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Teenbeat Records has been based in Cambridge, Mass., for some time, but the Arlington-formed label is essential to D.C. musical DNA. Over the past 26 years, the label has documented a rich supply of scrappy, lo-fi pop. It’s a large body of work, but like any good label, Teenbeat numbers its releases obsessively—-it also also numbers to things like interns, T-shirts, and annual reports. Arts Desk asked a handful of TB artists to curate and discuss their favorite work before the Teenbeat anniversary show at the Black Cat this Saturday.
No. 7: Unrest – “Unrest” seven-inch Regarding the influential band’s debut seven-inch, founding member Tim Moran (’83 – ’86) says: “In hindsight, a lot of the stuff Mark [Robinson] rereleased later on I liked more, but it’s hard to compare with the excitement of a first release. A lot was done in one take—-three maximum.” Moran recalls a tour mishap that occured not too long after the record’s release. “We were going to play Chicago and Louisville on a break from school, and we were driving in Mark’s old Cadillac. On the way up, the exhaust pipe started falling off, dragging on the ground and making sparks. We had to stop a couple times and tie it up with some wire. We made it to Chicago, but after that the car was shot. We tried to make it to Louisville but had to give up.”
Mark Robinson, label founder and the driving force behind Unrest, started Teenbeat in high school as a lending library to share the experimental noise his band was working on with his friends. He’s filled many roles—-curator, musician, songwriter, producer, graphic designer—-and says choosing a favorite song is nearly impossible. “I can’t really say,” quips Robinson. “‘Cherry Cherry’ and ‘Malcolm X Park’ are really enjoyable because of their simple, repeated lyrics.” When pressed, he eventually admits it’s hard to beat the excitement of going into the studio for the first time to record the “Unrest” single. “We went to a place called Zoodio Studio in Woodley Park. It’s a large Victorian house apartment looking out onto the National Zoo. It was essentially an electronic music new-age studio. The engineer had never recorded drums or amps. He suggested we plug the guitars directly in instead of using amps. We recorded eight or nine songs in like six hours. He was a strange guy, but we actually came out with good mixes.”
No. 109: Jonny Cohen’s Love Machine – Getting Our Heads Together Musical jokester Jonny Cohen hooked up with Teenbeat in the late ’80s not long after asking Unrest to cover his song “I’m Not An Anorexic.” On releasing his first album with TB, Cohen says: “We recorded in Ambient Studios with Ray Tilkens in College Park, which was basically in his house. I remember I told Ray I wanted to be successful and stick to my vision. He thought that was funny and said, ‘Good luck.'”
No. 142: Versus – The Stars Are Insane Though Versus moved on to work with other labels, the NYC band got its start with Teenbeat and never fully left. Continuing the trend, drummer Ed Baluyut still prefers his first TB release over the others. “I think everyone in the band acknowledges that there’s an urgency to that material that exceeds some of the other albums,” he says. “Richard [Baluyut] says he has some trouble listening to it because the vocals aren’t perfect, but that adds a certain charm to it.” Ed Baluyut also recalled an annual Teenbeat tradition: “They would throw a banquet at a hilarious back room of a Chinese restaurant in Arlington. Mark [Robinson] would have people come up and do variety acts. There were speeches and food, and everyone wins some award.”
No. 231: Unrest – Malcom X Park Remembering a particularly notable TB recording session, bassist Dave Park of Unrest (’88 – ’89) and Eggs says: “We recorded at Noise New York with Kramer—-the original guy from New York City—-at the same studio as Butthole Surfers‘ Rembrandt Pussyhorse… I think Moe Tucker recorded about a month before we were in there. Kramer was one of those guys that would throw an instrument in your hand—-he’d say, ‘Here, play harmonica on that song,’ and I didn’t play harmonica.” Touring on that same LP, the band didn’t get a lot of rest. “Mark [Robinson] might kick my ass for sharing this, but on one of our minitours, we stayed at his grandmother’s house in New Jersey,” Park says. “We came in late, went to sleep, and it seemed like only two or three hours later when Mark woke us up and said, ‘We gotta go.’ I just remember piling all our stuff on the van and going, ‘I don’t understand why we’re doing this.'” Robinson explains: “My grandmother was sort of imagining things and kept saying, ‘I don’t like all the loud noise you’re making.’ She was convinced we had been performing and it was time for us to leave.”
No. 407: Bossanova – Hey, Sugar Songwriter Chris Storrow of Bossanova had worked with the label for years before completing his full-length. “It was recorded between 1998 and 2004, he says. “I couldn’t really get accomplished what I wanted in a real recording studio, so I had to spend a few years putting together a studio of my own.” Of course, when he wasn’t in the studio, Storrow was still keeping busy. “I had a really great time with Mark [Robinson],” he says. “In 2001, he recruited me to be his backup guitar player for a tour down the west coast. It was me, him, and Calvin Johnson from K Records in the car for a week. It was cool for me having grown up being fans of those guys.”
No. 428: The Rondelles – In Your Face Drummer and keyboardist Oakley Munson of the Rondelles says his bestwork might predate the band’s signing to the label. “My favorite thing is actually the original four-track tapes, the original demos we sent to Mark [Robinson]—-to me, that sounds like the most interesting stuff we did,” he says. “Of course, it didn’t come out until six months ago.” The songs found their way onto later records, but Munson prefers to listen to the demos “in the early stages, before we could play our instruments.”
The Teenbeat 26th Anniversary Show takes place at Black Cat tomorrow. It features three Unrest line-ups, the Rondelles, Versus, and Bossanova, along with emcees Jonny Cohen and Patrick Bryant. Image courtesy Unrest’s MySpace page.