Alex DiMattesa is a busy guy. The man behind Grave Mistake Records puts in a full day's work handling every aspect of the label's operations, while also managing one of the largest distros you're likely to find. That work entails much more than just putting out the finished product from bands like Night Birds, Big Eyes and Red Dons. It means packing tape and cardboard, daily trips to the post office and having an accountant. Punknews Copy Editor Adam Eisenberg caught up with DiMattesa to talk about life at the the helm of a DIY label, how he built his massive distro and where he keeps all those damn records.
2013 was a big year for Grave Mistake. When you started the label back in 2002 did you think youâd eventually be releasing so many albums that ended up on year-end top 10 lists?
To be honest, no. Thinking back, not trying to sound modest, but I didnât really have expectations for the label. It was just something I wanted to do. First and foremost I wanted to put out stuff that I enjoyed, stuff that actually moved me and meant something to me. Did I hope that other people liked it? Yeah, of course, but it was never really a goal of mine to have this "mass appeal," for lack of a better term. I hoped that I what I put out, and what I put my all into other people would take notice of and would appreciate and would enjoy as much as I did.
People start labels for a lot of different reasons. What were the reasons behind you starting Grave Mistake?
My goal at the time was – you look at these classic punk labels, you look at Dischord, you look at Revelation, I always bring those two up when I talk about this – I really wanted to have a local focus. Iâm from the Maryland/D.C. area. I was going to shows regularly in the early 2000s in D.C. and Baltimore as well as the surrounding areas. Iâd go down to Richmond, Iâd go up to Philly if I could. So my main goal was to champion the local bands and bands that my friends were doing, bands that I was seeing every week. That was the main purpose to start. Not to say that I wanted to give something back, because thatâs not really what it was, but I wanted to be more than just a spectator, or be someone who just played in a band.
Ever since I got into punk and hardcore, Iâve always been impressed by the DIY aspects of it where you could do whatever you wanted. If you wanted to be in a band, you could be in a band. If you wanted to put out records, you could put out a record. If you wanted to put on a show, go on a tour, you could do all that stuff.
Youâve obviously expanded your focus beyond just local bands. How did you start to connect with bands outside your geographic area?
Most bands I deal with, I already know them personally. Thatâs not necessarily something Iâve made a requirement, but Iâm always more excited by bands that are being done by people I know, people I know where theyâre coming from, I know the type of people they are. I just enjoy bands like that more, when Iâve got a personal connection. Most bands I could tell you how I got to know them, how I got into them. Itâs not just me listening to a hundred demos and "signing bands" based on what I think they sound like, a lot of has to do with me having some kind of personal connection to them.
A band like Night Birds, Iâve know the Night Birds guys for a long time, through playing in bands that played with Brianâs bands. I did a record for his band before that, Psyched To Die. Joe from Night Birds, I did a 7-inch for his band before that, The Ergs. A lot of itâs that. "Hey, I did a record for your band. Youâve got a new band? Let me check it out, I like it a lot, let me do something with this." Thereâs always some type of connection. Thatâs not to say thatâs only how it operates, but the way I choose releases, the way I choose bands to work with, a lot of comes organically.
In addition to the label, you also have a huge distro. Howâd you build up a such a big operation?
It started with trading. Iâd meet other people that had small labels, sometimes Iâd try and talk to bigger labels and be like, "hey, Iâve got this record out, Iâve got this 7-inch out, itâs a band youâve never heard of before but itâs a punk band, itâs a hardcore band, similar to what youâre putting out, want to trade five copies?" And sometimeâs theyâd be like "yeah, letâs do it." I started trading a little bit, Iâd bring a box of 7-inches to a show, then all of the sudden Iâve got some 12-inches, then Iâve got two boxes of 7-inches, then five boxes of 7-inches, and it just kind of grew and grew. I didnât like everything I traded for. Some of the stuff I traded for I still have, ten years later. But it was another way for me to help labels like my own that were doing things for the reason I was doing them.
I want Grave Mistake, the distro and the store, to be a a place where youâre not just buying a record from me because I have a new record out, but because Iâm carrying records that you want. Thatâs what I worked towards. In addition to trading I started buying stuff wholesale, buying stuff from distributors. If a label didnât want to trade but I still wanted to carry their stuff, Iâd buy it wholesale off of them. Thatâs how I operate now.
Where do you keep all of these records? I picture you trapped in a small corner of your house.
Thatâs currently where Iâm standing. I live with my girlfriend, and we have an extra bedroom in our apartment. I think itâs roughly a 225-square-foot bedroom, luckily itâs a bigger-size bedroom, something that I probably couldnât afford in any other big city. I have my own label room, itâs wall-to-wall shelving, floor-to-ceiling, itâs records. Itâs boxes. Itâs kind of a mess, but I try to keep it as organized as I can.
This year Iâve been shopping around to move it out of my house. Maybe a warehouse space, some type of small place where it can not be in my apartment anymore. Iâve been operating out of my apartment since I started. Iâve had to move around a bunch, so itâs kind of a royal pain in the ass. Thatâs another reason Iâm trying to find another spot, so I donât have to move it every time I want to move into a new apartment. Iâve had to get a storage unit because when I press a record, Iâll do an overrun of print, so if I press 1,000 12-inches, Iâll make it 2,000 covers, so Iâve got tons of extra stuff.
As far as running the label and distro, do you have any help or is it entirely a one-man operation?
For the day-to-day stuff, itâs a one-man show. If you order records from me, Iâm the one packing them up. If you need to e-mail someone about an order, someone about wholesale or trade, youâre talking to me. Someone dealing with the bands, itâs me, I take care of everything on that front. Over the years Iâve been lucky where Iâve met a lot of very talented people who Iâve become really good friends with who help me with a lot of stuff. My good friend Sean [Rhorer], he does all of my webstore stuff, he helps me with a lot of design stuff, he helps me with digital distrubution. Heâs the guy I go to if I need technical help with something. Is he a part of the label? Yes, just as much as someone who would come in a couple of days a week and do mailorder for me, probably more so, but heâs not an employee, if you will. Pretty much any specialty thing that I canât do, Iâve been lucky enough where I have a close friend who can do it. Like my technical stuff, to publicity and PR. Even my accountant is a good friend of mine.
So what is a day in the life like at Grave Mistake HQ?
This year Iâve been pretty disciplined. Iâve been actually keeping track of my hours. The label is what I do, itâs my job, and Iâve been doing that for going on three years. When youâre working at home itâs easy, if youâre lazy, if you donât feel like doing something, if you want to watch TV instead of pack orders, itâs very easy if you want to do that. This is a good year for you to ask me.
Iâve been getting up pretty early, 8 or 8:30 a.m., and then I start checking e-mail. I make sure Iâm caught up with e-mail, I see what priority needs to be done. I take care of mailorder. Mailorder is probably my priority because thatâs what keeps me going. You know, you order a record, you donât want to wait three weeks for the thing to come in the mail, so thatâs pretty much been my priority over everything other than getting releases out. A day in the life, itâs kind of a blur, but it involves a lot of cardboard, a lot of packing tape. I probably spend a good part of the day packing up orders, be it wholesale orders, distro, stuff like that.
It varies during the day, but I usually work from the time I get up until about 4 p.m., when I go out. Iâve got my orders ready, I go to the post office, I pick up my mail, drop off my packages. I chill for a few hours, go to some record stores, meet up with some friends, then Iâm usually back at work around 9 or 10 p.m. cleaning up on stuff I didnât get to during the day. I do a lot of my own layout stuff, I have to do ordering. As I mentioned earlier, I do operate the webstore as an actual record store, so I do have to do a lot of ordering. Sometimes Iâll listen to music casually. Itâs funny, doing this, listening to music for me, not to say I donât enjoy it, but itâs never usually a "luxury" for me. Itâs rarely like, "Iâm going to kick back and listen to a record for recreational purposes, because even when it is, it's hard to differentiate."
Itâs part of the job.
Exactly. The con is that when I do that itâs not as much of an escape as it would be to someone who doesn't spend the majority of their day focusing on non-music related tasks/work. I have to do it. The pro is that Iâm glad Iâm GLAD I'm doing that. Iâm glad my job is to listen to music, my job is putting out music.".
Can you tell us a little bit about whatâs in the pipeline for 2014?
Iâve got a lot. Off the top of my head, next week is the first record for the year. Itâs the second 12-inch from this band from North Carolina called Brain F≠. Thatâs coming out, finally. Weâve been working on that record for over a year. They recorded it a while ago and weâve been going back and forth, mixing, mastering, artwork. Theyâre not that active so we, myself and Sorry State Records from North Carolina, we let it ride for a little longer than some of our other releases, but thatâs coming out next week.
Iâll give you the quick list. Myself and Toxic Pop Records up in Baltimore, weâre doing two 12-inch singles collections for Tenement. I am doing a bunch of reissue stuff this year, starting with some stuff Iâve had in the works for a while. A band from DC called 86 Mentality, I did their first two 7-inches, some of my first releases. The 7-inches are out of print, but thereâs still demand for them. Iâve been working on doing a 12-inch collection. Iâve actually had the vinyl pressed for the better part of the past year, but I just havenât really had a chance because Iâve been working on the Night Birds stuff, the Big Eyes stuff, bands that are current, bands that are touring. Another 12-inch repress for another DC band called Striking Distance. They put out a 12-inch in 2001 and Iâm going to be split releasing that with the label that originally put it out, Youngblood Records. So those two have been in the works for a while.
Iâm doing yet another reissue for this band from the â90s from DC called The Suspects. Probably one of the bigger local bands from the â90s in the DC area. When I first got into punk and hardcore in Maryland and DC in the mid-to-late â90s, they were one of the first bands I latched on to. They were one of the bigger bands. Myself and another label called Six Feet Under are going to be reissuing their first 12-inch, which came out around â95. That should be cool.
Another band Iâve done records for in the past, Iron Boots, theyâre from the Virginia Beach/Richmond area, mid-2000s. I did a couple of 7-inches for them. Myself and another label called Triple B Records are going to be doing a 12-inch discography. Itâs going to have a demo, two 7-inches and two comp songs worth of stuff. Weâre just trying to get the source stuff, get some mixes, maybe remaster some stuff, and hope to get that pressed on vinyl before the summer.
In terms of new bands and current bands, Iâm doing a 12-inch for a band called Mercenary from Atlanta. They put out a demo last year that was probably one of my favorite demos.
Iâm going to be doing a 12-inch for a band from Richmond called Barge. I also help run a label called Vinyl Conflict Records here in Richmond, itâs a Richmond-focused punk and hardcore label that I run with my friend Bobby [Egger] who does a record store in town called Vinyl Conflict. He wanted to do a record label under the storeâs name that focused on Richmond bands, so I said, "let me help you." I had a good network of distribution and trading and everything through Grave Mistake. Weâll press these releases under Vinyl Conflict and Iâll just filter them through Grave Mistake, so they get the same attention that a Grave Mistake release would, and weâll just do this together and keep it local. Anyway, the first record we did was a 7-inch for this band called Barge and this year Iâm doing a 12-inch for them.
Iâm going to be doing a 7-inch for a band from Maine called DNA. They did a 7-inch last year on Triple B Records. I donât think theyâre too active. Itâs a couple of members from the band Cruel Hand.
I just confirmed Iâll be repressing a 7-inch for a band called Supercrush, from I believe the Vancouver area. They put out a 7-inch on a label from Canada called Bedside Records last year. It was my favorite single from last year. It was a two-song single, they did 300 copies and itâs going out of print. They knew that I was into it and I had been in touch with band and they were like, "hey, the label isnât going to be repressing this record, would you be interested in repressing it, keeping it in print? Weâd like to keep it available a little bit longer." So I talked to them and Iâm going to take over and repress that.
Finally, Iâm going to be doing a 7-inch for a new band from Chicago called Earth Girls. Itâs my friend Liz and some other Chicago people. They just did a demo, maybe last month. I really liked the demo. That 7-inch is recorded so hopefully that will be out some time this spring.
Also, I do the other label, Vinyl Conflict, weâve got three releases out from Richmond bands and two more in the works. One is a band called Cretins and the other is a band called Nightstalker, two hardcore bands from here in Richmond that weâre going to be doing the first EPs for. So itâs a pretty busy first half of 2014.
I literally just got my hands on that Earth Girls demo.
Awesome, yeah, itâs great. Itâs some of the catchiest stuff Iâve heard in a while. I feel like Grave Mistake has always had an association with hardcore – fast hardcore, â80s hardcore, whatever you want to call it – but I love all types of music. You can kind of tell, more recently, working with bands like Big Eyes or even Brain F≠, who are a little bit different, not a straight-up hardcore band, or even a band like Bloody Gears, who I did a 7-inch for a couple of years ago.
One last question, and youâre allowed to cop out on this one if you want. Do you have a favorite Grave Mistake release?
Putting out records for my own bands – I played in Government Warning and I played in Wasted Time – and being able to release records for my own bands is always a great feeling, so those records always have more sentimental attachment for me because I might have recorded them or written them, so those always stand out.
Also, a band like Night Birds, who Iâve seen become pretty popular in my time of getting to know them, working with them, so obviously I look very fondly on all of the Night Birds releases because itâs just showing a band growing musically and just in general. Bands can be bands for five, ten, twenty years and you never get anyone that cares for whatever reason, either they never catch on, or theyâre not that good, or they write one good record and five bad ones. Seeing a band like Night Birds that has continued to progress, to actually be a part of that, a band like that is going to stick with me for reasons like that.