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Frontier Records celebrates its 30th anniversary

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It officially started in March 1980 with a self-titled EP by the Los Angeles punk band the Flyboys. After that came releases by the Circle Jerks, The Long Ryders, The Three O’Clock, American Music Club, Thin White Rope and the Young Fresh Fellows, among other acts.

Independent labels have come and gone, but the California-based Frontier Records is still alive and kicking, and founder Lisa Fancher is still running the show.

On Nov. 7, Frontier will celebrate its 30 anniversary with a concert at the Echoplex in Los Angeles, and the bill includes such Frontier alums as TSOL, The Pontiac Brothers and the aforementioned Flyboys.

Fancher recently checked in to talk about some of her experiences running the label, which today focuses on reissuing out-of-print titles. What was your initial financial investment, and did you have investors, or was all of the money you were working with your own?
Lisa Fancher: “I never had any investors at all. … I worked at Bomp Records, which made it easy because that way I knew where you made jackets, and I knew how to master a record. The nature of indie labels is that Bomp rarely got paid on time, so I would get four or five or six paychecks at the same time. Believe me, they weren’t much: I’d maybe have $1,200 or $1,500 at one time.

“So when I decided to put out the Flyboys record, I was just waiting until I had enough money to pay for some recording or whatever needed to be done at that particular moment in time. And then if I ran out of money or if I didn’t have money to do the next thing, I’d just wait until I had some more or somebody paid Bomp. And things are really not that much different after all these years.”

So it’s always been that way? There was never a time where you said, “We need to put out X-many releases this year,” and had a formal business plan?
Fancher: “No, that’s the thing; that was my dilemma. Somewhere in the late ’80s, I tried to be a real label. I had an office on the East Coast with one person working there, and I had retail, marketing and a college radio person. But you have to put out enough records to constantly have enough cash flow to pay your overhead, and if the records don’t do well, then you still have the same overhead.

“I pretty much gave up on that quickly. I never felt like there were that many good records to put out, so I went back to being a fairly small operation. There’s never been more than two or three people, tops – including me – since the early ’90s.

“[Right now] it’s me and one other employee, until things improve. We’re managing OK. Pretty much all I have to do now is repress the old punk records; that’s pretty much what people want.”

Talk about the year-plus before the release of the Flyboys EP. What were some of the memorable moments during the process leading up to it getting pressed and into stores, and what happened after that?
Fancher: “We recorded it at Leon Russell’s studio in the San Fernando Valley. We recorded it after hours, and oddly enough, Jim Mankey from Sparks was the engineer on the record. I just idolized Sparks so much; they were my favorite band when I was growing up. … Because it was such a bargain rate, we probably took a lot longer recording that record than we should have. It was a learning experience.

“Somehow the record got finished. I can’t remember how I got it mastered. And because I worked at Bomp, [the label’s graphic artist] did the cover art, which I think is really great. And somehow, I had enough money to press a thousand copies, then I took them around to local stores. But it was D.O.A. because the band broke up before it was released.

“I don’t remember where the phone calls started or how I heard, but I heard that the Circle Jerks had a finished record. I absolutely loved the Circle Jerks; I was into the whole hardcore scene. … [later] I approached their drummer, and he was kind of frosty to me. I thought that was weird, so I asked some other people who knew him what the deal was, [and the feeling was], ‘No girl is putting out our record.’ I think I called him [to discuss it], and then he checked me out and called up people, and they vouched for my authenticity. We made a deal, and that record [Group Sex] came out in November 1980.”

Through the years, Frontier was pretty eclectic, genre-wise. What qualities did you look for in a band?
Fancher: “Honestly, my taste in music is pretty simple. Number one, I like good songs – I don’t care if it’s ABBA or Jawbreaker. I’m just looking for somebody who can actually write songs. I don’t care if people are really great musicians; I don’t care about people being ELP or prog-rock. I’m pretty much a guitar/bass/drums/lead singer kind of person. I don’t think it ever really has veered much.

“After the initial punk thing, my interests kind of changed. There always was punk bands, and there always will be punk bands. But it seemed like there wasn’t that many great ones after a certain point, so I moved on. I always loved pop music, so I worked with the Three O’Clock, and I absolutely Thin White Rope. I just thought they were the greatest thing in the world. And also American Music Club and, of course, the Young Fresh Fellows. I don’t know what the theme is through that stuff.”

The simple answer is just good songs, and that can be pretty broad: You know it when you hear it, but you can’t really explain it to somebody.
Fancher: “There was no doubt when I wanted to sign a band; there was no hesitation on my part. It was never, ‘Should I do this? Will I make my money back?’ It was like, ‘I have to do this.’ ”

— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior