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Headbangers Ball

Expanded A389 annual bash celebrates the label’s one-man army

Photo: Josh Sisk, License: N/A

Josh Sisk

Dom Romeo, the man behind local heavy music label A389


Non-metalhead locals may not know it, but one of America’s most diverse and prolific heavy-music record labels sits in the heart of Baltimore. Spurred by founder Domenic Romeo’s curatorial talent and a lot of hard work, A389 Recordings has grown from a modest outfit into a powerhouse metal and hardcore label.

Romeo started A389 in 2004 to produce 7-inch records of his friends’ bands, and the label has since released more than 120 records by 54 different bands—30 in 2012 alone. (The name dates back to when he worked at an eviction company: A389 is the type of lock they would put on a house after they cut off the locks.) The label’s discography has grown to include such legendary bands as New Orleans’ EYEHATEGOD and Cleveland’s Integrity as well as solid Baltimore acts like Ilsa, Sick Fix, and Romeo’s own (now defunct) band, Pulling Teeth.

It’s hard to believe that a single person, Romeo himself, runs the label with the help of a (very) small group of volunteers, no paid staff or interns, and no PR firm. And he does it all while holding down a full-time day job and fulfilling his duties as a husband and father to two young children.

“As a label, they are really inspirational,” says Jimmy MacMillan, owner of another local label, Friends Records. “I’m in the same boat he is—family, son, house payments, job—somehow he finds time to do it all. . . . I always feel like I’m slacking off whenever I meet up with him.”

Dwid Hellion, the vocalist and primary creative force of Integrity, one of the most high-profile and best-selling groups on A389, has notched eight releases on the label. “His ability to multitask is unmatched,” he says. “Dom is more than a label, he is a fan first and foremost, which allows him a different type of insight.”

Romeo agrees. “I always think of A389’s releases as my own record shelf,” he says. “These are all records I would want on my shelf, that I would go over and listen to. . . . There has never been a record on A389 that was released for any other reason than love for music and people involved. I’ve had a lot of great opportunities come up over the years and have turned them down because it didn’t feel right to put my effort into something I didn’t love, even if I knew it would sell.” These guiding principles have led to a close-knit group of bands joined by a common bond. “Every release has a lot of sentimental value to me, documenting the moment in time the record came out, how it made me feel, and the memories shared with the people involved.”

Indeed, Romeo has formed decades-long connections, turning friendships born in the ’90s hardcore scene into longstanding relationships with artists like Hellion, or like Jeff Beckman, whose resume includes a litany of notable hardcore bands like Pick Your Side, Haymaker, and Left For Dead. “It’s an incredible feeling to have 15 years or so pass by and still be working and growing with people that you grew up listening to,” says Romeo.

Since 2007, the A389 anniversary bash has brought this extended musical family together physically. As Hellion puts it, “the A389 fest started out as a way for our friends to get together and celebrate Dom’s birthday, and also to showcase A389.” The early events were at the Ottobar, but in 2010 they expanded to the larger Sonar, which hosted a long list of bands over the next few years, including Integrity and EYEHATEGOD along with Gehenna, Dropdead, Haymaker, Pale Creation, and many more.

This year the show moves back to the Ottobar. The smaller capacity led to a near-instant sellout and vocal disappointment from fans who couldn’t get tickets. Romeo’s answer was to add shows at different venues. Along with the main Ottobar shows on Jan. 18 and 19, additional shows at the Ottobar, the Sidebar, and the Charm City Art Space are scheduled throughout the weekend. These additional shows are all first come, first served, no advance ticket sales—giving more fans a chance to see their favorite bands.

A389 has managed to attract a devoted audience, one that doesn’t typically buy physical music anymore: young people. “It’s weird to see kids in a record store in 2012,” says Macmillan, who also works at Fells Point record store the Sound Garden. “But kids and teenagers who we don’t get in there for anything else, [come in for A389 vinyl]. . . . We blow through his stuff as quick as he can bring it to us—and he brings it to us by the crate.”

This year’s bash could be the last, Romeo says. He’s already hosted every band on his wish list, he says, and also cites his ever-increasing workload and new familial responsibilities. His current goal for next year, the 10th anniversary of the label, is to instead have a celebration in the form of a film premiere, featuring a documentary film edited from footage of all the previous events, along with interviews with key players in the history of the label. Beyond that, as to the future of A389 (which already has an extensive list of releases planned for 2013), Romeo cheerfully replies: “Couldn’t tell you, man. One day at a time.”

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