When No Fun Records packed up operations in South America in 2003 and resettled in Ann Arbor, the garage-heavy label couldn’t have picked a more fertile home turf. With word-slurring rock trailblazers ? and the Mysterians and revolutionaries the Stooges, the Detroit area long ago sparked the engine that powered garage-rock out of the garage and into the American music consciousness. Now, neo-primitives like the White Stripes and Von Bondies are testament to its ongoing vitality here.
But beyond Detroit’s marquee acts, the feature that makes the city a firm bastion for the scene is its thriving underground. And the No Fun label, which just celebrated its 10-year anniversary last Friday with a show at The Blind Pig, has been a major contributor in facilitating that burgeoning subterranean movement.
In an era where litigation-happy, nickel’n’diming media conglomerates dominate the recording world, the notion of a record label steeped in music-first principles seems about as obsolete as the idea of an American president practicing effective international diplomacy. But that’s exactly what No Fun is.
“We pretty much stay away from mainstream sounds, or bands making music for the only purpose of getting radio play, or getting famous,” said Claudia Leo, the label’s vice president and drummer for No Fun mainstays The Avatars and the Coronados. “We don’t have much respect for people who play music for their own egocentric purposes. No posers for us, thank you. We love real rock’n’roll.”
True to its ethos, No Fun has made a point of signing Detroit-area bands, giving them the exposure they deserve. The Cyril Lords, for instance, were favorites on the scene for three years before No Fun put out the group’s excellent debut Motherland in 2005. Another local staple that got its first LP shot with the label is The Hard Lessons, putting out its first record Gasoline that same year. Basically, No Fun doesn’t discriminate if a band knows how to rock.
“We don’t shy away because (a band) might be considered ‘too old’ or ‘has beens’ or whatever,” Leo said.
The two bands Leo plays in are the embodiment of that formula. Both consist of established veterans of the Detroit underground music carousel that are just now combining their powers.
To further infuse the local scene with like-minded artists, the label has retained a large stable of South American artists following relocation. Argentines The Tandooris and Los Gatos Salvajes have been able to put out albums in America and still tour with healthy frequency in their native nation with the label’s support.
Elsewhere on the international front, the roster has even grown to include Greek surf-instrumentalists the Invisible Surfers and Denmark’s sinister The Defectors. Other bands have come from Peru, Brazil and even Finland. Most important, No Fun sells all foreign releases at domestic prices.
Many of No Fun’s releases are now available on vinyl per audience preference, not only giving the music the analog richness its timbre begs, but also providing the perfect 12-inch canvas to show off a band’s aesthetics. Be it retro new-wave group shots or wannabe posters for an Ed Wood movie, No Fun and its artists match album content with covers to produce records that are a complete artistic package.
Its efforts for artistic authenticity haven’t gone unnoticed by the cult following of fans that share in the enthusiasm for rock as it was meant to be played (Leo described them as the “cultish underground scene fond of nuggets from the past”). No Fun was the only label to sell out its showcase at the Motor City Music Conference. At another anniversary event in Buenos Aires, loyalists traveled from faraway corners of the world like Uruguay, Boston and Switzerland to get their fix of the label’s bands in action.
If No Fun’s mission reflects an obvious apathy for commercial prospects, it isn’t because a lack of business savvy. The label managed to survive the collapse of the Argentine economy in 2001, and then harnessed the effects to strengthen its business there. Successful maneuvers like that have enabled a grassroots, fan-and-band-oriented approach to thrive across two continents for 10 years.
By calling itself No Fun Records, it might seem the label’s attempting to convey its unwavering ideological commitment to its music. But it’s a music label, not a political party, and in this case, living up to that commitment means doing what you love. Bank on the name being underhanded sarcasm. It looks like everyone involved with No Fun is enjoying the ride.