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Friday, April 13, 2012

At Persevering Punk Label Alternative Tentacles, Jello Biafra Is "Not Computer-Compatible"

Posted By on Fri, Apr 13, 2012 at 9:47 AM


Many local labels are offering obscure reissues and innovative new releases on all conceivable formats. Label Sampler will profile a different Bay Area record company every other week.

Name: Alternative Tentacles

Headquarters: Emeryville

Owner: Jello Biafra

Motto(s): "Giving art a bad name since 1979" or "Keeping the homeland insecure since 1979."

Creation story: Alternative Tentacles was originally founded in 1979 by Jello Biafra and East Bay Ray of the Dead Kennedys to release their single, "California Über Alles." The label has since established itself as one of the longest-running independent record labels in the world. Enduring far too many changes since its inception to cover in this piece alone, it is now headquartered in Emeryville, where I spoke to general manager Jesse Townley about the label's ethos and inner-workings.

Musical focus: "Jello Biafra is the only human on the planet that likes every single band on Alternative Tentacles," says Townley. AT is often pigeon-holed as a punk label, and its ethics are certainly aligned with many tenants of that subculture's philosophy, but the music diverges wildly from punk rock. There is the hoarse twang of Slim Cessna, Blowfly's profane rap, and Zolar X's cosmic glam rock, in addition to hardcore, crust, and straight-ahead punk.

AT's Jesse Townley
  • AT's Jesse Townley

Townley's arrival at Alternative Tentacles: Jesse Townley applied at Alternative Tentacles in 2001, after having already established himself in the Bay Area punk scene as a member of Blatz, The Gr'ups, The Criminals, and other bands, as well as accruing label experience at Lookout Records. Townley describes the office in San Francisco that AT occupied when he arrived as a long hallway haphazardly lined with crucial masters and lacquers. He seems relieved as he describes the label's current Emeryville warehouse location as "a space that can actually be designed around the label."

Business model changes: After a legal battle cbetween Jello and his former band mates, Alternative Tentacles lost rights to the Dead Kennedys' back catalog in 2000, delivering a severe financial blow to the label. Townley relates that, "in a very short time we lost between 50 percent and 75 percent of our annual sales." At this point, Alternative Tentacles began a partnership with AK Press, releasing spoken word collections by the likes of Noam Chomsky and Angela Davis, in addition to Jello's own spoken material. Shortly after, the effects of file-sharing rippled throughout the entire music business. Townley says that the loss of the Dead Kennedys simply forced AT to tighten its belt before other labels did the same. With spoken-word providing an additional dynamic to the eclectic roster, and with a renewed focus on reissues, AT has persevered since the loss of the Dead Kennedys.

On working with Jello Biafra: "Basically put, Jello is not computer-compatible." This is further evidenced by a print-out of Jello's first email posted to the wall of Townley's office. Although he has made some technological advances, Jello still prefers faxing as his primary means of communication. This complicates processes such as proofing artwork for AT releases, but Jello excels in his role as the curatorial decision-maker behind Alternative Tentacles.


Latest releases: The latest LP from NYC's crime-scene-documenting, noise-rock progeny, Unsane, titled Wreck, is now out on Alternative Tentacles. The group has lost none of its staunch burliness. The cavalcade of blown-out vocals and dystopian guitars culls aspects of obliteration from the band's favorite genres of rock and compresses them into a barbarous assault.

Jello Biafra's signing habits: Alternative Tentacles is one of few remaining labels that accepts unsolicited demos. Townley was shocked upon his hiring to discover that Jello listens to every single demo that arrives in the AT mailbox. This is a considerably laborious undertaking, but, incredibly, unsolicited demos have led to signings in the past. Additionally, employees of AT are encouraged to suggest bands for signing, as Townley did upon receiving Disaster Strike's unsolicited demo while he was on tour in Boston.

Jello's outspoken political nature is notorious, and his experiences with censorship inform Alternative Tentacles' interaction with its controversial artists. Even after the Dead Kennedys prosecution for distributing obscene material (following their inclusion of an H.R. Giger artwork with their 1985 Frankenchrist album), Alternative Tentacles has stood behind The Crucifucks during their conflict with Philadelphia's Fraternal Order of Police, and released Leftover Crack's Fuck World Trade, whose art depicted George Bush, Rudy Giuliani, George Bush, and Dick Cheney blowing up the World Trade Center.

Philosophy of the price point: New Alternative Tentacles releases on vinyl retail at around $13, while back catalog items are available at around $9. Townley astutely articulates the impetus for their low prices, citing naturally that they want to be affordable, but also offers the following insight: "We work on trust. There are all kinds of opportunities for the kids to steal our music, so we work hard to keep a good relationship them. We don't sue them, like major labels do; we do our best to bring them great music at the best price because we know that as soon as something is released on CD, it's available for free on the Internet."

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Sam Lefebvre


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