorite bands just because they've gone to a major. What is cool from my perspective is that PTW is the only band that has ever left TK for another label, aside from Despair and Cast Iron Hike, but that was ages ago. And the fact that they went to a major label is kinda cool, I mean, it would have been shitty if they went to a "competitor's" label or something. But obviously, a major label has quite the deep pockets, and can afford to do things that Trustkill cannot. And I guess that is what PTW wanted, to be able to fly to Sweden to record an album, and other things that cost a fortune. But in the end, it does suck to see a band leave, it's kind of like a girlfriend dumping you for the cool-blond-haired-good-looking-wealthy-captain-of-the-football-team kind of guy. I spent three years of my life working with that band every day, and now they are gone. I mean, we still talk all the time, but it's just not the same. As far as a band "screwing TK", I guess that just comes down to contractual obligations and stuff. I don't want to get into specifics, but usually, when a band leaves a label and they still owe the label a few records, there is a "buyout." This hasn't happened with Trustkill yet, but if it ever did, these things are outlined in contracts so people don't get screwed.
Do you feel that hardcore is becoming a "farm league" for the majors to pick bands from, whereas, in the past, the hardcore "sound" wasn't as marketable? Why do you think that is?
Of course, and it always has been. Look what happened with Into Another, Sensefield, Civ, Jawbreaker, Samiam, Jawbox, Shudder To Think, Seaweed, and Quicksand. All these bands were on indies and jumped ship to the majors. Granted, none of these bands were real "hard" or anything, but at the time, they all had a sound that was different from the popular music being heard on the radio. The majors are using the indies as their "free" A&R people, and plucking bands that have the street credibility to make it in the big leagues. The problem is, of course, that the band usually loses all their "street cred" anyway once they hit the major. Hopefully that won't happen with PTW. Again though, popular music is changing, the music on the radio is getting considerably heavier, there is a bigger focus on "rock", etc. The major labels know there is an audience for this type of music and they are trying to capitalize on it. It is only natural for them to turn to us (the indies) and pick and choose who they want, because we have bands that have established fanbases, and have proven that they can work together and won't break up in 6 months, something that the majors are terrified about.
Are a lot of TK bands being courted right now?
Yeah, there is always talk from bigger labels and majors about wanting to come in and scoop up some of my bands, but I usually just shrug it off. When I sign a band, I expect them to be here for the long run, and now, I can offer a band just about everything a major label can, which is dope.
Whatever happened with Spark Lights The Friction?
They just had a lot of internal problems that they couldn't work out. Which is weird, because when I signed them they were like these 4 guys that were inseparable, so I thought they were gonna last. I bought them a van, put them on a full U.S. tour with PTW, and they came home and broke up, it sucked. I was pretty pissed, but what can I really do, you know? They are friends of mine still, I talk to the guitarist pretty often. I thought their album was awesome, I really liked it, and so did a lot of people. The problem is, unless a band is out there playing and touring, people just don't wanna give a record the chance it deserves. I can't blame people, I'm the same way I guess. Among our circle of friends though, we always say that the Spark album will be one of those things that in like 5 years kids are gonna start picking up. I just really think that record was really far ahead of its time, it's pretty advanced, both musically and lyrically, I don't think kids were ready for it yet, kind of like every Beastie Boys record. I mean, how far ahead of its time was "Paul's Boutique"? That record came out in 1989 and people were like, "What the fuck?!?!?". Then, 5 years later, it was like an underground classic.
Along those same lines, I sometimes see people asking about Idle Hands... what became of them?
Aaaaahhhhhh, yet another Trustkill band that bit the dust way too soon. I fucking loved this band, I think their album "Building A Desert" was phenomenal, I still listen to it all the time. These guys were dead-set on touring full time and being a hard working and active band, but they had a major pitfall. It was summer 2000, and the band was heading out on their first US tour right after the album came out. They were literally on their way to their very first show on the tour, hit some black ice in Utah (or somewhere out there), flipped their van a few times, and skidded a few hundred yards, in the middle of the night. Their van was completely destroyed, not salvageable at all. Their equipment was destroyed, their merchandise was scattered all over the highway, mangled and water/oil/gasoline damaged. The whole band was taken to the hospital for some pretty serious bruises, scrapes, and lots of glass removal. I have photos of the van and I couldn't believe that none of them were seriously injured. This was about 2 weeks before the big Hellfest 2000, so they ended up just flying out for the fest, and skipped the whole tour they were supposed to be on. It was this accident that ruined the band because they never quite got back on their feet afterwards. They had no equipment, no merch, no money, and their morale hit an all time low. I think they just got home and didn't talk to each other for a few weeks, until I got a call from one of them being like, "Yeah dude, we're done." Those are the worst phone calls to get when you run a label.
Finally, is Brother's Keeper still a band?
I'm actually not so sure what is going on with Brother's Keeper at the moment, but Mike Ski (the singer) has started a new band called "The AKA's". They are along the same lines as the latter BK stuff (after "Fantasy Killer") mixed with some MC5 and Refused. They are super good and have already started playing out. Look out for them soon.
Looking back with what you've done so far with TK, would you do anything differently?
I think I trust people too much, and I've been burned a bunch of times for it. People in the punk-rock world are pretty sketchy sometimes, so you gotta be really careful. A record label needs to grow slowly, and I think I did that pretty well. I mean, people are always surprised when they hear that my first record came out in 1994. "What?!?!? I never even heard of Trustkill until 1999." When you don't have any money, you can't really come out with both guns blazing, you know? You gotta start small, and slowly develop a brand name and a reputation. The evolution of Trustkill worked out pretty well I think, so I'm pretty happy with where I am.
Mr. Josh "Aquaman" Trustkill
What's been your greatest achievement with TK?
My greatest achievement is that I have bands that are making a living off playing their music, and that is what I always wanted. When my bands call me every day from the road and tell me how much fun they're having and how awesome a tour or a string of shows are, I get totally stoked. The fact that I can sit here all day in my basement doing what I love to do and it in turn allows my friends to have the coolest jobs in the world is pretty awesome. I couldn't really ask for anything else. All the big business "industry" type shit like good sound scan numbers, and Billboard, and big tours, and all that stuff comes second. Don't get me wrong, when I see "Trustkill" on these lists with a bunch of major labels, it's pretty cool. But I still think being able to have full-time touring bands on the roster is the coolest part about running a label. I love it.
Are there any particular labels that you look up to, or try to model TK after?
When I first started the label, I knew that I didn't want to be "pigeonholed". A label like Revelation, back in the day, was amazing because you could pick up any new record they put out, and it was great music. You didn't necessarily know what it was gonna be like, heavy or soft, fast or slow, but you knew it would be good. There were other labels around at the time that were only doing straight edge bands, or only doing metal, and I never wanted that. All I ever wanted was for kids to go into a store, or look at a distro bin at a show, see the latest Trustkill CD, and go, "I think I'll buy this because it's on Trustkill." I would like to think that 8 years of extreme scrutiny when it comes to picking bands has helped me get to that place I wanted to be. Obviously, you can't please everyone, and that is why there are labels like Relapse and Century Media, who keep it strictly to metal, and that is great. If a kid wants a metal record, he should buy the new Nuclear Blast or Earache CD, because that is what they do. But that's not what I do, I just put out great music. Well, at least I think it's great, heh heh. The thing is, even with the most extreme cases of kids that only listen to one type of music, you know they need a break every now and then, I mean, we all listen to different types of music. And really, if you confine yourself to one type, you are truly missing out on a shitload of amazing bands.
On the other side of the equation, are there any smaller labels you see a lot of potential in? We recently had a poll regarding some of "these" labels and among the choices were Bridge Nine, Goodfellow, and Robotic Empire. Any smaller labels you really dig?
Chris from Goodfellow and me go way back, he is an awesome dude. I hope his label gets huge, he deserves it. He seems to have a good ear for music, a lot of the bands he's worked with are really good like ETID, Taken, Premonitions of War, etc. I mean, it's too bad he's a Canadian, otherwise, he would be almost like a real person, heh heh. If anyone wants to see a photo of Chris wrapped in an American flag, email me, I have one. Chris from Bridge 9 is another awesome guy, I don't know him too well, but the times we've hung out and talked he seems really cool. His label is real young, but his background is what makes his label what it is, the fact that he worked for other Boston labels before starting his own. I kind of wish I had done the same thing. As far as the music he puts out, I don't think I've ever heard anything he's released, so I can't comment on that. He concentrates on the more posi-88-nike-high-tops-crew-cut-Boston style of hardcore, and that's not really my thing. But some people dig it, so that's cool. As for the other label you mentioned… who? Never heard of them. As for other smaller labels, all the labels that were putting out the music I really loved, are mostly gone, or soon to be gone. I always loved everything on Dr. Strange, Ebullition, Gravity, Inner Ear, Old Glory, stuff like that.
Do you ever envision a day when Trustkill no longer has any hardcore bands on its roster? What happens to TK when Josh Trustkill turns 40?
Hhhhhhmmmmm… good question. I imagine the time will come when I can no longer keep up with the style of music that Trustkill is known for, but I don't think that will be anytime soon. Shit, I have been listening to hardcore and going to hardcore shows for 15 years now, and my tastes haven't really changed. It'll be weird when the day comes where I have other people doing my A&R work for me. Right now I have friends that help out, but actually paying someone else to travel around and "scout" talent, that would be strange indeed.
What is the ultimate goal you have in mind for Trustkill Records? What needs to happen for you to be able to sit back and say, "Wow, I can't believe this is what MY label has become"?
My ultimate goal was always to have full-time touring bands, and to be able to run the label as my only job, and both of those already happened, so that is pretty sweet. I went to law school thinking I would always be doing the label, but maybe not as my real job, I thought maybe I would practice law and do the label on the side. But in reality, I love the label more than any legal career I could possibly have. Yeah, getting a sweet job at a big Manhattan firm is great pay, but the hours suck, it is extremely stressful and competitive, and I would never get to see my wife, or my dogs, or my friends. Now, I work with my friends, see my dogs all day, and have plenty of time to spend with my wife. There are still plenty of things I would like to see with Trustkill as far as growth is concerned. I am too much of a perfectionist to ever just sit back and go, "Okay, I am comfortable here, this is enough." For me, that day will never come. I am always going to be thinking of new ways to help my bands out, new ways to promote, to market, etc. I think of myself as a pretty aggressive label dude, I never sit back and just let things happen. When I watched the VMA's this year and Dashboard Confessional won an award, I thought that was pretty amazing. Not because he is so great or anything, I mean, his album is pretty good and all, but I thought it was so cool that Vagrant Records, who was still an "indie" when that album was released, had a band that won a VMA. That is pretty fucking cool, and also says something about the state of the music industry right now. The indies are still doing amazing, and the majors are struggling. If Eighteen Visions or someone won a VMA, that would kick ass, I would be so stoked. Other than that, I don't know what else there is. Poison The Well was my first band to hit the Billboard Charts, but since then both Eighteen Visions and Hopesfall have hit the charts as well. I would love to see one of my bands on the cover of a bigger music magazine like Revolver or Alternative Press, that would be hot.
Ok, we couldn't do an interview without asking... what are you listening to these days?
I just bought an Ipod, so I have over 300 of my favorite albums in there, and I throw it on shuffle all day, it is the coolest thing ever. These days I am listening to (in no particular order) Samiam, Queen, The Used, Glassjaw, Heroin, The Juliana Theory, In Flames, Refused, Killswitch Engage, Jimmy Eat World, Ignite, Lifetime, Merauder, Andrew W.K., Misfits, Finch, Hole, Only Living Witness, New Found Glory, Weezer, Alkaline Trio, Screaching Weasel, Into Another, At The Drive In, Smoking Popes, Shadows Fall, Face To Face, System Of A Down, Bad Brains, 36 Crazyfists, ArmsBendBack, Inside Out, Coheed And Cambria, Prince, Reggie And The Full Effect, Down By Law, Bleeding Through, Jawbreaker, Descendents, Hatebreed, Coldplay, Sunny Day Real Estate, Duran Duran, Sensefield, Blink 182, Oustpoken, Adam Ant, Texas Is The Reason, The Movielife, and of course all the Trustkill bands.
Anything else you'd like people to know about Trustkill Records? Any important developments on the horizon? Final thoughts?
I am looking at and talking to a bunch of really awesome bands right now, as always, but I don't want to say "who" until something is official. The best way to keep up on all the daily news is to visit the website (how cliché) and sign up for the mailing list. We are currently redesigning our entire website, working on the webstore, and adding a lot of really cool things to it. I encourage anyone with any questions to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) whenever they want, I always try to answer every email I get. All I can ask is that anyone who reads this gives all of my bands a chance, because they are all amazing people and deserve all the success they get. I obviously would be nowhere without them. Thanks a million to Alex for the interview.