If you were to ask Jake Round, founder and owner of Berkeley's Pure Noise Records, what drives underground punk music, he would say it's the nerds in the scene. Round means no disrespect, though he says this laughing. "The only reason I'm good at this is because I was one of the nerds -- I was a super nerd," he says. "I followed Fat Wreck Chords like it was baseball."
In 2013, Round's label banked three Billboard Top 200 Album Chart contenders: The Story So Far, What You Don't See, No. 46; State Champs, The Finer Things, No. 131; and Handguns, Angst, No. 155. The label, which celebrates its five-year anniversary this week, has sold more than 280,000 records worldwide. It's an impressive achievement for a record company that started in a Berkeley apartment. And this Friday, March 21, Pure Noise all-stars The Story So Far, Rotting Out, No Bragging Rights, Forever Came Calling, and Elder Brother will kick off the Today's Mixtape Festival at the Oakland Metro to honor Pure Noise's fifth birthday.
Originally, Pure Noise was intended to be a hardcore and metalcore record label, but its top three successes are all pop-punk bands that recall late 90's skate and "mall-punk" (a term Round despises, but sees as fitting.) "I think the whole label is sort of nostalgic," Round says. "That music has come back into vogue. I want Pure Noise to be the Fat Wreck Chords of 2014 -- what it was for me. I want to put out music that I like, that I feel is important to kids."
Round is 6-foot-1 with a broad build, and has tattoos on both arms running from shoulder to wrist. With slick hair, a burly full beard, and slim dark jeans cuffed at the ankles, the 30-year-old looks like he could be a member of a band on his label, and in fact, he is.
Round grew up in a conservative Republican household in Chino. At 15 he discovered '90s punk rock. Bands like Strung Out and Propagandhi introduced him to liberal ideas. He went to shows every chance he had, and he collected albums and records of his favorite bands.
He describes himself then as a jock. He played ice hockey and football, and he always thought he would grow up to be a teacher and football coach. By the time he was 22, he was teaching at his alma mater, Don Lugo High School. But a passion for punk music never left him, and eventually led him to found Pure Noise. "If it had worked out smoothly I would have probably still been a teacher," he says. "I'm glad I'm not. This came out to be far more lucrative, and I wouldn't be living in San Francisco."
In 2009 Round started Pure Noise in the bedroom of his Berkeley apartment. Like many record labels, the idea for Pure Noise came because Round played bass in a band, Create Avoid, and it needed a record deal. Round's band didn't end up being the first release, however. His friends in the metalcore band No Bragging Rights booked studio time, but had no luck getting signed. "I said, 'You know what? Fuck it,'" Round laughs. So he called his mother one day after work to ask for her support.
Round had played music since he was in high school, and he has a résumé filled with experience in the music industry. After working at AMP Magazine, Rasputin Music, and RISE Records, Round found his calling with Pure Noise. "When I was at AMP and doing music stuff, [that] is when my mom figured that's what I'm going to do, and just thought I deserved a chance and loaned me the money," he says.
Round struggled with Pure Noise's first release, No Bragging Rights' The Consequence of Dreams, (2009). The band stayed active, Round says, but it only sold a few records. Its sound is a hybrid of melodic metal with dizzying harmonized riffs and punishing hardcore breakdowns. The vocalist transitions between howling screams and smooth rock melodies. Round thought No Bragging Rights' sound was great -- and that they had the right image. At that time, however, the market wasn't there.
Round soon noticed a shift in the punk and hardcore underground. 1990s-style Hardcore and pop-punk was coming back. Round says there was a movement in the Boston, Philadelphia, and New Jersey music scenes, from which these bands were emerging. After No Bragging Rights, Round didn't release another record for seven months, and that was the Transit/Man Overboard split EP. Transit, from Boston, and Man Overboard, from New Jersey, were among the forerunners of the late-'00s pop-punk revival. Their split EP sold more than 4,000 copies, and helped shape the mold that Pure Noise would grow into. "I was like okay, this what I'm going to do. This is the direction I'm going to go down," Round says.
Round went on to sign The Story So Far, a pop-punk band from Walnut Creek that he managed for three years. He released its EP, While You Were Sleeping, in 2010. The band later would become the label's marquis act when its 2011 release, Under Soil and Dirt, found a global following.