Damn! BYO Records turns 25

Pete Wentz wasn’t even wearing eyeliner when brothers Shawn and Mark Stern decided to start BYO (Better Youth Organization) Records 25 years ago. The label, which put out releases by Youth Brigade – the Brothers Stern’s own punk band – went on to put out seminal punk releases from bands like Leatherface and 7 Seconds.

To quote the band, BYO was founded as “part political movement, part business venture that began as a way to organize punks to take positive action to help sustain their scene and their way of life.”

To commemorate their 25th anniversary – not bad considering how many other labels have come and gone during that time – BYO is putting out a 31-song box set, featuring a who’s who of American punk rock. Groups like Bad Religion, Dropkick Murphys, NOFX, Anti-Flag and the Bouncing Souls all took turns covering BYO bands. The set also comes with the documentary Let Them Know, which looks at the influence of the label through interviews with Ian MacKaye (Fugazi, Minor Threat, founder of Dischord Records), Fat Mike (NOFX, Me First & The Gimme Gimmes, founder of Fat Wreck Chords) and Steve Soto (Adolescents, Manic Hispanic), among others.

Shawn Stern, in the middle of a Youth Brigade tour, took some time recently to answer questions about the label, the band and punk rockin’ as a 40-something.

Are you surprised that the label is still up and running 25 years later?
I’m surprised that we were able to put out one record, let alone nearly 120! When we started I never thought I’d be playing music in my 30’s let alone my 40’s and approaching 50. For us to last this long is kind of amazing to us and we feel extremely lucky.

So how do you think you’ve able to keep it going for so long when so many others have folded?
Pure luck! (laughs) Well, I think we just put out good music that we like and people seem to respond well. We never did this to make money; we never had any business plan or really any plan at all. We put out records ‘cause we had a band and we put out other bands’ records ‘cause we liked the band, the music and what they had to say. I guess we’re doing something right, otherwise we wouldn’t have survived.

Do you think its easier running a business with your brothers or ultimately harder?
My brothers and I are all very close, so I think it’s really easy to work together. I mean we’ve been doing it all our lives, so it’s pretty natural. We can argue – and we do – but we don’t take it personally, we just go eat lunch or go have a drink after.

Ever get into any Kinks style fist fights over the band or the label?
Nah, our punching each other out ended in our teens. Screaming arguments once in awhile that we usually end up laughing about is the extent of it.

Have you always had a defining principle or set of principles that BYO was founded on?
Well, like I said, we never had a plan we just did things as they came up. The principles have always been those that our parents and grandparents instilled in us as kids, think for yourself, life is about learning and giving back, helping people. From that we devised our own ideals about what punk rock is to us, that one should question everything and decide for yourself what makes sense. Don’t be a sheep, don’t follow anyone. I was heavily influenced in my senior year in high school by an existential lit class I took. I read Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, Sartre and Camus and the next semester I had an entire class on Herman Hesse. They all had a profound effect, but Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” and the “Myth Of Sysiphus” were almost life changing for me. I think those ideals will always stick with me.

What was always the deciding factor in putting out a band’s music?
We put out bands that we like as people, whose music we like and believe in and we feel we can help them. There’s lots of bands that we like and would like to work with over the years but for one reason or another it just didn’t work out.

Do you get a sense of enjoyment of watching major labels falter and grasp to stay relevant?
Hmm, I’m not really someone that takes pleasure in other people’s failure. I don’t really worry about other labels, it’s not something I can control or be a part of. But I’m not gonna lose sleep over the fact that a multi-national corporation leaves the music business, because in my view they only look at music as nothing more than a way to make money and I think that is not good for anyone. So the more of them that leave music, the better it is for music and all of us.

Was it difficult deciding who would be on the album that comes with the box set? More important, was there a fight between bands to cover “California is Sinking”?
We just asked all the bands we like and they all said sure. Now getting them to actually get in the studio and record, well that’s another story. Everyone is busy, when they are recording a new record they are concentrating on that and putting together a cover sometimes isn’t at the top of their list of things to do. Picking songs was up to the band, there were a few that wanted to do a certain song but someone had already picked it, but there were no “fights.” Worked out really well I think. Well, I guess everyone can listen to the record and decide for themselves, but it’s a pretty amazing record.

A lot of folks cite you guys as influences in starting their own labels. Did you really have anyone to emulate or learn from when you were starting BYO records?
No, there were very few labels at the time doing punk rock on the level we did it when we started. Slash and Dangerhouse were about it in L.A. but we just sort of figured it out on our own. Ask questions, call around, talk to the guys at the pressing plant about how to do things ‘cause they had been in the record business for years and they knew the basics. A lot of it was just logic, go around to stores and ask them to take the record. That was our early distribution.

Why did the band ultimately decide to call it quits?
Adam had left the band to go back to school in ’84, we got Bob Gnarly in the band and changed the name to The Brigade and our sound got a little more “poppy” I guess you could say. The punk scene was dying, the hair bands were taking over the sunset strip and we were burnt so we just decided it wasn’t fun anymore.

So was it an easy decision to get the band back together and tour?
Yeah, we were all playing music again in different bands. I had a band, That’s It and my brothers had all started the band Royal Crown Revue and met up on tour in Germany. People had been asking about Youth Brigade on both our tours, so we talked about doing a “reunion” and I said if we wrote new songs and make a record then I would do it. We all agreed, it was pretty easy and we’ve been going strong ever since.

Did you find that you missed playing together?
I think we found that we had fun playing together. Mark (Stern) and Adam (Stern) and our other brother Jamie were all playing together for a few years in Royal Crown Revue and having fun. That’s the bottom line, it has to be fun. Otherwise what’s the point!?

Was it surreal participating in the documentary?

No, not surreal. We put it together but we tried to not involve ourselves too much in the planning. We wanted to let the film makers make the movie, not us. We told them people they should talk to and gave them a chronological line of what/how things happened, but we let them put it together. I think they did an amazing job.

Listening to the interviews, were you surprised at how influential the band was to so many?
I’m flattered. I don’t know if I’m so much surprised ‘cause I think there was only a handful of bands in the punk scene that have lasted all these years and odds are they have lasted because people like the music and that’s ‘gonna influence bands that are coming after.

Any chance you’ll revive the BYO split series?
Oh it isn’t dead, just been on hiatus. The box set was such a huge undertaking, the biggest project we’ve ever done, so it took up nearly three years of our time. We’ve had quite a few bands interested, just haven’t managed to work it out. But we will hopefully soon.

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