Behind The Label: Dying Scene chats with Pirates Press’s Eric “Skippy” Mueller

News of the dramatic upswing in the sales of vinyl albums over the course of the last decade – to levels not seen since prior to the digital age – should come as no surprise to faithful Dying Scene readers. While reissues of classic albums from the 1970s and ’80s tend to rule the popular charts, the punk and hardcore and metal and indie scenes are well represented in the area of sheer volume of new releases and options and variants being cranked out week after week.

Leading the charge in the vinyl revolution has been none other than dyed-in-the-wool punk rock label Pirates Press Records. Founded by Eric “Skippy” Mueller back in 2005 as the advertising arm of the vinyl manufacturer that shares its name and was started a year prior, Pirates Press has built a name and reputation as putting out some of the more special and innovative releases available, particularly under the street punk umbrella. Cock Sparrer “Essentials “boxed set? That was Pirates Press. 46-album Rancid 7-inch boxed set? Pirates Press. Noi!se 12-inch single featuring three-dozen assault rifle-style bullets milled out of the vinyl itself as a fundraiser to tackle gun violence and school shootings? Pirates Press. Playable The Ratchets hologram vinyl (yes…effing playable hologram vinyl!)? Pirates Press, of course. New The Old Firm Casuals full-length that allowed me the opportunity to chat for like an hour with the great Lars Frederiksen a few weeks ago (okay, maybe that one’s not necessarily cutting edge, but it’s my story, dammit)? You guessed it: Pirates Press.

We caught up with the one-and-only Mueller over the phone from his Bay Area, California, office a little while back and found in him a kindred spirit right from jump street; despite living in and operating Pirates Press from the Bay Area, Mueller is a native of Massachusetts and, as such, a diehard – and we mean DIEHARD – card-carrying member of Red Sox Nation. Yet his level of passion for the Red Sox is surpassed by leaps and bounds for his level of passion for the punk rock community and for giving back to a scene that’s given him so much. Case in point: his loves of punk rock and his label and his manufacturing business and his two hometowns collided last weekend when Mueller attended the San Francisco record release show for The Old Firm Casuals’ Holger Danske, left early, caught a red eye flight to Boston in time for Lenny Lashley’s gig at the in-the-shadow-of-Fenway-Park House Of Blues supporting Dropkick Murphys, complete with a hockey bag full of Lenny Lashley’s Gang Of One-themed merch…then flew right back home to San Francisco.

Mueller is endlessly positive and energetic (perhaps more accurately “shot out of a proverbial cannon”), equal parts ultra-confident salesman for his cutting-edge business and, in many ways, quintessentially proud papa for a label that he literally grew out of his old bedroom. In a nutshell, it kinda works like this: Pirates Press, the manufacturer, presses products – mostly vinyl albums and mostly in the Czech Republic – for labels and products of all shapes and sizes. Revenue from the manufacturing side gets infused into Pirates Press Records, the label, offering the opportunity to put out albums for bands and projects that they personally support. And if they come up with a cool new idea or technology or color variant in the manufacturing side, they can use that first on Pirates Press Records releases, allowing an album from The Ratchets or Noi!se or Bar Stool Preachers or Lenny Lashley to effectively become a real-life business card, showing the world via the label the things that the manufacturer is able to do, thereby drawing more labels and artists and brands into the fold on the manufacturing side, and so on and so on. Mueller remains vigorously committed to putting out new and unique and innovative products on the manufacturing side of the business, using the label to showcase some of the things they’re able to pull off, and reinvesting the money earned from larger manufacturing projects into the label, helping bands he loves and respects to put out new, vital music. It’s a fascinating win-win cycle that should continue to provide constant wind into the sails of the good ship Pirates Press for many years to come

Head below to check out our chat with Skippy to find out just what goes in to pulling off some of the seemingly endless options that Pirates Press’ manufacturing arm is able to pull off, particularly their recent run on flexi vinyl and how they were able to reverse engineer new presses to expand their line, and how the label offers Mueller and his fellow Pirates to invest in a record label that offers a home for projects that they – and we – love and support!

***Editor’s note: The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and content.***

Dying Scene (Jay Stone): So I was hoping we could talk a little bit about Pirates Press, the manufacturer, and some of the new and unique things that you guys seem to keep producing, and then use that to chat about the label itself and some of the newest releases you’re putting out on the actual Pirates Press label.

Eric “Skippy” Mueller (Pirates Press): The label itself has really always been something that we kind of went in to thinking that it’s the advertising arm of the manufacturer. Let’s show people how nice the product can be and do it for stuff that we love musically, or things that we’re supporting musically. We won’t try to compete as a label; we’ve never tried to be a big label in terms of offering deals and signing contracts and things like that. We don’t want to own bands’ material; we try to make it something that helps bands along and becomes a stepping stone if they’re taking things seriously. For some bands, it ends up just being us putting out collectible vinyl that they can sell at the few shows they play. For other bands that are doing more for themselves and touring more and being more active, it allows us to do a little bit more for them and invest more time and effort into supporting them the way other labels would. The manufacturer is what keeps the lights on and the doors open; we don’t have to rely on the profit of the label to do that. So as a result, we can create deals with bands that are much more in the band’s favor.

Most of the time we work more extensively with bands who are investing more in themselves, with releases ready to go or albums that they’ve recorded and things like that. Our ideal thing is, like, if a band is on a bigger label but wanted to come to us to do some crazy collectible vinyl single to promote their record. But if somebody’s got a great record and there’s nobody else who can put it out, we’re going to help that band more by doing it ourselves. That’s kind of what we’ve progressed into as a label, doing more “official releases” and albums and trying to promote a band the way Epitaph would or the way Fat might, something like that. As a result, people are coming to us identifying with the quality of the products, both physical products and the music, and it’s created a community around it, which is really awesome. We have more bands coming to us today than we ever have asking us to put out their records, and with a lot of them, we end up actually just helping them get records made as a manufacturer, which is a big first step for a lot of bands. Being able to play shows and to make some money back on their time and effort spent recording, things like that…it’s really hard. A lot of other factories for manufacturing make it pretty hard to do what we do. We make it really accessible for anybody to come to us with tunes and art and say “hey, we want to make some records and sell them at our shows.” That’s our bread and butter.

We do work for lots of big, big record labels in terms of manufacturing…big major labels and big independents and things like that. But our eggs aren’t in one basket. We do more titles and more orders per year than probably 99% of other factories out there. Regardless of the trend in vinyl on the big numbers, if major labels sell 20 million or 40 million records, that really won’t affect our business. If they sold half as many records as they sell now, it wouldn’t really affect our business, because our (manufacturing) business is really based on bands and small labels coming to us and wanting to make between 250 and 1,000 records to make a go of it for themselves. Where we see us fitting in as a label, musically, is if we’re really passionate about a band or if they’re really close friends of ours, or if they’re local and integral in our scene. Things like that really mean a lot to us, and a lot of the decisions we make as far as the label is concerned are really as a group here, because it’s not just me as the owner of the company making that decision. Ultimately, I want everybody who works at Pirates to feel like the label is part of them and their identity too, because it makes a lot of the events that we do and the things that we talk about more personal and more meaningful to everybody. We can’t just put out everybody’s record, because it would dilute that message and the feeling and the sentiment that we all have for it. But, we do our best to do as much as possible. We’re doing more releases now than we ever have. I think the first five years of the label, we might have done fifty releases, and in the next ten, we did 170 or something like that. We’ve tuned up the gas!

How long before the record label started did the manufacturing side get going?

About a year. We kinda started slow…I think the first five projects we did took us a few years, so it wasn’t a very fast progression toward doing a label. It was very much a hobby for quite some time, and only recently do we really have people whose full focus is on the label. That’s as a result of the bands that we work with taking themselves seriously, and taking advantage of touring opportunities and making sacrifices in their lives to really give it a go. If bands like Bar Stool Preachers or Lenny Lashley are willing to get in a van for half of a year or whatever, I’m down to help support them as much as I can, and that means going a little bigger than we have in the past. But we’re also a lot more experienced doing it now. We know where to spend out money and how to promote things in a way that’s efficient and meaningful and fits the situation best.

Funny you mention Lenny and Bar Stool Preachers; I think those are the last two big Pirates Press releases that I bought personally, and while coming up with questions for this conversation, I went back and looked just at the sheer amount of options that each of those releases had; I’m always floored by what you guys are able to do on the manufacturing side that…I don’t know if anybody else does that amount of stuff, but there can’t be that many people doing them. Like the whole Bar Stool Preachers package that came with individual flexis for each song on the album or something like that; that was mind-blowing to me.

Yeah, we launched the picture flexis last year, and part of doing that was really getting them out there in a big way and making sure that people out there really see them; that they’re in their hands and in their faces. We did about forty of them, and I think we did maybe six or seven for the Bar Stool Preachers, and three of them were a tie-in to the music video that they did, so each one had a still from the music video in the art. That was such a cool project, and a lot of those projects for the picture flexis were all my ideas and my creations, or ideas that we came up with here in the office to kind of promote the format and the ways that it can be used. You can see the Bar Stool Preachers doing it, and they’re a really popular, growing band, but imagine someone like the Foo Fighters doing it, or Kanye West, or something crazy! They could really change the face of people collecting flexis, so it’s about creating a model so that they can see it and envision it.

A lot of what we’ve done on the label is that. I mean, if you were going to reintroduce hologram records into the world, you could have your pick of big bands to do it with, but we chose to do it with a band that we love and create an example for the world that gets all these other people hooked, and now we have a lot of people asking for those and we’re working on lots of projects. Doing it for The Ratchets first was important for us, and that took precedent over going out and trying to get a famous band to do it, where we’d have to work with management and lawyers. We want to be as straight-forward and straight-shooting as possible, and sometimes it benefits you to stay punk and do things with people that you know area like minded, and the interests are all the same, and the goals area all the same.

The amount of people who found out about The Ratchets because of a hologram record that we did was massive! They’re not necessarily people that are going to go out to shows or become fans of that band, because they’re in totally different segments of the music world, but they know who that band is now, they’re part of the public discourse now because they had the first holographic record come out in thirty years, you know? That’s the kind of stuff we like doing, you know? Doing the first record with milled vinyl with Noi!se and doing it as a charity for anti-gun violence in schools, things like that are really meaningful to us. We don’t have a lot of time to create and run a label, so we want to make the projects as meaningful as possible, you know?

Where do some of those ideas come from? Like the idea to do the holographic vinyl or whatever, where does that come from?

A lot of it is new technology that we’re working on with our factory, always trying to be ahead of the curve. Because vinyl is more popular now, a lot of factories – new and old – are trying to create things that maybe only they sell. We’re obviously trying to do the same thing. We’re in a position because of the fact that our factory has been making records for sixty years, we don’t have to work out all the little kinks. While all the new factories are trying to work out the kinks, we’re figuring out how to make milled vinyl or holographic records. In a sense, we’re just trying to stay ahead of the curve and do cool stuff that’s never been done before. Sometimes, that’s just colored vinyl that nobody else has done, or combinations of colored vinyl that nobody has tried making before in a real way.

In some ways, most things when it comes to making records have been done. There’s not a TON of stuff out there that you can really think of off the top of your head that you’d like to see happen but that hasn’t. A lot of the things that we get asked about that are new to customers are things that maybe technologically can’t happen. Like, no, we can’t make records out of the junk you pull out of your seat. The quality of the records would be terrible, unless you spent a lot of money refining it, which defeats that purpose of trying to be ecologically friendly and trying to use that material in the first place! There’s plenty of things that we’d love to do but that just aren’t realistic, you know? But, apart from that, let’s make some holographic records! Let’s mill vinyl! Let’s blow people’s minds!

Ultimately these days, it’s short-attention-span theater in terms of people who listen to music on a whole. There are still plenty of people that have grown up around full-lengths and enjoy putting a record on and listening to it and turning it over and listening to the rest of the record. That’s not that common with younger people these days, though. The shift of where people are listening to records, on digital speakers and phones and in cars versus in their living room, that’s played a major role in our minds, it really is about a single song. So things like a holographic single or a milled record single, and putting a visual focus on a project that is only one song is something that we see as a trend that will progress in vinyl.

The days of everybody releasing full-lengths are in some ways limited. There’ll always be that, but I don’t think it’s always going to be the standard the way it’s been for decades, because a lot of people are having trouble filling the dead air on their social media. If they go in and record twelve songs and drip-feed those twelve songs over the course of a year, they can create twelve physical products, or a combination of digital and physical products, with videos and singles and split records and things like that, that give them plenty of fodder to talk about and promote the band and keep it in people’s feeds all year long with fresh information, versus putting out an LP, which you drop and do a video and hope that stuff sticks, but if it doesn’t stick, it’s gone within a month and you can’t just keep rehashing the LP being available.

That’s a difficult thing, and it relies on the music being fantastic. For a lot of bands who are starting out, it would be more helpful for them to have lots of different things to talk about. We try in some ways act as a producer or a creative consultant when bands come to us and say “we want to record an LP.” We say “what do you think about this idea? Let’s come up with something creative between all the cool vinyl stuff we make and the flexis and making videos and cool e-Stuff and social media stuff, there’s so much you can do to stretch out twelve songs or ten songs. For smaller bands especially, it doesn’t make sense to do full-lengths, really. But, we like the fancy, cool, collectible stuff because it shows off our manufacturing skills, to put it bluntly. We think of ourselves as the premiere manufacturer in the world of vinyl, and if the message that we’re putting out is diluted because we’re putting out tons and tons of “normal full-lengths,” that doesn’t do us the same service that really puts a focus on quality and limited packaging and stuff that really sets the bar.

The coolest thing about the label is we put out records and then manufacturing customers of ours come to us and say “We want to do what you did on this title, but we want to do it this way.” That’s the coolest thing; when we make milled records or holographic records for metal labels or whatever, that is a direct result of us putting out a punk record. Everybody wins at the end of the day, because more cool records come out, and Pirates Press manufactured it, so we get to put out more records because a portion of the income we make from manufacturing records is reinvested back into the label. It’s a total win-win for music, whereas there’s plenty of manufacturers out there that if you work with them, the money isn’t going back into music in any way, it’s going into somebody’s bank account! (*both laugh*)

Do you have a particular project, either manufacturing-wise or label-wise, that you’re most proud of that you were able to pull off? I sense that the holographic one is certainly a big deal.

The holographic one is something that I can pop my collar as having been a part of. I didn’t find the person who figured out how to do the holographic effects on the record, so it’s not the same level of personal pride, but it’s a giant sense of company pride, being able to offer that product for the first time in thirty years. Personally, for me, the two projects that I care the most about are the picture flexis we’ve done in the last year, because I’ve done the graphic design and layout and creative project management design for those myself. I haven’t really done a lot of those in the past, so I took a lot of pride in that. Beyond that, the Rancid boxed set we did, and manufacturing like 400,000 records, that was pretty epic. Coordinating all that was pretty amazing, and working with the band and working with Zak (Kaplan), who’s in The Ratchets and who did all the artwork with Tim, it was such an amazing project. We kind of did a litmus test for the art, so some of the designs were straight-up Tim telling us what he thought about a song would mean and us illustrating that, or what was the most meaningful part of these five songs on this particular record. That was a cool process, and the result of that was one that was bigger than just a tangible, physical product, so that was a really cool experience and art project to be a part of.

Well, and I would imagine there’s got to be something surreal about getting the opportunity to work with a band like Rancid and work on a project like that if you grew up in the punk scene and are above a certain age.

Absolutely. It’s surreal. Between putting out a boxed set for them and putting out a boxed set for Cock Sparrer, 15-year-old me is pinching myself going “what the fuck?!?”

Do you have ideas of things that you haven’t been able to work on on the manufacturing side yet or things that you guys are working on and testing, without giving away too many trade secrets?

The hologram vinyl is still very much in the testing phase, because there’s still a lot that you can do with holograms that we haven’t done yet. If you think about the holograms that are on money and credit cards and fancier things, they’re a different type of hologram to the thing we made for The Ratchets, in the sense that you can do photographic detail, so we’re working on testing those types of effects with holograms, and also just being able to make a twelve-inch hologram, which was a limitation up to this point… We’re really busy right now with the amount of people who, because we’re so accessible, come to us to press maybe their first record or to move over from another factory or situation where they’re really just spending too much time manufacturing their records. That’s the kind of sales pitch we’ve always used as a manufacturer, that you should be spending your time selling your product, not making it. Let us help you do that more efficiently. That’s where all that merch stuff that you were talking about comes in to play too; being able to offer a record and a slurry of merch items at the same time. We do a lot of non-music related business for that matter as well, whether it’s local businesses or friends of ours, people who run a business somewhere else in the country who need some particular product: business cards, combs, toothbrushes, whatever, we make all that stuff. We make our money making records, so for that stuff, most of the time it’s about helping friends and offering them a good deal and allowing them to get their venture rocking and rolling. That first order of combs for their barbershop is one thing, but then if they get their barbershop going and they need combs because they use it as their business card every month, that’s great as a manufacturer.

Just using those opportunities as marketing opportunities for the manufacturing side of the company is a no-brainer, and it helps everybody. Having the (Bar Stool) Preachers or Lenny (Lashley) out there with crazy merch items only brings more attention to that merch table to help them sell a record or make a new friend. Both of those (examples) are the type of people who are accessible at shows, so in today’s music-marketing world, for small bands who are making their way up in it, being accessible and making friends and being somebody who’s part of a scene and not just looking like a rock star and walking off stage and disappearing and that sort of thing, that’s not popular in independent music, by any means.

Do I have this right…were you guys involved with building the first new vinyl press in the world in like thirty years?

Yeah, our factory in the Czech Republic built at first what was a manual press to what was essentially upgrade our factory. Now we’re running exclusively on new presses. It’s based on the technology of a thirty-year-old press, taking all the obvious things that you can improve upon with modern technology and doing so, so touch-screens instead of dials, and better safety monitors that are more efficient, using a brand new extruder system to make the pucks in a way that’s more efficient and produces less waste and less energy. We’ve built automated presses now as well; I think right now we have thirty-eight double-headed presses or somewhere in that ballpark, which is like seventy-six lines making records, which is crazy! If everything went well and the scrap rate was low throughout the year and the weather stayed good and people didn’t have lots of coinciding sicknesses and stuff like that, we could hit fifty million records, you know what I mean? Last year we did four million records plus flexis; now it’s really just off to the races.

We don’t lose customers; people work with us because they love what we do, they love the amount of communication and the type of communication, the level of being detail-oriented, the things that they don’t get with a lot of other places. When you add that to the array of products that we can make, it’s hard to compete against that. Ultimately, we have a lot of people who want to make records in the USA, and I totally respect that point of view, but knowing the ins and outs of our factory and knowing a lot about a lot of other factories in the States, I vouch for our team in the Czech Republic being the one factory that’s done more reinvestment in the future of vinyl than anybody else. Choosing not to support them because you want to get records made in the USA, in my eyes, is short-sighted. If you know somebody that makes records in the USA and you want to support them, sure! Go ahead! But there’s going to be things that we can make that they can’t make. Our records are going to sound better than any other record made at any factories in the States unless you’re paying extra money for a fancy lacquer being done by somebody that knows the music inside and out. Otherwise, we’re making the best records around, and the money is getting reinvested back into music through us and back into vinyl through our factory. In my eyes, as far as integrity is concerned, or caring about the future of vinyl or the future of independent music, having that argument to say “I want my records made in the USA” isn’t really a valid thing to stand on anymore…

…We wanted to get flexis started in 2010, and what we did was design machines from scratch basically reverse engineering the process by taking the plates that we use to make our normal records and figuring out the amount of pressure that we need to have, how to keep them parallel, which is a really difficult thing, because any movement so that they’re out of parallel creates problems with the grooves not playing, because they’ll be deeper on one side than on the other. We designed those machines — three of them — between 2010 and 2013 when we got the flexis really up and running. Then in 2013, we got an order from Swiss Post, who does all the currency in Europe – they print all of the Euros and postage in Europe – for 450,000 postcard flexis where the center inch-and-a-half popped out and was a five Euro postage stamp. Because of the security we would have needed and the shipping cost to get it shipped with armed guards back to Europe, it was actually cheaper for us to move that entire pressing operation to our factory who was making the normal records. So after 2013, it’s all being made at the same factory in the Czech Republic.

That’s insane.

Yeah! It was epic. It was for, like, Queen’s Day in Holland, and we did the national anthem of Holland on a flexi in the center of a five Euro postage stamp. It was a ridiculously, ridiculously high-value order, because every single product, if there was one that didn’t get pressed right or whatever, had to be monitored and destroyed in the presence of a security guard and properly noted and all of that stuff. It was so awesome to be a part of something so cool.

Where did that idea even come from? I mean, I know you got a phone call from them, but where did they find out about you and the stuff you are able to do?

By that time, we’d been making those flexis for close to two-and-a-half or three years, so we had done hundreds of thousands of them and they were out there and all over the internet and things like that. It was actually a marketing firm in Holland that actually came up with the idea, and a lot of these ideas come just from somebody who’s into vinyl. We’ve done records for Ritz Crackers and random, random companies that you wouldn’t expect to be making records, and a lot of that is from people in their thirties and forties who are just into vinyl and see how vinyl has come back and they take their normal world marketing job and their hobby of collecting records and try to merge the two because it’s more fun to do shit you like! I think a lot of it has been personal pet projects for people, and if you do searches for flexis, for example, we’re the people who make them, you know? It’s pretty easy to make that connections.

But yeah, we’ve done all kinds of crazy shit with Jack White and Third Man Records as well in terms of flexis. They did a project where they attached flexis to balloons and had people all over the world let them off on the same day, and then if people found them they went to a website and posted where they found it and what number it was so they could track what happened, which is super cool. Jack White has one of those recording booths from I think the 50s where you can go in and cut a record in real time and we helped them make the blanks for that. Just little stuff like that that on a business side is not major money, but on the creative side and as somebody who cares about records, it’s really cool to be part of those one-off projects or just somebody taking some aspect of vinyl to another level.

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