No Idea Records interview (extended edition)

I'm totally stealing the idea of posting extended editions of interviews/articles from Kyle, but as someone who wants to know more, the more the merrier. Here's an extended version of my interview with Var Thelin from No Idea Records that ran in Punk Planet #74:

The roots of Var Thelin’s Gainesville, Florida-based label were planted by the kind of desire that is always there: a necessity of expression. Starting first as a zine in '85 with a friend who had done a DIY comic and having “no idea” what to call it, No Idea was born. Thanks to the help and encouragement of their graphic arts teacher, Thelin and his friends learned how to start from scratch and have a finished project in their hands. After releasing a few issues and reading about a zine up north that came with a 7”, the same would be incorporated with No Idea. Releasing its sixth issue with a 7” with local band Doldrums, No Idea Records began to slowly take shape.

After releasing 7”s featuring bands like Radon, Crimpshrine, Jawbreaker, and Bim Skala Bim, the label released its first CD by a local band called Spoke in '94. Though the zine would eventually cease operation due to a lack of time and personal energy, Thelin has kept going with the label. Still pressing vinyl even in a day and age where recorded music takes up more hard drive space than shelf space, No Idea keeps its feet in the now with a respect for the past. Always featuring a kaleidoscope of colors with their vinyl (from gold, purple, orange and so on), No Idea has released nearly 200 records on CD and LP by various acts like Hot Water Music, Less Than Jake, Against Me! and I Hate Myself.

As a zine, a label, a mailorder house, and a distributor, Thelin has been doing No Idea in some form or another with a variety of people for twenty years now. Caring about the whole musical package and not its mass market viability, No Idea’s passion comes as a breath of fresh air. Not worn out by how punk rock has or has not changed over the years, Thelin has plenty to say.

Interview by Eric Grubbs

Was skateboarding your introduction to punk rock?
I don’t think it was, to be quite honest. If anything, the two went hand in hand. The kids that were the most into hardcore also skated. There was a lot of cross over. My friends and I were all pretty terrible at skating, but I was by far the worst! We’d hang out together on the weekends and sleep over at one of their houses, skating from one side of town to the other all night ‘cause there was nothing else to do. Cruising down the middle of the main drag at four in the morning with not a car in sight is still one of the most liberating, triumphant moments from that time. Tying it together, somebody would hopefully have a jambox and play tapes.

Any bands or records that stick back when you were skating or around that time?
Just a lot of the traditional stuff on Dischord, BYO, Touch & Go, Bacteria Sour, etc. But at the time too, especially looking around say, '84/'85/'86, it wasn’t just hardcore; it would have been all over the place. It would have been Bauhaus, Cocteau Twins, The Cramps, as well as Minor Threat, Dead Kennedys, Mutley Chix and a lot of smaller, more local bands.

You know, the first actual “hardcore” that I had was from a dubbed tape with Black Flag. On the flip was Roach Motel and the We Can’t Help it if We’re from Florida comp on Destroy Records. So, that was my first experience really sitting there being like, “I have a punk rock tape. What am I getting myself into?” I literally sat next to my bed at night with a blanket pulled over my head, headphones on, trying to put it in perspective. It was forbidding and a little bit scary, but it was also really intriguing. I’m also really proud of the fact that some of the first stuff I got into was local. I mean, I’m serious: Roach Motel/Black Flag, I heard them at the same time. So, even though it was obviously a really funny joke right there with the related band names, at least I got into a Gainesville band at the same time.

Your friend Ken Coffelt, was he somebody that had his own comic book when you were in middle school?
Yeah, he did a comic thing with some friends called Rats Magazine. They did around a dozen issues in junior high.

That was a huge influence on me, being fifteen at the time. “Oh wait, kids can do this?” Up until then, I always assumed that if you saw a magazine, a big company did it. If you saw a record, a big company did it. It was never me. It was never people. And so it was very empowering. It was this whole new attitude of “We could do something now.” And so we did. We restarted the magazine and changed its name to No Idea Magazine.

Was getting a local band’s recording on vinyl, not cassette, a big deal for you?
To an extent. The last local vinyl that I was aware of was the second Roach Motel 7”. So from there until we put out a record, no local bands put out any records for a good four years. In terms of a “scene,” that’s an eternity. But people just didn’t realize that you could do a record yourself. The thing was, bands would be around for four or five years and they would write a lot of songs, scrap a lot of songs, keep playing shows and over time, usually they’d turn into something. But then about the same time that it really all gelled, they were gone. They’d graduate college and leave town and at best, you’d be left with one demo tape that they’d recorded in someone’s bedroom.

The big local band in '86-'87 was the Doldrums, who mixed the hardcore energy of Government Issue and Naked Raygun with the rock of Black Sabbath and ACDC. At a point, they could draw 250 people. They were the band who brought in diverse kinds of people, but they were still “the punk band.” At the time, I happened to learn about how to make records by writing a couple of labels and they told me, “Here’s a couple pressing plants to use. Here’s what it costs.” Again, another time it blew my mind that anybody could make a record . . . So from there, we just got determined to do it.

The idea of not doing contracts with the bands that you release, was this in any way inspired by Dischord?
Probably. We have a funny parallel with Dischord. We’ve had open communication with them this whole time. Sometimes we’ve come to and realized there’s these bizarre parallels and similarities that just happened simultaneously. They were one of the first labels that we sent a zine to who wrote back. They were one of the places that I asked questions of and, who always gave advice that made sense. They’re a big influence on me as far as how I try to be able to treat other people who ask for advice. “Hey, Dischord took time out to give advice to me; I better take some time out to give it to others.”

I think our “no contract” path came from the older punk rock ideal that “bullshit is not necessary.” Contracts were bullshit, so I didn’t want to have anything to do with them. I needed to be able to shake somebody’s hand, look them in the eye and say, “This is what we’re goin’ to do,” and that’s the end of it. That’s how we do things to this day.

Now, an asterisk with a note at the bottom of the page says, “We’ll see what happens from here on out.” Six months from now, you could call me up and I could say, “Yeah, we’re doing contracts now and here’s the reasoning behind it.” And depending on how you felt about it, you might say, “Well, I respect the reasoning, but I still don’t think you should have done it.” And I think if the time ever comes when we do have contracts, I’ll be that same person saying, “I understand why I did it, but it will never sit well with me.”

Contracts “protect both parties.” I don’t know, maybe that’s where it’s headed. Maybe that’s where it needs to be, like “Hey, everybody needs to watch their ass.” If anybody fucks up then they can pull up this piece of paper and say, ‘Looky here.’ But at the end of the day, we have only had one or two situations where a contract would have legally bound a band to us that wanted to move along. The bands with longevity have generally met or far exceeded the typical commitments of a “two or three record deal.” Hot Water Music is a strong case in point on that one.

I found your comments about album artwork not having bar codes on the back very inspiring.
From really early on, I really didn’t like getting records that had barcodes in the artwork. They were always gross. I’d get some Cure record, with all this obvious time and energy put into the artwork, and then there’d be this hideous computer blot in the middle of it!

Simply put: barcodes were not punk rock. “This is the mark of the beast. They suck, period.” So there was a lot of resistance to using them at all. I think it was right around when Hot Water Music did Fuel for the Hate Game and Less Than Jake was getting huge that I was just like, “If people want to buy this in a chain store, then screw it, we’ll just put UPC stickers on the back. Then people can take them off.” Dischord and a bunch of other labels had done it, so I was like, “That’s obviously the way to go.”

I still don’t like barcodes being permanently inserted into the artwork. Even though some people have found tricky ways to put them in there, make them real small, it’s just ugly.

It’s kind of the commerce slapping the art.
I’m not a religious nut. I wouldn’t even call myself religious, but they are definitely the mark of the beast. That’s how I see the barcode, but they’re functional. As a label, we tend to be some of the last people to do whatever the new thing to do is. Taking credit cards is one of those things, using barcodes is one of those things, and doing downloads is one of those things. We definitely were freaked out by it and not too into it, but in the end these things have their advantages and their uses. In a pure sense, they are tools and you can use them for whatever you like.

How important is to for you to still release records on vinyl?
It’s just the aesthetic of the vinyl format. That, and most of the people who work here are in bands and are into vinyl, so that’s what we like to make. Any time that you see us put out something that’s CD-only, you can be fully assured that there was a solid desire to do it on vinyl even though we didn’t.

I used to go along with the argument that analog recordings had a round sonic waveform, versus the square “sampled” digital waveform, but 99% of our bands record and are mastered digitally now, so I’m not sure if that argument holds water. That said, the natural compression that comes from cutting to vinyl often improves a recording. We have definitely received LP test pressings and liked how they sounded so much that we re-mastered the CD to match. Grabass Charlestons's Ask Mark Twain, for example.

Was there a certain record or label that inspired you to release vinyl with various different colors on them?
I don’t think there was one label in particular that got the idea going. In the late-'80s to the early-'90s there started being so many more people doing records, it became part and parcel. A lot of times, you would get 7”s in photocopied sleeves that were colored vinyl. It seemed like fun. So when I started doing records, it was like, “Well, I don’t know if we’ll ever press another record.” So we went crazy and made 200 on red, 200 on green, 200 on blue and 1000 on black or whatever. That was just because we wanted it for ourselves, for fun. At the time, it was not the intention to make a collectible record. It was more like, “Well, I can afford to do 200 or 300 on color and then maybe after that they’ll be black.” It was just the only way we could afford it. So, we’d do the color ones for mail-order and stuff like that.

What keeps you going, doing No Idea?
Probably just insanity, if nothing else. Being compulsive, partially. There’s a flow to it. When you’re involved in something for long enough, it drags you with it. I think that’s sort of the case with No Idea. There are definitely days where I get dragged into the office because that’s the flow of how my life works. You know, get up in the morning, get here, do some work. Other days, it’s the other way around. My inspiration is driving me to get things done. It’s like the way some artists work, where they paint x-number of hours a day, day in, day out, because otherwise they’re not going to get as much done. It doesn’t matter if I’m doing good work or bad work or feel like I’m getting anywhere, I absolutely have to have that work ethic.

The other thing is simply being involved with a lot of the people and all the music that is happening around us – that’s enough to keep me involved and thinking, “This band that just recorded again has blown me away. I want to get this out to the world to hear it.” I hear something new and I immediately want to pass along to a friend. “Dude, check this out.” It’s the same thing with us releasing records; it’s doing that a thousand times over.


fuzzbuzz said…
Kind of off topic but are you going to the Touch and Go show in Chicago? And if so, will you be doing any reviews/interviews?
Anonymous said…
Hi there,

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