Underground rock ‘n’ roll has always thrived in New York City. Whether it was art rock in the ’60s, punk rock in the ’70s, hardcore in the ’80s, math rock in the ’90s, indie rock in the ’00s, or garage rock in the ’10s, the Five Boroughs are home to thousands of bands that pour their heart out on stage every night pursuing their particular passion. The bands orbiting around “Brooklyn’s tastiest label,” as King Pizza Records bills itself, earn that face-melting, beer-soaked street cred with ease. You may not have heard of The Mad Doctors, ¡Vamanos!, Sun Voyager, Jon Arbuckle, and The Royal They yet, but see ’em live and we guarantee you’ll leave with some sweaty, shouted, satisfying memories. We chatted with King Pizza head honcho Greg Hanson about the joys of DIY, the power of rock ‘n’ roll, and the rise of cassette tapes. Check out Greg’s hand-selected King Pizza Essentials playlist below as well.
ESM: How did the idea for King Pizza Records come about, Greg?
Greg Hanson: Like most independent labels, King Pizza came about from necessity. My band, The Mad Doctors, had our first LP that we wanted to release on vinyl. We were sending it around to labels and getting good responses but no one had the time or resources to put it out. At that point, I was working a good enough job where I could stand to spend a little money on a release, so I decided to release it myself. Consequently, before King Pizza, we as a band had felt like outliers in the New York music scene. We had some friends, but it never felt cohesive. When I decided to release our stuff, I figured it’d be great to create the scene that I wanted for us. There were so many sick bands sort of orbiting themselves and I figured if we all banded together we’d have a much stronger voice. So I decided to put out the music of friends who didn’t have a support system and create a community of rock ‘n’ rollers, badasses, weirdos, artists, crowd surfers, and drinking enthusiasts.
ESM: Did those friends react positively to your efforts?
Greg Hanson: In my mind, the thing that solidified the idea of the label was talking to Mike Brandon from The Mystery Lights. I was kicking around the idea for a few weeks and I caught them at one of their CMJ shows. He was talking about looking for a label to put out one of their early releases, I mentioned the idea of starting a label, and he looked at me dead in the eyes and said, “I think you’d be really good at that.” So I thought, “Hey, YEAH — I WOULD be really good at that.” We never ended up working with The Mystery Lights but without them, we would never have existed.
ESM: So the community of bands, fans, and supporters is the most important aspect of the label?
Greg Hanson: You hit the nail on the head. We have always described ourselves as a non-traditional label because, as a musician, my interest is in supporting artists and creating something special for the performers and audience alike. King Pizza’s releases are an important part of that because it gives people something to take home — and it gives bands something to sell to pay for gas on the road. But the feeling of walking into a King Pizza show and knowing that you’re friends with everyone in the room, even if you don’t know them, is incredible. That’s really the thing that lasts long after the tapes have played out.
ESM: Why cassettes?
Greg Hanson: For years, cassettes have played this amazing role in the underground punk scene and were largely forgotten by everyone else. I was re-introduced when our pals at Doctor Gone Records put out The Mad Doctors’ first cassette, Fuzz Tonic. Up until then, I thought tapes were kind of dumb. But I became enchanted — these great little analog beauties are way more interesting and fun than CDs, they have great fidelity for the kind of stuff we’re working with, and they’re cheap to produce and thus cheap to sell. Cassettes have become so intrinsically a part of the greater underground rock ‘n’ roll scene over the last few years. People are doing really great and interesting stuff with cassettes, from hand-dubbed short-run tapes (which we do as a part of our Secret Menu) to crazy colored tapes and fun with inserts. There’s a lot you can pack into a small package.
ESM: What is the one characteristic that ties all of King Pizza’s 30-odd bands together?
Greg Hanson: Every single band plays their faces off. My tastes are pretty apparent considering our lineup — I mostly tend toward high-energy rock ‘n’ roll — but there are bands from all manner of sonic insanity. We’ve put out stuff that’s heavy stoner psych to downbeat folk. But when you see any King Pizza band play live, you will feel the power of the performance. No one phones in a show, whether it’s for 10 or 100 people. That’s something incredibly special to me.
ESM: On the other hand, what makes King Pizza’s roster so diverse?
Greg Hanson: Everyone comes to music from a different place. The sea of heads at shows is really diverse. You won’t come in and see a huge crowd all dressed and acting the same way. Everyone has brought their own personality to the scene and to their music. A lot of us come [to New York City] from growing up in punk scenes in our local communities. Some of us (myself included) are in their first band. Some expand on the blues, some expand on folk, some expand on punk. We’re all trying to make something fun and exciting, and we all influence each other. But we’re all trying to get by and make something cool and dance around with our buds on a Friday night.
ESM: Who would you consider the core of King Pizza Records?
Greg Hanson: Because the mission of the label has been to create a community and offer support to those who don’t have it, there’s a natural ebb and flow in terms of bands. Our earliest bands were The Mad Doctors, ¡Vamanos!, Greasy Hearts, Jacques le Coque, Sirs & Madams, Sun Voyager, and The Jeanies. We’re all good friends now and there are ridiculous spin-off bands with people filling in for each other. Like most scenes, it’s very incestuous.
ESM: Will you cop to having a particular favorite band of release?
Greg Hanson: That’s like Sophie’s Choice. I love every band and release on the label. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t bring them on in the first place. I’ll mention a couple that people sometimes forget about. Dicktations’ h*ckhound is a wonderful, sprawling, sad fuzz rock epic that undulates between grunge, indie, and post-punk. It’s weird — you can feel how incredibly personal it is, and I love that. The Jon Arbuckle/Half Moon split is an amazing tape. One side one-man-band electric cave folk is total fire. One side downbeat sea shanty folk is incredibly bittersweet loveliness. I think it’s one of the most interesting things we have put out, just because it’s so different from what we normally do. And it’s so beautiful. Neither perform consistently, so people forget about it, but it’s totally excellent. “Lighthouse Keeper” is one of my favorite songs, period.
ESM: What’s King Pizza’s best-selling release?
Greg Hanson: We’re a micro label, so most of our tape runs are between 100-150. We were doing bigger runs earlier because it was more cost effective, but part of the growing pains of something like this is learning the actual feasibility of selling a certain amount of tapes. At 100-150, we can sell out — it’s always better to sell out and re-up than just sit on hundreds of tapes in your closet. As it stands, the best-selling release is The Mad Doctors’ Snake Oil Superscience. Partially because it’s been out for a long time and mostly because we toured on it six times. Most of our sales happen in person at shows, so the bands that tour most consistently tend to sell more. We’re not working with “cool” bands or any sort of flavor of the month — everyone here is a working musician whose livelihood as a band comes from the person-to-person interactions at shows. Which comes from touring their asses off.
ESM: How difficult is the back-end business side of running the label?
Greg Hanson: Managing anything that’s bigger than yourself has moments of total bliss and total bullshit. Mostly, though, it’s totally awesome. I’m working with friends on making great memories and great art, and there’s nothing greater than that. The label is a ton of work, especially because we all started out not knowing a good god damn about how to do it. And we’re still learning — a lot. But that’s the fun of it. You make mistakes and remember those for the future, but you celebrate the victories! Thankfully, when you’re working with friends, there are lots of victories — and they’re very sweet. Press, finances, online orders, booking… they’re time-consuming, and a lot of times you’re fighting an uphill battle just to get people to pay attention. But you make little steps, then sometimes big steps, and those are so rewarding because they’re not just for you — they’re for everybody. Every time we break into somewhere new or sell something new, that’s more fuel for everyone. Thankfully no one is living on this now so there isn’t the stress of it needing to feed anyone. We’re all just having a good time and trying to come up together.
ESM: Do you hope the label might reach a self-sustainable stage?
Greg Hanson: Of course so. That’s the ultimate goal. If we can get it to a point where we can support bands from other countries or put out killer releases from bands that may have broken up and their record didn’t get the love it needed (see: The Enthusiasts), and it can all be done without needing to constantly put in more funds to keep it going, then we will have made it. But we will never not do it our way. If we were to expand, it would be with these tenets in mind. We would never sacrifice this way of business for expansion — at that point, we wouldn’t be King Pizza. And no one wants that.
ESM: What young/new/unknown bands should we know about?
Greg Hanson: The Royal They’s first record came out in September and it is crazy hot fire nastiness. We’ve started working with Cray Bags from Savannah and they’re totally gnarly. Got some new stuff in the rumbling stages. Lots a-bubbling, for sure.
ESM: Do you ever indulge in some guilty top 40 pop pleasures to break out of King Pizza’s rock ‘n’ roll orbit for a few minutes?
Greg Hanson: I don’t believe in guilty pleasures — you like what you like, and anyone that gives you shit for it is an asshole. The closest thing I would say is ’70s disco and ’80s pop jams. I know “Danger Zone” ain’t the best song, but dang if I won’t dance my ass off when it’s on.
ESM: Short-term goals for King Pizza?
Greg Hanson: Keep promoting small business, local art, delicious pizza, drunken parties, and doing your own thing. When it doesn’t exist, build it. If we can, you sure can.