Poor, Proud, But Independent

For months, Darryl Menkin waged an internal debate over the pros and cons of trading in his old career for another. A record label -- his own record label: the thought of it one night caused a tossing-and-turning Menkin to bolt upright in his bed. "Why the hell not?" he thought.

A frustrated part-time musician, Menkin couldn't have been more miserable in his day job. After eight years at the Texas Medical Center, the native South African found his skills as a dentist were being wasted in a research position. Besides, he was pushing 40 and sick of eyeing molars.

After conquering his own doubt, Menkin had to persuade his skeptical wife Marleen that it was more than simply a middle-age crisis pushing him toward some scheme that could throw his family hopelessly into debt. "She thought I was nuts," he says. But after countless reassurances, Marleen relented, and Sound Virus Records was born.

Menkin's story is not all that far removed from the handful of other self-made ideologies behind Houston's small but feisty community of independent record label entrepreneurs, who operate in a hit-and-miss realm that has produced precious few out-and-out successes but plenty of inspiring stories of survival.

The most recognized of the city's tiny number of rags-to-riches tales are those of two independent rap labels, Suave and Rap-A-Lot, former back-yard enterprises that have experienced phenomenal growth in a relatively short time. Outside of rap, Randall Jamail's Justice Records is considered to be the only high-profile game in town. Still, aside from Justice's oft-maligned Hellhole compilation, a fussed-over affair that features selections from some of the more promising young bands in Houston, Jamail plays it fairly conservative when it comes to signing new acts. That selectivity leaves a lot of open territory for the smaller guys, whose resources may be limited, but whose commitment to their craft speaks more for their value in the music community than units sold.

Nowhere is this never-say-die attitude more pronounced than on the hard-core fringes of the Houston music scene. Whether dealing in thrash, punk or out-there experiments in pure noise, a passionate few are making sure that local music is reaching inquiring ears around Texas, throughout the country, and as far away as Europe and Japan. You may have heard the names around town -- Broken Note, Fuzzgun, Lazy Squid, Worship Guitars, Fleece, Twistworthy, along with Menkin's Sound Virus and others. They operate out of homes and tiny offices to make their imprint (no matter how small) on the city. For most, the plan is to stick around until every last band they've nurtured moves on to bigger things -- or breaks up, whichever comes first. And if a little money is made along the way, all the better.

As a youngster growing up in Johannesburg, Darryl Menkin was obsessed with America. "My dad would buy me these Viewmaster things, where you put in the little circular card and see the Golden Gate Bridge," he recalls. "I used to dream about coming here."

Menkin finally made good on his dream in 1985. After eight months as a practicing dentist in South Africa, Menkin moved to the United States, following the lead of his younger brother, who had immigrated here five years earlier. By 1986, he had a job at the Medical Center's dental branch supervising students and conducting research on leukemia patients through a fellowship at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

If you squint hard enough, it's possible to picture Menkin behind a microscope, though it's obvious he's trying hard to put his lab-rat years behind him. Short, bearded and stocky, the post-academic Menkin's typical work wear consists of faded Levi's, running sneaks and a black T-shirt. From the waist up, Sound Virus' founder and CEO is a walking billboard for his small label -- from the polite, persistent Sound Virus plugs in his conversation right down to the shirt on his back, which almost always advertises a label act (this particular afternoon, it's the cartoonish graphics and moniker of Houston punk-metal bad boys Spunk).

Menkin says he eventually became disillusioned with the scholarly process, especially the restrictive peer review system, which kept most of the financial backing needed for research out of his reach. "You worked for months and months and months getting a grant -- all that labor-intensive work. You put the so-called hypothesis together and then you send it off to the powers-that-be at the National Institute of Health and hope that they're going to approve it and give you all this money. A lot of times, it came back approved but not funded. So what do you do then?"

In Menkin's case, you contemplate quitting. "I felt like I had to go into business for myself," he says. "At least to the extent where I felt like I had more control over my future."  

First, Menkin's thoughts turned to private dentistry. But, to have his own practice, he would have to start over and earn a degree from a U.S. university, and the idea of returning to dental school made Menkin's blood run cold. He contemplated selling dental supplies or opening a restaurant, but neither option thrilled him much. Then, Menkin turned to his favorite pastime. A self-professed "old hippie fart," Menkin was an occasional working bassist (he played with Houston's Trolls) and a lover of classic rock and blues when he began to broaden his tastes in the early '90s, hanging out at local clubs that catered to younger crowds and heavier music. He heard and saw a lot that he liked, but he also experienced the negativity and sense of impermanence felt for years by many bands and clubgoers around Houston's here-today, gone-tomorrow local scene.

On a mission to silence the whiners, Menkin saved up enough cash to start Sound Virus in 1992 (a suitable name for a label that would largely specialize in vicious hard-core thrash), leaving his old job soon thereafter. "I kind of got tired of going around Houston and hearing everybody complaining and bitching -- saying the music scene sucks," says Menkin. "Standing around and complaining is not going to get anybody anywhere. So I decided to put my money where my mouth was."

Menkin sunk a meager $5,000 into what is arguably one of Houston's first local music compilation CDs, soliciting suggestions from anyone and everyone and generously paying for the groups' studio time. Infected sold 1,000 copies, barely a pittance in major-label terms, but a decent beginning.

"When I started the label, I wasn't into signing bands for long-term deals," says Menkin. "I just wanted to put out cool stuff and enjoy the ride."

All fun aside, Menkin cringes when he recalls Sound Virus' precarious first year -- the nagging fear that he might not be able to support his family and the anxiety of starting a business from the ground up, a process where more is often learned from mistakes than from the occasional successes. At first, Menkin supplemented his income by working as an insurance salesman, while still managing in 1992 and 1993 to put out CDs and 7-inch vinyl releases from Spunk, Dixie Waste, the Beef Masters and the now-defunct Bleachbath, selling enough in most cases to break even on whatever recording and manufacturing expenses each effort incurred. In 1994, Sound Virus released a live CD by the abrasive Denton punk act Brutal Juice, which helped the band snare a national deal with Interscope Records.

Not surprisingly, those closest to Menkin were wary of his venture -- a 41-year-old family man scouring some of Houston's outre venues for new talent, much of it teetering on the edge of good taste, some of it falling way over. It's hard to imagine Menkin coming home one day to Marleen and his two young sons, waving around the Beef Masters' 1993 CD Secret Place of Wonderment, its cover picturing a model scantily clad in a scimpy, gold chainmail top, underpants and chaps, clutching a pistol in each hand; or the even more revealing cover of Spunk's 7-inch release Sniffits, which shows a row of women, stark naked except for sunglasses, silk thigh-high stockings and a scribbled design masking their genitalia. Quite a jump for Menkin -- from cancer patients to naked, pouting women.

"We try to shield the boys from some of it," says Marleen Menkin. "But we also want them to know that there's all sorts of people in the world; that's reality."

After a distressing dead spell in 1995, business picked up again for Menkin when he began applying what he learned about the indie label business to areas other than Sound Virus. Through his recently established VRP Disc brokerage service, Menkin charges a small fee to help other Houston bands and labels find the most economic means to manufacture, distribute and license their products. Marleen has warmed up to her husband's ideas and is now in charge of VRP, which is run, along with Sound Virus, out of an office space connected to the Menkins' Montrose home. Perhaps most important, Menkin is now out of the insurance business and can devote his full attention to his growing enterprise.

A portion of the money made through VRP will go toward funding the next batch of Sound Virus releases, says Menkin. Due out this year is a CD from Houston punk band Humungus, featuring various contributions from the semi-legendary ex-Dead Boy Cheetah Chrome; also slated for 1996 are releases from local funk thrashers Taste of Garlic, as well as two compilations, one punk, the other industrial. Through regional distributors and mail order, Sound Virus has spread, in limited quantities, throughout the country and even to Europe, where Menkin spent most of February as the label's ambassador at the Midem Music Conference in France.  

Through trial and error over the last four years, Menkin has absorbed his share of hard lessons, which he now offers as survival tips for aspiring label founders. Here are a few:

* Try to borrow money from people who may not be pissed off if they don't get it back.

* Formulate a plan, a budget and deadlines.
* Don't raise bands' expectations too high -- relay both the good news and the bad.

* Educate musicians about the industry.
* Above all, enjoy yourself, and don't become an egotistical asshole.

Enjoyment had everything to do with Tony Avitia's decision to launch Broken Note Records, which specializes in a brash brand of heavy punk-influenced rock similar to the music from the Sound Virus catalog. Business-wise, Avitia's not quite as far along as Menkin, with Broken Note boasting only a handful of releases to Sound Virus' 14.

But Avitia has at least one thing in his favor: his age. He's only 24, and unlike Menkin, he can hold his own in a mosh pit -- that is, when he's not up on-stage introducing his favorite bands, Dinosaur Salad and 30footFALL. Both groups have cassettes out on Broken Note, which Avitia funded through earnings from various jobs. Right now, he's a courier -- the perfect job, he says, for a young label entrepreneur. Time can be surprisingly elastic when you're on the road. When all deliveries are made, Avitia uses any spare time to run errands for Broken Note. It's hard to tell sometimes where Avitia is operating from. Much of the time, it's from the street; the label's phone number is Avitia's pager.

The genesis of Broken Note came in 1992, when Avitia, then playing bass for 30footFALL, couldn't muster up any label interest in the band. "I was working at a law firm downtown. I was making pretty good cash," he recalls. "So I figured, why not front a couple hundred dollars and put out a tape?"

Without so much as a cautious forward glance, Avitia dove headfirst into a youth-oriented hard-core scene that revolves around Fitzgerald's and Emo's Alternative Lounge. Relatively clean-cut and soft-spoken, Avitia's weekend alter-ego is now "Crazy Tony," the mad soul behind the bullhorn who often takes to the Fitzgerald's stage screaming immediately prior to sets by his Broken Note acts.

In 1994, Avitia followed Menkin's lead and released his own compilation, The Coolest Shit in Texas. With the help of regional distribution, only a few of the 1,000 CDs and 5,000 cassettes remain. More recently, Broken Note has released cassettes from NonStop Bombers and Taste of Garlic and a new Texas music compilation called Noncompliance: A Collection of Thoughts and Ideas from No Particular Place or Time....

In an effort to pool the resources of various indie labels around town, Avitia has assembled Broken Notes, a monthly mailer he lovingly describes as "shameless advertising and keen insight aimed at the 21st century." To be part of Broken Notes, labels pitch in small amounts of cash to advertise their latest product, shows and band news. As for the future of his label, Avitia says, "I want to go in different directions; I want to expand into different styles of music. I love blues; I love jazz; I love rock; I've been to the symphony five or six times. I just love music."

Avitia says he wants to be around when -- and if -- the Houston hard-core scene ever truly explodes. And whether that happens or not, he adds, has as much to do with the groups as it does with the labels. Unlike Menkin, Avitia's responsibilities with Broken Note bands sometimes spill over into management, but he can't help groups that won't help themselves. "Being in the same band for three years and never getting out of town is the main thing that's hurt a lot of bands in Houston," Avitia says. "They won't tour."

Trying to lead by example, Avitia is hitting the road on his own for a few weeks this spring for a short grassroots label campaign. "In all the bands that I was in, I always wanted to go on tour, and I never made it out," he says. "So this year, I've decided I'm going to take about three weeks and go west -- go to three or four cities and plug away at record stores with my stuff."

Five years ago, Marc Reed thought he had a future as a nightclub owner -- that is, until the city of Beaumont decided otherwise. Right across the street from the only porno shop in Jefferson County, Reed's Fuzzgun enjoyed its brief, outrageous run. Largely, the live music club catered to the hip, skate-punk underground -- or what passed for one in Beaumont -- and the remainder of the town's bored teenage masses.  

"Basically, there was like three bands in Beaumont when I was growing up," says the 25-year-old Reed. "A friend of mine's brother had this band, Train in Vain, and there was nowhere for these guys to play. I remember we did this Halloween party at the local Elks Lodge and 400 people showed up. I just couldn't believe it. And so we took the money we made and decided to use it to start a club."

Reed and his pals in Train in Vain found an old restaurant a real estate agent was desperate to unload, boarded up the windows and hollowed the place out. Two weeks later, Fuzzgun opened its doors officially with a show headlined by the Houston-area thrash-metal act deadhorse.

"When I opened it, I wanted it to be a college hangout -- nothing too weird," he says. "The first night, there was a line out the door to get in."

Soon Fuzzgun was hosting bands from all over Texas, as well as the occasional national act, and developing a reputation among the kids as a pretty wild place to hang out. "It was considered a crazy place; a club where you could go to see someone stick something into his ass. And we were on the street where all the hookers and transvestites were out, which added to the stigma."

Things really started to get out of hand when Reed handed over booking duties to a friend with tastes that tended toward the extreme. Fringe punk bands started making their mark on Beaumont with shows that straddled -- and sometimes crossed -- the line of what normal God-fearing folks would consider decent behavior. The kids loved it, but in the eyes of the parents who dropped their kids off at the club on weekend nights, it was way too much. After one soused performer too many pulled his pants down on-stage, police raided the place.

"It was definitely the beginning of the end," Reed says. Two years after its auspicious debut, Fuzzgun closed.

Frustrated, Reed moved to Houston in 1993 in search of another nightclub and, hopefully, a more tolerant attitude. He never found the perfect venue, but he did start Fuzzgun Records with a handful of cash and the desire to see his favorite Texas band, Beaumont pop-punkers Train in Vain, make it big. Train in Vain's Good Enough for You CD was Reed's first release in 1994, and he's taken it slow, putting out only a pair of 7-inch singles, 30footFALL's Divided We Stand and the strong local music compilation Nothing Is Cool since then.

Currently booking acts for Fitzgerald's nightclub on the side, Reed says he favors a hands-off approach to the indie-label business. Bands pay for their own recording and manufacturing, while Fuzzgun, which operates out of a small office on Memorial Drive, handles package design (a talented silk-screen artist, Reed often does the CD covers himself) and distribution. Reed says all of the money made in sales goes right back to the label for advertising and promotion.

Thanks in large part to the success of the 30footFALL CD (Reed says he's sold more than 700 copies), Fuzzgun is breaking even -- an unqualified success considering Reed's last business venture was practically run out of town, and the one before that, a surf shop ... well, as Reed explains it:

"I went in and opened up one summer, buying about $5,000 worth of bathing suits, not realizing that you had to be open at least six months to a year to establish yourself," Reed recalls. "I sold bathing suits for about 12 months straight. I couldn't even reorder because I had a store full of nothing but bathing suits. Here it is winter, and I got a sale going. Live and learn, I guess."

Whether there's a market out there for pure noise is not really a concern for Sean and Carol Kelly. Just the fact that pure noise is out there makes them rest a little easier at night. As CEOs of Houston's Lazy Squid Records, the couple has quietly churned out CD after CD of arresting clatter. The label is behind all releases by Sad Pygmy, a local punk band founded by the Kellys, and a newer related offshoot called Bickley. But Lazy Squid is perhaps best known for its rather large catalog of CDs and multimedia packages focusing on a cacophonous sort of aural performance art so grinding and shrill at times that it borders on maddening. The Kellys also have their own rather prolific noise project dubbed Rotten Piece.  

"You're not going to hear any of this on [the radio] any time soon," says Sean Kelly, who recently quit his job as an audio-visual tech at Data Display to work full-time on the label. "For Rotten Piece, we use found sounds, tapes and heavy processing to create this sick, undulating wall of sound."

Soft-spoken and articulate, the Kellys have a hard time explaining their odd attraction to such ear-splitting stuff, which has its origins in, among other places, the work of early electronic experimentalists such as John Cage and the more brutal, punk-inspired barrages of England's Throbbing Gristle. The mere fact that most of it is so far gone from anything resembling popular music may have something to do with its appeal to the couple, who've spent much of their adult lives occupying the periphery of what's considered normal entertainment these days.

"There's always been avant-garde audio that tended toward the surrealist sort of thing," explains Sean. "Then, when punk came along, you had all these English bands that sprang up doing this modern, industrial sort of noise music. I look at it as sort of the beauty in the juxtaposition of things. Like when you're driving around in a car, and all at once you hear three radio stations from other cars and people talking. That mix of random audio is really telling."

International noise compilations have been Lazy Squid's biggest sellers, especially in Europe and Japan. The most popular of the label's 30 some releases is a hellish collage entitled Cataclastic Fracture (A Noise Collection), which assembles 51 disturbing bits with titles such as "Machine Shop Rapist," "Maggot Colony" and "Pissed Off Orgasm (Pt. 2)." Though a lot of it will make your ears bleed, there is something intriguing in its rejection of anything resembling music. Noise guru Richard Ramirez, owner of Houston's Deadline Records and also part of the Sad Pygmy family, solicited the material for the 1994 CD, which came from all over the country. Then, the Kellys put it all together locally at Deep Dot Studio, where Sad Pygmy and many other Houston bands record. So far Cataclastic Fracture has sold upward of 900 copies, mostly through the mail. That same year, Lazy Squid made its own contribution to the local compilation pool with Risk Is Just a Part of the Game, a more eclectic new-music mix that features 30footFALL, Happy Fingers Institute, Kable and others.

Sad Pygmy's base of operations is upstairs at the Kellys' Houston home, just off Richmond Avenue near the University of St. Thomas. Aging and cozy, the small rooms are cluttered with box upon box of Lazy Squid products. After four years, it's gotten to the point where the label's projects are beginning to pay for themselves, which, to the Kellys, signifies success -- seeing as they only entered into the business for the fun of it.

"Now we're at the point where we're hooked into the Internet and ready to get a Web page and start to grow a little bit," Sean Kelly says. "So I'm actually going to go back to work again so we can have a little more seed money to get a little bit bigger."

In the end, even for the most non-commercial and obscure labels, sales have to play some role, and it's usually one of ensuring day-to-day survival.

"I'm not against selling records," admits Kelly. "There's people out there that like stuff that is a little different, and we fill that need. But any records that we can sell along the way is good, too.

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