“We just want to put out good quality records for artists that best represent their sub-sub-genres of independent music. There’s no real Deathwish sound, there’s really no Deathwish visual aesthetic. It’s bands that have their own, unique individuality and character, and we just do our best to empower them to have that.”
When Jacob Bannon (Converge, Wear Your Wounds) conceived of starting his own label with Tre McCarthy in the year 2000, their only mission was to support underground music. Now, after all these years, they have released and distributed over 600 titles. In 2020, Deathwish Inc. celebrates its 20thanniversary in the suburbs of Massachusetts, where everything began.
“When we started Deathwish, Massachusetts – New England overall – was in a really good place,” Bannon remembers. “You had a lot of bands of a variety of styles happening. You had the more straightforward hardcore world, you had the more metallic hardcore world, you had our weird punk-metal-hardcore-hybrid. But at the time, you had bands like American Nightmare starting to take off. We were Converge, we were obviously doing our thing. Shadows Fall and Killswitch Engage were starting up. There was a lot of cool stuff happening at that time.”
“Boston has always had a strong backbone of labels and bands, and the time of our inception was no exception,” McCarthy adds. “The big ones at the time being Bridge 9, Hydra Head, and Big Wheel Recreation. There was a lot going on at the time. This is also around the Jane Doe erafor Converge, American Nightmare and Hope Con were at full strength, Cave In and Piebald too. There was also the huge, more punk side of things happening, with bands like The Trouble. Boston has always been an awesome place for hardcore.”
Jacob Bannon, 2020 – Caleb Gowett
Both Bannon and McCarthy were part of that music scene when they first got together.
“Tre and I met around 1991,” Bannon says. “Our bands played a show together in Worcester, Massachusetts. We were all kids, we all had our little local scenes, and we were all starting to meet each other. Boston wasn’t really having shows all that much at the time, so all the activity was happening in the outskirts. That’s kind of how we met, and how all the bands met that are active today. Tre started doing professional tour management in the early 2000s, he used to travel with Boy Sets Fire a lot, and he got burned out eventually. At that time, I had already started Deathwish, I had it going for about half a year as an idea, and I was just trying to raise money for putting out our first records. He came onboard and we started to build the label.”
“It seemed that a lot of our friends in bands, who were on larger labels, were feeling ignored,” McCarthy says.“At the time, both Jake and I were touring full time, and it seemed like we would have a better understanding of the needs and wants of bands than these out of touch old farts running these big labels. There was also the idea that this might be something we could do down the line,when our touring days were over. That was more a hope, as I do not think that we realistically envisioned we would still be doing this 20 years later.”
Tre McCarthy, 2020 – Caleb Gowett
Since the beginning, Bannon and McCarthy always had a clear idea of how Deathwish should be.
“Honestly, all I’ve ever really wanted to do is just help awesome people do awesome things,” McCarthy explains.
“The mission has just always been: release good music, treat artists fairly,” Bannon clarifies. “I was like 21, 22-years old when we started really going like, ‘hey, this aspect of the music business we don’t really like, let’s build our own world.’ We’ve just been trying to build a good, ethical world. Trying not to get bogged down in a lot of things that bog other labels down. We try not to let bands get giant egos that get in the way of them being good bands, we try to just treat people fairly, and as individuals. Because there’s no cookie-cutter way of approaching bands and music. You just make a good and healthy environment, make everybody happy.”
“One thing that’s different about us too, is that we don’t care about ego,” he adds. “So, we help out bands and labels all the time, and we don’t have to have our logo plastered over it and bullshit, we just want to get the records out there. We do stores for other bands, and I do a lot of print work for other visual artists through Deathwish, because I have the ability to do so, and it’s a fun thing. It doesn’t have to be like ‘Jacob Bannon Presents.’ It’s just, sell your art, and I’ll take care of it for you.”
“The major achievement to me is the only goal that I had when I envisioned starting a label and business,” Bannon continues. “When I was getting out of college, I went to art school, and I was already putting out Converge records by then, but that wasn’t really what I was concerned with. What I dreamed of was just having a place that I could go to work every day, where I could make art, I could make music, and I could have like-minded people there, whether it be artists or musicians that were working for a label, or working to make art, or just promoting music in some capacity, promoting art. Just to have a place to go to do these things, and have it be a healthy environment. That’s what I envisioned.”
“I remember sitting in my apartment in Allston, Massachusetts, and thinking that would be the coolest thing to be able to do that, because at the time I was working at a furniture store, and I was trying to become a junior designer at any place that would have me. And I was like, ‘wouldn’t it be cool if I could just do my own thing, and just make enough that I can just pay the bills, and everybody could just be happy and live, like, normal lives?’ And that was the goal. And that’s what we built. We’re not trying to be a monster conglomerate. We’re just trying to do good work,” he says.
The label has overcome many difficult moments over the years, but it has always carried forward the desire to support underground music.
“We’ve survived,” McCarthy admits.“We’vealways had to fight tooth and nail to do what we are doing,and it’s always felt like an uphill battle. We came up in the fall of the CD,and we survived. We had a distributor go out of business and steal tens of thousands of dollars from us,and we survived. We’ve just figured out how to change and adapt to all that’s going on,and struggled and persevered.”
In 20 years, Deathwish has helped a lot of bands and other labels to stand out.
“Our first record that we did was a Converge-Hellchild split. Boy Sets Fire was our second release, Tre already had a touring relationship with them and that made sense. Then we continued working with bands that we just liked in some capacity,” Bannon says.
“I’m proud of [Deafheaven’s album] Sunbather,” McCarthy adds.“It’s an obvious answer, but it’s just an unreal LP,and I love the Deafheaven dudes so much. What we were able to do with that record was incredible,and even now still, seeing it make all those decade-end lists, it makes me feel so good.”
“Last year we started working with Gouge Away,” Bannon continues. “They’ve been working really, really hard, touring a ton, and putting a ton of work into getting their music out there. They’ve been doing great. Oathbreaker are starting to become active again, they were on a brief hiatus for a while. We started working with a new local band, which has been quite rare, not by design, but because there haven’t been that many opportunities. A band called HarborLights that are more of a post-rock, sort of Mogwai-style post-punk band. They’re super interesting, and their record is fantastic. My project band put out another record. The list is immense. We’ve been also, as a business, really growing our distribution end of things. We started to run the online store for Dropdead. We’re already their distributor. We’ve been talking with Neurot Recordings about helping them with some distribution things as well. There’s a lot of moving parts, a lot of work to do, and even if we’re a small team, we really do the best possible for our bands and for our label partners.”
Running Deathwish for Bannon is not just a job.
“There’s a difference between what I do and what some other people do in this world,” he admits. “They go to work and it’s a means to an end. When they feel stressed out, it’s a negative thing. When I’m overworked and I have a lot of things going on, I’m working on a variety of projects, I welcome that stress, because I’m in an incredible position that I’ve built, I want to be there, I want to do these things. This has been my goal since I was a little kid. When somebody says they want to be a whatever, an astronaut, one day when they’re like ten, I decided I wanted to be an artist and musician, and that’s what I’m doing. So, it is a hustle, it’s hard, it’s a grind, it’s not easy. You don’t become a millionaire. It’s definitely a working-class career, but that’s what I’ve wanted. So, going to work for me is not pain.”
“I always have advice for anyone who wants to start a label,” he continues. “Just put out music that you believe in and that you love. Everything else is secondary. Just be smart about how you spend. Sometimes, bands will have really high expectations. Ego gets in the way of everything. So, try to be ego-less and try to just put out good, good quality records. Try to communicate clearly. Every band is different. Every person is different. No one is going take a conversation the same way, so you can’t approach every band the same way. Like you don’t approach every relationship in your life the same. It’s the same deal. You learn the best ways to communicate with people, treat them with respect, and that’s it.”