Hopeless Records Founder Louis Posen Picks the Label's Ten Best Releases
For the California-based punk label's 25th anniversary, we had the founder pick his ten favorite releases out of a catalog of hundreds.
In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
In 1993, several independent punk labels like Fat Wreck Chords, Lookout!, and Epitaph were a few months away from striking gold by selling millions of records following the surprise, breakout success of bands like Green Day, the Offspring, and Rancid. That same year, an aspiring film director named Louis Posen founded Hopeless Records, and was trying to figure out how to unload 1,000 copies of a seven-inch that a band called Guttermouth talked him into releasing.
Armed with a loan from his brother and a book on how to run an indie label, Posen got a crash course in the music business. His rise wasn't meteoric like some of his label peers at the time, but Hopeless stayed the course on a steady, upward slope. He sold through those thousand copies and then kept going, releasing albums in the subsequent months by pop punk acts like 88 Fingers Louie, Falling Sickness, and Nobodys. Now, with 25 years under its belt, the California-based label has an impressive, diverse roster of former and active bands including Taking Back Sunday, the Used, and Yellowcard.
“A big part of what our company is about is remembering where we came from and always being true to our core principles,” says Posen. In keeping with this spirit, the label will be hosting a show in Los Angeles on January 19 to celebrate the label’s 25th anniversary. On the lineup will be bands from the label’s early days, including Dillinger Four, Digger, and the first Hopeless act, Guttermouth.
To commemorate 25 years of Hopeless Records, we had Posen pick out ten personally meaningful releases from the label’s deep catalog.
Noisey: How did this compilation come about?
Louis Posen: Going way back to 1999, we launched our non-profit organization called Sub City where we realized we were reaching a lot of people with Hopeless, and we wanted to do something that went beyond making artists famous and making money. We’ve always looked for ways we can take what we do on a day-to-day level and do something more, and connect to causes that are important to our community.
Over the years, the mental health and suicide issue keeps coming up, and it continues to be a huge issue, not just in our community but in all of music and globally among all people. So we decided we wanted to dedicate an ongoing project and we came up with the idea of Songs That Saved My Life, which would be artists covering a song that helped them get through a tough time in their life, and we’d get testimonials about how it got them through that tough time, and the proceeds would go to mental health and suicide prevention charities. Part of it wasn’t about raising money. It was about getting the dialogue going between bands and fans, because there’s a lot of fans out there dealing with mental health issues and they should know even their favorite bands have been through tough times.
What compels you to be active in these kinds of charities?
It’s part of the principles of the company. We started off with a list of things we believed in and that we wanted to guide how we did business. As we started to grow, we realized there was something more, and it didn’t feel like an opportunity, it felt like an obligation, and we decided we should put it into a more formal structure. To date, we’ve raised over $2.5 million to over 50 different non-profit organizations.
This was the first Hopeless release. How did this come about?
I never intended to get into the music industry. I grew up in a family where people were in business, so it wasn’t an odd thing to think about starting a business, but no one was in music or the arts. I was going to film school, pursuing directing films. I was a music fan but didn’t even realize there was a business behind it. One of the bands in film school I was directing for, I did a video for NOFX, and the direct support on the show we were filming was Guttermouth. They asked me at that show, “Hey, this video looks great. Wanna shoot a video for us?” So I did that video and then they asked, “Hey, can you put out a seven-inch for us?” And I was like, “Well, how do you do that?” And they said, “Well, everyone we know is irresponsible and you seem to be a bit more organized, so you probably have a better shot at doing this than anyone we know.”
So I went out and bought a book called How to Run an Independent Record Label and decided to go for it. I put out that seven-inch with the thousand bucks my brother and his friend gave me to do it.
What was the print run?
I think a thousand copies. I remember hand-delivering them to the local stores. In that book, they had distributors’ contact information. So I was calling all them—ten to this person, 20 to this distributor. Luckily, Guttermouth had a record out already on Dr. Strange, so there was demand, and those thousand went pretty fast and I got to make another thousand.
Guttermouth has a fairly notorious reputation. How were they to work with?
It was not, back then, what it became later. They were a pretty typical punk band back then. They had an amazing live show. But as far as the antics and things, that was pretty par for the course for bands like the Vandals and others they played with. It definitely doesn’t fit the same way in the current music or societal environment, but I found working with them was awesome. I only did a seven-inch with them but stayed friends with them for a long time.
This came out when there was a new wave of ska going. Did you see that and want to get in on it? Or did you discover Mustard Plug and know you had to put it out?
I think it was both. Mustard Plug was definitely part of the punk scene. We loved the band but it was part of our community and scene also, so it wasn’t like ska was this other world where we were taking huge risks. I do remember when we first met them, they invited us out to the Whiskey to see them play. They were opening for Descendents, and I remember seeing them at that show and thinking, “OK, this is gonna break.” I put this on [the list] not only because it’s a seminal ska record but also, this was a huge record for us. At the time, this was by far our biggest record. It opened up a lot of doors. This record sold over 100,000 copies. It’s one of the bigger ska records of the era.
How much of that success determined what bands you eyed going forward? Did its success tell you to sign more ska bands?
I think if we were smart back then, we probably would’ve done that. This was part of the problem of someone going into doing a record label without a business plan. We were going off of artists we loved, and what we thought was gonna continue to do well. I think at the time we thought, “Hey, we’ve got this amazing ska band. Why would we get another one?” So there were probably other bands that would’ve done well, but we weren’t thinking that way.
When I interviewed the band, Billy [Morrisette, guitarist] says he remembered sending the finished album to the label and you guys thought the band had sent the demos.
He probably has a stronger recollection than I do, because that’s something an artist would definitely be affected by if they got that response. But I remember us loving everything about this band, especially since they were so clear in who they were and what was important to them. We felt really fortunate to be able to work with them, even at the time when they only had some seven-inches out. I feel like there were a lot of people interested in signing D4. This was not that far away from the Mustard Plug record—they were within a year of each other, I believe. Looking back on it now, I’m like, “How did we put out these two records within a year of each other?” Because they’re so different. But at the same time, it made sense. The thing I remember most about this record are the antics and the stories that come with the guys. Did I ever tell you that story of them at the Rainbow Room?
When they were coming through on their tour, we had an after-party at the Rainbow and there was a guy there with a Spandex, leopard-print one-piece outfit. Lane, the drummer, saw this guy and pretended he knew him as a famous person. So he went up to him and said, “Oh man, I love you, I’m a huge fan! Can I take a picture with you?” So one of the people in our group went to take a picture of them, and the guy with the Spandex put his leg up in a guitar pose. And while the picture was being taken, Lane grabbed the guy’s package, and the guy flipped out, started yelling at him. Security came over trying to break it up, and Lane calmly says, “I’m so sorry. We’re just two gay guys having a good time. I don’t know why he’s so upset.” And the guy completely lost it and started screaming, “I’m not gay!” So then we ended up getting kicked out. Very Dillinger Four.
D4 seems like an interesting band to have a business partnership with, because they are incapable of doing anything that might help themselves out. They hate interviews, they never wanted to support headliners, they didn’t want to play the Warped Tour. Did that hard-headedness ever put a wedge between you?
Not at all. We always like an artist who knows what they want. We’ll work around, or with, the vision of the artist. The harder thing is when an artist is wishy-washy. One day, they want press, the next day they don’t want press. That’s hard to deal with. But someone who knows what they want is very easy to work with because you know what the expectations are. As crazy as they seem, the reason [Dillinger Four] works is because the guys know their roles in the band. There’s not a lot of drama and turmoil.
This album was sort of Thrice’s jumping point before they signed to Island Records. Do you take that personally, when a band jumps ship, or are you happy for them?
I don’t take it personally, because everyone has their own interests and goals. It’s not a personal thing. Would we like bands to stay here? Yes. The bands who have left for major labels, for some of them it’s worked out and for some it hasn’t. It’s not an all-or-nothing thing. There’s no bad feelings about it, but sometimes there’s a tough negotiation if the band still has albums left in their contract, but that’s just a business thing. We were super happy for the guys and I remember coming out to all the events connected to their Island debut and I was at Dustin’s wedding, which was after that, and sat at the table with the Island A&R guys. There’s no hard feelings. This record to me is not just their jumping off point, it’s their iconic point where they became what Thrice is.
What earns the album a spot among your favorites here?
I should say that none of these are favorites or not favorites. They’re like kids, and you can’t play any favorites. But this was a huge record in the history of the label and the band. It was also sort of our beginning in a new era of the label where screamo and heavy music started to combine with punk rock. This record was right at the beginning, before they claimed screamo.
This was something of a reunion record for them, yeah?
It was. They’d gone on hiatus after their major label days, and this record was really the beginning for us realizing we could work with huge, established artists who were looking for a home like us, that could customize what we do and put a lot of effort into their careers. We provide the right kind of service for an artist like Yellowcard. So although I think this is an amazing album, I put it on the list because it was us realizing there was a whole other group of artists we weren’t even thinking about. This was the first one, and then it led to us working with the Used and Sum 41 and Circa Survive and Taking Back Sunday and New Found Glory. Before that Yellowcard record, I don’t know if we ever thought of working with any of those artists.
What made you apprehensive about working with those bands?
I just think we didn’t think about it. Those were the major label pop punk or emo [bands] and we never realized there would be a time where it didn’t make sense for them to not be at those places anymore, and that we were a better fit.
This record was aided by the band doing the Warped Tour after its release, which I’m sure was the case for a number of Hopeless bands. I’m wondering, how do you think the end of the tour will affect the label going forward?
It’s a sad time because it was such a huge part of our genre, our community, and it was a big part of how we released records, as you said. We planned our release schedule around Warped Tour every year and which bands were going on it. So on that side of it, it’s going to be a change and difficult. On the other side, whenever a door closes a new one opens up. So there’s going to be more touring this summer than there ever has been, because there’s not going to be conflicts with Warped. People will figure out how to develop on the road without a branded tour. Though I think a lot of other branded tours or festivals will come into play because there’s a huge demand and a lot of fans. But it’s definitely sad for me because I grew up on Warped Tour, this company grew up on Warped Tour. I remember being at the very first one. It took ten years to be able to get a band on, but I finally convinced Kevin [Lyman]. After that, we became close friends and our bands have been on it every year since then.
As far as the Wonder Years connection, I think Warped was a huge part of the Wonder Years, but I picked this record because it’s an iconic pop punk record, which has led to a long relationship. We just did another record with them, Sister Cities, which is probably their best musical record they’ve ever done. This band has evolved over the years. They’re no longer a pop punk band, they’re a rock band now, and they’ve brought their fans with them. I think this record will go down in history as a classic pop punk record from that era.
When interviewed for this series, the singer put this album as his third favorite in their catalog, but it’s your number one?
I think that, because of where it lies in our relationship with the band, and where I think it lies in history with their fans, yeah. But that’s one thing about this band is that they have not made the same record twice. We have a lot of bands who make the same record over and over again, which is great because it’s a great record. But this band has chosen to evolve musically.
Aside from that comp, this is the most recent one on your list. Can you tell me how this made it so high up?
It was hard to pick a record that’s recent, because if you’re going to pick ten important records in the history of the company, you feel like it’d have to live a certain amount of time before it could make the list. Like, you have to be a certain age to get one of those lifetime achievement awards—you don’t get one at 25 or 35. But I picked this one because it’s such a huge record for us. It was a top five record in the US and in the UK, and top ten in ten or 15 other countries.
It’s a band that many mainstream people don’t know their name but would be shocked to see the amount of sales and streams this band does and what they draw, not just in the UK where they’re from, but all around the world. They’re our biggest active artists, so this should definitely be in the top ten. To me, it also showcases where our label has gone—from a local LA punk rock label to a real global company with 15 people on the ground around the world outside the US. Pretty soon, we’ll probably be 50/50 in sales—the US versus international.
How much does your own personal taste affect what bands you’re signing? Or do you trust your staff on that?
It’s a combination. We’re a real team. For a long time, we didn’t have anyone on staff we called “A&R.” We thought that was a more corporate thing. We now have someone with that name, only because outside people like to have someone with that name so they know who to talk to. It’s still a group discussion and a group decision. We’re really serving a fanbase, so we have personal tastes, but we know we’ve got to get together and decide what is going to work for the fans. That’s who we’re serving.
And how’d you get hooked up with Neck Deep?
We got hooked up with Neck Deep through what’s now called our A&R person, Eric. He actually found them online. Part of what he does is research hundreds and hundreds of bands from his computer. They were starting to bubble up in the UK. We saw some shows were doing well and they were getting activity online in the UK.
Pre-internet, how much time did you spend sifting through demos?
A lot. That’s how we found out about bands back then, listening to tapes and going to shows. It’s a lot easier now to go through hundreds of bands, although I miss those days too—sitting down at the stereo and putting those tapes in.
Have you ever read Larry Livermore’s book about starting Lookout! Records?
I have. I loved it. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing without Larry Livermore and Lookout! Records. I love hearing those stories. We went through an era of Hopeless where we were a wannabe Lookout! label. We signed Fifteen and Common Rider and the Queers. We actually own the Lookout! trademark since they went out of business. We just relaunched it this year and put out The Lookouting!, which was a compilation of live recording of the bands that played the Looktouting! festival that took place about a year and a half ago.
You didn’t have a lot of metalcore on the label at the time. Did you feel like this was an odd fit?
I didn’t. Again, they really fell within our scene and our community, even though it had a metal influence. These guys grew up as NOFX fans. They’re punk rock guys from Orange County. They happened to love Pantera and other metal stuff, so they combined the genres together. They were playing with bands from our scene so it wasn’t odd. It’s very similar to the Mustard Plug story but with metal instead of ska. What they were doing with the makeup and stage names, that was weird. I remember at the time there were as many people who hated them as loved them, even though they were pretty small. There was a mixed feeling about them. Not really from the genre and the sound, but more the look and the attitude.
Is this the label’s bestselling record?
Actually, the label’s bestselling record is the one before that, the Avenged Sevenfold record, which is almost platinum now in the US. It’s gold in many countries. And the next two after that are other All Time Low Records—Nothing Personal and So Wrong, It’s Right are both gold in the US. So Wrong, It’s Right has “Dear Maria” and that’s our bestselling song and is platinum in the US. The reason I picked Future Hearts is that it’s our only record to debut at number one in the US and UK.
Can you tell me a little bit about, when an album breaks out like this, what impact does that have on an independent label? Does the demand put a strain on your operations?
I think there’s some challenges to a record breaking out, but I think there’s more upsides than downsides. I think the harder records are the ones that aren’t doing well and you’re trying to make them do well because you love them and you think people should love them. When something is doing well, all the times you had to call someone and beg them to do something, all of a sudden they’re calling you, so it’s easier when it’s breaking out. The strain was in the old days with manufacturing and supply chain. That’s gone away. Although, because we never had one huge record early on, we’ve been slowly growing for 25 years. We were lucky in that way. I’ve seen other labels where they have too much success too early and that sinks the ship.