The Lookouting

Nineteen-year-old Alex Botkin wasn’t around for any of Lookout!’s heyday.

“I’ve been going to Gilman since 2011,” he says of the legendary East Bay collective that went hand-in-hand with Berkeley label Lookout! Records‘ mid-’90s success. “I kinda discovered Lookout! through that, and became enthralled by the stories and bands that came out of the label, and just how unique every artist was. Then I just began collecting the releases and I fell in love with every new band I found.” Botkin recalls. Largely through his love of the label, he’s organized a series of shows at 924 Gilman to celebrate Lookout!’s local roots and worldwide influence.

It is hard to think of another Bay Area record label that achieved as much success as Lookout! Records. Founded in the late ’80s by Lawrence Livermore (née Larry Hayes) and David Hayes (no relation), the label sprang from the fledgling 924 Gilman St. punk rock club. Releasing records by Crimpshrine, Operation Ivy, and a very young group called Green Day, Lookout! Records captured the growing pains of this new East Bay scene. This month, a series of shows is taking place at 924 Gilman to celebrate the label’s local roots and worldwide influence.

Through word of mouth, mail order, and performances in the ’80s, Lookout! moved thousands of copies of just a handful of releases. But by January of 1990, just as the label was beginning to feel their first tastes of marginal success, David Hayes would quit the label in favor of perusing his own endeavors (Very Small Records) away from the hassles of Livermore’s gregarious personality and speculations of success. As the label began to demand more attention and commitment, Hayes felt the confines of success were stifling his creative vision of releasing eclectic and eccentric noise from the underground. Teenagers Christopher Applegren and Patrick Hynes would soon become involved with the label stuffing 7″s and LPs and then eventually handling the art and organizational aspects of the label’s operations. Lookout! continued to grow and sign established groups like Bay Area pop-punk originators The Mr. T Experience, Chicago’s Screeching Weasel, and The Queers from New Hampshire in addition to dozens of others. Within the next few years, Lookout! would boom in to one of the most recognizable indie labels of its era and leaders of the national pop-punk community.

In early 1994, after releasing two albums and 7″ EPs, Green Day unleashed their major-label debut Dookie to smashing success. Soon, major labels were signing  punk groups left and right, and most any guitar group with a studded belt and spiked hair was feeling some degree of trickle-down success. As the post-grunge pop-punk phenomenon reached critical mass, Lookout! saw over $10 million in sales. Hynes and Applegren, having been paid in equity in the label, were now co-owners with Livermore.

As the money came in and a staff was hired, the 50-year-old Livermore’s interest in the business aspect of the label began to wane. Never one to be tethered to any one place, Livermore’s nomadic wanderings became more appealing to him than overseeing spreadsheets and marketing ideas. The label had by then moved out of his one-bedroom apartment near the UC Berkeley campus and into an office above a storefront on University Avenue that also served as the Lookout! Records shop.

With the increase of profits and revenue, tensions mounted with former compatriots like Gilman St. founder Tim Yohannon and his publication Maximum RocknRoll and Screeching Weasel frontman Ben Foster. After stones were cast in the pages of fanzines accusing the label of royalty discrepancies and exploiting punk for profit, Livermore walked away from Lookout! when he and Hynes sold their shares of a multi-million dollar record label to a 23-year-old Chris Applegren.

“He and Pat ‘retired’ in early 1997, though Patrick remained on the staff, subsequently,” Applegren recalls of the newfound responsibility. “In retrospect, maybe we should have done that? I mean, I didn’t really understand that at the time. I just knew that the label was my life, and the alternative seemed to be shut it down. I knew how running the label seemed to make Larry feel. He wasn’t happy.”

Applegren would captain the ship with new partners, Molly Neuman and Cathy Bauer, taking the label to new heights by signing teenage rock and roll machines like The Donnas and Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. But as the millennium ended, the early 2000s would prove a difficult time for the indie label as record sales bottomed out and royalties went unpaid. In 2005,the label ceased releasing new material and returned the rights to back catalogs of many of their top sellers. The label closed completely in 2012, after putting out over 250 releases over two and a half decades.

But back to Alex Botkin: His positive interpretation of events that happened before he was even born brought a sweet naivete to a story that often gets bogged down with negativity and bitterness.

“I came into it after it ended. So to me, everything was one chunk, rather than two halves of a history. Originally, bands were signed because Larry or David liked them. There was also no separation of genres. Brent’s TV and Corrupted Morals don’t sound anything alike, but they are great and that’s what mattered. It was about the community, not who was going to make the next platinum album.”

30 years (nearly to the day) after 924 Gilman St. first opened its doors, Botkin is presenting “The Lookouting” — a four-night celebration of the club and the label that was born from it. “Back in July I got the idea to celebrate Gilman’s 30th with a night of Lookout! bands, since I was surprised nobody else had tried to bring them in for the anniversary. I just went for it —

[I have] no prior experience in booking, and the response was incredible. One night quickly grew to two, then four. Every band that joined would always be thrilled to be playing with their friends again. That’s what made these shows, which had before seemed impossible, happen. The bands didn’t do it for money, they did it because the label and the club meant something to them and represented a major part of the careers and lives.”

“They all wanted to make music in their own unique way, which was a trend of the label’s artists. I don’t think I really thought about it too much when booking the shows.” says Alex. “I always felt that Lookout! was less a sound or certain sounds and instead was an attitude or an approach to art, music, and community.” Applegren agrees.

Botkin continued: “Part of what helped was that I didn’t know why these bands broke up or where they were, I just went for it. I wasn’t inhibited by the thought that anything was impossible. Yeah, obviously I got a few rejections, but many bands who people thought would never return seemed to have just been waiting to be asked. I had never seen them so if anything I booked it so I could experience these bands for real, and maybe a few people would show up. I’m pretty astounded with some of the bands that said yes to this.”

Vancouver’s The Smugglers seemed to be one of those impossible reunions, with lead singer Grant Lawrence becoming a CBC celebrity and author and guitarist, David Carswell, being content to play in the Canadian indie group Destroyer and operate JC/DC Studios with New Pornographer John Collins.

Stories of The Smugglers touring with The Mr. Experience and Brent’s TV’s later incarnation The Hi-Fives are tales of epic hilarity (incidentally, also the topic of Lawrence’s next book). In many ways, the mid-’90s were like summer camp for the bands on the label. Package tours across North America and overseas forged lifelong bonds among many members, and may have been why so many Lookout! alums were eager to play this event. “I am so grateful that The Lookouting is happening and that Alex has successfully convinced so many of my favorite bands and people of all time to get together again. And I don’t just mean the bands! I never went to my high school reunion, but I imagine this mix of excitement and anxiety is what it must be like.” Applegren admits.

With such a large lineup of bands covering the entire existence of the label, it was surprising to find out who wasn’t asked to perform. “Operation Ivy, but not for the reason most people expect. I never asked, because it would have just blown the event out of proportion and turned it into an Op Ivy show and not anything about the club or the label.” Botkin confesses.

With the controversy surrounding Gilman’s current bookers and organizers, The Lookouting has high hopes of extinguishing some of fires set in the punk community. “Hopefully this shows that Gilman is still about the music, and that we still try to uphold music that doesn’t hurt or aim to offend anybody. Gilman, like Lookout!, is a community and with all these bands coming together I hope it shows that the club still has a strong sense of unity and equality.” Botkin declared.

The symbiotic relationship between the club and label is still apparent. Botkin speculates, “I think they we both beneficial in the sense that they both aided each other. I think more that Lookout! wouldn’t have existed without Gilman, rather than the other way around, but I am pretty glad they both did.”

Looking back on Lookout!’s legacy and resonance nearly thirty years after their first release, Applegren reflects: “I feel fortunate. It was an amazing thing to be part of, and to help artists I love realize their vision. I love the legacy and my experiences with Lookout!, even the tough ones. Not sure I know what the appeal exactly is to others, but I feel it when I listen to one of our releases. I was a fan first. A number of incredibly important bands allowed Lookout! to be part of their stories. But I think, beyond that, it was that we were approachable, dorks, and I think it was the right time for the weird balance of irreverence and sincerity that permeated what we did.

The first installment of The Lookouting has come and gone, but the rest of the month sees three more shows on January 6, 7,and 8 at 924 Gilman St. Pre-sale tickets are sold out, but tickets will be available at the door the day of each show.

FRIDAY 1/6 (Doors at 7pm)
Corrupted Morals
Surrogate Brains
Wynona Riders

SATURDAY 1/7 (Doors at 5pm)
Mr. T Experience
Pansy Division
Brent’s TV
Kepi Ghoulie

SUNDAY 1/8 (Doors at 4:30pm)
Black Fork
The Jimmies