Interviews

Mike Hartsfield (New Age Records, Outspoken, A18, Done Dying, Freewill, Dear Furious)

Done Dying performing in Los Angeles, 2016. (Photo: Albert Licano)

Outside of Jordan Cooper (Revelation Records), it's tough to think of a record label owner who has been supporting the hardcore scene longer than Mike Hartsfield has. Ever since 1988, the California native's own New Age Records has released some of the most celebrated releases within the hardcore realm. Unbroken, Lifetime, Strife, and Turning Point are just a few of the bands that have issued records bearing the New Age Records logo.

In addition to his label, Hartsfield has also contributed to his beloved scene via his work as a musician in such groups as Outspoken, Freewill, and Done Dying. These days, Hartsfield is still keeping busy with New Age Records, signing up and comers like Drug Control and Abuse of Power, and he's also playing music again in a band called Dear Furious (more on that later).

I recently chatted with Hartsfield about his label's history and all of the band's he's played in throughout the years.

Where were you born and raised? 

I was born and raised in a town called Canyon Country in California. It’s now part of Santa Clarita (Santa Clarita Valley). It’s about 20 minutes north of Los Angeles. 

What were your parents like?

My parents were amazing. They were always supportive of my adventures, no matter how crazy. 

SEE ALSO: 2017 interview with Ras Joseph Israel I (Bad Brains).

Thinking back, what was Southern California like for you when you were a kid?

Growing up, it was all about BMX and skateboarding. Once I found music and shows, that was all I could think about. Southern California was pretty awesome in the ’70s and ’80s. I lived in the same house from 0 to 17-years-old, so I had a really stable foundation. Being just a short drive from LA, and before the traffic we have now, it was pretty great. I’ve heard my hometown has changed a lot since I left there, I plan on heading back sometime soon and seeing what’s up.

Mike Hartsfield and his BMX, circa late '70s.

I understand you were big into heavy metal before you discovered hardcore and punk. What kind of stuff did you like? 

Yeah, growing up, my oldest brother was into what would be considered “classic rock” while my brother just older than me was into heavy metal (Dio, Priest, Sabbath, etc), which I preferred, as well. I went to see my first concert in 1983; it was the Scorpions, Iron Maiden, and Girlschool at Long Beach Arena. I went to quite a few of the major arena shows. In ’84, I started going to the clubs and seeing bands like Armored Saint, Omen, Grim Reaper, Witch, Malice, and Rough Cutt. 

Photo: WorthPoint

I did a metal zine when I was 13 called Universal Brain Basher, and I got to do an interview with King Diamond that was seriously mind-blowing. He was such a rad guy. The metal clubs back then, Troubadour, Country Club, Roxy, were so amazing. In 1985, I discovered punk and hardcore and by 1986, I was primarily into hardcore. 

Photo: DemolishMag

How did you get introduced to hardcore? 

Thankfully, I met Paul Cranston, who I ended up being in Freewill with. He was into everything cool and got me back into skateboarding. Between him and Dan Adair (Outspoken) I really got my fill. Paul and Dan always had their feelers out and found everything cool first. Paul was the guy that introduced me to everything from Oxnard, Agression, Stalag 13, Ill Repute, RKL, you name it. He was also the guy that introduced me to Minor Threat and Uniform Choice. Both of those bands made a huge impact. Minor Threat because, well, they were Minor Threat and UC for many reason, one being that they were ours (So Cal). Plus, KXLU radio played so many good bands back then. That was our internet. First hardcore records for me were Agression’s Don’t Be Mistaken, Stalag 13’s In Control, Minor Threat’s Out of Step, and Uniform Choice’s Screaming for Change.

What were some of the early hardcore shows you got to see as a teen?

Shows were really crazy in the mid-’80s. The Olympic Auditorium and places like Fender’s Ballroom were war zones. Gangs (real LA gangs), punk gangs, skins... it was nuts, totally nuts. Huge brawls, weapons, metal detectors at Fender’s, riots in LA. My parents just knew I was out seeing bands, I never lied about where I was going, but I did hold back a few details. If they knew half the stuff going on, I would have been grounded till I was 101 [laughs]. Being able to go see bands like Uniform Choice, BL'AST!, No Mercy, 7 Seconds, Agression, Dag Nasty, Scream, and Insted was a pretty magical time.

SEE ALSO: 12 Newer Hardcore Bands to Check Out in 2017

At what point did you identify as straight edge, and did you drink/smoke before that?

I started smoking when I was 10 and was drinking by 12. When it’s in the house and you have access, 9 times out of 10 you will try it. Luckily, I figured out pretty quick that I wasn’t good at it, didn’t like it, didn’t care. It wasn’t hard to figure out it just wasn’t me. Around the same time I was getting into hardcore and discovered straight edge. It seemed so empowering; owning your choices, no excuses… I was really drawn to it. It was an easy fit and really worked and still works for me.

When did you make the transition into playing in bands? 

I was attempting to play for years, bought a handful of guitars and amps, starting maybe when I was 11. I think I thought if I owned enough of them, I would figure out how to play somehow. It never worked, even now [laughs]. Finally, when I was in high school, Paul asked if I knew anyone that played bass. I told him I had one, but actually being able to play it was a whole different story. Paul seriously taught me all the basics; how to play, how songs are structured, timing, etc. For the first time in my life I was “getting it.” 

Around the same time, I started playing with Paul in his band called Absent Reality/Absence of Reality. We had some basic, pretty solid songs but none had lyrics. Our friend, Matt Crane, was a musical genius. He would make up the lyrics as he went along. If you weren’t paying attention, it was solid as a rock; If you were listening closely, you’d realize he was talking about people at the show, skateboarding, slurpies, his favorite candy bars, you name it. He just made it up, every time. My brother was going to school with Matt from Infest. Through him, I heard that Infest’s bass player was going to be moving to second guitar and they would need a new bass player. I got the call. I listened to the demo and immediately knew I didn’t have the chops. I went to Matt’s house and we went over the songs; I was lost! They called a few times after that, but there was just no way I could pull it off. I blamed my inability to make it to practice on chores [laughs].

What’s the story behind Freewill, a band you’re currently playing in, but who had broken up around 1989?

Freewill started with myself and Paul and the remnants of Absent Reality (songs). We had changed the name and started to write a bit more seriously and actually had lyrics. There was a version (of Freewill) that played once at my parents house but the drummer couldn’t get there because he had gotten in trouble, so we ended up playing as a 3 piece [laughs]. It was terrible but fun. I had started a new skate/music zine and got a letter from someone saying he was trying to get a band together. It turned out to be Scott Gravois. He lived in Wrightwood, California (a local mountain town with a ski resort). I was in the process of moving to Big Bear (a different town with a similar ski resort) so we became friends. He knew Charley Trujillo and we ended up getting together for a day and all of the pieces fell into place and that became Freewill. 

It was the end of 1987. We had planned a Saturday practice but got snowed in for days. We wrote the entire demo. [Uniform Choice singer, Wishingwell Records owner] Pat Dubar heard the demo in early 1989 and we made a deal with Wishingwell Records. The label folded while the record was in the test pressing stage. They shut down and held onto the reels. In the late ’90s, Dubar sold our record to Lost & Found in Europe and then claimed the record had been "bootlegged.” Two years ago, the band and I decided it had been long enough and we got the layout elements together and released it on New Age Records. With the way things are now, everyone has really busy and different schedules but we have very realistic outlooks on the band. It’s still fun and we still write and record new material and play shows.

What were the labels that inspired you to start New Age Records, and how did you go about funding the release, Walk Proud’s Be Yourself  7”? 

There were’t any labels I was influenced by. I don’t think I understood really how independent labels worked. I just loved music and knew people that deserved to have the chance to put a record out. I was highly influenced by so many bands, but I didn’t really know there were just single people behind most of the records I was buying. I funded the label by working for a construction company that cleared out burned down houses to get them ready to be rebuilt and also by delivering pizza at night. It was pretty brutal. The Walk Proud record sold well, they were and still are great people and an amazing band. 

How did you go about distributing it and did it sell well?

As far as distribution goes, there weren’t too many stores that would pay outright for records, it was usually consignment, which didn’t always work out. I would drop off records and the store would literally be out of business (with our records) the next week. 

SEE ALSO: When Hardcore Bands Went Hard Rock

Every indie label makes mistakes, especially early on. What were some of the missteps you made during those first few years? 

Trusting everyone that came along. I wanted records everywhere when we started. I wanted the bands to get great responses at shows so we were a little too trusting to distributors that should have been watched much closer. Like I mentioned, there were a good amount of stores that closed owing money for records but getting hit from some bigger distributors over the years was really hard to swallow. We took a huge hit when [record distributor] Dutch East went out of business and we lost almost $30,000. It was crippling. Also, we trusted a few bands that took advantage of the situation by taking records/CDs/merch with the promises to pay for them when they got back from tours, but didn't. Those are the two biggest mistakes we made as a label.

After Freewill, you played in a band called Against the Wall that released a 7” called Identify Me in 1989 on Nemesis Records. Tell me about working with “Big” Frank Harrison. There’s a wonderful new book on the label and its history. 

I had actually quit Freewill to play in Against The Wall. It was a huge mistake I would realize later. As a founding member of a band, to being a “new” member of a band, you have a different connection to it. Joe Sprinkle wrote the Against the Wall music and he’s an unbelievable guitarist. I learned so much from playing with him. I went from playing bass (in Freewill) to playing second guitar (in Against the Wall) and Joe taught me how to survive. New Age Records was supposed to put out the Against the Wall Identify Me 7”. We’d already booked the studio time and announced it was going to be on New Age. 

Someone from the band approached me about going over to Nemesis and I was against it. I was told how Frank could “get us huge shows” and it was pretty much already decided because it was “best for the band” and I didn’t have a choice. Frank got us one show and that was it (that I remember, at least). We recorded the 7”. After Joe recorded his guitar tracks, I recorded mine. Troy, the bass player, recorded his tracks, as well. Joe and Troy both ended up wanting out of the band and left. Without my knowledge, both of their tracks were scrapped and Randy (the new bass player) had gone in and redone the bass tracks and the final mix was turned in. We played a handful of shows with the 4-piece line up. We had some fun but it was short lived. I was at the end of my rope and looking for anything to get out of the situation. I realized that Joe and Troy had left for some pretty legit reasons. Just prior to the record coming out, I left. When it came out, I saw the cover art and my jaw dropped; it looked terrible. But I was gone and it wasn’t my concern. The band had a small window where I think the stars aligned and things were awesome, but it was over pretty quick.

1990 saw New Age releasing Turning Point’s Its Always Darkest...Before the Dawn album. How did you initially hook up with the band? How well did that record do for the label? It’s obviously a hugely influential album in some circles.

Turning Point was a long shot with them letting us put the record out. It was just simply contacting them and deciding to do it. I think I just got Skip’s phone number and called him. He was friends with Mikey Fastbreak/Drift Again and I’m pretty sure that’s how we got the ball rolling. The record did pretty well. Once they got an offer to do the discography, they asked if they could take the record back for that and we let them.

Photo: Rockers.de

I’ve read that you played in a band called Enswell around this period, but I haven’t been able to find out much about the project. 

Yes! Enswell was a really fun band that was with myself (on drums, of all things), Evan Jacobs on guitar and vocals and Paul Miner on bass. We had a blast when we would play. Everyone was busy with jobs, school, other bands, etc., so we were off and on a lot of the time. Paul left and we got a different bass player. We added Todd from Gameface on second guitar at one point. It was a lot of fun. We recorded a split 7” with a band called the Piccolo Petes. I’m a lousy drummer.

After Against the Wall broke up, you joined forces with John Coyle of Stand Alone to form Outspoken. 

Starting Outspoken was a (musical) life saver for me. It started with some really good similar-minded guys that just wanted to really have fun and play straight edge hardcore. The first conversation John [Coyle] and I had when talking about the band was, who was going to sing? Both of us wanted to do it, but I trusted him way more than I trusted myself. The first Outspoken demo and the Survival 7” were all songs John had written the guitar parts and lyrics to. We were all straight edge and vegetarian so we knew those would be topics we would want addressed. 

SEE ALSO: 2017 interview with Rachel Rosen (Indecision, Most Precious Blood, Milhouse, Caninus, The Wage of Sin).

What are some of the show highlights from the first couple of years of Outspoken? You shared many bills with some great bands.

Yeah, there were some good ones. We played some tiny shows, less than 10 people but they were great times. We played at Simi Valley High School in (’91?) and that was set up by the Strife guys (prior to Strife). It was the first show I remembered where we were becoming a band that could headline. The shows were always fun. We should have done so much more with the opportunities we were getting offered. The early recordings were also a lot of fun. Dubbing cassette demos, driving out to shows in Phoenix, Nor Cal, Portland, Seattle… really good times.

At the same time you were doing the label and Outspoken, you also played in Drift Again. That stuff had more of a groove-based approach to it. Was that aspect of the project what sparked it in the first place? 

Drift Again was Dennis (from Outspoken) and I, plus Randy, (Against the Wall/Pushed Aside) and Mikey, who did Fast Break fanzine. Mikey wanted to do something that wasn’t “just hardcore” so I ended up writing some riffs and we got some traction early on. It was a post hardcore, driving style, not too far from the Quicksand sound that was influential around that time. We did a demo (as Solitude), the Words to Live By comp, then the self-titled 7”. We got to a point where we were each coming up with new song ideas but they were so different from each other, we just stopped playing. It ended just like that.

Why did Outspoken decide to break up in 1994? Was it a matter of life responsibilities getting in the way? 

Well, certain guys couldn’t or wouldn't tour and it was an either “shit or get off the pot” scenario for me. Outspoken should have been touring, yet we were turning down incredible offers. For the guys that wanted to get more serious with music, it was time to move on and we did. 

Mike Hartsfield dropping riffs with Outspoken, 1990. (Photo: Facebook)

What are you most proud of in terms of what you guys did with Outspoken? 

The Current 7” is the best thing we recorded, in my opinion. If we could have gotten serious and done an LP after, it could have really been something. Also, the fact that we did our first west coast tour in my 1988 Ford Escort was pretty magical. We had a car top carrier and just borrowed drums and cabinets at the shows.

How did Unbroken enter your orbit? What was it about the band that appealed to you from the start?

[Guitarist] Eric Allen sent me their first demo and I just fell in love, don’t know why. It was really rough but I knew they were passionate. Once I saw them, I was sold. They are one of the greatest group of guys I have ever some across. They were amazing together and individually.

Unbroken circa 1995.  (Photo: Rich Cook)

Another band that you worked with in the early ‘90s was Strife, and you even played with them for a spell.

The Strife guys were coming to see Outspoken in the early ’90s and around the same time, they were forming Stand As One which eventually became Strife. I joined the band right before recording the demo and stuck around long enough play in the My Fire Burns On EP. I can’t remember why I quit, but I think it was 1992. I rejoined in 1994 playing bass and did east coast and Europe tours (with Sick of it All). Europe was really eye-opening for me. When I got back, it was time for something new.

SEE ALSO: 2016 interview with Rob Moran (Unbroken, Narrows, Some Girls, Over My Dead Body)

1995 was the year The Suppression Swing debuted with the Just a Word 7” on New Age. You played guitar in that band. 

The Suppression Swing was being put together in my head as the Strife Europe tour was ending. I even tried to recruit Todd from Strife for a while. Jason Hampton, who was the last bass player in Outspoken said he wanted to take a shot at vocals. It was a band we had some fun with but musically I thought we never really meshed. It didn’t seem really organic and I think at times may have come off  as forced. We had a couple descent songs, though [laughs].

The late ‘90s were a weird time for hardcore, at least from my view. What’s your take on that era of the scene, and how did the label do during those years?

It was a strange time. That was when we (New Age Records) took that big financial hit from the distributor I mentioned earlier. We shut down our warehouse and worked out of a bed room. It was just like our humble beginnings in 1988 [laughs]. It was rough for years. The scene was really changing and we had a shortage of venues in southern California. It seemed like a lot of bands that had been around for years were breaking up and the new stuff was different from what kids had been used to.

Amendment Eighteen was a band that appeared in 2000 featuring you along with some other well-known musicians from the hardcore scene. What was the mission statement with that project?

It was a huge middle finger to a lot of things we were sick of in the ’90s. We pointed a lot of fingers and called people out on their shit. It wasn’t a popular approach to say the least, but that’s not what we were looking for. We found our best shows outside of Southern California, mostly in Utah, the Midwest, and Europe. We stayed really busy touring and recording/releasing records. A18 was the most fulfilling musical experience in my life to this day. We busted our asses as a band to stick it out and make the best of any situation. I’m really proud of all of our recordings but especially the last record we did on Victory Records called Dear Furious.

Done Dying is a band that features Dan O’Mahony (No For An Answer, 411) on vocals, and you were a member for a few years, till around last year. Why did you decide to move on?

It was time. I was really exhausted with my work and life schedule at the time. There were also issues that came up when we were putting the LP (We Dream or We Die) together that really rubbed me the wrong way and I think my interest started to fade. I was pretty sure I was done with music completely. How many times can you start a band, dedicate years, hope for the best, have some fun, record some records and then have to start all over again? I’m not getting any younger [laughs].

Before this interview, you mentioned to me that you were playing in a new band called Dear Furious. What’s the story there?

Isaac (from Chorus of Disapproval and Amendment Eighteen) and I had been working on something kind of low key and had been in touch with Brian Manry (Mean Season). I had really wanted to work with Marc Jackson (Throwdown) for years and he was in touch with Matt Horwitz (Adamantium) and it kind of came together really quick and we were demoing songs before we knew it. We just finished recording four songs and we are mixing it next week. We’re all really happy with it. We’re starting to book a few shows right now. 

SEE ALSO: Best Orange 9MM Songs

Let’s talk about the future of New Age Records. Some of your more recent signings include Abuse of Power, Drug Control, and Safe and Sound. 

I’ve got a really good friend named Steven and he does a label called Outlast Records. He’s an amazing guy. We talk about music all the time and he seems to know exactly what I like. He turned me on to Abuse of Power and Drug Control. Since then, we added Safe and Sound, Cutting Through, and Decline. I’m having a blast; we are in such a good spot with good people and great music. I’m really happy with things right now.

If you had to pick three New Age-released records (EPs or albums) that best define the label’s legacy to date, which ones would they be and why?

The legacy that stand outs to this date seems to be Unbroken's life. love. regret, Turning Point's It’s Always Darkest…Before the Dawn, and Lifetime's Background. Those were three landmark releases for us, first and foremost being life. love. regret. That recording cost only $850 and completely changed hardcore for a lot of people.

***

Head to the New Age Records website to find out more about their upcoming releases.

comments powered by Disqus