Fascinated with what it takes to run a record label out of Lafayette, Indiana, I met with Max Campbell and Joe Yakamicki of Oi! the Boat Records to discuss the ins and outs of operating a punk label in flyover country. And then, inspired by our conversation, I spent the next two days researching the history of local punk music and fell down a Google vortex, finding myself alone on Saturday night reading old blog reviews of Tramlaw and Gadfly albums of yore.
Maybe the first thing to know about how Oi! the Boat, a local independent record label specializing in punk, oi!, ska, and hardcore bands, and how it fits into the Lafayette music scene, is that Lafayette has a long history of nurturing a punk aesthetic.
Early bands like Dow Jones & The Industrials (70s) and Gadfly (80s) experienced notoriety and brushes with fame, and later emo and hardcore bands like Walker, Summerfield, and Scab, among others, commanded numerous shows around town and around the Midwest in the 1990s. After 2000, bands like The Mans and The Sweet Sixteens carried the torch. Dozens of other excellent bands have come in and out of the scene, staffing and overlapping the same seasoned musicians in a Venn diagram of notable people looking to make good music.
During the late 80s and early 90s, there were also venues almost exclusively dedicated to live music for young people that had a punk-heavy lineup. Semi-legal house parties were abound with great bands from the 80s through the present. Door #3 (90s) in downtown Lafayette hosted many, many local punk and metal shows, as well as University Church, the Wesley Foundation, the Von’s parking lot, and Garcia’s Pizza (subsequently Roxy’s). Downtown Records, Tazzma’s ROCK-O-RAMA, and Zooleger’s hosted in later years.
I asked Max about his favorite memories of the scene in his earliest days in Lafayette. “I was personally always a huge fan of Chris Benedyk’s bands,” he says.
“…Indian Boys, the Places, the Mans. The shows were always an entertaining shit show that usually involved more than one bodily fluid and some nudity. The first time I came to play a house show in West Lafayette, my band Bastards Choir was playing after the Indian Boys, which was also the first time I met Chris. After watching an incomprehensible set, Chris punctuated it by vomiting on the microphone for their last song. They walked away from the gear at the same time the sound guy let us know that there was, in fact, only one microphone, but didn’t seem to understand why that was an issue.”
Joe and Max both assert that Lafayette is a hotbed of experienced musicians eager and willing to collaborate, despite the challenges of building and sustaining a live audience. Joe has taken the time to digitize some of the rarest recordings from some of the shorter-lived bands so others can enjoy them too :
“I still listen to The Turners demo (best thing ever recorded in Lafayette) pretty often. Eric and the Happy Thoughts LP still makes it to my turntable as often as a few times a week… I liked checking out bands like Walker and the Smegmites when I first moved here and then, later, sharing bills with other local bands like Usurp Synapse. Nearly all of the best times happened during times when most people wouldn’t be caught dead anywhere other than in front of the stage during the opening and headlining bands.”
Oi! the Boat was very much borne of this time and era. Both Max and Joe came to Lafayette separately as Purdue students, and both stayed in Lafayette because, as Max put it, “the cost of living is low enough to extend yourself,” to say, support a band tour, or to run an internationally-loved record label out of your home.
Their assimilation into the local music scene was swift. During his first week as a Purdue student in 1995, Joe saw a flyer promoting a show at Door #3 and figured out how to walk from campus to downtown Lafayette to catch a live show. Max, already a performing musician during high school, played a show at University Church during his first week as a freshman at Purdue in 2004. Joe and Max met through mutual friends as members of noted acts like Bastards Choir, Hudson Falcons and The Brassknuckle Boys.
Joe started Oi! the Boat as a digital distribution-only record label to release recordings for The Brassknuckle Boys, and helped distribute digital records for local acts such as the Green Room Rockers. Today Oi! the Boat Records has grown into an internationally recognized independent label with a back catalog of vinyl and digital releases from some thirty acts from all over the world. Their fans are rabid superfans, sporting tattoos of the ship- and anchor-heavy label art, and signing up to receive digital and vinyl copies of new releases months before the release date. Their fans range from famous musicians like Lars Frederiksen of Rancid, who also signed with Oi! for his newest project Old Firm Casuals, to crusty old school connoisseurs who like the curated band list and personal, DIY vibe.
They are, in addition to co-owners of the label, bandmates in The Gestalts. They are joined by fellow Gestalts TJ Maxfield, Richie Brumbaugh, and Trent Downey.
What’s the most important aspect of their label? They both agree: the individual attention paid to choosing the catalog of artists and packaging a quality product.
Joe emphasizes the “boutique” aspect of running a label — your power is in curating a consistent, quality sound. If you like one band, the chances of you enjoying the rest of the catalog are high. When you become a repeat customer, you might find some special goodies in the box. Just as each band carried by the label is hand-picked by the team, each order is hand-packed by the team. Joe says:
“I recognize names of customers, constantly. Often, we will run into people when we are at shows across the country and we will recognize their name because they have ordered from us a bunch of times. Many times, I’ll remember the city they come from. We often include little notes in packages and a host of other things that a regular “business” probably doesn’t do. We do it because of a genuine connection we have with our fans/customers, not as a marketing ploy. Our customers like what we love. That’s a pretty good basis for genuine connections.”
Contrary to mainstream wisdom in a digital age, they believe in the viability of vinyl. “As a serious collector, you want to hold something in your hands,” Joe said. “And the sound [on a record] is superior to digital.” The process of putting a recording on vinyl is complex, but it’s a more enjoyable result for the listener. He explains:
“We, in one way or another, become aware that a band is really good and available to release new material. The band records, or more often than not, has already recorded. We get the music off for lacquer mastering — that’s where the music is adjusted to work on vinyl and then etched in to a “lacquer”. The lacquer is sent for plating — that’s where it is electroplated with metal. The metal parts are used to make stampers that will be used to press the actual vinyl records. The first run will be 3 to 10 copies that are sent to us [for testing]. We evaluate them and either give the plant approval to proceed with the full run or we fix mixing/stamping/whatever errors and do it all again.”
Max and Joe also do most of the album artwork, or have it printed here locally. By pre-ordering a record, you get access to an immediate digital version of the tracks. They aren’t worried about stealing, Joe says, or about the tracks getting dispersed digitally before the records ship. “It’s part of the landscape now. People steal music. It doesn’t bother us — we see it as a promotional opportunity.”
Max spoke at length about what makes Oi! the Boat different from some of their peer labels:
“The prevailing ethos behind everything we do comes from a DIY work ethic that [we learned] growing up in the punk scene. Whether it be web design, art work, shipping and receiving, customer service, or physically assembling the package—we’ve always taken on the various elements of the business ourselves and figured out the best and most cost effective method of producing our product.
Because of our DIY emphasis, our label occupies a niche location in the punk landscape. We don’t put out the nicest product, our packaging isn’t the fanciest, and we don’t often do extravagant color vinyl configurations—there’s tons of labels that do that and their products are great, but we have a far more hands-on approach. The quality and sound of the records we put out stands up to anything anyone does, but after that we go down a separate path, sourcing as much material as we can locally (we’ve gotten about 98% of our 7” sleeves printed at Instant Copy on Main St.), we like to get as much material made in the USA as we can, and we hand-assemble most of our records ourselves.
This process is obviously costly in terms of the time it takes to do everything ourselves, but it’s usually not hard to round up a couple friends to help if we have a few beers to offer. The end result is that we end up offering a product that’s highly stylized because of the culture that we’ve created to bring our product to life. People can get records from lots of labels, and we hope they do, but when someone orders a record from Oi! the Boat—they know that they’re getting something that was put together by a couple guys busting their ass to make it work in their free time.”
What are the lows? Max was pretty candid. The amount of time it takes to run this operation in addition to doing your day job can be a strain on your personal life. I asked Joe what, other than seed money and passion, a person needed to run a outfit like Oi! the Boat. His answer: Money and passion. The money is important for obvious reasons, he says, but there’s nothing that will keep you going when you’re packing records in a freezing warehouse at 2am and you have to be at your day job at 8am the next day, without a real passion for the music and the people.
What are the highs? The highs run pretty high. Max:
“Of all of the great moments, the time where Joe and I felt most like ‘we had arrived’ was when we got invited to the Rancid and Cock Sparrer 20th and 40th anniversary shows in San Francisco in April 2012 as guests of the band. The shows themselves were amazing, but getting to hang out and watch them from the side of the stage made me realize how far we’d come.
Joe and I both grew up in small rural Indiana communities, I used to stand at the shows; pressed, sweaty, and screaming lyrics at the barrier while jealously wondering how I got to be one of those people sipping beer in comfort on the side of the stage. Finally being in that position and realizing all of the hard work and sacrifice that that had entailed, I felt a real moment of vindication.”
The weekend culminated in a brunch with members of both bands, as well as many heavy-hitters in the punk rock record industry who treated us as industry peers. The whole scene was surreal and something I will never forget. I found punk rock through a series chance occurrences, and I learned to play guitar by spending all my free time playing along to albums of bands that included Rancid and Cock Sparrer, and then over a decade later I’m at a brunch playing hide-and-seek with the kids from members of those bands so that they can get a free second to do an interview. From a professional prospective, that was a weekend that served to validate all of the hours that Joe and I had poured in at the margins of our lives, burning the candle at both ends.”
Militia Mondays: Lafayette Punk 101 podcast [mp3]
A musical history of Lafayette according to Pat McClimans, circa 2002.