Hyped Back to Life:
An Interview with Chuck Warner by Scott McDowell
It was 2001. For the previous year I had been nursing a jones for early punk records and brushing up on the art-punk classics: Gang of Four, Mission of Burma, Wire, Pere Ubu and the early Rough Trade singles. I looked to local New Jersey radio station WFMU to provide insight into the jerky lost jewels of the late '70s/early '80s and consequently scoured DJ playlists on the 'FMU web site for new ideas, consistently running across a curious web link to Hyped2Death.com. Turns out, Hyped2Death is a series of mind-bending compilations of painfully obscure "post-punk" LP tracks and 45s, legitimately bootlegged. Thus began my burgeoning obsession with DIY.
As it goes, I initially met Chuck Warner at WFMU's Fall 2001 Record Fair where he was manning a booth hocking his Hyped2Death comps in addition to a solid collection of rare vinyl (Pere Ubu's "Final Solution" on the Hearthan label anyone?). I looked at the 100+ CDs on display and inquired as to where one should begin with the things. Chuck stepped back, grabbed Homework #3, and pressed play on Philippo Scrooge's "Love is a Tractor", a sprawling and itchy psych-pop number replete with breathy deadpan vocals and lyrical non-sequiturs to match. It was an intriguing thing to witness, and I experienced what we obsessives are always looking for: those few seconds of transcendence, the simple reason we continue to buy records. And all the while, Chuck was casually singing along. So I decided to buy them all.
I actually took home Homework #1 _ and #3, and Messthetics #1 and proceeded to listen to them exclusively for weeks.
It turns out, Hyped2Death is a record label dedicated to reissuing tough-to-locate tracks on CD-R in the form of "above-ground bootlegs". The comps are filled with DIY/experimental/punk/noise/no wave/etc. (or in H2D parlance: gnarl-pop, artwave, punkwave, grind) and culled from obscure regional vinyl releases. One man's obscene record collection boiled down into sections and released alphabetically, curiously, in many cases beginning with the letter R. (Sample title: Homework # 1 _ - U.S. Experimental & Artpunk 45s R-U). The music is mostly from around '78 '84 and the comps are split into Chuck's version of "genres": Hyped to Death consists of American punk; Teenline is power-pop and pop-rock; Homework is American DIY; Messthetics is UK DIY; and Bad Teeth is (what else?) UK mod and punk. That's all well and good, but the music is something else.
The startling thing for me, an ex-college radio geek and record-buyer weaned on '90s indie rock, is the sheer fact that the music on Homework and Messthetics, while recorded decades ago, seems as fresh and exciting as anything coming out today. Fact is, the more I hear, the more I realize that the music I have listened to for years has MOSTLY been done before, and with considerable charm.
Perhaps DIY's most discernible quality is its charm, though not totally in a dog-faced boy kind of way. To distinguish it from the wider banyan tree of post-punk, DIY generally possesses a broader palette of instrumentation than early straight-up punk (accordions, saxophones, violins, cheezy keyboards) and would sooner mine freakbeat, the psychedelic '60s, gnarly garage-pop, hippie rock and prog than the in vogue hard-fast-loud thing of its contemporaries. For good reason, Chuck has christened the Soft Boys as "Godfathers of DIY", and I've found them a good first reference due to their (then) unhip swirling guitar work.
Most importantly lest we forget, these records were done on the CHEAP: recorded at the least expensive studios, dressed in handmade sleeves, rubber-stamped and scrawled upon, self-released and distributed. In a fit of DIY posturing, the legendary Desperate Bicycles actually released their singles with the same two songs on each side to save on mastering costs.
In an effort to learn more about Hyped2Death and this thing called DIY, I asked Chuck Warner to participate in an email exchange. He turned out to be an affable and intriguing character in addition to being a level of fan to aspire to.
SC: What's your background? How did you first come upon this music? Were you in a particularly vibrant music city when much of the original H2D music was happening? How and when did you stumble upon punk rock? Was it college radio?
CW: Pissed-off suburban adolescent, going to college in New Haven. From late 1975 to July 1977 I had a radio show on the WYBC where I got to play pretty much anything I wanted as long as I mixed in the appropriate quotas of jazz and R&B. Sometimes it got pretty ugly. But people forget how awful most of the early Stiff 45s were, and since we at the radio station immediately recognized the Ramones as a really clever (and limited) novelty act, the first "punk" record that really got to me was the first [English] Eddie & the Hot Rods LP.
In early '77 I started spending weekends in NYC with an "older woman" and fellow deejay who lived way uptown. We rode the A train regularly down to CBGB or Tier 3 or the Mud Club and saw a lot of pretty horrible bands on a regular basis - along with plenty of great ones - although I remember few of their names. I spent most of January-to-March 1978 in London, which, unfortunately, was living proof that punk was indeed dead. To be a little more fair, all the good bands were signed and out on the road touring, while London had to endure the first generation of "power-pop" - tedious pub-rock holdovers in leather jackets and skinny red ties like the Pleasers and the [UK] Boyfriends - and the high-water-mark of the "gobbing" craze (the best of whose willing targets was Slaughter & the Dogs). I "discovered" the Soft Boys and tagged along after them to maybe ten gigs, and I also saw a lot of Patrick Fitzgerald, but I unfortunately never heard the Desperate Bicycles or any of the other first-generation DIY crowd.
SC: Did you work at a record shop?
I ran an outdoor record shop in Harvard Square for the summer of '75, and bought and sold used records for book money til '79 when I limited my activities to mail-ordering and gave all the regular used stuff to some folks who were opening a shop in New Haven.
SC: How and when did Hyped2Death get started?
CW: The mail-order business continued off and on straight from 1978 through to 2000. I sold British Invasion, 60s R&B, garage-bands, psychedelia and Krautrock, but there'd often be a few punk records in the collections I was buying, and I also bought a lot of the out-of-business stock of Disques du Monde [1982?], which had been one of the four biggest distributors of punk, etc. singles in the early days. In mid-1985 I tried an auction catalog of rare punk 45s (advertised in Maximum Rock & Roll) to try to raise funds for my record label, Throbbing Lobster (you can read the entire saga at hyped2death.com), but the world wasn't ready for it.
My first exclusively punk & new wave catalogs appeared in 1988, soon after I folded Throbbing Lobster. (There were so many records by that time that I had to list them in small and increasingly smaller chunks of the alphabet. By the time H2D started, the current catalog covered several thousand items just from R to So- (which is why H2D #1, etc. start at R instead of A...). Not coincidentally, all but a handful of the records on Killed By Death #1-4 were there. Freestone was $15, I think. Heh. But the catalogs made enough money to pay the rent and keep me going in divinity school (1990-94) where I was getting a masters (M.Div), working in several Boston-area churches and pursuing ordination in the Episcopal Church, which all got derailed shortly after the suicide of the bishop I'd been working with... I've still got some "unresolved issues" about the religious life, but I don't see any of them interfering with H2D anytime in the near future...
SC: How would you describe Hyped2Death? What is it?
CW: H2D started as a "sales aid". I was tired of customers who wanted only the stuff that had already been bootlegged on Killed By Death or Bloodstains, so I made up cassette samplers, which were Hyped to Death #1-29. (They were all called Hyped to Death, though the genres were roughly the same as later appeared on CD-R.) This scheme backfired, of course, and now people wanted [to purchase] only the tracks from KBD, Bloodstains... and Hyped to Death.
Meanwhile, however, I'd realized how much I could improve the sound with digital media --and how much better I could make a cassette sound than a vinyl bootleg. So when CD burners finally appeared for less than $1000 I bought one. It also had dawned on me that for the first time there could be a reasonable alternative to conventional bootlegs. With something like Bloodstains, folks would get the cleanest copies of the 45s they could find and write the most intelligent liner-notes they could manage, but then they were stuck, and any mistakes were permanent. No way to improve the sound or update the liner-notes. And obviously no way to deal with the bands.
But with CD-R, the song selection, the sound quality, and the liner-notes (assuming I'd print them as necessary as I went along) could all be continuously upgraded. This also meant that if a band turned up and didn't like the idea of being on H2D, it would be easy to remove their track, pay them off however, and carry on with the remaining tracks and a fresh replacement or two.
The other thing that had happened of course was the internet, and instead of the traditional fake address on a bootleg, I could have a legitimate website (hyped2death.com or h2d.net) through which bands could contact me, and where I could post updated liner-notes and links to things the bands COULD make money on, like their own reissues, gigs, new bands, etc., so H2D began as a series of "above-ground bootleg" CD-Rs.
I had only talked to a handful of bands at first, but as internet search engines improved (and also as I began to build up a network of friendly bands in cities around the planet) it got easier and easier to find bands and get their permission up front. 20+ of the bands on each of the two most recent volumes (H2D #51 and Teenline #7) and the majority of the acts on Messthetics #5-7 were on board before the CDs ever came out. And of course more and more bands found me through the web site.
Amazingly, up to last month, not a single one of the 400+ bands
I'd found or who'd contacted me had asked to be taken off of H2D.
But all winning streaks have to come to an end: for some reason,
Stormtrooper (formerly Bad Teeth #1) felt that their long-planned
re-reissue would sell better without H2D's help or links, so,
well, I sent them a royalty check and remastered without them.
I feel kinda bad about not leaving a plug for their CD (whenever
it comes out) somewhere on the web site, but maybe the biggest
benefit to being on H2D is not being off it... I had a
brilliant cut by the Stiffs on hand that I hadn't used because
of some major sonic problems, but I worked on it for a day with
their blessing and slipped "D-C Rip" neatly into the
vacant slot and off we go again...
SC: You mentioned the Soft Boys, Patrick Fitzgerald, Eddie & the Hot Rods and others; are there any additional bands that were giving you the tug during the late '70s? Which artists in particular were the pioneers of DIY in your mind?
CW: There were scores of bands I liked at the time, but the whole thing about DIY is that it formed more or less on the spur of the moment. [Try the liner-notes and the "Messtheticisms" essay online (it's also quoted almost in its entirety in the intro to Johan's top 100 DIY records).]
Something people never realized at the time is that in addition to opening up the music scene to the dole crowd in a big way, DIY in the UK (and its nameless counterparts here) also made the "New Wave" safe for talented musicians who'd been stifled (or more often shunned, outright) by the "straight" punk sound. Most of the time there was just one person with any real musical chops in the band, but with DIY/post-punk, you started to hear adventurous keyboard and guitar work again from folks who'd learned it playing prog or hippie-rock or listening to their older siblings' record collections, but who'd then been muffled by punk's three-chord imperative.
SC: You also mentioned the Killed by Death and Bloodstains bootleg comps - is there a lot of overlap between them and what has become H2D? I can't help but notice the similarity in name of Killed by and Hyped to...
CW: I've tried to have as little overlap as possible between H2D and the vinyl punk bootlegs. But it's also partly because I don't own much of the super-pricey stuff any more, and the selections I make for H2D have nothing in particular to do with rarity or e-Bay auction prices. I think there's only two cuts on H2D #51 that have come out on KBD or Bloodstains, etc. I pay no attention to Power Pearls at all, but there's some overlap with Teenline, H2D and Bad Teeth as well, there.
The assonance of the name (vis a vis KBD) is of course intentional,
though I hope people understand that the "Hype" in H2D
is at least partly ironic. My stuff --the compilations and the
writing-- is intended both as a complement and as an antidote
to the rabid-collector showing-off that happens elsewhere.
SC: Tell me a bit about the "genres" - Hyped to Death, Teenline, Messthetics, Homework and Bad Teeth. Is there a reason you split it up this way? Was it holdover from the tiny print catalog days?
CW: No, not at all. The genres all make perfect sense
to me. ;o). There are a lot of judgment calls about whether a
particular keyboard part, for example, is too weird for H2D or
Bad Teeth, in which case the song goes to Homework or Messthetics
instead, respectively. Between Hyped to Death and Homework, however,
the call often goes according to how the band characterized themselves.
After all, a near-majority of "punk" bands in the clubs
of almost any city were NOT simple guitar-bass-drums outfits.
Horns, keyboards, accordions, harmonicas, violins: they're all
poison to the KBD folks, but it's punk all the same.
SC: How do you choose what goes on and what stays off? Particularly on the ones culled from LPs, I would think the decisions would get difficult considering the vast quantities of music you're pulling from. Are they simply your favorites?
SC: [Comment] One of the things that really struck
me listening to all this great music is the historical perspective
- not to overstate or over-intellectualize the matter - but these
compilations really prove that "punk rock" truly gave
many average folks the gumption and attitude that they too could
write, record and play music even if they were not from a big
cosmopolitan city and had little musical background. The regionalism
is interesting (and I particularly love that the liner-notes are
arranged by region); there were little pockets of DIY happening
all over the country (and world) in some unlikely places. This,
I assume was due to recording gear being more readily available,
in addition to the new rogue=rock star punk philosophy. Regardless,
there was way more going on than I previously thought from the
usual Rough Trade, Burma, Pere Ubu, SST, Gang of Four, et al.
licensed version of the history.
SC: That said, much of this music was probably released in tiny batches and heard by only a few hundred people when it was first released. Therefore, to play devil's advocate, why put it out again now?
CW: Well "out again now" is sort of the crux. Even at the time, no one ever got to hear a solid hour of ANY of this stuff at a single sitting by the radio (except, arguably, for a limited amount of the punk stuff).
In January 1981 I was in Germany (buying a collection of '60s singles that mostly I still haven't gotten around to organizing or selling), and someone had just brought over the first copies of a compilation -a bootleg LP-called "Chocolate Soup for Diabetics." Now, while I knew and loved the Creation and Tomorrow and "Pictures of Matchstick Men" I had had no IDEA that so much more of this kind of music existed (what we've latterly come to call "freakbeat") and that there were so many totally obscure bands. In fact, I was more than a little suspicious that it was all the same band just using different names (I was partially right and later they became Foreigner. Ack! But I digress.) Anyway, it was mindblowing. My fondest hope for Homework and Messthetics and Teenline is that some kid somewhere is going to have exactly the same reaction.
But to get even more grandiose, maybe the nicest thing anyone's
said so far was Andy Beaujean's characterization of H2D in
Spin, where he called it "an Anthology of American
Folk Music for dinky bands from Tampa and Dundee." The
punk stuff is being handled well (and thoroughly) enough elsewhere,
but I really do have delusions of Homework, Messthetics and Teenline
becoming something like the definitive guides/introductions to
their respective genres.
SC: One particularly impressive aspect to H2D are the print and virtual liner notes which include comprehensive (and factual, as opposed to Bloodstains, for instance) info and links about the bands, their members' relationships to other bands, what they are up to now, where to find recordings, etc. The notes are obviously an important part of the project for you. Any particular reason?
CW: Well, personally, I'm a decent writer, and I have
a lot of fun working in a space-limited format. But the other
part, of course, is for the bands, who, even at this long remove,
truly deserve every bit of encouragement and recognition I
might pitch their way. The bands are going to get paid
a little bit (at the mechanical royalty rate, but in most cases
it's in lieu of the mechanicals since almost everyone self-published),
but the main thing I have to offer the bands is making new fans
for them and giving them a way to get in touch. (Not to mention
once in a while they're folks that I myself snubbed back in the
day, either as a deejay or later when they sent me demos for Throbbing
Lobster, so I figure the kind words now can't be doing any harm
to the prospects for my immortal soul).
SC: Would you agree that DIY was a product of its time? Things came to a "cultural" head between '75 and the early '80s, the equipment to record became cheaper, the process of pressing and releasing music became less difficult and demystified, and networks of distribution, press and radio started to pop up.
CW: This is post hoc ergo propter hoc. In other words, no.
The liner notes to the Kinks' legendary "Kinks-Size" LP purported to explain that as the potato had lain around scorned and ignored for centuries before the British figured out what to do with it, so too (maintained the Kinks' label) had the quartet. All the ingredients for DIY had been there since long before skiffle and/or Mo Tucker.
DIY happened in the UK because in late '77/early '78 people suddenly woke up and realized that 9 out of 10 punk rock records in the shops at the time were on a major (or major-distributed indie) label. Perfect stuff for Malcolm McLaren and the tabloids, but farther and farther removed from bedsit life. The cheap equipment had been exactly the same for years, except (as I've noted) for the keyboards that had recently gone completely out of fashion with punk's ascendancy. Tape decks - they all used reel to reel early on, and cassettes hadn't changed since 74 or so when Dolby arrived. Duplicating decks didn't appear til 1983. While photocopied sleeves enabled bands to forgo typesetting, it remained a much more expensive alternative to traditional offset printing til the early 80s, especially after the DIY grapevine --circulated on the backs of DIY sleeves-- spread the word about where to find the cheapest printing. The same printing-cost differential existed in the US as well, but (1) photocopies got cheaper sooner here, and (2) bands found it convenient to save money by working at copy-shops themselves and printing sleeves after hours.
In the US, what I'm calling "DIY" came less from "punk" than as part of a natural evolution from the Velvet Underground, Pere Ubu/Rocket from the Tombs, innumerable hippie bands in places like Texas and San Francisco, and the NYC art-band scene that produced Television and Talking Heads.
For the VERY early bands, there was the brief phenomenon of the punk-45 distribution system. Thousands of people around the planet (okay, maybe three or four thousand) dutifully trooped into their local record shops every week of 1977 and bought EVERY "new wave" record that came in. For the first-generation acts who got their wares "picked up" by Rough Trade or Bomp or Pig (in Canada), etc., this was indeed was a once-in-a-lifetime marketplace. Unfortunately (but understandably), enough of these records were such unmitigated crap that people had become much more selective by DIY's heyday.
SC: What are some of the visible and far-reaching contributions
that the original wave of DIY has made on music today?
CW: Well, twee-pop comes (came?) straight out of the TV Personalities/Times thing (combined with Young Marble Giants and the breathy Cherry Red "sound"). But I can't think of anything else ("visible" or "far-reaching") that DIY engendered. That's kind of its charm, no?
SC: I can't help but relate the technological aspects of H2D (the digital cleaning up, the importance of the ever changing web liner notes, CD-R's) as very much a product of its time just as DIY was. You are using the tools around you [to] create something unique and intriguing, which perhaps is the ultimate lesson of "punk". Have you ever thought of it in those terms?
CW: Okay, here I do agree with your premise. Absolutely:
there's no way I could have (or would have) done this before.
But there's hardly a "movement" of H2D-type operations
these days (is there?). Part of that's because stores and distributors
remain REALLY reluctant to sell CD-Rs, even on commission.
SC: You (or Andy Beaujean) mention the Anthology of American Folk Music which absolutely serves as many listeners' first look into early American music. I think that what's very interesting to me is the sheer documentation of tiny bands, regional scenes, forgotten 45s. And that's the way it happened with me, my reaction was really, "Whoa, I had no idea that all this stuff existed".
The documentation seems like an important part to you as a
collector (with the alphabet and comprehensive liner notes) but
what also impresses me is the listenability; I can put one of
the comps on and listen straight through, there's no filler.
So the bottom line seems to be to rock people, to make them dance
or provoke whatever reaction they get from music. I guess what
I'm trying to say is the sterility of some "documentation"
projects is a non-factor among H2D. Is this something that you
think about, are aware of, or fear?
CW: Thanks, indeed. I always bought stuff like the Anthology and the Folkways records and even the Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music (that was sorta cool) and worried that I was missing something because there was so much of it that didn't move me. That's the big reason why this stuff is compiled according to what I like instead of by collector value or obscurity. I'm still a deejay by temperament, and it's true, I want people to feel like dancing to EVERYTHING. I know it's stupid, but I cringe when reviewers say something like, "Hey, with 33 tracks, only two turkeys is a pretty great percentage." They're even right some of the time, but I still want to sit them down for another listen to the subtle genius of [whoever it was they hated] to see if I can straighten them out.
Also, despite my history, I'm more a curator than a collector at heart. I mean there's certainly a level at which it's nice to have owned something (everything?), but I'd rather have it on H2D with the band's AOK (and maybe a nice lead on the sessions from their unreleased LP).
SC: What's in the future for you and H2D - what is it that you'd like to accomplish, what are some other series that are on the burners, what of the mailorder company, full-length reissues of some H2D bands?
CW: Near term, there's the rest of the alphabet. CDs
are taking longer and longer to put out, mostly because of tracking
more bands down in advance and being fussier about the sound and
I hope to launch conventional versions of each series with 100% authorized material -I'll call them something like Homework Deluxe and Advanced Messthetics, etc. They'll be 50% stuff that's already on the CD-Rs, a quarter "new" material from the as-yet-unsampled parts of the alphabet, and the rest never-before-released material by prior H2D bands. That's probably what'll happen with the all-female-vocal CD, as well (provisionally titled "Shrrreds!", but in need of another name out of respect to Shredding Paper's laudable best-of-the-year samplers).
Otherwise the most likely-to-appear "new" series is probably "The Great College Radio Swindle," which will go on beyond the Homework #4 sound to highlight the mid-80s "alternative" scene. World DIY and New Zealand/Australian twee-DIY/gnarlpop would be an even better idea, but I'm waiting on collaborators. If someone feels like doing the esssential exploito/cheesewave fishnet-stockings-and-leather-miniskirt comp "Behold the Power of Cheese" as a pure bootleg, I might be persuaded to provide them with the tracklist, but there's no way the bands would let me do it on H2D. Heh.
The full-length CDs by individual bands should actually start appearing rather soon, though I've been hung up (surprisingly/stupidly) over the packaging: I've got a cool idea for it but I haven't figured out how or where to get them made the way I want them. In the meantime I'm passing a lot of folks along to Rave Up and Grand Theft Audio and Hate (links to all of 'em at hyped2death.com).
Mailorder is thankfully on indefinite hiatus. There hasn't been a catalog since 1999 and aside from the few things I sell at the WFMU Record Fairs I haven't sold 50 "rare" records by mail since 2000. I do have plans for a page of H2D records for sale -mostly on commission for the bands, but it's a low priority.
SC: Were you ever finally ordained in the church and is it a profession?
CW: I wasn't ordained, but it's still, shallwesay, an unresolved issue for me. From the Episcopal Church's point-of-view I'm free to complete the ordination process where I live now or in another diocese, and unlike the mid-80s to mid-90s (when increases of [first] women's and then gay and lesbian ordinations temporarily increased the pool of ordinands) there's now an acute shortage of priests. That said, I most definitely do not feel called to full-time work as a parish priest in the next couple years, though I am discreetly thinking/praying over the possibilities of more limited service. Meanwhile, I figure God has a better-than-average ear for what I'm doing with H2D and a great sense of humor.
SC: And will you get through the whole alphabet?
How many times?
SC: Any last words, shout outs, acknowledgments, bands to say "Hi" to, slogans, missions or advice?
Nah. Thanks anyway.