The Lead That Ate Larry Livermore: AP talks to the Lookout! Records founder
Whether you’re aware of it or not, the work of LARRY LIVERMORE has likely had an impact on your musical tastes. Livermore founded Lookout! Records in Berkeley, California, in 1987, issuing early albums from Green Day, Operation Ivy, Rancid and a bevy of others, documenting one of the most exciting eras in the history of punk. Livermore left Lookout! in 1997 for a quieter, more stable life as a writer (his blog comes highly recommended), but a call from Green Day frontman/Adeline Records founder Billie Joe Armstrong prompted his return to curate The Thing That Ate Larry Livermore, a 16-track compilation featuring some of the best and brightest of today’s pop-punk underground.
Livermore spoke extensively with AP about returning to music, the selection process for the compilation and fighting his own narrow-mindedness.
INTERVIEW: Bryne Yancey
It’s been over two decades since you founded Lookout! Records. You haven’t been directly involved in the release of an album since 1997. What made you want to return now?
LARRY LIVERMORE: Yeah, it’s a quarter of a century [since I founded Lookout!], actually. I’m working on a memoir that describes that time, and I’m in the editing process right now, so it’s a little weird. When I’m not working on the record, I’m basically going over the text of how the label started in 1987 with a fine-toothed comb. It’s like I’m in two eras at once.
Basically, somebody made me an offer I couldn’t refuse—even though I tried. That would be Billie Joe [Armstrong], who out of the blue last September messaged me and asked if I’d like to make a compilation of my favorite bands. I was like, “Dude, I’m finishing this book, I’ve got another book on the horizon, and my life is very stable and smooth now. I’ve got lots of work.” At first, I told him to let me think about it, and I did for a day or two, but then I thought, this is just one of those things that just happens. I got this feeling that this is something I had to go with because I’d been building up these bands for a while now, telling people how much I liked them and so on. Before, Billie would occasionally ask me to send him tapes or names of bands I thought were great. I knew that just by having his label involved, it would give a chance to some bands that deserved it, which is what I was about at the beginning of Lookout!—I certainly didn’t set it up in 1987 as some big business. My ambition was to not lose money; I fully did not expect to sell lots of records or make an impact on pop culture. I wanted to expose this little scene we had centered around Gilman St. to a larger audience. And there’s still a cool little scene—it’s just not centered around any particular geographical point, but people are connected thanks to modern technology. They’re all hooked up and the other 99 percent of the world goes on, completely oblivious.
What’s the book you’re working on? Spy Rock Memories?
Yeah, that’s what it’s called. It’s basically a story of how I went out into the wilderness, and after giving up city life, pop culture and punk rock how I—bizarrely enough—founded a punk rock label and fanzine while I was out in the wilderness fighting off bears, rattlesnakes and crazy hippies. It’s a very unlikely tale but it’s all 100 percent true.
Getting back to the compilation: What was the selection process like for it? How many bands did you contact for it?
Oddly enough, that’s the first time anyone’s actually asked me that so I’d have to give it some thought, but not that many more than 16, believe it or not—I’d say maybe 18, 20 at the most. I don’t want to name names, but there were a few bands I was quite keen on getting that I couldn’t get. Overall, it was extremely smooth and easygoing; for the first 10 bands or so, to some extent they were a product of people like you. From time to time, writers contact me to do stories about Lookout, especially when the label went out of business, and one of the questions they love to ask me is, “If you still had a label, or if you were gonna start a new label, what bands would be on it?” I had given that one a lot of thought—I had about 10 bands that if I had a label, these guys and girls would go on it if I had anything to say about it. So I fired off emails to those 10 bands and I think every single one of them said yes, immediately. With the remainder, I kind of did my own research: There had been bands I’d been hearing about from friends or my fellow music fans, some of whom I’d never actually listened to but kept hearing about. I put out the word among people I respect saying, “Who do you think would be good for this?” I ended up with a list of about 100 bands with their contact information. There wasn’t anyone I picked that I hadn’t already heard of before, but there were at least two or three bands that I hadn’t actually listened to.
I kind of hate to admit it, especially publicly, but I’m a little bit of a narrow-minded guy in that I get ideas in my head that, “This band isn’t gonna be good because of the way they dress or the town they’re from or the fans they have.” I’ll give you an example: Mean Jeans from Portland. I’d always kind of lumped them in with this kind of garage/rock phenomenon that’s going on, and they do have a little bit of that, but when I started doing research for the comp people told me, “Oh, they’re totally pop-punk, they’re catchy as anything, they’re exactly the kind of music you love.” They sent me samples and they sure were—they were awesome. Easy guys to work with, too. They were one of the first ones [to get back to me]. They said, “Oh, we’re doing a lot of stuff right now, but give us a week and we’ll write a song and record it.” [Laughs.] And they did, they wrote a great song [“Bad Dream”] within a week, when people had told me, “Oh, those guys are out touring and partying—great band, but you’ll never get anything out of them.” I would guess at least half the bands wrote songs exclusively for the comp, and they did from the time I put out the word in late September, I had all the music in hand by November.
Wow, that’s quick.
Yeah, when I compare it to how it used to be in the Lookout! days, [back then] I would be chasing bands all over town, going to different recording studios, hauling these big one-inch reels of analog tape and getting people to splice it together. It also seemed like back then, I spent a lot of time babysitting bands, trying to say, “Dude, you gotta get out of bed, it’s 4 o’clock in the afternoon and you were supposed to be in the studio three hours ago!”
Maybe I’m just lucky, but with these bands it wasn’t like that. Maybe they were really enthusiastic about the compilation, maybe bands have to be more professional these days because the scene demands it. For whatever reason, it was a sheer joy working with all of them. No headaches at all, really. That was one of the things that made me reluctant to take on the project—the chaos. I didn’t need the chaos. There was very little chaos.