Rank Your Records: Justin Pearson (Three One G)

On the label's 25th anniversary, the founder picks 10 standout releases.

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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.

When choosing ten significant releases from the catalog of his San Diego-based record label, Three One G, founder Justin Pearson didn’t want to pick anything he’d played on. And for a musician as prolific as Pearson, that eliminates a lot of material.

It nixes the seminal mid-90s post-hardcore band Swing Kids, whose discography Three One G compiled for a 1997 release. Ditto for Pearson’s numerous other projects like Some Girls, The Crimson Curse, and All Leather. And of course, it disqualifies Pearson’s most well known act (though maybe “notorious” is a better word), The Locust, who recently dusted off the bug masks to play their first gig in four years at Desert Daze. But what’s left are dozens of oddball releases that might not have otherwise seen the light of day were it not for Pearson’s predilection for boundary-pushing musical experiments.

“Three One G was never meant to be a business. It was never meant to be a money-making thing,” says Pearson. “The reason I started a label was to release my own bands, and it became something I don’t think I ever intended on it becoming.”

The influential label turns 25 years old this year and to commemorate the occasion, Pearson took a look back at ten of his favorite releases from his deep discography, from eardrum-piercing grind to industrial dance.

How did you get hooked up with Kool Keith?
Justin Pearson:
It was orchestrated by Luke Henshaw from Planet B. He wanted to try to get Keith on this Planet B track, so we got in touch with him and worked together on a song called “Crustfund.” After that record came out, Luke was involved with this other producer Junkadelic and the plan was to do a single, with one song featuring Luke’s song that he produced for Keith and one with Junkadelic. Keith was psyched on all the stuff too. It was rad to see it all come together. It doesn’t seem like a traditional hip-hop single. And that’s sort of the guts of Three One G: Let’s put out something you can’t really nail down. 

Was Keith familiar with Three One G at all? Did he get it?
Dude, the guy’s fucking crazy, man! I don’t know what he gets. [Laughs] When we went and recorded the “Crustfund” track, there was this point where somehow the Yeah Yeah Yeahs came up. He sang on a Yeah Yeah Yeahs song. I was on tour with Dead Cross, so I was like, “Dead Cross is playing tonight. You should come out. Nick [Zinner] will be there.” So he goes into this huge story about how he hung out with Nick and Nick’s mom in New York and went to their house. He explained what the house looked like and how it was a brownstone—this huge story about hanging out with Nick’s mom. So after I left, I texted Nick and said, “Keith’s gonna come out tonight. You guys can hang out again.” And he was like, “Oh, I’m so excited. I’ve never met him.” And I was like, “What? What the fuck? I just listened to him tell this story for 20 minutes about hanging out with your mom.” So I don’t know. This shit makes no sense to me but he is on some other level and that’s fucking cool.

Do you know what his reaction to the Dead Cross and Planet B remixes were?
When Luke was sending him the files, it was difficult because he could only listen to it on his phone. The thing he said to Luke right away was that he was really into trying to push hip-hop into more aggressive punk and metal stuff. He wanted to make it fucked up. A lot of times, hip-hop seems very chill, so I think it’s cool to see some fucking serious fire being spit. 

This is an interesting choice for the list since it’s sort of an industrial/techno album. How did this earn a spot?
Brent [Asbury], who is Panicker, is a huge part of Three One G behind the scenes. He does a ton of mastering and mixing. He’s recorded a bunch of stuff—some Retox stuff and some Locust stuff. At one point, he shared the Panicker stuff with me, and I was like, “This is rad, man. What are you gonna do with it?” He said he was just gonna put it out online. So I said he should at least let me have Three One G push it a little bit more. He was hesitant. He thought the people who listen to Three One G stuff wouldn’t dig it. That could be the case, but also, I don’t care. I like it. I think it’s rad. I remember driving around listening to it and it had this Blade Runner vibe. I don’t think electronic music is too far away from the overall picture of Three One G. He calls it EBM and it is by definition electronic dance music, and it’s cool to call it that, but I also think there’s something else to it. It’s not necessarily created for the dance clubs. Some of the timbre of the sounds he chooses and how they’re sonically laid out has an edge to it that a lot of people don’t. Then if you look at the vinyl, it looks like a Three One G release, or maybe even more like a Gravity release, with its silkscreened cover. To me, it seemed like a great fit. 

Overall, the people who follow you and the label are often accustomed to spazzy hardcore and weird punk stuff. When you throw something like this at them, what’s their reaction?
Luckily, I don’t try to calculate reaction. We pressed a small amount of the vinyl and it got picked up with certain press outlets, which was impressive. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t translate to sales. I just think it’s rad and think it should be out there. There wasn’t any expectation, really. 

This has members of Arab On Radar, and I think that band’s lineup is something that’s a little bit toxic now. The people I stayed close with went on to other projects, like Chinese Stars and Doomsday Student. It seems like an evolution of what some of those players in Arab On Radar went on to. It’s almost the epitome of what the Three One G sound should be—just jacked up and confusing and unsettling, but at the same time you’re intrigued by this thing that’s not necessarily comforting or digestible. It’s like an acid trip or something. You’re like, when will this end and will we come out alive?

They were pretty active when it came out so I thought it’d be a sure seller. I don’t know if they broke up but they kind of moved on to other projects. Regardless, it’s the last thing the band released, and what they delivered was really impactful. It feels like being abducted by a cult or something. As much as I love the Doomsday Student stuff we put out, seeing them live was just next level. 

What’s their live show like?
They all have these outfits modeled after Heaven’s Gate. They all had matching sneakers and jumpsuits. When they play, I can’t stop watching them. It’s not an obvious performance; it’s bizarre.

When this band started out, it was a five-piece with two female singers. And by the time this LP came out it was just a duo of two dudes. What happened there?
I met those guys on tour with The Locust in Europe a couple times. They were a five-piece and put out an EP that was so awesome. We talked about doing something together. Then they went from a five-piece to a three-piece, and then eventually the singer ended up quitting. It kind of blew my mind that they went from a five-piece to a three-piece to a two-piece and just got better. It also blew my mind because, not to talk shit, but if you put on the Warsawwasraw LP and A/B it to certain bands that are, technically, in that realm, they fuck up a full band. Even live, you’re like, how are they gonna pull it off? And then you watch it live and you’re like, Jesus, this is unacceptable! [Laughs] It’s so brutal. 

Are they still playing?
I don’t know if they are. If they are, they’re not active. I’m pretty sure they’re not, which is just a bummer. I think, if they were able to get to the States and play, it’d have been beneficial for them and, on a business level, for the sales of their record. It’s crazy because I think people just don’t know about that record.

How’d you get hooked up with Geronimo?
One of the guys, W. T. Nelson, was in Bastard Noise for a while. That lineup toured with The Locust. I remember the last show of the tour, he was like, “Hey, here’s this CD of this other band I have. We’re looking for a label to put out the record.” I didn’t really think much about it and then the next day I put it on, and I was like, “Whoa, dude, this is everything I’ve been wishing for in music.” The first track is 18 minutes long, and it’s like a test to see if you can withstand the length of it. But if you listen with headphones, there’s all this strange movement and weird panning. It’s like shit from another planet. It’s almost like complete machinery. I was instantly sold. The album was really long so there was no way I could afford to put it out on LP, so we put it out on CD and it was at the tail-end of when CDs were selling. So we did pretty well and didn’t get stuck with a thousand CDs. We moved through a couple pressings of it. Later on, we ended up putting out a Geronimo/Bastard Noise split and another Geronimo LP. The band is such a trip. I don’t think you could compare it to anything. 

You mentioned not wanting to get stuck with remaindered CDs. When you’re taking a chance on something like this, what are you thinking in terms of pressing numbers? And has that changed over the years?
Totally. When I first started in the 90s, I never went over 1,000. Then, around the early 2000s, things started popping off and we could do 2,000 or 3,000 copies of something. Then shit hit the fan and CDs stopped selling. For a while, vinyl wasn’t selling. Now it’s safe to say CDs are done, and that’s OK with me. It’s just vinyl and digital now. So I’m very cautious about the pressing of records. I’d love to do things I’m 100 percent certain I can sell out of but it just costs too much to do 250 copies of an LP. I try not to go any lower than 500 but it does happen. It’s been a constant number guessing. Sometimes it’ll bite me in the ass but sometimes we’ll sell ‘em all.

Has the turnaround time changed over the years?
It sort of depends on the plant and the time of the year and the packaging. There are times where I’ll stump a pressing a plant by trying to pull off something that’s a little odd. Like, we just put out this Deaf Club EP that needed to be on clear vinyl with no labels on it. Apparently, you can’t really press a record without labels and I didn’t really understand why. Now I understand, but I see why it’s a problem.

Why a tribute to The Birthday Party?
I remember hearing that band when I was 10 or 11 and being totally confused in a good way. Later on, when I was 19 or 20, it became a big influence in San Diego’s musical community. So I thought it would be rad. In my mind, I was thinking: What would Cattle Decapitation sound like covering The Birthday Party? Again, the whole life force of Three One G is that fact that we’re all into weird shit and it totally makes sense to everybody involved. I guarantee a lot of Cattle Decapitation fans would think The Birthday Party sucks and not know what it is.

Looking at the bands on this album—Some Girls and Melt-Banana and Das Oath and Daughters—it reminds me of how many weirder hardcore bands at the time got a tiny taste of the indie rock boom of the mid-2000s. I’m thinking of how a band like The Blood Brothers got a bigger shot than they would have ten years prior. Do you think Three One G benefitted from that at all?
I’m trying not to sound like a poop, but if I showed you the sales statements, you’d be like, oh yeah, you guys did not benefit at all. I don’t wanna sound like I’m sucking my own dick, but I do think all of us, including The Blood Brothers, were ahead of the curve. Yeah, The Blood Brothers had success towards the end of their run, but it wasn’t like The Killers or Moby or something.

Sure, but even them being on Conan or whatever it was, that blows my mind in hindsight—them being on a national TV show.
Yeah, Jimmy Kimmel or whatever. But even then, there was probably 15 percent of the audience that thought, “this is fucking cool” but the other part was thinking, “this is fucking garbage.” I’m pretty sure they were still catching a lot of that. And I love them, this is not a criticism of them. I think I felt it in things I was doing, whether it was The Locust or Some Girls, where it started touching upon the normal world. But at times, like, The Blood Brothers, I think it was too innovative, too ahead of its time. But that’s beautiful and cool. 

Was this the reissue of their LP?
Yeah.

How’d you come to put that out?
This record was released on this label called Amalgamated that I think maybe only did two records and folded. So the guy who put it out was like, “I want to sell it. Do you want to reissue it?” Of course I was like, yes, because when I heard the first Antioch Arrow record at 16, I couldn’t get over how amazing it was. It changed the game for so many people. Bobby Bray from The Locust, when I was 16, he was a little bit younger and was only into Deicide and Testament and shit. And he was like, “What the fuck is this Antioch Arrow band?” It meant something to us. So I thought, let’s take a chance and try to reissue the record. It kind of bit us in the ass because I have a shitload of those records that probably won’t sell. But it was something I wanted to have be part of Three One G. 

What’s your physical space like where you’re storing all these leftover records over the years?
In my house I have a rehearsal room and then sort of a middle room that’s full of boxes of stuff that I’ll probably never sell. Occasionally I’ll try to give shit away. I just can’t find myself throwing it away. I’ve transported stuff from where I’ve lived or where Three One G has existed for 10 or 15 years. At one point, I was posting shit on Facebook like, “If you want a box of these Arab On Radar CDs, just pay for shipping and you can have it.” Or a Locust CD or whatever. I got rid of a fuckload of CDs that way. 

That’s another risk of running a boutique label out of your house or apartment. It’s not just the risk of a financial loss, but you could also lose physical space in your house.
Yeah. Before I moved here, I had everything in storage. And it was like, man, I’m paying X-amount of money every month just to have shit that’s never gonna sell and just sit for years and years. 

But you probably also put out things that go for high prices on Discogs or eBay. 
That’s weird too, because I do occasionally see stuff on there and I’m like, “Man, you could just get that for free from me.” [Laughs] I travel to Los Angeles every week and I’ll throw a box in the van and everywhere I stop, like, I’ll leave a CD on top of a gas pump, or if I cruise into a grocery store, I’ll plant them somewhere. I remember someone hitting me up on social media where they found Follow the Flock, Step in Shit, the square Locust CD that most people can’t even play, they found it in Whole Foods. And it’s like, yeah that was me. I do appreciate that moment.

Same question as before. Why a tribute to Queen?
This was the first tribute record. At the time, I remember being on tour with The Locust and, eclectic as our music taste was, everybody was into certain kinds of... I guess you’d call it classic rock. Queen was always played in the van and I guess at one point it came up: What Queen song would we cover if we were to do one? Interestingly enough, we picked an odd one. So it became this idea to put out a tribute album to Queen, which doesn’t have any relevance to Three One G, but in a sense, it does, because if you look at it as a musical entity, the band is totally bizarre and was a mindfuck to so many people. It’s a rarity of the music industry. Like, how did that happen? How did a band that had all these theatrical aspects and Freddie Mercury being openly homosexual, which wasn’t really accepted at the time, exist? Even the social aspects being manifested in “We Will Rock You” as a sports-affiliated thing when sports aren’t the most openly accepting faction of humanity. Doing the research on the band, it seemed like, ethically, they were punks. It just kind of made sense.

Do you have a favorite cover on this?
I would say “We Will Rock You” by Melt-Banana. It sounds so sick. But I also think the Weasel Walter one is just absurd. By chance, Brian May got a hold of the record and this was pre-internet, or right when the internet came about, so there weren’t a lot of ways to communicate with him. But a lot of people who were involved in getting the record to him have said, “Dude, he’s psyched on it.” To me, I’m thinking, fuck, he’s gonna hear the Bastard Noise track, we’re gonna get a lawsuit, this is gonna suck. But none of that happened. It was great.

Did you see Bohemian Rhapsody?
I did.

What’d you think?
I have mixed feelings about it. I think it was soft, if that makes sense. But if you’re gonna go that big, why tarnish something? I think the real story might’ve bummed people out or turned people off. Though it might’ve drawn people in, I don’t know.

Completely shifting gears from Queen, you have a grind record next. How’d this one make the list?
Man, looking at this list, I did pick the deep cuts, huh? I think they played three shows, or maybe not even that many. I was on tour in Sweden and my friend Jonas [Rosén] who sings in the band was like, “I have this band and we recorded this album. You should check it out.” I put it on and was like, what the fuck? Without discrediting them, it sounds like Discordance Axis to me, and I love Discordance Axis. So when I heard it, I was instantly sold. The songwriting is absurd and disjointed, and a lot of the sounds are just nasty—just blown out and the chords are fucked up and the vocals are not musical. That was a time when I was a lot more risky with things. When I started the label, my whole goal was like Dischord, I just wanted to document San Diego. And then it became California with Jenny Piccolo. And then it was like, well, fuck it, let’s go for Sweden. I thought something cool would’ve come out of it, but it completely stayed underground. I thought maybe, they were friends with Refused, so I don’t know. But if you like Refused, you’re probably not gonna like Asterisk* because it’s way more brutal. 

I know you said you look at it less as a businessperson and more as a documentarian, but when you’re dealing with a band that is not active like this, do you consider the risk of putting something out that has no vehicle to sell?
[Laughs] Back then, no. Because they were like, “Hey, how about a die cut cover with this little tiny asterisk cut out of the front?” Which is totally fucking stupid, financially. But I was like, “Yeah let’s do that!” If you asked me that now, I’d be like, there’s no fucking way unless you’re Kool Keith or someone like that. I wish money wasn’t a factor, but it is, because I don’t have any of it. [Laughs]

I feel like I see this LP in every record store I go to. How many of these were printed?
I think 3,000. I think it might be a disturbing record to people and they say, fuck this, I’m gonna sell it. If people figured out who’s on the cover, that’s a bummer too.

Wait, who is it?
It’s Mark David Chapman, who killed John Lennon. I mean, fuck, you put three heroin addicts together and make ‘em play music, this is what you’re gonna get. Although, maybe you do get something cute on Burger Records if you’re a heroin addict, but for these guys, this is what you’re gonna get. This was at the time I was obsessed with bands like Clikatat Ikatowi, and I thought these guys were in that realm but way nastier. This dark goth vibe they had and the fact that they were legitimately fucked up on drugs and super sketchy, wherever their influences were coming from, I was like, “This is the jam, man.” I remember going to a show that Crimson Curse was playing and just seeing the flyer with “Festival of Dead Deer” on it. I was like, “I don’t know what this band is but it’s gonna be good.” And it fucking was. 

But they could barely function. They were fucked up on drugs, selling their equipment to get dope. The record is a live radio show because they couldn’t even get together to record a record. At one point we were supposed to get them into a studio and I think Mike Crain stole everyone’s gear and hocked it for money for dope and had the Mexican mafia after him and had to leave California. Mike was calling me up saying, “Hey, we’re in the studio recording. Can you send me 500 bucks?” And then immediately, Chris [Hathwell] was calling me, like, “Dude, Mike stole all our gear! Have you heard from him?” 

It’s amazing this came out.
Yeah, well, Crain got sober for a while and Chris was living in San Diego with me. Years later, when people weren’t concerned with scoring dope, we were able to focus and we realized we could put this out in some capacity. 

How’d that reunion come out a few years ago?
There was that book that came out called Burning Fight. Unbroken was playing and asked if Swing Kids would play. We shared a member that had passed away. It was a strange thing for us to agree to do, but it made sense and seemed like a proper funeral for Eric Allen. So when we were putting the show together, the idea was to get bands that were from an earlier era. It was such an odd bill because I don’t necessarily think Unbroken and Festival of Dead Deer make sense together, but they’re both on Three One G, so that makes sense.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.