A quick visit to Philly based punk record label SRA Records‘ website reveals the quirky, jagged sense of humor that belies the countenance of label owner BJ Howze, a person whose personal growth has been as steady and pointed as his releases. If you were a fan of BJ’s noise-and-drums duo Hulk Smash and their in-your-face, “The Onion headline if written by Chomsky as heavy metal lyric” brand of punk, then you know what I’m talking about. But despite the adherence to punk’s need to shed light, tongue-in-cheek, on the troubling nuances of living in the world, it’s the evolutionary process — the growing up, the having kids, the accepting of your social position in the world and what kind of positive power that can yield — that has kept SRA continually challenging staid long-held punk notions of do-it-yourself, broadening the concept of punk community but retaining all of its power, humor and intelligence. From releases by agit-grunge outfit Psychic Teens, to the blistering wall of noise political chaos of Soul Glo, the label has stretched its sonic boundaries. By opening up his studio and label while providing support for bands that feature historically marginalized people, BJ has vowed to push social boundaries as well.
After seeing him around the punk scene for years, I finally officially met BJ after my band (Solarized, whose debut LP BJ also has agreed to release on SRA) played a show at a dive bar in South Philly and we’ve been making moves to work on projects together ever since. And while our prog-rock synthwave band might not ever see the light of day– and besides, BJ does duty with his wife and principle song-writer Helen in the band Dialer, holding it down in that admittedly slight genre already– it was an honor to work with him as he graciously lent his expertise to an event I put together, Electrifest (a queer/lgbt empowering event highlighting the avant-garde queer and POC led music scene on the east coast). We sat down with BJ to discuss the maturation process and what it’s like to help erase boundaries in the strange, often bewilderingly unforgiving world of punk rock.
The Key: What record was the catalyst for SRA Records and what was the climate of the scene like then? How has the punk community evolved (devolved?) since that first release and what do you think SRA’s role has been in that progression (lack of progression?)? What more could SRA be doing?
BJ Howze: SRA came into being around 2008/9 to put out my own music and some for friends. The idea was that I would be organized enough to get some kind of distribution and have a simple platform for myself and bands I was friends with to sort of self-release music in a somewhat professional way. That never really panned out. Getting distribution at that time was next to impossible because the record industry was in a death spiral. I had already self-released the Hulk Smash album before this and had distribution for that, but when trying to get a whole label set up with a similar situation it wasn’t working out as planned. I helped with a few releases for APE!, Ugh God and my own bands Dangerbird and Hulk Smash. The big change in the label from an idea to a real project was while recording a four way split CD with Dangerbird backing Jim Mcmonagle from FOD on five tracks. During the sessions we got to talking about how the FOD stuff was out of print. I thought it was a travesty that these songs weren’t available and made it my mission to make it happen. At that point SRA became a real label. I was easily able to secure distribution and started working on getting all of their records back in print.
At the time we started the scene was pretty diverse musically, but not personnel-wise (read: white guys). Bands were more in a rock or noise direction then and it seemed like bands were kind of avoiding politics in general. This is just what I’m remembering of course. When we re-released The First 100 Songs by +HIRS+, it raised the political awareness of both the label and the image people outside of Philadelphia had of Philly. It seems like since then, things have taken more of a political leaning here. I would like to encourage that as much as possible and as long as it’s genuine. I would like to be able to have more bands like Soul Glo, +HIRS+, Solarized that represent strong ideals that I can get behind. There are a bunch of bands in Philadelphia that I like (and I only work with bands from the area). If I hit the lottery I would have a long list of records coming out. The thing I could and should be doing is working with more women artists. Besides the +HIRS+ records and the Trophy Wife LP I did, I am not putting in the work I should to make sure women are represented by the label. Hopefully this year I can have a release or two that will correct that to some degree.
TK: What drew you to bands like Soul Glo and +HIRS+, bands whose vision is uncompromising, whose ideas about liberation, and whose criticism of the straight white hegemony take center stage in their lyric and artistic presentation? Have you felt any backlash for being directly involved with those kinds of acts?
BJH: I don’t think I’ve had any backlash at all from working with either act. Working with +HIRS+ has given me the opportunity to see what would be the otherwise hidden ignorance in some acquaintances of mine. I wrongly assumed that other straight cis guys have educated themselves on trans / queer issues enough to talk about this stuff even in the simple context of bands/music. When someone I like and respect throws around a slur not even knowing that it was a slur, it gives me an opportunity to first correct them on word usage and then discuss a little bit about the band and the people in it. I think a band like +HIRS+ or Soul Glo just existing is a mind blowing thing for some people.
I am drawn to both of these bands first and foremost because they are absolutely fantastic bands. When I first heard +HIRS+, it blew my mind. They practiced at my rehearsal studio and I knew them from their old band from before they lived in Philly. They had a self-released record that sold out instantly [that I was a huge fan of] and wanted to help them take their message to the next level. So I approached them about re-releasing the record hoping it would reach a wider audience. It has been a great relationship and I love everything I’ve done with them. I booked Soul Glo on an FOD show after Yoni Kroll sent me their Bandcamp page. I hadn’t seen a picture of them, I didn’t know anyone in the band and I didn’t know what their politics were. The second I saw them play I was in love. They are a fantastic band, their message might be hard for some to handle but it’s an important voice that needs to be heard. I don’t have the experiences that either of these bands have, but I can (try to) understand them and I am happy to support them and give them a platform to say what they have to say.
TK: One of our more recent collaborations was during Electrifest, a queer music festival highlighting the diverse LGBT/POC music scene in Philly and surrounding areas. You supported us by providing the entire back-line free of charge, even did labor setting it up. Is that how you define being an ally to marginalized people, resource sharing and physical labor? Why do you think it’s hard for white males to extend themselves into that kind of activism and allyship within the punk and indie scenes?
BKH: I have advantages in life that can benefit people trying to do interesting and different things. I am a partner in a recording, rehearsal and live sound business and if I can use my equipment and abilities to help people do something different or important without it being a huge headache for me, it seems like the least I can do. I provided backline for Elecrifest, we did backline and Joe (my partner at Red Planet Recording) and I both did sound at Break Free Fest as well as helping with some organizing and scheduling. I also provide PA equipment to benefit shows at low or no charge depending on availability.
I really didn’t think of it as allyship, it just seemed like the right thing to do. There is an idea that “if you don’t like ____, why don’t you do your own ____”, but it’s completely ridiculous to assume that someone who has never been able to fully take part in this scene could just, without 20+ years of connections, experience, “clout” could just step into the role of fest organizer / promoter without the help and support of people with some experience or resources. I can’t speak for all middle aged white guys, but I think some of the reason people aren’t there to help is they either feel like they have nothing to offer or that they’ll be stepping on someone’s toes, or that they’re just nervous to step up and take part. Both Electrifest and Break Free Fest were fantastic shows that I was proud to be a part of. Break Free was probably the best hardcore show I’ve ever been to. I felt like a kid again and would do as much as I could to help make it happen again.
TK: Has being a father changed your perspective on DIY and punk? How so?
BJH: The cliche would be that “having a daughter made me a feminist” but in some ways it really made me think differently about how the world is set up for young people and what my kids would see as examples in their lives. I’ve made sure that my daughter has seen women on stage, thanks in no small part to [Trophy Wife/Exotic Fever’s] Katy Otto putting on a kid friendly show during the day at The Rotunda. I think it’s really made me realize that we are the authority, we are creating our own world/scene here and what we do is what exists and if there is something important to us we need to be the ones to be sure it happens.
TK: How has working in a band with your awesome wife been? How do you guys juggle band/label/organizing and parenting?
BKH: My wife Helen and I play in a band called Dialer. We’ve been together for a long time so we work pretty well together. She writes most of the bass parts first and I add parts to it here and there, then I program drums around that and add guitar parts and then take it to the rest of the band to finish. Right now, we practice at my studio space but we are working on making a space in our home a practice space so we don’t have to spend so much of our free time running to and from practice. We have two young kids so band stuff is hard to make work around our schedule. We can’t make it to shows until after our youngest goes to bed and we always ask to play first so we can leave in a hurry if we need to.
TK: What is the inspiration for Dialer? Sonically it’s very different from most punk bands.
BJH: Expressing frustrations creatively in a different way. Helen started teaching herself bass a little while back as a way to have a creative outlet. She has a very different way of creating music than I have done in the past. It’s been very interesting and fun for me to have a different framework than I’m used to working with. We have Kelly Keith on vocals, Yoni Kroll on synth and sax, Helen on bass and I’m playing guitar and programming the drums.
TK: What are SRA’s upcoming releases?
BJH: We’ve got a new FOD record that I’ve been working on for a while now. HIRS reissues as well as something new from them. Maybe something for Dialer. The Solarized LP and maybe a couple other things if everything goes according to plan.
To hear more music from the SRA Records catalog, dig into their Bandcamp catalog.
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