In a cluttered room near Logan Circle, the proprietors of Fifth Column Records come and go, talking about Dessau, Cyber-Tec, Chemlab, and other bands with names that suggest mad scientists, Nazis, or Nazi mad scientists. Label manager Jay Moskowitz and retail-promotions man Todd Savitch keep their seats. New York-based Jared Hendrikson, a member of Chemlab and the label’s de facto A&R man, flits in and out of the room, animatedly extolling the usually harsh, generally synth-based music he and the company prefer. Zalman Fishman owns the house, the label, and the F Street NW club that bears the same name, but he’s the least in evidence.
“Zalman wanted a record label,” remembers the rail-thin Hendriksonresplendent in two-tone hair and a Stars-and-Stripes shirtof Chemlab’s initial discussions with Fishman. ” ‘I really want to sign you,’ he said. Sign us to what?”
“It was pretty much a vanity project for Chemlab and Thud for three, three-and-a-half years,” explains Hendrickson of the label’s early days, when its only acts were D.C. bands featuring former 9:30 Club employees. Now Thud is defunct, Chemlab is based in New York, and Fifth Column’s only area act is P.O.D. (Perceptual Outer Dimensions), a Fredericksburg outfit that, according to the label’s catalog, constructs “star-stuff” from “downloaded satellite data.”
Hendrickson says that “Zalman wanted to develop bands and then sell off the contracts”a strategy that occasionally, notably in the case of Nirvana, has made a lot of money for an indie label. “He didn’t want to take on a lot of little bands.”
Hendrickson, however, “always wanted to have it be a real record label. Farm-teaming doesn’t really interest me a lot, farm-teaming for Sony.”
He saw his chance when a friend, Brian McNelis, was fired by Metal Blade. “I hired him the next day.” Though the new employee didn’t stay longhe now works for L.A.-based Cleopatra, one of the largest techno/industrial labelshe showed Fifth Column the basics.
“Brian just taught us what our jobs were,” recalls Moskowitz. “He’d just tell you what to do. And at the time I didn’t know what to do.”
“It was just the simple nuts and bolts of getting it into the stores,” says Hendrickson. “If you can’t figure how to get the records in the stores, it doesn’t matter how good they are.”
Now Fifth Column has roughly 25 albums in its catalog, most of them released in 1995; its tentative 1996 list adds another 30 or so. The best sellers include Acumen, Halo Black, Cyber-Tec (a solo project of Jean Luc Demyer from Belgian industrial band Front 242), and Dessau (which temporarily united Ministry’s Paul Barker, Filter’s Richard Patrick, Pigface’s Jason McNinch, and Die Warzau’s Jim Marcus). A recent CD sampler of 13 of these acts, Forced Cranial Removal, is characterized by dense mixes, deep reverb, and earthquake beats.
Strictly speaking, Fifth Column is not Hendrickson’s first label. In the late ’80s, he and former colleague Tom Smith started Adult Contemporary to release the work of their band, Peach of Immortality. (It also issued a Pussy Galore single.) “Everything fell flat on its face and we lost thousands of dollars,” he says. Fifth Column is not yet a moneymaker, but Hendrickson prefers not to discuss finances or sales figures. “We’re not out of the red” is as specific as he will be.
“We don’t like to talk too much about the numbers,” says Fishman, during one of his fleeting moments in the room.
Tom Smith’s latest project, To Live and Shave in L.A., is on Fifth Column, but these days the label’s scope is lot wider than Hendrickson and his friends. A lot of its music is recorded in Chicago, where much of the synth-slam scene was left homeless by the bankruptcy of Wax Trax, the pioneering industrial label. (Wax Trax now exists as a subsidiary of TVT, but doesn’t release as much Chicago industrialism as it once did.) “A lot of bands can’t get hooked into [Wax Trax] anymore,” notes Moskowitz.
Increasingly, though, Fifth Column has been licensing music from European labels, including Germany’s Machinery, Britain’s Cyber-Tec, and Denmark’s Hard. Such releases now compose about half the label’s catalog. Recently, Fifth Column has expanded its sights to include Australia, and Hendrickson would like to tap what he says is a vibrant South African scene.
The label also wants to make flow go the other way. “What we’re really trying to focus on is getting our stuff overseas,” says Moskowitz.
In the U.S., Fifth Column is distributed by Caroline, although the label also sells its albums through mail-order. (To receive a copy of Fifth Column’s catalog, write the label at P.O. Box 787, Washington, DC 20044.) Mail order “is what fills in the holes of the distributor,” says Moskowitz. “It keeps the business alive, basically.”
Not merely a distributor, Caroline also releases its own albums. Its techno/ambient imprint, Astralwerks, is home to the Chemical Brothers and Seefeel and is “the hottest [techno] label right now,” says Moskowitz. “I think we have stuff on our label that can be handled the same way.”
To better market such music, the company plans its own imprints, all with the same initials as Fifth Column Records. Full Contact Records will release what Hendrickson calls “higher bpm [beats per minute] or trippy ambient,” while Fused Coil Records will specialize in “white noise” such as To Live and Shave in L.A. “We’re trying not to be a one-trick pony,” he says.
As the label expands, it’s not entirely clear what music is off-limits. “I would say no cerebral folk-rock,” muses Fishman. “I can’t say no country,” he adds, explaining that he’s a Johnny Cash fan.
“I turned down two gospel bands,” notes
“We’ve had so many Nine Inch Nails sound-alikes, and we’ve turned them all down,” says Moskowitz.
Hendrickson and Moskowitz estimate that they get from five to 10 unsolicited demo tapes a week each at the label’s D.C. and New York offices. Most of them don’t make the cut, but they aren’t all forgotten. Excitedly, Hendrickson unearths a promo photo from a band that Fifth Column didn’t sign. A white-supremacist group, the quartet posed for the camera with automatic weapons.
“Anybody Jared’s had sex with, we sign,” offers Fishman.
“I don’t think that any of us here are interested in putting out drivel that’s predictable,” says Hendrickson. The label’s reputation, however, has the effect of dissuading most of the sort of bands that he would consider drivel. “A lot of stuff that would leave a nasty taste in our mouth doesn’t come to us,” he notes.
Though in some cases Fifth Column signed bands “just to bolster our roster,” admits Hendrickson, “there’s nothing on the label that I regret signing.”
“I DJ in New York every Tuesday,” he says, “and I play a lot of Fifth Column stuff, not because it’s Fifth Column stuff, but because it’s the kind of stuff I play in my living room.”
The label’s music would not suit all living rooms, of course, but so far there have been few protests from the heartland. “I think if Wal-Mart banned any of our records, we’d be really happy,” says Fishman.
A Chemlab video was banned in Canada, Hendrickson remembers. “That did us more good than if they’d played it.”
The label’s marketing is every bit as confrontational as its hammering, hard-edged music. Fifth Column sells both T-shirts and baseball caps emblazoned with the Chemlab slogan, “Fuck Art, Let’s Kill.” It also peddles, though only by mail order, a limited edition of Chemlab’s Burn Out at the Hydrogen Bar album with a special insert photo. “It’s just a picture of me spiking smack into my cock,” says Hendrickson with mock modesty, and that is indeed what it seems to be.
Hendrickson’s most mischievous idea, however, tweaks not mainstream sensibilities but rather industrial-rock trailblazer Ministry. He’s undertaken a tribute to “With Sympathy,” the band’s uncharacteristic first album. “That’s just one really sugary Britpop album,” smirks Hendrickson about the 1983 disc, which Ministry leader Al Jourgensen found an embarrassment as his music became more aggressive and abrasive.
“It’s infamous,” says Moskowitz.
“We’re going to take 18 bands and do each song two times,” explains Hendrickson. Among the participants will be Chemlab, KMFDM, Sister Machine Gun, and maybe Filter and White Zombie. “I think it’s going to be really stimulating. All the bands are really wound-up about it.”
“The next time I meet Al,” he cheerfully predicts, “we’ll probably have a fistfight.” CP