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Scott Harmless
interview by: Mike Gibson October 2002
This interview was conducted live on Radio Free Chicago, an all Chicago music radio show broadcast on 88.7 FM, WLUW, on the north side of Chicago on Thursdays from 6:30-10PM. The host was Mike Gibson.

Mike/RFC: We got Scott from Harmless Records here in the studios with us tonight. He is the man in charge, the man with the plan behind Harmless. Scott, what did we just hear?

Scott: So what is this plan thing you’re talking about?

Mike/RFC: You know, you got the plan.

Scott: Alright, if you say so.

Mike/RFC: You better have a plan.

Scott: That was some old, old Harmless stuff. A band called My Foolish Halo and that’s their track off of a 1995 compilation that we put out called “Dad, Are We Punk Yet?” The song is called “What Is Shame?”

Mike/RFC: If I remember right, was that the first full length album that you released?

Scott: Yeah, that was the first full length release that Harmless put out.

Mike/RFC: How exactly did Harmless get it’s start. That record being your first full length album it was still your 7th release at the time. Tell us a little bit about the early days of Harmless Records.

Scott: Back then in Chicago, everything was still demos and 7”s. Not a whole lot of bands put out albums really, except for the bigger ones. What I’m saying is that back then it wasn’t unusual to have a punk label be around and have 10 releases and have 8 of them be ep’s. How I got the label started though. I was in a band called Chemical Blue in 1992.

Mike/RFC: I actually meant to bring the 7” in tonight and sneak attack you with it.

Scott: It’s funny. If you really want to, you can play the Chemical Blue track off of “Dad, Are We Punk Yet?”

Mike/RFC: I was actually going to play “Toad”.

Scott: Ah, even better. That’s alright, listen to Justin’s show on Friday night. He plays it all the time. Everytime I call in he’s got it waiting to antagonize me. Anyways, to say the least, it’s 10 years old and not that good. So yeah, I was in a band called Chemical Blue and we wanted to put out a record. We had this local label lined up to try and help us out, but they ran into some financial trouble and I really wanted to see it happen. I fronted the money and worked it out and started selling the record and found out that I really enjoyed doing this so I thought, “Maybe I should do some more records.” Chemical Blue had saved a couple songs to do a split 7” with somebody. Which means one band on one side and one on the other, and we found a band to do it with and I put it out and decided to make that my new record label’s first release. It kind of went from there.

Mike/RFC: How did you come up with the name?

Scott: There’s no great dramatic story or anything. I was just sitting there one day racking my brain trying to come up with a name, cuz the first Chemical Blue 7”, even though I released it, had somebody else’s name on it. We thought the label was going to help us so we put their name on the back of the cover and when it became clear that the label would not recover from their financial problems and I’d be the one paying for it, it was too late. So, it still had their name on the back of it. Even though I paid for it and it’s kind of my label’s first release, it doesn’t have my label name anywhere on it. It doesn’t say harmless anywhere on it. So, for my second record, which was really my first, I wanted to come up with a name and was just racking my brains and it just sort of popped in there and I thought, “Well, I’m not going to do any better than that.”

Mike/RFC: The name leaves itself open to a lot of junior high school jokes. I just noticed that someone on your guestbook recently left a pretty harsh message about the name. What are definitely some of the funniest things you’ve heard about the label?

Scott: Actually, not as much as you’d think. Just a lot of really obvious puns on the name. When I started, it was a punk rock label, and it still more or less is, but the joke was oh yeah, Harmless records, and I was going to be putting out the really visceral, aggressive sounding stuff. But of course, whenever I put out anything that’s the slightest bit light or not heavy in any way and the reviewer doesn’t like it then they say, “Oh yeah, Harmless Records, this is really Harmless. That’s really as creative as it gets. I admit, the name is a little juvenile, and I would never put out a compilation nowadays called, “Dad, Are We Punk Yet?” but, I was a lot younger then. I’ve been doing the label for about 10 years.

Mike/RFC: We’re going to get back into the music here. We’ll be back with Scott but we’re going to play another song that Scott put out. Tell us a bit about it.

Scott: It’s a band called Walker, another older one. This was Harmless’ 16th release. I had put out a couple 45’s for them and they actually made it to an album. One of those few Chicago punk bands that made it to an album, well, their really from Lafayette, IN.

Mike/RFC: Why did people think they were a Chicago band for so long. I mean, I grew up in Homewood and people from Homewood seriously thought that they were from Homewood. There was a kid in my high school that tried to find the house they lived in.

Scott: Yeah, Homewood had quite a punk scene going on back then and bands used to play there all the time and they’d play at this place called Off The Alley and Lafayette, IN is where Perdue University is, it’s about 2 and a half hours from here. Homewood is about an hour south of Chicago so Lafayette is right in between Homewood and Chicago.

Mike/RFC: You mean Homewood is right in between the city and Lafayette.

Scott: Yeah. I don’t do radio that often, as you could tell. I’d be great doing this professionally. So yeah, Homewood was right in between the two and it was a lot easier for Walker to get shows in Homewood and they were a lot easier for the band to get to. They played there so often that a lot of area people just assumed they were from there.

(Go listen to your Walker CD right now)

Mike/RFC: We are back. You are tuned into Radio Free Chicago on 88.7 and we got Scott Thomson here in the studio, the man in charge of Harmless Records. Say Hi.

Scott: Hi.

Mike/RFC: Again.

Scott: Again.

Mike/RFC: We were talking a little bit earlier about the starting of Harmless Records, how it sort of came about. Through all that time, you must have come up with a direction for the label. Where did you see the label going in the early days and compare that to what you are trying to achieve with the label now.

Scott: When I first started out my only real agenda was to put out records by Chicago bands that I liked. I never had a real strict policy of sticking only to Chicago bands. It kind of by default just ended up being that way. In the early days those were the only bands that I had the opportunity to approach. In the later days out of town bands would approach me but for whatever reasons it just wouldn’t work out. I realized that I actually preferred to work in situations where I could get to know the musicians fairly well and go see them live on a regular basis and feel like I had some sort of connection with them, whereas if I was working with out of town bands I’d only be able to see them when they were on tour or if I made a special trip to their town. It’s still not an iron clad rule, but I still work with 95% local bands. I also don’t really stick with just one sound. I just kind of like to try to document some of what is going on in the city, that I like. I’ll be fair about that. I don’t think I should do a record for this band just cuz a lot of people like them and are going to their shows if I’m not into it. So I don’t try to stick to one sound and I don’t go with something that I’m not into just because it’s popular. The range of stuff I’ve put out has really varied, partly because what has been going on in the Chicago underground scene has changed, but also because my tastes have changed as well. Like a lot of the early records are very punk rock or pop-punk and in the later records you get into more indie rock or emo or really aggressive hardcore.

Mike/RFC: Now your label definitely jumps around in sounds, you don’t narrow yourself into one genre, but you still have this stigma over your head of being a pop-punk label. I know it’s come up in talking to bands in the past. Why do you think you have this and how has it affected you as a label?

Scott: That’s actually been beginning to change over the last few years finally, but uhm, it’s pretty easy. When I first started off, out of my first 6 or 7 records, the ones that did really well were the pop-punk records. Winepress, Walker, The Mushuganas. All of these were pretty poppy, melodic records. And for every one of those there was a kendokwan record, which was aggressive indie rock, a My Foolish Halo 7” which is more abrasive. The other stuff was in there the whole time. It’s just the stuff that caught on was the poppier stuff. A label can get itself pigeonholed very quickly and it did take me a long time to break out of that and since it wasn’t something I was going for I wasn’t fully conscious of it, until one day I was calling a record store. I was putting out the Traitors 7”, the first record from that band, who are pretty aggressive hardcore punk band, and I was talking to a record store about it and the guy said, “Wow, the Traitors. Isn’t that pretty aggressive for Harmless?” And I said, “Oh no, no, I like hardcore, what are you talking about.” Then I thought back and could totally see how he got that impression. Then a couple years later when I was trying to branch out more and more a band that I would approach would say things like, “But you run a pop-punk label,” and I would respond, “I only run a pop-punk label because bands like you give me that answer. If you gave me a chance to do your record it wouldn’t be so much in one direction.” But that’s years passed. I really think I’ve smashed that mold. Not that I was embarrassed of my past. It was simple, Pop-punk had been around for a while and I had grown and matured and wanted to branch out into other things. I got interested in new bands and new sounds and new bands also started showing up more in the Chicago scene.

Mike/RFC: You’re talking about new bands and new sounds, but one of your newest records is a discography CD by the band Bhopal Stiffs, which is the oldest recordings that you put out on the label, yet one of your newest releases. Tell me about how that record happened and who the Bhopal Stiffs are. Why did you feel the need for the record to come out this much after the fact?

Scott: Sure. The Bhopal Stiffs were and old Chicago punk band who were around from 1985-1989. They put out a 10 song demo, a 2 song 45 and a 6 song 12” EP. They were most known for the EP, it was their last record. The reason people were into them and were checking out their stuff was that Larry Damore who sings for Pegboy and Steve Sailors who was the first bass player for Pegboy played in Bhopal Stiffs prior to Pegboy. Bhopal Stiffs were around for a long time. They were pretty well known and pretty well liked for back then. They did quite well in drawing crowds and all their releases were long out of print and very hard to find. There’s some releases that are out of print but enough were made so it’s not that hard to find them, but Bhopal Stiffs records were really hard to find. The way I got the idea, I just love Chicago music and I have a great deal of interest in the history of Chicago music. I have a great deal of respect for the past and those that have done this before me. I used to play in a band called The Letterbombs and I was talking to our bass player, Rob, who also has a great deal of respect for the old bands, and we were talking about stuff we really liked and records that we wished would be re-issued. I brought up the Bhopal Stiffs and he said it was a great idea and that I should really look into doing it. I did. It took me a while to track everyone down and everything. The more I talked about it and talked to others about it, the more I realized that other people were really excited about it and wanted to hear the stuff as well. Either they had never heard it and were curious about it because they had heard the mention of the band. “Oh, it was two guys from Pegboy. I really want to check that out.” Either that or people that had heard the older records at one point or had one record and not the other. You know, there was enough of an interest in it. Even though it was nothing like what I was doing at the time I still wanted to release the stuff. That’s not that unusual. For example, Touch And Go re-released the Effigies “Remains Not Viewable” compilation. That’s some old Chicago punk rock and they don’t really put out records like that anymore.

Mike/RFC: But I think the difference is is that the Effigies had lbums that came out and had more material that came out on a wider scale than that of the Bhopal Stiffs. What was going on in your head that convinced you that there was a definite need for this? Also, what has the response been after the record came out?

Scott: That’s true. They definitely weren’t quite as well known as the Effigies. I mean, a lot of older people remember them, but with the younger crowd they weren’t one of those bands, since their records were out of print, that had their records handed down and were known about. One record that really helped a lot that I have to give credit to is an old Chicago 7” called “Viva Chicago” which was a split 7” between 2 Chicago bands, The Bollweevils and 88 Fingers Louie. Both bands each picked 2 old Chicago punk bands to cover and 88FL chose the Bhopal Stiffs as one of their bands and did a song called Not Just My Head. This was sometime around 1993, 1994, and this was a lot of kids first introduction to the band. I remember that record coming out and really liking it and a lot of other people that liked it I knew of and again, it was, “Oh this band is great. Where can I get their record?” you can’t. So it was owhen the first idea came around. Like I said before, the more I talked to people about this record the more I found out that a surprising amount of people remembered this band and wanted it to come out or had heard about the band and wanted it to come out. The response I got has been great. It sold well. I got a lot of e-mails and letters from people who just wrote and said, “Thank you for making this available. I’m 35 years old now and I live in California. I’m from Chicago and I used to love going to see the Bhopal Stiffs and it’s wonderful to have this CD so I can listen to this stuff.”

Mike/RFC: Well, I think we should play a track off the Bhopal Stiffs CD “!985-1989”. What track are we going to hear?

Scott: It’s a track called Product of Society, actually, it’s just called Product. It’s off their 6 song EP entitled “E.P.A.” The last record they put out. It was put out long enough ago that there was no CD. Just vinyl.

Mike/RFC: Was there a cassette version?

Scott: Nope, no cassette version, although it was right in that time

(Go listen to Bhopal Stiffs sucka)

Mike/RFC: OK, we are back with Scott Harmless as he has become known around Chicago. We just played a set of all harmless stuff starting out with the Bhopal stiffs which we talked about earlier. After Bhopal stiffs we heard Dance and Destroy with Mission control! Mission Control! From the Self-Titled 7”.

Scott: Yeah it’s actually a limited edition 7”. There’s 300 copies of the record on two different colors of vinyl.

Mike/RFC: Yeah, and right after that we heard the Wayouts. Better days was the track and the EP that that was off of. You actually played in that band, right?

Scott: Yeah, I played guitar. That band has also been disbanded for a couple years. We played live here on the station several times and you guys played it a lot. WLUW was very supportive of us.

Mike/RFC: Then we heard Lying In States who was here live on the show last week. The track was called People. Now, that’s your newest release, right?

Scott: Yeah. It’s off their 6-song Cdep called, “The Bewildered Herd.” It comes out this week.

Mike/RFC: The last song we just heard before coming back on the air here was The Littleman Complex. That was an Untitled, unreleased track from The Littleman Complex. Tell me a little bit about that band. What is going on with them?

Scott: It’s the new band that I play in currently. We have a 5-song 12”/Cdep coming out in the next month or so.

Mike/RFC: Is that track going to be on it?

Scott: No, that song we haven’t quite figured out what we are going to do with it yet. It’s one of the newer recordings.

Mike/RFC: And you’re putting that out?

Scott: Yes.

Mike/RFC: What are your thoughts about, well, I’ve always fought with this dilemma. You’re in a band. You do a record label. Now if you release your own record, on one hand it could make it seem not as important, like, “Oh, he had to do it himself because nobody else would,” whereas on the other hand if you do put it out it shows you have enough confidence in your band to invest the time and money into it. What are your thoughtson this?

Scott: I guess, I’ve never had a problem with it. I’ve never worried that people would think I was putting out my own bands records because no one else would, well, maybe with the Chemical Blue 7”cuz it was true, but after that I was fortunate enough to be in good enough bands where that was never an issue. There was other people around who had made offers to put out the stuff from the other bands. A lot of the times the label I ran myself just happened to be the best alternative. I mean, there was interest though. You put out a record for my old band The Letterbombs. The Wayouts were on a few comps and had interest shown in them. The Littleman Complex, the same thing. We’ve been on some comps and have had offers to do records in the future. I guess what I’m saying is that enough people like the bands that I’ve been in that that doesn’t really bother me at all.

Mike/RFC: The Littleman Complex is going to be your 39th release?

Scott: Actually, it’s catalog number 35, but 37 and 38 are out already. What happened was the Seven Days of Samsara “Never Stop Attacking” CD and the Lying In States Cdep both scheduled afterwards, but both bands went out on tour this summer and The Littleman Complex was not able to because of work schedules, so I pushed our record back to get the touring bands records out so that they would have a record to tour on. Only seems fair.

Mike/RFC: Now you’ve been doing this for almost 10 years. You’ve put out almost 40 records and now, about 3 months ago you announced to a bunch of people that you are quitting the label. What happened?

Scott: Nothing immediate and dramatic. It was just a slow process of just kind of getting tired of it. You do something for 10 years and that’s a long time to do something. I’m just not into it as much anymore. The nature of independent record labels and independent music and punk rock has changed a lot in 10 years and what it means to run an independent label has changed a lot in 10 years and I’m not saying that everything that is going on now is bad. Nothing like that. It’s just that nowadays I feel that this climate and everything just isn’t really what I signed up for. I still love music. I still love playing music. As far as running a record company though, I’m just not enjoying it nearly as much as I used to.

Mike/RFC: Is this a definite quit for good, or is this just a “put it on the back burner until I find inspiration?”

Scott: I should know better. I almost quit 2 years ago and told a bunch of people and ended up changing my mind. I like to leave myself a back door, but this time I’m pretty sure this is it. I’m going to stop at least for a while. Sometimes when you get so caught up in doing something and you’ve been doing it for such a long time you really need to take a step back and not do it and see how you feel about it. Anything that takes a lot of devotion, like sports, musicians, you hear about this all the time, and I guess it’d be safe
to say that that’s what I’m planning on doing. Obviously I still have a couple of release coming up. I have the Littleman Complex EP. I have a Harmless Records 7” box set of a bunch of the old 7”s, so I’ll still finish those out, but I’m not scheduling anything new. At that point though things should be slowing down and I’ll see how I feel.

Mike/RFC: We’re gonna miss you Scott. We got another track from the Harmless catalog coming up. This is Aluminum Origami off the Nymb “Glass Eye EP.” We’ll be back with Scott Thomson after this.

(It’s now time for Nymb people)

Mike/RFC: OK, we are back with Scott Harmless and instead of chatting, we’re gonna get right back into another song. That was just Nymb that we heard. Now Scott. You’ve been doing the label for a long time. You helped me start my label by offering me helping advice. It seems that Chicago almost has more labels than bands nowadays. What advice can you give to someone out there starting a new label, other than not to?

Scott: Run Away!

Mike/RFC: Yeah, just don’t.

Scott: That’s tough because that all depends. I think the best advice is to just the best you can, be honest about your goals and what you want to do with the label. I know sometimes that goals change and you don’t know exactly where you want to go with it, but if you’re really trying to make some money and put your name on the map, just admit it and be honest with yourself about it. If you just want to release some records with some cool local bands you need to approach it from a completely different viewpoint. It’s hard to have it both ways. So I guess the best advice is to just be honest with yourself. Know why you are doing it and pursue it that way.

Mike/RFC: Can you explain the difference between releasing a record and actually selling a record, cuz some people assume they are one in the same and they really aren’t.

Scott: That’s true. If you are in a band or do a label you think about this sort of thing, but to most people it’s like a book. They think of the author and the story and not the publisher. Why would you, unless you’re into it? Releasing a record means you get the recordings, pay for it, get it manufactured and the CD’s show up at your house. Actually selling a record takes an extra step. You need to promote the record so people know it exists. Send it to radio and magazines and get it in stores. Get it into distributors and run ads. Hopefully if you do it well and the band tours and hopefully it will sell well. I’ve known quite a few people who have put out really good records by really good bands and the records have just failed miserably. They haven’t been able to sell them at all. I think there’s also a perception out there that if the music is really good it will eventually catch on. That’s not always the case and it’s not fair. Ask any record label guy and they’ll tell you about a great band that no one has ever heard of. There’s a lot of factors that go into it. The band has to play a lot, tour a lot, the label has to do a lot of promotion. It all costs money. A lot of money, and unfortunately you have to do this for people to know your record exists.

Mike/RFC: Especially nowadays.

Scott: Yeah, especially nowadays. It was easier 10 years ago. A lot of my earlier releases sold better. There were less labels back then.

Mike/RFC: So final advice on the label thing would be to not do it? Just don’t do it.

Scott: Ha ha ha ha.

Mike/RFC: Well, Scott, we really appreciated having you in tonight.

Scott: Thanks for having me, it was fun.

for more info on Harmless Records please visit:

The Wayouts
"Better Days"
Lynyrd's Innards
Lando's 45
"The End"
"Dad, Are We Punk Yet?"
go to catalog!

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