Although it’s rarely spoken about in the present day, the San Diego-based Gravity Records was a vital progenitor of the 1990s American musical underground. Across the label’s lengthy discography, Gravity ushered in a new era of hardcore punk that wasn’t afraid to experiment within the genres’ perimeters–a matchless quality courtesy of the labels’ proprietor (and producer for most of those LPs), Matt Anderson. He’d bounce random sounds and feedback in and out of mile-a-minute bands like Antioch Arrow and his own, the screamo pioneers Heroin, with incredible ease.
The packaging for these records were equally unique, adorned in silk-screened or hand-stenciled jackets with little info or band photos, a striking alternative to the bold graphics and tired images of clean-cut kids leaping through the air found on most hardcore releases at the time. In the years that followed–aka, the early 2000s–Anderson put out debut records from bands that went on to become giants in their genres: the Rapture, Black Dice, and Earthless. Today, he quietly continues to operate the label from his home, still averse to the current world of tacky promotional campaigns, multi-colored vinyl reissues, and the many superficial tactics these predatory labels utilize.
And yet, for whatever reason, Gravity Records is almost never mentioned when the music industry revisionists decide to pick at the corpse of the ‘90s underground year after year. In an effort to right this wrong, CREEM tracked down Matt Anderson to talk about the label, his legendary band Heroin, and the erasure (and then sudden interest) in ‘90s underground music history.
CREEM: Hey Matt. Before we dive straight into the Gravity story, I’d love to hear about your introduction to punk.
MATT ANDERSON: I was mainly into hardcore in the beginning and got an appreciation for punk later on. California has an enormous skateboarding culture and I got into it when I was pretty young, reading Thrasher magazine. I saw an issue where [professional skateboarder] Steve Caballero was wearing a Misfits shirt and I thought that looked pretty cool. From there, I started to read [, [written by Brian “Pushead” Schroeder], and the interviews they would run with hardcore bands. I moved to Orange County and one day, I went into a record store and bought the  Septic Death LP Now That I Have The Attention, What Do I Do With It? simply on the cover alone, even though I might have known it was Pushead’s band. Pretty soon, Septic Death became my favorite band. Then [my family] moved to San Diego and I met people in my high school who got me deeper into hardcore, like Scott Bartoloni, who was the guitar player in Heroin. He was a teenaged promoter in our town and he put on huge shows with Agnostic Front, RKL, and Justice League. He was the hardcore hero of our school. MDC, too, had a huge impact on me: the veracity of that band struck a chord with me as a teenager. They had so much conviction and felt no forgiveness for what they said. That blew me away. I loved Septic Death, but MDC was what got me into the idea of hardcore.
When did you start playing in bands?
My first band was called F.O.E and it was me, Scott, and the first singer for Heroin, Chad Jackson. I originally was the drummer of Heroin, but Chad quit after two shows and I took over as singer. I was more into dark stuff like the Misfits, so I thought the name Foe was cool, but then I found out it stood for Freedom of Expression. We only played one show. Heroin started the summer I went into 12th grade, and it took awhile before we became a serious band. We practiced for almost a year and played a couple of parties. With bands, all of a sudden something takes and you go all in.
What was the San Diego hardcore scene like, when Heroin entered into it?
In the 1980s, San Diego was known across the U.S. as a very violent hardcore scene. At that time, it was all skinheads, meatheads, and idiots who just wanted to fight. The last show Scott put on was with the Vandals and that was the end of San Diego Hardcore, because the Vandals began to taunt the skinheads and they ended up beating up the band and destroying the whole hall. That’s how shows at the Che Cafe came about. It was a hippie cafe on the campus of UCSD that was run like a collective, so all you had to do was talk to them and they’d let you play. They were open for anything and it was hidden away enough that some of those skinheads who lingered on wouldn’t come in. Nowadays, the Che Cafe is a really well-known hardcore venue.
By the time Che Cafe [came to be the spot,] the two big bands were Pitchfork and Amenity. Amenity started my version of the San Diego scene. There was also Vinyl Communications, a label done by a guy named Bob Barley who was influential on us as well. But we worshiped Amenity. They [were embraced by] Chula Vista, [California’s] Straight Edge crew. I think a big part of Heroin getting accepted was because we covered the song “Straight Edge Revenge” by Project X. We got invited to play a show at Amenity’s practice space based on us doing that song. That cover spring-boarded us into wanting to take the band more seriously.
So when did Gravity Records come about?
My original idea was to do a flexi-disc label. A recording of Amenity’s last show was supposed to be Gravity #1. I had the artwork ready to go, but the soundboard tape got lost, so it was canceled. That was such a bummer. I was going to release a split flexi-disc between two bands, Brain Tourniquet and Sloog, a project Scott and I had, but the flexi-disc company Epi-Tone refused to press it because there was cussing on it and the artwork was gory. There was also going to be a Pitchfork flexi, too, but it never happened.
The real birth of Gravity happened when Heroin went on our first U.S. tour and played four or five shows with [Vermin Scum Records head] Tonie Joy’s band, Lava. They gave us a demo and we listened to it all the way back home and we decided we should make it the next release on the label. It was me and Ron [Johnson], the bass player for Heroin, who co-founded Gravity [in 1991.] He stuck around until the 12th or 13th release. [The first release on Gravity was the second Heroin 7”.]
After Lava, how did you go about choosing the other bands that would be on the label?
It was just people I knew. Antioch Arrow were a good band and I had access to them. But then we went on tour and got to play with Born Against. All of a sudden, we’re putting out a split seven-inch between them and Universal Order of Armageddon. It was the same situation with Unwound and Huggy Bear. I put out the Mohinder seven-inch because they started writing to me. I also had a recording studio [in San Diego] called Bankers Hill, so I met bands that way. I asked Native Nod to be on Gravity, but they were already on Gern Blandsten and turned me down. At one point, Gravity was pretty well-known. Looking back, I probably should have released more bands, but I was just really hung up on my relationship with the bands being organic.
Down Side, the label run by Amenity vocalist Mike Down, used handmade packaging for their records with silkscreened covers and rubber-stamps. Did that have an influence on Gravity’s packaging?
That is 100% correct. Heroin’s first record was on Down Side and I liked the way he did the rubber stamps with cool, grainy paper. I remember Mike telling me doing packaging like that was the future in the world of DIY music. I looked up to MIke and wanted to take it further, but I wanted it to look more gritty. Mike’s personality was more professional and he wanted every cover to be perfect, where I wanted the covers to just be what they were. It was the same idea, just with a different personality.
I would suggest ideas to bands, but I would never dictate what their own art should be. That’s why there was a consistency to the way the releases looked. I was giving input rather than just asking for their artwork. I remember suggesting some ideas for silk screening to Clikatat Ikatowi for their debut LP and they asked if they could just have a normal, printed cover. I said fine.
Most of the Gravity releases were recorded by you, and much like the packaging, the recordings made your releases unique. The use of found sounds and studio jams bobbing in and out of the mix along with squeals of feedback became a staple for Gravity.
I had paid for a few recordings and thought they were expensive. I lived at the studio [Vinyl Communications’] Bob Barley had in his backyard, so I learned to record stuff there on his eight-track recorder. The recordings came about the same way as the handmade covers: it was cheaper. I did the records cheaply because that’s what you did in hardcore back then. It was supposed to be the ultimate DIY situation. With most labels, they do their first record and do every little bit of it themselves and that’s it. I never stopped doing Gravity that way. I cut all the covers myself and recorded the records. When I recorded Heroin, I liked leaving every piece of raw audio on there; I just thought it sounded neat. I was used to doing that and it just followed on into other bands I recorded.
The ‘90s are so weird because the underground was doubling down on DIY aesthetics in such a way that the history just doesn’t exist in the present day. It was kept such a secret that no one really knows about it, unless they know to do the research.
I agree! Everything had to be vague and ambiguous. Heroin didn’t do a lot of interviews. There’s no detailed information about it out there, so people forget.
Everything had to be vague and ambiguous. Heroin didn’t do a lot of interviews. There’s no detailed information about it out there, so people forget.
The influence of Gravity on the ‘90s hardcore scene felt like something that happened immediately. I remember going on tour as a roadie for Rye Coalition in 1994 and it seemed like every town we went to, someone handed you a seven-inch EP covered in rubber stamps and potato prints on burlap. That look for those records got old very quickly.
That look definitely exploded and it was a double-edged sword. On one hand, it was nice to be emulated, but at the same time, I felt a little irritated. It’s fine. I don’t think I invented hand-done packaging, but I will claim responsibility for the ‘brown paper phenomenon.’ [Laughs.] After the second Heroin seven-inch, it seemed a lot of records came out with that same style. But I’m hesitant to say these things. It’s all good. It meant that it made its mark and people liked it.
I don’t think I invented hand-done packaging, but I will claim responsibility for the ‘brown paper phenomenon.’
As Gravity went into the 2000s, you released the debut album by the Rapture and seven-inch by Black Dice. How did those come about?
Black Dice came from them sending me a demo under the band name I Spit On Your Grave. I talked to [Black Dice’s] Bjorn Copeland and told him, “I like you guys but I just cannot put out a band called I Spit On Your Grave, I’m sorry.” He came back and told me they were thinking of changing their name anyway, so I ended up putting it out.
I had a similar thing when I was going to put out a record by the band Crash Worship. They were older and I kissed their butts to do a record. It was mastered and ready to go and then they sent me the artwork. They gave me this cartoon of a naked devil with a pentagram on it and I got the feeling they handed it in to mess with me. They were the first band I asked that didn’t come from a place of respect for Gravity. I was used to bands wanting to be on the label and work together. I asked them to change the art and they said, “Fuck you, we’re not,” so I didn’t put it out. The record eventually came out on Vinyl Communications, it’s called In The Labyrinth of the Master. If you look at the matrix on the runout grooves, it says it's a Gravity release. They used the same plates [to press the vinyl.]
With the Rapture, I lived in San Francisco for a little bit, saw them a few times, and just asked them. My girlfriend at the time knew them, so it wasn’t totally random, but that was definitely a hard time for Gravity because I wasn’t hanging out as much and wasn’t as embedded in the scene as I was earlier.
I talked to [Black Dice’s] Bjorn Copeland and told him, “I like you guys but I just cannot put out a band called I Spit On Your Grave, I’m sorry.”
And you still operate the label in a very low-key fashion.
Yeah, it's funny. Many people think the label stopped about 20 years ago, but I still have records in stock. Since my son was born, I haven’t put out any [new] records because I’m concentrating on taking care of him and my family. It seems like now is the right time to maybe reissue some of this stuff, but for me it’s like that Beach Boys song: “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.” It seems once everything became digital, and there was this rebirth of vinyl, they went more towards being collector’s items. I’m not saying it’s bullshit to still put out vinyl, but when I started putting out records, it was an active format and people listened to them normally. It seems these days it's almost all set up to have people buying multiple copies of the same record just for the variants. I know how hard it is to run a label, and you have to change with the times, so I don't want to pass judgment on labels trying to survive. But I don’t know if I can get on board with these extravagant, high-priced box sets. There are good points and bad points to these releases, but personally, I don’t see myself releasing a $150 box set on Gravity.
Three One G recently re-released the album by End of the Line, a band I played guitar in with other members of Heroin and John Henry West’s Cory Linstrum on vocals. When that was first pressed on Ebullition, it sounded like utter shit, but we got to remix it for the re-release, so it’s nice there’s a reason for it to exist. All the Heroin stuff is coming out as a double LP on Southern Lord and that has remastered and unreleased songs on it.
For me, it’s like that Beach Boys song: “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.”
Is there a possibility there could be a new release on Gravity anytime soon?
What am I supposed to do? Show up at the Che Cafe with a clipboard asking what the new thing is going to be? That’s not me. If it’s not natural, I won’t attempt it.