Shawn Stern (BYO Records/Youth Brigade) interview


In 1982, BYO Records was born not as an idea of making money and marketing bands, but as a way to release music that brothers, and bandmates, Shawn and Mark Stern thought was not only good, but contained a spirit opposite of the stereotypical mindset most had of the “then” punk scene. Now, 25+ years later, BYO is celebrating with a book, a movie and a music compilation documenting their legacy not only in the L.A. punk scene, but the general one. Shawn Stern took some time to answer an e-mailer about the huge anniversary documentation and where the ideals of BYO stand today.

First off, for anyone who doesn’t know the 25+ year legacy of BYO Records, can you run down a brief history of how the idea came about between you two brothers, and if there was any early doubts or initial problems you guys ran into starting up the imprint, and how you got past them?

Well, we didn’t really start out to do anything other than try to promote the positive aspects of punk rock, because we felt we were portrayed as mindless morons in the media. In the beginning, we started promoting shows and eventually we decided to put out a record for Youth Brigade, but came up with the idea of releasing the Someone Got Their Head Kicked In compilation. We never thought, “Let’s start a record company,” any more than we thought, “Let’s promote shows.” It was more of a necessity. We were in a band. We had lots of friends in bands and bands we liked who we were friends with, so it seemed natural to put on shows, and later to put out records. The only problems we had were that we were kids, 18-19 [years old] when we started, so we didn’t really know what we were doing and there was no map or formula, no book or person to tell us what to do. You couldn’t “Google” your questions, as the Internet didn’t exist. [There were] no cell phones to book a tour. So we just pounded the pavement, asked questions and eventually figured it out by doing it.

BYO is a political movement, but a positive one at that. It’s seen a few Presidents, and been through almost three decades of governmental up’s and down’s. Even with the change in power, ethics, ideas, and constant political progression, forward or back (depending on how you view it), do you think the ideals that started BYO have carried over the 25+ years of the label’s existence, and in Youth Brigade’s work as well?

I don’t think we are necessarily a “political movement,” because I don’t believe in “politics” in the traditional Democrat/Republican rivalry we have in our system that is controlled by moneyed interests. I think our ideals, of thinking for yourself, questioning everything and trying to make positive change in the world, transcend the mundane and fairly corrupt politics in this country. And yes, I think it has worked in helping to inspire people that we can’t expect change to come from the government, because in a true democracy, which is something I think most people in this country yearn for, the people change things in spite of the government.

Besides Youth Brigade, 7 Seconds and SNFU were two of the first signings to BYO Records. What about these two bands made you two decide to sign them on to the imprint? What, do you feel they brought, not only to the ideals of BYO, but the ideals of the positive movement in the punk scene BYO wanted to push? What do you think of their impact, and how they still hold water decades later with you guys?

Our guiding principle for working with bands is that we like their music. We believe they have something important to say. We like the people and think we can help them. I think both 7 Seconds and SNFU were, and continue to be, great bands that wrote amazing songs [and] are very good people [that] have something to say that we helped them with. I think the records they recorded with BYO are still as relevant today as the day they recorded them.

Who had the early idea to do the documentary “Let Them Know”? How did Jeff Alulis get signed on?

[My brother] Mark [Stern] and I came up with the idea to do a documentary together. We were trying to decide on what to do to commemorate our 25-year anniversary besides the compilation, and thought a movie would be great. We had met [producer/director] Jeff [Allulis] and [producer] Ryan [Harlin] when we did interviews for the [Do You Remember?: Fifteen Years of the Bouncing Souls] DVD that they made, and I think they did a remarkable job on a long and difficult project [with this documentary].

Are you happy with the way it came out? Are you more excited that there now exist some sort of documentation of the beginnings and influences that have come out of BYO for past and future generations?

I’m very happy with the movie and compilation and the book. It was the biggest project we’ve ever done, and I think it came out fantastic. Everyone that has seen it has loved it, and I really think people can’t really grasp the scope of it until they actually hold it in their hands and watch the movie, read the book and listen to the music. I think it’s a great document of the band, the label, my brothers and I and our part in L.A. punk rock history.

For the CD/LP, how were the bands/songs picked for the process? Which covers stood out to you?

We always work with bands we like and are friends with, so that’s who we asked. The bands picked the songs themselves. They are all really great: NOFX doing Battalion of Saints, Pennywise covering 7 Seconds, Dropkick Murphys covering Youth Brigade, 7 Seconds covering Youth Brigade – just so many good songs! One that stands out is the cover by Young Governor & Marvelous Mark of the Youth, Youth, Youth song “Domination.”

The BYO Split series is a well-known staple for punk music fans, and vinyl nuts. How did that idea initially come about, and why haven’t we seen the next installment in the past few years, or is there one coming soon?

The idea came about when Hot Water Music called us and said they wanted to tour with Leatherface in the states. [Singer/guitarist] Frankie Stubbs (of Leatherface) told them to call BYO cause that [was their] label – which was news to us, albeit good news. So I talked to Frankie about doing a record before the tour, he said he only had enough songs for an EP. Mark suggested we do a split with another band. We figured let’s ask HWM since they are going to tour together, and the split series was born. Mark [Stern] had the idea to do the graphics for the cover along the line of the old Blue Note Jazz releases. We’ve wanted to do more and have many bands interested but it just hasn’t worked out. Hopefully another one soon, we’re working on it.

BYO stands for Better Youth Organization (for readers who didn’t know). Looking at the “punk” scene, or “underground” scene, or whatever you want to label it these days, what have you seen carried over from those three words since?

The belief that punk rock is, for me, about thinking for yourself, questioning everything and trying to change what’s wrong in this world. And we all know there is a lot that’s wrong in this world.

What are your thoughts on the current state of music? What’s missing, what’s going right?

I think there are lots of great bands out there, but it’s really easy to record music these days with digital recording, so there are many bands and many records, and that makes for a lot of mediocrity. Add to that the advent of “computer” music and video games like rock band and guitar hero, and we’ve got a lot of “virtual” musicians. I think kids should learn to play instruments, not pretend to play on a video game or computer. Good music, like good art or any good craft, comes through learning over time; how to take your innate creativity and artistic talent to make great music, art or whatever it is that you make. Short cuts [and] quick fixes, none of that will work, despite the virtual reality world that we see on television, where people become famous for being talentless nobodies that are willing to “act” like they have talent or skill. Wow, does that sound bitter? Haha!

BYO has had a list of artists hold down the idea of punk, but also sounding different musically through that idea. If you could sum up the word “punk” and what it means to you, BYO, and as a general idea (outside any preconceived notions or stereotypes), what would it convey?

Well, people say, “Aren’t you too old to be Youth Brigade these days?” and I tell them that I believe youth is an attitude, not an age. I think everyone has the responsibility to continue learning throughout their lives and to try and change what they feel needs changing in the world. That is what punk rock is to me, always has been and always will. DIY – think and do for yourself.

Final words on your legacy thus far?

Just a huge thanks to everyone that has supported us and [supported] punk rock in general…We’re really lucky to be able to do what we love and we know that without your support, we couldn’t have lasted all these years.


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