Interview: Really Rad Records

Posted: by The Editor

So many of my favorite albums of this year have been released by Really Rad. From the grungy shoegaze of Day Aches’ One Last Dream Before Dying to the countrygaze of Grave Saddles’ There You Ain’t to the emo goodness of Celebration Guns’ split with A Place for Owls, it’s been pretty much nonstop bangers from the Portland-based label. Really Rad Records is about to celebrate its ten-year anniversary, so we caught up with founder Garty Smith to discuss the label’s history, some of its most important releases, and what unifies its roster.

What made you want to start Really Rad in the first place?
I’ve wanted to be involved in the music industry in some capacity since I was a child, though admittedly I thought that role would be as a musician, so I started playing instruments pretty young. When I began trying out for bands in my local scene I got swept up in metalcore and hardcore since that was the prominent scene in my area at that time, but I really wanted to play emo music like American Football, which I was obsessed with back then. My metalcore band got a bit of attention from some pretty shitty labels in the scene at that time (one in particular was a subsidiary of Victory Records if you could believe it lmao) who were known for taking over their artists’ merchandising rights, not paying their artists, and squeezing them for all they were worth while the band was focused on trying to get out of their contracts. We got pretty lucky and had friends who had already dealt with that cycle warn us before signing, so I started to deconstruct the labels’ operation. I dove into all the services that they had used to appeal to artists and figured out how to do them myself for my band. Things like getting your music on streaming services and physical merchandise production were pretty nebulous to us at that time and and I devoted all of my unmedicated ADHD mind to demystifying those processes.
After some time playing shows, I met other people in the scene who were interested in playing emo music, and in 2013 we started a terrible twinkly skramz project called Math Jokes. Looking back, that band was pretty crucial to the label because we decided from the jump that it would be 100% DIY. Another member of the band, Zach, turned me on to what was going on in emo at the time with bands like Algernon, Glocca Morra, and Snowing, as well as labels like Count Your Lucky Stars and Topshelf, and I became absolutely obsessed. Unlike the heavier music scene, which always felt more buttoned up, professional, and closed off, in the emo scene I could just reach out and talk to people online. If I wanted to know how someone got a certain bass tone or how to book a tour of house shows, I could just reach out over Facebook or Twitter and people would tell me. Everyone was extremely generous with their time and knowledge.
When it came time for Math Jokes to put out our first EP, we thought it would be funny to put a “label” logo on it that kind of certified it as a “Really Rad Record” and so that’s how the name happened. But the EP picked up steam on Tumblr of all places, and soon the same way I would reach out to people to ask questions, people were asking me how we got our music on streaming and how we created tapes, etc. I started to realize that I had a unique bit of information from trying to avoid those shitty metal labels so I tried to disseminate it best I could. But I found out pretty quickly that just because you give people the information, doesn’t mean they are going to put it into action. The lazy factor with musicians in the emo and punk scene at the time was really shocking for me since I came out of a scene that prioritized nonstop hustling.
Not long after, we started to help our friends’ bands with tapes and digital distribution, which snowballed into helping people we had never met. Between that and constantly booking house shows for touring emo bands who would become friends and ask for help with the same stuff, it was pretty apparent that this was a service a lot of people were looking for. Really Rad has changed a lot over the years, and we now have a roster more curated to our tastes and offer more services exclusively to our artists, but we’ve always offered physical merchandise and help with digital distribution as a service for bands that want it. As our team has grown, we’ve recently expanded that to include things like PR, warehousing, and fulfillment of physical merch. Right now, we’re actually planning to repackage those services as their own entity outside of Really Rad so that we can provide a lot of the same things we offer our active roster without the need for it be as highly curated.
What release or releases would you consider the most pivotal for the label? 
Over the years there have been quite a few that felt big or important at the time; to this day we still get submissions referencing Remo Drive and Pictures of Vernon, who were some of the earliest bands we worked with. But I think the most consequential releases for Really Rad as it exists now would be either Swiss Army Wife’s Medium Gnarly or Dosser’s Violent Picture/Violent Sound, both from January of 2023. VP/VS because we had put so much time and money into that record, we really needed it to succeed. Even considering how well it did initially, the hype around that record just keeps building; it’s insane. I’d say Medium Gnarly for a lot of the same reasons; obviously the attention that record got was ridiculous, but also because it really changed the way we operate as a label. From 2020-2022 we had started outsourcing jobs that we knew were necessary but found daunting or difficult to master. We brought all of that back in-house and gave ourselves as many chances to figure it out as we could. Right before we started rolling out those Swiss Army Wife and Dosser records, I was questioning whether I still had an ear for cool music or if it was getting time to hang it up, and to have such a great response to those releases one after another was really affirming and forced me out of my slump and back into the game. I still got it, baby! 😎
You just released the new EP from Singaporean emo band camping. They’re the first non-North American band you’ve worked with. How did you link up with them for this release?
Camping is awesome! One of my favorite releases from the early 2010s is the (then self-titled) Dad Punchers LP and, camping reminds me so much of that sound, from the warm lo-fi production to the story-over-structure writing style. They actually reached out to us by email. We had just put on a show for the Portland date of Subsonic Eye’s US tour, and it seems like those two bands know each other, so I’m unsure if they found out about us from Subsonic Eye or what, but I hopped on a video call with Hadi from the band and talked about what working together would look like. It obviously went pretty well. I was positive we were finished with releases for the year at that point, but everything fell into place really easily, and I assume I must thrive in the chaos of a release cycle because I’ve been firing on all cylinders ever since we got off that call.

How did you get involved with the reissues of The Ground Is Lava’s material? 
I’ve been a fan of The Ground Is Lava for years and years. When I started to get into the “modern” emo scene in like 2013, they were one of the bands I really latched on to. Bottle Rockets had just come out and it took over a lot of my life for a few years. It was my comfort album, so it was pretty much the soundtrack to anything good or bad going on in my life. I had been toying with the idea of doing a reissue of some kind for a few years, ever since I saw our buddy Corey at Near Mint start to do them, and I originally had a different album in mind. But when the album I wanted to reissue started to have a resurgence because of TikTok, I didn’t really feel like I had the time or energy to compete with other labels that I thought had more to offer, so the dream died for a while. Sometime earlier this year I was committing the mortal sin of getting sentimental on main and going down memory lane a little bit, when I stumbled across TGIL’s twitter account and saw that they had acknowledged in October of last year that Bottle Rockets had turned 9 years old. I did some quick math and realized that 10 comes after 9 and immediately reached out to them to see if they would be down to let us be involved in the 10-year anniversary and they seemed really stoked. The band was super generous with their time and found us all the planned merch files and promotional photos that they didn’t get a chance to use while they were a band. I’m really stoked we got the chance to work with them and happy for the opportunity to introduce that album to a new generation of emo dorks.

You’ve signed bands in a variety of styles and genres. What do you look for in a band when you sign them?
Thank you for noticing! I love labels that have a genre focus and feel like they often times can cultivate the coolest rosters and most dedicated audience, but I would go absolutely insane listening to so much of the same thing. I love switching things up genre-wise and have so much fun diving into new styles for the label. Most of the excitement for me is trying new things and learning as much as I can about how different scenes work and then trying to apply the best new ideas to our processes. What I’m looking for in those genres is hard to put my finger on though. I definitely know quickly whether I like it or not, and I try to trust that gut instinct as much as possible. If it’s a genre that I’m really familiar with like emo, I usually want to hear a take on it that’s unique, for example, Broken Record’s take on second wave emo that incorporates post-punk and shoegaze or the way Mauve pulls from second wave emo to inform their take on fifth wave emo without losing the eclectic, genre-bending experimentation associated with the sound.
We’ve gotten lumped in with the emo revival-revival thing happening right now and I mean, fair. But I like to think the bands we’ve been working with in that field are finding a fresh spin on the genre rather than rehashing it for nostalgia’s sake.

What do you think unifies Really Rad’s roster, being as eclectic as it is?
Well they’re all conventionally attractive with a great sense of humor, but beyond that I think it’s their willingness to put in the kind of work that most people seek out creative ventures in order to avoid. I’ve worked with plenty of bands over the years that think signing to a part-time underground record label means that it’s time to kick their feet up and let the big dogs do the real work. No one on the roster at this time really seems like that’s their mentality. They’re all grinding, writing, booking, and promoting like they want this to succeed. Giving your band an honest shot at success is like taking on a second full-time job, and I think they’re all doing that.
Musically it’s harder to say, since a lot of their styles differ so drastically, but if I could point to anything it’s the heavier focus on interesting and sticky guitar parts. Cool riffs, cool tones–as a guitar player myself I’m probably more drawn to stuff like that. Whether it’s a conscious thing or not, I think guitar-driven rock music is the broader umbrella that most of our artists live under.

Zac Djamoos | @gr8whitebison

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