I Do (It Yourself)
Jeff Barrus and Tina Henry-Barrus are a match made in D.C. punk heaven. Instead of rushing off on their honeymoon hours after their August 1997 wedding, they went where every other punk kid would go: to the Fugazi show at Fort Reno. “We went to 250 shows between 1994 and 1995,” says Henry-Barrus. “It was really ridiculous; it had to be more than three nights a week.”
The pair are a study in fan evolution: concertgoers to ‘zine pioneers to record label moguls. “I first got into indie music in 1989. I was in high school,” says the 25-year-old Barrus, who works for National Public Radio. “My friend gave me a mix tape that had a Minor Threat song on it. That led to Fugazi. That led to Simple Machines, which led to Teenbeat, and then I started going to Go! Compact Discs [the now-defunct Arlington record store] to buy everything. And that was it. I was hooked.”
For Henry-Barrus, 26, a desktop publishing editor, indie music was an acquired taste. She met the man she would marry in college at the University of Maryland, College Park, when he became the music editor of the student magazine that she edited. They started dating, “and the obsession started flowing over onto me,” she says. “It wasn’t until we saw Jawbox for the 20th time in one year that we started slowing down.”
Eschewing the Red Room at the Black Cat for their living room, they launched their own ‘zine, Restaurant Fuel, and a record label, called Hub City. “We were bored, I think,” says Barrus. “Tina had just stopped going to college and subsequently was no longer an editor at the student magazine. We both needed an extracurricular.”
Over the past four years, they’ve birthed four issues of the acclaimed Restaurant Fuel, scoring gushing reviews in Alternative Press and Spin Online. Hand-bound with duct tape, the 74 pages of RF’s third issue serve up standard ‘zine fare: personal memoirs, anti-corporate social commentary, and album reviews infused with the requisite never-say-Seagram devotion to independent music.
Although Barrus and Henry-Barrus personify the D.C. indie Zeitgeist, they lack the hipper-than-thou boredadocio that prevents most D.C. residents from embracing Black Cat culture. Of course, RF features articles such as “Evening Tea With Ian Svenonius,” complete with pinup shots of the avatar of D.C. indie-scenester culture in all his mod glory. But on the flip side of Svenonius’ helmet hair and toothsome grin is a photo of Henry-Barrus’ great-grandmother, “Old Ma,” her bespectacled face surrounded by Henry-Barrus’ tender account of “Funerals I’ve Been To: Part 1.”
They also have some curious letters flowing in:
Dear Jeff & Tina.
I live in TOKYO JAPAN. When I went to buy CD at Tower record, I found a zine with a cute cover. The title of the zine was Restaurant Fuel. Restaurant Fuel? I bought it at once. I read it with
a English dictionary now. I felt
it was your diary. When can
I get the next issue? I look
forward to meet next one.
Bye! Taroo Yanagi
When the two started Hub City Records—a name taken from the nickname of Barrus’ ancestral Hagerstown—they reapplied their homemade aesthetic. Not that they had a choice. “We don’t have a living room,” says Henry-Barrus. “We have a record label.”
Since March 1998, under the watchful eye of Archie, the couple’s Boston terrier and Hub City mascot, the two have hand-assembled more than 3,000 of their 5,000 CDs, stuffing into all their plastic-wrapped releases such surprises as real photos, refrigerator magnets, buttons, mini-picture books, and Christmas ornaments. Not to mention notes like the one I found in the Boyish Charms’ The Extended-Playing Paradox CD: “Hand assembled by Jeff the day before his 25th birthday.”
“It’s more personal,” says Barrus, “and it gives you more of a connection to the person who put it out.” He has a point. When was the last time Sony—or even SubPop—cared enough to ask, “When was the last time you went bowling?”
Barrus gripes that it’s easy to find Hub City releases in Tokyo or San Francisco, but you’d be hard pressed to find them at DCCD, the city’s current bastion of indie-music sales: “They have a consignment ghetto for local labels. They stick them in the back, facing the back wall….It’s like saying, ‘These aren’t real albums.’”
“I think our records are very different from what most labels are putting out right now,” says Henry-Barrus. “But it’s hard to find people who like them right here in D.C.” Because Hub City’s bands—Providence, R.I.,’s the Iditarod, Philly’s Winterbrief (formerly of D.C.), and Austin’s the Maulies and the Boyish Charms—rarely play D.C.-area venues, few locals would even recognize the two entrepreneurs as label gurus. “We were touring with Winterbrief last year,” Barrus says, “and met up with the Most Secret Method in Connecticut. They were like, ‘You’re not from D.C.’ And we were like, ‘Yes, actually, we are.’”
Hub City’s current projects range from an early-2000 release of Restaurant Fuel to the first vinyl release of the Maulies, as well as the Global Photo Broup series of split CDs featuring one band each from the U.S. and another country. The first lineup includes the Iditarod and England’s Transistor 6, with whom the Iditarod is currently collaborating on songs and album art over the Internet.
Just thinking about the amount of work that goes into both the ‘zine and the record label would be enough to exhaust most people, but stopping now (or producing professionally packaged records) would be too easy. Says Barrus: “We’ll probably call it quits when we stop having records to put out”—which seems unlikely given the weekly rejection slips Hub City doles out to anxious hopefuls.
“I think that we have a record label because we need a creative outlet,” says Henry-Barrus. “In another reality, it could be something else. If I were stuck in Hagerstown, I would be making Christmas ornaments and selling them to old ladies.”—Amanda Fazzone