Over the course of the last year or so, I’ve gotten to know several people who own labels (Mark at Fólkvangr, Christine of Tridroid, the good folks that run Red River Family Records, the dude behind Pacific Threnodies), and after talking to them about their experiences, I have come to one inexorable conclusion: you’d have to be fucking crazy to want to start a label. So when I read that Rachel Calkins of Graven Earth Records was about to launch a second label called Rapid Fire, two questions immediately came to mind: sweet jeebus, how insane is she? and I wonder if she’d be down for an interview?
And in reverse order, the answer to those questions are yes and not at all, actually. On the contrary – she’s a passionate, knowledgeable metalhead who’s doing what she can to support the bands and the music she loves. We here at the Vault can definitely identify with that. She’s also a hella engaging interview, but I’m getting a tad bit ahead of myself…
If you somehow aren’t already hep to Graven Earth Records, let me take a second to correct that. Graven Earth is the shit, with an eclectic set of tape releases ranging from melodic doom outfit Khemmis’s Hunted to Witchhelm’s dark folk EP All Hail…and Death to Chilean black metal coven Sol Sistere’s Unfading Incorporeal Vacuum. With Rapid Fire, though, Calkins is focusing more on speed/thrash and traditional heavy metal, and the label’s first five cassette releases are all fucking rippers: Canadian thrashers Hazzerd’s debut full-length Misleading Evil, San Francisco-based NWOBHM/thrash quartet Hell Fire’s Free Again, Canadian trad metal masters Antioch’s III: Wings and Warlocks, and a pair of albums from seminal Swedish speed metal outfit Enforcer: Death By Fire and From Beyond.
Rapid Fire Records officially launches today, and all five cassettes–all of which are limited edition, and all of which are scheduled to be released on February 9–will be available for preorder here. Head on over and snag a few, and then come back and check out my interview with Rachel.
Indy Metal Vault: So first off, I’m always curious as to what drives a person to start a record label. When did you start thinking that you wanted to make the transition from a consumer of music to someone who releases music? And then what prompted you to take the plunge and start Graven Earth?
Rachel Calkins: For me, the drive came from my desire to contribute to the community. Music has been such a constant and massive part of my life for as long as I can remember, and it came to the point a few years ago where just being a fan wasn’t enough for me anymore. I wanted to be a part of it, and as I have no musical talents myself whatsoever I had to come up with something else. Getting involved on the label side seemed like something I could do well and something that could benefit these independent bands that make a lot of sacrifices just to get an album recorded. I’m lucky enough to have a friend, Marcus LaBonte of Cloister Recordings, who let me intern for him to learn the basics.
IMV: Pretty much everyone I have ever talked to about running a label has said the exact same thing about the experience: it’s a massive time commitment without much in the way of returns, basically making it an expensive hobby/labor of love. I bring this up because you are about to launch your second label, Rapid Fire. Why start a second label? Why not release those records under the Graven Earth name as well?
RC: Haha that’s exactly what I tell people! It’s true, I work a regular full-time job and spend most of my nights and weekends doing label work, of course entirely unpaid. The idea of a second label had appealed to me for a while because I wanted to have a label dedicated exclusively to just denim-and-leather fist-pumping heavy metal, which just didn’t really fit in with Graven Earth’s musical identity or aesthetic. With Graven Earth, it can be black metal, sludge, acoustic, doom, death, but it’s typically darker music overall. Heavy metal party anthems and songs about wizard fights just wouldn’t quite fit in, but that’s a huge portion of what I listen to. So Rapid Fire was born.
IMV: Based on your first set of releases, it looks like Rapid Fire is going to focus on more traditional “heavy metal,” like 80s trad metal and thrash, which makes sense- anyone who follows your Instagram or read the interview you did with No Echo for their Record Collector column knows that you’re a big fan of the 80s stuff. In fact, a lot of the tapes you post on IG—the “hair metal” stuff like W.A.S.P., Poison, Dokken, and Ratt, plus the early Metallica and Megadeth—are the exact same tapes I had in my collection when I was like 13-14. However, I’m going to wager that you weren’t alive when I was 13 (for the sake of context, I graduated high school in ’92). How did you end up getting so into the 80s stuff? And is it safe to assume that the label’s name comes from the Judas Priest song?
RC: It’s true, I was born about 6 weeks into the 90s, and I think I’ll always be trying to come to grips with the fact that I can’t go back in time. My parents didn’t listen to heavy metal or hard rock when I was growing up, but they did have a Best of Tears For Fears CD that they played all the time, which became my link to 80s music in general. When I was a little older and listening mainly to 2000s extreme metal, I found Cinderella and was initially just amused by their outrageous appearance until I watched a live clip of them playing the Moscow Music Peace Festival in 1989, and they just blew my mind. They were so much more than just a bunch of hair sprayed pretty boys; they were talented and serious musicians. I never looked back after that. And absolutely, Rapid Fire is straight from Priest. I mean they’re the greatest heavy metal band of all time – there’s no better place to find my inspiration.
IMV: Speaking of your first set of releases, it looks to be split between a pair of reissues—Enforcer’s Death By Fire and From Beyond—and cassette versions of a trio of more recent releases from Hazzerd, Antioch, and Hell Fire. It seems pretty ambitious going with five releases right out of the gate. Is your plan to continue to do your releases in batches like that? Will they generally be a mix of newer and slightly older albums? Is Rapid Fire going to focus exclusively on tapes?
RC: I wasn’t initially planning on taking on so much at once, but things came together this way and I’m excited to be opening the label with this much to offer right off the bat. I’ve stuck to roughly a one-release-per-month schedule with Graven Earth, which is a decent pace that keeps things moving while not consuming my every waking moment. Let me just say it’s been a hell of a couple of months preparing five releases and taking care of everything to start an entire new business, but I have the best reliable help anyone could ask for in my friend Jacob Barcomb, who helps me run both of the labels. My goal is to continue supporting new bands and to offer reissues of some slightly older (and some much older) albums. Right now my interest is only in tapes, but that’s not necessarily permanent. I would love to put out vinyl eventually.
IMV: What’s your criteria for choosing which albums to release? Graven Earth’s roster seems pretty eclectic, with everything from dark folk (Witchhelm) to crust punk (Nightfear) to Celtic-infused folk/black metal (Maglor) to doom (Khemmis) to instrumental prog (Kylver). With Rapid Fire, you’ve got a legendary Swedish speed metal band in Enforcer, along with a few lesser-known artists. How many of your releases come from bands approaching you, and how many are bands you actively pursue? Do you accept demos for either label?
RC: Yeah, the Enforcer reissues were something that kinda fell in my lap and became the perfect opportunity to launch Rapid Fire. My criteria are that I have to love it and it has to fit the label. Graven Earth is very eclectic and I like that it’s not limited in who I can work with under that name. With Rapid Fire, I wanted to create something that was more you-know-you-get, from the name to the logo to the kinds of music I’ll be putting out. I’d say about half of my releases are from bands approaching me and half are bands I reach out to first. I do accept demos for both labels.
IMV: It seems like you care just as much about the way your releases look as you do how they sound. Graven Earth releases always look fantastic in terms of art and layout, with high quality j-cards. From the pictures I’ve seen of the Rapid Fire releases, it seems like that attention to presentation will continue. Who do you use for your layouts and j-card printing?
RC: Thank you! Consistent quality is important to me, as well as including the bands in decision making throughout the entire process. I have an idea of what I want the product to look like, but it’s paramount that the band is happy with the tape, so it’s always a joint endeavor in deciding how they’re going to turn out. Very often, there is someone in the band who wants to do the layout, but if there isn’t I do them myself. Duplication and J-card printing are all done by National Audio Company, whom I recommend to everyone asking me for tape duplication advice.
IMV: If given the opportunity, are there any obscure or semi-obscure 80s albums that you’d like to reissue?
RC: Where to begin! I was just listening to The Awakening by Powerlord, now that would be a dream to reissue on tape. Legions Of The Dead by Tyrant, Recognize No Authority by Détente, Flight Of The Demon by Demon Flight, Second Attack by Crossfire, Extreme Cold Weather by Messiah, Breaking Point by Heretic, Waiting For The Twilight by Nightmare. I come across so many of these short-lived 80s bands that have been lost to time and deserve another chance to be heard, but it isn’t easy knowing where to even begin looking for someone to talk to about reissuing them.
IMV: What advice would you give to someone looking to start a cassette label? Is there anything you know now that you wish you’d known back then?
RC: The best piece of advice I can give to someone wanting to start a label of any kind is to try to get rejected every day. Reach out to those bands and labels that you think are out of your reach or will have no interest in what you have to say, and you will be shocked at how often you get a response and the opportunities you can find if you just go for it. That’s the mindset I wish I’d had since the beginning, when I had a lot of doubt due to my own inexperience. If you go for something expecting rejection, the worst that can happen is exactly what you expected, and the best is that you can get exactly what you wanted. Either way, it’s often an excellent way to introduce yourself to the right people and make your name familiar. They may remember you later.
IMV: What’s up next for Graven Earth and Rapid Fire? Anything on the horizon that you can talk about?
RC: I’ve just partnered up with the always excellent Twin Earth Records for Graven Earth to do some tape reissues for Italy’s Haunted and Sweden’s Alastor, as well as providing tapes for an upcoming release. With Rapid Fire’s first releases almost under my belt, I’m starting to pull together the next batch. I have one new band on board already, as well as working towards a reissue of some previously released material from one of my favorite traditional/speed metal acts from Germany, and possibly a reissue of a lost thrash gem from a one-off American band from the 80s.
IMV: Thanks again for taking the time to answer a few questions. I’ll leave the final word to you – anything else you want to add?
RC: Thank you for the thoughtful questions and letting me ramble on about tapes and the 80s! Two of my favorite subjects. And thank you to all of the fans who support underground bands and labels. Everyone involved makes sacrifices purely for the love of the music and the scene, and it’s a community effort to keep the underground alive and as strong as it is today.