Tor Johnson Records 15th Anniversary Interview; feat. FURNACE – “Blue Iberia” track premiere!

Just in time for the release of the newest Closer To The Grave compilation, we sat down with Providence DIY hardcore/metal label Tor Johnson Records to discuss the 15 years of its work; Rhode Island punk scene, and give you the first listen of one of the final tracks from Boston hardcore band FURNACE!
TOR JOHNSON label
As the 15th anniversary milestone of Providence, Rhode Island’s DIY label Tor Johnson Records emerges on the horizon, what better way to celebrate than a tasteful 15 Anniversay Compilation and a proper release show at one of the busiest local venues AS220? Well, we deduced there was no interview planned, and we interrogated the label’s mastermind Paul Dechichio to learn more about his amazing work, the Rhode Island DIY punk/metal scene, and a lot more stuff. We touched upon some technical details of running a small label, pressing coloured vinyls, and Tor Johnson’s 15th Anniversary compilation featuring the final recording from Providence based doom folk metallers BLOODPHEASANT and Boston sludgy metallic hardcore pack FURNACE, along with a long out-of-print DEATH TO TYRANTS song! Completed by the label’s current and ex-bands SAINT JUDETYLER DANIEL BEANANEURYSMLATE BLOOMERLUNGLUST, RATSTABand NOW DENIAL, the record is dubbed ‘Closer To The Grave’ and will be officially released on July 28th, one day before the show at AS220 in Providence. Alongside the interview, we’re thrilled to give you premiere one of the last tracks by FURNACE called “Blue Iberia”!

Hey Paul! Thanks for joining us here on IDIOTEQ. How are you? How’s 2016 been treating you so far?

Hey Karol! Thanks for kicking this thing off.

Well 2017 has been quite the year. Started off really strong. Getting everything together for the 15th Anniversary Comp & Party was a handful. Trying to wrangle 10 different bands for the comp & 8 different bands for the show was quite a undertaking.

We also did our first Record Store Day Exclusive release, which was really fun.

But in my “non-label” life, 2017 has been a roller-coaster of a year. Two months ago, as my wife & I started the process of looking into buying a house, there was a big electrical fire in our apartment building. Thankfully, everyone who lives in the building & our pets were ok, but it really up-ended our life. We had some stuff destroyed, but it could have been way worse. We use our home for TJRHQ, but thankfully about 75% off the label stuff was saved, as well as our personal record collections. We’re trying to turn lemons into lemonade though. We recently found a home and are in the process of purchasing it. So hopefully by 2018 Tor Johnson Records will have a new HQ.

Oh man, this is great! I’m also considering moving into a house, but it’s kind of a harsh decision just 3 years after buying an apartment. We’ll see where this new adventure takes us, haha.

You mentioned the Record Store Day. How do you feel about events like that? How effective do you think such initiatives are and how they work for DIY ventures like your label. I know opinions hugely differ on that, hence my asking.

Its tough. I love the idea of Record Store Day…..the idea of it, not really what it has turned into. I love digging at stores, but not everyone does. With the internet being what it is, most people would rather just “click shop”. Small brick and mortar stores feel that the most. I come from an age where the first TJR website was on Angelfire. A webstore was something I would dream of, not something readily available. So to me, it is more important to get our releases into stores than it is to have the customer buy direct from me. Watching store after store close, the idea of Record Store Day was great! Limited releases, available for one day only and then sold out. If you didn’t go to your store, good luck finding it. That was cool! But since then it has turned into a boring day full of represses no one asked for, or “exclusive colors” pre-released before the full run…. I don’t know, the excitement is gone. So I decided to do something special, something fun, and something for MY local record stores. We did a lathe cut of local raw punk band RATSTAB that was clear with a silk screened b-side & screened poly-bag. So there was no paper packaging and then we made it exclusive to Providence & Boston area stores. It was something we did to bring back the excitement of record store day, or so that was the idea.

Oh man, Angfelfire :) You’ve just reminded me of sharing bootlegs via IRC channels in the late 90s haha. Great times!

So how did that RATSTAB go? What was the feedback?

I think it went well. The band actually received multiple messages from people all over the country that were mad they were not going to be able to get a copy. But we did have a couple left over after RSD, so some people were able to grab it at the same price they would have in the store. Honestly, this was an “experiment” release. We had never done a lathe cut or a release THIS limited. Plus with all the bells and whistles. The guys in RATSTAB were really open to my vision for the release and I think its going to spawn some fun ideas. We’ve already been talking about another limited release with them, and talking with Tyler Daniel Bean about something for RSD2018. I think this one really was just what we needed to do more fun, limited things.

Here’s a picture of the release. The black is on the b-side & red is on the poly-bag.

RATSTAB

Nice!

Man, you’ve been running the label for 15 years! Let’s talk about this wild adventure. How did it all start? What were your initial aims and inspirations from the very beginning?

Well, I moved from Boston to Providence in 2000 for college. I used to book shows all the time while I was in high school; was very active in the suburban MA scene. When I moved, I held onto that scene for a couple years. Still booking shows and playing in bands up there. With the two cities only an hour or so apart, it was easy to hold on to what was familiar. Even though I was going to shows in PVD and making friends, it was tough. Providence is such a small scene and a very close knit community. It is hard for most new faces to really get into. It requires a little more “work” than a lot of cities. I think this also has to do with there being a lot of “lifers” here (less of a transient scene). So cut to 2002. Most of my Boston friends had moved on, either out of the area or on to more “serious” bands than our weekend fun. I decided that I really wanted to make a commitment to switch my focus to Providence. Tor Johnson Records started as a name for me to book shows under. I knew I would eventually want to put out records, but for the first….year or so, it was used to book shows and plan that first release (which didn’t actually come out until late 02/early 03….I can’t remember).

We’ll circle back to this story, but let’s expound a bit more on Providence. From today’s perspective, how would you assess that decision to stay there?

All in all, i’m very happy with my decision to stay. I was able to meet my amazing wife, make closer friends than I would have anywhere else, and truely feel like some of the things actually impact the city & scene here. Because of the small size of the city & scene, if you put in the leg work its very easy to not just be “another face in the crowd”. People here tend to care more because this is something most of them have built on for more than half of their life. But its also a very “wet” city, so I think we are hurt when it comes to getting younger kids involved. Providence is generally an “older” scene, which has its pros and cons. Hopefully current younger bands like Hairspray Queen help breathe some youth into the scene.

I’m planning to visit my family in Glenview, Illinois sometime next year and looking for some cool spots to visit in the East Coast. What cool spots, venues and local most kept secrets would you recommend to check out in the area?

Man, this is tough. Are you travelling or mostly staying in IL? Its funny, some friends and I joke that you reach a certain age and touring with your band is less about the shows & more about the food you are going to eat in various cities.

For venues: AS220 here in PVD is awesome, Strange Matter in Richmond, i think Mr Roboto in Pittsburgh is still doing shows.

For record shopping: Double Decker in Allentown is hands down the best store I have been too, Armageddon, Analog Underground and Olympic in PVD, and Vinyl Conflict in RVA.

Food….man, well I’m veg and my wife is vegan so if you are too: Veggie Galaxy, Allston Diner and Grasshopper in Boston, Grange, AS220 Foo(d), Julians, Pizza J, Nice Slice in PVD, Dunwell and Champs in NYC, Vegan Treats in Bethlehem, I’m more of a fan of Govindas in Philly than Blackbird (fight me, its better)….umm yeah. I have to say, I’m less familiar with the mid-west so I’m sorry I can’t help more out that way.

Awesome, thanks! We’ll probably do some trips, so we’ll hopefully hit at least some of these spots!

Ok, so back to your early days with TOR JOHNSON, what other labels inspired you back then?

Back in the early days of the beginning of the label, there was a super active scene here in Providence. I spent a lot of time in Contrast Records talking to Al Barkley. He really taught me a TON about putting out records. plants, distros, reviews, etc etc. I found I was getting tons of inspiration from the labels and people running them that I hung out with. Trash Art, Corleone, All About, Iodine, Load, Armageddon. but even before that, growing up in boston Big Wheel, Iodine, Bridge 9. even from when I was first introduced to punk I would find a band I liked and start following that label: Fat, Ebullition, Epitaph, Asian Man, Doghouse, No Idea, Dischord, etc. but mostly, I got inspiration from the smaller labels I would interact with.

Are there some European labels that you’re currently connected to?

Rob from Adagio is awesome. I do trades with him pretty regularly and had the pleasure of booking ZANN the last time they came to the states. THE ORDINARY LIVES 7″ was a split release with Yo-Yo and the 2nd WEAK TEETH LP was a split with FITA. Both of those guys were a pleasure to work with.

Ok, so back to the States, how do you feel your local scene has changed since late 90s / early 00s?

That’s a tough one. When I first moved to Providence 17 years ago it was a thriving scene. Legit venues, warehouse venues, tons of bands, labels, and people being involved. But like everything, there are peaks and valleys. I feel like right now we are in a valley, sort of a low point for the scene. There are only a couple DIY venues, there are only a handful of legit venues holding it down. With this scene being such an older scene, getting people to weekday shows is like pulling teeth and even weekend shows need to be STACKED to get more than a handful of people out of their houses. I think one of the biggest problems is the lack of youth involvement right now. There are some young bands in their early 20s that are killing it, but there is not much activity from the younger kids and i sadly don’t have the answer to fix this problem. But, as has happened before, I have faith that if we keep putting on shows and putting out records we will see another resurgence. This isn’t the first time the city has gone through a timeframe like this, and i’m sure it won’t be the last. Just gotta keep working through to the other side.

Some might say it’s the point of no return, mostly because of the rapid evolution of modern technologies, young people’s different aspirations and the changing landscape of entertainment. Would you agree with the assessment we’re in the middle of a huge transition?

Totally. Its a weird time. Nostalgia tours are able to bring in big bucks, but you can’t get people out of the house for a $5 show down the street with a bunch of locals and a couple touring bands. I feel like live music is just in a rough spot right now and i just don’t know how to combat it. Meanwhile vinyl sales are on the rise, record stores are doing well again. People want the music but seem to care less about the live aspect. Its tough for older folks like me where live is what makes it. Most of the early Tor Johnson releases are kind of rough to listen to, but I put them out because those bands blew me away live. Its tough to see the evolution or progression from here, but i think we are totally on a tipping point.

After all these years, what do you feel is the importance of DIY punk labels to the music scene in this more and more digitalized world?

I think the DIY label still has a very real place in the scene. Its a place i think most bands don’t think about. Recording a record & putting it on bandcamp is easy. Making cd-rs or tapes is easy. Vinyl is a little more difficult without some help. The big part is getting it out to the world. Most younger bands don’t think about that. My goal is to have TJR releases in as many stores as possible. Physical stores. If you are just a band self-releasing stuff, how are you going to get your record in stores? Other than the couple in your area. Its tough. And i think that step is where labels come into play. Its our job to take the record the band just slaved over and get it into people’s hands. Its that step that makes a good DIY label important.

Format wise, have you changed your perception of certain ways to put out music? What’s your view on vinyl, CD, and tapes these days?

Oh sure! When I started I didn’t really think about it. I started with vinyl but by 05 or so cds were so cheap to get made and people were really buying them. The music industry hadn’t really popped yet. Cds were a perfect way for labels to get out there. Stores were carrying them, they turned around quickly…until the majors made cds so unaffordable that no one would buy them. Since then its been pretty much vinyl. I’ve done a few tapes, but honestly i personally am not a fan of tapes. Maybe i’m too old or too young to have the nostalgia feel for tapes. I just never liked the format. But sometimes its easier, so i’ve put out a couple. Mostly I feel like vinyl with a download code along with digital distribution is the perfect format for today’s market. But the key is pricing. Once again the major’s are making vinyl unaffordable, making it hard again.

Do you have any advice for young DIY labels who’d like to try out putting out vinyls? Where and how to start, how to choose a plant, etc.?

My best advice is to not rely on the label to pay your bills or rent. There are a lot of labels out that there are able to do that, but they had to work up to it. And plenty never get there. This should be for the love of music and the bands and vinyl itself. People who run labels who don’t collect vinyl are enigmas to me. In terms of plants, and such. With the amount of “brokers” that are out there, be sure to pay attention to where your vinyl is getting pressed and who is seeing the benefit from that. I personally like to use smaller us based plants because i like supporting the little guy. I used to print on cd-r comps i made for the label back in the day “step 1: remember that where you spend your money matters” and i think that’s one of the most important things to always remember. Support local, support small and those people will support you.

Sounds like an instruction to run a DIY webzine, too, haha.

Ok, just one more technical question about the formats. Have you played around with some unconventional colours, marbles and textures? How do you decide on designs of your records?

I love colored vinyl! When the label started, i did the “rare” color thing. But i would randomly disperse them in with the black vinyl. I wanted someone to be excited to come across it in a store, the same way i was when i would come across colored vinyl. Since then, i started working with a plant that lets me do smaller numbers of color vinyl. So i’ll do an “exclusive” color for the bands to have at shows, an “exclusive” color for people to get from me normally via pre-order, and then the main pressing either on black or random mix marble. In terms of color choices, i’ll ask the band what they want and then i’ll normally try to match something to the artwork for mine. Or just pick something that sounded cool. Haha. In terms of artwork design, its really important to me that the band gets their vision across. I’ll refer various artists and designers to the band, but ultimately its up to the band.

Considering both your outings, as well as other items from your collection, can you show us some of the coolest designs and vinyl releases?

This is really tough. Because of the apartment fire and the house hunting, all my records are in storage right now. But since i’m an addict when it comes to record shopping, i’ve still been picking some stuff up. These two are the most recent that i just love the look of. ELDER keeps putting out cooler and cooler looking records. The art on this one, along with the splatter vinyl, just works so perfectly. All the little things too, embossed font on the cover, the thick spine, printed inner sleeves. This is a killer release. THE VICTOR VILLARREAL LP also works so perfectly with what he’s doing. I love the recycled matte cover, the letter-pressed silver and printed sleeve. Plus the vinyl color really ties in with the silver printing. I’m also a sucker for hand printed artwork.

Alright, Paul. You’re celebrating the anniversary with a cool new compilation. Can you tell us a bit more about the idea?

The comp was something fun that I wanted to do to celebrate the milestone. We did a 7″ for the 10 year anniversary but we have added so many bands to the family since then, i thought an lp was really needed. I think comps are really important. The No Idea 100, the Dischord 20th Anniversary box, the Sub Pop 200. They are perfect ways to help celebrate milestones in a business where you are not the spotlight, you are normally a logo on the back of a record. Normally the band is the spotlight and we, the label, are the driving force behind them. Its nice to step forward and really show what you’re all about. Plus it was a great way to really show how diverse the label has gotten over the years.

Did all of the TJ associated bands participate?

Most of the active bands on the label right now participated and some of the in-active bands were able to give unreleased stuff too. All-in-all, there are 10 bands on it. It also has the final recording from BLOODPHEASANT and FURNACE, along with a long out-of-print DEATH TO TYRANTS song.

 

FURNACE… oh man, I caught these guys on March 18th, 2009 at a perfect house show in the old part of Warsaw, here in Poland (this neighourhood). What an intense, mind-wrenching experience it was. The gig included a pillow fight and was simply amazing!

Closer To The Grave!

Speaking of the bands, what are the common characteristics do you see in all of TOR JOHNSON associated acts?

That’s a tough one… I think it is more the mind state of the artist. I look for band and artists that are doing this for the love, that have a DIY focus on what they do. I’m not looking for the next band that is gonna “break big”, I’m looking for a band that I want to listen to and a record I would enjoy.

Tor Johnson show!

Ok, so apart from this new release, what else have you got planned for this year?

We’re doing the debut LP from Providence’s TWIN FOXES with the help of Boston label Midnight Werewolf. Great indie rock in the vein of SUPERCHUNK or early MODEST MOUSE. That’s going to be it for this year, but we’re taking with new hardcore band RUIN IT about maybe doing something next year. They are members of VERSE, SOUL CONTROL, and THIRD DEATH. Really getting me excited about hardcore again and fast pissed off!

Wow, this sounds amazing! Please be sure to drop us a line as soon as you get more details. I’d be thrilled to host another feature for Tor Johnson.

Ok, so lastly, considering your local grounds, please drop us some recommendations of venues, artists, and labels worth checking out.

We are lucky for such a small city that we have some really great veneus. AS220, Dusk, Aurora, Machines With Magnets are all awesome. In terms of bands right now there are some awesome indie bands with TWIN FOXES, DARKLANDS, and SNOWPLOWS. There is some killer rock with DEMOLITION BOYS, LITTLE TOMB and SWEET JESUS. New hardcore band RUIN IT are awesome! Classics like LIGHTNING BOLT and DROPDEAD are still killing it. THE HURT ENSEMBLE put on an amazing live show with full lighting and everything. The other local labels that are killing it are Atomic Action, Riotous Outburst and Armageddon. All in all, there is some awesome stuff coming out of Providence and Rhode Island in general right now.

Great, thanks so much! Thanks for your time and lots of insightful stuff. Also, congratulations on your amazing work with the label! Feel free to drop your final words and take care!

Thank you so much. It was great talking to you and really I just want to thank anyone who has bought a record in the last 15 years. It really means the world and we’re only able to keep doing this because of your support.

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torjohnsonrecords@yahoo.com

DIY rock music enthusiast and web-zine publisher from Warsaw, Poland. Supporting DIY ethics, local artists and promoting hardcore punk, rock, post rock and alternative music of all kinds via IDIOTEQ online channels. Contact via www.idioteq.com@gmail.com

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