The Reptilian Records founder looks back at his label and store's 20th anniversary
Published: November 24, 2010
The Reptilian Records Retrospective
The Windup Space, Nov. 26
For more information visit thewindupspace.com.
Reptilian Records opened in Fells Point almost exactly 20 years ago. It grew in a few years into Baltimore’s cornerstone underground heavy music outlet and record label, putting out sounds from loud luminaries ranging from Oxes to Pig Destroyer, from the Dwarves to Pg. 99. This weekend, the Windup Space hosts a label/store retrospective/party featuring old performance videos from the shop and a roomful of “paraphernalia and propaganda,” according to Reptilian founder and owner Christopher Xavier Donovan, known to most simply as Chris X. City Paper spoke to him last week about the withering of underground music, rock ‘n’ roll, and hipsters.
City Paper : What exactly is Reptilian in the year 2010?
Chris X: There is no longer a [physical] store, [but] the label is still going with a few releases in the works. The Sick Weapons album, a limited-edition vinyl LP; the Upper Crust DVD; and the long-awaited Hatebeak discography CD. The web store is still going strong, the label is still going, the publishing is going strong. It’s just not a store anymore.
One thing we’re working on for the future is a book about Reptilian Records. A thing we’re trying to do at this event is kinda pull people aside—we’re doing an oral history sort of thing, you know?—and get people’s stories. Their first time in the store, shows they saw at the store, if they were there when Danzig threatened my life. Stuff like that.
CP: Do you regret shutting down the brick and mortar store?
CX: I wish that it was still happening. I wish that I still had a store, I wish I was still in Fells Point. I wish it was still the mid-’90s [laughs]. But Fells Point could not support Reptilian anymore. It’s changed too much. And the building we were in was falling apart.
And moving up to Howard Street [next to the Ottobar], which I thought would have been a good move, really wasn’t. You’d think that being next to a club would be great for a record store. But, when you think about it, if you’re at a show and you’ve got a beer in your hand, are you going to leave to go buy records? Do you want to carry a record around a show? It’s not exactly the best spot. And then there’d be long lines of kids around the block for sold-out pop-punk afternoon gigs—none of them would come in except to use the bathroom. The youth of today do not care too much about our record store. Of course, there are those that do, but, for the most part, they don’t.
It’s too bad that Baltimore could no longer support Reptilian financially. I’m not in any way trying to slight the Baltimore scene by saying it didn’t support the store, because this is a nationwide plague of record-store closings over the last five to 10 years, really. At the same time, I’ve been here for just over 20 years, and I wouldn’t mind leaving. That’s the plan: I’m riding off into the sunset with my lovely bride. And Reptilian will continue worldwide on the webs.
CP: What are you doing with the Reptilian building?
CX: It’s for sale. A great investment for somebody when the Walmart opens.
CP: Any regrets in those 20 years?
CX: At this point, I think buying this building on Howard Street. I shouldn’t have done that. Reptilian should have closed when the Fells Point store closed. But I wasn’t ready to stop yet. I was being stubborn. It’s left me with a lot of debt. But I don’t really have any [other] regrets other than I should have thought a few things through a little better. Maybe I should have paid my taxes more regular [laughs].
CP: Of all the bands that have been on Reptilian, are there any you’re disappointed didn’t get bigger or catch on?
CX: There’s definitely been a few bands that I could not understand why they didn’t catch on. As with a lot of things, given a little more time, they would have blown up or gotten some more attention. There was a band from Ohio called the Means that were an amazing band. Amazing live, amazing songwriting, amazing record. They put out a couple of records, one on Reptilian and one on a label called DoublePlusGood. That was definitely one band that I really thought people would have grabbed ahold of, given the opportunity and the time. Midiron Blast Shaft being another.
CP: What are you most proud of with Reptilian?
CX: I guess I’m proud that I did it for 20 years. When I started I didn’t expect it to last more than a few years—felt like I was just playing record store. I’m proud that Reptilian stayed independent and underground. We never started carrying mainstream stuff. We were devoted to carrying independent labels and the only major stuff we had were old things like the Dead Boys, the Ramones, or the New York Dolls. I guess I’m the most proud that I did it my way.
CP: You’ve been supporting heavy music for a very long time. I wonder what you think about this recent all-of-a-sudden interest in metal and hardcore from the cool kids?
CX: The hipsters, who are into it semi-ironically, I suppose. Honestly, all I’ve been passionate about in my entire life are music and, of course, art. So if anybody’s getting into the music and they’re seriously into it, whether it’s hipsters or rap kids, if they’re really into it and passionate about it, that’s what’s important. Not being narrow-minded.
For instance, [Celebrated Summer owner] Tony Pence. When he used to come into my store at the beginning he was really into pop-punk stuff like the Descendents, but he was willing to check out the cream of the crop of any genre. That’s why he eventually wound up working for me. Those are the kinds of people like myself.
I think actually people aren’t nearly as into music today as they once were. Now, it’s sort of, like I was saying, an ironic identification than an actual one, or an actual appreciation.
CP: What are you most excited about in music these days?
CX: I’m not exactly sure. I could be a jaded old man saying things like this, but it does seem for the most part everything’s been done. All that’s left is a lot of cheap imitations. Real innovation musically these days just seems to be a lot of beeps and clicks and dance-y kind of stuff. I’m not putting it down. It’s just not rock ‘n’ roll. And the passion and fire and sexual energy from rock music seems pretty watered down these days.
The underground and independent scene has really been watered down. It’s great that everyone can get on the internet and everyone’s band is available. At the same time, it’s too much. There’s too much noise. And in the past when a band had to really work hard to get attention, that sort of weeded out the people who were serious and passionate versus those who had the coolest clique of friends.
CP: What does the future of Reptilian look like? What are you looking forward to or excited about?
CX: I’m happy it’s still going. I don’t know what else I would do. It’s all I really care about and, as far as I’m concerned, as long as I’m alive there will be a Reptilian.
I’m looking forward to the next innovation in music. What am I excited about? I’ve got to say I’m more depressed than excited about the future of music. But I remain hopeful because, as I said, music is very important to me. It still means something to me and I’m sure there are people out there who it still means something to. Maybe I’ve lost my listeners locally, but finding people via the internet across the world that are still excited and still passionate and still hungry for something new or something real—that’s what I’m looking forward to. Connecting with those people.
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