An Oral History Of Alternative Tentacles: 40 Years Of Keeping Punk Alive
Across the Bay from San Francisco, under a noisy freeway bridge in Oakland, inside an anonymous warehouse, hidden at the end of an echoey corridor, is the headquarters of legendary record label, Alternative Tentacles. Founded in June 1979 by Jello Biafra, what was originally a DIY vehicle to release Dead Kennedys records, slowly but surely turned into one of the most important and influential underground labels in the world. As the 40th Anniversary approaches, Kerrang! got a special, behind-the-scenes tour from General Manager Dominic Davi, and Head of Shipping/Customer Service Chris Shearer. The duo — along with emailed input from Dominic’s predecessors, Greg Werckman and Jesse Townley — told us anecdotes about what it’s like to work there, and secrets you won’t hear anywhere else.
Jello Biafra Hates Technology (Pt. 1)
“Jello wouldn’t use email,” explains Townley. “We used to have to print out and fax him important emails, then he’d write replies on the time-sensitive [papers] and fax them back, and then the office would type out his replies and return the email. I learned more about fax machines in my 15 years at A.T. than when they were actually regular office fixtures. Jello’s very first email is so hilarious, I pinned it to the office wall.” It’s still there, folks!
Ipecac Recordings Was Founded On The Principles Of A.T.
Greg Werckman went on to found Ipecac Recordings with Mike Patton (Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, Fantômas etc.) after his eight-year tenure as General Manager of A.T.“From the moment I met Jello, my outlook about what a record label should be changed,” Werckman says. “For Jello, it has always been, ‘Let the art speak.’ It is not about what the industry dictates or what the other labels are doing. It’s about the music and the artists. Jello is all about creative freedom and made sure that all artists on the label had as much say about how their record was presented. Charts, sales projections, hipster credibility? None of that matters. That leadership made for a very healthy and happy environment. Jello made sure that all bands were treated fairly. It set the blueprint for my future.”
Alternative Tentacles Offers Internships
The label operates an internship programme through a Berkeley radio station called KALX, but volunteers also come through via friends of friends. “Usually it’s people who want to learn more about a particular part of the music industry,” Dominic explains, “or marketing, or distribution, or how mail order is done. We’ve had a couple of people who’ve done that with us, then gone on to start their own labels, so it’s really cool.”
The A.T. Warehouse Has A Full Bar
“When I got here,” Dominic explains, “we decided to clear all this clutter from this weird shelf within a shelf we had. Once it was empty, we realised it was actually a bar so restoring this thing became a pet project for one of the interns. He upholstered it with velvet and studs, and painted a wood grain on it. Then he started bringing in booze samples and basically didn’t stop until we had a full bar set up. When bands come to visit, they go right to it. When I told Jello, he was like, ‘You bought a bar?!’ and I was like, ‘No. You already had a bar.’ He was like, ‘Where the hell did we get a bar?!’ I was like, ‘I don’t know, but think of it this way: you now have a secret drinking spot in the East Bay.’ I think he liked that part.”
Drinking Hours Are Prohibited
The A.T. equivalent of an open/closed sign comes in the form of a little plastic frame on the bar, containing pictures of straight edge legend Ian MacKaye on one side – indicating that the bar is closed – and Fear on the other, along with lyrics to their anthem, More Beer, as a nod that drinking hours have commenced. The system is largely dependent on whether or not a band has dropped by, and the (almost entirely fake) drinks menu is inspired by A.T. artists.
Check out Dominic behind the Alternative Tentacles bar below.
The A.T. Office Looked Like A Squat Until Recently
“It was a very crusty punk office before,” says Chris. “I was trained by crusty punks. It was just chaos. You could never quite find the thing that you needed to find. There were just notes about where things were, but those notes were all on a clipboard, or in corners, or hanging out in Jesse’s office. And the directions… literally, over there was called ‘the nook’ and that was ‘the cranny’. There were boxes to hold other boxes. It was insane. So, we’ve since added organisation to office training!”
There Is Treasure Here
The original piece of paper on which the famous A.T. bat logo was first designed is still in the office. It’s signed: “© WINSTON SMITH 1981. SUNDAY, MARCH 15, 1981” Dominic says the date is on there, “not because Winston thought it was a momentous occasion, more because he is meticulous with details. He’d done a couple of sketches before this one, but this was the original one used on everything.”
Why is this amazing artefact currently being held in a flimsy plastic folder? “Because crusty punks,” Shearer laughs. “We will get around to framing it any day now.” The rest of the office is a treasure trove of original cover art, gifts to Jello from artists, and the occasional weird artefact. “Who knows where that fuckin’ gas mask is from…” Chris shrugs.
Interns Don’t Know What To Do With Jello
“I’ve heard interns tell me that they basically treat Jello like a T-Rex when he comes in,” Dominic laughs. “It’s just like, ‘Don’t move or he’ll see us!’ Generally, they all get super nervous around him.” So how do you know which interns are safe to keep around? “Basically, you just can’t be creepy,” Dominic says. “If you can make Jello uncomfortable, by not letting him leave or something, that is a feat and you definitely have to go and never come back.”
Jello Biafra Hates Technology (Pt. 2)
When pop-punkers Tsunami Bomb recently signed to Alternative Tentacles, vocalist Kate Jacobi offered to take Jello to the Apple store she manages, so he could see all the latest products. Jello paused, pondered the offer momentarily, then enthusiastically declared: “Maybe it would be nice to see where evil is made!” (At the time of writing, Jello Biafra has still yet to step foot in an Apple store.)
The Pallet Jack Incident
In 2009, when Mordam/Lumberjack Distribution went under, it had a devastating effect on independent record labels, especially punk ones. “Everyone – every punk label you’ve ever heard of – had used Mordam for years,” Dominic explains, “and subsequently lost a bunch of money. A.T. was one of the worst affected.”
In the process of trying to recover whatever stock they could, Alternative Tentacles employees headed to the Mordam warehouse and reclaimed their record boxes, taking one of Mordam’s pallet jacks with them in the process. Years later, when Dominic realised how much space the thing was taking up, he offered the equipment to Fat Wreck Chords in an hilarious email.
“It’s the best used pallet jack in the universe, despite being painted yellow,” Dominic wrote. “I’m surprised it doesn’t have a name like Excalibur, or Liftie. Jackie would be too obvious, so we just never went there…”
Fat Wreck declined the offer, but did very enthusiastically suggest selling it online using the email Dominic had sent them. At some point, PunkNews stumbled across that ad and decided to run a very tongue-in-cheek story titled Famous Punk Rock Artifact For Sale. Thanks to its hilarious text (“The jack not only served the necessary function of transporting heavy vinyl hundreds of yards, but also raised and lowered said pallets slightly,”) the jack eventually sold to Second Pressings Vinyl in Oakland.
The real punchline though, is that when word got through the punk grapevine to Jello that some label was selling the item, he immediately called Dominic and asked, ‘Hey, do we need a pallet jack? Someone’s got one for sale…’
The entire staff of Fat Wreck Chords is reportedly still “howling” over the entire incident.
No-One Gets Hired Off The Street
The best way to get a job at Alternative Tentacles is being active in the Bay Area punk scene. “They’ve gotta know you, or know of you, or have enough people to vouch for you,” Dominic – also bassist of Tsunami Bomb – says. He came to the label from Kung Fu Records, having also played many shows with Townley, who was the frontman of The Criminals.
“When Jesse was moving on,” Dominic explains, “he basically picked me and asked me to come in.” Chris arrived at A.T. after interviewing for an already-filled position at Fat Wreck Chords and being recommended by them. He is also well-known in the local scene, thanks to being bassist and vocalist of melodic punk quartet Build Them To Break.
“Jello Wrangler” Is An Actual Job Title
“And we are all Jello wranglers here,” Dominic says. Does Jello know they call it that? “Yes,” he nods. “We’ve got a very spirited punk rocker there…” So how does one wrangle Jello Biafra? “Guilt,” Dominic laughs. “It takes a certain amount of assertiveness,” Chris adds, “to get him convinced that the thing you’re saying is really what you actually mean. Sometimes it has to be a team effort.”
Jello Biafra Hates Technology (Pt. 3)
“For decades, there was a picture of Jello next to ‘Luddite’ in the dictionary,” Jesse explains. “He took a while to understand that digital music is a legitimate format for music, alongside of vinyl, CD, cassettes, etc. He’s been really good with (eventually) changing course once he’s exposed to new information/new experiences though.”
The Trump Supporter Problem
Alternative Tentacles has a long history of making political statements. Two of their biggest selling T-shirts since America’s 2016 election are the ‘Nazi Trumps Fuck Off’ and ‘Trump Hates Me’ designs. Anti-Trump sentiments have also been expressed on the A.T Batcast podcast. So it came as a surprise to the staff to find out that there are Trump supporters who are also fans of A.T.“They think that Trump is punk,” Chris sighs. “He’s the chaos factor, so they see him as someone who’s fucking up the government. It’s amazing to me that people are surprised Jello is anti-Trump. Like, where have you been?!”
“This label has questioned every single president – including Obama – since 1979,” adds Dominic, “and we will continue to do so. We support questioning everything, we are feminists, we like to challenge norms, and we aren’t afraid to take a side. I’ll say it again: If you support Trump, fuck you. That shaking things up you love so much is destroying people’s lives.”
Jello Is Very Hands On With Artists
Jello acts as Alternative Tentacles’ A&R guy, and listens to every single demo the label is sent. He’s also not afraid to intervene if he thinks a band could sound better. “Recently we had a band recording, and he heard the initial mixes and was like, ‘Nope! No, no, no!’” Dominic recalls. “And he very aggressively, in a very Jello way, inserted himself into this, and sent a ton of notes to the mixer. The band was willing to try it his way and in the end, it became totally awesome because of that. Noticeably better. In the end, the final call is up to the band, and he always respects that, but Jello has a strong point of view and A.T., from beginning to end, is an extension of that.”