Imprint #7: An interview with Aston Stephens of Boss Tuneage
If you haven’t heard of Boss Tuneage before I am surprised you found your way to this article! For over 20 years they have been releasing some of the worlds most iconic punk records, influenced a whole generation of labels, and been a major part of the UK scene.
We chatted with Boss Tuneage himself, Aston Stephens to found out what has kept them going for so many years…
I can’t imagine there are many people who have yet to come across Boss Tuneage, but just in case, tell us a little bit about what you are all about?
Boss Tuneage is basically me, Aston, and we formed the label back in 1990 to release our first 7” single back then (a split EP by two unknown bands – VEHICLE DEREK from my then home town area of Boston and some new band from Norwich called GOOBER PATROL – whatever happened to them!?!! ). The label ended up doing about 20 releases before fizzling out for various reasons in 1994, before re-launching again in 1999, since when we have put out I think about 300 releases – in all honesty, I’ve lost count!
Was was going on 20+ years ago, scene-wise, that made you want to get involved and start a label?
Well it was a natural progression for me, as I was in a band, started a zine, had done a few tape compilations so the next step was doing a record. Original plan was to do a split 7” between my band at the time (SICKBUS) and VEHICLE DEREK but when SICKBUS split up I asked GOOBER PATROL if they wanted to do it instead. Back then there had been a very strong scene for a few years before (STUPIDS had broke big with NME front covers etc, followed by the Britcore explosion) but by 1990 it was on the wane, on the melodic side of things you only had maybe 3 or 4 labels in the UK, and there were all these new melodic bands coming up after the likes of SNUFF and I wanted to start releasing stuff by them – but back then I was 17, living at home with no job (then went onto Uni) so to say money was tight would be an understatement, so we started doing a few co-releases with other labels (20 years ahead of my time! Ha Ha!) but in all honesty the recession that hit back in 1991/1992 meant a lot of the UK bands at that time split up , just as grunge became massive! By the way little known fact about SICKBUS – they never recorded anything but our original singer was Mark Swinney, who would later set up In AT The Deep End Records and give the world the GALLOWS etc! So from that small bedroom punk band that never recorded anything came two record labels!
The BT back catalogue is almost enough to get lost in, what have been a few of your personal highlights?
Its really hard to pinpoint, but I do look at the list of bands we have released stuff by and I have to pinch myself sometimes, a lot of the bands we do stuff by were my teenage heroes and I do think sometimes if 18 year old me had known he would be releasing these bands in the future I honestly would not have believed it. Some that do stand out for me though are THE JONES “Gravity Blues”, K-LINE “How You Gonna Scare Us Now” , STUPIDS “The Kids Don’t Like It” and more recently JADED EYES “Gods And Monsters” – mainly because those I really think are classics that will stand the test of time, but ask me tomorrow and I would probably give you some others! I guess the release I am most proud of is the one I didn’t want to do in so many ways – the posthumous release by IPANEMA after Wiz died. We did that so all proceeds went to the Forward 4 Wiz Trust that was set up to carry on his inspirational work with young bands and musicians, and we raised a few thousand for that from the CD sales, so that is the release I am most proud of for those reasons.
Over 20 years of releasing records, what keeps you going?
The next releases – its always the upcoming stuff I am most excited about, even if its reissues ! The thrill of getting that CD or test pressing back in your hands, you honestly can’t beat that feeling.. and I guess I am just a junkie for it!
On the 20th birthday of BT you released a crazy 120 song box-set, it’s hard enough creating a mixtape for a friend, so putting that together must have been a mammoth task?
Yeah, it took about 8-10 months of nagging the bands to supply me cover versions! The task was huge though – I think there was something like 67 bands or something that we had released stuff by by that time that don’t feature on that just because we didn’t have room!.. Three of the discs were fairly easy to compile as one was my pick of our original releases/songs, one was the best of all the reissues, and one was unreleased/rare stuff, but the covers disc was the most problematic – I just knew I wanted to do something special for the 20th anniversary and the idea came about to have bands on Boss Tuneage cover another band on Boss Tuneage, which we had a few existing covers we could use but then asked the bands to go and cover other bands, and keep chasing them for it every other week! In the end we got some great ones, although a few of the bands I thought kept it quite safe with the cover they chose – would have loved to hear one band from one end of the spectrum cover a band from the other! But on the whole, it’s a nice document of the label up to that point – what it has reminded me though is that it’s the 25th anniversary in April 2015, so I had better start on working on something for that now!
You must have experienced some notable changes over the 20 years of running a label, the internet for one, how have you adapted and embraced the changes?
The internet has certainly helped in many ways – its sped the whole process up of dealing with bands (especially overseas) and its made buying the stuff easier too.. of course the downside is people downloading stuff illegally for free, and not thinking that it has a direct impact on both the band and us.. people seem to think that there is this magical mass of people somewhere buying releases, who simply don’t exist. I used to get worried about illegal downloading but now I just work on the assumption those people who do that would not have bought the record in the first place anyway… I do think its sad though that now there seems to be a move towards releases being done in smaller and smaller quantities, 10 years ago we would press 1000 minimum, 5 years ago it was 500, nowadays quite often it will be 300 pressings..and that shortfall is not being made up by downloads or streaming. I certainly have had to adapt more in the past 5 years of running the label, we have gone from employing one and a half people back then through to just me part time now, and I can see a scenario in a couple more years probably where the label will have to revert to being just a hobby – which will mean less releases sadly, but then also a lot less stress in some ways too…
Do you go into each new release with the same mindset as you did when you first started out?
Pretty much, apart from I can’t take a punt on something in the same way I could do before – I have to be pretty sure I have at least a fighting chance of breaking even on a release to do it – whereas the reissues have more costs involved with them usually due to licensing fees etc they also tend to be the much better sellers as well, whereas with newer bands now we do either have to look at co-releases with other labels and/or the band also helping fund the release to make them viable to do – sad but true! But the main mindset you have to have on any release I think is that you must like what you are releasing – its no point taking on a band that may sell well if you don’t actually like them as it’s a hard struggle selling records and you have to be 100% behind what you are releasing – there’s probably a couple of releases I could have done that would have done well that I didn’t do simply because I didn’t really like what they had recorded! And I think I am much stricter on quality control now than I was 10-12 years ago, there’s definitely a few releases I did back then that I wouldn’t do now!
I’d be surprised if you let anything get away, but looking back is there any release you wish you’d gone with, but for one reason or another passed on it?
I’ve walked away from doing a few as it was simply too hard to make it happen.. I suppose the one I did miss out on was I was going to do THERAPY?s debut release at one point for the second release on the label, but changed my mind – and lucky for both them and me that I did as to be honest I didn’t have a clue what I was doing back then – 24 years on I am still learning! There are a few things I would also like to put out on the retro series but either one band member doesn’t want it coming out again or the original label owners won’t license the recordings to me, that can get really frustrating!
As well as releasing new records you are also well known for your ‘retro’ series, in which you re-release old or overlooked albums, how did this all come about?
I guess that what some people of my age forget is that when I got into punk in the late 80s there was only like 10 years of stuff to go back and check out, nowadays there’s 35+ years of stuff, so the retro series is really there to document the era I came into the scene (late 80s/early 90s) and as it’s the era I know and love the best, it was a logical decision to try and document it, hopefully for folks who got the records back then to get some additional stuff like demos etc or to replace their worn out vinyl, or for people who missed the bands first time around to check out their UK hardcore punk history. The original idea came back as early as 1998 when I compiled the HDQ “You Suck” reissue for Ace Records on their Big Beat label – the plan was to do more but Ace decided not to do anymore as they spent a fortune remastering and cleaning up the 7” tracks, so much so they ended up losing money on the release.. but after doing the odd band like Perfect Daze and Exit Condition, I thought why not do it myself and the retro series sprang up in 2005 basically at a point where I thought Boss Tuneage was to all intents and purposes dead and buried, and it has actually made the last few years of the label not only the most fun and rewarding, but also in a lot of instances as the bands we deal with are ex members of bands from that era, or bands from that era who still exist now or have reformed, it really works well. Probably the most fun I have with the label these days is putting the reissues together, back then a lot of demos were never released as there were so few labels so there is bags of unreleased stuff some bands have lurking around and finding these long lost gems is a real treat!
Can you see Boss Tuneage being around for another 20 years?
Depends if I snuff it or not in all honesty! I’ll be 42 this year so there’s hopefully a bit of life left in me yet! As long as I am around, I think Boss T will be around in some shape or form – we always seem to have a tricky year when it ends in a “4”, the label ran out of money both in 1994 and 2004, going into hibernation in 1994 and having to go on self impose dhiatus fro 6 months in 2004 to pay off our debts, but this year its been tricky just due to time I have been able to spend on the label due to a serious family illness, but I’m really positive moving forward with the releases planned for the next few months so as long as we can still pay the bills on time, I am sure Boss Tuneage will still be there!