L to R: Jake Muilenburg, Matt Kolhede, Sam Mouser and Kim Roberts
I ask Matt Kolhede, the 22-year-old co-founder of Seattle’s Help Yourself Records, if he was surprised when his label’s first release, Chastity Belt’s No Regerts, sold out its 500-copy run in three months.
“Funny story,” he says. “I actually cleaned my room the other day and found 12 more copies, so I guess we’re not sold out anymore.”
Kolhede also informs me that although No Regerts was HY’s first release, it’s catalogued as HY002 thanks to a screwup at the vinyl factory.
As charmingly shambolic as Help Yourself Records is, the four recent grads who run the label are garnering the most national press for local music aside from Macklemore. Unlike the earnest rapper, they are doing it by releasing an onslaught of funny, slackadaisical punk music from Seattle about menopause, cheeseburgers, and taking horse pills. But while the HY crew may subsist mostly on pizza and beer, they are anything but slackers.
This month, the label has released three records—Childbirth’s It’s a Girl, Wimps’ Party at the Wrong Time, and Dude York’s Dehumanize—all of which have already landed on multiple national media outlets including Spin, Pitchfork, and Stereogum. More important, they are all really good records.
And No Regerts has set an impresive high-water mark for the label, becoming an international success, gaining plays on BBC radio, and winning over the British post-punk godfathers in Wire, who asked Chastity Belt to join them on a recent West Coast tour.
For a city that can sometimes get stuck on its bloated musical legacies, HY is bringing Seattle back to the core of what’s important about music—having fun. It’s built into the label’s drunken origins.
Finding themselves inebriated “somewhere” in Ballard in 2012, Kolhede, 22, and his friend Sam Mouser, 23, agreed that starting a label “would be awesome.” Some time after they sobered up, the two music-industry neophytes started looking for music to put out. Kolhede’s own shambling party band, Ubu Roi, was a given (the band’s Nice Dude EP was the delayed HY001 that Chastity Belt’s HY002 ended up beating as the label’s first release). Kolhede and Mouser wanted to roll out at least a few more bands on the label to start with.
Wimps: Rachel Ratner, Matt Nyce and Dave Ramm
Still students at the time, the duo hosted a UW radio show, Monday Night Pizza Party, on which they would order Domino’s and ask bands to perform in studio. One night Kolhede and Mouser invited their favorite Seattle band, punk trio Wimps, on the air. Bassist Matt Nyce proceeded to eat six slices of pizza.
“Wimps are great because their tunes are short, simple, and have a sense of humor,” Mouser says.
“Those pretty much became the core tenets of our label,” Kim Roberts, the label’s 23-year-old financial manager, chimes in.
At a house show, Kolhede and Mouser drunkenly pitched their then-nonexistent label to Nyce. Wimps had already signed over their debut LP to End of Time Records, but said they would consider a 7-inch if the HY crew could convince them.
“We asked them to send us a PowerPoint presentation about what they would do if we joined the label,” says Wimps’ frontwoman Rachel Ratner. “They Facebooked one to us that had charts with buzzwords like ‘SYNERGY’ and lots of clip art—so we knew they were the label for us.”
Wimps and HY agreed that they would figure out who got digital distribution rights in the record contract through a two-on-two basketball game at now-defunct punk venue The Funhouse. Wimps won, and it was decided that all the bands on the label would be given complete digital rights to their music; HY operates under the principle that since they only press the records, they should take portions of physical sales only. It should be noted that everyone at HY works a job on the side, and that, thanks to Roberts’ financial work, the label operates just above the red line. “She keeps us from going over the edge,” Mouser grins.
Part of the reason Help Yourself Records seems so vibrant is that it’s grown from the social network at the core of Seattle’s most exciting younger scene. “A lot of these bands are sort of casually formed out of extensions of friendships,” says Wimps drummer Dave Ramm—who was once Kim Roberts’ manager at the U District Barnes & Noble. When Mouser was 16, Ratner was his internship coordinator at KEXP; and Ratner often goes out for bingo nights with members of Chastity Belt and Childbirth.
Julia Shapiro of Chastity Belt and Childbirth
Chastity Belt and Dude York, who jointly spearheaded the music scene at Whitman College before both bands moved to Seattle, were also swept up in Help Yourself thanks to this friendliness. “We got to know the Help Youself guys after they started going to our shows more, and we’d started hanging out,” says Chastity Belt and Childbirth frontwoman Julia Shapiro. “When they asked us to be on their label, we were like, ‘Oh, these are just normal people, they are our friends, we don’t have to go through any weird, businessy label stuff with these guys.’ ”
Dude York shares a similar story. The band had agreed to sign to an independent British label, but were quickly disheartened by a series of impersonal messages, dead ends, and what they say were shady dealings on the label’s part that threw its record’s fate up in the air.
“The Help Yourself people were the exact opposite,” says Dude York frontman Peter Richards. “They were really personal and came to a bunch of our shows before signing us. I appreciate that they really tried to get what Dude York was about and what it meant before they signed us.”
Drummer Andrew Hall nods in agreement. “I feel like I can truthfully say they are the most honest music-business people I’ve ever dealt with.”
As goofy as the Help Yourself crew may seem on the outside, their success isn’t just happenstance. Kolhede, Mouser, Roberts, and Jacob Muilenburg (the final member of the HY team, in charge of art and aesthetic direction) gather every Monday at Linda’s Tavern for weekly “bidness meetings.” Roberts lays out the label’s finances, Kolhede and Mouser present potential promotional and media-outreach strategies, and everyone combs their list of contacts from past internships at labels and radio stations to seek help and mentorship when they need it.
“We’ve gotten so much help from other labels in Seattle,” says Mouser. “We ship all the records out ourselves from my parents’ house in Poulsbo, but Light in the Attic has helped us do distro before.”
“Sub Pop have been hella mentors too,” Roberts jumps in. “We want the label to be DIY but we also want it to be stable, and they’ve helped us so much by letting us pick their brain.”
But even the world’s most organized label wouldn’t survive without good music. Help Yourself succeeds by taking a complete snapshot of a new, thriving Seattle scene.
“We all hang out in this scene,” Ratner says. “We all come from this sort of similar life outlook in our music—you know, life’s shitty but it’s OK, things suck but they’re also funny. We aren’t trying to say ‘Nobody understands our pain or my artistic vision!’ It’s more like ‘No, everyone understands things are shitty sometimes.’ All these bands are sort of saying that same thing in their own way. It’s just all of us having fun.”
Check out Help Yourself Records catalogue here.