When seminal bands reunite for a landmark anniversary tour, there’s an unspoken rule that the year should be a nice round number, or at the very least a multiple of five. Usually a 26th anniversary isn’t met with much fanfare. However, the 26th Anniversary of the Teenbeat record label is exactly what prompted its flagship band, jangly indie-pop darlings Unrest, to reunite for a brief tour. The band already played a one-off reunion show in D.C. for the far more sensibly timed Teenbeat 20th anniversary celebration back in 2005. What’s so special about the 26th?
“That’s a good question,” ponders Mark Robinson, founder of the label and founding member of the band, calling from his home base in Boston. Essentially, it came down to accommodating the schedules of drummer Phil Krauth, now a school teacher, and bassist Bridget Cross, also from another seminal D.C. area band, Velocity Girl. Initially, Unrest was shooting for a 25th anniversary tour, but it proved difficult to plan around Krauth’s teaching responsibilities. Fortunately, they were able to get it together for the following year. So there is no profound significance or superstitious attachment to the number 26.
“A 33rd anniversary would be really good,” Robinson offers, and laughs heartily at the suggestion that it would be the label’s “Jesus Year.”
Although Unrest have gone through their share of personnel changes during the 11 or so years they were active, fans will be pleased to know that Robinson managed to assemble what is easily the most revered line-up in the band’s history. After all, this is the line-up that produced what fans will agree are the two bulletproof albums in Unrest’s catalog, 1992’s Imperial f.f.r.r. and 1993’s Perfect Teeth .
“This is the line-up that people would show up to go see,” says Robinson. Without Cross and Krauth, Robinson suspects the reunited outfit would be relegated to much smaller venues.
Teenbeat records began in 1984 while Robinson was a student at Wakefield High in Arlington, Va. At that time, Robinson had no idea that his label, essentially a glorified cassette-lending library, would be thriving 26 years later.
“I don’t think I could have comprehended this anniversary back when I was dubbing cassettes and Xeroxing covers. I would have been surprised that I was actually manufacturing something and getting something into a store without me bringing it there. I was in high school, so I thought I’d be dead in 25 years,” says Robinson. That statement seems more apt coming from, say, one of the Murder Junkies rather than a mild mannered, affable father of two small children.
The recording industry has changed drastically during the quarter century that Teenbeat has been active, so one has to wonder how the era of declining record sales and downloading has affected such a small operation.
“We don’t sell as many records as we used to,” Robinson says, “Fifty percent of our income is from paid downloads. For an operation of our size, if people are sharing files for free, that’s a good thing. It means people are paying attention. I have conflicting feelings about downloading. I do love the physical artifact of a record. However, with downloading, the album has been obliterated and it’s about songs. I don’t mind it becoming just about the music.”
That said, Robinson is adamant about the fact that the forthcoming release from his current outfit, Cotton Candy, will be available on vinyl.
“We’re going to make the artifact I prefer,” says Robinson.
While concert-goers are inundated with a veritable onslaught of reunions over the past few years, at least Unrest isn’t overstaying its welcome. So far, the band has scheduled just seven dates for its tour. However, it’s not like the reunited Unrest weren’t trying to stick around for a little longer.
“We tried to get on a fest in Chicago, but they said no,” Robinson explains before mentioning the problems he’s faced trying to book shows on the West Coast. “We were always most popular on the East Coast.”
It’s probably just as well since, in all fairness, Robinson doesn’t really have much time to spend out on the road between running a label, working a full-time day job as a designer at Houghtin Mifflin, covering radio jingles with his wife Evelyn Hurley in Cotton Candy, and raising two kids. It’s a small wonder he can get away for the handful of dates already booked.
“I’m constantly busy. I feel like I’m working the entire day.” Robinson laments, before pulling out the “not enough hours in the day” cliche. When asked if his mind drifts off to fantasies of the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle while he’s stuck dragging and clicking his mouse in his cubicle at work, Robinson wearily replies: “I’m more so thinking about the stuff I should be getting done while at home.”
Aren’t we all, Mark, aren’t we all.
Tues., July 6
PW's Music Issue 2014