Bullet Tooth Founder Josh Grabelle on Getting Back to What He Loves After Trustkill Records (EXCLUSIVE)
(C) 2012 Rick Barnhart
In 2010, Josh Grabelle found himself in a crappy position. Trustkill, the label that he started in 1993, that gave the world metal and hardcore game-changers including Poison the Well, Bleeding Through, Memphis May Fire, and Bullet for My Valentine was locked into an ugly situation with his distributor Fontana. "I got stuck into a deal with a company that stopped paying me," says Grabelle. "I spent a year and a half fighting with them. They didn't give a shit."
Rather than simply fold, Josh opted to start fresh. The result was Bullet Tooth. In just two years, he's not merely gotten the label off the ground but established a name, reputation and roster that not merely includes a few Trustkill stalwarts but more importantly has given rise to up-and-comers including Affiance, Kid Liberty and I, Omega So why start a new hardcore and metal label?
"I'm still finding bands I love – that's the bottom line," says Grabelle from his office in Tinton Falls, N.J. "I still get inspired by great music. I've been sitting here all morning listening to the new Affiance master and I'm fucking blown away. If I didn't have that feeling when I listen to these bands, then I'd go practice law or be a graphic designer."
The Trustkill story began nearly two decades ago when Grabelle released Land of Greed...World of Need, a homeless benefit record and tribute to Ian MacKaye s antediluvian emo outfit, Embrace, with "$400 left over from my Bar Mitzvah." Soon, releases from '90s luminaries including, Brothers Keeper and Poison the Well solidified Trustkill as one of hardcore's most trustworthy brands. 18 Visions Throwdown Walls of Jericho and Terror put them in the same league as mainstay hardcore labels including Victory and fellow Jersey-ites, Ferret. Trustkill even had an elusive gold record in 2005 with the release of The Poison, the album debut from Brit pop-metallists Bullet for My Valentine which has gone on to sell well over 500,000 copies to date.
Probably the worst sting from Trustkill's financial woes came in the form of public trash-talk from bands including Bleeding Through and Hopesfall "That was shitty too," says Josh, "I did everything I could to mitigate that but there's only so much I could do. Some of the bands came with me to Bullet Tooth: First Blood, Most Precious Blood Memphis May Fire." Between that and a flood of CD's returned from retailers who had either scaled down or gone out of business entirely, the final months of the label's existence nearly killed its owner. "For two years I funded the label from any and all savings I ever had and then some," Grabelle laments. "My credit is shot. I literally don't have credit anymore. I probably couldn't get a car loan at this point."
Grabelle isn't intending Bullet Tooth to be a one-note show. The smattering of records he's released so far cover the gamut from the mosh-tastic to the musically adroit: current faves include Cali progsters I, Omega, the Rise Against ish Affiance and the John Feldman (The Used, Papa Roach produced Throw the Fight. He's also just inked a deal with Death Ray Vision a straight-up hardcore side project from Killwitch Engage s Mike D. and Shadows Fall dread-knot Brian Fair. "I almost signed Killswitch before Carl [Severson – Ferret Records Boss] did except that they didn't want to sign for more than one record so I passed," he recalls.
Bullet Tooth's chief is quick to point out some of the challenges hunting down new bands in 2012. "Things move at a much faster pace now," Josh notes. "If I find a band I love, I have to make a decision right then and there. Am I willing to put money into this band? Am I willing to risk my brand? When I started Trustkill, I could find a band like Harvest. I would see the band on tour. Talk to them on the phone. I would go hang out with them. The band might even release a couple 7"'s and demos. Two years later, you'd have a band that is a seasoned, touring hardcore or metal band and I would make a move.
On the other hand, I have access to a lot more at my fingertips: I can go to YouTube and see what a band looks like, how they are live and how they interact with their fans.
"I wish bands had a little more staying power these days," he continues. "I feel like a lot of these hyped bands come and go so fast. I feel bad for dudes in bands. That feeling you get when you're getting traction, developing a fan-base and finally being able to pay a bill here and there is fleeting. Look at bands like Ignite or Sick of it All They still are able to hang onto the fans they've made over the years. Now, there's too many bands out there that can kill it on Warped Tour this summer but by next summer can they fill a bar?"
When asked to respond to a comment Sumerian's Ash Avildsen made to Noisecreep about Trustkill's demise being tied to the label's more commercial and eclectic signings (and loss of brand power), Grabelle is unapologetic.
"I don't regret any signing I ever did," says Josh. "I signed this band called Fight Paris from Atlanta. I still get people saying how far ahead of its time it was. There are bands they paved the way for bands like Atilla. That first Crash Romeo record still scanned over 10,000 records – hardly a failure. People even said that Bullet for My Valentine was an Atreyu rip-off! Fast forward 18 months, it was the most successful record I ever did."
Trustkill is hardly the only casualty of the worsening climate for the independent labels and their owners. After 12 years, Hydra Head the label owned by Isis mainman Aaron Turner has had to close its doors. "That's heartbreaking," says Grabelle. "I fear that's going to happen to more labels. On the other hand, there are still plenty of great labels out there. Rise is doing great. Sumerian is doing great. No Sleep is doing great. Metal Blade has got a great business model. They continue to put out 45 albums a week [laughs] so it's not totally doom and gloom.
"We're in a very transitional phase with music right now," he postulates. "Which we're we're going to be in for another couple years - The transition between owning and having access to. I'm a huge Spotify fan. Pandora, all of that. As long as my music is in the right place and kids have access to it, that's all that matters. I'm not here to sell CD's, downloads or vinyl. I'm here to sell music."
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Despite being put through the ringer during Trustkill's dog days, Josh Grabelle is quite happy to be back to the business he loves. The name might have changed but the vision remains the same.
"My only regret is that didn't do it much sooner," he says. "Unfortunately hindsight is 20/20 and you end up holding onto something that you really don't need. I've realized that signing bands and leveraging my relationships: everything was really about me as a person."
Get more information on Bullet Tooth at the label's official website, Facebook page and Twitter.