Any fan of hardcore punk rock from the 1980s no doubt has heard of Frontier Records and probably owns at least two records on the label. Frontier brought us the likes of Suicidal Tendencies, Adolescents, Circle Jerks, TSOL, Christian Death, China White, and lots more. More than 20 years after she started the label, Lisa Fancher is not only still alive and kicking, but still selling those records to new generations of punk fans, as well as occasionally releasing old punk collections of great bands such as The Weirdos.
This interview was done with Lisa Fancher in the summer of 2004. Lisa was gracious enough to invite me to her home to do the interview and show me the "Frontier warehouse" and even sent me on my way with a few punk artifacts for The Punk Vault when the interview was complete! A huge thanks to her for taking the time to do this.
When did you start Frontier and what gave you the idea to start a punk rock record label?
The first record, which was The Flyboys, came out in march 1980 but I started making the record a year or so before that. I worked at Bomp Records, I worked in their record store and then in their mailorder division. I told Greg what was going on in the hardcore scene down in OC and that I was seeing all these shows and gave him the New York Rocker article I wrote but he just wasn't buying it at all. I like pop music too but he just wasn't hearing it at all so I said, "What the heck, I'll put out some records" and just see how it went. Did I think it would carry on past even the first record? Not really. I just thought it would be something to do and The Flyboys record was a disaster, they broke up before the record even came out, nobody bought it.
Was that a 7" or a 12"?
It was a 12", an EP. The only way its in print now is on the China White CD. I call them the male Go Gos, just sort of a dayglow good image, good songs, whatever. Then the Circle Jerks record they already had it done and already worked with Robbie, not to start in on him already...
We'll get to that in a bit, don't worry...
They did the song for the Rodney on the Roq compilation and they had no intention to work with Robbie again and I don't know what their bug was with Slash, perhaps something, but anyway I called them up and it didn't take much negotiating, there wasn't any plan B particularly and that worked out much better and I was a label after that. I still worked in record stores and stuff like that for quite awhile down the line until I quit doing that.
Where'd you get the money to do that, did you just save it from working the jobs?
I just saved it yeah. The funny way you got paid at Bomp was you'd have a weekly salary but they wouldn't necessarily get paid on time, so you might get 5 weeks at once. We were recording The Flyboys record, Leon Russel had this absurd studio in the valley and we'd go in after it was closed and then work in the middle of the night off the clock. Jim Mankey was the engineer there so I'd just pay him cash under the table. It took me quite awhile to put it all together to get an artist to do it, etc.
How old were you at the time?
Oh gosh, 19 or 20.
Did you live on your own or with your parents at the time?
I was living at my parents house...
So you didn't have any rent at the time so it was probably pretty easy to take a 5 week paycheck and spend it on putting out a record...
Yeah, exactly. I moved out after about a year because they were just like, "you can't have all these records in here, its a nightmare". The Circle Jerks, I think I drop shipped a few thousand and filled up the garage with all these albums. Then it was a little tougher but by then I had cash flow from the label so it was ok.
How many records did you press initially at the beginning, like 1000?
Yeah I just thought 1000 or 1500 would be fine. I swear to god before when people heard it was out, I hadn't even gotten them yet and I had orders for like 2 or 3 thousand more. I had no more money and I had no idea what I was going to do. I didn't have any credit or any bankroll but I talked the pressing plant into doing enough and then I would lean on the distributors to pay me a little bit early so I could keep them in print because they were selling so fast. They were like "We never do this, so don't ask ever again" so then the next few records sold pretty well.
Why did you stop putting inserts in them after the first pressing?
You know it was just sporadic. It was either I didn't have the money or I needed them so fast. It was probably in the first year or couple of years and then I would forget or someone would lose the negatives. I was always moving pressing plants and that was the other thing, so they'd tell me I had them or I'd even pay for them to be put in there and then there weren't any so then I just said forget it after awhile. And they are still buying records no matter what I do.
Did you take a big hit when a bunch of those big indie distributors folded in the '80s?
Constantly all through the '80s people would fold. I got stiffed over and over again for thousands of dollars it was really tough. It was always tough to get by but especially when I had an office and employees towards the later '80s. When someone woulnd't pay you on time it was bad enough but when someone went under it was absolutely devastating.
What was the one that one that hurt the most?
Jem was gruesome, I think that was 30 or 40 thousand dollars. Sounds Good, which that guy had the money, he owned Rhino, but said "technically its not my money it belongs to the corproation", that was probably another 20 or 25 thousand. There was Greenworld, I could go on and on, it was always minimally 10 thousand bucks but sometimes it was a lot more than that and everyone wants their royalties, everybody wants to get paid for the records that were already manufactured.
On top of the outstanding invoices did you also lose the product too when they folded or were you able to get that back?
Oh yeah, it was even worse than that, someone would buy the claims at auction from somebody and then return them to my next distributor. So then when I was waiting for a check they'd go "oh we just bought 2000 something", or whatever the overstock was, maybe a Thin White Rope record. So I found out about that, make sure you get the stock back at the very least even if you're not gonna get your money make sure they drill that stuff. That happened to me a couple of times too. Especailly with Jem they sold that stuff for like a penny and then it comes back to you at full price and you really really need that money. It was just a game of scrambling and shell games to pay people and pay royalties and all that stuff. Hence, which is why I did 3 shitty deals in a row in the '90s. First I had BMG for three years to see what a major label is like. For a major label they were pretty cool and you did get your money on time but it was just double dipping. Return reserves, this, that and the other thing and they made you do all this co-op advertising and all that. So I was selling more records but at teh end of the day it was like "this is it?!". So that lasted three years then I went to Rykodisc and they were super cool people with good musical tastes but the wrong label for what they were doing completley, just a fiasco. So when that was done I just took the top five sellers and licensed them to Epitaph and that was 96 - 99 and after that I got everything back. I don't have all my records in print but I'll never do another P&D and licensing deal.
Was the Epitaph deal just for a set amount of time? I just remember all of a sudden those records coming out again and having their logo on them.
It was three years. A lot of people were confused by that and thought I closed the label especially after being so dormant in the '90s just trying to survive. When someone prints something once that I sell the label to Epitaph then suddenly its a fact even when no one knows the difference between licensing and selling or anything like that.
I thought the same thing until the records were reissued again and were back to only being on Frontier again.
Exactly. That was really tough too. By that point, by the time that deal was done, I got absolutely nothing out of it. I got the advance and I used it to pay the back royalties to all the bands just so I would keep the records and not lose them. Then I got a day job, I started working a day job at a place called World of Wonders as a TV producer which was really bazaar. Then I just had to come up with the money and it was like starting the label all over again. I just rolled them out slowly and had to change the film to get rid of the Epitaph logo, be able to press enough to sell. So once again I did the top sellers and then got the other stuff. I do have other records besides the punk ones. I got The Fellowes and Thin White Rope and that stuff. Then finally, Mordam picked me up about two years ago this summer and I quit the day job and everything's been great since then. Its smooth sailing; they pay, the records are in the stores, it's kind of come full circle and I'm still buying records for Bomp! so it's funny to me this whole full circle thing.
Didn't you also license some to an overseas label? I have the Adolescents record on a couple of different labels like Overground or Weird System.
Yeah, they did some kind of comp too. That was real early on but most of them they didn't do.
Did you just sell them yourslef adn ship them over there?
Yeah, that is the best way to do it if you can avoid licensing. I won't license things overseas. I don't care what they offer me it's just not worth it.
Because of trying to get paid?
Not only that but people will go to Thailand and say "did you know the record is out in Thailand" and you'd confront them and they'd play dumb and be like "oops we only had the rights to England?" and they play these stupid games. It is just too easy once you give someone films and masters they can just go to town.
Do you own all the publishing rights for those early records?
The really early ones yeah. If I did a one-off before I started signing bands for multi-record then I did co publishing but not the Circle Jerks, because they were really smart. Actually back then I didn't know what publishing was. I had no idea what mechanicals were and neither did they. We did a straight "expenses and split what's left". Then I found out what they were. The Adolescents, TSOL, China White and those records and thank god I have it on Suicidal, that's all I have to say about that.
Is that by far the biggest seller?
Yeah by far and most licensed all the time and continually requested even if I turn them down they keep asking. Rhino is doing a totally '80s record and "Institutionalized" is on there. If that is what people think is totally '80s, I just thought it was funny because everything else on there is like The Cure. It is good company to be in but I bet Mike isn't going to be too happy about that, but oh well....
Speaking of that, what's the story with them re-recording that whole album and releasing it? Is there bad blood between you guys?
Oh yeah, absolutely. Mike didn't like me since the day he met me and that was ok, whatever. Mike was extremely suspicious of everyone because of what happened with his brother as a skateboarder who made licensing deals, so he was super super paranoid. Glen E. Friedman was their manager so he kind of dealt with all that stuff. I think they genuinely thought if they rerecorded that album that people would buy that one instead of mine and Mike would get all the money but it didn't sell at all, like nothing.
Well perhaps that might have happened if they didn't make that record suck!
Exactly. If they had gotten those band members perhaps they could have pulled it off. And no one even licensed that version of "Institutionalized" instead of mine. I don't know how much it sold, but bad idea. I thought it was hilarious.
My theory always was that they wanted to buy the record back so they could sell it to the major label and couldn't so then they made that steamy pile instead.
The thing is if they made me a decent offer I would have considred it I suppose. TSOL is the only one I sold. Bret offered me so much money because, my theory was that he was in some kind of pissing match with Brian Holland because they were so into TSOL. He offered me so much for that record it would have taken me 10 years to make that much off the record so I was like "its yours" and I still have the publishing on it anyway. But something like the Adolescents I'd never sell because its like my favorite record.
How come most of those bands you'd do one record and then they'd move on to other labels?
That was always the thing, someone would always start managing them and say "Hey kids I can get you a bigger record deal". It happened to every single one, someone was guiding them. Circle Jerks went to Faulty Products, and what label did Balboa Fun Zone come out on (Adolescents album)?
Well before that one they did Brats in Batallions
You know I tried to put that record out and they were working with some guy named Gordon or something and he was so unreasonable and such and idiot. I was still friends with them but I wasn't going to get in a bidding war so I just said good luck.
Didn't you end up getting that later, don't you have it now?
No I didn't...
Well someone did end up reissuing it (maybe Triple X) later.
People email me for that all the time. But I dont' have it, maybe it is still out of print. I have to say I got the best record from everybody so what else do I need but it would have been nice to have all the Adolescents records. Did you hear the new Adolescents record?
You mean the live one?
No, Mike from NOFX paid for it but didn't want to put it out.
No, I've just seen the live one with the DVD
Yeah, dont' get me started on that one. Kung Fu put that one out.
Wait, with that kind of build up you have to tell me now!
I'm not happy in the slightest, the packaging looks exactly like mine.
Yeah, it looks just like the first album.
I tell you when I got it in the mail, when Tony sent it to me, I just about burst a blood vessel I was so pissed off. I just think it is a really crappy attempt to gain some credibility that they don't have. I think it is the worst thing I ever saw. If people are buying it and the Adolescents are getting money for it then thats great, but I think its just unbeleivably underhanded. I mean he could have just told me or asked me. You can see it better on the CD version and you can tell there's a crowd there but deliberatly on the DVD it looks like my album and that just really really pisses me off. That just creates confusion too, "Oh Kung Fu has it too, oh its a DVD" and that just muddies the waters and I don't need it. So much for that whole thing. They are still playing, I just saw them at House of Blues and they are still going great. Its great to see 13 year old kids singing all the songs and they weren't even born yet back then, so that's pretty awesome that people can still realte to their songs 20 years later.
Are you just totally amazed that 20+ years later, people are still buying these records year after year?
Completley. If I had a crystal ball I never would have dreamed that I would still be doing this and that people would be interested in these records. I didn't think they weren't good records or great records, but I never thought people would be interested in them 25 years later.
And the market for punk rock then was a lot smaller than it is now.
I know exactly, though here it was huge, it was what people were buying here when they weren't buying horrible KROQ records.
What was your first exposure to punk rock? Were you around for that first wave of The Weirdos and Germs and stuff like that?
Oh absolutely, I went to all those shows. I was like hanging around the LA scene since The Runaways and stuff before. It was probably around '74 and '75 I started going to shows. When the punk thing snuck through, I didn't see every single orignal show. I didn't see the original Weirdos show with The Germs and The Nerves and all that. But I saw the original Kim Fowley night that had all the embarassing... Even thoguh it was The Deadbeats, like people barely rehearsed or knew how to play. I'd say that was the first punk show I went to. I saw the Ramones and those bands so I mean that was my exposure to punk before that stuff started happening. I went to The Masque and everyone played at the Whiskey and the Starwood and The Screamers. The Screamers I became friends with accidently, I just went up to them at a club and said they were neat and started hanging around with those guys. I interviewed The Weirdos. I don't know if you knew this, but I was a writer before I did the label. I wrote for all these fanzines and for Bomp and stuff like that. I was the west coast correspondant for Sounds, so I had written a story about The Weirdos and I knew those guys. It was never even in the back of my mind to put out the records. Before the hardcore thing, I'd just go down to Orange County a lot because I liked seeing shows down there better than here. It was a different atmosphere, it wasn't like LA where people were all "I'm bored, impress me" and wouldn't clap or anything. You go down there to a show and people would go nuts. So I did a story about that for New Rocker and called it "The New Beaches" where it pretty much covred the scene. I actually stopped writing when I started putting out records because it was a conflict of interest. I hate those people who put out records and then write about how great they are. So I was there definitely from the beginning of the scene and saw it elapse. I even went to the show that was the Decline show at the Fleetwood. I didn't know that they were filming it, we were there just because it was a great bill. I met everyone too when I was working at the Bomp store becasue everyone would come in there to sell their records.
OK now getting to Robbie Fields. His side of the story was, and I think this is a quote "you raided his label for all his artists". So I'd like to hear your side of the story.
There realy isn't much story to tell except that after people have dealt with him, even for one track on one thing, which is most of those things. They weren't his artists. He asked them to do a song for Rodney on the Roq and that doesn't make you signed to Posh Boy. So after everyone worked with him they would just run to me, I mean The Adolescents called me up. I never had to call Jack or anyone, all those people. They knew I worked at Bomp and it wasn't hard to get the phone number. The idea that I had to raid his label is just him in total denial that people can't stand him. He was a total nazi in the studio. One thing I never did was I never produced records. I'd hire someone to do it and pay the bills but I'd never go in there and bark orders. He was an absolute nazi and they all hated them. Tony told me he made them keep singing "Amoeba", and it is a great version, but he'd make them sing until they were bleeding. He said he was never working with that guy again. As far as me raiding his stuff, I didn't even have to, he did all the work for me. If he was a little nicer I would have never put those records out. Then we'd get in battle royales because he would pretend he had the publishing and I'd say "Where are the contracts?" and he'd say "they told me..." Verbal contract, yeah. I'm still waiting for him to show me a signed contract for any of those things. He would go in if something was used in a movie, he'd go in and say he had the publishing and they'd always ask him where's the contracts. This has been going on for years and we used to get in awesome fights, I actually miss that now that he doesn't live here. I haven't even seen him in many many years, but at the Starwood if there was a show he'd just get screaming, spitting in our face wars. And that place that you were mastering at one time...
Yeah, that was one of the last times that I saw him. Poor Richard Simpson he is like a total nice guy. Robbie was in there, I had an appointment and Robbie was in there before me and I hadn't seen him in five years and he just started up yelling right there and Richard Simpson was like "aaahhhh". I can't even remember what it was about, it was hilarious. I'm totally over it, I think the whole thing is totally hilarious and I don't actually have any bad will for him, I think it's funny but I keep seeing this thing on websites when you do a search on Frontier and "Robbie Fields said Lisa stole all my bands". Whatever, if that is the party line and that is history then I stole all his bands.
Where did you get the name Frontier from anyway?
Actually I'm a huge fan of Disneyland, I know that is sickening, and I was going to call it Frontierland after the section of it and someone really smart, I don't even know if I had a lawyer at the time, told me if I was going to put out a Circle Jerks record don't put anything on there that Disney could tie back to. So then I thought Frontier seemed really super generic, just one of those west coast things. I am really glad I didn't tangle with Disney or I probably wouldn't have a label right now, they would have just crushed me.
Who designed the logo for the label?
I paid a guy who worked at Bomp to do it. I actually stole that. I don't know if you saw Virgin Recods had a reggae sublabel and I really liked the barbed wire being wrapped around the thing and the label didn't last long thank god so no one busted me for that. This guy, Mick Tohig, worked at Bomp and I just showed him what I wanted it to look like with stencil letters and he did it in like 5 minutes.
Have you found in the modern day that your record sales have been hurt by people downloading music?
Not at all, not in the slightest. The only time the records were hurting was when I didn't have the right people distributing them. I don't think its hurt at all in fact I think it probably makes people buy them more. Maybe people download a whole record as much as they buy them but I'm selling plenty of records right now so clearly not everyone has a computer, or they just want the artwork. I think the whole thread of it is so overrated and stupid.
I notice you are still doing vinyl now, which I thank you for.
Grrr, those punk...
You mean you don't like vinyl?!
No I'm just saying in terms of heavyness and storage. Seriously it is such a pain in the ass to store those and records cost a lot of money. Back then it was they were cheap and it was the only format. A CD cost me less than a buck, and an LP cost almost double to make a vinyl record. But people want them and as long as they keep buying vinyl, just the punk rock stuff, is probably 40 percent of sales on LP.
What is it about punk rock that it and vinyl go hand in hand?
I don't know. If it is young kids, they dont' even know what a turntable is, unless they just have to have it to be cool. But being that these are old records, I don't think that people who have been buying records for awhile have been buying them. I don't know what that is all about.
(At this point I tell her she should do some color vinyl runs of those old records, to which she has taken my advice since this interview was conducted. Talk somehow leads to The Avengers and David Fergusson)
Speaking of that (Avengers) record, do you know Dave Fergusson of CD Presents?
Yeah, I actually interviewed him for my website.
So he sues me over the Dangerhouse Record and said that he owns the Avengers. He actually sued me, didn't write me a letter or anything, he just filed papers in a California court. Penelope Houston had the contract that said the Dangerhouse guys owned that record and not her. So I actually won the lawsuit and he was supposed to give me all his Avengers masters. He immediately files bankruptsy, starts up another shell corporation and puts out that Avengers shit. Because I was supposed to pay my legal fees which were considerable I might add. So he's a total piece of shit and I hope he dies.
Didn't he also actually sue The Avengers at one point too over that album?
Yeah. I don't care about the stuff he had, the other stuff, but the Dangerhouse record belonged to the guys at Dangerhouse. The fact that he even included it on that comp record was outrageous because they signed it over to him and it wasn't his anyway, he didn't ask them if they had a contract or anything, he just put it out. Anyway, it should be mine so, if I ever see him, I'll kick him in the balls. He knows how to duck everything in the universe. I could spend another zillion dollars tracking him down, I could just take it and make a master...
Well, if legally you won that, couldn't you just take a copy of that CD and just make a master off of that and release it?
Exactly, but I'd still have to clear the publishing with the band but I'm sure they'd just rather see it in print. I should probably pursue it. I know the guy would just come out of the woodwork and sue me again and it would be another 20 grand out the door and he'll do it. He'll just find some other crappy lawyer to do it but for me it is real legal fees.
But isn't he responsible for your legal fees since he lost?
Yeah, he didn't have the money for the legal fees so he promptly declared bankruptcy.
So then you got stuck paying it out of your pocket?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I had to pay that money and on top of all that other shit that I was in, that was early 1990, on top of all the other trouble I was in I had to pay legal fees like that and it was a completley false lawsuit, it was ridiculous. It wasn't his property and he knew it!
Speaking of the Dangerhouse stuff, how come you didn't do all of it?
The second one really didn't sell that well so it wasn't that encouraging to do more. Then of course the biggest bands, there was some extra tracks of that, but I didn't want to tangle with X, because depending on what stage of their career, whether they were really happening or not, I didn't want them getting upset about the Dangerhouse stuff. This was totally unreleased stuff, or stuff that wasn't sanctioned for the singles. So being how dodgy the Dangerhouse paperwork was, I mean seriously that Dave Fergusson lawsuit killed me. I didn't want to find out if anyone else was legally vengeful.
Even the stuff that was released on the actual singles, you dont' have them in their entirety on there.
Yeah there will be a track here and there missing. The second one really didn't do that good. Then there was thought about doing the third one but it never happened.
David Brown has since sold that stuff...
To the guy in texas. No he just gave him that stuff, he didn't even sell it. He just handed over everything.
Yeah and he ebay'd it all, so now it is all over the world.
I walked into a record store and thought someone found a cache of the old records, I didn't know what the story was. David Brown just disappears off the face of the earth for years. I saw them at Headline Records on Melrose and they were brand new. Then I ran into David and he told me he had given that guy the tapes and stampers and everything. Which of course at the time I was dealing with him he said he didn't know where that stuff was. I just made DATs from all the tapes. There could be a Volume 3 but I don't know if there ever will or there will be the demand. I suppose for history sake. There was once talk that Long Gone John was going to do a box set of the singles and I don't know what hhas ever become of it.
Aside from The Weirdos thing that just came out, do you have anything else in the works?
I am talking to Middle Class about doing their CD and I'll probably put that out. Other than that I hope to do Weird World Volume 3. As you can tell I'm not doing any new bands, just if anyone has a piece of catalog they want to sell.
If you could go back in time and release any one punk record, what would it be?
Unfun from Jawbreaker. I loved Jawbreaker from the second I heard them. I got the Whack and Blight EP and I loved everything. I was the biggest Jawbreaker fan in the world. Definitely that for sure.