An Interview With Suburban Home Records' Virgil Dickerson
Editor Staff, Interview, September 23rd, 2010
Matt Ferner conducted this interview over email with Virgil Dickerson, head of Suburban Home Records, independent music label out of Denver, CO.
Suburban Home Records – now celebrating its 15th anniversary – has been at the center of the Denver music scene since its inception. The label first started by releasing local pop-punk albums on seven-inch vinyl and home-burned CDs D.I.Y. style, but has grown and stretched into a full-fledged nationally recognized label, distributor, show promoter and vinyl record purveyor.
Now, a decade-and-a-half later, Suburban Home is releasing music from various genres, from punk to alt-country, partnering up with artists in Denver and beyond – all the while staying true to that D.I.Y. independent ethos that got the label on its feet in the beginning, making it the home to so many great artists over the years.
Virgil Dickerson, founder and CEO of Suburban Home Records, was kind enough to have a conversation with Smalldoggies Magazine about his label, his love of music, the ever-evolving music scene, jet packs and barbecued ribs.
Matt Ferner: How did Suburban Home Records start 15 years ago?
Virgil Dickerson: When I was a freshman in college, I entered the University of Colorado as a hip hop/R&B kid. I ended up in Cockerel Hall which is the engineering dorm (I started out as a Chemical Engineering major). Upon meeting the other freshman in the dorms, a discussion of music came up. I found out that most of my peers were listening to music I had only heard about. Soon enough, I was being offered CDs by Green Day, Screeching Weasel, The Queers, Operation Ivy, and the seed was planted. These albums got me so excited about independent music and soon, live shows. Those same guys took me to go see Skankin’ Pickle and then Green Day, and I was hooked. This was Fall of 1993 and the guys who turned me onto all this great music were Jason ZumBrunnen and Jeff Merkel, two guys who would later start the Fairlanes, one of Suburban Home’s first bands.
I started going to every show I could, picked up every album I could find, and started reading every fanzine available at Wax Trax. I’m not really sure why now, but in early 1995, I decided that I would start a fanzine. Scott Fuller (some know of him as Magic Cyclops) originally volunteered to help out and suggested the name Suburban Homes and Gardens inspired by both the Descendents’ song (Suburban Home) and the magazine, Better Homes and Gardens. I was, and continue to be, a Descendents’ fan and I liked the name Suburban Home so I dropped the plural and the Gardens. The first issue of Suburban Home came out on September 1st, 1995. I picked the issues up from the printer on that day and went to see Schleprock, Mandingo, and Pinhead Circus at the Aztlan that night. The funny thing about this is that I have never considered myself much of a writer, but I think that the D.I.Y. message of punk rock made me realize I could do anything if I worked hard enough. I choose September 1995 as the birth of Suburban Home, even though the label didn’t actually start until the year after.
Matt: Did you work for any other labels before Suburban Home (or during) to get more experience, or have you only been working in the industry through Suburban Home?
Virgil: I started Suburban Home while going to school at CU Boulder. I worked at record stores (Rocky Mountain Records and Wax Trax) during this time. I also started booking shows at the CU Boulder campus at Club 156 from 1995 to 1997. I had no music industry, or rather, no business experience when starting all of this. I got a lot of advice from this really great label out of Escondido, CA, called Liquid Meat Records. Tim from Liquid Meat gave me contacts for printers, for mastering studios, for manufacturers, and lent all kinds of helpful advice.
After I graduated from CU with a Molecular Biology degree, I worked in a biology lab for a year and pretty much hated every day of my life. I vowed to always work somewhere I enjoyed working and around that time I was offered a job from indie powerhouse, Hopeless Records. Hopeless was an incredible place to learn the ropes and I definitely learned a lot, but after a year, I had to move back to Denver as I was not the biggest fan of living in Los Angeles.
I learned most of what I know now from making countless mistakes doing it myself.
Matt: What compelled you to document the Denver/Boulder punk-rock scene?
Virgil: When I started Suburban Home, there were no fanzines covering the Denver/Boulder punk rock scene and I thought that was an injustice. During the first years of Suburban Home, the Denver/Boulder punk rock scene was incredible. We had a really tight-knit scene where we all attended the same shows and always found a party after the shows were done. Those were incredible times. And when the label started, it made sense to begin working with my friends who were in bands and didn’t have an outlet to have their records released.
Matt: Why was punk rock, as a genre, the music that was most exciting to you? In other words, what drew you to releasing those kinds of records, supporting those kinds of musicians? And why specifically melodic punk rock?
Virgil: Those early records that were lent to me really changed my life. Like I mentioned before, I grew up a suburban gangsta rap kid and as I starting identifying with the world around me, I realized I needed more from my music than verses about bitches and hos. Punk rock found me, as I think it does a lot of other people, and I quickly identified with the messages punk rock brought. I have always been a sucker for melody, so pop-punk was what I had always been looking for. I think that the D.I.Y. ethics in punk rock really clicked with me and even 15 years later, I carry with me many of the ideas I learned back then.
Matt: How has the Denver punk rock scene changed over the last 15 years?
Virgil: I think that Denver still has a very strong punk rock scene, but as I have gotten older along with my contemporaries, most of the bands we all got excited about have been replaced by newer bands, typically by younger musicians, and they are now speaking to a much younger audience. I still love punk rock and I always will, but I don’t love the genre as much as I once did as my tastes have expanded. The scene is still very strong, but the connectors of the punk rock scene in 2010 are much younger than I am and are enjoying their own experiences.
Matt: How has Suburban Home changed and grown with the scene over the last 15 years?
Virgil: So much has changed since Suburban Home in 1995. When I first started the label, I used to write letters to bands. Today, I send them emails or maybe a Facebook message. When I first started the label, music discovery was so archaic. You used to look at the “thanks” list on a band’s record you loved and you assumed that if Green Day thanked Screeching Weasel, there was a good chance you might also like Screeching Weasel. Today, you have countless tools at your disposal to find new music. I could honestly go on and on about how easy it is to discover new music and how inexpensive it is. Obviously, I’ve had to reconfigure my business model over the years because when Suburban Home first started, no one had the ability to burn CDs or download albums from peer to peer sites. I started out in the mid-90s putting out vinyl and had to stop in the late-90s when the format was having a hard time. I started putting out vinyl again around 2006 and that was one of the reasons I am even still around today. Musically, Suburban Home started out as only a punk rock label and it wasn’t until Drag the River released “Hobo Demos” that I realized that Country music didn’t have to suck. Starting to work with Drag the River was a life changing experience as I started to and continue now to work with Americana/Alt-Country acts and for many, that is how the label is identified. Don’t get me wrong, I will still put out punk rock (have you heard the new Gamits album “Parts”? It is one of 2010′s best punk records and I had a hand in releasing it), but my heart is more in line with Americana these days.
Matt: How has the record industry changed since you started?
Virgil: Technology has completely flipped the script for the music industry in both good and bad ways. As a music fan, people are more excited about music than ever before and it is around us 24/7. As a musician, the barrier to entry to record and release music is so low, so many more records are released than ever before. The tough thing is that the ease of recording and releasing records and the ability to download music for free causes a devaluation of music and definitely over-saturation, too. There are generations of music fans who have never spent money for music and that concept is foreign to them. While I am all over having the ability to share and enjoy music for free, it hard trying to make a living in this industry. Can you name another industry that sells something people actively get for free? I’m sure there are others, but there are not a lot of them.
Matt: What do you think of the current music industry and where do see it going?
Virgil: That, my friend, is the million dollar question. Do I think there is a future in physical music sales? Sure, but the future is not bright. There is a really neat book called The Future of Music and they discuss a concept called “Music Like Water.” In this example, Music would be like a utility like water where you have unlimited access to water, but you don’t necessarily own the water. The idea is that everyone, no matter where they are at, would have unlimited access to any and all music. Whether you are listening on an mp3 player or listening on your car stereo, you could access anything. The idea though, would require everyone to pay a small monthly fee to access this music and that money would help support the industry. Would it work? I don’t know, but imagine having an easy way to listen to every new album that comes out each week. The convenience would make it worthwhile to pay like $3 or $5 a month and having that money from every single music listener could trickle down to a small guy like myself.
Matt: With everyone carrying iPods or some kind of hard drive on them with their entire library accessible at all times, is there a reason for artists to release a limited group of songs – a limit that has traditionally been set by a format limitation – i.e. the 8-track, the record, the CD – with that now mostly gone, and likely gone in the future, is the LP as a finite document of a period in an artist’s recorded musical history, dead?
Virgil: I work with vinyl and in our world, the LP is stronger than ever. Sure, lots of bands still release singles and some of the bands that are releasing limited groups of songs are doing so on vinyl, but if you ask me, I’d much rather have a really great 12 song album at one time rather than 3 different 4 song sessions released over the course of 12 months. I agree that music is not limited by any format, but I also prefer the LP format to anything else. Imagine your favorite release; is the release a 4-track collection of songs or an 11-song album? For me, it is an 11-song album.
Matt: What are your favorite records that you have personally released, song-wise? Artwork-wise? Lyrically? They don’t have to be mutually exclusive, in other words, this could be three different bands.
Virgil: You are gonna get me in trouble, but I think that Drag the River’s “Closed” will go down as one of my favorite records I have ever released song-wise. Artwork-wise, it might be Kay Kay and His Weathered Underground’s self-titled album. And lyrically, I think that everything Tim Barry has written connects with me lyrically; the guy is a prophet.
Matt: I would say that Suburban Home records/Virgil Dickerson, whatever name we want to call it, has been at the heart of the Denver/Boulder punk scene since I first discovered the Denver music scene. And further, in my opinion – you may want to shy away from this – you are the Denver punk rock scene. Part of that is due to our common ages and that all of our friends started getting into this punk rock music, playing it, and recording it at around the same time. But, you have, in some regards, single-handedly kept the scene going, kept it exciting, kept releasing records from bands that are still playing today – do you have the same passion for music, for punk rock that you once did? Has it faded or is it just a different kind of passion now, but still a passion nonetheless?
Virgil: I appreciate the kind words. I definitely have the same if not stronger passion for music, not necessarily for punk rock, but I have lots of friends jaded on new music and I think they are crazy. There is nothing like finding a new album that you can’t stop listening to or seeing a show that reminds you why you stay up late drinking all night. I fear that I am a lifer when it comes to being passionate about music. I’m passionate about other things (craft beer, food, Curb Your Enthusiasm), but music will always be my #1 love.
Matt: You have documented the Denver music scene for 15 years in your releases, that’s a lot of great history – do you ever think of re-mastering and re-releasing the whole catalog as a box set of sorts – as a time capsule of what Denver punks were doing here on Earth during this phase?
Virgil: While I would love to do that, I don’t think there would be enough interest in such a project. Most of the bands that shaped the first chapter of Suburban Home Records have been forgotten or never discovered by most people.
Matt: With all the years of experience that you’ve had as Suburban Home, what would you now tell Virgil Dickerson of 15 years go about releasing records?
Virgil: If we are being honest, I might have told him to consider managing bands as opposed to putting out records. I would have told him to have been a little more persistent with bands like The Hold Steady, The Gaslight Anthem, 3oh3, The Fray, and Blink-182 when I first started talking to those bands. I almost put out an EP for the Hold Steady, I was speaking to The Gaslight Anthem before they signed to Side One (not that I would have been in the running), I almost released the first EP for 3oh3 but agreed that it wasn’t the best idea when one of the members decided to move to France to go to school, the singer of The Fray used to visit our office and once did an interview with me for a video he produced, and before Blink 182 signed to a major, we were good buds and I’m pretty sure I could have put out an EP or something. I would maybe have Young Virgil assassinate the guy who invented the mp3 along with the guy who started Napster (just kidding…well, kind of).
Matt: Are there any other bands that you wanted to release, that you came close to, but never got a chance to release anything of theirs?
Virgil: As far as some bands I would love to release something by, here is a short list: The Riot Before, Iron Chic, Justin Townes Earle, Joe Pug, Local Natives, John Moreland, Iron Chic, The Gaslight Anthem, Titus Andronicus, and well, I could go on and on.
Matt: Many of our friends have released albums on your label, what is it like working with friends in this creative fashion?
Virgil: I try to only work with artists that I get along with, but some of Suburban Home’s first bands (The Fairlanes and the Gamits) are some of my best friends on the planet. It’s been incredible to experience the good times with these close friends, but when you bump heads with your good friends, that isn’t very fun. I remember when the Gamits were writing what seemed like a new hit song every week and that was amazing. I got to go to Japan with the Gamits and Fairlanes and seeing the crowds singing along to each band was unbelievable.
Matt: I was talking with a good friend of yours, Scott Weigel, (local Denver artist and player in many bands over the years – The Gamits, The Fairlanes, The Absinthe Glow, The Embattled Confederates) about how much punk rock has changed, how mainstream it has become as exemplified with Green Day doing a musical – yet, there seems to be something missing from the scene right now, would you agree? For a minute, Blink-182 was on TRL, NOFX was on the radio (unauthorized), there were indie rock stations popping up all over playing punk from all eras and then, something shifted. In other words, there was so much exciting music, so many punk bands, good and bad, everyone was in a punk band for a while there, where did all that energy go? Where are all the punk bands?
Virgil: Believe it or not, there is a very thriving punk rock scene all over the world. As far as commercial success, these types of things seem to go in cycles. It just isn’t punk rock’s turn to be commercially successful, but I’m sure it will happen again. That being said, a band like The Gaslight Anthem, while not the blueprint for what some might consider punk rock, are just as punk rock as any of the bands I know and they are making a pretty big name for themselves on their own terms. Having been involved with Vinyl Collective, I know that punk rock is as strong as it has ever been. It just isn’t on TRL (if there is even a TRL right now).
Matt: I feel like our generation was very lucky to have a wealth of independent music, a lot of punk and indie rock, to listen to growing up. We went to shows, listened to CDs and ordered more CDs from paper catalogs for years – watched genre-defining and era-defining third-wave punk bands like Green Day, Lagwagon, NOFX, Bad Religion, Rancid explode and then influence fourth-wavers like Blink-182 who in turn influenced four-and-a-halfers like Sum 41 that then influenced radio-rock like Good Charlotte, Lit, Sugar Ray, etc., what’s the next sound of punk, are bands drawing from this melodic branch of music any longer? In other words, is pop-punk or melodic punk dead, dead as an aesthetic, not as a commercial enterprise as it clearly became and was consumed and co-opted by crap-rockers like Good Charlotte?
Virgil: Whether or not you hear it in the band’s sound, I am certain that 80% of the biggest bands playing music in 2010 got excited about music by being exposed to punk rock. They might be writing hipster music or indie rock, but punk rock had a hand in shaping their identity and might have served as a gateway for the kind of music they play now. Take a band like the Hold Steady and interview Craig Finn, he will tell you that the Replacements were a huge influence on him. You just might not hear punk rock beats and energy, but it is there. Just like Michael Jackson was a musically cultural shifting musician in the 80s and gangsta rap was in the 90s, punk rock definitely shaped ears and minds and has inspired some of the biggest songs by the biggest artists.
Matt: I often feel like the entire Fat Wreck Chords and Epitaph catalogs became the standards of our particular branch of the anthropological musical tree, for better or worse. I don’t think I’m very far off in saying they were very influential to Suburban Home and your particular aesthetic. So, I was talking to a friend a few weeks ago about this and about meaningful music, what makes something meaningful and have value as art – like transcendent art. And she was going on and on about The Beatles and the Rolling Stones and their music is the most meaningful to her and it really got me thinking – I feel I have been more moved by the Fat Wreck bands, the Suburban Home bands, the Epitaph bands, Hopeless, and countless heavy metal and hip-hop bands than any of that classic rock stuff, which I also enjoy, but it’s just not the same. I know we’re supposed to be so reverent to these rock god bands, but if I’m being honest, bands like NOFX, Lagwagon, Propagandhi have been far more important to me in my life than the Beatles ever will be, I wonder if you feel the same way? Not that I listen to them all that much anymore, they were massively influential in my life, psyche, shaping of my personae, my taste, etc., yet they are kind of treated as disposable somehow. And I’m not making some sort of case that NOFX is more important than the Beatles or something as useless as that. I wonder if you agree and why do you think this is this so?
Virgil: I definitely agree. While I now enjoy a lot of the rock gods that helped shape rock music, the music that really inspired me and changed my life are bands like Screeching Weasel, NOFX, Propagandhi, Green Day, Skankin’ Pickle, Operation Ivy, and I could go on and on. I actually never listened to Led Zeppelin until just a few years ago, because Screeching Weasel’s song, “I Hate Led Zeppelin” caused me to believe I could never like that band.
Bands like NOFX caused me to hate the Grateful Dead and to this day, I have never really given them a listen even though I am pretty sure I would like them now. It’s funny to look back at the music that shapes us. I mentioned the bands above, but gangsta rap will always have a huge influence on me. In 2010, Halloween is on a Sunday and in my head, I recited the lines, “This Year Halloween Feel on a Weekend, Me and Geto Boys are Trick or Treating.” I will never ever forget the music and how it shaped me.
Matt: I feel like there is something really special about being alive during a moment when an art scene is just blooming, as a fan of that art at the right age and as a consumer of that art that is really magical – being a fan of a style of music as it is forming like power-metal influenced, third-wave pop-punk or melodic punk, without irony or retrospect, just unadulterated love – which is how I felt for a lot of the bands and labels you and I have discussed. I feel like this has something to do with the same feeling I get when someone asks what my favorite movie is, I know the “correct” answer as an adult is like 400 Blows or 8 ½ or Personae (all of which I truly love as an adult), but part of me could just as accurately say Indiana Jones or Star Wars; those really, really moved me in a non-thinking way, no irony, no conscious thought, just pure movement. Does punk rock hit you in that way as it does me? But, I often wonder, what if I never heard any of the bands on Suburban Home, Fat Wreck, Hopeless, Epitaph until right now, would I have the same visceral reaction when I was a teenager? Or would I not “get it” now and still be listening to weirdo indie rock? Why do you think this happens with some art, in other words, why is some music more acceptable as an answer to that question than others? Are we lying to ourselves? Are we embarrassed by ourselves? Is being an adult music fan that different than being a teen-aged music fan?
Virgil: Being an adult music fan is definitely different than being a teenage music fan (for better or worse). I think your analogy to movies from music is a great way to describe it. I will always love Strange Brew or Stoned Age because they happened for me in a certain snapshot of my life, but if a movie like that were to come out in 2010, I would never even expose myself to that movie. Sometimes, I miss the child-like wonder I had when I first discovered punk rock and the realization that I will never be like that again. When I first got into punk rock, if I saw someone wearing a Queers shirt, I would tap them on the shoulder and see what show they were going to next weekend and more than likely make friends with them. Today, I would never do that. But, I will say that if the right circumstances come along, I can still fall in love with a new band. It has changed though.
Matt: How did the Vinyl Collective start?
Virgil: I started putting out vinyl in 1996 with the first releases on the label and during the late 90s and early 2000s, I abandoned the format because I was having a hard time selling vinyl. Years later, I decided to start putting out vinyl again and started with bands like Every Time I Die and Fear Before the March of Flames. Those releases did so well, I decided to start a blog/online community focused around vinyl, and Vinyl Collective started. Out of the gates, it just blew up. It really shocked me to see how many people identified with what I was doing. Now 4 years later, I am much more likely to put something on vinyl as opposed to CD.
Matt: What is it about vinyl records that we all love? Why do we love collecting them in the indie and punk rock world? Is it the big format? The big, beautiful cover art? The warmth in the recording? Is it something else? What do you love about it?
Virgil: It’s all that and then some. For me, I love that it is physical, that is tangible. I love the bigger, better artwork. The larger liner notes. I love the fidelity of the vinyl; I love when the needle hits the record. I love that you have to physically get out of your chair to put on a record; it’s much harder to put the music in the background when you know you have to flip the record at some point. I love the idea that you could be purchasing 1 of only 150 records ever made. I think vinyl is the perfect reaction to the soullessness of digital music. Don’t get me wrong, I like the convenience of digital music, but nothing beats being at home, hanging out, listening to one of my favorite records.
Matt: It seems like, for the most part, being a record label means being a brand that is identifiable with a certain style of music, is that true? There are some notable exceptions, especially more recently, with Epitaph releasing some indie hip-hop, have you ever ventured out into say hip-hop or electronic, noise, straight-up pop or metal? Would you want to?
Virgil: I’ve thought that if the right set of circumstances come along and I loved the record, I would release any genre. I like that for the most part people who like one of my records will more than likely like a bunch of the other records I have released. I think Lookout Records really shaped a lot of my ideas about running a label. Back in Lookout’s peak, I knew that if it had a lookout logo, it would be great punk rock. Same for Fat Wreck and early Epitaph. I have put out some stuff that most people would not have expected to have come out on Suburban Home.
Matt: What is the future of the record label? Where do you see it going, expanding or further contraction or something else entirely, in the next several years?
Virgil: Honestly, I don’t know. Suburban Home just turned 15 and I don’t expect it to be around for another 15. With the ups and downs and most recent downturn in the economy, I no longer have a staff and have decided that no matter what happens, I will try to keep Suburban Home as small as I can keep it with me and only me. I enjoy having a hand in everything I do and even if I find myself losing my mind, it’s an insanity I am okay with. I just hope that I can release records that I love and that people will be able to connect with the music and support our bands when they travel to a town near them.
Matt: What is some advice for young punk bands out there in Denver that may not know what to do, how to get their music heard? What’s the best way for those kids to get their music heard by the most amount of people?
Virgil: I recommend young punk bands to put out 7″ singles, put out their music on vinyl, while also considering giving away their music for free. A band like Bomb the Music Industry grabbed a lot ears because they were giving away all of their music and putting out really cool vinyl. I think that if a band is serious about making a connection, they need to tour, they need to work really hard, and they can never give up.
Matt: Without skipping anything embarrassing, set your iPod to shuffle and list out the first 10 songs that appear – explain if you’d like to.
Portugal. The Man
How the Leopard Got Its Spots
Oh God, Where Are You Now?
Good Hearted Woman
The Cardinal Sin
He’s A Space Case
Portugal. The Man
Limbeck Long Way To Go
Murder By Death
Ball & Chain
Drag The River
I love all the bands that popped up and the fact that “Portugal. The Man” popped up twice goes to show everyone that they are probably one of the most played bands on my iTunes/iPod.
Matt: What are your all-time top 10 albums of any genre?
Virgil: That’s tough, here goes nothing:
Nada Surf “Let go”
Portugal the Man “The Satanic Satanists”
Lemonheads “Come on Feel the Lemonheads”
D.J. Quik “Born and Raised in Compton”
The Black Keys “Brothers”
The Shins “Oh Inverted World”
Propagandhi “Less Talk More Rock”
Skankin Pickle “Skankin Pickle Fever”
Wilco “Sky Blue Sky”
Elliott Smith “S/t”
Matt: What are your all-time top 10 punk albums?
Propagandhi “Less Talk More Rock”
Hot Water Music “Fuel for the Hate Game”
Screeching Weasel “My Brain Hurts”
The Queers “Love Songs for the Retarded”
Green Day “Kerplunk”
The Clash “S/t”
Stiff Little Fingers “Inflammable Material”
Exploding Hearts “Guitar Romantic”
American Steel “S/t”
Against Me “Eternal Cowboy”
I know I am forgetting something.
Matt: Tell us about the next 15 years of Suburban Home, what’s in the future?
Virgil: I’d like to think that my I’ll have a jet pack, the ability to travel through time, and probably a transporter. When any of my bands are playing a show I want to see, I could just beam to their show. Drinking whiskey will help me to lose weight. Drinking beer will help tone my muscles. And I have a feeling my future me will subsist on a diet of hot wings and barbecued ribs which will be the equivalent of taking a daily multi-vitamin. I will sleep 2 hours in my oxygenated chamber which will be all the sleep I will need for a week. The government will subsidize the music industry and finally show some appreciation for the arts. I will live on a commune in the mountains where every night we hang out and play music. I won’t be part of the rat race we are all apart of now, instead, I’ll have the ability to just enjoy life! That sounds like a nice next 15 years.
Listen to every song and album that Suburban Home has ever released at the Suburban Home Listening Station.
Visit Suburban Home Records website for more information on their label services, artist roster, latest releases and more.
Visit The Vinyl Collective website for more information about purchasing, collecting and caring for vinyl records.