Rewind: Sound Virus Records x Punk Planet
BY GREGORY ADAMS
Hey folks! This time around, we’re rewinding to an old interview I'd done with California hardcore label Sound Virus Records. This was originally published in 2004 through Punk Planet. It might’ve been the first piece of writing I got paid for, but I’m not entirely sure of that.
I got to know Sound Virus’ Mike Ott around 2001, when he started putting out my old band’s music. We often crashed at his place in Valencia whenever we’d roll through town; the other Sound Virus bands did the same. We did this interview at a nearby coffee shop, possibly in May of 2003 during a weekend of Sound Virus showcases that featured sets from the Blood Brothers, Pretty Girls Make Graves, Death From Above, the Cinema Eye, and the Red Light Sting. Then again, it might've happened the following July when we were back out that way for a West Coast tour. Roughly 20 years ago, either way.
I remember Mikey as a sweet, but bitingly hysterical guy. I think this interview hints at that a bit, in terms of how he looked at the music business. What’s curious is that we don’t really talk about bands or the music that came out through Sound Virus, which is a shame. It does, however, hint at Mike’s interest in film, a path he’s pursued since Sound Virus stopped putting out records in the late ‘00s. As a director, he's released a series of full-length features since 2006, and is currently working on a movie about the Oklahoma City Bombing.
Since this is quite a short interview, I’ve got to assume this was edited down a bit to fit the magazine. That said, I’ve since edited it down a touch more for readability. Intro's kind of weird and early '00s edgy; definitely dubious that I namedrop my own band in here.
Maybe I'll do a label guide another time, but in the meantime, enjoy!
Mike Ott doesn’t need to shit-talk anymore; the track record for his label, Sound Virus, does all the talking. It wasn’t too long ago that he was known just as much for his scandalous print ads — which lambasted bands and labels nationwide — as he was for the records that bore the Sound Virus logo. These days the Blood Brothers, Pretty Girls Make Graves, and Liars are bursting into the mainstream’s consciousness with reckless abandon, and a new wave of Sound Virus acts including the Red Light Sting, the Cinema Eye, and Death From Above are not far behind.
The success has had a mellowing effect on Ott, who now just wants his Valencia, CA label to focus on putting out quality records that will one day push out the dreck that plays on modern rock radio. Lofty goals aside, Ott has given rise to a veritable indie empire, while his other passion, filmmaking, could prove just as essential to the future of Sound Virus.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Before you ran Sound Virus, you co-ran Hopscotch Records with Aaron Hemphill [later of Liars]. How did that label turn into Sound Virus?
MIKE OTT: Hopscotch Records started when I lived in San Diego with Aaron. We saw kids our age putting out records — we just wanted to try it. I got all this money from my dad [through] child support, and Aaron had money saved, so we started with the Death Wish Kids record and it just snowballed. That record did really well, and then we did a Submission Hold record and [the label] took off. Aaron quit the label and I kept it going, but it was never truly my own thing. I started Sound Virus by myself in 2000 and it’s been doing better than I thought it would.
You never used to put out CD’s…
OTT: I hate CDs. All my CDs are in a stack that my friends call the “slot pile”. I just have no respect for them. But at the same time, I lose money putting out vinyl only. If I put out a CD, at least we can do some awesome stuff with the packaging of the vinyl, or I can hire someone to do a cool design. The CD evens out the cost of things. That’s pretty much the only reason I put them out.
Also, I was putting out records for bands [that were] getting popular, and then some offshoot label would put out the CD [version] and make a ton of money off something I put all that work into. Not that it’s all about making money, but I don’t want someone else to make it if I’m doing all the work. I would rather make it, so that I could put it back into Sound Virus and put out a new band.
Punk rock or not, running a label is a business. Where do the punk and the businessman converge?
OTT: There is a lot of work you have to do [to run a label]. I think it has to do with each band, like whether they want to do a lot of promotion or not. If they do, I’ll [promote] it. If they don’t, I’ll just make sure the record is in stores. It goes by the release.
But there’s shit I hate doing. I hate writing one-sheets. I feel like such a wet-dick trying to tell someone, “this band is going to be big; they’re featuring members of…blah, blah, blah.” A lot of times I hire someone to write descriptions for me.
Outside of running the label, you’re also a filmmaker. How does your interest in film flavour what you do with Sound Virus?
OTT: I’m trying to find a way to incorporate filmmaking with putting out records. Making videos is the obvious choice. I started Sound Virus when I got into filmmaking [at CalArts], so it’s all tied together. The Sound Virus logo is from an old Alfred Hitchcock storyboard; a lot of the films I’ve made are sound-heavy, having bands record songs for films I make. It’s all intertwined.
You’ve talked about Sound Virus releasing a DVD for a filmmaker named Lee Lynch. Who is Lee Lynch, and why do you think people need to see his films?
OTT: Lee is this guy that I go to school with. I got to know him and he would talk to me for hours and hours about his movies. I thought this one movie [The Beehive] was going to be epic, like Magnolia or something, but it turned out to be two minutes long [laughs]. I was like, “Is this a joke?” [But] I thought this kid was so awesome; he’s so excited about everything he does. He’s my favourite filmmaker; I watch his movies more than anything else. There is just something so great about them; he is just so charismatic.
I don’t know how the DVD is going to do. I’m going to try it, and if it bombs, it bombs [ed. this never came out]. I’m at a point where I can help my friends out. That’s my main motivation.
How long of a shelf life do you see Sound Virus having?
OTT: The way it’s going right now, I can keep at it because it’s pretty self-sufficient.
It’s not something I can live off — I’ve never taken a dollar out of the label; I’ve never even bought a cup of coffee with it. I’d feel guilty spending money that comes out of it. You’d have to sell so many records to even be able to live off it, [and] I wouldn’t want to think that way, like, “Is this going to sell enough for me to pay rent?” [But] as long as it stays this way and I can put out a record and pay for promotion [using] label money, I’ll keep doing it.