Christopher Berry and Sean Gray put out the music they like with Fan Death Records and the DNA Test Fest
A quick lesson on killing your idols right proper: In 2008, Clockcleaner, the since-defunct high-speed collision of a punk band led by John Sharkey, had a one-off date in New York opening for reunited hardcore legend Negative Approach. The latter's banner song is called "Ready to Fight," a 58-second anthem with the barking refrain, "Who are you to say what's wrong what's right/ If it's what it takes, we're ready to fight." That song became the capstone of Clockcleaner's opening set--a 15-plus minute, slowed-way-way-down, acid-dosed, strobe-lit cover of it. It was a beautiful moment in latter-day punk music.
Later on, writing in Vice, Sharkey called it "the zenith of my musical career." A few hours south in College Park, two music obsessives, Christopher Berry and Sean Gray, each with defunct record labels, were getting text messages about the stunt--and decided in collaboration to make it much more. It was the beginning of Fan Death Records. By the beginning of the next year, 2009, Clockcleaner's live take on "Ready To Fight" became FDR-001, Fan Death's first release.
"We were like, 'If we can get rid of 150 of these in two months, I'd call that a success,'" says Gray, poised intently in Berry's Barclay living room. "We had no real intention of carrying it any further than one or two releases. [But] we sold out of that Clockcleaner record in, like, two weeks. It was really interesting, and it was like, What else can we do? And that was the beginning."
In little more than a year, Fan Death has expanded to 17 releases, almost entirely vinyl only, and has quickly become a small titan in the world of record collector rock-qua-punk. And understand that, in the year 2010, punk is as much a way to describe a particular sound as is the vaguest-of-vague "indie." Both more accurately describe a spirit or attitude and, in this, Berry insists that Fan Death is very much so a punk label. Stylistically, though, the label is all over the map, from Jason Urick's electronic ambient-wash tapestries to Puerto Rico Flowers' weirdo darkwave to the New Flesh's noise-rock gnashing.
"One of the things I'm proudest of is re-releasing the [debut] New Flesh tape," Gray says. "Not only are the New Flesh an important band to Baltimore, they are an important band to what we do. I think people really took them for granted. When we got to do that tape, it really was an honor for us. It just so happens that they're a Baltimore band--it's just this forgotten kind of Baltimore."
"I was part of an era that I think was really guitar-based," Gray adds. "And as soon as the Wham City came in, it kind of flushed that out. There's a hunger for that in Baltimore. One of the reasons people like what we do, I think, is that there's an audience that's been ignored a little bit. People are coming out of the woodwork."
That said, the New Flesh is one of only two Baltimore bands on Fan Death, and both Gray and Berry are very quick to emphasize that they are not running a hometown label. As much as their records are anti-genre, they both seem to carry an attitude of anti-provincialism as well. (Notably, Gray's first label, Hit Dat, was very local, with releases from the New Flesh, WZT Hearts, and a very early Double Dagger.) "We could be based anywhere and still be doing the same thing," Berry says.
"People want to grab at us like we're this D.C. thing, we're this Baltimore thing, we're this Brooklyn thing," Gray adds. "We have no real central home. The only real reason [Fan Death] has a Baltimore P.O. Box is because [Chris] lives here. The label could be in Iowa."
Regardless, the pair moved its exponentially expanding festival, DNA Test Fest--named for Gray's WMUC-FM radio show DNA in the DNA--from Washington to Baltimore this year after noticing that a great many people at last year's fest were from Baltimore anyway. "It's going to be interesting to see how Baltimore responds to what we do," Gray says. "I think it will be better."
Fan Death has at least one more Baltimore release in the pipeline: a prank-phone-call tape found, the duo explains, behind a Burger King dumpster on York Road. They're a little cagey about what it exactly contains, but given Sharkey's grand eff-you stunt turned very real, something like a dumpstered cassette tape would seem to spring from Fan Death's DNA.
"I would argue that so far all of our releases have been chances," Gray says. "There hasn't been a safe thing. We want to put out stuff that's good for us, that in five or 10 years from now I can pull it off the shelf and want to listen to.
"It would be really easy to put out some bullshit," he continues. "If we really wanted to play the game of what would sell records, it would be really easy. I don't give a shit about the Dum Dum Girls. I don't give a shit about Blank Dogs. I don't give a shit about, what, Surfer Blood?"--referring to a smattering of much-hyped garage-punk/no-fi/etc. bands you will very likely forget about by the time the Pitchfork/blogger cycle resets.
"If we hit the lottery or made a million dollars with the label, the thing we had discussed is putting out a vinyl box set of Longmont Potion Castle," Gray says, referring to the frequently brilliant cult-popular prank phone call series, released in part by Baltimore's Reptilian Records. "If we can do that, I feel like we can almost quit. There is nothing better we can do."
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