Many thanks to my new bud Mariana Timony and the rest of the Get Bent! staff. We conducted this a couple of months ago over two days. The first was a bit of a disaster; I was bartending at my work and thought it would be slow, but it wasn't, and I was busy pouring drinks for folks in-between customers when Mariana wasn't getting hassled by our daytime-drinking regulars who all wanted a chance to be recorded. The next day we just got sandwiches and went to the park for a couple of hours while everyone else watched the stupid Superbowl. Anyway, here you go.
Volar Records Takes Flight
by Mariana Timony
Back in the early 90s, Slim Moon started a small indie record label out of his home in Olympia, Washington to put out records by local bands because nobody else was doing it. That label, Kill Rock Stars, remains to this day a model for upstart indies everywhere. One would think after 20 years, in the age of the Internet, creating a label in the mold of KRS would be easier than ever. After all, prospective owners can now contact artists, promote new releases, and send mp3s all over the world at the click of a button. But, for Volar Records’ Craig Oliver, it’s been a bumpy road to indie labeldom.
Like Kill Rock Stars, San Diego-based Volar was started in 2009 as a way for Craig to release a 7-inch by his own band. He took the name from a Spanish word which means both “to fly” and “to blow up”, and made the logo a scowling cartoon picture of his cat, Anton LaVey. He had some label experience having worked for Cargo Music, the small San Diego label most famous for putting out Blink-182’s first record. But Craig’s heart was always in the underground.
A military baby, Craig spent his high school years in Japan where he worked at the on base music store and ordered “weird records” for himself to check out: Nirvana, Pixies, the Breeders, Sonic Youth and Flipper, and the Wipers were favorites; compilations from Matador, Kill Rock Stars, Sub Pop, and other small labels proved influential. Volar’s motto, “community, not competition”, is very much in the spirit of the indie labels of yore.
“I grew up on Dischord and Touch and Go where you’re the artist and you do what you want. I’ll help you as much as I can, but I trust you enough to put out whatever you do. If anything happens and a record does well, we’ll just split it down the middle.”
To start, Volar put out a 7-inch by San Diego band Beaters and then one from San Francisco darlings Fresh & Onlys, which sold well enough to fund new releases. Momentum was building. Soon Craig was being hit up by tons of bands that he’d always wanted to work with. It was hard to say no, even as it became apparent that he had taken on more than he could afford. “I got handed a lot of great records, and I can stand by all of those records, but it was a lot more difficult than I thought it would be. My overhead’s really low, but trying to cobble together a couple of grand for every LP and then doing that one after another… I might sell $500 worth and sit on the rest.”
Something else unexpected happened: with the death of the CD, vinyl suddenly became the medium of choice for all labels, including the majors. And that’s tough on someone like Craig, who, like Moon before him, is running Volar out of his house, fronting all the money for releases, and trying to spread the word about his bands on a shoestring budget while competing with the major labels for space at the pressing plant.
“I got used to things being ready in a certain amount of time, and I would wait until the last minute because I was always waiting for money,” Craig says. “And then it would come down to me needing the records in 4 weeks and the manufacturers would be like, ‘No, we have to press the new Beyoncé before we press your 200 records.’ All the little labels are suffering because the bigger labels are doing so much more. There’s only a few plants in the country, and they’re being overwhelmed.”
I met Craig for our interview at his place of employment, the Whistle Stop, a bar in the newly-hip South Park neighborhood of San Diego where he’s lived for many years. “When I first moved here it was pretty much just the bar and a few taco shops and that was it. Over time more kids started moving down here and it became cool, but it’s all really new. It’s been compared to Williamsburg.”
Future journalists of the world, here’s a tip: never interview anybody in a bar, least of all the bartender. The moment the afternoon tipplers spy my recorder, everyone’s got something to say. Between snippets of Volar history, I’m treated to drunken soliloquies about gentrification, politics, and the time Bob Weir OD’d onstage in the 1970’s. But I also hear a lot about how Craig is a good listener, which is an advantageous trait for a bartender and an even more advantageous trait for a label owner, though Craig shies away from claiming that there is any specific Volar “sound.”
“It’s all kind of dirty, sort of punk, little grimy. Some of it is just weird side projects that people have. I kind of realized after a while that most of the artists I’ve dealt with are all pretty weird in their own way, but all genuine about what they’re doing,” he says. A quick listen to Volar’s SoundCloud sampler proves his point. There’s the tight dance rock of Beaters, the gritty indie of Dirt Dress, crazy punk en Español courtesy of Ratas del Vaticano, the trippy desert experimentalism of Lenguas Largas, and the darkwave sounds of Tropicle Popsicle, to name a few. I ask Craig if he ever has any input into the records and in the style of Dischord’s artist-first ethos, he says no.
“If I have a say in it, I’ll go over mixes with the band. It’s usually pretty basic stuff, like sometimes I think the guitar should be turned up. A lot of them end up sounding pretty dirty anyway. I’m not looking for anything to be polished,” he says. “I’ve always given everybody carte blanche to do what they want. I tell them to be as weird as they can, to experiment, to have fun. There’s no weird pressure or anything.”
“No pressure” might be a good motto for sunny San Diego, which Craig describes as a less challenging city than Los Angeles. The laid-back lifestyle makes it easier to get along, but has the effect of making people lazy. Getting things done in San Diego isn’t difficult; the hard part is motivating people to do things at all. “People party a lot like anywhere, but when they’re not doing anything, it’s hard to get them to do stuff,” Craig says. “It’s a weird, laissez faire attitude. Nobody really makes big plans, they just look around and figure out what to do. “
The same goes for the bands themselves, many of whom Craig has to beg to go on tour in support of the records he puts out for them. “With some of the LPs I have coming out, I’m sitting down with the band and saying, ‘I’m going to really push this and I’d like for you guys to tour. If you guys want this to do well, you have to help me, too. Go promote your own record. You guys are great, but get out of town!’”
Even Craig himself is susceptible to dropping the ball, a lot of which is due to his focus being split between many creative projects and working full-time at the bar. He knows that his lack of ambition has held Volar back. “I don’t have any crazy aspirations which is why I fuck up sometimes,” he admits. “I don’t take it seriously enough.”
Craig’s the kind of person who juggles a million projects at once, from creative writing to documentary filmmaking. As a graduate of San Diego State’s film school, Craig is much more of a movie nerd than a record nerd. He waxes rhapsodic about Drive, a film he says has inspired more than any other movie in recent memory, and he recently collaborated with friends to put on a screening of the film. He sees a definite connection between movies and the music he’s drawn to.
“A lot of what I listen to I see as visual music, stuff I could see working in a particular way. I definitely look more at how music is used in film between folks who score music and how rock music is used effectively. There’s all your cool punk movies: Suburbia, Over the Edge. River’s Edge is all Slayer, really dark.”
But he is trying to focus more on Volar. Right now he’s working on digitizing the label’s catalog (“I don’t know why I didn’t do it before.”) and trying to find a space to put on a Volar festival; a tough prospect in conservative San Diego, where cops will break up a house show before it even starts. He’d like to make it a music fest with a literary element, getting OFF! down to headline and Henry Rollins to read stories.
His efforts to be more disciplined are slowly paying off. Volar’s catalog currently numbers 21 release; 15 were put out in the past year, including a pretty successful LP from Digital Leather. He’s working on a 7-inch for Shannon and the Clams and there are new LPs coming from Beaters, Ale Mania, and Destruction Unit. He’s trying to find an intern to help him organize his digital store and help ship out orders. “I get worried about having so much going on. With the label, I know financially everything that goes into it, but sometimes I wish I had a week where I could iron stuff out, figure out bigger things like digital distribution and licensing and that stuff.”
So does Craig have any advice for aspiring indie label owners in the modern age? “Save money first. Take risks but don’t bite off more than you can chew.”