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Lost somewhere in the strip-mall hell of Northern Virginia, I weave in and out of Saturday-afternoon traffic, trying desperately to follow disjointed directions given to me over the phone.
“Take the Lee Highway exit” is all that’s scrawled on the crumpled napkin stuck to my sweaty hand.
Although the exit off I-66 isn’t marked correctly—not exactly unheard of in NoVA—I somehow find the street hidden away in the warehouse district of Falls Church. On the far side of one of the buildings a piece of plywood is propped against a doorway, the ominous word “Lumberjack” painted on it. One might suspect such signage to announce a convention of flannel-clad woodsmen discussing the price of good mahogany. In actuality, it marks the entrance to a weekends-only record store, a front for one of the area’s largest independent music distributors. Just beyond the door, Rich Kraemer sits behind a register in a tiny room, the walls of which are covered with band T-shirts, 7-inch records, fanzines—and Van Halen posters.
“Eric will be here soon,” Kraemer smiles, referring to his partner. “He went to Taco Bell.”
As if on cue, Eric Astor strolls into the room, followed by the members of Rye Coalition—a band that played a basement show near George Washington University last night—all satisfyingly stuffed with bean burritos.
“This building,” Astor says to his herd while gesturing around the room, “used to be an animal testing facility back in the ’70s, and that huge smokestack out front is where they incinerated the monkeys’ bodies.” Evincing something between disgust and curiosity, his out-of-town visitors disperse to sleep off their meal.
Astor and Kraemer, both 24, have known each other since they were 12-year-olds growing up in Arizona. When Kraemer moved east to go to school at William and Mary, Astor followed, but chose to live in State College, Pa. In July 1993 the two began their own record label, Art Monk Construction. Although they each lived hours from D.C., Astor and Kraemer released records by such local heroes as Hoover and Kerosene 454. “When we came here, we were under the impression that the Dischord scene was pretty much the only thing going on in D.C., because all the bands we worked with were Dischord bands,” Kraemer discloses. “The longer we lived here, [the more] we realized there was much more going on, particularly in the hardcore scene.”
Astor agrees, recalling being surprised at the sizable followings of even lesser-known D.C. bands. “I think there were, like, 700 kids at this Damnation and Battery show at a church in Annandale. Kids eat that shit up. The only band in town that [I thought would bring] in that many people would be Fugazi. That’s what turns me on to that whole D.C. hardcore scene.”
“We started the label as a fun thing,” Astor proclaims, “but because we were a small company, getting our stuff into stores was nearly impossible. So we said, ‘Screw it, let’s start our own distribution company.’”
And so in August 1994 Lumberjack was born.
The team patterned its company after Mordam Records, the largest independent distributors in the country. They even called Mordam for advice, and the San Francisco–based company responded with a list of stores for Lumberjack to contact. The limited amount of space the two had in State College constricted Lumberjack’s growth, so in August 1995, Astor and Kraemer moved their operations to Falls Church. Since then, Lumberjack has grown from distributing six labels run by Astor and Kraemer’s friends to over 150 from around the country.
Astor and Kraemer now have an occupation many of us only dream about: a job where you never have to kiss ass to the Man. “It’s so liberating,” Astor smiles. “We work our own hours, we answer to ourselves.”
“I haven’t worked another job since May of ’95,” says Kraemer, although in addition to working full-time at Lumberjack, he does also work several hours a week at the Uncommon Market in Arlington. “But that’s out of love for the co-op,” Astor is quick to point out. “He could take more money here if he wanted to.”
Astor, who now devotes all his time to Lumberjack, once worked as bell captain manager at a Hilton hotel. When he got laid off, he collected unemployment and lived on food stamps for several months. “I was never rehired,” he says, “so in the meantime we built up the business.” Besides, his experience carting around baggage for tie-choked businessmen had turned him off to the idea of having a real job. “They’re miserable,” he says, shaking his bleached head. “They’re overweight, they hate their spouses, they hate their business, they hate the suit they’re in. They’re putting so much time and effort into someone else making money. It seems so depressing.”
Astor and Kraemer take pride in running their business ethically. “We charge reasonable prices for our records,” Astor insists. “We pay [the record labels] every six days. We’re trustworthy, we’re on time. It’s a tight music community—if someone screws someone over, word gets around. People know who’s bad and who’s good.”
And in solidarity with the punk community, the Lumberjack boys decry major-label sellouts. “When a band signs and gets huge,” Astor says, his image reflected in a vintage Van Halen barroom-style mirror in the corner, “you lose that intimacy. Then you hear some kid in the mall say, ‘Yeah, I like Ratt, Poison, Green Day, and Metallica, dude!’ and you get bummed out.”
While still mourning the loss of Green Day to the free market, Astor and Kraemer support bands whose summer vacation is spent driving around in a sweaty van, playing shows in group-house basements, church auditoriums, and small clubs, and if they’re lucky, making enough for gas money. “We know we’re not changing the world,” Astor admits, “but for some kid out there, for some band we may not think anything of, it makes a big difference. We’re helping spread the word.”
Nevertheless, Astor and Kraemer are denounced for selling out. A few holier-than-thou punk scenesters make accusations that their goal, to be able to make a profit off something that is seen to many D.I.Y. types as sacred, contradicts the independent ethic.
“The reason why we’re still around,” Astor proclaims, “the reason why we can pay the bills is because we run it like a business. If we run it like a hobby it’s going to go down. There are a lot of kids who don’t believe in making money, and that’s great if they can afford it.” But according to the Lumberjack boys, their success ultimately supports the labels they distribute. “Making money doesn’t have to be a bad thing if you do it ethically. That’s what we try to do.”
Unfortunately, Astor and Kraemer can’t survive by selling only music they enjoy. In an industry in which mediocrity is marketable (Tuscadero, for example), deciding what to sell can’t rely solely on personal taste. “You can sell anything,” Astor proclaims, as he leans dangerously far back in his chair. “If Ian MacKaye farted into a mic and put it out on record, he’d sell at least a few thousand copies.” Still, Kraemer insists, “It’s great to put something out that you’re really into, especially when it comes [down] to the two of us, who don’t like a lot of the music that comes out today.”
“If I liked all the music we distributed,” Astor says, “we’d sell, like, 10 7-inches, four CDs, and eight records. There’s so little music these days that blows up my skirt.” His eyes suddenly light up, “I mean, I like Van Halen—the first 5 albums—and anything less is useless.”
“Even though I don’t endorse their albums with Sammy Hagar, I still think they’re a quality band,” he attests.
Astor’s mood swings from the seriousness of the determined music entrepreneur to the unbridled enthusiasm of a hyperactive sixth-grade kid convinced that David Lee Roth is the Second Coming. He rocks wildly in his chair, and out of the corner of my eye I see Kraemer crack a smile. All the Van Halen paraphernalia around the room makes sense now. “I didn’t grow up with Kiss or Led Zeppelin, I grew up with Van Halen and Ozzy Osborne—and Ozzy has been making a fool out of himself for so long now.”
As I wonder how a beacon of bad taste can be a hero to a punk-rock poster boy, Astor’s conversation turns to Roth’s role as a true individualist in this politically correct decade. “The ’90s has basically tamed everyone down. I’m not going to say I’m not PC, but everyone is so boring now, everyone is watching what they say, scared to be themselves. DLR isn’t afraid to be himself.”
Kraemer, the voice of reason, chimes in: “Although Roth’s loud and obnoxious, he’s still himself.”
Astor, though, has gone nuts. “David Lee Roth rejoining Van Halen will be the best thing in the ’90s!” he exclaims, waving his arms in the air. “I’m so psyched! DLR is a showman, and Halen hasn’t been the same since. I just hope he hasn’t lost his voice and he’s not fat.” CP
Lumberjack Distribution, 101-C West Jefferson St., Falls Church. (703) 533-2175. The store is open to the public from noon to 7 p.m. (or a bit later) Saturdays and Sundays.