When the Subteens formed in 1995, they made a fast impression on the local -- and national -- music scene. Billboard called the three-piece "classic punk rock," while the College Media Journal labeled the group Ramones-and-Replacements-style "sleazy pop." Frontman Mark Akin, bassist Jay Hines, and drummer "Bubba" John Bonds soon found themselves in a van, hitting clubs like CBGB in New York and venues throughout the Southeast.
Then in '99, the Subteens cut their snappy debut, Burn Your Cardigan. But shortly after they decided to record a follow-up, Hines left the group, leaving second guitarist Terrence Bishop (who joined the band in 2001) to take up the slack on bass. The Subteens deemed the material obsolete and scrapped their second album. Now, four years after their first release, the group has new songs, a new album, and a new label.
"Most rock bands sound fine going live to eight-track, but we can't pull that shit off," Akin explains. "We need more polish put on us, and, given our resources, we wouldn't have been able to do this on our own." So, when studio engineer Elliott Ives recommended that the Subteens come by Young Avenue Sound (2258 Young Avenue) to check out the studio's recording co-op program, Akin jumped at the chance.
He saw a lot of value in the deal, which allows local artists to produce a professional-sounding album without laying out much cash. The studio fronts the recording time, while the musicians pay the CD manufacturing costs. They buy CDs from the studio for $5 apiece until recording costs, plus 20 percent interest, are recouped.
After the crew at Young Avenue Sound became better acquainted with the Subteens, the studio signed the group to its new label, Memphis Records. "We spent our first 12 months as a rental facility for other labels," says studio manager Cameron Mann, "but we always knew that we'd eventually start a label of our own. This year, we began shifting gears, and we started up Memphis Records."
For Mann, the Subteens were a perfect fit for the label. "They have this raw, visceral energy," he enthuses. "They come alive onstage. It's just raucous piss-and-vinegar punk rock." Label and studio president Don Mann, Cameron's father, agrees: "We don't want to get pigeonholed. We're looking for artists who can move an audience. We're not particular about their genre or style."
When approached with a bona-fide contract, the Subteens couldn't have been happier. "Young Avenue Sound saved us, really," Akin says. "A lot of folks say screw the record industry, but that theory doesn't apply to me. I'm not an organized person."
"Initially, we were just stoked at the opportunity to go into the studio," Bonds remembers. "Then Don realized that we had our shit together and decided to use us as a launching pad for the label."
"We're like the lab rats in this situation. They were trying to start their company, and we were trying to get an album recorded," Bishop adds.
The end result, So That's What the Kids Are Calling It , consists of 10 punchy rock songs that perfectly define the Subteens' current sound. Tunes like "Bad Boy" and "This Is It" are tailor-made for alt-rock radio, and, suddenly, it sounds as if Memphis might have another band that's viable on the national scene.
"Major-label groups like Fountains of Wayne and Jet came from the same starting point as the Subteens; they draw on the same influences," the band's Atlanta-based manager Brian Beckerman says, citing seminal '70s bands like Big Star, Cheap Trick, and the MC5. "These new rock-and-roll groups are having to forge their own paths. They might not sell 10 million records, but they do have longevity."
"We have a great situation with Memphis Records. They're giving the Subteens the ability to mold their own direction," Beckerman adds. "The band can get out there and make things happen rather than wait for a huge company to make a decision."
Ironically, just a handful of local artists, including Mrs. Fletcher, Drought, and Skinny White Chick, have followed through on the co-op plan that drew the Subteens to Young Avenue Sound in the first place.
"When we started off, the studio's unifying mantra was to help local bands get product to sell off the stage," says Cameron Mann. "But we came off as too good to be true. A lot of bands were suspicious. The vibe was, What's the catch? I guess it's gonna take time for the local music community to embrace the concept, but all we're doing here is trying to help Memphis musicians get to the next step."
Don Mann is equally perplexed by the cool response. "The contract is a simple two-page agreement. Pay the studio back, plus 20 percent interest. Once you've covered that obligation, we turn over everything, including the master tapes and the remaining inventory," he says.
The studio is working closely with the Memphis Area Band Association to better inform locals about the co-op opportunity. And since Mrs. Fletcher recently closed out the contract on their first project and began recording another CD, the Manns have a successful model to use as an example.
In the meantime, they'll have their hands full recording FreeSol and Yes, No, Maybe, which both signed contracts with Memphis Records this month. According to Don Mann, the label -- and its locally focused subsidiary, Young Avenue Records -- marks the fulfillment of a longtime dream:
"I'd love to get to the point where Young Avenue Sound did nothing but co-op deals and Memphis Records projects."
The Subteens Record Release Party
With the Joint Chiefs and the Lights
Saturday, January 31st
Young Avenue Deli 278-0034