Sunday, January 25, 2015

Unspeakable Axe Records Interview

This interview is with Eric Musall, the owner of Unspeakable Axe Records. The label was started in early 2013 and has quickly become one of the most consistent and best labels in metal. Their albums have always been received favourably by SFM (Besieged, Sabbatory, Overcharge, Omnivore, etc.), so I wanted to talk to the man behind the label to get some insight about how things are run.

Skull Fracturing Metal (SFM): Hi Eric. I wanted to start by asking you about how Unspeakable Axe got started. I know you’ve mentioned that you wanted to release great titles by obscure artists, but what convinced you to go through with it and start up a label? Was there anything in the process of starting a label that was more difficult than you first expected?

Unspeakable Axe Records (UAR): The main inspiration for me to start the label was just realizing a daydream of mine as a metal fan.  Besieged's album (which ended up being our second release) was long in the making, and when it finally arrived they were unsigned - so they self-released it as a pro-pressed CD-R.  It was barely available anywhere - I ended up ordering it from a shop in Winnipeg.  A few years later I was doing work for other labels (more on that below) so I was getting pretty familiar with the basic process and expenses of doing a release, and I had some money saved up from my day job.  I decided out of the blue one day that this album ("Victims Beyond All Help") was worth plucking from obscurity, and if no one else was going to do it, I ought to.  So I emailed the guys from the band about it and the same day started to think about a name and logo for the label, etc.

SFM: Unspeakable Axe Records is billed as a sub-label of Dark Descent, but I believe you only first visited Dark Descent's headquarters last year. How did you first get hooked up with Dark Descent and get associated with them as a sub-label?

UAR: By wandering down weird paths.  This is less known now, but originally Dark Descent was co-founded by two guys: Matt Calvert, who still runs it, and another guy named Cory who was in the band Cosmic Atrophy.  He made cool death metal, somewhat Demilich-inspired.  The idea was that the 2nd Cosmic Atrophy album would be the first Dark Descent release, since Cory was having trouble finding the label support that his music deserved.  A little before that, I was dabbling in art for bands, this kind of rough ink drawing style, and Cory found me through a thread I posted on the Metal Archives.  I ended up doing a lot of art for the Cosmic Atrophy album - a series of sketches for inside the booklet, and later a mixed media piece that was going to be the cover.  Lots of Lovecraftian stuff.  When the label started, I ended up talking to Matt too, and doing a little design work.  I drew something for the booklet of one of their earliest releases (Burial Invocation) and designed an ad or something.  But the idea from the start was that Cory would be doing most of that stuff while Matt handled the business end.

Well ultimately, and unfortunately, Cory evaporated into thin air.  I got the impression that he just lost his enthusiasm for metal.  The Cosmic Atrophy album never was finished, and Matt took over running the label solo.  He needed a graphics guy to design ads and postcards, and do layouts for CDs, vinyl and shirts.  And I was the guy standing there, I guess.  I knew Photoshop pretty well and so just started doing most of the work he needed done.  A few years later when I wanted to do this label of my own, it was natural to work with him.  I didn't want to compete with his distro (there are more than enough distros in the US as it is) and thought we could support each other.

SFM: Your label made quite a name for itself with its first two releases (Birth A.D. and Besieged). How did you find out about these two bands? 

UAR: Besieged I had been following for a long time.  Someone recommended their 2-song original demo "Visions of Pain" (again this was on Metal Archives, I used to hang out there a ton).  I checked them out on MySpace - look it up, kids! - and loved it.  That kind of hyper-aggressive death/thrash is my main love.  As for Birth AD, Matt knew Jeff Tandy somehow, because he knows everybody, and Jeff needed someone to release or distribute "I Blame You."  Style-wise it was an awkward fit for Dark Descent, but when Matt heard I wanted to start a somewhat thrash-oriented label, he suggested I talk to Jeff and do the release.  Happy I did - it ended up being our first out of the gate and was just great.

SFM: One thing I really appreciate about UAR is that although many of the releases are in similar subgenres (thrash, death, etc.), no two releases of yours really sound alike. For example, Birth A.D., Besieged, and Overcharge, among others, all play thrash in completely different styles. Is this an important factor when signing new bands?

UAR: Not really.  I think it just happens naturally from the way I pick bands to listen to and sign.  For one thing my personal tastes are diverse, so even though everything with the label starts from a foundation of thrash and related styles, I like all kinds of things that at least in my mind are tangential to that.  I think the lines between Metallica, Possessed, Death and Repulsion are kind of blurry, and I like all of the stuff that exists in that big, messy area of music.  And I also like song-oriented and riff-oriented bands, and bands with a strong identity.  I'd gravitate more toward signing a really kickass grind band that can write a memorable tune rather than signing a third-rate thrash band that sounds like Besieged but worse.  

SFM: I imagine that you get a lot of emails from bands looking to join your label. Do you have any advice for these bands in terms of how to get a label’s attention?

UAR: Yeah, there's a pretty steady flow.  I'd just say, try to put together a real press kit or at least an email that looks like it's worth the time to read.  Include your logo, a band pic if you've had some taken, all the appropriate links to your social media presence, and obviously a way for me to listen to you.  I get some emails with no real info, sometimes just one mp3 or worse a live recording or some weird demo where the vocals haven't been added yet.  And I just want to tell them - this is not the way to get someone's attention when there are so many bands out there vying for label interest from anyone and everyone.  Just try harder; be professional about it.  And also, try to make sure you're talking to the right label.  I might have diverse tastes but I'm not really going to give more than a passing glance at a modern ultra-brutal, triggered-out-the-ass slam band.  It is so far from our aesthetic that I wouldn't even be doing them a favor by signing them.

SFM: Are there any albums you put out on your label that you think the metal world just didn’t pick up on? In other words, were you surprised by the reaction to any of your releases? If so, why do you think the album got the reaction it did?

UAR: It's hard to tell, it all seems a little random to me.  I just release what I like and what I think people should hear.  But I think sometimes people's tastes can be very unadventurous.  You can sell a lot of copies of a pretty generic band that's playing the style of the moment, as long as it's marketed properly, and then have comparatively few pay attention to something better in a style that's just not getting much attention right now.  Who knows?  Zoldier Noiz was a little bit of a hard sell; those guys put like 5 different genres in a blender.  I think the final product is impressive and very cohesive, but it's hard to explain to people what it is and it's just not for everyone.  Overcharge was one I thought would do a little better than it has so far; that album is so catchy.  But running a label means you're in it for the long haul.  Hopefully people will discover some of these less-noticed albums in the years to come.  Never can tell when the right post on the right forum is going to inspire a rediscovery of some lost gem.

SFM: A major difficulty of running a record label is dealing with the continually increasing postage rates or fluctuating exchange rates that can make selling to certain countries more difficult. How do you deal with these external factors that can hurt business? Is it possible to truly mitigate these issues?

UAR: Exchange rates haven't been a factor for me at all so far.  Postage prices much more so.  Nothing you can do except try to find workarounds.  My shipping processes have improved a lot - I keep a lot of different box sizes around to get the right fit for whatever someone orders.  I have poly bags to ship shirts in, since the bags weigh next to nothing and keeping the weight down reduces the price.  And I added an option to our shop some time ago where you can check a box to order a CD with the jewel case removed.  That reduces weight from 4 ounces to 2, which is a difference of a few dollars shipping to most foreign countries.  Just gotta do whatever I can.  People who still buy physical media are already a dying breed, and they're MY people; I want to take care of them.

SFM: Of all of your upcoming releases, the one that I haven’t heard too much information about is Black Tower’s “The Secret Fire”. What can you tell us about this release, and is there an approximate release date?

UAR: It's probably going to be late spring or early summer on that one - we're waiting on the art right now, which is being done by Danille Gauvin (Corpsessed, Adversarial, lots of other bands - Danille's the best).  I hope it takes people by surprise - though see comment above about how random this shit can be!  Personally I love the album.  It was a demo submission and my ears perked up about 30 seconds in.  Kinda NWOBHMish, very melodic, with some influences from punk and black metal, and these Tolkien lyrics that appeal to the nerd in me.  The vocal style is unusual, nasally and punkish - reminds me a little bit of Witchfinder General or something.  The band members were all in punk groups out of Ottawa prior to this, but they're metal listeners too and wanted to try their hand at this.  I think they did a great job.  And being a big punk fan myself, something in the DNA of this group hits a sweet spot for me.

SFM: Now for the tough question: what is your favourite UAR release? 

UAR: What are the chances I'm going to answer this one?  I like them all, man.  It's a large commitment in terms of both money and energy to put out a CD or a record.  I won't do it unless it's something I'd really LOVE to have in my personal collection.  I will admit this: I'll always have a special place in my heart for the Besieged album because it inspired me to do this in the first place, and because Nolan (guitarist and vocalist) is a sick individual.  I've watched live videos of them and I don't even understand what he's doing.  Their new EP (should be out next month) is just demented.  But all the things we've released so far are meaningful to me; none of it is just product.  A few labels seem to just pump out interchangeable albums and I have no interest in doing that at all.

SFM: Any last words for the fans out there?

UAR: I have fans?  (SFM Note: Absolutely!)

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