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Interview with Recoil Records' Karl Groves, Jacque Morgan and ... Toby!

Interview by Christopher J. Kelter - November 5, 1999

    Karl Groves and Jacque Morgan are truly underground. Their basement office serves as a spring board for promoting local talent, giving national acts a chance and a place to play in the mid-Atlantic. Read this transcript of Rough Edge's frank interview with the two and their friend Toby as we discussed the state of extreme music, the history behind punk and hardcore, as well as the potency of the Baltimore scene.

Rough Edge: Tell Rough Edge readers a little bit about the types of musical acts you represent.

Karl Groves: Recoil Entertainment concentrates on whatever everybody else in the area isn't doing. We concentrate more on hardcore than anything else; next would be a split between punk rock and stoner rock. Stoner rock is bands like Kyuss, Fu Manchu, that Black Sabbath/Hendrix influenced retro sound. We promote some ska and some death metal. Seventy-five percent of what we do is hardcore.

Rough Edge: What kind of split does Recoil have between being a label and being a promoter?

Karl Groves: We've split to the point where we could be four different names.  The talent agency represents fifteen bands of which nine are hardcore, five stoner rock bands, and one ska band. That's totally separate from what we do as a concert promoter and as a label. Four of the bands on the label are with the talent agency. We do concert promotions at six different places in the area and that's almost totally hardcore shows with the occasional stoner rock show when one of our stoner rock bands is coming through the area. The Recoil Fest will be the first show with more than one death metal band.

Rough Edge: Tell us about the Recoil Fest coming up in early December 1999.

Karl Groves: Recoil Fest is basically the culmination of everything we've come from. Recoil started in '96 as a vanity DIY thing for my own band at the time. All of the sudden, and we don't really remember how, John and I started putting on shows. We decided to use the Recoil name as a sort of 'Good Housekeeping seal of approval' so that when people saw the Recoil name they knew it would be a good show. Every show we've done since then has had the Recoil name on it. A majority of the shows have had nothing to do with the Recoil label or talent agency. Basically in two years as concert promoters we've gone from doing little shows with local bands to doing the biggest hardcore metal shows in the area. Surely, we're not doing metal shows as big as the 9:30 Club, but out of all the independent promoters we are doing the most of anyone. So the Recoil Fest is a celebration - a three day festival. December 3rd is going to be a trip back to our roots at the VFW Hall where Jacque and I did our first show - that'll be five punk bands and two of them played the first shows we ever did there. December 4th is going to be an all-day metal and hardcore show and that is going to feature most of the Recoil bands - that'll be at the newest venue we've ever done shows at - the Eight By Ten. December 5th is going to be in Washington, DC and it will be another punk rock show. The Recoil Fest will cover all the areas we've done shows and all the bands we've done shows with, and all the bands we work with now. It's a big anniversary party.

Rough Edge: Tell us about Recoil Records. What new music will the label have available?

Karl Groves: The bands we are putting out product for are not bands that will make us millions of dollars, but they are bands whose music we appreciate as fellow musicians and business people we appreciate their support because they've supported us because we share the same philosophies. To paraphrase Bill Clinton - "it's the music, stupid."  That's what we care about and that's what these bands care about. They care about working hard which is basically backed by everything we do - hard work. And being cool - they're not there to screw people over or to look out just for themselves. The reason why we picked up Carved In Stone was because of the fact that we see that at every show they do.

By the end of Winter 2000 we'll have five records out: the Hell To Pay CD, Carved In Stone will be another, the Apathy/Dysphoria split 7," Destruction 33, and the Black Flag tribute CD. It's all basically philosophically "something old, something new." Carved In Stone and Destruction 33 features new school hardcore metal with lyrics that we agree with. It will demonstrate to people where new hardcore is coming from. The Black Flag tribute CD features 25 well-known hardcore bands because Black Flag is the first hardcore band I ever heard in my entire life. What we're doing with the Black Flag tribute CD of new bands playing an old band's stuff - the new bands are paying homage to their history. Most bands don't know where hardcore came from - they think hardcore started in 1990 with Victory Records. Hardcore started in 1976.

Rough Edge: Tell us about "No Guts No Glory" 'zine - is it available by subscription?

Karl Groves: It's a very small, very short-run, DIY 'zine that I started. The first issue, the majority of which you don't see on-line, was more of a wake-up call to the local music scene - it was a 'zine on the local scene. It was a big editorial comment on the music scene, the bands in the scene, and the people. It really had nothing to do with Recoil Entertainment. If you ask Jacque he'd probably disagree with a large amount of what I say in it. (laughter all around) I basically put it all out on the line; I've haven't put out another issue because of the time Recoil takes and the avoidance of making trouble within the industry. Let's say I get a CD from Victory Records and I think the CD is horrible - I can't say in my 'zine the CD sucks because I book two of their bands - people would get mad. The third issue is only going to review bands that I like, bands that I see going somewhere. Show reviews will be reviews of shows I've enjoyed. The new issue will have a lot of philosophy in it, a lot of political and social philosophy. The 'zine is totally separate.

Rough Edge: It's an interesting time for independent labels. In the last year major labels consolidating and merging. All kinds of talent and artists looking for representation and exposure; all kinds of talent and artists are looking for ways to get their product out. How does Recoil hope to fill that void?

Karl Groves: I've noticed as a record promoter and as a label that the big labels and promoters are looking for the next biggest "thing." They're looking for sell-out crowds, they're looking for platinum records. What they've done is make a huge market for independent promoters and a huge market for independent labels to make some coin while doing music that they believe in. Back in 1947 Atlantic Records got started as a label that would put out blues by black artists that nobody else would touch. Look at Atlantic now and look at Interscope now - they might as well be a major label. All the labels might as well be majors because they've made so much money picking up the stuff the major labels thought was too risky. What's happening now is that major labels are recognizing that and are throwing money at the little labels and helping them out - if it doesn't work then they'll just use it as a tax write-off. They are basically buying into the profits of this person that is taking a huge risk. That's why you see little labels like Flip, Immortal, and even Victory are getting distribution deals with major labels. A lot of major labels are scared because they are noticing the trend. You can see now an insane amount of little labels doing reasonably good stuff; at the same time you see a bit of a backlash where you see the bigger independent labels are dying. Roadrunner is kind of sinking; it's an awesome label with awesome bands, but their profit margins are taking a huge downfall. I see labels like Century Media getting big because of the market we're in now.

Rough Edge: The music business seems to be cyclical on the organizational side of things with labels/companies as successful independents become bigger and bigger. There's a tendency that things get more commercial and more homogenized as well. How does an independent label avoid that? Or can they avoid it?

Karl Groves: I don't think it's possible to avoid that. At small labels you have to go with what works - you have to pay the bills. At the same time you have to look for the big paycheck. If they can't find the big paycheck then eventually everything catches up to you. I don't worry about that with the labels that I work with. The majors are doing what now might be hot, but what's going to happen when that's not hot anymore? If they centralize they die.

Rough Edge: The underground has many ways to market itself: word of mouth, fliers, constant exposure through shows, etc. What seems to be most successful? How much work does it take?

Karl Groves: In all honesty, we're still waiting to get paid. Recoil is my job. Jacque has another job and he does this - he's doing more than 20 hours a week promoting bands. The bills are getting paid, we're not losing money. I left my job in New York City with the biggest heavy metal booking band in the country - bands like Mercyful Fate, King Diamond, Pro-Pain and other huge bands. I left because Recoil was taking off. I could've taken other job offers at booking agencies making a lot of money booking their acts, but it wasn't in my heart. If I was going to do that I might as well have finished school and gotten my philosophy degree. I'm not going to do anything I don't believe in; and I know Jacque feels the same way. The underground scene is important to us. The bands are really important to us. Doing something that we believe in is very important to us. I think people are starting to realize that. For years no phone calls would be returned to me, people didn't want to see me at their shows. Now we get so many opportunities we have to turn them away. It's all because people know we aren't going to do anything that we think is going to fail; people are realizing that we are going to put 110% into everything that we do.  Hopefully, that will continue and hopefully that will be seen by everyone around us.

Rough Edge: Extreme music, for the most part, seems to be a regional phenomenon. How difficult is it to take extreme music to the national level? Or is taking to the national level a concern?

Karl Groves: You have to prove to people in the business that you don't need them. We can all blame that on Henry Rollins, Gregg Ginn, SST Records, and the people at Discord Records. They proved that twenty years ago that they didn't need anybody to help put their records out - they were going to do it themselves. What's happening now is that even though Black Flag broke up in 1987 they are still selling five thousand records a week. It's all because they pounded away at it. Hardcore, punk rock, death metal - they just have to do it themselves. Eventually somebody is gonna get it, they're gonna get the picture.

One of the bands we book, Sixty Watt Shaman, just got a deal with Spitfire which is the same label that has Dio and Testament. All of it is because they've spent four of the last nine months touring - sleeping in a van, not having money to get to the next city, they'd stink, they'd hadn't eaten - they'd just keep at it. All the while the industry is saying "Wow, they're doing it!" They realize that's what's in their hearts.

Rough Edge: How do the artists that Recoil works with deal with the ever-present demand to be commercial? Is there a demand to be more commercial to get to the next level? Or are Recoil artists in the music biz for their own integrity?

Karl Groves: In their hearts they still want to be doing what they are doing.  The record companies want radio. The record companies want the artists to do something to get radio. I can't reveal the secrets of major labels, but I know bands have gone through the ringer wanting to keep their sound but having labels tell them they won't put their record out until they write something that gets play on the radio. All the bands we deal with aren't going to change because they can't - they'd be a totally different band.

One of the bands we just picked up, E Town Concrete, I feel is perfect in that they now have a chance, thankfully - and I mean that as an underhanded compliment for bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit getting big - because that opens a window for one of my bands. It's as underground as it's going to get, but it also fits into that crowd. That's at the most what you're going to find.

Toby: The same thing happened in the early '90s with grunge - the sloppy post-punk rock thing. All it really takes is for someone to relate.

Rough Edge: I remember being in high school and these kids in my high school were listening to Black Flag and Dirty Rotten Imbeciles - bands that I'd heard of, but never heard. That's a big thing in one's life - just being exposed to it was important.

Toby: Hopefully, what you like will become mainstream.

Karl Groves: It's similar to Hatebreed. They just did a huge tour with Soulfly and previously did a tour with Motorhead. That was their major exposure. And if people like it, they will latch on to it.

Rough Edge: That's true, because if I had never heard Black Flag in 1985 at the age of seventeen it's possible that I wouldn't be willing to do this interview today.

Karl Groves: Yeah.

Rough Edge: Do band's belief systems, philosophies, morals help or hinder your promoting them?

Karl Groves: It depends on the different functions of Recoil. It helps in some ways and it hinders in others. For instance, when a band at a major label is ready to go to a certain level, when a band gets topped out where they are, and they want to be successful - there might need to be some changes made to get more popular. Personally I disagree with it - that's also a reason why I'm not a big rock star. They might need to change how they dress, or they might need to change where they are on stage or how they move on stage. But a lot of bands say they're not going to change - "we're just going to rock out."

With the bands we deal with currently, we don't have any issues at all.  If anything, their belief systems help get them places, helps get recognition for them.

Rough Edge: How about the different communities that you guys support - do the punk, metal, and hardcore crowds mix at all? Is there any crossover potential?

Jacque Morgan: We try to get crossover as much as possible. Some of our shows we will intentionally mix punk rock and hardcore crowds together. Maybe we will see some more punk rockers at the hardcore shows - we try to make everybody get a look at different genres as much as possible.

Toby: At most shows when we book them, it shows that everybody can get along.

Karl Groves: In Europe, punk rock kids, hardcore kids, skinheads and everybody just go to heavy shows. For instance, Spirit Caravan just got back from Europe and there would be punk rockers at their shows, people wearing Cannibal Corpse shirts, too.

Here in America there are some shows where fans of one style of music may not go to a show because they think the crowd for one of the other bands on the bill are too tough. Or the split between some hardcore bands and the more positive hardcore bands. Here in America it's the punk kids, the pop punk kids, the crusty punk kids - it's just stupid because they segregate themselves - it's just music.

Toby: In America your individualism puts you in a distinct box - it's such an extreme to put yourself in a specific little category.

Rough Edge: Even I have trouble describing bands and I find myself creating categories for bands; and it is weird to experience that. And on that note I'll ask this question: in hardcore there is a theme of unity, but it's hard to see the unity in the bills at the shows. On the one hand you want to be able to bring those different communities together, but at the same time you don't want to commit economic suicide by splitting the bill to the point where everyone avoid it - that's gotta be tough. Is that going to change? Is there any obvious reason to push for unity?

Karl Groves: It sometimes helps to mix it up only because you might know that a certain band is strong enough to bring out a certain number of people and another band is strong enough to bring out another group of people. Then again, you wouldn't put an emo band on with Blood For Blood because no matter how popular the emo band is the Blood For Blood contingent will keep the emo kids away - to market like that would be stupid and wrong.

Rough Edge: The commercialization of punk-pop is everywhere with Blink 182 and The Offspring among others. No one seems to know what punk is anymore.   What exactly is punk?

Karl Groves: Well, in order to answer that question you need to answer the question "what is rock'n'roll?" all the way down to 1947! Since '47 you had R&B and then R&B got drummers. Then you had early rock'n'roll in the '50s - rock'n'roll is a slang for having sex. Bam! Right there the word for the music is a topic that most people didn't approach. It goes all the way up to the '60s where music had lost its sense of urgency and rebelliousness - the punk rockers came along and dressed like maniacs, carved themselves up on stage, and did whatever the could to be shocking.

Toby: I remember when my grandmother was in her 70s and I was listening to the Beatles and my grandmother said "I remember when those kids came and around and I thought the Beatles were disgusting, but they weren't as bad as that damned Elvis!" (raucous laughter all around) Punk rock is just several steps removed from what Elvis and the Beatles did - it all broke the natural conventions of society and music, but also philosophy and life. Punk rock is escapism whereas hardcore is reality. Punk is an old prison term, much like rock'n'roll is a term for sex, saying you were a punk was much like saying you were a prison bitch rocker.

Karl Groves: Punk rock started out as raw rock'n'roll and it also became a costume show. Then there was hardcore punk who basically thought the regular punks were making a lampoon out of the music. And in America there started to be hardcore punk like Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, and Discharge. Meanwhile, in Europe oi was getting started - to me oi was like hardcore in America. So in America you had the beginnings of hardcore which had the same rebelliousness, the same topics, the same urgency, the same everything that hardcore was in 1976 although there might be a little bit of a change due to the influence of metal. So that's kind of punk rocker - it's just rock'n'roll; it's the way it should've been played all along. It's a natural progression.

Rough Edge: Hardcore seems to be the most likely success story of the next year or two - what are the bands to watch out for?

Karl Groves: I think that hardcore is kind of dying. If you look at the record sales, at the bands themselves you'll see that the bands that are more metal than hardcore are taking off. And the rest of them are kind of dying - the record sales are dying, attendance rates are dying. If anything, Hatebreed is poised for the top with a far second being Blood For Blood, All Out War, and Buried Alive. Also, the resurgence of pop punk or emo which is happier and less abrasive is getting big.

The violence is killing punk again. I watched violence kill punk in 1991. Now there is hardly any place to play in Boston. There's hardly any place to play in New York City - actually, there is no place to play in New York City. Places have been closed down in Queens and Brooklyn - there is no outlet for that style of music. The bands are still there, the kids are still there, but there is just no places to play.

Rough Edge: I think that a lot of people hear emo bands and mistake that for what is truly hardcore.

Karl Groves: I don't think there is hardcore anymore - for the most part everything we've been calling hardcore for the past half hour is really metal without the cheese. It's not hardcore like Black Flag, Minor Threat, and Discharge. It's got the same spirit - the same attitude.

Rough Edge: If hardcore has moved closer to grind and metal, what's next? Will punk become even more pop? Will ska even be ska next week?

Karl Groves: Man, there's no love for ska anymore - nobody comes to the ska shows we've booked. Ska bands can only fit on the bill with some punk and oi shows. One of the funny things is we have a band we promote, All Out War, which wants to play metal and death metal shows. Hardcore has gone so much to the metal side. Eventually the metal kids will be on the bandwagon. The metal kids are separating themselves even more than the hardcore kids are. Punk rock is dying again just like ska. Bands like Sick Of It All that sound very very punk or bands like AFI and H20 that are totally punk - these bands were hardcore only a couple of years ago.

Rough Edge: The stoner rock scene seems to be taking off. Can you tell us a little bit about Baltimore's contributions to this genre?

Karl Groves: Without a doubt Sixty Watt Shaman are very close to putting Baltimore on the music map again - basically where Kix was back in the late '80s. Unfortunately, there's no huge stoner rock band. Monster Magnet, if you listen to the whole CD, is basically the pop equivalent to all the really heavy doom rock or stoner rock - bands like Down, Spirit Caravan, Fu Manchu, even Queens Of The Stone Age. The really heavy, doomy, raw-sounding stoner rock isn't really that big - the stoner rock scene is like a volcano, it's just waiting to explode. All it's gonna take is for the stoner rock scene to have their Nirvana.

Rough Edge: Then it will all come out?

Karl Groves: There's Corrosion Of Conformity that sort of went the stoner rock way. There's Down, which is a couple of guys from Pantera and a couple of guys from COC, that's what the scene is gonna sound like. Sixty Watt Shaman, or even Clutch, is kind of pushing the way; but Clutch is getting away from it to a more experimental approach - it's still phenomenal and the musicianship will bring a tear to your eyes.

Toby: Major labels have reached saturation with their advertising.  Commercialization pushes people into a corner where they think they can only listen to one style. It's all about communication - if people can understand the message behind hardcore that it would be more accessible to people. I come from a little town in West Virginia and I think if people there saw a really good hardcore band that they'd be really excited by it.

Karl Groves: I think there is a quality about stoner rock that is rebellion - because it's heavy music, but you don't have the fighting and the tough guy image. Stoner rock is cool because you can buy the CD and really enjoy it as a listening experience; then you can go to the show and be amazed by the musicianship and still have a great time. There's no baggage attached to stoner rock - you don't have to fit an image to enjoy it - you can go to the show and watch these guys rock out.

It's funny because if you look at the stoner rock scene it's like retirement for the hardcore and punk rockers. The guys in Sixty Watt Shaman used to be in a hardcore band and then they learned how to play their instruments. (laughter all around) You can look at Corrosion Of Conformity - I have a record of theirs from 1986 where the name of the band is the same, but it's not the same band. Corrosion Of Conformity became guitar gods and found a guy that could really sing. Years ago Pantera were on the thrash side of things and with the Down side project the stoner sound just took off. Stoner rock is sort of like thrash and hardcore retirement. They learned how to play, they learned how to express themselves - and I'll still enjoy it because of the musicianship.

Rough Edge: A lot of people in the mainstream are concerned about straight-edge especially out West. That has got to be tough to contend with - that some of these kids are taking things to extremes. What's Recoil Records take on the straight-edge scene?

Jacque Morgan: A couple of bad apples spoil the bunch. Straight edge is just like anything were you really believe in something. But then you have people who are extremists that want to take it that extra step that really puts a bad taste in everybody's mouth.

Karl Groves: The people that did those things, burned down the meat factory, burned down the McDonald's - those are militant vegan actions which have nothing to do with straight-edge at all. Because those individuals also prescribed to the straight-edge lifestyle it's just like the Geraldo thing back in '88 - not every skinhead acts like the skinhead that acted on that show.

Jacque Morgan: Straight-edge has nothing to do with hardcore; straight-edge is about not doing drugs, not smoking, not drinking.

Rough Edge: So it has nothing to do with music?

Jacque Morgan: It has something to do with music only because the kids that did that and then to call themselves straight-edge is almost blasphemous to the scene. It probably makes Ian McKaye hate the term already more than he already does - and he's the one who invented it. Just like Jacque said, a couple of bad apples ruin the whole thing for everybody.

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Copyright 1999 by R. Scott Bolton. All rights reserved.
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