Ideology and artistic principles in the ever-evolving world of indy records and D.I.Y. labels are about as concrete as a wet paper bag filled with Donald Trump’s scruples. Many labels begin with a moralistic ethos, often choosing to focus on a specific style of genre or artist. Others go as far as to proclaim the high-ground; oh, you’ll never see us selling out. We’re all about the music, man… well, in most cases, I call bullshit. It’s human nature; we all dig the moola.
Except in one case; Aberrant Records.
Founded in the early 1980’s by Sydney-sider Bruce Griffiths, Aberrant -disbanded, defunct, and now reborn- is still to this day one of the most interesting case studies in the art of stoic maintenance of indy label street-cred. Stubbornly, as if with belligerent intention, Aberrant never once swayed from its original decree; only small-time artists that are prolific live performers, experimenting with music on unheard of levels -almost an anti-music– and who aren’t complete egomaniac arseholes need apply. Oh, and Griffiths has to actually like the music; market potential or not.
“I don’t actively search for bands that would fit Aberrant; they also tend not to come looking for me because I do not encourage it at all. I’m not trying to build up some massive label; I just go along to a gig and see something that blows my head off sufficiently.”
Bruce Griffiths, Aberrant Records
The label’s premier release was a compilation of bands that Griffiths himself thought that he would like to own recordings of. Entitled Flowers From the Dustbin, the exclusively Sydney-centric release featured essentially unknown local bands such as What?!!, Positive Hatred, World War XXIV and Queen Anne’s Revenge, however the recording did feature some slightly bigger acts, namely The Kelpies and Box of Fish.
“What motivated me to do it was the fact that bands by nature are transient things and they come and go, obviously, and all this music was really important to me.”
By the mid-eighties the crucial importance of Aberrant Records to the burgeoning underground “noise” scene had become vital. Providing a forum for uncompromising and impossible to categorise bands to grow their brand and spread their names well outside of Sydney’s inner-city suburbs, the label quickly began to earn the respect from the growing fanzine scene and public radio all along Australia’s east coast. Still, with more and more artists attempting to get themselves recorded by Griffiths, he kept his scruples; savagely blow me away or keep walking.
In 1985, treacle rockers feedtime, perhaps Aberrant’s most important band, came to the label via their D.I.Y. self-titled debut album and followed it up with the next year’s Shovel LP. These two seminal releases brought the mojo to the still predominantly unheard of label and set the ball rolling for a succession of utterly incredible releases that would see out the decade and stamp the Aberrant name in the annals of Oz rock folklore.
As unrelenting and experimental acts like King Snake Roost, Bloodloss, Venom P. Stinger and Toys Went Berserk joined the growing rolodex of artists signed by the label, recognition was beginning to grow overseas, particularly in the vitally important U.S. market, specifically in Seattle where a little thing called grunge was inadvertently about to take over the world. Before long, Aberrant and Seattle’s Sub Pop records had built a steady relationship that saw both label’s artists begin to intermingle with one another to form a throng of, for want of a better term, supergroup side projects. Exploding out of the molten collision between these two mighty labels were acts like Bushpig that featured Mudhoney’s Mark Arm and King snake Roost’s Charlie Tolnay, as well as collaboration that saw Mark Arm joining Bloodloss from time to time. Gaining particular recognition around this time was feedtime’s Suction LP and a 7″ single from little known Melbourne punk-jazzsters Venom P. Stinger.
‘Walking About’ is as brutally abrasive as it is fetching; that is, if one were to describe fetching as being slowly mutilated by the most attractive person in the world. It’s punk, sure, but it’s so much more and serves as the blueprint for the Aberrant moral code; uncompromising, experimental, trailblazing, underground and most certainly mind-blowing. Releases such as this and others from Venom P. Stinger and bands of a similar ilk, meant that the die had been cast; Bruce Griffiths had got his wish and to hell with everything else.
Another formidable bond cemented in 1990 with the release of King Snake Roost’s third and final LP ‘Ground Into the Dirt’. The Minneapolis based Amphetamine Reptile records had gotten wind of the cluster of insanity that was pouring out of Australia’s east coast and they very much wanted to be the ones to spread the word globally. So they did, and by the end of the year had released the LP on their own label and into the U.S. market. The result was that ‘Ground Into the Dirt’ -with perhaps the exception of Toys Went Berserk releases- easily became Aberrant’s widest selling LP and perhaps will go down as King Snake Roost’s best known recording.
With King Snake Roost now licensed to Amphetamine Reptile, U.K. based Rough Trade records had taken a big interest in feedtime which saw the band licensed to the indy giant around the same time. Although a good marketing strategy at the time, hindsight saw that the partnership was flawed as Rough Trade developed a completely different idea as to how the band should sound. Where Amphetamine Reptile essentially kept King Snake Roost’s recordings in their original state, a clueless Rough Trade completely butchered the unique feedtime sound for its U.K. and U.S. releases.
“The problem that feedtime have encountered is that with this sort of music you’re usually dealing with people who don’t deal with loud, noisy distorted music. They’re people that generally spend their day cutting Bowie and Robert Palmer records, so their idea of how a record should sound can be radically different from how you want it to sound.”
By the late eighties/early nineties, the Sydney underground music scene had flourished in a way that most pundits thought unimaginable. Along with the buzzsaw noise and jazz experimentation of many Aberrant bands, a new, perhaps parallel scene was brewing. A cluster of newer and somewhat artier bands had unwittingly formed what would fondly become known as the Black Eye scene.
An offshoot of the giant Sydney-based Red Eye Records, Black Eye Records were in the midst of signing and unleashing acts like Lubricated Goat, Thug, Kim Salmon and the Surrealists and The Butcher Shop on an unsuspecting world. Still with a focus on experimentation, many of these bands took on a slightly more listenable art rock approach, perhaps with the exception of Thug who, led by Oz rock icon Tex Perkins, produced some of the most aggressive, savage and brutal sounds to ever spew forth from a speaker; even more unlistenable than Lou Reed’s ‘Metal Machine Music’.
With well-known musicians such as Tex Perkins (Beasts of Bourbon/The Cruel Sea) and Kim Salmon (Scientists/Beasts of Bourbon), the Black Eye scene had a distinct advantage in the marketability and popularity stakes. But despite all of this, Aberrant still maintained the influence, something that didn’t quite transfer to financial gain, but instead to respect, justification and above all else, volatility. In the eyes of many, this little label that began as a tiny microspeck of a D.I.Y. operation in a Sydney bedroom was one of the main players in the shaping and influence of the commercial insanity that became the grunge movement. Some may not consider that a good thing, but what is undeniable is that to this very day, Aberrant Records holds its own, punching well above its weight and ensuring a legacy as crucially important as it is out of this world mind-blowing…
…ethos and scruples in tact.
“Ha ha. What makes you think that Aberrant releases sell?”