When it comes to humble beginnings, Denver’s No Direction Records just might take the cake.
The label’s origins resemble something out of a Silicon Valley success story (even if the similarities begin and end there). Founder Evan Kallas started the label out of his father’s basement in Wyoming in the spring of 2013. Lacking any previous experience in the business of recording or distribution, he asked Philadelphia musician Sam Rudich how to dub a tape, then went out and purchased a duplicator. He made his first dubbed tape — a split between his own band at the time, Poor Sport Wizard, and Golden-based band Johnny Edwards — using a burned CD and a boombox. The result was lo-fi in the most extreme sense.
“Those tapes are really cool because they’re fucked up,” Kallas tells me from the front porch of his home, a mid-century bungalow in the Barnum neighborhood west of Federal. Amos Helvey, the other half of No Direction’s two-man staff, agrees. “The Poor Sport Wizard side is completely unlistenable,” he says. “There’s a little bit of song and a lot of fucking harsh noise that’s just tape sound.”
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But a lot has happened since that first tape, including necessary upgrades to better equipment and techniques, a slew of releases, and a game-changing move from Wyoming to Denver. Both Helvey and Kallas grew up in Wyoming, where there was minimal room for artistic growth and collaboration. Helvey minces no words about the situation. “We’re from Wyoming,” he says. “We basically grew up under a rock.”
Helvey left first, living in Fort Collins for two and a half years before moving to Denver. Kallas followed just over a year ago, moving into the house he now shares with Helvey. Relocating blew open the doors to the community of musicians and artists Kallas had been craving, and he refuses to take said community for granted. “We’re enthralled on a daily basis,” he says of the scope of Denver’s DIY scene. “I can’t speak for everyone in saying that everyone is stoked, but we are.”
He’s so stoked, in fact, that he cuts no profit from No Direction’s releases. Bands pay for the cost of materials and nothing else. Each tape is dubbed in real time by Kallas, Helvey, their roommates and a rotating cast of collaborators. Small runs help maintain some sanity, though a small run of a full-length album (such as the one by These Bashful Claws that No Direction released this June) can take more than a week.
With or without help, the process isn’t always pleasant. “It’s tedious and draining at times,” says Kallas. “It piles on to how busy we are in our personal lives.”
And yet the tedium and lack of profit is worth it. Kallas insists on maintaining his current model of using the label to build and preserve the community around him. He calls the Denver scene “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever been involved in in my life,” and can rattle off a sizable list of favorite local bands (including Sister Grotto, Goon, Total Goth and Scary Drugs) on cue. “We’re just trying to build an archive of incredible music,” he says.
“It’s not a business,” adds Helvey. “It’s rewarding in and of itself.”
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“It translates to the way we go about playing music in Denver as well,” continues Kallas, who plays with Helvey in local bands Wrinkle and justinedrugs. “We’re not trying to make our bands sustainable. They sustain themselves because we love it.”
If anything sustains No Direction, it’s Kallas and Helvey’s next-room-over closeness. Helvey insists that much of this would be impossible if they weren’t in close proximity to one another, and Helvey’s involvement in the label began when Kallas moved into the house. “He formed No Direction; I just weaseled my way in there,” Helvey jokes.
Not that Kallas minds. He jokes that, in addition to being bandmates, roommates and friends, the two are “cassette-dubbing buds” with the same altruistic approach to releasing music.
“We get tired of each other sometimes,” he says with a laugh, ashing his cigarette as his cat, Mister Kitty, weaves his way through the legs of the coffee table. “But it’s all right.”