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Strategic Thinking

He's a player: Denver's Conan Hultgren is one half of the Game Two record label.
Sean Hartgrove

The members of New Orleans's Southern atomic sludge lords, Sour Vein, have just about all the ammunition they need to become extreme-rock superstars in the next millennium. For beginners, they boast an impressive pedigree: Guitarist Liz13 once served as ax-woman for defunct doomsters 13; while vocalist T-Roy hails from the crust-core outfit Buzzov-en -- a band known as much for its fondness of whiskey and hard narcotics as for its unorthodox stage antics. (It's purported that the band once attempted to burn down Berkeley's famed Gilman Street club not once, not twice, but three times in a single evening.) The group also enjoys a rather prestigious fan base: The Melvins' Dale Crover, Motörhead's Lemmy Kilmister and Corrosion of Conformity's Pepper Keenan all claim to be huge Sour Vein devotees. Right now, the only thing really standing between Sour Vein and world domination is a record deal -- and that appears to be right around the corner. No fewer than three prominent heavy-rock dynasties have courted the band, including Earache, the now-defunct Off the Record and Frank Kozik's infamous Man's Ruin imprint, which has gone so far as to offer the act an opening slot at its showcase in San Francisco later this month.

But when Sour Vein's as-yet-untitled debut LP is finally released early next year, it won't be the Man's Ruin trademark that's emblazoned on the back cover. Nor will it be that of the other two heavy hitters mentioned. Rather, it will be that of Game Two, a fledgling metal label owned and operated by Denver resident Conan Hultgren and Mike Knecht (aka "The Colonel") of Baltimore. The company has only fourteen releases to its credit, and its biggest seller, a seven-inch split featuring the bands Integrity and Mayday, has sold a mere 6,000 copies -- chicken feed to a major label or a well-funded indie. But Hultgren and Knecht have something more important to offer than size. For one, they have experience: The holder of an MBA from the University of Baltimore, Hultgren operated the Baltimore-based hardcore label End Game for three years, releasing recordings by As It Stands and Next Step Up, among others. And prior to his involvement with Game Two, Knecht worked for the East Coast mail-order distribution company Yodelin' Pig. More important, though, the duo has credibility -- a commodity that Sour Vein's T-Roy holds in high esteem. "I feel good about [doing this record with Game Two]," notes the singer. "They have a whole brotherhood thing going on that I like. We're all just friends helping each other out. I also like the idea that they actually care about the bands they put out, as opposed to some of these others labels who just seem to care about getting ahold of our CDs because they know they are going to sell. They take a real grassroots approach to the whole thing."

"I think we sort of have a reputation for being fair and cool," Hultgren concurs. "We put a lot of effort into our records and lose a lot of money for these bands. And it's the bands that know that about us and like that about us that approach us. If they don't like the way we do things, they don't bother with us. I guess you could say we're sort of like a metal label with a punk aesthetic."

Hultgren's statement may sound like an oxymoron to some, particularly those familiar with heavy metal's excessive past. But in recent years, the cheesy stadium mentality once associated with classic heavy metal has given way to a hipper, more informed strain of hard rock that is influenced as much by Black Flag and Saint Vitus as it is by Black Sabbath and Armored Saint. At the same time, heavy-rock fans who have grown tired of the predictable label approach of the Roadrunners and Nuclear Blasts of the world are now starting up labels of their own, much the same way punk rockers did -- and have been doing -- since the early Eighties. Tee Pee, Rise Above and Southern Lord join Game Two as among the most popular of these upstarts, particularly in Europe, where the so-called stoner-rock movement has reached near-epidemic proportions. In fact, though Game Two's owners have gone virtually ignored here in Denver, they are considered bona fide tastemakers among scenesters overseas, thanks in large part to their recurring presence in the pages of stoner-rock e-zines like The Netherlands' Roadburn and Italy's Stoner Rock Rules (to which Knecht contributes). Nevertheless, neither Hultgren or Knecht consider Game Two to be a stoner-rock label. Rather, it is, in the Colonel's words, "a 'put out whatever we want' label. Our only requirements are that it's got to be heavy and it's got to appeal to both of us. And more times than not, it's either heavy rock -- like in the what I'd guess you'd call stoner-rock vein -- or [slow, Black Sabbath-like] doom metal. I guess that's just kind of what we're into."

Of course, the duo has every right to forsake the stoner tag; Game Two started releasing records in 1994, a while before anyone had officially used the term. The idea for the label actually started germinating in 1993, when Knecht and Hultgren struck up a friendship through a mutual college acquaintance. "We were both going to school in Maryland at the time," Hultgren recalls. "Mike was going to Towson [University], and I was going to Loyola -- they were about ten minutes from each other. I had quit my hardcore label, End Game, because I was basically fed up with the whole hardcore scene and the attitudes that went along with it, and I remember being impressed by Mike's extensive collection of heavy music and his knowledge of Seventies rock in general. He was into all this stuff like Canned Heat and Humble Pie and Grand Funk that I had barely heard of before. We used to spend hours plastered to the couch, experimenting with various mind-altering substances and listening to records."

"It was sort of a tradeoff, " Knecht explains. "There was a lot of stuff that Conan was into at that point that I wasn't familiar with, too. His background was more of a punk kind of thing, and he really afforded me the ability to catch up on that scene pretty fast. But the common ground for us was Monster Magnet. Monster Magnet and Cathedral, I'd have to say."

"I have to say that I think Monster Magnet is the essential band to all of this," says Hultgren. "For us, they were kind of like the link between the Seventies and the Nineties."

Inspired by Magnet favorites such as 1992's Spine of God, 25...TAB, the pair resurrected Hultgren's then-freshly buried End Game and renamed it Game Two. Yet as happens with most upstart labels, it took some time -- not to mention a lot of precious cash -- for its owners to find their footing in the beginning. The imprint's inaugural release was the Integrity/Mayday split seven-inch, a reissue of an End Game product. The split sold relatively well, but didn't quite jibe with Game Two's newfound mission. And the label's two subsequent efforts were even further off the mark. "They were both singles by these Baltimore bands, Sun of Man and John Merrick," says Hultgren. "When you listen to the records, you may kind of wonder what the hell we might have been thinking at the time. Live, they sounded loud and trippy. But when the records came out, they ended up sounding like Dischord bands or something. "

"It was my fault, really," adds the Colonel. "Maybe it was the heavy substances we were on at the time, but they were actually pretty heavy bands live. They were sort of friends of mine. What can I say?"

Successive offerings didn't fare much better. Nevertheless, the budding entrepreneurs continued scouring the clubs -- as well as the pages of Metal Maniacs -- in search of new talent. Their search led to a critically acclaimed split betwixt Welsh doom-mongers Acrimony and New York headbangers Iron Rainbow, and the Game Two vehicle has been on a slow roll ever since. Thus far, two Game Two alums, Baltimore's Sixty Watt Shaman and Tokyo's Church of Misery, have gone on to sign contracts with larger, more visible labels (the former recently inked a deal with New York's Spitfire Records, while the latter is now a proud member of the Man's Ruin contingency). Two others, the aforementioned Sour Vein and North Carolina's Gideon Smith and the Dixie Damned, are on the verge of doing the same. In essence, Game Two functions as a farm label, with bands releasing one or two starter records with the company before moving on.

Not a bad track record, considering the imprint has no advertising budget -- and no distributor, for that matter. Instead, Knecht and Hultgren rely almost exclusively on the Internet to peddle their discs. Knecht generally handles G2's publicity and A&R chores, sending out electronic press releases and e-mails to prospective signees. Meanwhile, Hultgren oversees the label's distribution, trading and selling through a series of online catalogue retailers including Bad Card in France, High Beam in Australia and Putaska in Singapore. "We do it that way sort of by default," he admits. "Ideally, we'd like to have one distributor who sends us a check every month. But that just hasn't happened yet."

They aren't exactly holding their breath, either. Despite the recent success of stoner bands like Nebula, Gluecifer and Queens of the Stone Age here in the U.S., Hultgren and Knecht both know that much of Game Two's music isn't nearly as accessible as that of, say, celebrated Seventies-rock revivalists Fu Manchu. Granted, Gideon Smith's brilliant riffs could blast their way through America's rock radio stations without so much as raising an eyebrow. But He's No Good to Me Dead, the label's new split release featuring Bongzilla, Grief, Negative Reaction, Sour Vein and Subsanity, is about as AOR-friendly as a Noam Chomsky retrospective -- which is just fine by them. The team already has more than its fair share of projects in tow, including the upcoming Sour Vein release, a full-length by Los Angeles's Cold Mourning and a live platter from underground-metal gods Pentagram. And if none of these brings in a tanker full of dough, so be it. As Hultgren so ably points out, "We can't do any worse than we are right now."

"We don't get any money out of this," adds Knecht. "Music is my passion. It's really, honestly what I'm into beyond anything else. And [Game Two] lets us be a part of the whole thing. Maybe it comes from my lack of ability to actually play it or my lack of patience to sit down and play it -- I don't know. But this allows us to do the next best thing: We sit down and try to help out the bands that can play and that are trying to get something out."

"Right," Hultgren cuts in. "I mean, if we hadn't put out something by some of these bands, who would have?"


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