We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Mark Robinson has so diligently and obsessively chronicled everything that his record label, TeenBeat, has done over the last decade that it’s hard to believe him when he suggests his indifference to TeenBeat’s 200th release—especially since it’s Robinson’s first solo record.
This is, after all, the same Mark Robinson who catalogued the Arlington-based indie label’s first decade with the 23-page TeenBeat Book of Numbers (itself numbered TeenBeat 188). It not only listed landmark releases from Versus, Tuscadero, and Robinson’s own Unrest, as well as fountains of essential, obscure 7-inches, but also included the following:
TeenBeat 26: Unrest metal CD jewel box. Only one made by Mark out of copper, brass, paper and photos. Dec. 27, 1988.
TeenBeat 36: Fiesta days at King’s Dominion with host Andrew Beaujon. June 26, 1989.
TeenBeat 97: TeenBeat house/residence/office/practice space/backyard purchased at 715 N. Wakefield St., Arlington. March 15, 1992
TeenBeat 120: Cobalt’s “Watercress Mill” LP/CD (never released) “A truly wonderful record.”
Not to mention the same Mark Robinson who gave Duran Duran’s Simon LeBon a production credit on Perfect Teeth—Unrest’s last studio record before Robinson and Bridget Cross formed Air Miami—just to have some fun with fans and writers. But Robinson, whose unique vision, eclectic taste, and eye for talent have taken TeenBeat from a high-school club emulating New Order’s Factory Records to a label of worldwide renown itself—he proudly points to a TeenBeat retrospective on Danish radio last year—insists that 200 is just another number. In addition, he already sounds bored with his solo record, Blue, released under the nom de plume Olympic Death Squad.
“I don’t really have anything to say about the album,” Robinson warns right away, sitting down to a dinner of chili and onion rings at Arlington’s Hard Times Cafe. “I wanted to have 200 be something that was no big deal. When we did the box set [last summer’s four-CD retrospective], that was number 181. And that was a really big deal. Everybody else is going to make the 100th or 200th release a compilation. This is one I wanted to be low-key and just like any other release.”
Robinson recorded Olympic Death Squad just that simply, trudging the three blocks from his Wakefield Street headquarters to the Letsrain Room on Wilson Boulevard in the midst of January’s first major blizzard. While it was his lacerating guitar strum that became Unrest’s trademark, Robinson plays every instrument himself here, with the exception of a drum machine on a couple songs. “I don’t really know how to play the drums. Then again, I don’t really know how to play the guitar, either,” he quips.
He frets that the record sounds too throwaway, too casual, and too much a random collection of songs that wouldn’t fit Air Miami (which seems to have more of a new-wave sound compared with the Velvet Underground–style drone of Unrest). Robinson says he only made the record because these songs were gathering dust, and TeenBeat’s spring release schedule looked barren.
But he worries too much: Olympic Death Squad might lack the tight rhythmic interplay of Unrest and Air Miami, but these songs are still undeniably characteristic Robinson compositions, from his crisp, clipped vocals of “This Is Riot Gear” to the tautly strummed instrumental, “Wakefield Street.” For the second straight record, Robinson threatens that he’s “gonna fuck you up today,” echoing Air Miami’s “Neely.” (“I guess I wrote both of those songs two years ago. I was very bitter in my younger days. Just kidding,” he explains.) Without Cross’ complicated countermelodies, the slower songs are simpler, but perhaps prettier. And the gentle, lazy-day drone of “Newfoundland” sounds so much like Unrest’s “I Do Believe You Are Blushing” that it could easily have come from the Imperial f.f.r.r. sessions.
“Those songs do sound so obviously reminiscent of that era that I had never wanted to put them on anything else. Somebody would have listened to it and said, ‘Oh, it’s Mark trying to sound like the Imperial record.’ Who wants to play like that in Air Miami? But on a solo record I can do anything I want.”
That doesn’t mean he has to like it, though. At one point over dinner, he has to check the CD case just to see what songs are on the record. Later he adds that he probably won’t tour in support of this CD because he can’t remember how to play any of the songs. The few Olympic Death Squad shows, none of which have been in D.C., have featured almost entirely old Unrest songs.
“There’s one song, ‘Show Your Age,’ which I think is a pretty good song, but as for the rest of it”—Robinson pauses to dip another onion ring into a mixture of ketchup and Tabasco—“Well, I don’t think it’s a bad record. I’m just not exactly excited about it. If I had to pick one record that I liked better, this one or me. me. me., it would be me. me. me. a hundred times out of a hundred.
“The main difference is I didn’t work with Bridget on them, so they sound kind of flat and one-dimensional to me. Usually I’d bring a half-written song to Bridget, and she can come up with a really amazing vocal line or guitar line that just brings it to life. So to me, this sounds like a demo tape of songs I would give her to listen to,” he says.
All of which means Robinson doesn’t have any plans for a solo career. In fact, he hopes not to do another record himself, with the possible exception of an experimental EP later this year of short stereo test sounds. But indeed, Air Miami is in flux these days. The original rhythm section has left the band, leaving Cross (who also works as a receptionist at Washington City Paper) and Robinson searching for a new drummer and bassist. (“It’s because me and Bridget are assholes,” he says. “No. Just kidding. Not Bridget. Just me. No comment.”) In February, they found a temporary new bandmate in an old one—former Unrest drummer Phil Krauth—and opened for Luna at the 9:30 Club.
“That was actually an Unrest show, but we just played Air Miami songs,” Robinson says. So it was a secret reunion, right in the open? “Right. It was kind of a performance art thing.” Krauth won’t stay on full-time, since he has his own second solo album to support, Silver Eyes. “Phil’s going to sell a million records and make me rich,” Robinson says. “Just kidding.”
Cross and Robinson have recorded three new songs, two in Romania’s new Georgetown studios, and hope to have an EP out later this year. But the band’s contract with 4AD, the label that released me. me. me., was only for that one record. Robinson says 4AD would like to do more records with the band, but his own experiences with major labels continue to be unsatisfactory, so the band might put out the next record on TeenBeat.
“It hasn’t really been decided. I’m being very vague,” Robinson says before turning his attention to the Detroit-Colorado hockey playoff on the television above the bar. The Red Wings have just taken a 1-0 lead. “I’m not really worried about what record label we’ll be on, because I have a record label. If I put out the Air Miami record, there wouldn’t be some total idiot promotion person pushing it who has no idea what the hell we’re doing—and who above that is a complete idiot.”
This time, he doesn’t add a “just kidding.”
4AD, Robinson says, doesn’t “seem to be very aware of what’s going on in the music world—you know, sinking lots of money into Lisa Germano.” Labelmates don’t make that much of a difference, Robinson admits. But after running his own label like a family, based on friendships and the community of the Wakefield group house, he doesn’t like having his own music marketed like any other product.
“It affects us because when we did me. me. me. they tried to market us as, ‘We have to get you on HFS, we have to do all this stuff.’ We might as well have been signed to Mercury Records or something and gotten more money. If you’re going to go through all that shit, you might as well get a lot of money,” Robinson says with a loud laugh.
So while Robinson waits for the Air Miami situation to sort itself out, he’s busying himself with other projects. He’s remixing a dozen Merge bands (the Chapel Hill label run by Superchunk) for a 100th-release compilation including Magnetic Fields, Lambchop, and Butterglory. “I don’t really have any idea of what I’m doing,” he adds.
And there are two joint releases involving TeenBeat and major labels this summer: a new Versus record on Caroline and Elektra’s reissue of Tuscadero’s Pink Album. There’s also hope that Caroline will return the rights to early Unrest LPs Malcolm X Park and Kustom Karnal Blackxploitation to TeenBeat for CD reissues. Not to mention a possible TeenBeat documentary, a compilation of TeenBeat bands covering each other’s songs, a TeenBeat mouse pad, and a ’zine offering reviews of Arlington restaurants. All, of course, to be numbered appropriately. CP