[The “Lost Issue” — early 1990s. Never published]
[LOOKING BACK: It’s a crying shame what’s happened to Lookout Records. Founded in the 1980s by Lawrence Livermore (and named after his bands THE LOOKOUTS), the label had a spectacular stable of bands and release — OPERATION IVY and GREEN DAY are only but two of the legendary bands who made incredible music on Lookout. Alas, the label has been run into the ground fiscally by its current owners, and its top-selling bands have pulled their records from the Lookout catalog. In any case, here’s an unpublished phone interview I did with Lawrence in the early 1990s, when the label was on the cusp of exploding. — Mickey]
Lawrence Livermore has been an active figure on the West Coast – the East Bay area, to be more specific. From helping bands get a big boost via his label, Lookout Records, or supporting the punk gigs by playing in his band, THE LOOKOUTS, and publishing his fanzine, titled – you guessed it – Lookout Fanzine. Lawrence epitomizes a dedicated, D.I.Y. ethic that so obviously missing in the underground music scene today. Read on!
How did Lookout Records start?
In 1987,I wanted to put my own band out on a record. It wasn’t meant to be a real label. It was something to put a record out on. That was Step One, and nothing very much came of that, but in the end of 1987, my friend Dave Hayes and I were regularly hanging out at Gilman Street, which by that point, had become a pretty big scene. There was a lot of local bands that were really exciting. So we decided it would be really great to put some of them out on some 7″ records. We ended up joining together and putting out four records at the beginning of 1988. We thought it would be something if we were lucky to get our money back on. But they proved to be popular records and they kept on selling. In fact, some of them are still selling today. And it grew from that.
How big is Lookout now? You guys certainly have a big catalog for a label that’s only four years old!
I don’t know how you want to measure “bigness.” We’re working on Lookout #50. And some bands have sold a lot For instance, Operation Ivy, which is one of the first bands we put out, sold in the neighborhood of 15,000.
How are Lookout releases distributed? Is it totally grass roots, or do you hire someone else to do it for you?
It’s probably neither of those things. There’s a whole bunch of labels here in California which all work with Mordam Records. Mordam started out as a label. Now it’s half-way between a distributor and just a representative of all of us labels. Mostly, they sell to stores, but they also sell to other distributors. We share a lot of resources with labels like Alternative Tentacles, Maximum Rock ‘N Roll, Flipside, Sympathy For The Record Industry, Vinyl Communications… all of those and more. I think about 20 are all distributed exclusively by Mordam.
Has Lookout become a full-time job for you?
LL: Well, it’s kind-of a borderline living. It’s actually become a full-time job for a couple of other guys. There’s two guys working now in addition to myself. And right now, they’re working full-time. All three of us are students at UCLA, so in the fall well probably be changing our schedule somehow. None of us will be able to work as much.
Has dealing with the bands with money matters been a problem?
It’s been a small problem. That kind of thing’s been a bummer. And it varies widely from one band to another.
Do you work with contracts?
It depends on the situation. Some bands are more interested in having contracts and others aren’t. That part has never been a problem. But when you start off agreeing to make a record and nobody expects much to happen, and like three years later, there’s a significant amount of money involved, some people get weird about it.
There must be some problems too, since you guys are all from the same geographic area and may all hang out. The business aspect thrown into the friendship must present some sort of problem.
That’s probably the least attractive aspects of it. It’s really difficult to separate your personal relationships from business. If someone’s been you friend for five or ten years and you happen to run into them at a show, and they also happen to be one of the bands on your label, they might ask, “Has the money come in?” or “Has the records come in?” A lot of time it’s just a minor irritation, and you wish that you could be normal and ordinary people, but when there’s a lot of minor irritation, it builds up sometimes, and when the next person asks me, “When’s the new so-and-so’s record coming out?” I’m gonna scream. You’d rather just chat and say, “Hi. How’re you doing?” That part gets kind-of frustrating for all three of us. It’s a little hard but it’s not like a major problem. It’s one of the aspects that when it starts to become a business and not a hobby or a game.
When you started, I’m sure you were having a good time. Is it still fun for you? Or do you feel like you’ve created a monster?
It’s some of both. It wasn’t always fun at the beginning either, although it’s easier to look back and say, “Oh, those were the days.” And you forget the time when you had to stay up all night folding the record covers, and things like that. And also at that time, you could be more relaxed about it, because nothing was live-or-die or make-or-break because of whether you got that done in time. Nowadays, there’s lots of people, includ¬ing ourselves, who are relying on it. People are counting on us to deliver records at certain times, bands are counting on us to collect money and pay them, a num¬ber of people, such as recording engineers and others who work with us… You carry a big load. So you tend to take things a little more seriously. When things get stressful, they get really stressful. “Fun” is probably not the right word. It’s more like “satisfaction” when an exciting new band gets a chance to get exposed. Es¬pecially when new bands come up there very excited about the idea that they’re going to go into a recording stu¬dio and be heard on the radio. And it’s that kind of thing that you don’t get tired of.
Almost all of your bands are from the East Bay area — or at least from California. Is that something you’re going to stick with?
It grew up that way, partly because we didn’t want to work with people that we didn’t know personally. Right now, we’re working on the very first band from out of the area SCREECHING WEASEL – but they are people, especially Ben [Weasel] whom I’ve known for a while. I’ve met with them and talked with them a lot. And it also had a lot to do with the band’s sound. It’s more in style with the kind of bands that I like. The types of bands that tend to flourish around here. Although there are a number of bands around here that sound nothing like the kind of sound that we’re associated with. You’ll probably find them on other record labels.
Being a reader of Maximum Rock N Roll for a long time now, it seemed like Gilman Street was almost like a punk utopia. What’s it like now?
I’ve made my own criticisms of the local scene, but that doesn’t mean that I think it’s bad. I mean, you can find things to criticize about almost anything. And sometimes you need to be, and when something’s being successful, you need to be especially critical. I wouldn’t say that there are any major problems here. Maybe one of the biggest ones is that people take it for granted, that this is the center of all of punk rock and they don’t have to do anything, other than consume all of the wonderful punk rockness that’s happening. My own criticisms tend to be that people are a little self-centered and don’t think of anything but the latest music and the latest party, rather than building on that energy and making lasting changes on a wider scale in society. If you can build a record company or build a club or an alternative store, then why can’t you build a whole social structure that works for people who aren’t just punks.
We’re both older than most of the kids around. Do you think that has something to do with it?
Oh, age has quite a bit to do with it. Naturally, people in their late teens have quite a short attention span. I shouldn’t say naturally, but that’s generally the case. If you look back in history, people in their teens have ruled countries and led armies and all sorts of stuff, but that’s not what they’re programmed to do nowadays. I don’t think punks are much of an exception. A number of people – including myself – have been making the observation that a lot of what goes on in the name of punk is really just a teenage social club with different costumes. That’s not all bad. I wish I had a teenage social club when I was a kid. It’s a starting point. If that’s all that you do with it, then big deal. But if you can use that energy to build on something, then you’ll have people who are still interested when they’re 25 or 35. So far, that hasn’t been happening. People get to be 20 or 25, and say, “Oh, that’s kids’ stuff. I don’t do that anymore.”
Record labels probably feel like they have to put out CDs to compete. What was the reason behind Lookout’s decision to begin releasing CDs?
I don’t agree with that part about competing. What they might mean is that in order to actually exist in the record business, they need to release CDs. I’ve had this argument with a couple of the bands on our label, who felt for one way or another, that they didn’t want to be on CD. What I was trying to say is that unless you’re a super-band, it’s becoming almost impossible to sell enough vinyl records to actually survive. If this was a hobby and we all had other jobs and just wanted to do this after work, we could probably put out 1,000 or 2,000 records and break even. But that would mean we’d only get to do one release every six months. If we wanted to continue what we’ve been doing and continue to grow, there’s not enough independent record stores and punk stores in the country anymore to be able to support our record company.
I think that it’s great that your label makes use of that vast amount of space available on the CD by including a lot of songs, making it a bargain for the consumers.
We’ve also brought our prices down to the point where our CDs by mail order are cheaper than a lot of other companies’ records. Where major labels, and even some independent labels, charge as much as $9 and $10 for a record, we sell our CDs for $8. But as far as hating CDs, I don’t hate them. I did for a while, like most good punks, but I have come to think that that is sort of a superstition. I listen to CDs now, and I enjoy them.
The quality’s much better.
In some way’s they’re not better, but it’s enjoyable not to have to hear all the scratches and pops. I’m also a DJ at a college radio station, and it’s really easy to use them to pick out a cut you want to play. The same in my own house. I don’t really have an objection to them. I had this argument with Tim Yohannon. He said that “CDs have no soul.” I can’t imagine that a piece of plastic can have much soul ei¬ther. Both are environmentally wasteful and destructive. I don’t know which is worse. An analogy I like to make is what if they were punks around in the 1950s, when they switched from 78 r.p.m. records to 33 r.p.m. stereo records? They’d say, “That’s not punk to put our records our on 33 stereo records.” No¬body would have even remembered punk.
Has Lookout Records gotten any kind of exposure in bigger, mainstream markets?
Well, some of our records get played on college stations and occasionally we get reviewed in the college music press. But not a great deal. But we don’t try. A lot of that stuff is basically pay-for-play. Not right out front, but if you want to get in a lot of those magazines, you have to buy an advertisement. And they’re expensive. We pretty much limit our advertising to Flipside, Maximum Rock ‘n Roll, Ben Is Dead, Jersey Beat… small fanzines run our ads for free. That’s about it. We’re not about to lay out $500 or $1000 for an ad in those slick glossies. I don’t think they’d do any good anyway. To me, it’s just a form of bribery. My philosophy all along has been that if we keep making good music, that eventually people will hear about it. I believe that most of the stuff that’s considered trendy in college radio or so-called alternative music is really a bunch of crap. It’s painful to listen to it, it’s that bad. And I think in the long run, our stuff will rise to the surface, because I honestly think it’s much better. As a matter of fact, one of the local weekly publications came today to interview us at great length. Some people think that we shouldn’t even try to reach outside of the punk world. While we’re not out to sell ourselves, it’s my philosophy that we’re out to make ourselves available to anybody – regardless of what they wear or where they live – who wants to listen to us. Part of the reason of being on CD too is that in large parts of America, that’s all that is available. There are many young kids growing up today who haven’t even seen a record player. I honestly think that what we’re doing is making headway, but I think it’s dangerous to grow too fast and to be too trendy. I’m fairly comfortable with what’s happening right now.
I got most of your releases early on, then I just couldn’t keep up with them. It’s getting to the point where people will see the Lookout name on a release and they’ll pick it up. It’s getting a reputation for a kind-of sound — gritty, melodic sound.
That’s a very important part of my approach to music, to have melody and harmony. Early punk was really melodic, and hardcore came in and got to be such a big macho, yelling kind of thing. I find that to be really unpleasant. And when the post-punk and the post-hardcore kind of bands tried to go beyond that by being just very obnoxious, like that was a form of art in itself.
Are THE LOOKOUTS around in any way, shape, or form?
As a matter of fact, I just remixed a song yesterday that we recorded a year ago today, and it’s going to go on a compilation. But that’s the last time we actually recorded, because one of the guys is in GREEN DAY and another is in Germany for a year.
So it’s on hold for now?
It’s really on hold. We’ve got a few songs that have not yet been released. If we’re all in the same place, well probably play. I certainly hope we will, but there are no guarantees on it. I thought we were finally coming together when we last played. The 7″ we put out this year I was by far the happiest with out of everything that we did.
Any advice you would give to someone who is considering taking that step beyond using the scene and actually getting involved?
I would advise them to consider if that’s what they really want to do. And to be honest with themselves about their intentions, about whether they want it be a source of income or prestige or to make it a business, or do they just want to break even. An awful lot of people are very ambivalent about that and never can decide completely which they want. And it becomes a source of anxiety of frustration. A lot of people end up losing all of their money and getting all mad, saying, “The punk scene’s all fucked-up because they didn’t support my label.” Chances are, unless you’re pretty lucky, you’re not going to make a big success of it. We happened to be in the right place at the right time with some really great bands. Otherwise, we probably would have lost all of our money right from the start too and would’ve thought the punk scene’s a waste. I’m not trying to discourage people who are trying to get into it, but there is such an explosion of people doing independent records that I would strongly suggest that if someone just wants to make a contribution or to participate that they think about other things that they might do too. Magazines of course. Or video, although I don’t watch TV myself. But also political action in a more creative sense. Either voting, or joining parties or marching in protest, but also trying to figure out ways to gain access to the structures which run society. I think that’s a vital and important art form. One of life and death. Figure out how things work in your town or your neighborhood, and stop sitting back and griping about it and letting other people destroy it. Figure out how you and the people you trust and care about can take control of those things and make them work better for everyone. That, to me, is what punks should be graduating to, rather than bigger and better records and fanzine. Music should always be there. You can certainly sing and dance while you’re restructuring society and make the earth a habitable place for everyone.
What Lookout releases can we look forward to?
MR. T EXPERIENCE, a new GREEN DAY LP, and a little sooner than that, SCHERZO, which you may not be familiar with. They’re a new local band. We’re really pleased with them. And also NUISANCE, which is also a less-than-famous local band.