Domenic Romeo (A389 Records)
by Interviews

Domenic Romeo is a dealer of the dark arts. As the head of A389 Records, he puts out the heaviest, blackest, meanest, nastiest, most brutal hardcore and metal. In fact, he’s put out pitch-black tunes by bands including Integrity, Full of Hell, Haymaker, Bloodlet, Iron Reagan, Weekend Nachos, as well as his own band, Pulling Teeth.

And every year, he convenes his dark accomplices and organizes the annual A389 bash, which features the baddest of the brand new bands and returning legends. Last year featured the insane reunion of the Dwid Hellion/Melnick version of Integrity. Before that, mighty weightlifter/musician Thor played a set backed by Pulling Teeth.

To learn about the label and the 2015 bash, which starts on January 15 in Baltimore, features editor John Gentile spoke to Romeo about running a label in the download age, this year’s shindig and moshing.

How did A389 get started?
It started in 2004 as an avenue to put out friends' bands. I was on the road a lot with a band called Slumlords and it acted as a vehicle to put out their records. Then, it picked up steam from there. By the time Pulling Teeth came together, it just snowballed from there.

What’s an average day at A389 like?
It’s changing! The more kids I keep adding the balance gets shuffled. The way I used to work was I’d wake up at 4:30, do a bunch of stuff till about 8, go to work, come back, have dinner, hang out with the wife and kids, and then everyone goes to bed and I work on stuff until midnight. But now, it’s preschool and this kid needs to go there, and this kid needs to go here, and it’s all jumbled up. We have a guy called Superior Alex that now does the stuff that needs to get done. Then, I can focus things on the production end of things. It’s still pretty brutal having to wake up super early just to get caught up.

A389 is famous for very, very heavy, very, very dark music. What’s the purpose of very, very dark and heavy music? What should I take from it?
For me, I grew up as a horror movie and heavy metal dude. In the '80s, those things reigned supreme. I like the aesthetic and thrills and chills. I like good riffs, fast tempos, and really slow slows. A389 runs the gamut. We put out music from all kinds of bands. Whether it’s neo-folk, or shoegaze or straight-up hardcore. It’s authentic. A389 has a lot of opportunity to work with a lot of bands. But, I’d rather work with people that I know who put their whole heart into it. A389 bands are kind of the same group of people. It’s just sincere music that is really aggressive that gets you pumped up. It’s good riffs. It’s good packaging and stuff that got me excited as kid. Over-analyzing each lyric. I like the physical over the digital.

I never listen to early releases, or early mixes or anything. I love to wait and wait for the final thing. And then, you finally get it, you look at the cover, you put it on the turntable. It’s just nice as life gets more complicated.

Does physical music have a future?
I don’t know. That’s tough. Financially, I think if the label moved away from physical product, we’d be in a better shape. Every time I look at my gross and my net, I look at the gross first and I’m like, “Wow, we had a really good year!” Then, I look at my net and I’m like, “Oh. I could have worked at McDonald's for this.” It’s ridiculous. I don’t know. As people get older, the connection to physical is distanced.

The personal connection doesn’t seem to be there. When you learn from the Sabbaths, and Zeppelins, and Iron Maidens and Ozzy, you had the whole era of being really close to your music. Then, you look at legendary hardcore bands like Integrity, Infest, every sub-genre’s top band, I feel like those bands continue to reign and there are fewer bands that are getting ready to take the crown. A 16-year-old kid is going to have a hard time relating to a 40-year-old dude. Whereas when I was a kid, they were twentysomething and it clicked. I feel like there is no strong leader right now. That’s what we are trying to do, with bands like Noisem and Full of Hell. The next generation of leaders. We want kids to see young bands and say “I can do this.”

In 2004, illegal downloading wasn’t as much of a concern as it is now. What’s A389’s opinion on unauthorized downloading?
It sucks. People are going to steal. I get it. Not everyone wants to pay for everything all the time. I just hate the Robin Hood attitude. If you’re smart enough to steal something and get away with it, it’s cool. But, if you’re going to be a Robin Hood and put it up for everyone that’s where it sucks. When you post stuff online, it just ruins it for everyone. We have a pretty loyal following. People chip in as much as they can, for the most part.

My opinion is that illegal downloading shows a fundamental disrespect for the artist, which is paradoxical, because the stealer is enjoying that same artist’s music.
Oh, I agree completely. But, some kid in Malaysia doesn’t have the ability to buy the record. Shipping an LP to Europe is like $20. I understand. I do. I try to keep downloads to like $2 or $5. And if someone is smart enough to rip a stream, more power to them. But, when you redistribute it, it just fucks up the whole network. That’s when I think the disrespect really shines. You are taking the credit and attention from everyone that put effort into the album. I’ve had that problem with people that leak stuff. They say, “We support you!” You’re not supporting me, dude. I didn’t see my kids all week and I work two jobs to pay for these records. You just swiped it. You want to be a hero? The guy that leaked the record. The cool blog to go to. I’ve struggled with blogs over the years. I’m cool with some of them. But the ones that leak… I have no problem shutting them down if I could. I’d even press charges if I could. At the end of the day, you’re only messing up everyone’s plans.

Dom, you work two jobs. So A389 is not your full-time income?
No, no. It was once upon a time before I had children to worry about. I’ve got other jobs that I do on the side to make ends meet. It’s not easy to pay for preschool and make sure everyone has everything they need. And, to add insult to injury, or along those lines, if people follow the label on social media, it’s not just a constant sales pitch. “Hey this record is out! Buy it! Hey, that record is out! Buy it!” Instead, we try to make it an insight into the label. “Oh, that’s why my record didn’t ship yet. So-and-so is at the doctor’s.” We try to keep it on the real. We just want to show people that it’s one person and a helper running the show. We’re not a big corporation. Just two dudes that love doing this.

Tell me about the first A389 bash.
Before it became official, I was touring with Pulling Teeth a lot. So, the bashes didn’t form until around 2007. So, there were almost bashes that happened at different times of year. There was a really cool show where Gut Instinct played for the first time in a decade.

So, the first one officially happened in 2007 at this club called the Ottobar which is 450 to 500 people capacity. It was originally designed to be Slumlords’ last show. But then, I was like, why not make it a two-day show? It was around my birthday, and Integrity wasn’t playing shows that much. Dwid Hellion [Integrity frontman] and I have been friends for years, so I was like why don’t you just come and play with Pulling Teeth and we’ll do a covers set. We called ourselves The Blackest Curse. It sold out. After that, it became an excuse for Integrity to play on my birthday every year.

Tell me about when your band, Pulling Teeth, played a whole set with Thor!
The bash is my dream lineup. Thor was so cool. He remembered me being a 17-year-old kid seeing him in a dive bar in Toronto. He always remembered. I e-mailed him the other day just to say hi. He is awesome. He came into it with the best attitude, just to have fun.

Tell me about Bash X where you reunited the Systems Overload lineup of Integrity.
That was it! That was the crown jewel. I almost didn’t even do a show this year because that show summed up everything I’ve tried to do. There are some white whales that I haven’t gotten, but nothing like Integrity. Getting Dwid with the Melnicks was gold from day one. After a decade of cajoling with Clint from Organized Crime Records and Brett from Magic Bullet Records, we were able to pull it together.

Bloodlet was another big deal. They were convinced that no one would care, but they got one of the best reactions of the weekend. People were also excited by In Cold Blood. That was one of the best sets of the weekend. Infest was awesome. The rest was cream of the crop. Powertrip, Noisem, Full of Hell. And then you had your up-and-coming bands, like Occultist, Homewrecker and everyone. I tried to keep it tiered. It’s not an old guy fest. It’s not a new guys fest. It just has to be quality bands.

What’s it like getting to know Dwid Hellion the person, as opposed to Dwid Hellion, this strange entity behind these metaphysical and occult records?
He’s a strange creature in real life! But, he’s been one of my best friends. He’s helped so much from day one with everything. He taught me graphic design from the ground up. He is a misunderstood dude. But, sometimes, I think he loves the chaos. He is a mysterious dude. He is a guy that always generates a reaction. He could put up a fence and people would be talking about it. Integrity has always generated a reaction. I don’t know what it is. It is always met with such opposition by your main hardcore audience. I think it is just because they are a band that doesn’t play by the rules. The don’t play this fest or that fest. they just don't care. That’s what I modeled the label after. Just do what you think is cool. It doesn’t matter what sells.

By design, this fest is a little smaller. Why are you scaling down this year?
Well, the big deal this year, after the bubble burst from last year, what do I do this year? I had some pretty crazy ideas, but my wife and I had a kid this year in October. I have two kids in preschool and a new one, so I was going to just walk away from it this year. But, I didn’t like the gap in continuity. Jeff from Haymaker was staying at my house for a few days and we were like, “We should make it like 100 capacity shows and $10, like when we were growing up.” It takes away the safety of a giant venue and brings it back to the small room. You’re seeing Haymaker in this tiny place and you might die. That was the vibe I was going for. Basically, remove the headache that came with organizing the big bands, flying and hotels, scratch any band that was all that, and see who could come down easily for a small show for a small amount of money and give people a good time, all while keeping that same quality. Weekend Nachos usually gets one of the best receptions. So we made them a headliner. You’ve got your legendary bands: Haymaker, In Cold Blood, Starkweather, Magrudergrind, Ilsa. You also have some brand new bands, like Castlefreak. While it may be a step back, it also lets me push the newer bands so they can start playing higher up on the bill.

You talk about the safety of the larger venue versus the smaller venue. In some parts of the punk rock world, people have taken a stand against moshing and stage diving. Does A389 have a moshing or stage diving stance?
Whatever. Everything has lost so much focus. It has been getting so diluted and weak. It has to go back to 100-capacity venues for a while with real bands. Too many people ran with it and have taken it in directions where it doesn’t make sense. Now people get praised for being the best dressed or the coolest or not condoning moshing. That’s what makes hardcore cool. It’s cool to hate it. People are now raised, with the anonymous Internet culture, to be disrespectful, to be edgy, to be “that guy.” I think it has to go back to its values. It is a way to get your aggression out. I’m not condoning beating people up. But, it is supposed to be dangerous, to an extent. A controlled chaos. It's supposed to be a relief.

In the future, is there a possibility of big bashes? Will they continue to be intimate shows?
The plan I had for this year I may put into action this year. I don’t want to give away any surprises. It has always been about old dudes respecting the young dudes and young dudes respecting the old dudes.

As far as reunions, I feel like it’s so bloated, and overdone. You could have Danzig singing Minor Threat with Gene Simmons on bass and Moses on guitar and no one would care. It’s bloated and fat. We need to shake it up.