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Interview: Matt Rudzinski (Tribunal/Divebomb Records, Killwhitneydead)

Matt Rudzinski knows a thing or two about running a record label. Since 1999, Tribunal Records (Facebook) has racked up over 100 releases (among them a number of discs from Rudzinski's own band, Killwhitneydead) scattered across a number of genres not limited to the label's hardcore and metal foundation. In 2008, he branched out further with Divebomb Records (Facebook) as a vehicle to re-release underrated classics and obscure treasures. Having already amassed an impressive roster of reissues that includes TKO, Confessor, Cyclone Temple, Watchtower, Slammer, Grinder, and tons more, Rudzinski is now preparing for Divebomb's 75th release in early-2015.

Divebomb Records is everything that a reissue-centric label should be, sparing no expense on top-quality releases whose thick, professionally designed booklets exhibit the painstaking detail of a diehard fan's passion—packed with lyrics, photos, retrospective interviews, liner notes, and more. (My No Echo partner, Carlos Ramirez, frequently contributes in-depth interviews to said booklets—see recent reissues from Reverend and Arcane, to cite but a few—and I, too, uttered some fanboy gibberish for Divebomb's re-release of the Cro-Mags' Alpha - Omega some years ago.)

Ever since the day I placed my very first order, Divebomb has been my favorite currently active label, and I can't recommend Matt's efforts highly enough. So, I decided to pick his brain on how he's made it all happen...

Rudzinski, reppin' Coroner.

You're into a pretty wide range of music, and have a self-described "obsession" with collecting CDs and vinyl. I know Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow was your first album, but do you recall what really kicked off your full-on musical obsession in your younger days?

My dad. He had a pretty massive LP collection when I was a child, and I got to explore all kinds of music. Plus, my dad was an avid fan of making his own cassette mixes of bands. So we would always be jamming tapes on trips as kids, until we got our own Walkmans and said goodbye to the outside world [laughs]. I was actually just home for the holidays and found all of his old cassettes down in the basement. It was fun looking through them and remembering listening to those exact tapes 30 years ago. But, looking back, it really was his love for music that fueled it in me, it would seem.

You grew up in Delaware, and ended up in North Carolina for college, right? You seem to have a lot of fond musical memories from Delaware (just one example being the incredible double-CD discography you released for Delaware thrashers Solitude back in 2009), so what kept you in North Carolina?

When I got down here, I just loved the area as it was at that time (1990): so much less congested than the Northeast felt. But the biggest factor was that I started working at a local record store in my senior year of college in 1993. I got offered a full-time position upon graduation in 1994 and worked my way up to manager/buyer pretty quickly. I remained there until around 2009, I suppose.

For a while there, especially during the first five or six years, Tribunal was often somewhat of a "feeder" label, with bands like Scarlet, Daylight Dies, From Autumn to Ashes, Atreyu, etc. all being scooped up by larger labels and moving on to more widespread success. Did that ever bother you, or has your desire to stay D.I.Y. and do your own thing just kind of let everything fall into place?

It was absolutely never a bother. With Tribunal, I knew I could never compete on the same level as labels like Victory, Ferret, or Trustkill; but I knew I had an ear for good acts, and just focused on how I could help newer bands. I got distribution offers over the years from labels like Victory, but I decided to keep it D.I.Y. because that was definitely more my speed back then. I was working 40 hours a week at my day job, and came home and did Tribunal stuff at night. It was a great balance back then.

I can remember fairly early on in the Tribunal days being blown away by the sheer number of release you always cranked out, which is something that persists now with Divebomb as well. How the hell do you pull that off financially, especially now that you're more often than not dealing predominantly with limited runs of obscure, underground material?

In the early days of Tribunal, I was lucky enough to get a few family loans—besides my saving tax returns and selling off parts of my CD collection—to put cash immediately into the beginning of the label, and really establish a name out of the gate with five or six releases right away. Unlike most bigger labels, who placed advertisements everywhere, I tried to build Tribunal and its roster's success off the "word of mouth" approach. I had heard horror stories of small labels like mine putting all their resources into one band and watching the label sink because that one release didn't sell well for them. Tribunal has always been about the music, so I just decided to use what money I had available to put into releases and just kept cranking them out. It worked to a degree, I would suppose.

You make a living off of the labels, too, don't you? For how long has that been the case, and how have you been affected by the current climate of declining physical sales and the "devaluation" of music via streaming services, etc.?

I try to [laughs]. I guess I made the jump in 2009 when I was offered a chance to buy the CD store where I had worked since 1993. Downward sales trends just weren't looking good, so I got some fatherly advice that I will never forget. "Would you rather take out a $90,000 loan to invest in someone else's failing business, or take that same money and invest in your own successful business?" My father said that to me, and the choice was easy. The other thing that helped me be more secure with my choice was that I had essentially been working two jobs for about a decade, and saved some money along the way. Because in the back of my mind I always thought this day would come, and I needed some financial stability to leap into the unknown. So, I always tried to be prepared.

Divebomb is putting out its 75th release in January, so I'm not sure about the "devaluation" of music, because the clientele I believe I am selling to with my releases are the kinds of people who actually value the music they want to purchase. It's not just some pop song on the radio while they are working out, or in the background of their lives.

I am also not sure how I have been affected by the decline of the industry, because my pressings are so small that I don't think the industry as a whole is representative of what I do at Divebomb. The biggest thing that has happened in recent years which has 100% affected my business is the raising of the USPS' international shipping rates. When the first major increase occurred a few years ago, I noticed my sales dip. They have made a slight comeback, but things like increased shipping fees affect smaller businesses like mine, rather than what is going on with digital downloads and things of that nature.

How helpful has your business degree been in running the two labels and getting to the point where you can get by?

It was helpful for the business side of things for sure, but there are so many other aspects to this industry that I had to learn along the way by asking questions of the people I knew in the industry. I still ask questions daily. I was just emailing Dom from A389 Recordings a few minutes ago about some logistical solutions for the label. So, it's always about learning and applying what you have learned.

SEE ALSO: 5 Great Heavy Metal Songs With the Word "Metal" in Their Titles

What are some of the toughest headaches involved with trying to license albums for reissue?

The biggest problem is when people don't even respond to an initial inquiry. I would much rather get a "no, thank you" from someone than be ignored. Once you get into chatting, if a deal cannot be reached that is normal business stuff, so it's when you cannot get past the first step that frustration kicks in.

Do you have any memorable "horror stories" from dealing with the licensing process over the years? And/or, on the other hand, any experiences that went surprisingly smoothly?

Century Media rules. If they are able to do a deal, they most likely will. My license for the Crows album took a few days to hammer out. The worst story I have is a label and I trying to work out a deal for the third time (for the same album) and it getting down to my wanting to use up-to-date, remastered audio. They said I couldn't, and the deal went south immediately. That one was aggravating for sure, because nobody buying my reissues wants the same audio they bought in 1988.

Who have been some of your biggest heartbreaks in terms of bands you're dying to work with that inexplicably just aren't willing to have their recordings reissued?

I have so many to list [laughs], but more recently it's when the fans of Divebomb come to me with their reissue ideas, and have even done the legwork to find members of the bands, but when I contact them I get no response. These types of things happen way too often, so that I have actually been sending the fans into the fray first, because hopefully these band members won't ignore their longtime fans. I mean, it's easy to ignore a business guy, but when the fans are championing what we are doing at Divebomb, it's always a plus in helping us to get the deals worked out. But back to the original point, it saddens me when bands ignore their fans in regards to trying to get their material reissued.

When negotiations don't work out, what tend to be the most common reasons?

The most common is one of the members just isn't interested in having the material released, and they are the ones that must sign off on things. I always feel bad for the other guys in the band wanting to get the music back out there.

What have been some of your releases that you were the most excited about that didn't move as quickly as you had hoped or anticipated?

Some of the Bootcamp series didn't sell as well as I had hoped, but as the series has been expanding this past year, I have definitely noticed people slowly dipping into the earlier titles, which is great to see!

Jumping back to your obsessive fandom, at one point you lost a huge portion of your music collection due to a fire, which had to be just devastating. Can you tell the story behind what happened, and how you've been gradually rebuilding your collection ever since?

Well, it was back in 2005, and I was up late working on Tribunal stuff when I smelled what I thought to be burning pizza. So, I was heading downstairs to see what was going on and I heard my neighbor go barreling down their stairs as well, and I knew that wasn't good. I walked outside and they said the building was on fire. So, I ran back into the kitchen and grabbed the fire extinguisher and ran around to the side of the building. If I could have been watching myself do this it would have been like a cartoon, because here was the growing fire and my little fire extinguisher just shot out the smallest poof of stuff. It was really pathetic. I think I was so mad I threw it at the fire [laughs]. After that, I ran back in (foolishly) to get my phone and wallet, which were luckily at the bottom of the stairs. That was all I got out of there until the morning.

Rudzinski's office, after the fire.

When I eventually got to go back in after watching the whole thing from the sidewalk, I realized my office and all of my CD collection, clothes, and possessions that were upstairs were destroyed. Most of my CDs that were downstairs were okay, which was a relief. I didn't have any clothes, but I didn't care as long as I had my music [laughs]. Sad, I know. The Red Cross gave me $200, which I took to Target and bought some clean clothes. I still remember the person ringing me up asking if I was one of the people who had been in the fire, because I was dirty and hadn't showered. I survived, and I am always thankful for that fact, because so many people don't survive things like that.

As far as rebuilding my collection, it first started with so many labels helping me out by sending old promos, refurbished CDs, etc. Anything they could send, they were sending to me, which was really cool that everyone wanted to help me out. Since then, it's just been acquiring what I can, when I can.

SEE ALSO: Best Thrash Ballads

In another interview you've referred to your experience with the fire as a positive catalyst. In what way?

Well, the first one was with my band, Killwhitneydead. At the time we had no intentions of ever playing a live show. After the fire, I decided to take part in the benefit in town that was being thrown for me by putting Killwhitneydead together as a live unit and playing some songs for the first time. So, we did, and the response was so amazing that we planned a summer tour. During the planning, we got an offer by then up-and-coming booking agent, Dave Shapiro, to book our tour for us and join his roster. We toured that summer and three more summers after that, and I got to see so much of the country and meet so many Killwhitneydead fans that I might not have even had the chance to meet if the fire hadn't occurred and kicked my ass into action.

The second came from when I realized how many of the CDs I lost were out of print. That gave me the idea to try and start a reissue label to remedy the fact that so much great music was out of print.

Just a handful of Divebomb's releases from the past few years.

There was a time when you didn't really sell any of your releases digitally, but lately it seems like you're breaking down a little and starting to make some of your output available for purchase via iTunes, Bandcamp, etc. in addition to physical CDs. Did you feel that you had no choice given the direction that the "industry" has been heading in?

Honestly, I was so not following the digital thing in the mid-2000s. It wasn't until my distributor at the time was like, "We all need to do this," and I was like, "Okay, do it." I have never been about the digital, and I am still really not into it. When it comes to Divebomb, the bands and I discuss it and see if it's something we want to do. However, with the Bootcamp series, I don't offer any digital, because that series is all about promoting the physical releases. We put so much effort into putting together great packaging for these (and all of our titles) that we want everyone to enjoy them by holding it in their hands. Am I out of my mind for doing this? Maybe, but it's how I like to do things, and as Divebomb grows I have found more and more people out there who agree with me, which just gives me the additional confidence to keep sticking to my guns. When the people calling me crazy outnumber those saying, "Right on, dude," I might consider a change.

You refuse to buy digital files yourself, correct? In cases where that's the only purchase method available, aren't you just depriving yourself of great music that you could be enjoying? (Joker's posthumous Last Hand, EP, for example.)

You are correct. I just won't do it, because it's just not for me. Sure, I might be depriving myself of music, but when I am surrounded by my CD collection, I never truly feel deprived in any way. That band's digital-only tunes just won't be heard by me. They can market it to other people who will enjoy it, but until I can hold it, I don't need it.

Divebomb seems to have made up the bulk of your workload for the past two or so years. Is that just because revisiting lost treasures and out of print classics is what gets you the most excited these days?

I have definitely shifted my focus away from the origins of the types of bands Tribunal was signing, and have been diving headfirst into Divebomb Records. As I got older, I just found myself not connecting with the younger bands anymore, so I decided to reach out to some local Delaware area bands that influenced me and whose material was out of print or had never been released on CD. I found reminiscing with these guys was a lot of fun, and decided to take the plunge.

I just lost touch with the younger bands and what they were trying to achieve. I needed to change gears in my life, personally, and I did so while remaining in the music industry. It's been a great experience thus far, and I hope it can continue well into the future.

There's a certain contingent of people who have this attitude that nostalgia is bullshit and music fans shouldn't look back to the past so often. I know you don't focus solely on nostalgia, but how would you respond to that mentality—as someone who so clearly holds a dear place in your heart for the music you grew up with (as well as older gems that you missed out on at the time)?

Not looking back is silly. People like that just don't want to admit that the best heavy metal music was made 30+ years ago and everything since then has been a rehash. Now, I am in no way saying that current music isn't good by any stretch of the imagination, but it's about being honest with where the foundation was laid. I love tons of current bands, but I also know and respect where it all came from, and if you ignore that, you just look ignorant in my opinion.

There are a lot of labels dealing in hard rock and metal reissues these days, and you seem like the type of guy who views this in an "all in this together" type of sense. So, that being said, what are some of the currently active reissue labels that have either inspired you, or that you find yourself continually purchasing from/trading with, that fans of Divebomb should also be encouraged to investigate?

I do agree, we are all in this together, because of the nature of the metal community: be it hard rock and hair metal, or death metal and thrash. We are not fans of the biggest genre on the planet, so we must stick together to survive.

First, my inspiration is Rock Candy Records, who constantly puts out great-looking reissues that make it hard to even compete with them, but we try our best.

As far as other labels out there doing a kick-ass job with giving new life to old metal I, would have to say labels like Marquee Records, No Remorse Records, Heaven & Hell Records, Shadow Kingdom Records, Skol Records, and High Roller Records all come to mind instantly. There are probably some other good ones I am forgetting [laughs], but that is what I get for being "old," as my wife likes to call me.

SEE ALSO: 5 Underrated Glam/Hair Metal Bands

Alright, let's close with a fun one: what are five hard rock albums that every fan should hear before they die?

I am going to leave out the ones everyone knows, like [Mötley Crüe's] Shout at the Devil, [Whitesnake's] Slide it In, [the Scorpions'] Love at First Sting, etc. and list some ones that people may not necessarily know about. Although, that is getting harder and harder to do in this digital age [laughs].

  1. Vamp, The Rich Don't Rock (shameless plug)
  2. Great King Rat, Great King Rat
  3. Wildside, Under the Influence
  4. 220 Volt, Eye to Eye
  5. Kick Axe, Vices

Comments

  1. Matt rules (and so does this interview)!

    12.16.2014 | By Carlos Ramirez

  2. I left out LOST & FOUND RECORDS!!  His Forced Entry and Heretic reissues alone are reason to be mentioned!  Plus, Cities, Acid Reign, Faith Or Fear and Intruder!

    12.16.2014 | By Matt

  3. Great site, great label, great interview. Thanks!

    1.7.2015 | By micha_sellfish