by Tim Yohannan
(Maximum Rocknroll #122 July 1993)
Steve Tupper has been running for a long time. I first met him
in 1978 when we were working together in forming an East Bay chapter of Rock Against
Racism. Shortly thereafter he began issuing some of the earliest Bay Area punk/hardcore
releases. He's pretty quiet, moves at a slow but deliberate pace... but like the
turtle he's lasted a lot longer than many punk rock hares. Long overdue, here's
a bit of his history as well as some of the upcoming bullshit he's being forced
to slog through. Interview by Tim.
MRR: When did Subterranean first start?
S: 1979, in the summer, in Mike Fox's living room.
MRR: Mike Fox of The Tools, at that time, and later to be in Sick Pleasure and
Code Of Honor. You were partners in it. What prompted its birth?
S: We were talking about how most of our favorite bands didn'thave any records
out, and he had this 4-track thing in his garage where he recorded The Tools first
single. So, we were tossing things back and forth and thought "Gee, why don't
we use it to put out some records?"
MRR: What was the first Subterranean release?
S: It was this little 7" with 4 local bands on it: The Tools, of course, No Alternative,
The Vktms, and Flipper.
MRR: "S.F. Underground Volume 1."
S: (laughs) It didn't have a "volume" number on it; we were taking it one thing
at a time then.
MRR: How did you finance the label?
S: I had a full time job as a machinist at that point, making OK money.
MRR: Was there a flurry of releases back then?
S: It took a while to really get it going, a few months to get the first one together.
After that, we didn't get anything out till the next spring, the first Society
Dog single out. In the mean time, we had tried doing another 7" comp, but it never
worked out. The two bands were going to be The Zeros and Negative Trend, but it
ran afoul of their manager.
MRR: Peter Urban.
S: He wanted to use these old tapes and we wanted to record new tapes, so the
whole thing sunk when we couldn't agree on it. But meanwhile we started to work
on an LP, "Live At Target." We wanted to produce a show with a bunch of really
"out there" people and stay away from the more mainstream punk stuff. We ended
up with people like Nervous Gender, Z'ev and his Uns project, Factrix, and Flipper.
So we put on a show at the Target Video warehouse, invited a bunch of our friends,
and by that time we had an 8-track set up there. That was February of 1980, and
it came off pretty well. That was our first album. At the same time we were working
on singles by The Tools, The Jars, and Bay Of Pigs.
MRR: Then you did the split LP with Sick Pleasure/Code Of Honor,Code Of Honor's
LP... and more experimental types of stuff, no?
S: We started doing that right away. The "Live At Target" was pretty out there
for that time. And the "Clubfoot" compilation LP was started in 1980 and took
a year to get out. Mike, and the main Clubfoot guy, Richard Kelly, just went totally
apeshit on the production; totally amazing at what they could squeeze out of an
MRR: What's the name of the guy who's on the cover of that LP?
S: Richard Edson.
MRR: I think he was in the Alterboys, and then he went on to be in movies like
"Stranger Than Paradise."
S: In the meantime we were also doing singles by No Alternative, Flipper, another
Society Dog 7"... and "S.F. Underground 2," which was basically 4 more really
way underground punk bands in 1981.
MRR: Besides putting out records, at a certain point you got into distribution
S: We started doing mailorder fairly quickly. I had always liked that kind of
direct contact with people that were getting our records, and always made sure
to include a mailorder catalog in all our LP releases. And all of our friends
that had bands wanted to have their records on there, too. It grew over time.
MRR: But at one point you had a storefront.
S: At first, Subterranean was in my living room in Berkeley, and then we moved
into a room off of John Boshard's woodshop in El Cerrito. He was doing Thermidor
Records then. Everything was coated in sawdust, we were running out of room, John
was freaking out, so we decided we had to move again. We had about 20 releases
at the time, stacks and stacks of records. Patrick Miller of Minimal Man said
he saw an empty storefront down the street from where he lived, on Valencia St.
in San Francisco. (Across the street from the infamous Deaf Club, and a block
from where Epicenter now stands). We were mainly doing mailorder then, and just
a little distribution. And we didn't do retail either for the first two years.
By '84 I decided to section off the front portion, put in some bins, and see if
we could sell some records out of there.
MRR: When I'd go in there I'd always see a good selection of obscure European
records. You must have been trading records with other labels.
S: Oh yeah. We did that all along and are still doing it. Again, it's a real direct,
more underground kind of way of going about getting your stuff around. Generally,
a lot of labels have a good idea of what's going on in their area, and doing a
network thing is always preferable to dealing with businesses.
MRR: What happened with that storefront ultimately?
S: New landlords wanted to yuppify the place, jack up tho rents, and out we went.
Rents in S.F. were getting too atrocious for retail space in the city, and I was
getting tired of dealing with burnouts and winos coming in off the streets and
pissing on the floor. It got to be too much, and I decided that a warehouse was
the way to go. But that was by '88, and we had been there 6 years.
MRR: Where did you relocate to at that point?
S: I found a really cheap and really funky warehouse down near Potrero and Army
streets, back behind where The Farm used to be.
MRR: Nowadays, you're more of a distribution than an active label, right?
S: Yeah. It evolved slowly. Three or four years ago, I got so sick and tired of
being ripped off by distributors... all the companies who had crashed over the
years, owing a lot of us a lot of money. It got very difficult to depend on them.
All along we had been dealing with some stores... not in a terribly organized
way... but it seemed that the time was right to do that. So, I just started talking
to everybody around here who was putting out records, adding them to our wholesale
catalog, sending them around to stores. It gradually built up, and I started getting
in people to help do that.
MRR: Is the distribution still going OK?
S: Yes, relative to what the label used to do. The label never did make any money,
but the distribution at least breaks even. We hope to be able to start paying
ourselves cuz right now we all depend on other sources of income to survive. But
things are moving in a positive direction, we're getting more accounts, selling
MRR: Tell us about the cast of characters that are working there now.
S: Let's see. The guy who's been there the longest has been Phil. He started doing
mailorder when we were back on Valencia St., and still does mailorder. He's also
gotten really into books, and started connecting us up with book publishers. All
along we had been selling certain books, like the Re/Search books because of knowing
Vale from the way old punk days at The Mab. But Phil started bringing in other
publishers like Amok, Feral House, Autonomedia,...
MRR: Should we give Martin a plug? (laughter)
S: Oh yeah, definitely Pressure Drop.
MRR: So who else works there?
S: Peter Galinek. He used to work at Mordam, then moved to Italyto work at Wide
Records, then moved back here and kind of wandered in the door a few months ago.
He's bringing in a lot of the people he had dealt with at Wide, European distributors
MRR: Where are most of your stores located?
S: Up to a few months ago I would have said primarily in the western US, but now
Peter's changed that somewhat in bringing in more east coast stores. The center
of gravity may have shifted eastward a little bit. A few years ago 70% of our
sales were Subterranean label stuff to distributors and about 30% was mailorder
of everybody's stuff. In the last few years it's changed so that the overwhelming
amount of it is non-Subterranean stuff being sold to domestic shops. It's working
out financially better.
MRR: And who else works there?
S: There's Elden, who was the first guy brought in to call stores, in '89. And
there's Lexa, who used to book the Heinz Club until it got closed down recently,
and she's looking for another space to book shows. And Gary, who used to work
at Alternative Tentacles, went off to do other things and now shows up once or
twice a week.
MRR: That's a lot of people to employ. I don't know how you can do it. I realized
at one point that you were buying M.R.R. mags from Mordam and were able to sell
them cheaper to shops than Mordam did. What is your philosophy on pricing? How
do you stay in business?
S: I've always tried to keep things reasonable. We started off with a 10% mark-up,
but raised it to 15% a few years ago.
MRR: Any plans for changes on the horizon?
S: I've never really been one for plans, just take things one at a time, whatever
seems right. I want to keep doing what we're doing, only better. But it changes
all the time.
MRR: But the label has languished some, right?
S: Oh yes. A whole lot, which bothers me. But it takes so much work to do the
distribution, and is really time consuming andlabor intensive and I still end
up doing most of the work around there. So there really hasn't been a whole lot
of time for the label, and besides which, the whole crisis of distribution has
gotten even worse over the last few years... there's basically nobody left worth
dealing with out there. So, if we put something out, we have to figure on selling
it all ourselves, and we don't really have enough stores to do that very effectively
at this point. Being a small distributor, we don't have access to the chain stores,
except for Tower Records. And the "mom & pop" stores are being squeezed, too.
MRR: Is the concept of something like Subterranean is in jeopardy, due to the
way that "business" gets handled in the so-called "underground"? Is there still
room for the ideas that got Subterranean off the ground a long time ago?
S: The original idea, which was to make stuff available for bands that couldn't
get their records out, doesn't exist any more. It is now so easy for a band to
put out their own single. That part of it doesn't exist. And aside from that,
there are so many other labels around that have grown. For a long time, Subterranean
was one of the main local labels here, and most of the new bands came to us first.
For quite a few years, Alternative Tentacles wasn't signing local bands. Now there
are a lot more labels, and some that used to be real small like Boner, have gotten
really big. And there are others that either started here or have moved here.
So that condition doesn't exist either anymore.
MRR: On the distribution side of things, are you competing with Mordam, Revolver/Scooby
Doo, Last Gasp, etc., all centered around here?
S: Subterranean was one of the first labels to start doing distribution too. I
started putting a lot more emphasis on the distribution after Systematic folded
up, and at that point the only other one around here was Rough Trade (since gone),
and they really weren't all that interested in taking more of the underground
stuff. But it seems like the other distributors around here, like Mordam and Revolver
chiefly, don't really compete so much as fill in holes. It's not cut-throat. Some
stores will deal with one of the three of us, or sometimes with all three on a
rotating basis. Each has its area of familiarity or better connections. Mordam
still sells mainly to distributors, as opposed to stores. The Relativitys and
Dutch Easts compete with us and aren't happy about us, but fuck'em. They're not
my favorite people. (laughs)
MRR: Let's talk a bit about the recent trend towards businessification in the
"underground" music scene. In what ways have you been impacted by those incursions?
S: Pretty much the same way as everybody else. Instead of the kind of creativity
that we saw the first few years of Subterranean's existence and before that, you
now have a lot of clones cloning clones and everybody scrambling to be the next
"big band" to be signed to a "big label." Bands are looking at what they're doing
as a business rather than as an expression. You can tell when you get these stupid,
nauseating press kits in the mail all the time, going on about how they're so
sincere and stuff like that. Give me a break, you know! There isn't much happening
there in most cases, in terms of anything very real. It's degenerated into a career
ladder. The bands are doing it, the labels are doing it. They aren't run by real
fans of the music anymore. They are first and foremost as businesses to make money,
and secondly, if at all, as a real expression of new ideas. Subterranean has always
been the other way around. What's on the tape and what's in the grooves has always
been first. The idea behind it has always been first. We do have to consider whether
we can survive financially, but that's always been secondary. As a consequence,
we all live on rice and beans, but that's life I guess.
MRR: As an example of this change in attitudes, a long time ago Flipper epitomized
the anti-"official aspects of business" or anti "official punk". Yet, now, here
they are signing to a major label... the antithesis of what they were. Were they
your biggest seller over the years?
S: No. The biggest seller was the Dead Kennedys single we put out, which sold
about twice as much as all the Flipper stuff put together. After Flipper, maybe
Code Of Honor.
MRR: How did you find out that Flipper had signed to a major?
S: Actually, It started about two years ago when I got a phone call from Rick
Rubin of Def American. He had always been a Flipper fanatic, and he had that Flipper
copy band Hose from New York.
MRR: I remember when we interviewed Hose on the M.R.R. radio show years ago, ho
claimed he had never heard Flipper before...
S: Yeah, right! (laughs). Anyway, he was kind of interested in putting out Generic
Flipper on CD. We had just finished doing that single with the post-Will new line-up,
and I was a little bit unhappy with the direction the band was moving in. Those
two songs on that single were pretty decent, but overall, what they really wanted
was commercial success. And they weren't going to get commercial success with
Subterranean. So, I suggested to Rubin that he consider signing the band. I don't
know how seriously he took me because I never heard back from him. I sent him
a test pressing of the single, but that was it. Apparently a few months later
he was in the Bay Area and stopped in at Ted Falconi's house, offering to sign
the band at that point. I didn't find out about that for quite a while. And from
then on, everything's been one big confused, tangled tale.
MRR: What are the hallmarks of it?
S: About a year-and-a-half ago, I started hearing from the band that Rubin had
been talking to them and wanted to put out not just "Generic" on CD, but all the
back catalog. But I still hadn't heard anything from Rubin at that point. Nothing
happened for several months, until last fall, and it was unclear to me if he was
offering to sign the band or not, because what I was mostly hearing was that he
wanted to put the back stuff out on CD. All I wanted was a 2% licensing and royalty
fee, since I had paid for all the recording. We never had any written contracts
for the albums, though we did for some of the early singles and comps which were
largely out of print. According to our verbal understanding from back in 1980,
the tapes weren't supposed to be used by anyone other than Subterranean without
our permission, and the band had always respected that. But about a year ago,
December of 1991, Steve DePace and Ted came over to talk about the thing, and
I told them it was OK by me if Rubin wanted to release CDs, that I just want the
2%. They said fine, and right in front of me called their lawyer, and told him
that I only wanted 2% and everything was okay. But a few days before that Christmas,
Steve came by waving this contract. I didn't get to see much of it, but the one
page he would show me very clearly had them selling all the rights to all the
tapes to Def American for $20,000. There were 5 albums at that point, so it must
have been the cheapest sale of the century.
MRR: I'm not gonna ask what they needed that money for right then and there!
S: At that point, I got a little suspicious, sat down with my lawyer, and wrote
Rubin a letter saying that they can't license you the tapes because the rights
to them are with Subterranean. Actually, about a month earlier than that, I had
started calling Rubin again, leaving messages on his home phone number, saying
"Look, if you want to do this, we have to talk. We can't use the band for intermediaries."
He never returned any of my phone calls. We wrote him then, and sent a copy to
Warner Bros., giving them about three weeks to respond. At the end of the three
weeks we got a fax back from Warner Bros., and their attitude was, in effect,
"We have the tapes, you have nothing, fuck you." And that was the start of the
legal hassles, which have been bizarre and torturous since. And are still going
MRR: So how does little Subterranean deal with the Warner Bros. legal department?
S: With difficulty. Their main strategy seems to be to drag things out forever
so that it costs me a fortune and have to give up and let them have whatever they
MRR: That 2% is really going to kill them, right?
S: It's more than ridiculous. They probably are paying more for lawyers than they
would if they'd just given me the fucking 2% to begin with. But they have so much
money it doesn't make much difference. Time/Warner is the biggest media conglomerate
on the face of the earth.
MRR: Through all these negotiations with Warner, the band is indifferent, Rubin
S: My whole thing was to reach some kind of reasonable agreement. One of Rubin's
lackeys called me in February of '92 and proposed that I get 1% and something
else... I don't remember what... but I had spent about $5,000 the year before
to finish up the tracks on stuff that was recorded back in '81 and '82 with Will,
outtakes from "Gone Fishin'", and a few other things. I didn't want to just give
them those tapes for free without having had a chance to do something with them
myself. And I wanted to keep the vinyl rights, too. So anyway, I said "O.K., I'll
take 1%, but you have to let me keep the vinyl rights and let me put out that
last album that I've already paid for." They must have stewed on it for a few
weeks down there, and came back with something for me to sign, faxed it to me
without comment, and it was substantially different from what we had talked about.
It not only obligated me to let them have all the Flipper tapes, but also everything
else that any member of the band, past or present, may have done with other people.
And there was some stuff in there about making me legally responsible for anybody
that might have any claims against Flipper or Def American, for any reason at
all in the future, stuff like that! So I basically said "No!". In the meantime,
I had to change lawyers, Flipper had to change lawyers, and even more confusion
ensued there. We waited around for that to settle, and meanwhile proposed modifications
to what they had sent. Then in early Spring, Flipper's lawyer finally announced
he was ready to begin talking about it, and the same day filed suit against me
for "obstructing Flipper's career."
MRR: Hey, I didn't know there was a law against that. Unfuckingreal!
S: And that's been going back and forth for several months, but in the meantime
this whole thing is costing plenty. When you add up what it cost to finish up
that unreleased album, $6000-7000 in advances to the band, plus all the legal
fees, it comes to over $20,000. At this point, we pretty much have an agreement
with Flipper, unsigned as yet, and a lot of hassles with Warners. It's a 4-way
negotiation, with Subterranean, Warner Bros/Def America, Flipper, and the estate
of Will Shatter. Obviously, Flipper cannot guarantee Subterranean the right to
put out the vinyl or the unreleased album, or get the stupid 1% even, because
they gave up all of their rights to Def American. If they did get that $20,000,
I know that Will's family has not received a penny of it. Nightmare.
MRR: Outside of the business aspect of all of this, it's hard for me to picture
Flipper, the Sound Of Music trashed out "who gives a shit" band doing this. How
does it affect you to see the changes that some people go through in their values
or how they deal with people?
S: They still seem to project that kind of image, but I'm not sure they really
believe it. It's interesting for me to observe people's reactions when I talk
to them about this whole thing. An awful lot of people are apparently afraid to
talk about it, afraid to take a position, and I think that reflects what's going
on with big companies and big money floating round. There's a lot of people on
the make, a lot of people who want positions in the music business, whether as
bands or as people who depend on them for acts to appear in their clubs or people
to write about, play on the radio and get promos from, get free trips to wherever,
all the payola, etc. The payola is not myth, it's real big money, and people want
to cash in on it. It's a lot more pervasive than I thought it was, so many people
ready to sell out at a drop of the hat. It's kind of depressing, not what it was
supposed to be about in 1977. It's one more step down the road that we've been
seeing unfold around us, with the bigger labels, the bigger distributors, bands
demanding big ads in such-and-such publications, blah blah.
MRR: Are there any aspects of any what you initially believed in that still maintain
their integrity, that there's some resistance...
S: It seems like things move outward in degeneration from the center, so that
where people are doing the most experimental kinds of things, the most uncommercial
kinds of things, is where you find the least of that kind of attitude. As a distributor,
Subterranean has gotten very involved in industrial music and just plain noise
- not industrial disco - and in the last year or so we've seen a tendency there
for some of the bigger industrial labels to be competing for the same acts - a
lot of whom kind of behave like jazz artists do, floating from label to label,
doing one-offs. That seems to be the thing in industrial music too, but in competing
they seem to have lost the willingness to experiment, even though the music offhand
sounds experimental. But placed in a context within the genre, within the dealings
that go on, it's not really experimental at this point. They just repeat formulas.
That's another example of something that's been happening, another wave of degeneracy.
But there's always going to be some kind of frontier somewhere, at least I hope
there will be. In 1986, I started getting involved with the acoustic scene around
here, and it didn't really succeed in attracting a big audience or big money,
and stayed fairly underground, but unfortunately a lot of the bands doing that
have gone by the wayside. But that was one of those anti-commercial frontiers
for a while, that was so anti-commercial that nobody wanted to listen to it. (laughs).
Actually, a lot of people did, but it never had the support of the distributors
or media. One side affect of this whole legal mess is that Subterranean lost a
lot of money that we needed to get new releases out.
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