At first glance, it may seem trivial, but one of the things every city needs is a good record label. Sure, clean water is nice, a low crime rate is great, and affordable housing is key, but a good record label can make a city into something truly special.
Just look at Seattle. It has Sub Pop. As a result, nobody cares that Oklahoma City stole its basketball team, that it rains way too much, and that there are way more rednecks in Washington than anywhere else. Why? Because there are plenty of Mudhoney and Pissed Jeans records available. San Francisco has Alternative Tentacles, which is led by stalwart punk rock demagogue Jello Biafra, and while Bay Area residents live in constant fear of "the big one" (no, not the tech bubble bursting; well, maybe that, too), they have plenty of Victims Family and Nomeansno records to listen to while they look for a place to park.
Over the years, Phoenix has had some good labels, too. Placebo Records set the bar high in the '80s, giving many of the most influential Valley punk bands an opportunity to get their tunes into the hands and heads of their fans. Jeremiah Gratza does some cool stuff with his label, President Gator, and Mike Genz has put out some killer records on King of the Monsters. They are just a few, and there is always room for a new kid on the block looking to make some noise both literally and figuratively.
Enter Thomas Lopez into the fray. The 46-year-old, who lives in the Sunnyslope area of north Central Phoenix, has been a longtime part of the local punk rock scene and more recently an efficacious local businessman. Thanks to the success of his business, Aquavida Pools, a pool remodeling/refinishing company, Lopez was able to start Slope Records, which he describes as a labor of love for a music superfan and old "tape trader" from back in the day.
It also helps that Lopez is getting into the business of releasing records on vinyl because he loves music and wants to be a contributor to the scene as opposed to being a profiteer. Lopez understands how difficult it will be, initially, to see much return on his sizable investment, but he is setting himself up nicely to, at very least, break even one day by putting out compelling music in a great format that should be heard and appreciated by both new and old fans alike.
"I grew up in West Phoenix, then in 1979, my parents bought a little home in downtown Tempe. I would see skateboarders as some kind of strange people. I would always kind of gravitate toward them, and most of them were part of the music scene," Lopez says.
From his initial introduction to the genre, which came in the form of a cassette tape of the Clash's Combat Rock and a copy of the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks, Lopez was always searching for the next batch of songs to come his way, eventually finding a true love in the form of West Coast hardcore punk.
"Those Brit bands were my gateway, [but] once I started going to shows and seeing mostly West Coast bands . . . I bought the Battalion of Saints/S.V.D.B. split seven-inch after they played [at Mad Gardens, a legendary Phoenix venue in the early '80s] and started getting into more of the West Coast punk," Lopez says.
Locally, the love for punk rock was cemented in the mid-'80s for Lopez by hanging out with bands like Insurrection, Hellfire, and Bootbeast Carnival, who were all at the top of their form in what was, realistically, the third or fourth wave of Phoenix punk. Insurrection, which made a home in Tempe but initially started in Sedona, will be the first band released by Slope Records in mid- to late January. The previously unreleased two-song Insurrection seven-inch, featuring lo-fi recordings from 1987, will be on sea blue vinyl. It's an ambitious start for the new label, as Lopez plans to release 1,000 copies of a record by a band that hasn't played a show in three decades.
"I grew up with those guys. The music isn't great, recording-wise, but the substance is there. I wanted to lay down a good representation of what was happening at the time," Lopez says.
Insurrection has not performed since lead singer Doug Curtis' 1991 going-away party (he moved to Austin, where he is a tattoo artist), but the band was a local favorite during the late '80s and genuinely deserves to get released on vinyl, even if it is a few years late. Curtis, who still collects vinyl, says, "We're all really excited about it. We wanted to have something to show for that time, but none of us ever had any money and we didn't have a label, so nothing ever got put out. To have it come out now on vinyl is really cool."
In addition to the pending Insurrection release, Slope Records will put out a great mix of local and national bands as well during the early part of 2016. Lopez is very clear that his label is not just focused on the past, even if several among his first slate of releases are by bands who no longer exist. First-wave Phoenix punk band Red Squares will see a red vinyl seven-inch featuring their classic "Time Change," a true Phoenix treasure.
David Albert, who ran Gila Monster Studios and Nanxiety Records, did the original recording and remembers, "Mike [Stephens, Red Squares' excellent guitar player] looked me up when he was doing the Names . . . and he had a plan to launch the EP at a show at the Travelodge [Celebrity] Theater where the EPs would be free . . . Mike was a pleasure to work with because although he was ebulliently proactive, he was never batshit crazy and he had chops."
Another local band rounding out the initial dozen or so planned releases is '80s Phoenix party animals Our Neighbors Suck, which will have a six-song 10-inch yellow vinyl release. A 1987 Mighty Sphincter live recording from London's Hammersmith Odeon may be the most exciting of them all. Lopez described the album art for the Mighty Sphincter record as a "visual orgasm."
"It's probably the best live recording from that era I have heard," Lopez says.
Mighty Sphincter's Greg Hynes (drums) and Doug Clark (guitar) are really excited about the release, which also features Bill Yanok (vocals) and Wayne Frost (bass).
"The tape was missing for 27 years. We found it and it sounds amazing," Hynes says.
Says Clark, "I was actually days away from working with a German label, and I got a text message from Thomas Lopez and discovered he had a cool local record label. I decided quickly I would much rather work with Slope. [Slope offered] much better representation and product quality. I like that it's based in and run by cool people in Phoenix."
Tucson will be well represented on Slope Records, as releases from the Besmirchers, Useless Pieces of Shit (UPS), and Bloodspasm will be on the way soon. Lopez and Slope Records also are putting on a punk festival called Tucson Takeover on March 4 and 5 at Tucson's Club X featuring a number of street punk and Oi! bands from around the Southwest. Lopez wants to do more of these festival-type shows featuring bands from the label as well as other local and national bands.
Several bands from outside Arizona also will be part of the first group of Slope Records releases. The Bulemics and Fuckemos from Austin will see re-releases of early material (including all-new album art by Don Rock for the Fuckemos' releases). And New York's Surfbort, which features Sean Powell of the Fuckemos, will have a seven-inch of new material funded by Slope Records slated for release in February.
"The songs reflect all the bullshit people have to deal with given our current police state and delusional government . . . The support we have gotten from Slope has been rad!" says Matt Picola of Surfbort.
Lopez is proud to be part of documenting both Arizona's musical past and what is happening right now. He's doing this for all of the right reasons, which is refreshing, and his main influence is the mark the music has made on his own life, as well as his friends and fellow fans.
"There's more to it than just the music," Lopez says. "There is a whole pedigree [to the local music], and it is interesting to think about who was influencing who and what has come of it. I'm happy to be part of telling the story."Correction, 1-6-2015, 10:25 a.m.: This story originally published with the incorrect photo credit.