THE HANDS-ON APPROACH OF CHAINSAW SAFETY RECORDS - INTERVIEW WITH WILL TARRANT AND TOM O’HAGEN
"Back then, independent music was not a spectator sport, you had to be involved somehow."
As Will Tarrant said, in the halcyon days of the early 90’s, it was common for people involved in the scene to be hands on in their approach. Often times, the same person would be a guitarist in a band, a show promoter, run a label, do a ‘zine or layout record covers. It was full-contact.
This philosophy led Will Tarrant and Tom O’Hagan to found Queens, NY-based Chainsaw Safety Records, a hardcore label that spanned two decades, releasing records by an eclectic roster of bands that included Rorschach, Black Army Jacket, Pulling Teeth and Sick of Talk among others. See the full discography listed below.
THE EARLY YEARS
Will Tarrant: I say this all the time: Rorschach is my favorite band. That band is the most singular impact on my life, musically and personally. During the summer of 1992, I was on tour in Europe with them. Charles Maggio, their singer, had just started his label, Gern Blandsten and was distributing his first release, the ONE BLOOD LP. Being on that tour, spending all that time with those guys, and watching them play every night had completely blown me away. I began talking to Charles about doing a label.
I was playing in a band called Medicine Man with Tom O’Hagan and Dave Wilentz. Dave was running a label called Thrashing Mad; I talked to him about the three of us working together on the label so for two years, from 92 to 94, Tom and I worked with Dave Valence on Thrashing Mad Records. Together, we put out the Medicine Man 7-in and the Doc Hoper 7-in.
Tom O’Hagan: Will and I met in high school and became friends due to our love of comic books and metal. We both gravitated toward punk and hardcore eventually. We played in a band called Medicine Man and our guitarist was running a label called Thrashing Mad. We wanted to do a 7-in for our band, Thrashing Mad had no financial backing so Will and I decided to pool our resources and get involved. That was our first record, then we moved on to put out the Doc Hopper 7-in.
Will Tarrant: Eventually, the three of us weren’t seeing eye to eye on what we wanted to do with the label or the bands we wanted to work with. Dave was more into traditional punk and garage rock while Tom and I were interested in more of the heavier hardcore and metal stuff. On July 10, 1994 we started Chainsaw Safety Records. The name of the label is name of the last Medicine Man song. The band had just broken up as well, so Tom and I had the idea that the next creative endeavor would be the name of the last creative endeavor that we worked on. We never had this master, plan but we wanted to maintain some level of continuity, something to bridge the gap.
Tom O’Hagan: There’s a story behind the actual name “Chainsaw Safety.” The name, taken from a Medicine Man song, started out as an inside joke between Will and I. My brother and I were watching Texas Chainsaw Massacre and during the final scene he dryly said “Leatherface has obviously never taken a Chainsaw Safety Class.
FLAGSHIP RELEASE: RORSCHACH / 1.6 BAND
Will Tarrant: Tom and I talked about how we wanted to do the label; how we wanted to run it, what we wanted to achieve. At the time, it fell into our lap that Rorschach had the “My War” cover done and 1.6 Band had “Trying”, the Dag Nasty cover. Those two songs were in the can and were kind of lying around. The split was a great way to start Chainsaw Safety because we were all friends, which is how we continued to approach the label; we always wanted to make sure that everyone involved with the records were part of a circle of friends. It all started with the Rorschach / 1.6 Band split.
Tom O’Hagan: We did the Rorschach / 1.6 Band split as our first release. It was a three-label project involving us, Troubleman Unlimited and Carnage. It came together after that. We never had a real game plan, the mindset was to work with people that we like.
Will Tarrant: The Rorschach / 1.6 Band Split was one of the infamous record folding parties that we had. We pressed 5000 copies of that record. To stuff 5000 copies of a record is kind of involved so we had a bunch of people coming over. Andrew Orlando, who went on to do Reservoir Records (and Black Army Jacket) shortly after came over and helped. It was possibly his first exposure to doing record folding on that scale. It was an awesome event; I was still living with my parents at the time, so it was a bunch of guys coming over stuffing records in the basement and just being jerks to each other. We continued that for a bunch of releases. When Andrew started Reservoir, I would go to his place and help him stuff records, it was just this awesome time. It was this reciprocal thing, we were all starting; there was no sense of competition, no A&R guys saying “we have to sign this band before someone else does.” We all literally stuffed each other records so it was like we all put the records out. I’d help out Freddie (Alva) with Wardance; if Charles called me to help with a Gern Blandsten record, I’d be at his house in a heartbeat. We were all kind of into slightly different things, but we all helped out, we all traded copies of our records with each other. With Andrew Orlando, there was the proximity thing. With any show that we were going together we’d pick him up or he’d pick us up and with shove a bunch of records from both labels into the trunk to sell at the shows; we’d always end up at the same diner afterwards. It was just a great time. Freddie Alva was definitely an influence, but he was getting into some different things at the time. Everybody was fans and friends.
AHEAD OF THE CURVE
Tom O’Hagan: We went from Rorschach / 1.6 Band to the La Gritona 7-in, a band that wasn’t necessarily connected to the hardcore scene then on to Only Living Witness, a metal band. The connection wasn’t obvious. It wasn’t like we had an identity crisis, but I imagine most people wondered what the logic was behind this. We just wanted to put out records by people we liked musically.
When we saw La Gritona play, Will and I looked at each other and were blown away. This was around 1994 or so and we felt like what they were doing then was what Deadguy and Kiss It Goodbye would be doing a few years later; I’m proud that we were ahead of the curve a little. Will and I always had that metal background so we were ahead of the curve when it came to the metal influence on hardcore. We didn’t know them as friends, so we approached them because we respected their music.
Will Tarrant: It was January 1995. We drove up with Garden Variety in Boston where they were opening up for Only Living Witness at TT The Bears. I was bullshitting with the Garden Variety guys when Tom walked into the back room and said " You need to come out here and see this right now". I saw four guys playing intensely but it didn’t seem like they were playing together, but then, in a matter of seconds they locked into a groove and they completely had me captivated. They finished their set 20 minutes later.
I think Tom and I just nodded at each other and then approached the band to do a record. There was no need to talk about what we could do for them, it was just a matter of documenting what they were already achieving: complete fucking annhiliation.
THE TAKE AWAY
Will Tarrant: Younger people still come up to me and tell me that they bought their first punk rock records from us when we used to distro out on Long Island or at the various shows around the Tri-State Area. They would say something like you didn’t intimidate me, you saw the shirt I was wearing and would suggest some records that I should check out; when I saw you again you asked me how they were, it was kind of cool.
We made a conscious effort to not have a pigeonholed sound. Tom and I were both huge fans of music; we both grew up on a steady diet of metal; we were both heavily into tape trading, we were into the early death metal scene. We were really involved in that. The criteria was: “would we buy this record if someone else put it out?”
We always wanted to get to know the people we worked with, were they on the same wavelength? We wanted to get a god idea of what they were about. Any time we deviated from that, we always had problems.
One of the coolest memories is putting out the Deathcycle record. I gave a copy to Ron, the singer, who is also one of my oldest friends and it was the only record he had recorded. That was a really important moment of my life. When I picked up Anodyne on Easter Sunday from their first European Tour I was like “Anodyne? First European Tour? Fuck Yeah, I’ll pick you up.” It was three awesome dudes, three superior musicians coming back from their first European tour and it was just me, I felt like one lucky sonovabitch. I remember being on tour with Pulling Teeth Spring 2008, They did a US tour, went to Japan, went up into Canada; I was sitting in the Triple Rock in Minneapolis, MN and I had royalties for them! It was the tour for their second LP “Mortal”. In 14 years of doing the label this is what I had always wanted to do: I had a band that was on a world tour, they were dear friends of mine and I had money for them. I felt like I could end it now because I had achieved everything I wanted to achieve. This was exactly how I had wanted it to happen.
One of the bands that I’m most proud to have worked with was Black Army Jacket. When you think of Powerviolence, it’s a West Coast phenomenon, it’s a West Coast sound. The only East Coast band people mention from that scene is Black Army Jacket and we did their records.
I remember when we got the demo, I had heard it and was totally floored. I put it on for Tom and he was like Christ, we have to do this!” He asked me who it was and I had a big smile on my face when I told him it was Andrew Orlando’s band! Within a week we were setting up time with Alap Momin to record the records. It’s really cool when it comes together like that.
The Black Hand record: They were being courted by Relapse and Victory and they turned down both labels because they preferred to work with us, knowing that we couldn’t match their resources or their money. They didn’t want to be on a label just for business, we wanted to put out a record with a bunch of dudes that were our friends. Another crazy thing is that we got Away from Voivod to do the record cover. That was our metal fantasy come true! You can’t replace that with anything else.
Tom O’Hagan: We did the Black Army Jacket, 7-in and the LP. They were good friends, but they were also doing some great music. It was a collaborative effort, we wanted to put their music out and they wanted to work with us. We really gelled with those guys. They were one of the few bands that we had a relationship with past on seven inch.
The Black Hand Record stands out as one of the more professional things we’ve done. That was around 2002; the band treated the whole process professionally, from the recording to the artwork, everything.
The Deathcycle record really typified what I wanted to do with the label. All member of the band were old friends of mine, especially Ron Grimaldi the singer; Mike Hill produced it and Ryan Patterson did the artwork. We all knew each other and now we all have this bond. Ryan didn’t really know those guys well before but now we’re all tied to this on artistic endeavor we all worked on together. That’s what I remember most about the label: pulling all these crazy resources together and having it all turn out so well.
I was in a band, I was an adequate drummer but I learned quickly that my skill set was more organizational, more behind the scenes operational stuff. Tom was pretty much the same way. We wanted to contribute back to the scene. Doing the label was our way of keeping ourselves active and keep things going, it was out obligation to keep putting out records. We felt like it was our obligation to put out records by bands we believed in for the sake of having this music out there; we never thought we were going to make a million dollars at it. We were going to exploit anyone; we wanted to work with bands as friends.
As much as music meant to us, it was never this desperate thing. Also, with both Tom and I, we had so much other stuff going on that doing the label was never an all or nothing thing, we had achieved success in lives both professionally and personally, music was definitely an outlet and we met so many awesome people we weren’t willing to claw our way to the top.
My ultimate goal was Global Domination, meaning that I wanted to dominate my own world, I want to get the most out of it personally that I could. I toured constantly, I met tons of people around the world who I’m still friends with now. I’ve been tight with people long after the music’s over. It was like having this passport with Punk Rock, I was able to travel all over the world and meet everybody.
And most importantly, we've all stayed friends. We all still keep in touch on a regular basis and have been involved in significant parts of our lives. Our kids play together now. We all said this was the rest of our lies and we've all kept true to it. We just didn’t know where our lives would take us.
I never wanted to make a dime off of anyone, I needed the label to sustain itself, but I went to grad school to become a social worker, I have a proud career doing it, I never wanted to quit my job to do the label for a living.
I ultimately didn’t have the time or the resources to commit to the label that I should. At this stage, I have other endeavors in my life. In addition to being happily married and a father, I’m getting ready to be a father again. At the end of the day it’s a young person’s game and I just don’t have the time or energy to devote to it. I feel like I’ve achieved what I set out to do. I also just don’t feel as motivated to put out music. I still love music and I’m impressed by bands coming along, I just don’t feel the urge to reach out and work with them as I once did. I feel like I started it so I get to pull the plug when I want; there’s no investor, there’s no other money involved. Things have run their course, I put out a lot of great records, I’m really proud of what we’ve done.