IN THE BLACK
It's a sorry time for those punk rockers who hoped their favorite music would remain forever underground. After all, Green Day's major-label debut, Dookie, has just hit the quadruple-platinum mark, while Orange County's Offspring have sold nearly as many discs on the way to becoming an impressive concert draw: For example, the band's headlining date February 16 at Mammoth Gardens is already sold out. Clearly, one of America's most resilient and underrated youth movements is now in danger of becoming nothing more than fodder for MTV's Buzz Clip bin.
In spite of the mainstreaming of the music, though, the original heart of punk rock remains intact, thanks in large part to the efforts of die-hard fans such as Denver's Brian Circle. Circle's own Black Plastic Records has been instrumental in shaping what has become a thriving Denver/Boulder punk scene--and he's been able to keep his label afloat without selling out in the process.
"I do this because I think it's fun," he insists from his studio apartment, which also serves as Black Plastic headquarters. Clad in a Midas baseball cap, a faded black T-shirt and a pair of battered, duct-taped Vans, the 21-year-old Circle looks more like a stoic soul-surfer than a budding record exec. "It's not just a money-making thing. I feel sorry for anybody who thinks that's why I'm doing it, because I'm actually losing tons of money."
Laughing, he adds, "It's a stupid way to be an entrepreneur."
If so, plenty of others are making the same errors as Circle. Hundreds of upstart labels like Black Plastic are currently recording, producing and distributing music on a grassroots level, and more are springing up every week. The San Francisco-based punk 'zine Maximum Rock and Roll has even created a reference guide, Book Your Own Fucking Life, for these fledgling operations; it lists names and addresses of bands, record labels and independent promoters, all of whom share an interest in keeping music out of the hands of corporate music executives. Of the thousands of organizations listed, several can be traced to the Denver/Boulder region, including Warped Records, GSL and Black Plastic.
Circle isn't a Johnny-Rotten-come-lately on the punk scene: The Denver native has been producing, packaging and marketing music under the Black Plastic name for close to five years now. He released his first recording, a compilation tape called Powerless, while attending classes at Denver Public Schools' Career Education Center. "I put an ad in the personals in some fanzine," he remembers. "I think it was Flipside. I asked people to send me their stuff so that I could put it out. At the time, I thought, `What the hell. At least I'll have tapes to record over if nothing else.'"
Looking back, Circle admits that most of the material was "pretty shitty." Still, he was pleased enough with the results to release a Powerless sequel--Powerless II: No More Flowers, No More Ribbons--a year later. Advertised as a benefit album for the War Resistors' League, the full-length compilation featured tracks by several national and international acts, including TVTVS and Moss Icon. It also included a fifty-page booklet, which proved to be a logistical nightmare for the still-inexperienced Circle. As he explains it, "I made every mistake in the book with that record. [I had problems with] the pressing, the artwork, you name it. I definitely didn't make any money on that one. But I still ended up giving about $300 to the War Resistors' League. I didn't want to advertise it as a benefit album and then not give them a single cent."
Having cut his teeth on acts from outside Colorado, Circle next decided to take a stab at making records with bands a little closer to home. His imprint's first local offering, a single by the now-defunct foursome Cavity, hit the racks in April 1994, and the Black Plastic bull pen has been growing steadily ever since. Thus far, the label has sponsored platters by the ska punks in Random Victim and Denver hardcore sensation Pinhead Circus. Last year, Circle also released Rocky Mountain Arsenal, Black Plastic's first all-locals compilation. Among the groups spotlighted on the disc: Dead Silence, Cavity, Bunny Genghis and Angel Hair.
Circle enjoys the creative freedom he's allowed when working with local punk musicians. "It's a lot easier when you know the people involved," he elaborates. "I would much rather walk up to a band after a show and say, `Hey, let's do a record' than write to some band that lives three states away and wait for a reply. It's a lot more personal this way.
"Besides," he continues, "I like the control of going into the studio with them and making sure they get a good sound. I always try to work closely with the engineer. That way, we get the kind of sound I want."
Thus far, this strategy has served Circle well. Although Black Plastic's offerings haven't exactly burned up the Billboard charts, they have sold fairly well on the home front. For example, the Arsenal compilation has already moved several hundred copies, while Pinhead Circus's seven-inch has become a favorite among record buyers within and beyond the city limits. Since the record was released last June, the band has received letters from devotees living as far away as Japan. "It's been crazy," confirms Circus guitarist/vocalist Jimmy Pinhead. "Brian will go into Wax Trax and stock, like, fifteen copies of our single, and within a couple of days they'll be gone."
As a result of the act's newfound popularity, Circle and the members of Pinhead Circus are already in the process of mixing a followup, which should find its way into stores this April. According to Pinhead, the group titled the release Nothing Groundbreaking "after a review we got in Maximum Rock and Roll. They gave us a really great review, but they started out by saying that it was `nothing groundbreaking.'" The long player marks the first full-length release devoted to any single artist on the Black Plastic label. And deservedly so: Chock-full of tough, bare-knuckle power chords and swaggering sing-alongs, Groundbreaking is arguably Black Plastic's most accessible effort yet. In fact, the Pinhead players are so pleased with the platter that they plan to shop for a larger label once the album hits the streets.
Guitarist Pinhead reveals that this scheme was as much Circle's as his own. "We had the opportunity to record with a friend in California, and at the time, Brian was telling us, `You know, if you guys want to do it, that's fine,'" he notes. "I mean, he's more interested in helping new bands get started than in building up a big catalogue.
"We'd still like to do stuff with Brian in the future," he points out. "But we don't want it to look like we're being favored over other local bands or anything like that. There are a lot of bands that he'd like to work with. He just doesn't have the money."
Circle concurs. "It certainly isn't my intention to make a cash cow out of Pinhead Circus, just because they have the `Green Day sound'--or what some people might think is the Green Day sound. A lot of people think that somehow I'm trying to profit from all this, but I'm not. I have the receipts to prove it."
Indeed, Black Plastic isn't exactly a gold mine--but it isn't in dire straits, either. Circle recently hired an accounting student to help him organize his finances, and he is working with longtime friend and Self Service bassist Karen Exley to raise money for Rocky Mountain Arsenal II, which is slated to feature cuts by Black Plastic newcomers Hell's Half Acre, Grins and Crestfallen, as well as a new composition by Random Victim. Other than that, Circle says he will be "looking for a job now. Another album is coming out, so I just spent almost everything I have on that."
If given the opportunity, would Circle be willing to make concessions in order to reach a larger audience? Not likely. As he puts it, "I get letters from PR people all the time. It's funny. They want a copy of a rough mix of an album, and it'll say something to the effect of"--Circle feigns the voice of a slick radio announcer--"`We'll send you information free of charge about what we think will be palatable to the public.'
"Come on," he concludes. "I mean, God! What's the fun in that?"
Maybe it's not such a sorry time for punk rockers after all.
For a Black Plastic Records catalogue, write to: Black Plastic Records, P.O. Box 480832, Denver,
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