Nate Phillips is a cult collector of the highest order. A massive fan of exploitation cinema, the Iowan has amassed a tremendous VHS collection, rivaling the mom and pop video rental stores that sprouted back in the mid-'80s all over the US. Whether it's an obscure slasher flick, or one of the many Escape From New York rip offs that came out of Italy in the '80s, Phillips probably owns an original copy.
The singer of thrashing powerviolence purveyors Traffic Death, Phillips also runs an online storefront called Media Crypt where he sells limited edition run t-shirts featuring the logos of long-gone VHS companies like Vestron and Rae Don. I started following Phillips on Instagram last year, and I've enjoyed keeping up with his VHS finds. Since I wanted to dig deeper into his VHS obsession, I reached out to Phillips to learn more about his upbringing and collecting methods.
When and where did you grow up and how did you get into music?
I grew up in Des Moines, Iowa. How I got into music is kind of a long story, but I will try and make it short. At an early age I was into the usual '80s kid stuff like Weird Al and Michael Jackson, but at the age of 7 I went with my dad to go see Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure in the theatre. I thought those dudes were the coolest, even if they were supposed to look like idiots. After the movie we went to a store called Musicland that used to be in the mall here, and I remembered the scene where the king says, "Put them in the Iron Maiden," and they of course say, "Iron Maiden... excellent!!" I looked through the CDs at the store and found a copy of Iron Maiden's Seventh Son of a Seventh Son and convinced my dad to buy it for me. I have never been the same since.
A couple weeks later, I was at school, third grade, and a kid that lived down the street from me commented on my Iron Maiden shirt saying, "Cool shirt!" So, after school, I went down to his house to see if he was as obsessed with Maiden as I was. What I found instead was his older brother sitting on the porch organizing a cassette carrier waiting for a ride. We started talking as I was then realizing he was the real Iron Maiden fan! He then turned me on to all kinds of stuff like Misfits, Danzig, Suicidal Tendencies, Gwar, Napalm Death, Dismember, Twisted Sister, Obituary, Nuclear Assault, Death, General Surgery, and any of the crazy thrash/death stuff that was coming out in the late '80s and early '90s. Soon after that, he became my babysitter and I have a very fond memory of him giving me a copy of The Cramps' Bad Music for Bad People for my 8th birthday. By that time, I had seen Metallica live, and by the time I was 10 I saw Gwar at First Avenue in Minneapolis on the America Must be Destroyed tour! My dad probably wishes he could take that one back.
Did your love for horror cinema develop around that same period? How did you discover new titles to watch?
It was pretty much the same time. My brother had a friend whose parents were never around after school, so from 3:30pm to 5:00pm or 6:00pm on weekdays they would let him rent some of the bigger-name horror titles. We could usually squeeze in a horror movie before anyone would notice in the afternoon. Early on, it was mostly Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm St., and the Halloween titles. I think they thought they were okay because they were Hollywood movies. I don't know that they would have let him rent any real crazy stuff, but when you are 7 or 8 those movies seem pretty real. After my parents figured out we were watching those movies over there, my dad started to let us rent stuff from the local stores like Showtime Video, Video Warehouse, and 5-Star Video, but he would try and cover our eyes anytime something cool would happen. We could, of course, see right through his fingers, so this proved to be very ineffective. As I got older in middle school and early high school, I had a couple friends who turned me on to all kinds of stuff. They would get tapes from Blackest Heart Media, so we watched a lot of Italian flicks like Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, along with other feel-bad movies like Island of Perversion and Aftermath. That's when I started to realize that just like there are underground bands, there are underground movies.
So that must have been the point you started paying attention to B-movie studios like Media, Vestron, and United Home Video.
I noticed when I was younger that a lot of my favorite movies at the time were on Vestron. Stuff like Rocktober Blood, Gleaming the Cube, Monster Squad, and Pieces. This list could go on for pages. All these companies put out a certain kind of movie, they are not all amazing, but you know when you pick up a Vestron title the kind of caliber flick they are going to give you. If you want it a little lower budget, head over to their subsidiary Lightning Video and you can find a whole other breed of movies. I also just remember the excitement of sitting down on the couch (no stupid cell phone to play with or other distractions) and that opening screen with Media or Vestron or Prism and just knowing that it's about to happen... prepare to be entertained!
As far as collecting specific companies, I ended up over at my friend Shane's house in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. He sings for a band called the Lurking Corpses and they totally kick ass. Anyway, he had his collection all organized by company, and I really liked the way it looked, very clean and organized. Plus, doing it by catalog number really makes it look nice. I ended up doing this to my collection for a few years, but found myself buying tapes just because they were on a certain company—reguardless of if they were anything I would ever watch—so I went back to organizing my tapes by genre, alphabetically.
Do you primarily find things on eBay? What other avenues do you use to track titles down?
When I first started to really go for broke, like seriously collecting all the titles I had always wanted to see that I remembered peering at me from the shelves of the video store as a child, in my mid- to late-20s I stumbled upon an old store called Video Connection in a town called Oskaloosa here in Iowa. The same owner had been there since 1979. His name was Alan McKee, and man he had an amazing and huge assortment of tapes out there. He would do $2 or $3 a tape, and had most everything sorted and alphabetized. I remember finding stuff like Video Violence and Video Violence 2 by just going to the "Horror" section and looking under "V"! I probably dug around out there eight to 10 times at eight hours each time and I still feel like I could have found more if I just had more time. One day, I got a call from someone who knew I liked to go out there letting me know that Alan had passed away and his kids were going to auction everything off. I managed to get in there one last time with a buddy of mine and I found a motherlode of big boxes inside the house where I had never been allowed to go before, stuff like Make Them Die Slowly, Ms. .45, Oasis of the Zombies, etc.
I also have found good stuff at thrift stores and second-hand places, but that is becoming much more rare to find anything really great. I also picked up a huge amount from a hoarder house I got a call on a couple months ago were I ended up with well over 1,000 great titles, half of which I owned already, so I was able to sell/trade them to get other stuff that I needed. On a couple occasions, I have picked up other old private collections, and just like anybody, I assume, I do buy stuff online here and there. Some titles you are just never going to find at Goodwill. You will never walk into a Goodwill in the year 2016 and find Seven Doors of Death, or a Continental Video copy of Nightmare, it's just not going to happen.
It's funny, I've only been friends with a few people who are up on companies like Vestron and Media, but they're all really into it!
I have several friends that I have met through this world. I am not on Facebook, or it would probably be a larger number. Still, I am on Instagram and I find it is very easy to talk to people that have this same obsession. It helps my wife, so I don't talk her ear off while she's trying to work because I'm thrilled I just acquired another Rae Don title, or how it pisses me off that I got outbid—probably by someone who wasn't even alive when the movie came out. Still, in that same regard, I am glad younger people care about these old movies, because they are way better than anything that's coming out these days. People at work will ask me if I saw some new movie and I have to tell them, "I still have 1,000 movies at home I need to watch."
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I know you also collect cassette tapes. Has it gotten tougher to find stuff you want since people are all into cassettes now?
I used to be able to buy whole crates of cassettes at record stores for $10 to $20. These days, there seems to be single tapes that fetch that kind of price. I go through long dry spells on cassettes, but when I do find one, I seem to find 10, so I still have decent luck. I am sure that will be less and less as time goes on and the internet ruins everything.
You run Media Crypt, an online store where you sell t-shirts featuring the logos for some of the movie studios we previously mentioned, plus ones with the VHS cover art for films like Creepers and Video Violence. How did you learn how to screenprint, and what has the reaction been since you put your store online?
I have been screenprinting for 17 years now, it started out of necessity. I was in a band, we wanted shirts, and everyone was $10 to $12 to make the shirts for us. I decided I would learn how to make them instead and save us a bunch of money, as we wanted to sell them for $10, not pay $10. I tried and failed a bunch, as I didn't know anyone who screenprinted, and burning a screen was not as easy as I thought. I finally found a punk friend in Minneapolis who was willing to give me a tutorial, so I told my parents I was flyering for a show and borrowed the car and drove to Minneapolis to learn how to burn a screen. After that, I knew I could figure out the rest. We went to a copy store and made the films, he had a coated screen and we burnt it using a homemade table (which I re-created when I got home). It worked well, so I headed home and started printing. After a couple years I ended up getting a job at a screenprinting shop where I learned tons more. At one point, I had a job running a little shop where I had to do everything, so I got really good at it.
Following that, a friend of mine and I started an at-home print shop starting with just a flat art table with hinges on it, saving everything we could from doing custom orders to finally work our way up to a four-color press, which was just the top part—we had to build a wooden base for it.
For years, we printed shirts for local tattoo shops, skateboard shops, and bands—followed by doing limited edition record covers for a label out of Madison, Wisconsin called First Blood Family. We also got to do covers for Machetazo, Bathtub Shitter, and Nailed Down. It was time-consuming but fun work, but back then, before we had a real conveyer drier, we had to cure our Plastisol with a paint-removing gun, which led to long nights in toxic smoke-filled rooms. But we didn't care about any of that back then, it was just fun to be doing something for cool bands and places. I just decided recently to combine my love of film with my love of screenprinting and see what happens. Media Crypt is me attempting to do what I love.
Tell me about Traffic Death. The stuff I've heard on the band's Bandcamp page rips!
Thanks, man, I am glad you dig what we are doing. Quite a few people don't get it, but I think a lot of people want just a "thrash" band or just a "grind" band, or whatever labels people seem to put on their music, but we just do whatever we think sounds good and have a good time doing it. The band was formed out of an idea I had when I was working with our guitar player, Garan, and that simple idea was that I wanted to play in a band with him and the bass player from my long-running band, Black Market Fetus. We had recently called it quits and I felt he was the one dude in that band that I worked really well with on every level. We then talked about drummers and our buddy, Brian, who is also in a band called NGDS, seemed to be a good fit for what we are doing. It is also very important to find people to play with that understand that it's not for money and you are doing it because you love to do it. Everyone in this band gets that. We all threw in right away financially on the idea that we release a 12" right off the bat to showcase what we are doing. So, that's what we did the first year, with a handful of regional shows like Minneapolis, Chicago, Ft. Wayne, Omaha, and, of course, a handful in Des Moines, but we only play here once a month, at the most. Sometimes it is three months between shows. I hate it when bands play two times a week. Black Market Fetus was my main thing from 1997 to 2011. I was also in a band from Denver called Catheter for four years or so. We did a ton of touring, but made no real recordings to speak of.
It's hard to describe Traffic Death's sound. I usually tell people it's "violent crossover." Hells Headbangers said that and I like the way it sounds. Our influences are all over the place, we listen to everything: thrash, death, doom, grind, punk, old school hardcore... really anything that has attitude and makes an impression.
You used to book shows in your basement back in the day, right?
I started to book basement shows in the late '90s because nobody was bringing the kinds of bands I wanted to see to Des Moines. I figured if they were playing in Minneapolis and/or Lawrence, Kansas, I could convince them to come here! So, some of the first bands I booked in Des Moines would be Calloused, Onward to Mayhem, Pontius Pilate, React, Septic Tumor, Hollowed Out, Despite, Aus-Rotten, Broken, Catheter, Laughing Dog, State of Fear, Shitlist, Skarp, Bread and Water, and Walken. At some point, I ran a venue called the Fallout Shelter and had bands like Tragedy, R.A.M.B.O., Municipal Waste, Vöetsek, Bodies Lay Broken, Goatsblood, Fuerza X, Submachine, Caustic Christ, and Against Me! play. Then I did bar shows where I had bands like Pentagram, Watain, Marduk, MDC, Verbal Abuse, Dayglo Abortions, Skeletonwitch, Weedeater, Black Cobra, and Wolves in the Throne Room come through. Someday I should really sit down and try and list all the bands I have done shows for, because this is just off the top of my head.
Going back to the VHS world, what are some titles that you have high on your wish list right now?
My VHS wishlist is always growing and then shrinking and then growing even bigger, but a few I would really like to own would be 2020 Texas Gladiators, Alien Factor, The Abomination, Blood Lake, Deadly Breed, Hellroller, Maximum Breakout, Satan's Blade, and Twisted Brain. There are plenty more on the list, but these are the highlights. Feel free, anybody that reads this, to hit me up if you have any of these titles at [email protected].
Looking at your current VHS collection, which three titles would you say are your most prized and why?
That's a hard question, but I would have to say Rocktober Blood, Deadly Prey, and Suburbia. They are the most prized because I found them all in the wild (which is the best way to find anything, and the best feeling), and they are all movies that I could watch over and over and never get sick of. I have ones that are more rare, but who cares?
If you had to pick one '80s film that best illustrates what exploitation cinema is about, what would it be? I would definitely go with Vice Squad myself.
Vice Squad is amazing, you just can't mess with Wings Hauser as Ramrod in that movie! There are so many movies out there and so many kinds of exploitation. The movie that comes to mind for some reason without any thought is the Andy Sidaris movie Hard Ticket to Hawaii. That movie is really good fun and has so much out of control stuff in it that you can just watch it over and over again. I highly recommend that one.
What can we expect from Media Crypt and Traffic Death in 2016?
With Media Crypt, I am just going to keep pumping out designs as long as I keep finding video labels I want to do. I also plan on branching off and doing more movie shirts as I come up with titles that work for the way I am doing the art on these. With Traffic Death, we just finished recording for the split 7" with the Lurking Corpses and already have the cover art done—once again by the amazing Alexandros Pyromallis, who did the artwork for the last EP, Terror on the Freeway. We are also going to start writing for a new full-length in February/March and see what we come up with.