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Poison City - homegrown label & distributor

Words by Rachel Short
Photography by Indya Connley

I met Andy Hayden for a coffee ninety minutes before his Brunswick Street store opened for business on a Wednesday morning. As he unlocked the door to the shop, there was already a young man popping in wondering if they’re open. Could he please pick up his mail order even though it’s outside trading hours? Hayden happily obliged and the dude walked away with his brand new Clowns release under his arm. Another satisfied Poison City Records customer.

Hayden is the owner and founder of Poison City Records – a record label and music retailer/skateboarding store – and has been running it for almost eleven years with the help of Aaron Coping and newest recruit Sarah Thompson. The early concept of PCR was shaped while Hayden was playing bass with Melbourne punk band A Death in the Family. “I did Poison City as a hobby from a house in Thornbury. ADITF was touring but I still had a full-time job — the label was just one of those hobby things I always wanted to have a go at,” Hayden recalls.

Touring with other bands in the punk and hardcore scene in Australia – and specifically Melbourne – meant that Hayden saw a lot of artists who struggled to find an avenue of putting out their music to a wider audience. “It just seemed for the sort of music we were playing that there wasn’t really a label on a small scale helping these bands out. I decided to start putting out releases on my little ‘label’, came up with the name Poison City and started selling them at shows.”

Once PCR had a few releases under its belt, Hayden started exploring the idea of becoming a distribution agent for overseas labels. “The more ADITF toured and met people overseas, I got a network going and I was somehow introduced to the guys from No Idea Records in Florida, which along with Dischord Records was one of the most influential labels around the time I was starting PCR,” says Hayden.

“I got a bit ambitious one night and knew no one over here was distributing them, despite having tours as big as Hot Water Music, Against Me! and Less Than Jake in Australia. I sent them this long email – some naive dude from Melbourne offering to look after the distribution – and sure enough, they came back and said they’d give it a go.”

The arrangement worked and soon PCR were doing distro for other labels, which helped Hayden put out more releases. Soon PCR had put out ten releases and through it, had begun to shape the music community Hayden had aspired to create — likeminded friends putting on shows that were fun and helping out bands with the same interests at heart. “We wanted to give the bands an avenue of touring where they would otherwise be lost playing to the same twenty people in their own city,” Hayden says.

“I guess it grew to the point where opening the shop became more and more of a reality than I had initially thought.” To date, PCR is about to put out its 110th release and has twenty active artists on its roster.

“For the last couple of years I’ve been saying, ‘nup, I’ve got enough on my plate, got enough bands,’ but the good thing about music is that something always comes out of the woodwork,” Hayden says, referring to finding new artists to add to PCR’s already impressive list. Though the label is slightly punk-heavy with bands like The Smith Street Band, Clowns, Luca Brasi, Grim Fandango, The Nation Blue and Freak Wave, PCR also hosts a number of artists who don’t necessarily slot into any particular genre — think the dark post-punk influenced Infinite Void or Deep Heat; the huge sound of Harmony or the folky-alt-country twang of Jen Buxton or Lincoln le Fevre.

“I’m pretty adamant that we don’t really have a particular ‘sound’ on Poison City. I don’t have illusions that everyone is going to like a release because I do — I just think a good band is a good band.”

Most of PCR’s artists have found themselves on the label due to recommendations from Hayden’s huge network of music-loving friends who understand his tastes. He mentions that it all unfolds organically and leads him to investigating bands he’s never heard of before, who have come with much praise from members of the music community. “I love that you can put on Linc’s music and in the next breath put on the new Clowns record and realise this label doesn’t have a predictable sound,” Hayden says.

When checking out new artists, Hayden looks for those with soul – not in the genre aspect – bands with a real personality. One of the biggest personalities on the label is fervent act, The Bennies. “They’re an awesome band. The third time I saw them was at The Tote and they had this giant paper mache joint they were passing around the crowd. I love serious music, but I can really appreciate a band that’s playing music for the fun.”

Though Hayden curates less local shows these days, among the mountains of mail orders, releases and tour plans for PCR bands the three PCR team members organise an annual three-show weekend festival, fittingly named Poison City Weekender. The event is held in September each year across three or four venues and usually sells out within days of ticket release (the piece-de-resistance Sunday show at The Reverence sells out in minutes).

Inspired after ADITF played The Fest in Florida back in the early 2000s, Hayden decided to put on shows with longer line-ups and a few international bands, using his music network and supporting the venues that they worked with every other weekend. “It’s modelled on Fest which isn’t some massive overpriced festival — it’s just fair price tickets at regular venues. I think the trick for us is not trying to grow it. If the demand was such that we were able to just do a show at the Rev and one at the Corner every year, that would be fine with me, but I hate seeing people miss out on tickets so we have a couple more shows. At the same time I don’t have any illusions of taking it to a big outdoor area or anything like that.”

It’s evident that Hayden’s original ‘hobby’ label has grown to become a household name with Australian punk fans and has inspired new DIY labels like Hobbledehoy and Lost Boy Records to pop up out of Adelaide and Sydney respectively.

“I like the frantic chaos of PCR. Some days we’re frantically packing mail orders and other days we’re planning Weekender or helping The Smith Street Band with various activities — it’s like The Amazing Race everyday.”

Watch for upcoming Weekender announcements and general Poison City news here

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