Rank Your Records: Deathwish Inc. Co-Founder Tre McCarthy
The hardcore record label co-founder picks ten of his favorite releases from over 20 years in business.
|Dan Ozzi||Mar 10, 2020||2|
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In Rank Your Records, I talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Deathwish Inc., the independent record label founded by Tre McCarthy and Converge frontman Jacob Bannon, is celebrating 20 years in business this year. In two decades of operation, the Massachusetts-based label has made an indelible impression on hardcore. With over 200 releases under its belt, Deathwish has covered a wide gamut of loud music and has been responsible for seminal releases from Cursed, The Hope Conspiracy, Coliseum, Punch, and a long list of others. Basically, if it grinds, screams, shrieks, or growls, Deathwish has had a hand in it.
To commemorate hitting the 20-year mark, I had McCarthy pick ten standout releases from the label, and his selection criteria was an interesting one. Instead of choosing the bestselling or most popular records, he trusted his heart, picking the ones that gave him that feeling—the ones he can still remember hearing for the first time and falling in love.
“I started from the beginning [of the label’s catalog] and worked my way forward,” McCarthy says. He first chose a release from 2002 and then made selections that ran all the way up to the present. “It’s kind of like when you ask a band their favorite record and they default to saying the newest one. So, my favorite record is always going to be my newest favorite record.”
Here are the records that, for McCarthy, have held a special place in Deathwish’s long history.
This came out in 2002. What was your life like at that time?
Tre McCarthy: The label had started. I was living in Providence when this came out. I lived with a friend of mine in the back of his record store, in an old mill building. He had a record store, Contrast Records, and in the back he’d built out a two-bedroom apartment. I lived in a room with no windows. It was pretty sad.
And you were how old?
Ah, Jesus, no one told me there was gonna be math. 30? When the label started I was 27, 28.
And how did you find The Dedication?
I want to say I saw them for the first time at this venue called the Berwick in Boston. It was a DIY spot in a shitty basement, and it was the place that gave birth to the Suicide File and bands of that group. It’s a hidden gem of Boston punk and hardcore history. They were just a weird bunch of kids that were sloppy and flailed around a lot. At some point they started wearing makeup as well. It’s not a perfect record but there was something about it that had a youthful, panicky energy to it that I liked. It spoke to me. They weren’t working with anyone at the time, which was a big thing because Boston had so many fucking labels.
When you were starting Deathwish, were there any labels you were modeling it after or any that you looked up to?
There were things I picked up from spending a lot of time at Equal Vision in the mid-to-late 90s. In those early days, the way that Steve [Reddy] treated bands like family and part of a larger whole—you’d go to his house and stay with his wife and kids. This was back when Equal Vision was in barns in the back of his house. It was an awesome vibe and it felt like a cool thing. I always wanted that similar thing. I’ve never made a band pancakes like Steve’s wife did, but it was that same vibe.
I also spent a lot of time with Chris Wrenn from Bridge Nine, so there was stuff I picked up there as well. That was back when Bridge Nine, Hydra Head, and Big Wheel Recreation all had a shared office space. There was a lot going on and a lot to pick up. When we moved to Salem, out of a house and into a real office, we shared a space with Bridge Nine.
Did you learn from any mistakes that you didn’t want to bring to your label?
One time Chris got in a fight with a dude for $400 to press the American Nightmare seven-inch, as a dare. It was that dude Azy from Panic. I guess I never wanted to get into a prizefight to press a record. [Laughs]
Of all of Converge’s material, how did a compilation make the list?
Because what it’s a compilation of is the Unloved and Weeded Out seven-inch, which I released on a different label in ’94/’95. I was living with Jake in a punk house-sort of place. We wanted to do a seven-inch. That was the first record I ever put out. It holds a special place in my heart. It was real DIY—I worked at Kinko’s and did limited ones where we hand-cut color panels that were glued to the back.
What’s it been like watching Converge evolve from that seven-inch to a powerhouse hardcore band?
It’s been awesome watching all the people involved grow and blossom in this modified DIY world, like with Kurt [Ballou] and God City. I met Kurt in 1991, and 29 years later we still get to send bands to go work with him. Privilege is kind of an overused word, but lucky is a good word. I am lucky to be in this world and work with these same people for close to three decades. It’s great that we all get to do this thing that we love.
Can you tell me what the effect of having Converge on your label has been? They were the most influential band in hardcore for so long and I’m wondering how that trickles down. Do you get a lot of Converge wannabes?
There has been a constant impact they’ve had in literally every possible way that you could ever imagine, and still to this day—positive and negative. The negative thing isn’t that negative, but it’s being defined by a sound. You can go through our catalog and pick any five records in a row and there will be no way those bands sound alike. But we do get a lot of clones or the Entombed-core, whatever that pedal is that everybody loves. We get a lot of that stuff. Sometimes it’s cool, sometimes it’s not.
Did you ever make decisions to actively counteract getting pigeonholed?
So, back when we first started, Victory [Records] was always a constant, but Ferret and Trustkill, for two- or three-year periods, every record sounded the same. I’m not saying there’s anything bad about doing that. It’s fucking smart!
It’s riding trends.
It’s riding trends, but it’s great when you’re riding a trend you had a hand in creating. Like, skipping ahead to Deafheaven, yeah, if we put out a bunch of atmospheric black metal shoegazey records after Deafheaven, we probably could’ve ridden that wave. But we don’t seek bands out to try to fill a sound. If they fell into our lap, different story.
I read that this band just reached out to you out of the blue. Is that true?
Let’s go with yeah. To be honest, I don’t remember, but I remember how things rolled ahead on that.
How was that?
They had played a show at that place the Berwick. I think it was with The Hope Conspiracy, but don’t quote me on that. The next time they rolled through, they played at the Palladium. That was the first time where I had one of those jawdropping moments where it was like, “What the fuck is going on here? This is intense. What I’m watching is crazy.” There was a weird, tangible vibe in the air that was something special. I did the big A&R dinner with them at Denny’s in Worcester, Massachusetts, and the rest was history.
I read an interview from a decade ago where singer Jeff Eaton said that the band jumped from Deathwish to Equal Vision after this album because he felt like the band was getting typecast as a Deathwish band, and he didn’t want the band to have any associations like that. I’m wondering how you feel about that.
Oh yeah, that bummed me out. Our relationship with Modern Life Is War definitely had ups and downs, as any relationship does. Things got a little weird and we had a bit of a falling out. They went to EVR and that was fine. Years later, we reconnected, like an old flame. “Hey, found you on Facebook!” That kind of thing. And since then, it’s been a lot better. They definitely had a hand in defining the sound of the label for a period of time. I still remember that interview. It used to come up on Tumblr all the time, a screencap of it. But the band was super important to us. “D.E.A.D. R.A.M.O.N.E.S.,” hearing that in the studio was another one of those moments where it was like, “Holy shit, I can’t believe this is something I get to do.” That was the greatest song ever as far as I’m concerned. It almost felt like the band was defined by us, but we were looking at it more like they defined us.
It was almost like a weird ping-pong effect.
Yeah, or you know what it is? It’s the two Spider-Mans pointing at each other. But I still went to see them when they were on EVR. I didn’t avoid them. I didn’t stand in the back and pout. But luckily, everything worked out.
How’d this one make the list?
Before bands like This Will Destroy You and Caspian were soundtrack-core, there were bands that were epic. It was emotional, but you also still wanted to punch your friends, that sort of thing. Carrier were local kids. They were the band that would show up and be drunk on Bud Light and actually have Boston accents, just spilling out of the van and being like, “Fackin’ paahk the caah, kid!”
They were townies.
They were awesome townies. They’d come out here all the time because Beverly was the halfway point between Hampton Beach, which is the shittiest boardwalk ever.
We’re talking about all these different styles of hardcore, and to the average person I’m sure it all sounds the same. But as we’re splitting hairs between screamo and shoegazey or epic stuff, do you personally have a favorite style of hardcore?
I don’t think it’s possible to name a favorite genre. If I take the path from Ian MacKaye in Minor Threat to Ian in Embrace, or Dave Smalley in DYS to Dave in Dag Nasty, that’s my favorite genre. My favorite genre is these people in hardcore doing something new, and it’s usually something that’s “emotional.” The kind of music I’ve always liked is whatever has that something that makes you go “a-ha!”
Jake did the artwork for this record, as he does for a lot of Deathwish releases, and regarding what we were talking about earlier, do you want Deathwish to have a cohesive image when it comes to the visuals of the label, or do you want it to be all over the place?
Eh, that is probably a question that would put Jake and I at odds with each other. If we were both sitting in a room, I might excuse myself. A visual cohesiveness isn’t as important to me as it would be to Jake. I don’t think it’s a detriment. I think the biggest thing to me is making records that look good. As long as something looks decent, then awesome. Like, with Fractures, this was one of those records that we paid close attention to the vinyl colors so that it was an overall appealing piece. I think Jake would agree with me, I don’t know, but it’s good to have things change up. Art has to change, and styles have to evolve. I think it’s great to have records that visually stand on their own or have their own visual language.
You mentioned having different colored vinyl. As the music industry moves more towards streaming, it seems like people want to buy records based on what they look like. It seems like that’s an area where Deathwish has succeeded. You have a lot of records with color variants and you’ve cultivated an audience of record nerds who want those kinds of things. So it seems like, in that regard, a strong aesthetic has benefitted the label.
Here’s a quick thing about vinyl colors. I don’t like black vinyl. It looks fucking boring. Maybe I’m just simple but I like pulling out a record and it’s pink and it looks nice. There was a time I didn’t want to do black vinyl. So, for Killing the Dream, the common color was light blue or something. But when the vinyl resurgence started to happen, we realized people were just buying records, and we didn’t have to press things on colored vinyl. What changed that was Instagram. When the record itself looks good sitting on a turntable, people are more likely to post a photo of it. Anything that gets people sharing, word of mouth is always the best promotion. So, if someone sees a cool record on someone’s turntable, it’s like, “That looks cool, that looks neat, I want to have that.” So, now we definitely spend more time and money doing fancier versions of records because social media is at that visual place. That’s what works in our current world.
What was it about Killing the Dream that gave you that a-ha! moment?
I think this is true: Killing the Dream is the first and only band I’ve ever signed by a demo submission. The demo was not technically submitted by the band. A friend of mine came in and put the demo cassette on my desk. She was like, “This band is awesome and you would love them.” I listened to the demo and was like, “Oh shit, you’re right, I do love them.” Eli, the singer of the band, is someone I still talk to a couple of times a month. A decent bunch of fellas.
This record was a band just doing whatever they wanted to do and having success in spite of itself. There’s a rainstick on the record, for christ’s sake. I’m pretty sure it’s on multiple songs. And there’s weird interludes. I don’t want to sound corny and say it’s a band being free to do whatever they feel like doing, but that’s what it is. Blacklisted was in a really weird place. Lyrically, George [Hirsch, singer] just… Everyone expected a lot from that dude, and it was almost like he wanted to be left alone.
Do you think they were deliberately trying to make this record alienating?
That’s tough, because there’s a loaded assumption with that. Is it an intentional middle finger? Maybe. Hardcore’s fucking weird, man. When you have to hear these things that happened on the Bridge Nine board, and you hear it now that something happened on Twitter or Instagram, it’s fucking complicated.
What do you mean? Their relationship with the hardcore community is complicated?
Yeah, it was definitely complicated. Like, George wore longsleeve t-shirts because he liked wearing longsleeve t-shirts. People used to speculate as to why he wore longsleeve t-shirts. People were like, “Do you think he has old Nazi tattoos on his forearms?” Or they were like, “I heard that he has burns all over his arms!” That type of thing can bum people out. He liked Nikes and people used to talk about the shoes he was wearing on stage. It became more about fashion than what the band was doing. There was a point where George started playing barefoot because he didn’t want people talking about the shoes he wore on stage.
One thing I don’t think anyone could really accuse Deathwish of is trying to chase bigger, commercially successful hardcore and metal bands. But there were a lot of those around in the mid-2000s and I’m wondering if you ever had opportunities to work with those artists that you turned down.
Can you give me an example of a band in that genre?
Say, someone like Avenged Sevenfold.
I don’t think so. I could be wrong but I can’t remember any off the top of my head. But that was a weird time, yeah.
Conversely, are there any bands you wanted to work with but always eluded you? Are there any ones that got away?
I don’t want to be presumptuous, but one band I really love is Nothing. We worked with Nicky’s band Horror Show in the early 2000s. That’s definitely something I wish we could’ve been in the mix with. They’re fucking fantastic. This has happened a couple of times where I’ll be moving from one office to the next or something and say, “Hm, what’s this envelope? Oh, this is when Nicky sent me the Nothing demo CD-R. Shit! I don’t even remember getting this. Goddammit.” That happened back when I met Comeback Kid in 2003 or 2004, they played this place in Boston. There were like 600 people there and everyone was going nuts. I remember meeting them after and being like, “Hey, you guys were awesome! That was crazy.” And the dude was like, “Yeah, it sucks you didn’t sign us. We sent you our demo.” And I was like, “Oh fuck, really? Are you sure I got it?” And he was like, “Yeah, you emailed back and said, ‘Thanks but no thanks.’”
Is this your favorite out of all of Touché’s albums?
No. My favorite Touché album is Stage Four. It’s a fucking amazing record.
Mine too. It’s probably the most emotionally resonant hardcore album I’ve ever heard.
Yeah, Jeremy [Bolm] really fucked with me unintentionally after that record was recorded. I was out in LA and he was like, “Hey, do you want to hear the new record?” So he drove me around LA playing the record. I’m trapped in his car, looking out the window, and I’m crying. I’m trying not to, because he’s talking me through these songs, but I can’t stop. It fucked me up real bad the first time I heard it. If I’m gonna listen to Touché, I’m gonna listen to Stage Four.
But what about Parting the Sea earns a spot here?
I was familiar with the band. I think Jeremy had sent a care package to the label before we met. I remember opening up the absurd lyric sheet that was like 24 by 36 and being like, “What the fuck? Who’s gonna read all these lyrics?” But shortly thereafter, I think at Sound and Fury 2009, I was standing there talking to whoever the hell I was talking to in front of our table. Touché was headlining the smaller stage and it was a direct line from where we were. I could hear everyone in the room singing along. It was one of those things where the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Here was all of Sound and Fury climbing on each other and singing every word and it was one of those holy shit moments. After they played, I went over to their merch table and talked to Jeremy and Clayton [Stevens] and said we should work together. I bought them all pizza, which was the way to their heart, and the rest was history.
Were you sad when they moved to Epitaph?
I was and I wasn’t. I want bands to succeed. I want bands to grow and get bigger and I know that we aren’t always going to be the place that can take every band to the place they want to end up at. I’d love to be that, but unfortunately it doesn’t always work out that way. Luckily, we have a really good relationship with Epitaph, so we’re still involved in certain parts of it. It’s not an enemy.
And you still have a relationship with Jeremy and his Secret Voice label. Can you tell me how that relationship works?
Yeah, essentially, he picks bands and we put out the records. Running a label is unfortunately a prohibitively expensive endeavor and there are certain costs we will shoulder for him.
Is this the label’s bestselling record?
When you have an album like this, that breaks out a bit and reaches a broader audience, what effect does that have on a label like Deathwish? Do you suddenly have every shoegazy metal band in the fucking world sending you submissions?
We did get a couple. I have to focus on the negative for a second. One of the bad things it did for us was that suddenly it was like, “Oh, you have this one record that’s selling really well. Where are your other records that sound like this? Where are the other straight-up metal records on your label?” It didn’t cause problems with our distributor, but it definitely was seen as like…
Yes, a fluke, thank you. It pigeonholed us, but only from a retailer/distributor standpoint. People’s ears perked up over at our distributor at the time. We realized other things we were doing, they just weren’t interested in them. It was like this small record label got a hit, but didn’t have any more records like it. But I shouldn’t focus on the negatives, because it was phenomenal. I mean, you’re a music journalist…
Yeah, this one seemed to be a critical favorite.
Yeah, absolutely. It is an incredible record.
At the same time, there are a lot of bands from that world akin to Deafheaven, but if you’re the one that can break through, critically or commercially, that’s the position you want to be in.
I think probably one of the worst things I could have done was, when all the arguments about Deafheaven were happening, would be to talk about how I discovered them, and what my quote was when I discovered their demo, which was, “Is this what black metal sounds like?” I don’t fucking listen to black metal. It’s not sonically pleasing to me, and it wasn’t something I’d really gotten into. But when I found the demo online and clicked on it, I went, “Holy shit, this rules, and I don’t know what I’m listening to, but I want to work with this band.”
How’d you first hear Gouge Away?
This is a completely true story. I was walking from my office to the back of the warehouse and as I passed Rich’s office, I heard music, I stopped and I turned around and I said, “I don’t know who this band is, but this is the kind of band I want to work with. Who is this?” Rich just gave me this frustrated look and said, “This is the new Gouge Away seven-inch that we’re doing for Jeremy on Secret Voice.” So I said, “Oh, uh, cool. Let’s do their next record too.”
When was the first time you saw them?
I saw them with Touché in 2016 or 2017, that tour with Single Mothers. I saw them down in Philly. They were awesome and then I met them and they were all very shy and awkward and uncomfortable talking to me because I’m old and they’re very young.
Out of all these releases, I would say this is the least traditional Deathwish release. Why did you think this would be a good fit for the label?
Because it’s fucking sad. Mark, who works here, has been a fan of them and has wanted to work with them and pushed them on me with their record Dixieland. And I was just like, “Yeah, I dunno, have them send us demos of their next record.” They sent us demos and I said, “Fuck yeah, let’s do it.” The switch flipped. They sent a demo of that song “Strange Days” and I was like, “This is the greatest song. I’m in love with this band.”
At this point, you’ve had a 20-year history of releasing hardcore records and you’ve built a following doing that. When you put out something like this, where there’s little to no screaming, what kind of feedback do you get from people that follow the label?
I think if we had done something that sounds like this ten years ago, it would have been a lot different. Now, people are more open to different styles and genres. The underground DIY scene encompasses so much more now that us doing something like this is not a weird thing. Again, if we’d done this ten years ago, we’d hear, “Fuck this poser shit! The label’s trying to sell out, man!” But now it makes sense.
Genre lines have definitely blurred in the time Deathwish has been in business.
Yeah, and it’s fucking great. It’s the way that it should be.