Alex DiMattesa (Grave Mistake Records)
by Interviews

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 you’d 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 didn’t 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. I’m 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. I’d go down to Richmond, I’d 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 that’s 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, I’ve 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.

You’ve 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. That’s not necessarily something I’ve made a requirement, but I’m always more excited by bands that are being done by people I know, people I know where they’re coming from, I know the type of people they are. I just enjoy bands like that more, when I’ve got a personal connection. Most bands I could tell you how I got to know them, how I got into them. It’s 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, I’ve know the Night Birds guys for a long time, through playing in bands that played with Brian’s 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 it’s that. "Hey, I did a record for your band. You’ve got a new band? Let me check it out, I like it a lot, let me do something with this." There’s always some type of connection. That’s not to say that’s 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. How’d you build up a such a big operation?

It started with trading. I’d meet other people that had small labels, sometimes I’d try and talk to bigger labels and be like, "hey, I’ve got this record out, I’ve got this 7-inch out, it’s a band you’ve never heard of before but it’s a punk band, it’s a hardcore band, similar to what you’re putting out, want to trade five copies?" And sometime’s they’d be like "yeah, let’s do it." I started trading a little bit, I’d bring a box of 7-inches to a show, then all of the sudden I’ve got some 12-inches, then I’ve got two boxes of 7-inches, then five boxes of 7-inches, and it just kind of grew and grew. I didn’t 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 you’re not just buying a record from me because I have a new record out, but because I’m carrying records that you want. That’s what I worked towards. In addition to trading I started buying stuff wholesale, buying stuff from distributors. If a label didn’t want to trade but I still wanted to carry their stuff, I’d buy it wholesale off of them. That’s how I operate now.

Where do you keep all of these records? I picture you trapped in a small corner of your house.

That’s currently where I’m standing. I live with my girlfriend, and we have an extra bedroom in our apartment. I think it’s roughly a 225-square-foot bedroom, luckily it’s a bigger-size bedroom, something that I probably couldn’t afford in any other big city. I have my own label room, it’s wall-to-wall shelving, floor-to-ceiling, it’s records. It’s boxes. It’s kind of a mess, but I try to keep it as organized as I can.

This year I’ve 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. I’ve been operating out of my apartment since I started. I’ve had to move around a bunch, so it’s kind of a royal pain in the ass. That’s another reason I’m trying to find another spot, so I don’t have to move it every time I want to move into a new apartment. I’ve had to get a storage unit because when I press a record, I’ll do an overrun of print, so if I press 1,000 12-inches, I’ll make it 2,000 covers, so I’ve 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, it’s a one-man show. If you order records from me, I’m the one packing them up. If you need to e-mail someone about an order, someone about wholesale or trade, you’re talking to me. Someone dealing with the bands, it’s me, I take care of everything on that front. Over the years I’ve been lucky where I’ve met a lot of very talented people who I’ve 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. He’s 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 he’s not an employee, if you will. Pretty much any specialty thing that I can’t do, I’ve 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 I’ve been pretty disciplined. I’ve been actually keeping track of my hours. The label is what I do, it’s my job, and I’ve been doing that for going on three years. When you’re working at home it’s easy, if you’re lazy, if you don’t feel like doing something, if you want to watch TV instead of pack orders, it’s very easy if you want to do that. This is a good year for you to ask me.

I’ve been getting up pretty early, 8 or 8:30 a.m., and then I start checking e-mail. I make sure I’m caught up with e-mail, I see what priority needs to be done. I take care of mailorder. Mailorder is probably my priority because that’s what keeps me going. You know, you order a record, you don’t want to wait three weeks for the thing to come in the mail, so that’s pretty much been my priority over everything other than getting releases out. A day in the life, it’s 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. I’ve 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 I’m usually back at work around 9 or 10 p.m. cleaning up on stuff I didn’t 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 I’ll listen to music casually. It’s funny, doing this, listening to music for me, not to say I don’t enjoy it, but it’s never usually a "luxury" for me. It’s rarely like, "I’m going to kick back and listen to a record for recreational purposes, because even when it is, it's hard to differentiate."

It’s part of the job.

Exactly. The con is that when I do that it’s 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 I’m glad I’m GLAD I'm doing that. I’m glad my job is to listen to music, my job is putting out music.".

Can you tell us a little bit about what’s in the pipeline for 2014?

I’ve got a lot. Off the top of my head, next week is the first record for the year. It’s the second 12-inch from this band from North Carolina called Brain F≠. That’s coming out, finally. We’ve been working on that record for over a year. They recorded it a while ago and we’ve been going back and forth, mixing, mastering, artwork. They’re 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 that’s coming out next week.

I’ll give you the quick list. Myself and Toxic Pop Records up in Baltimore, we’re doing two 12-inch singles collections for Tenement. I am doing a bunch of reissue stuff this year, starting with some stuff I’ve 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 there’s still demand for them. I’ve been working on doing a 12-inch collection. I’ve actually had the vinyl pressed for the better part of the past year, but I just haven’t really had a chance because I’ve 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 I’m 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.

I’m doing yet another reissue for this band from the ‘90s from DC called The Suspects. Probably one of the bigger local bands from the ‘90s in the DC area. When I first got into punk and hardcore in Maryland and DC in the mid-to-late ‘90s, 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 ‘95. That should be cool.

Another band I’ve done records for in the past, Iron Boots, they’re 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. It’s going to have a demo, two 7-inches and two comp songs worth of stuff. We’re 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, I’m 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.

I’m 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, it’s 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 store’s 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. We’ll press these releases under Vinyl Conflict and I’ll just filter them through Grave Mistake, so they get the same attention that a Grave Mistake release would, and we’ll 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 I’m doing a 12-inch for them.

I’m 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 don’t think they’re too active. It’s a couple of members from the band Cruel Hand.

I just confirmed I’ll 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 it’s 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 isn’t going to be repressing this record, would you be interested in repressing it, keeping it in print? We’d like to keep it available a little bit longer." So I talked to them and I’m going to take over and repress that.

Finally, I’m going to be doing a 7-inch for a new band from Chicago called Earth Girls. It’s 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, we’ve 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 we’re going to be doing the first EPs for. So it’s a pretty busy first half of 2014.

I literally just got my hands on that Earth Girls demo.

Awesome, yeah, it’s great. It’s some of the catchiest stuff I’ve heard in a while. I feel like Grave Mistake has always had an association with hardcore – fast hardcore, ‘80s 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 you’re 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 I’ve 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 it’s 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 they’re 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.