A Q&A with Superior Viaduct

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Superior Viaduct

In early 2012, an album began to appear in discerning record stores and online distributors that had a divisive effect upon onlookers. A dutifully screen-printed album cover depicted Ronald Reagan’s face above an American flag adorned with swastikas instead of stars. “Black Humor” was printed in the cover. The artwork obviously referred to America’s political climate in 1980’s, but it wasn’t the work of scrappy, disenfranchised youth chanting “Fuck authority!” above juvenile hardcore in the suburbs. It was the first official reissue of Black Humor’s Love God, Love One Another, the challenging work of two enfants terribles in San Francisco’s flourishing 1980’s post- punk milieu, and the first release of a new record label called Superior Viaduct. The album is a landmark achievement of studio experimentation and social commentary through subversive sarcasm and ostensibly shocking sentiments that can be compared to the work of their 1980’s contemporaries in New York’s lauded no wave scene.

No wave, however, is much better represented than the scene Superior Viaduct has represented through this year. Steve Viaduct, this Bay Area based label’s founder, spent years researching and archiving artifacts of the Bay Area’s nascent punk and post/art- punk scene. From his cache of unreleased recordings and tragically obscure records, Superior Viaduct brought us reissues and archival releases from Black Humor, Noh Mercy, Factrix, Monte Cazzazza, The Avengers and his two most recently championed groups— volatile punk band Sleepers and icy minimal synth duo German Shepherds. In 2013, Viaduct repeatedly mentions that he intends to expand the label’s focus beyond its current, self-imposed geographic restraints and incorporate the new label headquarters, his Oakland record store called Stranded, into label operations.

How did your personal interest into this past music transition into founding Superior Viaduct?

Well I always wanted to do a record label and I didn’t really think of putting the two ideas together. My ideal label at one point would be doing new bands and then I became really interested in doing this archaeological work — digging through old fanzines, reading reviews of records that nobody ever heard. For years I researched Bay Area bands, even terrible ones. I didn’t care. I began actually trying to find those records, find those bands and see if there was unreleased material. One idea for me was to do a documentary or a book with all of this research but anything like that would be more of an overview. Very few of those have been done on the Bay Area but it would be strange to do an overview because very few of those bands have records available.

What else can you tell me about Superior Viaduct’s creation story?

I’ve been researching SF music for a long time. At one point, a museum that was doing an exhibit on California art contacted me because someone had told them that I was an expert on San Francisco punk, which I thought was hilarious. I wrote back and said it was funny to be called an expert on punk because there are no experts. By definition, punk is DIY and independent, not professional. It’s not legitimized by any institution, so to be tagged as an expert seemed ridiculous, but the one question I was repeatedly asked was, ‘Where can I find this music?’ At that point I would have to say that unless you know it already or you’re willing to spend a lot of money on Ebay, you can’t get a hold of the music.

Club Foot was an artist-run venue in San Francisco where one might catch a decent punk band or an outrageous performance art piece. In 2009, I approached Club Foot co- founders, JC Garrett and Cindy Buff, about doing a 30-year anniversary show, which developed into the two-month Club Foot retrospective at San Francisco Public Library in Summer 2010. Subterranean Records even repressed the infamous Club Foot album to mark the occasion. After years of privately archiving the SF music scene, I realized through these Club Foot events that not only was there more public interest in this era of music, but many of these recordings are tragically unavailable in any format. Superior Viaduct hopes to correct this problem.

It seems rather audacious for your first release, Black Humor’s Love God, Love One Another, to feature swastikas prominently on the cover. Was that the group’s intention and did it attract any unwanted attention?

Yes it was the originally intended cover. One of their stipulations for the release was to use that cover. I chose blue because I wanted it to be clear that the artwork was intended to be critical of U.S. politics in the 80’s. We have gotten a little flack about the swastikas. It’s actually illegal to sell anything with Swastikas on it in Germany. So, our distributor won’t sell to Germany and there are actually quite a few Black Humor fans in Germany and George Houser [of Black Humor] lives in Germany.

superior viaduct black humor

A lot of people are surprised that releasing obscure bands on vinyl, a format that many consider a novelty, could actually be financially successful.

Vinyl is something that never went away, even when the rise of CDs began. It always appealed to a niche audience of collectors and people interested in a very specific kind of music. What’s happening today is that vinyl is reaching even more of a mainstream audience and major labels are releasing vinyl again. In a business sense, there’s a demand for some kind of physical artifact of music. With the death of CDs that’s happening, they’re looking for a good format to appreciate music. The sound, artwork, the whole package, people are willing to pay a premium for that.

Black Humor’s 1st pressing sold out. I intentionally did that as a limited edition. With each subsequent release I’ve pressed a greater amount. The Avengers 45s also sold out. If you make something intentionally limited, it’s likelier to sell out. 1000 is a usual starting point. To go much less than that is making it not really financially worthwhile for the bands themselves. One point I would really like to make is that not only do I reissue, I do archival releases. The Noh Mercy LP was an archival release. Only two songs were previously available. One thing I want to do with the label is give bands their first release or give them the first time to reach an audience outside of the east bay or san Francisco. It’s amazing to go to a record store in Paris, see Noh Mercy on the wall and discover that the shop owner has already become very familiar with the record.

How do you characterize the genre focus of your label when you absolutely must?

I wouldn’t say I have a genre focus, just a geographical and time based focus. Listening to Black Humor today, for example, it sounds dated in a good way. It doesn’t sounds like a San Francisco record in a way and you could say that about most of the stuff I’m doing. For the 60’s there was an SF sound but for the period I’m covering there’s no distinct sound. You could have a bill with The Avengers, The Mutants and Tuxedomoon and it’s completely normal. Bands played to the same audiences with completely different takes on new wave.

For one of your most recent releases, Sleepers’ Painless Nights, what is it to you that musically or historically sets apart Sleepers from their contemporaries?

It’s mainly their sound that separates them from everyone else. To even put them in a punk category is misleading. I think they are more authentically punk but they don’t follow any kind of particular format. Even post-punk can be misleading for those who associate post-punk with only England or something. They were one of those bands that were in between a lot of genres. It makes sense that the singer, Ricky [Williams, a member of Crime and Flipper amongst others,] was in all of these other bands because he brought something unique to each of them.

Why did you choose to open your record store, Stranded, in the East Bay? Or what do you like about having it here as opposed to San Francisco?

It made more sense for us to have this in the East Bay because the East Bay doesn’t have anything quite like what we do. We’re trying to create a store like you might see in Manhattan where it has a small selection in neat, tightly curated space. There are definitely a lot of artists and bands moving to the East bay so putting it here was not only logistically good but there is also a conceptual reason for doing it. There is a lot of places on telegraph closing down.

Given all of your research, do you feel like the East Bay is under credited historically?

Oh definitely, there was a scene here before Green Day. It’s actually an idea for a compilation. There were a lot of bands that were even more conceptual than bands in the city but the good thing about the Mabuhay [Gardens, essential early San Francisco punk venue] was that it brought together a lot of people who might have not known that one another existed. BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] started in 1977 which is important to remember. That’s an important part of the fledgling early punk scene.

How does having Stranded promote the goals of Superior Viaduct?

Well, having a physical location does. Future record release parties or listening parties will be done at the store or connected to the store somehow. Business wise making the record and selling them in the store also makes sense. Also, just to have a headquarters for getting things done. Aesthetically, a lot of the labels we are carrying in the store reflect the model of Superior Viaduct — reissues and archival releases. Stylistically, it’s all over the map. From international to blues and gospel, it’s all stuff we carry in the store.

Sleepers’ Painless Nights and German Shepherds’ Music For Sick Queers out Dec. 11 on a variety of formats through Superior Viaduct.