Paul Dechichio—the guy behind Tor Johnson Records—is a prolific drummer, having played in numerous Providence bands. He is also the former owner of Cathartic Records, a Providence record store in business in the early ‘00s. In this bonus interview, we got to talk a little in depth about his bands, Alpha Owl and Best Practices, including why he’s usually the band dad, the story of Cathartic Records, and the dramas surrounding the first three Tor Johnson releases.
To read a completely different interview in print:
Interview by Paul J. Comeau
Paul: Alpha Owl’s gone through a few iterations.
Tor Paul: [Laughs]. It has. It started out as a hilariously awesome hardcore band called Dumbell, which was about us lifting weights even though we were all grossly out of shape. We’ve since changed our sound, and are now more of a Sabbath-y rock’n’roll band. We had another name at one point, but we realized that name was taken, so we changed it to Alpha Owl.
Paul: You’ve played drums in bands for as long as I’ve known you. What drew you to drums and what other instruments have you played?
Tor Paul: I always wanted to play drums. I don’t know if it still happens, but when I was in fourth grade you went to a school meeting if you wanted to be in the band, picked your instrument, and you could do a rent to own for your instrument. I wanted to play the drums, but my parents thought this was a horrible idea. They did not want me to have a drum set in the house. At the time, I accepted that. I played the saxophone, which I enjoyed immensely, from fourth grade until I was a senior in high school. I played all the different types of saxophones. In high school I picked up the clarinet, and I played that for a few years as well. Sophomore year, I finally said to myself “I want to start a band.” Obviously, I did not want to play clarinet or saxophone in said band [laughs]. I finally convinced my parents to let me buy a drum set, and it’s been downhill ever since.
Paul: You’ve all ready got a lot that you’re juggling, so I have to ask, when you’re in your band setting, are you the band dad?
Tor Paul: Man, I have always been the band dad. Oh my god, I sort of hate it [laughs].
Paul: How does this happen?
Tor Paul: I honestly don’t know how I end up being band dad. I guess it’s my personality. I’m always the one to suggest doing stuff. It’s the same personality that has me have a million sub-projects all the time. It’s been interesting in the past couple bands because in Best Practices I would call myself a co-band dad. Jeff Byers, who is the guitarist and singer of Best Practices, is also very much a band dad. And he has definitely been band dad in other bands he’s been in. So I would say we co-band dad-ed. We were the band family. The band parents, if you will. We were the ones that ended up making all the decisions about recording and wrangling all the other guys for shows and trying to figure out what we wanted to do. It wasn’t just me saying, “So you guys want to go on tour now?” which is what had happened in previous bands.
In Alpha Owl, I consciously have been trying not be band dad, which is new for me. It sort of just falls into my lap normally, and I just roll with it. I’ve been consciously trying to make the other dudes make the decisions and sort of following along.
Paul: How has that been working?
Tor Paul: Off and on. For the most part it’s been working pretty well. There’ve definitely been some aspects of it that I’ve ended up band dad-ing.
Paul: Like what kind of things?
Tor Paul: Just like most of the time when we get show offers, they’re directed at me because everyone is used to me being band dad. So then I just have to relay them on. So there’ve been certain things that I need to band dad, but for the most part I’ve been trying not to.
Paul: Tell me a little about Cathartic Records.
Tor Paul: Cathartic Records was a great idea on paper. It was a space that now is nothing, but it had been three record stores previously, one of them being Contrast Records, owned by Al Barkley who helped pave the way for what I’ve done with Tor Johnson. This space went up for sale and it was pretty cheap and came with all the inventory, so I bought it with a friend of mine. We co-owned it for about six months or so until that friend decided to use some money from it for personal expenses without letting me know. I then took over the business from him and it lasted a total of two, two and a half years until it got to a point where I just couldn’t run it anymore. I closed the business and sold everything off. For a while it was a wonderful show space in town called Summer Camp, and there were people living there. And now it’s an office building.
Paul: Was it the situation with the friend that started to make things go downhill?
Tor Paul: It was definitely tough to recover from that. We had started doing shows in the record store to try and draw business, but there were a lot of things wrong with that record store. It was not a very good location, on the third floor of this very old building. It was right in downtown which was nice, but it was difficult to get people to walk up. It got to a point where it was either move it somewhere and try and make it work, or close it. It was the best thing in my life at the time to just close it.
Paul: When was this?
Tor Paul: This was around the time of the They And The Children record. It was around the time I’d signed an exclusive deal with Independent One Stop. You’ll notice that between the They And The Children record and the three-way split, there was a long period of time between releases, and it was because I was running that record store. The label sort of took a back seat.
Paul: For the first Tor Johnson release, how was it decided to do a Gorilla Biscuits tribute? Was that just the consensus of everyone involved? What other ideas were thrown around?
Tor Paul: I forget how it came about. I believe I was talking to my roommate at the time about bands that it would be cool to do a tribute record for. Gorilla Biscuits has always been the band that got me into hardcore. There were lots of bands that I was listening to at the time, but that band struck such a chord, that I figured it would be a fun spot to start.
It was sort of just an idea in the back of my head until I started talking to the guys in the bands at that show. I was like, “So what do you guys think of Gorilla Biscuits?” Every single person in all of those bands was like, “That is the best idea. We’ll go and record it tomorrow.” It was perfect. Everyone was just so into it that it just ran away from there. It was also a good first release in my opinion, because there’s so much extra that goes along with doing a tribute record that doesn’t go into a regular release. You need to contact the original band, contact the original label, you have to get permission, you have to pay royalties, and you have to go through all these extra steps that don’t go into putting out a record that is original music. It was a good test for me, because if I was able to get this one accomplished, then doing original stuff would be a breeze. It was great. Revelation Records was amazing to work with. They were very helpful. They took on a bunch of records to distro and were great about the whole thing.
Paul: Your second release, the Now Denial Brothers Not Fighting 7” was technically TJR 004. What became of TJR 002 and 003?
Tor Paul: At this point, they will probably never see a full release. What happened is proof that I was a new person to running a business, and I learned a cardinal sin which I will never repeat, which is numbering releases before they exist in real life. At this point, releases don’t get numbers until they go to the plant. Release number two was supposed to be a vinyl version of Closer Than Kin’s Dead Flowers for a Dying Lover, which was released on CD by All About Records. They were a great New Bedford band. Their Misfits cover, which appears on the download for the Ten Year Anniversary, was going to be added and it was going to be an LP with that. Nobody in the band could decide on artwork, nobody could decide on much of anything, and then the band just stopped existing, so there was no point to continue.
Release number three is one of the ones I am most upset about not existing. There was a band called The Defeat, who were a high school-age band from Middleboro, Mass., with an amazing punk/indie sound similar to Moment out of Boston who was around at the time. That was also cardinal sin number two, where I paid to have them record at a pretty nice studio. Once it was done being recorded and in the process of being mastered, they kicked out their singer and the lead guitarist, and changed their sound to—in my opinion—not nearly as good of a sound. I was at a point where it was mastered, but I never actually sent it to the plant. Those kids never paid me back for the recording, and the record just doesn’t exist. I loved those songs though, which is why I included them in the download for the Ten Year Anniversary 7”. They were a good band, and it’s too bad.
Paul: As both a promoter and a musician yourself, what’s the importance of basement shows, or shows at smaller venues, vs. shows at clubs or larger spaces?
Tor Paul: You’re going to get more out of the conversations and the people at a smaller venue, but you can see the scope of the community and the scope of the music at a larger-scale show or a fest. One is about the music and how widespread it can be, and the other, while it is about the music and amazing bands playing, there’s a more personal aspect to it.
Paul: Do you think one plays a bigger role in keeping the scene going than the other?
Tor Paul: Honestly no. I feel like both have parts that are very important and both play a role in the scene. They’re like the yin and yang of punk rock The idea that a band should play basements forever though is stupid. It’s small minded. The idea that a band shouldn’t have those experiences is equally as small minded.
Paul: Is it a reward for time spent?
Tor Paul: I don’t feel like it’s a reward for time spent, so much as the bigger show is going to bring in people who wouldn’t even know about the basement show. You can’t expand the scene strictly on basement shows or smaller, strictly DIY shows. It’s more limiting to expand the scene from that. You can’t publicize as much, it might be at an illegal venue, who knows? There’s a number of limiting factors, not only limited space. Not everyone’s gonna know about it. Something bigger, with a band who might draw more people might have an opener who still regularly plays basement shows. Someone might like them, might talk to them, and might start going to some of these more DIY shows. The two feed off each other.
Paul: So the bigger shows are more like an entry point?
Tor Paul: It could be. It’s definitely an easier entry point for some people. It’s a stepping stone. Most people didn’t come about this scene by going to a cool hipster warehouse show. Rarely is that ever your first show. Your first show is like, for me the first concert I went to without my parents was Smashing Pumpkins on the Melancholy tour. It was at the Garden, it was huge, I could hardly see them. They were like ants on the stage [laughs]. It’s all about stepping stones. Nobody dives right in.