Since its birth in the mid 70's, punk music has evolved a lot and is nowadays seen as a mature genre of music. Characteristic for its strong-minded attitude and assertiveness, and for occasionally crossing over into the boundaries of aggression, it has become an essential part of the music world. The times of the legendary Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Stooges and MC5 are long since gone, and it is now more accessible than it ever was. In some ways that might have lost it some of its inspiring character, but this has definitely been made up for by the speed in which it has developed.

One of the biggest contributors to this development is without doubt the Bedfordshire based English record label, Boss Tuneage. Releasing and distributing records by almost 70 bands from all over the world, it is one of the busiest labels on the punk scene. It is all of it centralised around just one person, its boss Aston Stephens. As well as his label work, Aston also manages a day job and somewhere between that, on and off, also leads a private life. To do this obviously requires a deep passion and love for music. When I talked to him for an interview for Pennyblackmusic in a cafe on Camden High Street in London, Aston convinced me that he had plenty of this.

“Originally, I got into the music when I was 15 and started doing a punk fanzine called IG” explains Aston, while pouring a Pepsi into his glass. “That’s how I got in touch with a lot of bands. I did interviews with them and also did a couple of compilations with them."

Aston also played in a band called Sickbus, but his original idea of conquering the world as a bass guitarist never happened, and after only 4 gigs the Lincolnshire based band split up.

Before Aston got into punk music, he was also briefly a fan of other styles of music. “My taste changed” he admits. “I went through some changes like being into death metal and UK hardcore stuff.”

“The first punk gig I ever went to was in 1988 when I was sixteen“ he recalls with excitement. “It was at the Boston Indian Queen in Lincoln where I saw Vehicle Derek, a local band who I later did a record with , Mega City 4 and Snuff, who had been going like 3 or 4 weeks then. It was their first gig outside of London! And that just changed it. That was it for life.”

“At that time there was only Vinyl solution in UK doing that kind of music" Aston continues. "And so it just was like a natural progression to do the fanzine. Then I decided to release a 7” split single by Vehicle Derek, and another band, Goober Patrol (Norwich based, ,now on Fat Wreck records)."

The single was limited to 500 copies and sold out within 3 weeks. Unfortunately Aston didn't have enough money to invest more into the label as he was still studying at university at the time. The label continued to release records in fits and starts depending on Aston’s finances, and how busy he was at the time.

Finally, in 1994 he started working for Earache records in Nottingham (home at the time to Napalm Death, Extreme Noise Terror, Pitch Shifter, Fudge Tunnel, Dub War, etc.).

“Trying to do my own label became impossible at that time” he recalls, “so I had to stop doing it but always wanted to start it up again.”

For four years from 1995 onwards Boss Tuneage didn't release anything. Aston, however, kept thinking about restarting the label again, and finally, in 1999 he released another record, a 7” ‘Signposts And Alleyways’ by a band from Exeter in England called Annalise. It was to prove to be the turning point in his career as a label manager.

“I did 250 7” singles by Annalise,” he says “and I said: “Right! If those sell I might do something else.” And it just went mad.”

Shortly after the single's release, an old Boss Tuneage fan, Kazu Uchida, from Tokyo in Japan got in touch with Aston and suggested that they collaborate together.

“At that time he actually worked in the Rough Trade store in Tokyo” explains Aston. "And he had his own small label in Japan. He suggested that he could sell my releases exclusively. I said “Yeah! You can be my Japanese office.” All of the sudden he took a lot of stuff. Even the old stuff that I did when I was a student which I had had in my bedroom in my parents house for 5 years. That meant I could really get things going again."

As well as various UK bands, Boss Tuneage also has on its roster several bands from abroad, and in particular several from Canada. These include, as well Rise, the influential punk group the Nils, Chino (the former Nils' frontman's Alex Soria's latest band),and Stand GT. How did Aston get in touch with these groups ?

“Basically I did a 7” single by Asexuals, ‘Fettered’, back in 1993" explains Aston, "which was released conjunctly by a German label and me . When I started the label up again in 1999 I managed to track down Shean, the guitarist from Asexuals, and he asked me if he wanted to do a best of the Asexuals CD. They were one of my favourite bands of all times, so I said “Great! Yeah!” and since then I have had one band recommending another to me. The Boss Tuneage name has been all around Montreal and now has spread out to Ottawa and Vancouver as well.

As well as working with bands individually, Boss Tuneage also collaborates with the Canadian label Mag Wheel, which is based in Toronto, and Does Everyone Stare records from Edmonton.

"Woody Whelan, who runs Mag Wheel, did the best of the Nils” says Aston “and told me that he didn’t have any UK distribution, so I said I will do UK release for him. At the moment I’m hoping that Woody and I will do another Nils CD of totally unreleased stuff that features different versions of their singles, and also a whole album that never came out when they reformed for a while in 1990.”

"The bands that I deal with are generally really down to Earth." insists Aston. "They know what they are doing and are happy with me. I prefer dealing with the band directly rather then involving managers, and it has always worked really well."

Boss Tuneage' signing policy with its bands is very simple.

“Most of my bands pay their own recording bills,” reveals Aston "In some cases though the other labelsthat they are on pay the band’s recording costs. For my bands that means that they own their own records and have the whole ownership. I have to ask their permission if I want to repress something by them. We do a 50:50 profit split, so the bands can get the money together to go out on tour. I also give the bands a lot of free CDs from the first pressing. They, therefore, have something to sell on tours to make some money and, as they keep the ownership with the record as well, they can’t lose really. Most of the bands have full time day jobs. They are not trying to make a living out of it, which makes a difference as well."

The bands also take responsbility for designing their artwork for their own records.

"A lot of bands do their own design work and others get friends to do it" reveals Aston. "I don’t want to interfere. The band knows how they want it and I know a lot of labels would say: “No, you can’t have that cover.” I’m quite happy for the bands to do whatever they want. I’m just happy to be releasing their music."

"The band also has complete control over which song goes on their record." Aston adds. "Sometimes I make suggestions, but at the end of the day it’s totally the band’s decision. I just think that’s fair"

As well as America, Boss Tuneage has also been attracting quite a lot of attention in Europe. Lately it has been from the largest punk magazine from Germany which is going to be featuring Boss Tuneage in one of its forthcoming issues.

"I’m doing a free CD for the magazine which is rather nice" reveals Aston. "It’s on a shoe string. I haven’t got any radio plugger or press agents and it’s just me sealing up jiffy bags and sending music out."

If you bought a Boss Tuneage record in the build up to Christmas, you might have been treated to a 29 bands compilation which given away by Santa Claus Aston with every purchase.

“The sample CDs are the best sellers.” Aston says. “We did a sampler last summer featuring nearly 30 bands for only £ 2 and it sold really well. We tried to keep it as cheap as possible. Hopefully there will be something people will like and then the idea is to get them to buy an album by the band they like. We have our third one coming out this summer, but because the label has grown so much bigger in the year since the last one it’s going to have to be double CD featuring 50 bands and its price should be under £ 5."

The number of bands thronging onto Boss Tuneage is really quite remarkable and still going up.

“There are a few more bands I’ve just signed but I’m slowing down" admits Aston, "because it’s getting to a state where there are too many people to deal with."

"I do get a lot, lot, lot, lot of demo tapes." Says Aston. "In the early days I was actually sending back a sampler Boss Tuneage CD.There's just too many to do that for now. I still listen to all of them. The problem is that most of the bands just sound like copies of nu-metal punk band bands such as Blink 182, the Offsprins, Green Day and Sum 41.”

”My criteria is that I have got to hear them and like them” reveals Aston. “Most of the bands are recommended by another band on a label I am in touch with already. It really has been a case of one band leading to another. So I always say the bands are my best A & R people, but at the end of the day it has go be something I like."

"A good example of that is a band called Five Foot Nothing who were from Canada." Aston reflexes. "I released their CD which was originally a 12 year old demo tape. They had split up shortly after recording tit. It was absolute commercial suicide to release an unknown band 's 12-year-old demo tape and no one really knew who they were! I just put it out because I liked it and I sold just about enough copies to cover my cost on that ."

The greatest opportunity to see at least some of Boss Tuneage bands together playing is to attend one of the label's occasional all day shows. The next one is planned in London for October.

"We are going to have 12 bands at the Verge" announces Aston proudly. "We are going to have 2 American bands headlining, Pavers and Woolworthy who will be touring in Britain from October 22nd - 25th and then closing at the all dayer on the 26th, There will be band called The Miles Apart from Italy, who also played the last all dayer and are actually now going to be on the label, and 8 or 9 bands from UK and on Boss Tuneage including Scarper!, Annalise, Blocko, and K Line."

As regards tours, the bands or their home labels in Canada and the US organize all their own bookings. Aston used to manage the whole of Europe, but that, however, is going to change.

"I found a guy in Germany as a tour agent." explains Aston" He is going to organize European tours, which means that a lot of bands can come over, and play. It has been the last ring in a chain really."

“Another plan ” Aston continues, “is that one of the US bands will tour with one of the UK bands and they will go together on tours in Europe, use the same equipment, the same transit and everything so that should be good."

Aston's love for his music seems endless. There is no doubt that he would want to do Boss Tuneage full time.

"Yeah I’d love to ." he agrees. "I really do enjoy my day job and like the people I work with but one day it would be great to do only the label. But I would want to do it so I was making living out of it but not having to put my prices up or charging more for things.

"None of our CDs in the shops shouldn’t be sold or more then £9.99" continues Aston. "And I’m really determined I don’t want to put prices up on that. I know how I feel when I go into a shop to buy a CD . If it’s £10. then I will consider it but if it’s more then I tend to leave it."

"The label seems to be more popular I think." Aston says, rounding off our coversation as the cafe about to shut up for the night "The main problem is actually people knowing that the label exists because we haven’t got big adverts. I rely more on underground fanzines more and punk fanzines. It does mean you rely on the kids on a street , but their word of mouth is always good and will spread a lot."

“I actually did a trick when I started up the label.” helaughs. “The first 7” single I did, 'Signposts And Alleyways' by Annalise, was hand numbered and I made a list of all the numbers and which journalist I sent which number and then I went to record and tape exchange at Notting Hill Gate 2 weeks later and saw which numbers were sent straight there so those people went straight off the list.”

“My day job is working for a CD manufacturers” he concludes. “So, I’m at the right place to make CDs which works nicely in parallel with the label. It means long hours of work but I enjoy.”

“My day routine normally " Aston continues "is to get up about 6:30 o’clock, check my e-mails to see what came in over night and then go to work. I work from 10 to 6 so I get home about half past seven, have something to eat, check my e-mails for another hour, respond to those and then pack up any mail orders, which I always try sending out within a week from an order coming in. It’s not so bad as it was but it was getting to a stage when I was up till 2 in the morning and then I began at 6:30 and it was killing me. So it’s sometimes, I say, a pain but it’s not really a pain. I do enjoy it.”

Well, there is only so much that can be fitted into one interview and would you believe there is much more still that Boss Tuneage can show you and impress you with ?

My final question to Aston is: “How satisfied are with everything?

"It’s beyond my wildest dreams now" he finishes conclusively.

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