She Helped Shape
80’s SoCal Hardcore
LISA FANCHER Interview
I originally contacted Lisa Fancher in April of 2007, and asked if I could do a short 20 question interview with her, she quickly agreed, so we shot emails back and forth for a while, and then six months past and nothing, then this past week I get a big shock, all twenty questions filled out and sent back to me. Turns out Ms. Fancher had completed this for me some time ago, but my email had somehow been filed in her draft folder instead of being sent. It’s a good interview, so it was worth the wait.
I was trying to come up with an all-encompassing introduction for the owner, and founder of one of the greatest punk record labels of all time, but as I was clicking around on the web I found the official bio that was written, and posted on the Frontier Records site. It’s pretty much everything I would’ve written myself, read on:
“Frontier Records was founded in 1980 by Lisa Fancher. It was one of the first independent labels to document the nascent hard-core punk rock scene of Los Angeles before branching out into other scenes and sounds such as the so-called “Paisley Underground” and (always) guitar-based bands such as Thin White Rope, The Young Fresh Fellows and Heatmiser.
After learning the indie label ropes from her mentors Greg and Suzy Shaw at Bomp! Records, Fancher first hit the jackpot with the release of Group Sex by the Circle Jerks (it should be noted that very first Frontier release was the self-titled EP by the Flyboys). The success of Group Sex set the label up for iconic punk releases by the Adolescents, T.S.O.L., China White and Suicidal Tendencies (whose defining anthem “Institutionalized” made its appearance here). Also of note from this era was the discovery of the ultimate Goth band, Christian Death, and the release of its masterpiece, Only Theatre of Pain. The importance of these albums cannot be overstated. It’s hard to imagine the future worldwide success of the Offspring, Green Day or Blink 182 without them!”
On with the interview:
1. When did you start Frontier and what gave you the idea to start a punk label?
Though I took the Flyboys in the studio in 1979, I set the official start date of Frontier as March 1980 as that’s when the record came out. I was very “into” the LA punk scene from the beginning but didn’t have any funds to even consider releasing Screamers or Weirdos 45s. I was working at Bomp at the time so I knew all the steps to releasing a record so I just decided to try it out for myself. I wish I could say it was kind of a business plan but it was just something I decided to do for yucks. I never intended it to be a punk label exclusively; it just worked out that way since those were the best bands at the time. There was nothing else going on here except shit like Van Halen, believe me!
2. Where’d you get the money to start Frontier, did you just save it from working at Bomp?
You got that right! I had zero money and even lived with my parents but I was working at Bomp and would get like six paychecks at once. And then nothing for another two months. Suddenly I’d have big chunks of change so I would pay off the recording of the Flyboys little by little. Not that it cost much because we basically snuck into Leon Russell’s studio in the middle of the night. I made no money off of that record as the Flyboys broke up before it was released but I managed to scrape together enough dough to buy the Circle Jerks masters from them in 1980 as well. Then things were dramatically different but I still didn’t give up my two day jobs (the other was Vinyl Fetish) for about two more years.
3. How old were you at the time?
I was 20!
4. Did you live on your own or with your parents at the time?
At first with my parents, paying rent was not an option with the sporadic paychecks but as soon as I got paid back from the cash outlay of the Circle Jerks in late ’80— I was outta there!
5. As someone who bought almost everything that Frontier put out in the early 1980′s, I always felt that you must have had some type of art background. There was always a very polished feel to everything that came from Frontier, as opposed to the generic confetti covers that Posh Boy used for a lot of his releases. Any art classes?
Wow, thanks! I always thought that the LP jacket should be as good as the music inside. Of course a lot of my contemporaries thought that lousy artwork made the record “punk” and it totally worked for Smoke 7 et al. (Even Posh Boy had a couple good covers like Beach Blvd and Rodney on the ROQ.) I can safely say I have no academic background due to my hatred of formal schooling so all my art knowledge was picked up from being a music fan and a pop art fan.
I think any really good band from any era always has a sense of style: how they look as a band, the gear they play and the way their packaging should be presented. I always gave the bands artistic control but I would never make the artwork purposefully bad. The first dozen or so Frontier albums were designed by Diane Zincavage after the bands and I put the concept together. Diane and I got along really well and she always “got” what I was trying to put across, or at least I hoped so! She was the art director at Bomp and I paid her to do my jackets, posters and print ads when she wasn’t doing anything else.
6. What was the Epitaph deal? And why is the Dance With Me album not listed on the Frontier site?
It’s a long, ugly story that I will tell all about someday. The short version is that I was seriously on the ropes after two disastrous distribution deals first with BMG, then with Rykodisc’s in-house distributor, REP. Brett basically tried to take the top sellers away from me, then I shamed into coming around and licensing them. Understandably the bands were upset as I was behind on royalties but I always paid them eventually. Anyhow, it was three years of me not getting any money. Suddenly my top sellers sold nothing! I had to close up my office, fire everyone and get a day job.
Then when the deal with up, I couldn’t get my packaging back. It was actually a pressing and distribution deal, not licensing but it’s too hard to explain. I had to battle to get my films and stampers back for two years, then I had to save up enough money from my DAY JOB to start pressing the top sellers again. It was such a disaster that everyone thought Frontier was done for. They tried to kill me off but it was impossible, like the lowly cockroach, I’m mighty hard to kill.
What me– bitter?
As for TSOL, I sold it to Brett because he—I should say his lawyer– made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I basically never saw the record in print for a few years, then Dexter/Bryan Holland bought it off Epitaph and now I’m seeing it again. No reason to list it on my site as it’s not for sale…
7. Do you own the publishing rights for the early Frontier recordings?
Some yes, some no.
8. What is Frontier Records biggest seller?
Suicidal Tendencies by a landslide. Thank you, MTV!
9. Are you amazed that 20 plus years later, people are still buying these records?
Hell yeah. I only put out the Flyboys as a way to entertain myself, I had no idea there would be a demand for the subsequent records that I put out. Feels pretty good though, this is the kind of surprised that you want to be!
10. Where did you get the name Frontier from anyway?
I was going to call it Frontierland after my favorite section of Disneyland, plus it was a comment on the Orange County punk scene. I ran it by a few people and one of them was a lawyer who said, “Are you out of your mind?” I cut the “land” off and Frontier seemed like one of those super-generic south western kind of names. There’s a Frontier everything out here– I only wish the airline and the bank were mine!
11. How did your involvement with American Hardcore come about, and are you happy with the results?
Paul or Steve probably called to ask me to be interviewed. I was skeptical about it but I took them down to the Masque and they filmed me there. Also I brought a ton of materials that they asked me to, like my Posh Boy gold 45 for “Amoeba” and lots of flyers. Big surprise after Steve Blush’s book that I didn’t make it into the movie. The west coast is just a big nothing and Frontier never existed. Frontier literally did not appear in his American Hardcore book!
How does that work? I got into the DVD extra for the documentary. I wasn’t even contacted for the latest documentary, Punk’s Not Dead, that’s just because the filmmakers are pathetic idiots who don’t know what they’re doing. Not my problem!
12. What was your first exposure to punk rock?
I loved earlier punk bands like the Stooges of course but it was seeing both nights of the Ramones at the Roxy! I cut school to buy tickets, it was worth getting detention! I may have bought the Patti Smith “Piss Factory” 45 or the Television single at Tower Records first but the Ramones was the experience that was life altering.
13. I want to ask you the token Posh Boy/Robbie Fields question. His side of the story has always been: you raided his label for all his artists. So I’d like to hear your side of the story.
Though I love telling it again and again, I feel like I covered it pretty well in Left Of the Dial. Maybe you can link to that? (http://www.frontierrecords.com/lotdpage1.html) I had Tony Reflex from the Ads and Greg Shaw rebut him and John Roecker, who put on a local punk rock art exhibit:
To make a long story short, Frontier Records probably would not have existed if Robbie hadn’t treated the bands so horribly. They fled from him and his heavy-handed tactics, even if Frontier Records never existed, they wouldn’t have gone back to him.
14. Aside from the Adolescents Complete Demos that just came out, do you have anything else in the works?
Yes! I will be putting out a comprehensive compilation of Orange County’s Middle Class, possibly the first hardcore band anywhere. Take that Black Flag and the Bad Brains! Also an Eddie and the Subtitles comp, “American Society” is such a great song it needs to be in print forever. I will also repress the original 7” singles from both, as far as I know.
I hope to do a few Plugz reissues but Tito is a hard man to get a hold of. He said yes a while ago and I won’t rest until at least “Electrify Me” is re-released. It’s been way too long and it’s a masterpiece!
15. How come the bulk of those bands would record one album, and then they’d move on to other labels?
Usually they were doing so well that they’d get some manager who would tell them how much more money they could get from Faulty Products/IRS. I could whine about how they raided my roster but they didn’t—I only had the bands signed for one record and they were free to bail at will. I was one person with no fancy offices and no cash flow, I can’t say that I blamed them. I got the best moments from Circle Jerks, Adolescents, TSOL and Suicidal so it doesn’t really matter in the end.
16. If you could go back in time and release any one punk record, what would it be?
I will always wish that I had released the first four-song TSOL EP but owning a copy is good enough for me until they invent the time machine.
17. This isn’t so much of a question, but more of a request. Please tell us about your involvement with the West Memphis Three.
Holy shit, that’s another looooong story. I even did a 3000 word feature about it for Loud Fast Rules! I will try to be brief: I taped an HBO documentary called “Paradise Lost” the first night that it aired, it was supposedly the story of three teenage murders who worshipped the devil. When I watched the tape later on, I was just outraged that these three kids were convicted of murders only because they were the “weird” kids in town. There was no evidence against them at all but the prosecution kept alleging the murders were a ritual sacrifice. Stupidest thing I ever saw, seriously! Then about a year later I was having dinner with a friend and she saw Damien Echols, the only one who got the death sentence, on CNN and he was suing his prison. This was 1997…
I was furious at myself because I never wrote to the WM3 or did anything about their situation. I went straight from that dinner to my office where I searched the internet for info and found the three locals (Kathy, Grove and Burk) that started the WM3 support fund and got in touch with them. I’ve been going to Damien’s hearings and visiting them in Arkansas every year as well as fulfilling merch orders ever since then. Generally I do whatever is necessary for them, I felt really good about converting all both trials to DVD for posterity.
I can’t say much more but things are looking very good with the case. Don’t ever say to yourself that one person can’t make a difference. And even if you can’t, you must always try to do the right thing. Don’t take your freedom for granted, in fact—don’t take anything for granted in this country!
18. Do you have any interesting stories you’d like to share?
Yes, as soon as I can find the time to remember them and write them down!
19. What are you listening to now?
Actually there’s a lot of good bands out there right now, maybe not life altering but they sure don’t suck… I like everything from the Shins (hey, shut up!) to Grinderman to Peter Bjorn and John to Soulsavers. I’m always buying comps of UK psychedelia from about ’66 to ’69, stuff like the Kaleidoscope, the Factory and Idle Race. I’m sure there’s great punk bands happening but I haven’t seen one lately except 400 Blows. Where is the new Jawbreaker, people?
20. Which artist, band concert and/or show had the most impact on your life?
It would be impossible to pick just one but I’d say the Kinks are my all-time favorite band and I was lucky enough to see them when they were still amazing, the “Everybody’s in Showbiz” phase. They were so good for so long that I just never get tired of them, two of their records are tied for my favorites ever:
“Face to Face” and “Something Else.” I can never tell you how much it meant to me to see Mott the Hoople in the “Mott” era, there was no better live band anywhere. No one show changed my life, if I go see the right band, it still happens. I look forward to it happening in 2008—you never know!