Lookout! Larry Livermore: The JG2Land Interview

This is how it all went down: I got one or two of my facts twist turned upside down in the obituary I wrote for Lookout! Records (exclamation point optional), so Lookout founder Lawrence “Larry Livermore” Hayes swooped in to correct me. Thankful and not one to look a gift punk in the mouth, I asked Larry if I could shoot him few questions RE: Lookout’s problems, its legacy, where his feelings are today regarding the whole deal, blah blah. He said yes, and below you’ll find our delicious exchange.

JG2: Prior to the episode in 1996 or ’97 where Screeching Weasel decided they weren’t happy with their contract and demanded a new one, what was the most challenging or aggravating thing you had to deal with at Lookout? Had it been pretty smooth sailing up to that point in terms of artist/label relations?

LARRY LIVERMORE: For the most part, things had gone smoothly up to that point. By the way, before I go further, I’d like to clear up one thing—while it’s often referred to as a “Screeching Weasel” dispute, that’s really not accurate. It was, from start to finish, a Ben Weasel dispute. I never had a problem with other members of the band. In fact, some of them privately expressed frustration and even disgust with the way that Ben compulsively turned a good relationship into a poisonous one. That being said, the contract dispute I had with Ben, while unpleasant and destructive, was only the most extreme example of a problem that began to emerge in the year or two following Green Day’s breakthrough to major label success. A byproduct of that success was that Lookout got a great deal of attention from the mainstream media, and both our sales—of all our releases, not just Green Day’s—and income increased massively. “More money, more problems” may be a cliché, but clichés usually contain a kernel of truth. While the problems were mostly manageable, the most difficult aspect was that certain bands, or individuals, in Ben Weasel’s case, began feeling that we should be spending more of that money promoting them, on the theory that if we did, they’d be achieving the kind of success Green Day was.

JG2: So how do you navigate that kind of thing? What do you say, or what did you say to those complaining?

LL: When I pointed out that Green Day and Operation Ivy and, ironically, Screeching Weasel, who were our third best-selling band, accomplished what they did with little to no promotion, [the other artists] would just get mad. I’d say things like, “You can’t buy popularity. If you want to be as rich and famous as Green Day, try working and touring as hard as Green Day, and writing songs as good as Green Day.” Needless to say, that didn’t always go over so well, especially with Ben Weasel. The funny thing is that Ben was always very happy with Lookout and the amount of money he was making there, and for years told everybody just that. Then, all of a sudden, he wasn’t. To be fair, there were other bands who asked for more money and more promo, and who wanted Lookout to change the way we did things and act more like a major label. It’s just that with most of them it wasn’t such a big deal, just more of a point of discussion, where with Ben it became a very big deal indeed.

JG2: When Lookout started having more serious problems after your departure in 1997, how did that affect you? Were you already too removed to care?

LL: I was not anxious to jump back into the record business, but I had made it clear [to the new owners] that I was available as a resource, to answer questions, negotiate with bands, or even step in on a short term basis and manage some projects, but I wasn’t ever asked for help. Quite the contrary, in fact; most often I would find out about Lookout’s problems from other sources—usually the bands who weren’t getting paid. I think there was a feeling on the new owners’ part that they wanted to do it their own way, or maybe they were afraid I’d be all “I told you so” if they admitted they were having problems. I’d like to believe I wouldn’t have been like that, and also that if I’d been approached early enough, I might have been able to help them sort things out, but I have no way of knowing whether that’s true. Certainly my own management practices, even in Lookout’s heyday, weren’t perfect, but when everything is going your way and all the records are selling well, mistakes and poor planning can be glossed over more easily than when things are starting to go downhill.

JG2: But you had no moment where you were utterly compelled to try and take command back, to right the ship?

LL: Well, because of the way we’d arranged my departure—I handed over full ownership of the company—there was no way I could [do that] unless I was asked to. That made it pretty frustrating when Lookout began getting a reputation for not paying its bands, because even though there was absolutely nothing I could do about it, many people blamed me for it. Which is understandable; you can’t expect the general public to keep up with who owns or controls which record label, and for the first 10 years of Lookout’s existence, it had been me more than any other person who was identified with Lookout in the public’s mind.

JG2: Did the carryover from that hurt your own personal state of mind?

LL: Yeah, it was hard on me to watch what was happening. It was like seeing a loved one suffer and die from a long, lingering illness, knowing all the while there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.

JG2: Is there one record you can point to in Lookout’s catalog and say, “Yes, this is the prime example of what we were trying to do or put forth?”

LL: Oh man, there are so many. Operation Ivy, of course, and both Green Day records, but in terms of our less well-known releases, I’d have to point to Nuisance and Brent’s TV, both of whom were kind of niche bands who came from Northern California, from the more rural part of the state where I was living when Lookout started. Each band captured, in their own way, something extremely specific to the local culture they emerged from. Neither band was, strictly speaking, punk in the normal sense of the word, but they expressed to me everything that was best and most important about the DIY punk scene. And it’s entirely possible that one or both of those bands never would have gotten the kind of exposure they did, or have left the recorded legacy they did, if there hadn’t been a label like Lookout. That’s the sort of thing I’m proudest of.

JG2: Is there any band Lookout never got hold of that you wish you had?

LL: If you mean in terms of making lots more money, it would have been nice if we’d managed to put out albums by Rancid, the Offspring, AFI, and Jawbreaker, all of whom I halfheartedly tried to get on Lookout. Maybe [we] could have if I’d tried a little harder. But the first three of those bands all did great for themselves, maybe better than they could have done on Lookout, so it’s probably just as well they ended up where they did. Jawbreaker, I think, might have done better on Lookout, so even though I’m not the world’s hugest Jawbreaker fan—I like them, but I’m not a crazed obsessive like, um, certain people I know—I would have liked to put out their albums for them. Another place I missed the boat was when I told Crimpshrine that they weren’t ready to release a full-length album, so they put out what is now the incredibly rare Lame Gig Contest on a couple small labels. Boy, was I wrong about that.

JG2: Hey man, it happens.

LL: But what most people don’t fully get about me is that I was never mainly concerned about bands that would sell records. If I was, I could have signed up a lot of those baggy shorts bands before Fat Wreck even got going. It wasn’t worth it to me to have to deal with bands that I didn’t enjoy listening to and hanging out with just for the sake of making money. If I’d wanted to do that, I could have just gotten a job at a record company instead of starting my own label. Labels that are successful, not just in terms of sales, but that leave a lasting legacy, generally tend to reflect the values and aesthetics of the person or people who ran them. That’s as true for labels like Fat or Epitaph or Kill Rock Stars or K as it was for Lookout. Conversely, I think it’s where Lookout went astray after I left: they no longer had a sound that was distinctly a Lookout sound. It was more like they were just throwing all sorts of things up against the wall to see if anything would stick.

JG2: It’s been over a year since Lookout ceased operation. How do you look back on it all? Is it still some huge part of your life, do you feel, or have you let go and let it be in the past?

LL: It was a huge part of my life, and to many people, it’s the only part of my life that they know or care about. Obviously I have other interests and goals, but that’s the one that most folks know, and it’s usually one of the first things they ask me about. In fact, lately I seem to be getting almost as many requests for interviews as I was back in the glory days. Don’t ask me why. I guess maybe this is what it’s like being part of history. I can’t complain. It was an amazing adventure, and though it didn’t end as well as it began, we had a pretty good run, and I think we did our part to change—and hopefully improve—the kind and quality of music that reaches the ears of the public. More importantly, I hope we set an example for how other bands and other labels can make their way in the world without having to make compromises or crappy deals with the traditional music industry. There’s a whole network of touring bands and clubs and performance spaces and distribution channels that didn’t exist when we started out, and I’d like to think we played at least some part in helping that to develop.

JG2: So it turns out you’re kind of a woodsy guy. You ever see any of those brown recluse spiders while you’ve been livin’ up there on Spy Rock?

LL: Brown recluse spiders don’t live in that part of California. We had plenty of black widows, but they never gave me any problems. Scorpions turned up pretty often, too, often in the woodpile, but once I found one—don’t ask me how it got there—waggling its stinger tail at me in the kitchen sink. Our bass player from [the band] the Lookouts, Kain Kong, his mom stepped on [a scorpion] in her kitchen and it stung her in the foot…she got a little sick, there was no real harm done. Our scorpions weren’t as poisonous as the ones farther south. We also had quite a few rattlesnakes, but the cats usually killed and ate them if they got too close to the house. However, one bit my dog, and she nearly died from that. And of course there’s bobcats and mountain lions. I never even saw a mountain lion myself, but a girl I knew came face to face with one when she was climbing up a cliff. She just let go and dropped back down the cliff in a hurry.

JG2: What’s the most dangerous animal you’ve personally encountered out in that wilderness?

LL: My biggest adventure was with a bear. I mean, there were lots of bears up there, but for the first ten years or so I never saw one near my house. But then one decided he liked the looks of my place, and ended up smashing my kitchen to pieces. We had a scary showdown, which you can read about in my book Spy Rock Memories, coming out on Don Giovanni this June. I don’t want to give too much of the story away, but I can reveal that I ended up not getting eaten.

JG2: Oh Larry, you old huckleberry.

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