In 1993, Josh Grabelle started Trustkill Records in his dorm room. While it grew significantly over the next 15 years and launched the careers of bands like Bullet for my Valentine, Poison the Well and Bleeding Through, Grabelle recently left the label to form a new venture, Bullet Tooth. We went behind the bullet, so to speak, to ask Grabelle why he would do this, as well as talk about the public perception if his old label and what we can expect from his new venture.
Why give up something you started in college that so closely has your name associated with it?
I never thought in a million years that in 2010 I would still be running the label I started in my dorm room in 1993. However, it ran its course and we have to move forward and not delve in the past. To explain what happened as simply as possible, in 2002 we signed a deal with RED Distribution in the US who invested money in the label to allow us to build our brand and artists. From 2002 to 2006 while we were at RED there was definitely some rampant spending on tour support, retail co-op, video production, and more. Hindsight is 20/20, but at the time, it made sense to everyone. In 2007 we moved to Fontana/Universal after they gave us an offer we couldn’t refuse. The deal was great and the people we did the deal with were awesome. Unfortunately the head of the company died shortly after and the guy who spearheaded the deal quit. This is pretty typical for any label or band doing a deal with a major unfortunately. Fast forward a year and there is a whole new staff of people who didn’t like the deal we had agreed upon previously. This put us in a bad spot and we tried everything to work it out and it just couldn’t work.
What happens to the bands on the label? Do you bring any of them with you?
The bands we are working with for Bullet Tooth are Memphis May Fire, First Blood, Victory In Numbers, Deception Of A Ghost, Kid Liberty, Soldiers, The Great American Beast, Most Precious Blood, Awaken Demons, and we have a new band announcement coming very soon. We also have projects coming up like the Saw VII Soundtrack, HorrorFest Soundtrack, and many other tricks up our sleeves.
Does you leaving Trustkill have anything to do with the numerous bands that have been vocal in their criticism of the label?
Not at all. Any complaints in the past were all circumstantial. We are leaving Trustkill behind and starting fresh because contractually we could not release records through our current distributor, that is it.
I’ll touch on the criticism that I assume you are referring to… Firstly, Hopesfall made a big stink a few years ago that we “pulled a track off their album.” Well, the truth is, we do that for almost ALL our albums. When a band delivers their record to us we discuss with them what songs to put on, in which order, and perhaps what songs to hold back for international releases, bonus songs, soundtracks, etc. We told Hopesfall many times about that but apparently there was a miscommunication between their management and the band. It should not have been a surprise since we did the same thing on their previous album “A Types”.
Secondly, there are some bands out there that give themselves all the credit as they work their way up the ladder of the business. We all know that it takes a team of people to get them there; band, label, manager, agent, publicist, etc. Unfortunately when a band has already hit their peak and they are coming DOWN the ladder, they can’t look themselves in the mirror, and instead, start pointing fingers.
Other than Bullet For My Valentine, every band we ever released an album for that moved on to another label has sold LESS records than we did. Is that partly because of the decline in music sales? Of course. But you could also say that we released the right album, at the right time, with the right marketing.
What do you think the public perception of Trustkill has been for the last five years versus the first five years?
All labels go through phases, good and bad. Every indie label that has been around for 10+ years (our friends at Epitaph, Metal Blade, Fearless, Equal Vision, and more) has their highs and lows and in order to make it through and come out the other side you have to know how to scale your business so you can get there. I’m comfortable enough to admit that we were the “hype label” from 2002-2006 and had the biggest success stories at that time. Since then we have signed fantastic bands and released fantastic records, though perhaps some performed underpar. Add to that the decline in the overall business and I suppose you could say we have made less of an impact. On the other hand, I would say that we have had successful releases in the last 2 years from Bleeding Through, It Dies Today, Memphis May Fire, the Saw VI Soundtrack, and more.
Bullet Tooth started out as TK’s publishing company. Will they continue to do publishing for current TK bands?
No we will not. We will administer the compositions for the bands we are currently working with (above) and that is it. We are also looking to pick up other bands that are looking for publishing deals, so if anyone is interested please send an email to email@example.com. We are currently working on a lot of great movies, soundtracks, commercials, and more.
What things did you learn from Trustkill that you’re not going to do with Bullet Tooth?
For a while with our bands and contracts we were under the assumption that things would always “get better” or bands will always “get bigger”. That isn’t the case unfortunately. You have to come to terms with the fact that EVERY band has its ups and downs and you don’t want your agreement with the band to make them a liability to the company. That is really it. Just being more realistic. There are no guarantees in the music business!
Trustkill was a very niche label. Do you envision Bullet Tooth being the same?
Yes I do. Bullet Tooth will continue where Trustkill left off signing the best heavy music out there. We have no agenda, we never have, we just find what we feel is the most compelling music written by kids with the strongest work ethics.
What are you doing to find new bands for the label?
I go see bands play live a few times a week in NJ/NY/PA/CT and if something really peaks my interest I will fly out to see them. When I did our deal with Bullet For My Valentine I flew to the UK to meet them and hang out. You gotta do that. We will be announcing a new band soon that I went to see a few months back in North Jersey, in the middle of a hurricane. I thought I was going to DIE, for real. But I made it and I’m glad I did.
Several years ago, you invited others to help run the label with you after running the company successfully yourself. What’s staffing going to be like for the new label?
Yeah I started Trustkill in 1993, put out my first record in 1994, and hired my first employee in 2002 (One of my best friends and former band mate, Dave Comeau, who is still with us). Since then we have gone through a lot of employees; sales, art directors, mailorder, interns, etc. Bullet Tooth will be the same staff we’ve had at Trustkill minus Rob who came on board in 2005, who is currently working directly with our publishing admin company. That is actually great news for us because anyone who has tried the game of publishing knows it is VERY difficult to get on people’s radars. We spent a year at Universal Publishing and no matter how many times we had meetings with them we couldn’t get jackshit accomplished.
You’re close friends with Carl Severson from Good Fight (formerly Ferret). Did his move to leave Ferret behind play anything into the decision to leave TK?
No it didn’t. We’ve known that starting fresh was a possibility for the last year or so as negotiations with our former distributor were not going the way we would have hoped. At a certain point you just have to be realistic and make a move that makes sense for everyone involved. I think we’ve done that. Obviously we are tight with Ferret/Good Fight (Carl was the best man at my wedding afterall), but they are a separate business.
Will you be releasing any Nora CDs in the future?
Ha Ha. I wish! Carl is an old man now with kids and a busted knee, his days of moshing and running around stage are over. Portland is busy with his design work for Sons Of Nero and Chris has his other band Torchbearer.
Will this be a physical label, or just digital?
That is not something I really think about in general. It is something we discuss per project and what makes sense. If the fans want CDs, we make CDs. If they want vinyl, then we make vinyl. If they want me to personally deliver it to their house wrapped in bacon, I will do that. If they want music on a zywigjyzx, we’ll do that too (don’t worry, those are coming soon!).
Is there anything you’d like to add or clear up about the history of Trustkill or the new label.
We are very excited about the new label and the albums we are working on. The music is better than it has ever been. While it might be tougher to make a living in the music business right now I am more than comfortable sticking with it because this is what I do, and what I love, and I’m not giving up.