A few months back when we decided to re-launch 1340mag I reached out to a ton of labels that had put music out on cassette. I really wanted to find some indie labels that were putting out music that was similar to what I'd been writing about over a decade ago. One of my favorite responses was the response I got from James at Near Mint. It was simple "Sure! Do you want to review Heck No, Nancy?" This was my introduction to a college student who has since become a bit of a personal hero of mine. James writes all over the place, co-runs a record label, and does a ton of other stuff in the scene (as you will see below) and he only turned 21 last month.
Rob: What was the impetus for starting Near Mint?
James: I've been writing for Modern Vinyl since March 2013. After joining the staff at the urging of my then-girlfriend, I interned in two departments of Warner Music Group in Burbank, California. One of them -- the Custom Products division -- had a lot of involvement with independent labels and their Alternative Distribution Alliance (ADA) partnership with the major label so I was introduced to a guy named Mark Silverman, who worked pretty closely with the indie giants in our world, like Epitaph and Rise.
Over pizza and lukewarm Diet Coke somewhere near Hollywood, these ADA employees asked me what I was listening to at the time, and as always (surprise), the answer was Modern Baseball's Sports, an album which at that time had just been reissued in part Run for Cover Records. I recommended that label's entire catalog to ADA, because well, all of it rules. The site I worked for had ran an exclusive interview with Zack Zarrillo and Thomas Nassiff of Bad Timing Records in tandem with their announcement of that massive reissue of Acceptance's Phantoms. My girlfriend bought one of those copies. I had no money thanks to an unpaid internship and just hoped it didn't sell out. It did in something like four hours. I had been following both Zack's work on PropertyOfZack and Thomas' on AbsolutePunk for the greater part of a year at that point and seeing them join forces to start a label was nothing short of a welcome explosion in my universe.
After that summer, my girlfriend and I broke up and I poured all I had into Modern Vinyl, which wasn't a ton considering my free time was limited and my viewpoint covered in heartbreak and the anxieties associated with starting over. I saw that Lame-O Records, the original home for Sports, had just released Polars, an album by a punk outfit called Ma Jolie. I direct messaged the label on Twitter and asked to review it. I don't know who answered that request, but MV and Lame-O struck up a brief partnership which had us premiering songs for the Hundred Acre Woods (R.I.P.) and the Weaks (now the Superweaks) long before they toured with Brand New to sold-out crowds. I got over that breakup in a O.G. Lame-O tee, a logo that I've stickered all over Charlottesville, Virginia -- my college town -- and seen spin under countless records as a turntable slipmat after Perry Shall ditched Pajama Sam to create an anthropomorphic moon guy.
The relationship between Bad Timing and Lame-O extends far beyond the fact both labels once shared a warehouse in Philadelphia (imagine my surprise when I got to check that out). Eric, Emily and Zack were all in college when these labels began and so was I, netting the massive response each began gaining with their respective business models: Lame-O's cross-section of Philly and later, U.K. alt-punk-indie-whatever and Bad Timing's defending of pop-punk from bad joke status. It was really cool to see these two forces grow into viable homes for bands with incredible records and it didn't seem that difficult to start from scratch. Then again, not everyone can score a windfall with a band like Modern Baseball or Knuckle Puck. I figured I'd try.
The first people who knew Near Mint was becoming real other than my immediate family were a collection of Philly touring bands: Steady Hands, W.C. Lindsay and the aforementioned THAW. I was interviewing the first two groups for Modern Vinyl (the publicist for W.C. Lindsay hit me up after seeing I reviewed Modern Baseball's You're Gonna Miss It All for my college newspaper, The Cavalier Daily -- wild) at a rescheduled August 2014 gig in the University of Maryland radio station headquarters. My younger brother, Sean, drove me there. It was his first "punk" show. I think he hated it. Anyway, I was talking to Sean, not my brother but the frontman of Steady Hands and Modern Baseball's drummer, about starting a label called Near Mint. Everyone thought it was cool I was getting into that. It was a neat confirmation of a goal.
W.C. Lindsay would later play a "holiday showcase" sponsored by Near Mint in Charlottesville which honestly was attended by like, three people but the touring bands. Ryan from State Champs announced he was signing to Pure Noise via his Speak Low if You Speak Love project a few days before, and as the gig's headliner, you'd think we'd be drowning in people. Ah, well, passion isn't perfect.
Rob: I understand that you were started via social media, was there any concerns with starting a label with an almost stranger?
James: I feel weird outing this fun fact about Near Mint's humble beginnings, but the label originally had three people. Corey Purvis and I started it and then brought on another dude to help us financially and with some bold social media initiatives. Our second partner fell on some car problems and got a girlfriend who hated my pun-filled Instagram comments and he quit. I think he thought I was hitting on her. It was funny. Now, that small corner of the scene hates Near Mint. Such is life.
I wouldn't say Corey and I were complete strangers, but we met because of a different social media interaction. Grey Gordon hadn’t released his debut LP on No Sleep yet (that would come out a month before Near Mint started, in September 2014) but we became Internet pals who linked up at Bled Fest in Michigan to hardstyle pose before Title Fight played their headliner set. Anyway, weeks before that went down, Grey Instagrammed something about Corey’s art -- now looking at the post, it was a design intended for Kind of Like Spitting. The only reason I knew about KOLS was because of some Warren Franklin song which referenced The Thrill of the Hunt, but Corey had successfully commissioned shirt designs for everyone from You Blew It! to The World Is a Beautiful Place. One of his Modern Baseball designs actually ended up being printed much later, but nevertheless, the dude was cool and I really wanted to be his friend. I added him on Facebook in March 2014 and we soon talked about starting a label. I knew a few things about press from Lame-O’s Emily Hakes, who also does work for Bad Timing. Everything is connected. Bizarre, really.
Anyway, Corey brought up the idea of naming the label Near Mint Records, after the quality grade given to opened, lightly-played vinyl records. We’re both huge vinyl fans, so the reference made sense to us. Our aspirations to include our individual talents -- my writing and his art -- caused us to drop the “Records” from our name. We’ve only released music at this point, but we hope to do more art stuff. The logo was drawn and conceived by Corey and every one of our releases, with the exception of our Sports reissue, was laid out by him. I credit our visual appeal to him 100%. He’s even trimmed down some of my flowery, wordy posts on social media to make it less, well, James Cassar and more marketable and that means a lot, too. Corey’s got a ton of business sense.
Corey’s business sense and my unbridled, overflowing emotional complex make for an interesting combination of smart decisions and a terrifying amount of heart, which probably inspired our slogan, “passion isn’t perfect.” We’ve actually never printed that on anything but it’s in every one of our social media bios, so I guess it’s a thing we swear by. Long-distance business partnerships are tough, considering all mail-order (save for one December weekend where I packaged up 16 shirt orders) ships out from Fort Wayne and 99% of all press-related blasts and requests come forth from various library computers at the University of Virginia. Literally all of our releases have been planned over Facebook Messenger, email and text messages. It’s a really simple dynamic which weirdly hasn’t caused too many problems. The only issue I really can think of is that Corey and I have become really good friends and we’ve only met once during the weekend The Obsessives recorded Heck No, Nancy. That was a huge period for everyone involved, and it was probably the best way we could’ve had our Catfish moment.
Corey may have started as a stranger but I don’t believe he’s stayed one. We’ve helped each other through a pretty stacked release calendar for a small label with 100% direct-to-consumer sales and merely traction through social media forums and the occasional lucky news break. We’re learning together how to build bands and a brand and I think we each bring half of a competent whole, and that’s so relieving.
Rob: Your first few releases were via cassette, why do you think tapes are making such a comeback?
James: It’s funny you ask this question because Urban Outfitters released their plan to stock cassettes just after Run for Cover Records had an entry in their free UO Mixtape Series. Say what you want about that retail chain, but they have some scary power as a cultural gatekeeper, a fact which has helped people realize vinyl is a viable listening medium despite selling records next to Crosley players leaving visible scratches on Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die.
I wouldn’t consider cassettes to be making a massive resurgence, honestly. Vinyl has been growing and regaining popularity in recent years, so much so that pressing plants are no longer allowing baby labels to open up new accounts. This has made our job at Modern Vinyl interesting and frustrating because when an LP issue of an album gets listed on Amazon, there’s a good chance the listed street date will be rolled back two or three times at least two or three months before it comes in the mail.
Cassettes, unlike vinyl, aren’t known for their sound quality or aesthetic pleasure, but I’ll argue that you have to reimagine artwork to fit a rectangle aspect ratio as opposed to a traditional square. Broken World Media should be crowned for their efforts to make their cassette reissues interesting in this regard. Near Mint really loves Broken World. Tapes are also super cheap to have professionally dubbed and stamped, and the unit price can be driven further down if you choose to dub them yourself. I’ve seen tapes from everyone from Funeral Sounds to Too Far Gone Records that have chosen to take this less “corporate” route and still create some incredible releases.
If you’re a touring band who wants to sell merch, cassettes are a great way to start. Before we chose to release NMR001 with the Obsessives’ Manners EP, the band was already selling self-dubbed tapes of that release before it was digitally available to incentivize a purchase. Tapes have also been used to curb the disaster associated with vinyl delays: Mutemath released a cassette version of their new album for the price of an LP, but the tape included two bonus tracks and a coupon redeemable for a vinyl record when the copies were shipped to stores. Getting inventive with cheaper media almost disguises the fact some may consider it to not be as alluring. We try to make analog as awesome as we can, and luckily we’re not alone.
Rob: Do you think Near Mint will continue as a hybrid of releasing tapes for releases done elsewhere & exclusive releases or do you think it will move to only your own releases?
James: Corey and I love reissues. You could even consider our first release with The Obsessives a reissue. Manners had existed digitally for almost three months before it helped us launch Near Mint in October 2014. Aside from Heck No, Nancy and the two Fear Mint volumes, we’ve only done reissues. Some of these reissues have brought digital-only music to physical media for the first time, like our tenure with September’s self-titled EP and Broken Beak’s Curse Burner. Most have been sanctioned by bands who’ve released CDs and vinyl before cassettes and want a cheaper option for the merch table. In January 2015, Zack Zarrillo told me we could reissue Knuckle Puck’s While I Stay Secluded on tape and sold exclusive cassette colors during their U.S. tour with the Maine and Real Friends. That opportunity brought a lot of people to us.
We also got to work with Marietta twice, which is bizarre considering Corey and I’s first conversations revolved how much we dug that band. I remember the day Ben Johnson (the group’s bassist) Facebook messaged me and told me we could release Summer Death on cassette and later their sophomore LP, As it Were. I was in class. My best friend Elizabeth was next to me, and I was fidgeting. I kicked her backpack because it had a Marietta patch sewn to it. Somehow, she got it. We actually were able to bring that second album to vinyl alongside Sorry Girls Records and Dog Knights Productions in Europe, which was our first minor brush with international distribution. We sold out of our 100 pre-orders in a day.
Don’t even get me started on reissuing Sports because I might speak forever to how unreal having our logo on my favorite album feels. That happened for us and also for a very cool charity -- LIFT Communities, an organization devoted to fighting poverty. I can’t wait to see people start getting these cassettes and to deliver LIFT a boost. It’s just a weird dream that came true really early in our history and I don’t understand it. Ask me in a year. I just really don’t think I’d be anywhere without Modern Baseball. Truly.
So, judging by this, I don’t know if we’ll focus on “Near Mint-only” releases from this point forward. I don’t think many labels pigeonhole themselves into being the first to break an artist. Count Your Lucky Stars and Run for Cover reissued Kind of Like Spitting’s Nothing Makes Sense Without It for Record Store Day this year. Topshelf reissued The Cosmic Drama by Weatherbox. Lame-O became the U.S. label for awesome overseas acts like Great Cynics and Johnny Foreigner. Of course, Bad Timing has reissued everything from Acceptance to everything Kevin Devine had ever thought of putting on wax.
No label rests on their A&R forever, but I do think we’ve helped The Obsessives and Broken Beak find new auditory homes thus far, and I’m excited for all of our customers and fans to really meet Anthony Jay Sanders next year.
Rob: How did you find The Obsessives?
James: Like most Near Mint origin stories, we found the Obsessives in the most uninteresting and Internet-provoked way ever: Bandcamp. I think we searched the “emo” tag in every city we could think of, but came upon Manners by accident. (I think I had focused on my home base of Washington D.C., despite living an hour out in northern Virginia and not having a license.) I didn’t know what to make of Nick’s vocals at first -- on tracks like “Malcolm Doesn’t Get It” it sounded like he was trying too hard -- but I trudged through a 5K on an elliptical with that EP on repeat and understood how much of a hidden treasure that band was. “Smell California” is a beautiful song and owes its title to Say Anything, which is awesome. I was sold after three hours of sweat and tears. Their music is emotional and so am I. We’re a perfect match.
Rob: Do you find anything interesting about having such a young duo on your label?
James: It took Nick and Jackson two weeks for them to tell me and Corey that they were in high school. I was writing a band biography for the Near Mint website and asked them to list off some brief factoids that I could dress up. They ended their list by saying “oh, yeah, we’re seventeen.” Suddenly, being terrible at “replying all” to emails was making a lot more sense.
I wouldn’t say it’s been any different than any other band we’ve worked with, but since we’ve been largely dealing in the realm of reissues, email threads are largely different from the strange, intimate rapport we’ve been lucky enough to achieve with these guys. We knew we wanted to sign them to our roster even before Manners cassettes went up for sale simply because we saw the potential. A lot of the work put into Heck No, Nancy ran parallel to them finishing up senior year and it soon became clear that music would become more important than college, even if just for the gap year both of them earned from their respective universities.
Nick and Jackson kept telling us, whether in person or in a string of thankful Facebook messages, that Manners was going to be the second-to-last Obsessives release before the duo folded. They saw twenty-five cassettes from a brand-new label disappear in twenty-four hours and they changed their minds.
The cool thing about Nick and Jackson being so young -- despite all press which hangs that “high school emo band” banner so high it might burn up in the atmosphere -- is that we’re helping them find a different future. I’d like to think that’s helping Corey and me as well; I started managing them two weeks before Heck No, Nancy was recorded and I’m trying to figure out if I’m doing well for them or not. We’ll see.
Rob: What are your favorite things about Heck No, Nancy?
James: Corey and I weren’t going to necessarily send The Obsessives a contract until we heard demos for their LP. Nick sent Corey and I demos for “Daisy,” “Camping” and “Bored” on Halloween, the songs which became pre-release singles during rollout. I was sweating in a penguin suit in the Business Office of the Aquatic & Fitness Center, the gym where I somehow practice CPR and keep people from losing teeth while playing basketball. I heard Nick exclaim “my finger brushes yours and my world is one inch by one inch by one inch” on that first track and knew we were onto something.
Nick and I are essentially the same person, except he’s about nine inches taller and has better jaw structure. I was pretty close to in love with a person I had been talking to for a grand total of eight days. “Daisy” was the nail in my judgment coffin. The production of this record ran parallel to that romance’s confusing rollercoaster and I found myself as catharsis-causing as Nick’s overly honest narrator. Some of the album demos I’m more fond of for this reason. When Nick sent me “Fucked/Fine” (“Nodding Off” on the record) we were both in an odd limbo state with our respective love lives. The song wasn’t finished, its weird harmonic pitches sounded wounded on an acoustic guitar. The Obsessives played that song live in Charlottesville five days later. I felt a hurricane rip through me.
Before Heck No, Nancy was properly recorded, Nick and Jackson demoed the full album twice: once full-band (with some songs appearing in faster, less ambitious forms) and once unplugged. The album at that point was called Nonperson, a different nod to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. When we booked studio time with Corey’s best friend Matt Riefler in Fort Wayne, the album was self-titled: a white screen.
The album title was texted to me when I was next to that person I was hopefully enamored with, three months after we never spoke again at a La Dispute show. Heck No, Nancy? I hated it. Nat Brown, the boys’ faithful D.C. supported, hated it, too. “They can do better.”
I have a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five somewhere in my parents’ house, probably right next to The Catcher in the Rye because I have a lot of unresolved teenage angst. “Heck no, Nancy!” is uttered in chapter one, right next to a defiant statement: “I’ve seen a lot worse than that in the war.” If you listen to the album front-to-back, 30 minutes of unadulterated emotion can feel like a one-sided boxing match. Nick starts out in love and ends up a god you pray to. Jackson kicks ass the entire time. There’s a deeper battle going on the entire time, but it’s a thoughtful one.
Nick and Jackson really wanted me to join them in recording this album and so I saved my unexcused absences for the first weekend in April, their final high school spring break. I woke up at 4:59 a.m., dragged an upturned duffel bag a mile to the Amtrak station, and rode three hours to D.C. I piled in their trusty Honda Odyssey and we drove all the way to Fort Wayne, stopping twice for fast food and once more to pee. We were rockstars.
We drank a lot of apple cider vinegar and ate three orders of Arby’s curly fries each while in the studio. Nick, Jackson and I slept in the studio, drinking Code Red at midnight with Matt, our producer and new friend, and resting tired limbs. I watched Jackson track most of his drums in one take. Nick overdubbed his guitars so this record sounded fuller, richer. Jackson’s beats were augmented with real samples from his kit so his hits landed harder, the punches clearer.
Nothing was more novel or human in the studio than the choice to include the voicemail on “Bored.” One of Jackson’s favorite movies is Jeff Who Lives at Home according to a poster that his room had in Bethesda, Maryland. There was a crucial rewrite of the bridge neither Corey nor I had heard, but the band wanted a sample. We weren’t really keen on dropping thousands to secure a mechanical license to a film clip, and pressing plants are usually really weird about them being embedded in audio, anyway. Jackson had a backup: a voicemail left by his mom two years ago. The urgency is clear in her voice: “I saw you called. I’m out for a walk. I’m nowhere near the house. I don’t know how you’re getting home. I’m assuming you have a plan.” That last line really fixed Heck No, Nancy in a space of decision-making that I’m not sure any of us were really anticipating.
We had a chance to introduce something very special to the world. I don’t think any of us were expecting for it to get this much buzz. Corey rented an art space in Indiana to create the artwork. I ran all press operations and got write-ups from several sites. Substream Magazine published a print feature on the band. APA picked the boys up for booking shows. We sold a substantial amount of pre-orders based on the goodwill of fans and faithfuls. It’s really nice but we’re by no means satisfied with what we’ve accomplished. There’s more to get excited about. I promise.
The Obsessives played their “album release show” in a house called Camp Ugly down the road from campus in Charlottesville for my 21st birthday. Broken Beak opened and drove, like the boys, down from Philadelphia (they relocated after graduation and a full U.S. summer tour). I heard a kid in the back whisper after the two-piece played their tightest run of “Camping,” “Yeah, I’m a fan.” I currently attend college at a school that’s learning to embrace DIY and more punk-leaning mindsets. It’s cool seeing kids I have class with pop up on Spotify listening to Manners or this record. We touched a demographic that I never thought we would. We’re not done.
Rob: You just signed Anthony Jay Sanders to the label, what can we expect on his upcoming release?
James: Anthony Jay Sanders is also in a band called The Island of Misfit Toys, which released their second LP, I Made You Something, earlier this year with our friends at Broken World Media. Corey had been talking to him about a potential solo record for a few days before looping me in the chat, but we knew we wanted to use him for Fear Mint Vol. 2. He’s got this Max Bemis/Say Anything cadence in his vocals which I really admire. I had the privilege to copy edit and layout the lyric book for I Made You Something and can attest Sanders’ lyrical themes are solid and multifaceted and the demos we’ve heard for this record are at times anthemic and others transgressive and confusing. It’s definitely a new sound for us and that’s such a good thing to have. Plus, there are allegedly like, ten guest appearances on this album from time-tested champions of our scene. So there’s that.
Anthony also FaceTimed me from the woods once and his Twitter presence is hilarious.
Rob: Do you see any series similar to Fear Mint coming in the future at all?
James: Fear Mint was probably the last bad pun I’m allowed to use for the purpose of business. It’s cool to do seasonal releases because not many labels do them outside the ubiquitous winter holiday ones, but I don’t know if our plans really include too many more series right now. These two volumes have been a blast to put together and curate and selling out of Vol. 2 in three hours was neat. We’ll see what we scare up next. I know I wanted to at one point do an audio drama -- told in letters -- set to instrumental music called Dear Mint but that was shelved five minutes after I thought of a new rhyme.
Rob: You personally have a ton of irons in the fire, writing for Modern Vinyl, hosting on the radio, doing Near Mint...how do you keep it all fresh?
James: I honestly suck at time management, and I actually do way more than you listed, which is both really great and really scary. I’m a contributor to Alternative Press, a senior editor of my college newspaper’s Arts & Entertainment section, a freelance publicist, a facility supervisor at a university gym, and I also DJ for an hour a week, help co-host the Modern Vinyl Podcast and of course manage The Obsessives and help make sure Near Mint stays running. Most of the time this juggling happens across a sea of library and school-owned computers because I never want to be home for too long. It just makes me tired, but I’m working on staying happy and afloat.
I’ve given up a lot of my college experience to stick a landing in the music industry which has afforded me some incredible opportunities. PropertyOfZack let me write about having cerebral palsy in the scene once a month until it closed and I’m currently trying to write a 33 ⅓ book proposal about a blink-182 record. I just try to do things that interest me while also trying to maintain some healthy sense of self and a handful of relationships. I don’t know how well I’m doing the latter, but I’m working really hard to ensure the former is as honest and genuine as possible.
I want to keep fighting for a safer scene where everyone can feel included regardless of how they became interested in the scene in the first place. Even in DIY circles, we’re faced with issues of sexual abuse and intolerance in every way imaginable. I don’t really understand that. I’m not perfect, either, and welcome any advice and education. I want to use my platform to practice what I’ve learned, though.
The freshness comes from trying to gain a more informed perspective. I’m still getting there.
Rob: What are your favorite records not on Near Mint out right now?
James: That new State Champs record is nuts. Spencer Radcliffe put out a record called Looking In on Run for Cover which is worth a listen. Alex G’s Beach Music has been on heavy rotation and Jackson won’t stop tweeting about it, so consider that a healthy endorsement. I’m honestly really stoked on that new Justin Bieber album, but until then, you can catch me listening to this band from Portland called Sancho.
Rob: Where do you see Near Mint this time next year?
James: I’d like to focus on being that “art collective” I’ve said we are in a thousand press blasts. I’d love to help Anthony reach similar heights to the Obsessives. We’re in possible talks about another full-length album from a familiar name, so we’ll see if that comes through. I had a dream we signed Everyone Everywhere, but that probably won’t happen. Honestly, I just want to keep doing what we’re trying to do, but play our long game a little better. I want to see our bands on Spotify playlists, on kids’ T-shirts at shows, on tour with Weezer. Until then, keep an ear to the ground and we’ll keep mailing you mints.