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't have 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 8-track.

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 and mailorder...
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 more stuff.

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 Italy to 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 and stores.

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 and labor 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 on.

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 want.

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 is indifferent?
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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