A389 Records owner talks about the heavy music scene and the endurance of LPs
Published: January 19, 2011
A389 seven-year anniversary blowout with Integrity, Haymaker, the Dropdead, and more
For more information visit a389records.com
A389, perhaps Baltimore’s premier active heavy-music record label, celebrates its seven-year anniversary this weekend with a blowout, ear-caving show at Sonar. Sporting a roster ranging from pure New York hardcore brutality to heavy-tonnage sludge to whatever you call Baltimore’s Oak, the label’s catalog offers a tour of extreme music—though, like much of the city’s extreme music, A389 is a mite undersung on its own turf. City Paper talked to label founder/owner Domenic Romeo, who also plays guitar in hardcore band Pulling Teeth, last week over the phone during a break in his workday about supporting heavy music, evictions, and why metal and punk fans still actually buy records.
City Paper: So what’s the origin story of A389? Why did you need to start your own label?
Domenic Romeo: When I was living in Canada, I had a label, a much smaller thing called 13th Day Records, because I love Friday the 13th movies. I’ve been putting out records for my own bands ever since I started out [in music]. I pretty much released my own bands and my friends’ bands—probably about five records total.
It was late 2003 or 2004 when my band Slumlords was starting out. We were picking up pretty fast, playing a lot of shows. I thought of [starting the label] as being an avenue to help other bands out. First record was by a band called Bring It On from Baltimore, a similar style band, a New York hardcore style band. The idea was, If my band is doing well, why don’t I use that to help other bands out? Spread the seeds and see what grows, you know?
CP: Has it ever been a goal of the label to grow—as in, be a business or career or get famous?
DR: I think record number five was this band called Holy Ghost, the first LP I did. I found out Deathwish Records was doing a CD release of it, and I asked if I could do the vinyl. They were really cool and helped me along the way. From there it was just, I was able to cascade from touring for so many years in so many bands. I had a really good network. It was a matter of asking bands if they wanted to do a record at that time, and usually they did. I think every record I set out to do came out, sooner or later. We have like 60 releases now, with another 10 slated for release this year.
Timewise, it’s really two full-time jobs [being in Pulling Teeth and running the label]. The demands of the label are growing more than the band, and I need to stay home and take care of it. I didn’t expect it to grow the way it did. It’s gotten to the point where people will check out bands just because they’re on the label. When I was growing up I would check out bands on, like, Victory, because I loved bands like BloodWHAT and Integrity. I discovered Dead Guy that way. I see that same thing happening [with A389], and it’s cool.
My greatest reward is seeing kids that were like me growing up. They find a band on the label and want to find out about all the other bands. And it spreads that way. Those kids start bands and get in the mix and before you know it, it’s a big snowball.
CP: Is your label, as a metal label, doing better in terms of not losing out to illegal downloads?
DR: It made the labels take a hit, but not as bad as everything else. The fans seem to be a bit more diehard in supporting their bands. Hardcore and hardcore punk, the feeling growing up was that it was different than anything else. It was real. You’d see a band and if you ran into them they’d actually talk to you. They were dudes you could relate to. It wasn’t something that was force-fed to you.
CP: For someone that’s not into extreme music, how do you suggest they go about trying it out?
DR: There’s stores like Celebrated Summer and Sound Garden. I remember growing up you’d have those stores that were pretentious, and would still see that on tour—this vibe, where you’re new and intimidated—but Tony [Pence of Celebrated Summer] and the dudes at Sound Garden all do a really good job of making people feel welcome and making suggestions, playing records for people, talking music. It’s very welcoming. Baltimore’s a really friendly place, scene-wise.
CP: What does A389 mean?
DR: A389 goes back to when Slumlords started out. A lot of us used to work for an eviction company. The A389 is the type of lock you use to lock someone’s house when they’ve been kicked out. Just a padlock, the A389 padlock.
CP: Damn, what was that like?
DR: It’s better than you think. Most of the time it’s just an empty house. It was actually pretty neat for the years I did it. There’s the textbook version of the sad [eviction] story, but having done it for a few years, I’d only seen one time where I’d actually felt bad for someone—an older lady whose kid was into drugs and taking all the money. Which sucks, but that’s on her kid, not the people that have to move them out. For the most part it was just people that wouldn’t pay their bills until they ultimately would just leave, take the stuff they wanted to, leave all the junk we’d get hired to toss. That was the day-to-day of the job, tossing people’s stuff out that were already gone.
CP: What’s been the highlight of A389?
DR: Maybe the Pulling Teeth Paranoid Delusions holographic cover. I don’t think anyone’s ever done it. I’ve seen CDs [but not LPs]. Never a full cover. It was insane. Not to give the numbers away, but it was so much, I remember putting it up on the web site for sale thinking that if this doesn’t sell, I’m gonna have to disappear and get a job in a factory for a year just to pay for this.
But also just having this roster of all favorite bands, like Integrity and Ringworm, and then having new bands send in demos that are awesome. Being able to see that it’s still alive and there are bands that are good. What’s really cool is a band will send in a demo and it’ll be OK and I’ll write back—I always write back, I always listen and give some sort of input. It’d be like, “This is pretty good but I’m too busy to nurture this right now, but keep at it and send anything else.” A year later they send me their record and it’s mind-blowing and I’m totally on board to [release] it. I’ve seen that happen. It makes me really happy to see bands that don’t give up and get better and turn into the beasts that they are.