(The Back Pages series is explained here, where you’ll also find links to the other installments.)
I might have been the first mail-order customer for Tim Berne’s Screwgun Records, only because I couldn’t accept an invitation to drop by his house.
Screwgun is Berne’s second record label. He’d cut his teeth on Empire Records starting in 1979, having learned from the example of Julius Hemphill. In 1996, he was ready to give it another go.
He started with Bloodcount Unwound, a gloriously DIY effort: three CDs in a cardboard package with a gloriously insane fold-up card that combines credits, track listings, and a vegan cookie recipe by Jim Black. Artist Steve Byram‘s fingerprints are all over this thing.
I was in New York some weeks prior to Unwound‘s release, and I struck up a conversation with Berne after a gig — at the old Knitting Factory, I think. He was talking about getting a mail-order label started, with a live Bloodcount album as the first release. “But you know,” he said, “you could just drop by my house tomorrow and pick one up.”
Two problems. First: Berne lives in Brooklyn. Being new to the New York experience, I was nervous about wandering outside Manhattan, not out of snobbery, but because we didn’t have GPS devices and cellphone maps back then. Stepping a few blocks off the grid to find the Knitting Factory was disorienting enough; I didn’t think I stood a chance at navigating Brooklyn.
More importantly, I had a flight to catch the next day. I theoretically had time, but — I would have to find Berne’s house in one try, then find a cab (I was savvy enough to assume Brooklyn wouldn’t be swarming with them), and hope for forgiving traffic along the slog to JFK.
I honestly considered it. But with my trip nearing its end, the grown-up in me took over. I declined.
I don’t recall what happened next, but most likely, Tim provided me instructions for mailing a check. (Berne had no website at the time, and online credit-card processing wasn’t in the hands of most DIY types anyway.) Some time later, Bloodcount Unwound found its way to our little townhouse in San Jose.
Unwound is the best of the Bloodcount albums, capturing the band at their fiery peak. “These recordings were not produced!” the liner notes proudly proclaim. (In the photo above, it’s at the top, near the center.) Berne essentially bootlegged his own concerts with a DAT recorder — another practice that’s commonplace today but seemed forward-thinking in 1996.
The new tracks on the album were a treat, but I also enjoyed hearing older pieces like “What Are the Odds?” and “Bro’ball” (a combination of “Broken” and “Lowball” from the 1993 trio album Loose Cannon). You get all the subtleties of Bloodcount’s long improvisational phases as well as moments of sheer, oversaturating power, particularly from Jim Black’s drums. Check out “Mr. Johnson’s Blues:”
This is what happens when a band gets familiar with each other in a good way. If you want to learn why this band remains so popular, Unwound is the place to look.
My recollection is that Unwound‘s original run of 2,000 sold out, and Berne eventually printed more. DIY CDs were looking like a promising business model for independent musicians.
But for Berne and other musicians, that dream would be chipped away in the coming years, first by piracy (despite what pop-music fans seem to think, “touring” isn’t a substitute for selling records) and more recently by the paltry royalties of streaming services. Berne found haven in the form of an ECM contract — in fact, his Snakeoil band has a new album that I’m overdue to pick up.
Screwgun, despite tougher odds, lives on; screwgunrecords.com remains Berne’s home page, where he still sells CDs and now offers MP3s of some out-of-print titles. (Unwound isn’t among them yet, but you can find it on Bandcamp.) The label recently produced a Matt Mitchell solo CD, Forage, and a Berne/Byram art book called Spare. Long live DIY.