An Interview with Underground Medicine: I figured if we split the costs, I’m only going to lose half as much! By Frame

Jun 26, 2012

Jim has been running Underground Medicine record distro for twenty years, with a focus on punk rock. Underground Medicine offers the best in garage, beach punk, power pop, glam punk and more. People are discovering everyday that mailorder is cool and fun even as buying records online continues to rise. Coming home and finding that box of records waiting for you makes your day, maybe your week. It is easier than ever to do, but the thrill is still the same. Back in the ‘90s though, if you were stuck in some shithole town, mailorder was essential. No doubt it still is in many locales, but many of us in the mid- to late-‘90s would drop an order to Underground Medicine every month. I can still remember how exciting it was when that monthly mailer showed up with the new arrivals typed out and ready for order. Tons of great punk, much of it limited to two to three hundred copies and guaranteed to not be there next time. Jim always stocked a great selection of zines too, classics like Jeff Dahl’s Sonic Iguana and, more recently, That’s Cool, That’s Trash. At some point, the Rapid Pulse record label became part of the operation and unleashed classics like a new Nikki Corvette single and that great LP from Young People With Faces from a few years back.

Mike: Did you grow up in Connecticut?
Jim: Yup. I actually lived in the same town, West Haven.
Mike: What music were you into before you discovered punk rock?
Jim: I forget the timeline exactly, but my first favorite bands were Aerosmith and Heart. Probably sometime before, during and/or after that were The Who, Kinks, and Rolling Stones. There were also Beatles and Led Zeppelin phases mixed in. Raised on classic rock, I guess. At some point I also had albums by the holy trinity of suck: Foreigner, Styx, and Kansas.
Mike: First punk stuff you heard?
Jim: Had to be The Ramones. This was probably early ‘79. I used to read about them and The Runaways in Creem magazine and was intrigued. Then a local college station played a half hour straight and I was instantly hooked! It’s hard to remember exactly, but at this time, Blondie, Talking Heads, Joe Jackson were starting to have hits and I really liked all that stuff. I don’t think at the time I knew that this was “punk-lite” or that it was lot different than what I had been listening to, but it was a natural progression to The Clash, Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, The Jam. Prior to punk, my favorite songs were all short, fast, driving stuff like “Paranoid,” “Highway Star,” “Immigrant Song,” and “Barracuda,” so I don’t think it was a stretch to jump on punk when I heard it. Of course back then, before hearing the Ramones, all I heard at school was “punk rock sucks” and I guess I just assumed it did suck.

Mike: First records you bought?
Jim: The first ever were Boston and Heart’s first LP’s. I still like a lot of Heart songs! For punk, it was End of the Century and London Calling—if you wanna call those punk. The first 45s were The Clash, White Riot and The Professionals, 1,2,3.
Mike: When did you first start collecting records?
Jim: There was a local record store that sold import singles at $2.75 each or two for $5.00. Even at that price, the paper route money didn’t go that far. That must have been 1980. I don’t know if I would consider it collecting at that point, it was more just getting new music.
Mike: What gave you the collecting bug?
Jim: Probably my obsession with Joan Jett! That’s the first time I remember buying the same songs because the sleeve was different and getting horrible compilations and soundtracks because there was I song I didn’t have on it. What was that soundtrack the Ramones’ “Chop Suey” was on? Had to have stuff like that. The other thing I remember was meeting someone who had all the Buzzcocks singles on Singles Going Steady. I thought that was pretty awesome and getting those was one of my first goals.
Mike: How many records do you have at this point?
Jim: I don’t really know as far as singles go, but it’s thousands. Nothing crazy, though. I know a lot of people who have way more. Before moving, I sold off more than half of my LPs. I have maybe a thousand of those at most. As a kid bringing records to the used record store to get credit was how I bought a lot of new ones. I never regretted not keeping everything. In recent years, I cleared out a lot of CDs, too. Not a lot of sentimental value there.
Mike: When did you first start the distro and what were the reasons for starting?
Jim: As best I can remember, 1992; making this the twentieth anniversary! The previous five years I worked at a record store, Rhymes Records, in New Haven. It was a great store, but then the last couple of years it started to fall apart until it finally went out of business. At that point, I couldn’t get the records I wanted for myself anymore and I was ordering from mail orders and labels and wasn’t too happy with how long I had to wait to get my stuff. I guess at one point I just decided to start doing it my self.
Mike: What has been the best or your favorite era for Underground Medicine?
Jim: I don’t remember if it was exactly my favorite at the time, but looking back, at least musically, the mid-‘90s when bands like the Devil Dogs, the Humpers, the Stitches, Teengenerate, Thee Headcoats, and the Muffs were cranking out the singles and the whole Rip Off Records thing was going on was probably the best. Of course, in the early days, I didn’t even have a computer and had the paper catalog, which was a major pain in the ass to put together. I definitely don’t miss that! Email and, much later, Paypal have made things so much easier. It’s kinda romantic to look back at the paper catalog days and think about how cool it was to actually hold something in your hands, but fuck that. I’d never go back.

Mike: Why did you move to Phoenix?
Jim: Mostly because my wife, Debbie. She had some health problems which have luckily gotten a lot better, though we can’t be sure if it was actually the climate change or not that helped. And I certainly didn’t mind getting out of the cold!
Mike: Why did you shift your focus to 7” singles for UMED?
Jim: Expense and space and I just like 45s better. Gradually, as prices started rising, it became more and more difficult to stock LPs. When they were five to six bucks for domestic releases and I could sell them for eight to nine, it wasn’t nearly as big of a deal when something didn’t sell. Now if I pay eighty to one hundred dollars for ten LPs and then only one or two copies sell, that’s pretty rough. Of course, the postage these days is way up and that pretty much eliminated getting albums from Europe. Now it’s tough to even afford 7”s. Furthermore, my customers were buying less and less LPs. I’m not sure if it was the prices going up or what. Back when the KBD- type comps were coming out and I got boxes from Europe with forty LPs inside, I’d blow through most of them in a couple of weeks. That was pretty fun.
Add in the space concerns—and once I knew I was moving—there was no sense in stocking a shitload of LPs that I’d have to move and then have no place to keep them. Also at some point, I developed some kind of musical A.D.D. I can listen to a 7” by a band and think it’s phenomenal and later get a full length by them that is every bit as good and I’m disinterested after the third song. Gimme a Tranzmitors or Cute Lepers single and I’ll love it. Gimme an LP and I’m bored pretty quick.
Mike: When did you start Rapid Pulse and why?
Jim: The first Rapid Pulse release was in 1997. Before that, a lot of people would ask why I didn’t have a label and many assumed that Underground Medicine was a label. I had thought about doing it for a few years, but figured I had my hands full with the distro—that was more than enough. Then Ritchie from Screaming Apple in Germany asked if I knew anyone in the U.S. that would be interested in putting out a Basement Brats single. I asked, “How about me?” He said, “Sure.” That became Rapid Pulse 2. In the meantime, the Apocalypse Babys from England sent me a tape—assuming Underground Medicine was a label—and I liked it. The next thing you know, I had a label.
Mike: How has the label compared to the distro over the years?
Jim: I look at the distro as being really successful. I started it with two hundred dollars and it’s been able to support itself ever since, so that’s pretty cool. At one point, I was actually making a few thousand dollars a year and was able to pay for trips to the Las VegasShakedown, Japan, and things like that. It’s probably been about six or so years since that was the case. Now, at best, it breaks even. The label’s been a disaster from the start! [laughs] Well, not a disaster because it’s been a lot of fun and there are some good records to show for it, but, financially, it’s been a losing proposition all along.
Mike: Reasons for going a few years between releases?
Jim: A couple of main reasons. One, the distro always supported the label. So, when it lost money, it wasn’t that big of a deal as Underground Medicine could cover it. Then it got to the point where Underground Medicine couldn’t cover it anymore and the label just stalled. Two, it just got so frustrating dealing with other distros and not getting paid when things did sell or the records themselves not selling. I just wasn’t into it anymore. It’s mentally exhausting working really hard on something and then no one seems to care. Add to that seeing other labels seemingly doing great. I didn’t particularly like them or their bands and that was just depressing. I never really wanted a Rapid Pulse back catalog with titles in stock. I wanted to put out a single, sell ‘em quick and be on to the next release. Hence, I often ended up selling singles off for a buck, just to clear them out. This isn’t a fucking warehouse! [laughs]
Fast forward to a couple of years ago and I started to get the bug again. My pals Rick and Paul of Hostage Records started a podcast—Surf and Destroy Radio—and they are so enthusiastic about their scene, that it was really infectious. Enter Marco from No Front Teeth in London and he was looking for a label for his band, The Gaggers, first release. We split the costs and it worked out really well. I figured if we split the costs, I’m only going to lose half as much! Since then, we did The Pegs, Crazy Squeeze, and the Paper Bags together and, hopefully, more will be on the way.

Mike: Did you ever think about opening a record store?
Jim: That was kinda the plan or dream when I started the distro, but then a lot of real life stuff got in the way and I knew it wasn’t going to happen.
Mike: What are the main differences between Connecticut and Arizona as a place to live?
Jim: Going from one of the bluest states, Connecticut, to one of the reddest, Arizona, took some major adjusting. Any time Arizona is in the news, it’s always something racist, sexist, or homophobic. It’s a fucking embarrassment!
When we moved in here and we met one of our neighbors, the first thing she asks was if we found a church yet and, if not, she has a wonderful one. Really? Get the fuck away from me! All the Republicans and holy rollers is a bit overwhelming. Most of the time, I get up and do record stuff, go to work, come home and do record stuff, try to relax a little, and off to bed. So a lot of the time it doesn’t matter a lot where I am. Arizona does have some good qualities. It’s so new compared to the East Coast. The streets and highways are huge. Despite the huge population, traffic generally isn’t too bad. You never find yourself sandwiched between two tractor trailers. If you have an appointment somewhere, you don’t have to worry about where to park, ‘cause there’s always a parking lot. There’s a lot of things like that, that are always a hassle back East, that here you never have to deal with. While the summer heat is oppressive and it lasts like five months, there are more nice days by February than there is all year in Connecticut. It’s also pretty awesome that there are a lot of mountains and hiking trails everywhere. Cactuses rule! Or is it cacti? Back East, I never went in to work on a Monday and had to listen to women talk about how much fun the gun show was and their new Glock!
Mike: What are your favorite Phoenix or West Coast stores?
Jim: I hardly buy any new records aside from what the distro gets in the mail. I love Vinyl Solution in Huntington Beach, TKO in Fountain Valley, and Red Devil in San Rafael. I’ve never actually been to any of them, but they seem cool!
Mike: What do you think about the current punk scene?
Jim: I really don’t have a clue as to what goes on with any punk scenes. I just know there isn’t much that thrills me. So much of what I hear is post punk this, folk noise that, and whatever indie crud that gets churned out that’s not rock’n’roll. I so miss the Devil Dogs! I know there’s a lot of good bands out there, but there’s just so much that’s supposed to be great—but it’s third rate solo Jay Reatard or whatever.
Mike: Future plans?
Jim: Right now I’m focusing on the label more than I have in years. Hopefully there’ll be a lot of upcoming releases that sell so I can afford to put out more. Probably just 7”s, but you never know...

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