Superior Viaduct Records: Reissuing Forgotten Gems of San Francisco's Past
Many local labels are offering obscure reissues and innovative new releases on all conceivable formats. Label Sampler is a new column that will profile a different Bay Area imprint each week.
Name: Superior Viaduct
Headquarters: North Beach, San Francisco
Owner: Steve Viaduct
Musical Focus: Superior Viaduct specializes in archival releases and reissues of Bay Area bands from the 1970s and 1980s. During our interview, Steve was reluctant to pigeonhole the genre focus of his label, but reluctantly characterized his releases as punk and new wave, although he plans to venture into avant-garde, free jazz and piano music in the future.
Creation story: "I've been researching S.F. music for a long time," says Steve, who requested that his last name be omitted. "At one point, a museum that was doing an exhibit on California art contacted me because someone had told them that I was an expert on San Francisco punk, which I thought was hilarious. I wrote back and said it was funny to be called an expert on punk because there are no experts. By definition, punk is DIY and independent, not professional. It's not legitimized by any institution, so to be tagged as an expert seemed ridiculous. But the one question I was repeatedly asked was, 'Where can I find this music?' At that point I would have to say that unless you know it already or you're willing to spend a lot of money on Ebay, you can't get a hold of the music. Especially with bands like Noh Mercy, whose recordings have never been officially released."
So, the scarcity of the recordings which Steve so intently collected and researched motivated him to begin his label. But there was one other significant antecedent to Superior Viaduct's founding. "Club Foot was an artist-run venue in San Francisco where one might catch a decent punk band or an outrageous performance art piece. In 2009, I approached Club Foot co-founders, JC Garrett and Cindy Buff, about doing a 30-year anniversary show, which developed into the two-month Club Foot retrospective at San Francisco Public Library in Summer 2010. Subterranean Records even repressed the infamous Club Foot album to mark the occasion. After years of privately archiving the S.F. music scene, I realized through these Club Foot events that not only was there more public interest in this era of music, but many of these recordings are tragically unavailable in any format. Superior Viaduct hopes to correct this problem."
Primary format: All Superior Viaduct releases will appear on vinyl, and a select few will have CD versions as well, depending on the artists' wishes.
First release: Love God, Love One Another by Black Humor, which made our list of 2011's top 10 rock reissues, marked Superior Viaduct's inaugural release. Originally released in 1982 with dead worms in plastic bags as an insert, Black Humor's sole offering has remained a highly sought-after, art-damaged screed ever since. Before this reissue, original pressings sold for outrageous collector's prices. The music consists of deliberately esoteric sounds that evoke New York No Wave as much as progressive 1980s synthesizer music, tainted with bizarre in-studio experimentation.
Unusual roadblocks: Black Humor's only stipulation for the reissue of their LP was that it use the originally intended cover art. Depicting a sinister Ronald Reagan clutching a cross in front of an American flag adorned with swastikas, the art is obviously critical of American politics in the 1980s, but it has complicated distribution of the reissue nonetheless. As Steve explains, "We have gotten a little flak about the swastikas. It's actually illegal to sell anything with swastikas on it in Germany. So, our distributor won't sell there, and there are actually quite a few Black Humor fans in Germany, not to mention that [Black Humor founder] George Miller lives there."
Humbling label management experiences: The enticing packaging of Black Humor's LP includes reproductions of original inserts, reviews from the record's initial release, and an amusing biography of the band's short, strange existence. But the impressive packaging is solidified by the vibrant, hand-printed covers. On the laborious process of screen-printing the initial run of 500, Steve remarked, "I thought the screen-printing was hard to do, since I'm not really a visual artist, but there is always someone with a story that trumps mine. In this case, I was telling Steve [Tupper, founder of Subterranean Records] that it was a major hassle to print 500 of those and he responded with, 'Well, you don't know hard until you've had to print 5,000 unique singles by Flipper.'"
Notable local involvement: Local musicians, particularly from within the punk scene, have been very supportive, though. Penelope Houston of the Avengers and JC Garrett of Alterboys International assisted in screen-printing the Black Humor covers. Along with Steve Tupper of Subterranean Records, Viaduct feels a camaraderie with other local record labels as well, such as 4 Men With Beards and Dark Entries.
Attitude towards Internet downloading: Viaduct appreciates the Internet as a tool, and has naturally used it to conduct research for his label. But he believes that digital media lacks the charm of physical records. "When I grew up, I would hear about bands through word of mouth or in a fanzine. That point of contact is very different. Before the Internet you could only imagine what some of this music sounded like until you got a hold of a physical copy. You can't interact the same way with an MP3 as you can with a piece of vinyl, and that's mainly why I want to release records." As for blogs, he articulates a difference between utilizing them as a means of discovering unavailable material and hijacking the hard work of record labels keeping niche music in print. "Blogs are basically the modern day fanzine, and I appreciate them for spreading the word, but having an illegal download for something that is immediately available is not cool," Viaduct says. "Thankfully, people have been kind of enough to remove downloads when requested."
Origin of label name: The name "Superior Viaduct" is a reference to a bridge in Cleveland, Steve's home town. It may seem unusual to name a record label focused on San Francisco music after a landmark in Ohio, but Steve envisions the seemingly incongruous title as a testament to San Francisco's role as a mecca for transplants, like himself, who bring skills developed elsewhere to fruition in the Bay Area.