Posted by: Necci – Feb 23, 2012
Bucky Lewis is the 26 year old CEO of Worthless Junk Records. If you don’t know, Worthless Junk is basically Richmond’s indie music equivalent to the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder. They are young, hot in the streets, and only getting better. Proudly displaying a roster that features NO BS! Brass Band, Black Girls, Arches, Remain, Wrist Rocket, White Laces, and now The Trillions, Worthless Junk seems ready for a breakout 2012.
I sat down with Bucky a few weeks ago as he was preparing for this Friday’s Black Girls vinyl release concert at Kingdom. I had never met him before and really didn’t know what to expect, but what I got was pretty remarkable. He is a fascinating dude that has survived some major ups and downs in the last 10 years. From starting his first record label at the age of 16, to basically losing everything through a tragic string of events in 2007, to now slowly building a RVA success, Bucky has been through a lot. With that said, the guy I sat down with in the back of Joe’s Inn was in a good place. He was excited about music and optimistic about the future. Quite frankly, he should be – he just landed a brand new distribution deal with Fontana Distribution, the independent distribution arm of Universal; the Black Girls announced a major summer tour; and Reggie Pace (No BS!) was prepping to play SNL with Bon Iver. This is a good time for Bucky. I’m excited for him, the label, and RVA.
Before we even start, I’ve got to tell you this… Do you know Shannon Cleary?
Yeah, I know Shannon.
I have never met him but I read his stuff a lot on RVAMag.com [Shannon and I have now met]. He just posted a show review from the night of January 20 and basically wrote it was one of the best nights for music in Richmond. I was actually at the Evidence show, but he mentioned Black Girls at Balliceaux, NO BS! at the Camel, and he covered White Laces, playing on the bill with The Diamond Center, at Strange Matter. That is three bands that you have put out on Worthless Junk records, is that crazy for you?
Yeah. It’s really cool. It’s weird that it has worked out that way. A lot of the people in the bands are people that I have known for a long time. Black Girls are from the same place in VA that I was raised, so I know a lot of their family members. I got involved with No BS! because at Hohner we sell Sonor Drums and Lance from No BS! plays a Sonor kit. Once I started to see them play, I spoke with him – they were one of the first records I put out on the label. I’ve known Landis from White Laces a long time. These are people that I have known and believe have the potential to play big out of the city.
No BS! Brass Band
Nice. Now back to the standard first question, if a stranger walked up to you on the street and asked, “What do you do for a living?” you would say...?
I would say music is completely what I do. It’s my day job (Hohner USA, Inc.). It’s my hobby. It’s my passion. I’m 26 now; when I was 16, a guy taught me how to play guitar. That same year, I put out my band’s first demo on cd. That was 10 years ago, and I’ve just been going down those two paths ever since.
With the success of NO BS! Brass, Black Girls, and White Laces, 2011 was a huge year for Worthless Junk Records. Did you anticipate this level of success?
No I didn’t. When Reggie [Pace of No BS!] first said he was joining Bon Iver, I said, “Who’s Bon Iver?” When I went home and looked him up, I thought, “Oh shit! That is awesome.” With Black Girls, I was in Black Girls for all of last summer – I played bass. I was starting to see us play better and better shows and I started thinking, “We packed this show, we need to try to do that again.” The next show it was more people, and then more people – to watch that progression has been amazing. A lot of bands wait years to do that but the growth has just been fluid.
Was there a moment for you that made you realize that something was happening here that was bigger than you had planned?
Yeah. I’ve worked at putting out records for a long time. I have put out some small stuff and some bigger stuff, and I realized that it was moving in the right direction…
Was there a particular time that it hit you?
I think when we put out the NO BS! and Black Girls 7”, and we played two shows at Balliceaux that were [Worthless Junk] promoted and hosted, and we sold out both nights. That’s when I realized that this is big. That is when the focus shifted. We felt we had the love and support of Richmond, so then the question became, how can we get everyone in the world into this?
From the No BS!/Black Girls split photoshoot
And you know from being here that getting Richmond is hard – to have RVA love like this for NO BS!, Black Girls, White Laces, etc. – you have to be on a roll. Because what normally happens is that a local band goes out of town. Then people from out of town tell Richmonders that they’re cool, and then Richmond says, oh that band is cool now.
I’m glad you know that, because that is very true.
Do you just put out local bands? I thought I saw that you have one band from Philly.
Yes. I put out Arches, who are from Philly. They are a pretty notable South Philly band. I do put out another local band called Remain. They are more of a 90’s hardcore band that I play bass. We put out a record and it was good but then our guitar player got ran over by a car, our drummer had a battle with carpal tunnel, and our singer tore his ACL. So I’m just waiting to get run over by a car or God knows what. We are just getting back to where we need to be.
So how is it different now than it was before you realized the bands were breaking in the right direction?
There are some things that are easier; getting people to respond to emails has been nice. In more literal sense, this time last year I did a show, a triple record release show at Strange Matter, and we just about packed Strange Matter [about 200 people]. That was 4 bands – 3 of them we put out and a ska band that are good friends of ours – so now a year later, I’m attempting to fill Kingdom [on Friday night], which is 600 people. So you see, we have grown, our reach has grown, and we really just have to keep pushing that momentum.
How do you pace yourself when it comes to the growth of the label?
It’s all about building a solid foundation. The thing about record labels these days is that if I can get a record distributed by distributor X or get my record reviewed by magazine X, the only difference between my label and one of the huge labels is the name. So the music is always going to be the music, because there is so much music out now that people are no longer loyal to record labels like they use to be. In addition, labels don’t really try to build that audience following anymore. I have always been into the idea [of] building a record label that [people] want to hear everything on the label. If that label is putting out a record, you want to pay attention to it because that label is putting it out. It won’t all be the same music, but you know it’s going to be interesting.
The culture has definitely changed. I think as an indie label you still have that ownership regarding the branding and identity. Daptone Records comes to mind for me. Doesn’t matter what they put out – I’m going to want it. How do you keep Worthless Junk’s brand and identity?
There are always going to be the random things, like a friend’s band that I like, I’m going to put out their record. But besides that, I think it has to be music that is enjoyable and has a wide appeal. I think a lot of this stuff that I have been doing is pretty innocent, in that it is just music. Our bands are not trying to be pigeonholed. We are not trying to appeal to a particular audience. We are all just making music. You see people of all ages and races coming out to the shows and having a good time.
How did you start Worthless Junk Records? I remember you telling me [before we started the interview] that you were working at another label. Did you run another label?
That’s a long story. When I was 16 I started a label that I ran until I was about 23.
Let’s start there, because at 16 years old I was not thinking about starting a record label. I was thinking about all kinds of different stuff in high school.
I lived in the middle of nowhere, so it was a bit easier to focus.
Did you always want to run a record label?
Yes. For me, it started with Jello Biafra, singer with the Dead Kennedys. He has one of those labels, Alternative Tentacles, that he has run since 1979. I was really into the label. I realized that there were acoustic acts, there was heavy stuff, all kinds of music on the label, but I liked it all. Everything this guy put out, I liked, and I decided that I wanted to do that. So, I started a label and did it for a while. When I was 22, I moved to Richmond. I had two employees. I had a partner and a local guy here named Jonny Z that was helping me out. Then in 2007, Jonny suddenly passed away. My two employees, who were a boyfriend and girlfriend that had a musical act, got in a car accident coming home from tour, and they both tragically passed away. My partner, who was AWOL from the Navy, got arrested and went to the brig. My girlfriend broke up with me and my landlord, who was a family friend, needed me to move out. So there I was, I had this dream of building a small empire and it all just fell apart. I told myself then that I still want to do this. A lot of people faced with that adversity would get away and not look back, but I still wanted to do it. However, I said then that I never want to make that my full time job ever again. I mean originally, I was staying up 36 hours at a time. We did everything ourselves: making buttons, printing, just trying to grow. It was a horrible plan. Things started to turn around when I got my job at Hohner. I refocused myself, I put my life back together, and then I realized that I still have a love for music and wanted to work with people, but this time I wanted to work with my friends. I used to just hear a band and wonder if I could work with them. I rarely ever put out a Virginia band on my first label, and I put out over 70 bands on that label.
But what I’m getting from you is that the focus was different – the focus was economic…
Yeah. I was completely disconnected from the people. When times got tough, I realized pretty quickly that those ties were pretty loose.
They weren’t family…
Not then. We are having this show in February [Friday, February 24 at Kingdom] and I am very excited. I rented out the upstairs of a nearby restaurant just to have dinner with all the bands before the show, because we are all so much closer and our bond is so much stronger than my previous experience. These are my friends. We look at the business side of things when we need to, but we are close.
You have really regrouped; I had no idea about your journey. So when did you start Worthless Junk?
I had been thinking about it for a long time – I just wanted to sell records again. The owners of Helen’s opened a thrift store in Carytown called B-Sides. When they were opening that store, I reached out to them and pitched the idea of putting a record section into their store. I basically offered to manage that section of the store and they said yes. The first thing we put out was a compilation – it’s actually a series – called River City Shreds. It’s about 23 Richmond bands that we put out on a cassette and CD, just to help bring people into the store. We made it only available at B-Sides. I was also playing in the band Remain, and we wanted to put out a record. I started talking to Lance from No BS! and they were about to put out an album. They wanted to do vinyl but it was really expensive, so I suggested going half on it. It’s really just grown from that point. The No BS! record, Remain record, and my friend Matt’s band Wrist Rocket all came out at the same time on Worthless Junk.
Is there a specific sound that you identify that makes a band a good fit for Worthless Junk?
You can’t be a band that wants to be pigeonholed. You can’t just play in your basement and turn your nose up at people until you feel they have proven themselves worthy. I see that a lot, and I actually like some of those bands but they will never make it. You have to be out there working, willing to grow and get better.
It is on point that you said that because that is my main criticism of RVA hip hop (and hip hop in general). There are too many talented artists that are simply “too cool” to care about other people. Some really talented artists are still wondering why they haven’t made it big, but it’s because they refuse to do the things that require artist to play in front of a wider audience.
Good Lord, I will get off that topic with that… Your label is a truly diverse label, with bands like No BS! Brass Band, White Laces, and Black Girls, I think your diversity really defines Richmond. It reminds me of my time at VCU and the diversity I saw every day.
Yeah. I’m going to keep going in that direction. One of the cool things about us is that we are all growing together. You know that Reggie [Pace] from No BS! joined Bon Iver. That is major news. Black Girls are going to go on tour with The Head and the Heart, and that is going to be big. I’m really hoping to put out the Trillions album [Note: Congrats to Bucky, they will be releasing the new Trillions album].
That would be a great look for you.
The cool thing is I’ve now got a new distribution deal that I’m very excited about, and that means our artists will have a foundation which they can build upon. Their music will be accessible to a bunch of new listeners. It’s an interesting business. The reason that I do vinyl is because I buy and collect records; I’m really into that. Every once in a while I will find a record from a Richmond band that was released 15 – 20 years ago and I’ll buy it just to see what it’s all about. My goal is that it will be our records floating around 10 – 15 years from now.
Is Worthless Junk exclusively vinyl?
No. We are not exclusively vinyl. When people buy something now, they want something that they can hold. Most people don’t have 15 bucks to just throw around, so I try to provide that with vinyl. I bought my own printing equipment so that I can put a poster in an insert or maybe a lyric sheet. I want to provide more content than just the record.
What are some of the challenges of running Worthless Junk?
It’s a labor of love. I have to spend a lot of money to make things work.
Do you put a significant amount of personal money into the label?
Yes. I would say so. The little things add up and bills never come at the right time. The challenge is to have some money come back in. The way to do that is the get the music sold out of Richmond a bit, and get your bands playing shows out of town; make touring profitable. Richmond is a wonderful city for creativity, but we have to play Richmond, then Virginia, then the East Coast, etc.
Richmond does seem like the perfect fit for Worthless Junk, is that right?
It is. Richmond is home. My grandfather was involved in the RVA music scene for 46 years.
Why does it work in Richmond?
I really don’t know – but it is working. We have the benefit of history, a creative community, and a lot of art and music right here. We haven’t been killed by the economic downturn. Richmond is a place that is actually getting safer, and is continuing to grow. People here are really rooting for something to support, and I think you see that in music and a number of different things.
There seems to be a lot more local pride surrounding the city right now.
I think so. There is room for growth here, and there is an audience for that too.
What is in store for the label in 2012?
More local bands, more records – definitely a Richmond compilation record.
Black Girls live at RVA Music Fest 2011
Tell me about the new distribution deal and what it means for the label.
It is with Fontana Distribution, which is the independent arm of Universal Distribution, which is basically the distributor of every major label out. They put records everywhere. What that means for Worthless Junk is that if anyone has an interest in any of the bands on the label – we will be accessible. They can go to a store and order it. Our music will get listed on much wider databases (Barnes and Noble, etc.). I know that we are a tiny fish in a very big sea, but we are there. There are a lot of independent distributors out today that cater to a specific genre but they don’t get you in these larger pools, so this is a big deal for us.
So how big can this get? How big do you want it to get?
If a band that I put out grew to a point that a really big label came by and picked them up, that means that I’ve done my job. In the long run, if I can have some successful releases, a viable business, and I don’t have a room that is full of records, that is where I want to be.
What advice would you give someone that reminds you of you 10 years ago, the 16 year old that wants to start the next great record label?
You just have to do it. If it fails, do it again. Do it over and over, learning from your trials and errors every time. I used to do all kinds of stuff to promote (flyers and etc.), and who knows how much time and money I wasted, but if you’re doing it for any reason other than passion and the desire to get music out to the public, it is going to be tough.
Worthless Junk's vinyl release party for the new Black Girls LP, Hell Dragon, featuring live performances by Black Girls, No BS! Brass Band, White Laces, and the Trillions, is at Kingdom (10 Walnut Alley, between 17th and 18th St) on Friday February 24. Doors open at 8 PM. Advance tickets are $12 and can be purchased HERE.
By Marc Cheatham/originally appeared at thecheatsmovement.com