Jim Ruland's 'Corporate Rock Sucks' chronicles LA punk, DIY ethos and SST Records' storied past
San Diego-based music journalist Jim Ruland's new book, "Corporate Rock Sucks: The Rise and Fall of SST Records" is a study of a single punk rock record label, the Los Angeles-founded SST Records, and the bands like Black Flag, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr that were integral to its story, beginning in the late 1970s. The book comes out Tuesday, April 12, and Ruland will appear at The Book Catapult in South Park on Tuesday at 7 p.m., and at 3 Punk Ales in Chula Vista on Saturday, April 16 at 4 p.m.
Ruland joined KPBS Midday Edition to speak with KPBS/Arts producer and editor Julia Dixon Evans.
Q: What is it about SST Records that inspired you to write a book about the label?
A: What I found fascinating about SST Records is that it's so much more than a punk label. You would think that a label that was built on the back of Black Flag, that it would be mostly punk, but it ended up not being true at all. I mean, there's spoken word, there's electronic music, there's experimental music, there's all kinds of fascinating indie rock jam bands. You could go on and on about the different styles and genres of music that SST put out over the years. It was a very experimental label. So I think the fact that it was so willing to test the boundaries and put music out even though it knew it was not commercially viable, that it was not prime for success is a really interesting thing about SST Records — and a fascinating subject.
Q: "Corporate Rock Sucks" is your sixth book. Two of your other books have focused on punk rock, and you have also spent over 20 years writing about punk and music for zines like Razorcake. How did your experience shape how you looked at this impact of one record label?
A: Absolutely. It all started with zines for me because that's where I learned how to write for an audience, but also how to literally get in the van before a gig and interview a band and deal with all of that, and all the chaos that goes with that. I started writing record reviews like most music writers do, and it was really all about access to the music that I love.
Q: OK, so let's talk about Greg Ginn. He was this young person in the late '70s who planted the seeds for not just a record label and a band, but this entire scene, the Los Angeles South Bay punk scene.
A: So Greg Ginn was uniquely poised to launch a record label because he had this business called SST Electronics. And it was a mail order electronics company that he started in his early teens. That gave him a foundation of knowledge in terms of: How do you print a catalog, how do you organize your mailing list, how do you connect and communicate with your customers. All of which would prove invaluable when SST Electronics became SST Records. And it was really done out of necessity because as much as he wanted to bring Black Flag to Hollywood and get into the LA punk scene, they really weren't interested. So he had to do it on his own.
Q: And what kind of person does it take to go from an electronics mail order company to something like these bands and this label?
A: Well, I think most people who are drawn to music, particularly extreme music, they're really focused on the music themselves. You know, creating music, playing it with their bandmates, bringing it to the masses. Ginn was — I don't want to use the word too loosely — but kind of a genius in that he really changed the way people thought about punk rock with his style and aggressive kind of music, but also in the way that he paved the way for the touring network by getting in the van and bringing Black Flag to literally all over America when only a handful of other bands had even tried to do stuff like that, like DOA up in Vancouver. In America, Greg Ginn and Black Flag were the first.
Q: So how was LA punk unique from other movements in music history?
A: What I think is really special about LA punk is that obviously it wasn't first, right? It wasn't New York, it wasn't London. It kind of was this third wave of punk rock that really flourished here for a lot of different reasons — because it really took off not only in Hollywood but also in the suburbs who were really bored with the corporate rock that was on the radio. But what was also really cool about that fact that they were kind of late to the party is that getting signed to a major record label deal really wasn't an option. There were a few exceptions, like X was signed, but like all the early bands in New York, for example, were snapped up by major labels. So in LA, these bands had to create their own scene and they really had to do it themselves.
Q: Over the course of the book, we see SST grow from a relatively small, almost self-indulgent project to — there are major struggles, they sign major bands, they have lean years and then hugely prolific years. What was the most surprising thing you uncovered during your research?
A: Well, there are so many eras of SST and I think if you're a fan of the label, where you experience the music on that label, [it] kind of defines the label for you. But they were not afraid of change. There's a lot of labels that came out that still operate today that are very focused on their genre. They have a very distinctive sound and all the bands sound similar. That wasn't true of SST Records. They're completely varied sounds, varied genres, and very willing to experiment. So, I think in every era and sometimes with every band that I researched, there were all kinds of interesting surprises waiting to be uncovered, especially towards the ... early '90s, when Greg Ginn and SST first ... put out Soundgarden before anybody else, which surprises a lot of people who don't realize that. But that was really built on the back of the relationship that the label had ... [it] gave Greg Ginn a demo of a Soundgarden performance. So it was really kind of fascinating in the way that this little label in Southern California, that was starting to explode, really anticipated the scene that came out of the Northwest in a big way.
Q: So at the end of the book, the index of SST albums is twelve pages long. I have to ask you, what's one SST album that has stuck with you?
A: There are so many. I would say any of the releases by Saint Vitus, especially the self-titled debut, is one that I still listen to quite frequently. In fact, I don't know why, but I like listening to that when I'm on an airplane. There's something about the heaviness of the music and being up in the air, [it] goes really well together. But again just the fact that Saint Vitus had put four or five records out with SST in the mid '80s at a time when hair metal was all over MTV — this fast, loose and very commercial style of heavy metal. And here's Saint Vitus, this band that is a throwback to Black Sabbath that plays slow and sludgy, and today are considered one of the godfathers of doom metal.
Find a playlist of Jim Ruland's essential SST Records picks here.