Chris Dodge was a pivotal figure in the early 90’s powerviolence scene. In addition to playing in bands like Despise You, Lack of Interest, and, of course, the legendary Spazz, Chris started the hugely influential and fondly remembered label Slap a Ham Records, in order to put out releases by bands like Man Is The Bastard, Infest, Crossed Out, Capitalist Casualties, Noothgrush and countless others. M3 caught up with Chris to discuss filesharing’s impact on the industry, the art of the split release, and why 9/11 may have played a role in the label’s downfall…
M3 – First of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself, and what it is that you do?
Chris Dodge – I’m an artist, musician, & writer, based in Los Angeles, formerly from San Francisco. I’m known primarily for my old record label, Slap A Ham Records, and some bands I’ve played in, such as Spazz, Despise You, Lack of Interest, Low Threat Profile, Stikky, No Use For A Name, and a few others. I still make noisy sounds, most recently with To The Point and Bacteria Cult, but I try dedicate most of my creative time to painting oil or acrylic portraits of animals. Seriously.
What inspired you to start the Slap a Ham label? What is your own musical background?
Back in the ‘80s, there wasn’t a glut of releases like there are nowadays. Many of my favorite bands had little or no interest from established labels. I started Slap A Ham Records to put out releases by the bands I really liked, who weren’t getting recognition. I played in several bands in the ‘80s (The Legion Of Doom, Stikky, No Use For A Name), who likewise, had very little label interest at the time, so that also prompted my motivation to do it myself.
In your farewell notice from the final Slap a Ham catalogue, you stated that the main reason for putting the label to rest was a financial one. Would you say that illegal music downloads played any part in this?
That was part of it, but strangely enough, the biggest impact was the financial aftermath of 9/11. After the terrorist attacks, everyone stopped spending money. Even though I was operating an “underground” label, the affects were the same on me. My mailorder disappeared, and my distributors weren’t able to ship very many of my new releases, because their stores stopped stocking inventory that wasn’t a guaranteed sale. Prior to 9/11, I used to be able to sell at least 1,300-2,000 copies of a new release. After 9/11, I was still pressing up to 2,000 copies of each new release, but I was only selling about 300 copies. I had a lot of dead inventory (I still have many boxes of some of these releases, even today), and couldn’t afford to release anything new. I was going deep into debt, so I decided to call it quits.
You also stated that after years of running the label, you were ready for a change. Do you still feel this way, or would you be interested in restarting the label if given the chance?
Every once in a while I think it would be fun to release records again, but vinyl is very expensive, and I don’t have the distribution network that I used to have. I could put out CDs, but free downloads would make it very difficult to sell enough in order to recoup my investment. Most of all, I don’t think I’d have any reason to put out releases again. At the time I started, there weren’t many people doing what I did. Now there are countless labels and individuals helping out unknown bands, and most bands now have the resources to do it themselves, which is the best thing for them to do anyway. I may release some of my own music again just for fun, but I doubt I’d ever attempt to run a label again.
Many people have claimed that there is no longer any money in record sales, and that touring is the most efficient way to earn an income as a band. How much truth do you think there is in this sentiment?
I think it’s absolutely true. Most people have a resource for free downloads, so releasing a CD is almost pointless, at least if someone is trying to make their money back from the release of that CD. Maybe as a promotional tool, a CD is useful, but that’s about it. If I was in a band that was trying to earn some sort of an income, I’d release our album for free, and make it available everywhere for free download. This would help get the name & the music out there quickly, and would gain us credibility for releasing a free album. Then I’d tour and bring 10 different T-shirt designs and other merchandise to sell. That’s the only way an independent band can make any money these days.
Much has been made of the supposed death of the record store in recent years. Do you believe the digital age has killed the record store, and if so, do you think that this is a necessary part of progression, or a tragic loss?
It has killed a lot of music stores, but I think it has killed most of the stores who were dumb enough to eliminate their vinyl stock in order to fill it with CD inventory. Nobody wants CDs. People still want vinyl, and it seems demand for vinyl has increased again in recent years. There will always be music stores, but I don’t think they will ever come back on the scale they once were. For me, it’s sad for nostalgic reasons, because I spent many hours of my life digging through racks of vinyl in music stores. The music culture has changed, and in the future I don’t think “passion” will win out over “convenience”.
What would be your preferred medium to listen to music (eg. Vinyl, CD, tape, MP3 etc.), and why?
I prefer vinyl because it’s a more tactile experience. I have tons of vinyl, CDs, cassettes, and even 8-tracks and ¼” Reel To Reel releases, and I listen to them all. In fact, I just bought a new 8-track player yesterday. But I do listen to MP3s most of the time, out of convenience, but not for fidelity. My iPod is my favorite investment. At any given time, my musical taste is constantly changing, so I like being able to listen to just about anything, anywhere. I download a lot of obscure music from online blogs, so I like to load up my iPod & listen to new things throughout my work week.
Do you feel the idea of an album, as a piece of art that people will listen to from start to finish, has been undermined or forgotten about in the digital age?
Absolutely. The ability to pick and choose select tracks, from any release, at any given time, has ruined the ability to present an album as a full-length concept, or a continuous work of art. I think the increasing ease of MP3 accessibility has resulted in shorter attention spans for your average listener. I’m the perfect example of that. I used to sit down with every album, listen to it from start to finish, read the lyrics, look closely at the artwork, and really try to tap into the experience that the artist intended. These days, I download a ton of music, but I can honestly say the care I used to invest in the listening experience is all but gone. I routinely skip through tracks & find the ones that grab me immediately. Sad but true.
Spazz were an extremely prolific band, putting out a large number of split releases in addition to albums and EPs. What is the main appeal of the split release for you, and would you say that the listening experience provided by a split differs to the experience a listener would get to a full length?
A split release is an art form of its own when executed properly. Spazz used to release a lot of split records with bands who were friends of ours, just because it was a fun idea to share a release with your pals. Although, some of them were with bands we didn’t know, but we thought the pairing was complimentary. Like the Spazz / Floor split 7”. I didn’t know the guys in Floor, but I asked the label to try to get them for a split release with us. The Spazz side was mostly short & fast, and the Floor side was one long, slow, sludgy track. Both bands were extreme, but from opposite sides of the spectrum, and it worked very well. The variety & contrast of a two-band release is my favorite thing about it.
Finally, what does the future hold for Chris Dodge?
Hard to say. I always plan one thing, and then do something else. If you asked me 10 years ago, I would have told you that I’d never play in a hardcore band again. But in the past decade I’ve been playing in more bands than I ever did before, and also went on tour (which I never thought I’d do again). I’m trying to paint as much as possible, and I’d like to incorporate my artwork on more album covers. My main goal is to spend time with my family, my wife & my son, but I’d also like to get them to be inspired & as creative as possible because they’re both brilliant.
For more information about Slap a Ham records, you can visit the official Myspace page.