Fifteen years and going strong: Off The Hip still burns bright
Mickster Baty at home in his Off The Hip shop.
The music industry is a shallow trench full of sharks and transient imprints, to paraphrase Hunter S Thompson. Independent record labels come and go with the regularity of manufactured reality TV stars and only a few manage to find their niche and prosper. In Australia, only Citadel is still standing from the halycon days of the 1980s. A few rose in the '90s to fill the gaps left by the demise of Phantom and Waterfront. Since the 2000s, the most enduring has been Melbourne-based Off The Hip.
Off The Hip grew out co-founder Mick ("Mickster") Baty's love of all things garage rock, powerpop and psychedelia. A drummer and veteran of one of Sydney's finest garage-trash outfits, The Crusaders, he went on to killer powerpop bands The Pyramidiacs and The Finkers. Baty saw Off The Hip as an outlet for his own music. He had re-located to Melbourne by then and formed The Stoneage Hearts, a shifting cast of players who produced top-shelf garage rock with a pop bent.
A retail operaiton operating out of his house morphed into a bricks-and-mortar shop in Melbourne's CBD and a floodgate of releases via the fledgling label ensued. It's been an enduring success - on its own terms - since then. Off The Hip - the label and the shop - have inspired and contrinuted to the existence and growth of hundreds of bands.
Last month, the Off The Hip label celebrated its 15th birthday. We decided it was high-time for Mickster to occupy the interview seat.
The most recent line-up of the Stoneage Hearts with Mickster at right.
Is there a deliberate synergy behind re-releasing the first Stoneage Hearts album after 15 years of Off The Hip?
One of those happy coincidences that pops up from time to time: I love it when they happen. Our debut label release had just sold out its second pressing November last year, so I thought why not repress with revamped art in time for our 15th birthday. I'm much happier with the new artwork.
How many albums (and singles) has it been since you launched?
Around 165 CD albums, retrospectives, compilations. 5 CD-EPs, 6 LPs, 5 fanzines, 5 x 7" singles, 10 sampler CDs. We've always been an active label.
You wouldn’t be the first label to have set up to launch a release by its owner’s band. Is that the whole story behind why Off The Hip came about and what was the chronology?
For the first 12 or so years of playing in bands I was happily sending out our recordings to labels in oz, USA, France and Spain. That all worked pretty well, we got plenty of releases out and we got to do some touring thru Spain and USA mostly. Towards 2000-01, I was getting frustrated with a local label I was working with and during one heated exchange the label owner said if you think you can do a better job why not do it yourself.......and I did, and I haven't looked back! I owe that lazy fucker a beer.
How did you get the rock and roll bug? For those who don’t know, throw your own band history out there…
I grew up in Fairfield (west of Sydney). Around 1984, when I was 15, a couple of school mates - Phil and Bob - had a band going playing covers by The Stems, Jam, Church etc I'd watch them play a show or tag along to rehearsal. My passion blossomed from their. Four years later I'm playing drums in the Pyramidiacs with these two, working on our own set of powerpop tunes.
Around the same time I got a garage band happening - The Purple Knights - with a few like-minded fellows (in a year or two we became The Crusaders). And over the years I've played with: The Slaters, Lords of Gravity, The Stoneage Hearts, The Finkers, Danny McDonald, Dom Mariani and now The Beat Taboo.
The Crusaders around the time of their "Fat, Drunk and Stupid" album.
You used to live in Sydney. Would Off The Hip have flourished if you were still there?
Sometimes I wonder 'What if I got my own label happening in 1989 as our first releases were coming out', but the reality is I had no experience back then so wouldn't have lasted long at all. As for Sydney: i reckon Off The Hip would have done just as well if we were based in Sydney or Melbourne: our success and longevity not due to being based in Melb at all.
What’s the secret to thriving for so long?
My partner in Off The Hip - my brother Chris - is a true businessman, so I run most stuff by him to get a clear picture of the ins and outs of the dollar side. I've got a good ear for music. We make a great team.
You’ve resisted taking your back catalogue to digital although a few of your bands you’ve signed or brokered manufacturing for are pushing out material online. Is there a rationale for not embracing the channel for the label?
I run a store and a label, I believe in a physical product. Every digital sale = one less physical sale. Less physical sales = harder for me to do my job as a label : promo, distribution etc etc. Plus digital is not how I buy or listen to music. I go with what I know.
You’ve refused to bend over for the big retail chains and channel Off The Hip releases through receptive small shops. Have you ever tried partnering with a larger distributor?
Nope, never have, never will. I grew up buying from great indie stores like Waterfront, Phantom, Record Plant, Red Eye, Augogo. I would like my store to be seen in the same light. I want Off The Hip titles available in similar indie stores, both here and o/s. Plus I've heard many horror stories of distributors going under taking down great indie labels with them over the decades, and I won't let that happen to Off The Hip.
Current Off The Hip artists Little Murders carving up a stage.
You once told me it took a few releases for a label to establish its character and that’s very true. What do you think the character of Off The Hip is?
We're a little bit garage, a little bit powerpop, a little bit rock'n'roll, a little bit psych, we're 100 percent reflective of my own personal tastes.
Is there one release that typifies the label?
Funnily enough, that first Stoneage hearts album.
Talk about the release that’s made you most proud.
That second Stoneage hearts album is hard to beat: I made an album with one of my teenage heroes Dom Mariani, and I smile whenever I listen back to that one. From a label point of view: working with Johnny Casino and Dolly Rocker Movement early on. It felt like Off The Hip hit its stride around that moment in time (2005-06). And from a producer's point of view I'm most proud of the Villenettes album and the debut Frowning Clouds LP. Both world class for different reasons.
On the whole I'm most proud when an Off The Hip band gets to tour Europe, that's when I feel like I've really done my job well.
On the other side of the coin, are there any that caused you great pain?
Bands that leave the label thinking the grass is greener, then wanting to come back after the reality of working with another label. Firstly, I won't ever have them back. Secondly, I find it hard to listen back to their Off The Hip releases. I'm a bit thin skinned in this regard.
Off The Hip has given a platform to bands from outside of Australia that locals may never have heard about. Who are the best examples and are there any that you wanted to work with that got away?
Dollhouse and The Urges. I wish they had toured Oz!!
Is there an overseas label that you are a huge fan of and why?
I have the utmost respect for Norton and Bomp! Fiercely independent, unwavering stylistic vision, family businesses that do their own distribution (maintaining control of their own stock). No wonder they're both still around more than 30 and 40 years respectively!! Inspirational.
“Vinyl’s resurgence is the great saviour of independent music.” Discuss.
Customers who used to give me $50 for two CDs now give me $50 for one LP. My sales haven't changed, what the customer takes home has changed. Discuss!!
You moved into bricks and mortar when you opened a store in the Melbourne suburbs in late 2006. Why did you do that initially and how hard was it in the early days, before moving to Melbourne’s CBD?
The Melbourne CBD move was November 2006. When I was in Preston, opening Thursday nights and Saturdays began 2004 or thereabouts. Initially we outgrew the spare room at home (where Off the Hip began, plus I started a family in 2003) so we needed a low rent office/shop to test the waters, so to speak. In the Preston years I still worked a day job, with Off The Hip running at night, weekends. It never felt like a chore back then, or now. Once we moved into the CBD, Off The Hip became my day job.
Could you do it all again in the climate that exists in 2017?
Well, we might find out sooner than later: our building was sold late last year, I have a three year lease, so in 3 years I'll be looking to relocate. Do I go fully online, or set up a new space in Thornbury or Northcote?
Many people say the underground scene lacks a centre in Sydney (although it’s probably because the younger bands aren’t visible to anyone outside their own circle.) Off The Hip’s position gives you a good position from where to sit in judgement on that one. Does it ring true and is it different in Melbourne?
I've been outta Sydney now for 17 years, I have no idea about that town. I do think community radio lets you guys down on many levels. In Melbourne the crux of this whole town are 3RRR and 3PBS radio, bloody legends the both of 'em.
Mass Cult at an in-store at the shop.
Are the Off The Hip in-store shows a way of giving the Melbourne scene a focal point?
Not at all, Melbourne has an amazingly healthy scene. Our instores are a bit of boozy Friday night fun, something a little different from the norm: like record fairs in pubs, or radio broadcasts from a venue. Mix it up a bit.
Ernie O mastered a lot of the early Off The Hip releases and Mikey Young (Eddie Current Suppression Ring) now seems to be the go-to man for many of the emerging bands. Is Mikey driving a particular sound for Aussie bands? Is Owen Penglis (Straight Arrows) filling a similar role in Sydney?
I'm not too familiar with Owen's work, I have heard a bunch of his recordings, but not any/many of his mastering work. Mikey has made a name for himself as a mastering engineer, good on him. He's a nice bloke with a great work ethic: I love people that work hard!!
The Off The Hip shop is located at 381 Flinders Lane, Melbourne. Call them on 0402 027 137 or talk to Mickster on Facebook here.