Interview by Lisa Root | Photos by Matt Vincent
I first met Jake about six years ago when I was working for AMP Magazine. I had hit the point of desperately needing an assistant and he expressed interest at the right time. He had been interning at Fat Wreck Chords and I called up Genevieve for a reference. I’ll never forget it because it captures his essence better than any other description: “He’s like a bull in a china closet, but he has a heart of gold.”
His father had recently passed away unexpectedly and he talked about him a lot- it was something he was working through every day at the time- and the things he learned from his hardnosed father colored the person he is today. He doesn’t coddle or mince words but has a strong love of his family. The success of his label probably has as much to do with being a father to the bands he’s signing with the tough love- style that he was brought up with as his impressive intuition about the next big thing.
Let’s start with about how you started the label.
I started the label in… it’s really weird to tell you.
Because I already know.
Being that you know. (Laughter) The first release was in March of 2009. I started putting things together in fall of 2008.
What things did you put together in 2008?
I had some friends called No Bragging Rights that were unhappy with their current, shitty, small label situation. So I was helping them shop some demos that I thought were really good and I was working for a magazine called AMP and so I had some friends at labels. I showed the songs around and no one really seemed that interested. I was like, well maybe I can start my own shitty label and put ’em out myself. They were sort of painted into a corner and needed to pay for their recording session that was coming up, so I said ‘hey, what if I put the record out?’ I had been thinking about starting my own thing, I just didn’t know what. I borrowed a bunch of money from my mother and I paid for their recording and put the record out about four or five months later, which was March 3, 2009.
And you just paid your mom off, huh?
Yeah, it took five years. Actually, it’s funny because I never really paid her any payments. I ended up borrowing a bunch more money this last year when I was setting up The Story So Far record because it was pretty involved and I paid all that off over the course of the year, but I had never gotten back to the original loan. Then in December I got a pretty big check, and thought I should pay some bills off, otherwise I’m gonna have to pay taxes on it. I just wrote my mom a check for the full amount and I said ‘get off my fucking back, Mom!’ Which is obviously a joke because she never once asked me for the money. So yeah, I finally paid off the original business loan, which was pretty exciting on a personal level. My mom’s still really involved; she’s my accountant still. She was calling me at 9:00 last night, crushing out 1099s. I’m finally gonna have to start paying her for that. She’s done it pro bono for a long time, but at this point, I think Carol’s retirement plan is Pure Noise accountant, which will be pretty good for her and for me. I can’t, I’m not equipped to be handling that sort of shit.
What was the first involvement in music that you had?
My first involvement in music was playing in bands. I think the fact that I only played in unsuccessful bands benefited me as a label person because I was always very sensitive to what it means to be in a van and be away from home. I still own a van and a trailer that I loan to the bands sometimes that I’ve had from when I was gigging. But my first music job of any sort was as an intern at Fat Wreck Chords. I’m not sure that anyone that’s still there would remember me, but I was there right as Mark Tamo was leaving and Vanessa and Genevieve were just starting to move away. So that was my first ever music industry anything. I was a teacher before that, and I went from being a teacher to an envelope stuffer, so it wasn’t a very glamorous change.
How many records did you do your first year and what were the milestones once you got things rolling?
2009 I did two. I did the No Bragging Rights record in March, which I probably spent three times too much money on. I could have done three records for the price of that one, but I didn’t know that at the time. Then I put out the Transit/Man Overboard split that December. That record was really important because that’s when I figured out what I really want to do. There’s this young pop-punk stuff sort of starting to percolate in the Northeast especially and obviously there’s been a few California bands, but it really started to really jump up where those bands could play shows and a few hundred kids would come out. The third year it got a lot busier. I did- in the first half of the year- Handguns, The American Scene, Daybreaker, and The Story So Far’s first full-length. Year three is when it started to get a little bit more… I don’t want to say momentum, because those records didn’t necessarily fly off the shelves, but at least it was busier. I was doing stuff, the bands were going on tour, albeit mostly DIY tours. And then that The Story So Far record came out in June of 2012 and that’s when I had a band that was really starting to gain some traction and that very much benefited the rest of the label.
Yeah, you kind of got in whenever the pop-punk boom was just starting. And how have you expanded since then to the releases that you’re doing now?
This will be the busiest year of my life in any capacity ever. I have full-length records coming out for Elder Brother, which is The Story So Far and Daybreaker’s new band. I don’t want to call it a side project because it’s definitely sort of Dan’s full-time thing now. But Kevin from The Story So Far is involved in it. Also Gates, The American Scene, Handguns, Forever Came Calling, To the Wind, Heart to Heart, My Iron Lung. It’s not announced yet, but I’ll be releasing Vanna’s new full-length. The main thing is that I’ve just tried to make it a point to not put out all of the same records, but also make it so none of the bands are the odd man out. We have two or three kind of… I call them indie emo bands, like The American Scene and Gates, and Elder Brother is sort of in that same vein. Then I have My Iron Lung and Rotting Out and To the Wind that are all more hardcore bands, and My Iron Lung is sort of in between hardcore and indie emo. Then all of the pop-punk bands: Handguns, The Story So Far, Forever Came Calling, I Call Fives, and some new ones. Even Front Porch Step, who’s an acoustic thing that sort of fits into the pop-punk world. Obviously the biggest bands on the label right now are pop-punk bands, but the label’s only five years old and I’m hoping in five years from now people will say, the leaders on the label will be, oh The Story So Far and The American Scene and there will be sort of a representative from each kind of area where it will be a little more eclectic. Fat Wreck Chords was my first job and I very much tried to emulate that. We’ve got our pop-punk bands, like Fat Wreck Chords had. No Use For a Name and Lagwagon could sort of fit into that. They also had Sick of it All. We’ve got Rotting Out. They had more shoe-gaze type punk bands like The Lawrence Arms, which is sort of where The American Scene might fit in nowadays. So there’s a lot of correlation to what happened in the 90s to what’s going on now and that’s just the vibe that I’ve been going for- just something for everyone, at least in that scene. I don’t expect 45-year-old moms to listen to the records I put out, but if you’re a 15-25-year-old and you’re into punk rock, I think there’s probably something that we do that you would like.
Is that what you think is the key to a successful label right now- having a more diverse spread of bands? Or being really good at one thing?
Honestly, if I wanted to make the most money, I would really just jam it full of pop-punk bands. There’s been two or three pop-punk bands that we haven’t signed that maybe you could make the argument that we should’ve that just didn’t speak to me personally. It’s not for any one reason or another, it’s just that this one didn’t leap out off the page for me and I didn’t feel right putting out a record that I wasn’t stoked on. There’s been a couple of bands that I knew about a year or 18 months ago that are now getting signed to pretty large labels, even bigger than mine, and are gonna do quite well that I just wasn’t into. I remember being a kid and reading an interview from Fat Mike where they asked him “how do you get signed to Fat Wreck Chords?” and he said, “I don’t know, I just have to like it.” I just always thought that was such a simple answer. And now I own a label and that’s all I do: what I know. Most of the time it’s not a thought process. I’ll know within half an hour whether I’m gonna sign it or not. When I started out when I started the label I knew there was a huge chance that it would never make any money and I would always have to have a job and that I might end up putting my own money into records that don’t succeed. So my approach was if I enjoyed the record, then I got something out of it. That’s still for the most part the approach that I try to take: if I enjoy it. There are a couple records right now that I’ve put out that I cannot figure out for the life of me why they’re not doing better. I’m just like, am I blind? I like this record so much. I listen to it all the time, why hasn’t it connected more? But I’m not disappointed about it because I feel so passionately that it’s good. A lot of times it doesn’t happen on the first record and it takes one or two. Some of these bands still may end up getting to where they want to be. I think the key to a successful label is consistently putting out quality music so that if the people who are consuming your music- however it is they choose to do it, whether it be streaming or downloading or whatever- can rely on your label to help them discover things. They might like The Story So Far and come to the Pure Noise website and come across something like Rotting Out, and they’ve never heard anything like that before, and think ‘maybe I’ll give this a chance because in the past this label has delivered other quality records to me that I liked.’ I think if you do quality records consistently, they’re gonna give your new artists a chance, which is all you can really ask for. It’s my job to help get the records heard, and it’s up to the kids to decide whether they like it or not. I try not to worry about too much before we do the record whether kids are gonna like it. I just sort of focus on if I like it. That’s really all I can control. If we like it, if everybody involved in the project is excited about it, we put it out and do the best we can do and do that on a consistent basis, consistently try to put out quality records that aren’t overpriced and are easy to find, I think you’re gonna be successful.
What format have you found the most success in in sales?
We definitely make the most money from digital downloads. Vinyl is a huge thing for my label. I sell twice as much vinyl than I do CDs through the web store. CDs can do well if they’re priced correctly. I try to make them always $10 or less. Oftentimes at festivals we’ll sell them for cheaper than that just in an effort to get music out there. I think the main thing with music in 2014 is that it can’t be hard to find. You have one chance to make a fan and if whatever place that they like and everybody’s different. If your shit’s not there, it’s over. So if a kid wants to listen to our records on Spotify, great, they’re all gonna be there. If they want to listen to our records and download them on iTunes, they’re all gonna be there. If they want to buy LPs, I try to make it a point that things don’t go out of print, you can always find it in our web store and you can have an LP at your house in two days. Or you can get them on Amazon or wherever you want and everything’s available for the most part on CD as well. When the bands get really popular and there’s more of a casual fan interaction you can definitely sell CDs, but for some of the smaller, nichier stuff, vinyl is definitely a leader. And it’s really interesting to see, it varies from band to band and some of my hardcore stuff sells more physical records than anything else, because the kids that are into that music…
Hardcore’s more merch-centric, isn’t it?
Right. Well, the kids that are into that, to buy a download or a CD you’re usually more of a casual fan. Not always, but everybody has their own favorite and the hardcore kids really like vinyl. It’s a tangible, something that represents you, you’re very much a part of it. I actually emailed my distributor today being like, hey, I’m looking at Rotting Out soundscans and they sold more physical records in stores last week than they did digitally, which is really unusual. We sold twice as many records in actual record stores. I was like, “our headliner starts in a month, you should go back to retail and say ‘hey, make sure you reorder this.’” I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about two vinyl re-presses I needed to do and what colors I was gonna do ’em on. So that’s definitely a huge thing. And I think it’s a huge thing to have a label, if you’re a vinyl-type of band, to have someone doing your vinyl that collects it because it can definitely be done poorly. If you’re gonna charge $15 for a record- $15 is a lot of money- you better get a quality piece of art for $15. And we’re gonna do some really nice stuff, as the label’s gotten more stable financially, it’s been easy to do more wild stuff. This year with some of our releases, I think we’ll definitely do some more elaborate double LP type of stuff for the people that are into that. And I think the people that are into that are willing to pay more money for it. It’s like, for me, if I’m buying a National LP, I know full well it’s gonna be $25, but it’s gonna be to-the-nines packaging and that’s just fine, you know what I mean?
It’s now your five- year anniversary and you’re having a showcase. What’s planned?
We’re having a five- year show in Oakland. We had a showcase at Gilman a few years ago, which was a lot of fun. I remember being so nervous that no one was gonna come and all my friends are gonna be there and see me fail (laughs). It ended up being a huge Gilman show and everyone came out and it was a really fun time. So we wanted to have some sort of a party and it’s The Story So Far, Rotting Out, No Bragging Rights, Forever Came Calling and Elder Brother. The American Scene was also going to play but they ended up going on tour… which is great. I’m really excited because it’s the label’s most successful band to date- The Story So Far, but it also has the original band, No Bragging Rights, also on the bill and it’s just something that we wanted to do for fun. I’m having a party for all the local people involved and everything afterward, which will be a good time. I just felt like, as a label, most of the time, rightfully so, the attention is on the bands, so you only really get a chance to talk about yourself as a label on these milestone years. I figured it was important that we acknowledge sort of how far the label has come from being literally out of my bedroom and at one point out of a storage unit. I’ve never really had a band leave and we’re gonna be announcing at the five year show that No Bragging Rights is back on Pure Noise for their next record, which I’m really excited about. From the beginning I wanted to have a community-type vibe and I feel like it’s definitely got that. We’re also did a show at South by Southwest this year, which we’ve never done.
How difficult was that to get together?
It wasn’t too bad. We actually teamed up with Equal Vision, which made it a lot easier and a lot less expensive. We split the costs with Equal Vision and each have four bands playing and we just threw the thing together. It was nice to have a presence out there and it was affordable and we got a sponsor for the space. But I think it’s an important time to sort of take the opportunity to acknowledge where we’ve come. So many kids that were there in the beginning when it was still out of my bedroom are still on the label. It’s as much a thank you and acknowledgement to them as it is a celebration of anything I’ve done.
Here are some of the many Pure Noise releases…