BETTER YOUTH ORGANIZATION (BYO) was envisioned as a collective, positive voice for the often maligned “punk, independent, alternative,” music community. Brothers Shawn & Mark Stern, who, along with younger brother Adam made up the notorious band Youth Brigade, started BYO in ’79 as a reaction against police violence and the general negative outlook held against the punk music scene in Los Angeles.
In 1982, BYO released its first LP, Someone Got Their Head Kicked In, an influential compilation showcasing local punk bands that would later heavily impact the scene-Social Distortion, Bad Religion, The Adolescents, and Youth Brigade. Since then, BYO has released dozens of albums from top-quality acts like Bouncing Souls, SNFU, 7 Seconds, Hepcat, Leatherface, Jughead’s Revenge, and Agression.
READ spoke with founder Shawn Stern about BYO’s big day, the aging of Youth Brigade, and the punkness of Bar Mitzvahs.
Wowza! 20 years! How are you going to celebrate the silver jubilee?
Well, we’ll be releasing the biggest record we’ve ever had with the NOFX/Rancid split in March and we plan to release at least 8-12 more full lengths this year. We’ll be doing our 4th annual Punk Rock Bowling tournament in Las Vegas and it will be the biggest ever. We hope to have a big show in the fall celebrating our Youth Movement ’82 show at the Hollywood Palladium that featured Adolescents, TSOL, Social Distortion, Youth Brigade and Wasted Youth. I’m not sure how many of these same bands will play, but it should be a great party. And we may also have a separate anniversary party combined with a traditional gemini party that we used to do during the ’80s. Lots of partying!
Can you paint us a picture of the beginnings of BYO? I read in an early interview that you started BYO as a reaction against police violence?
Yeah, it started as an idea to promote the positive things in punk rock instead of the mainstream media’s portrayal of us as a bunch of violent freaks. And it was a way to enable us to make music and play shows and tour DIY.
There was a period of 5 or so years where BYO and Youth Brigade were inactive. What were you doing during those lost years? What sparked the reactivation of BYO and the reunion of YB?
I was working in my neighborhood doing community activism, working on renter’s rights and trying to get people to go out and vote, among other things. I also was gardening and worked as an assistant editor on a couple of TV movies and assistant cameraman on one with my father who is a director. Mark started a graphics business and Adam was finishing school at Otis Parsons. Mark and Adam started a swing band around ’89 called Royal Crown Revue with a couple of old friends and our little brother Jamie joined. I started a band called That’s It with the drummer of the Stupids and a few other guys. We both started touring in ’90 and put out records in ’91 and both bands were on tour in Hamburg, Germany, so we met up and discussed the idea or doing a Youth Brigade reunion. We decided if we would be a band and record, that we’d give it a try and here we are 10 years later.
How did the BYO split series comes about?
Mainly when I heard Leatherface was doing a reunion show I got a number for Frankie Stubbs and passed it on to Wellie from Four Letter Word to see if Frankie might be interested in producing the next Four Letter Word record, and I asked Wellie to tell Frankie that we were interested in working with Leatherface. He seemed interested so I called and I talked with Frankie briefly, but never heard back from him for months, despite a few faxes and messages. I got a call from Chris Wollard of Hot Water Music who I didn’t know and he told me he was a big Leatherface fan and had called Frankie and asked if Leatherface would be interested in coming to the U.S. to tour with Hot Water and Frankie said yeah, call BYO, they’re our label! It was a strange way to find out, but I was very happy about it and I talked with Frankie about releasing a record before the tour. He said they had enough for an EP, but I didn’t like EP’s cause they don’t make sense. I was talking to Chris and we thought about doing a release with both bands to help the tour and so the split series idea was born.
Which other bands are you looking to sign?
Well, we’ve been talking with Manifesto Jukebox from Finland, The Forgotten from San Francisco and Sixer from Virginia and a few others.
When you look back at the past 20 years of BYO’s existence, what are some things that stick out, for better or worse?
That we’re still around and doing better than ever is something we never thought would happen. Just the fact that a couple of brothers who played punk rock could actually start a label and not only survive but earn a living from our music and helping other bands make music. I guess the tour for Another State Of Mind sticks out and going to Europe in ’84, getting stuck in Poland for two weeks. Watching distributors go bust and dealing with some assholes that were interested in money, not music. Luckily, most of the people we’ve had the good fortune to work with are honest, trustworthy and honorable people.
What is BYO’s place in punk history?
I guess that’s for the historians to decide, and since we’re still going, it’s a bit premature. But I think that we’ve been a solid label that I hope has put out some great music that’s touched people’s lives.
What were the Stern brothers like growing up? Was there a lot of sibling rivalry?
Well, we grew up in Canada till I was 10 and we’re all pretty close. We fought, like any brothers I guess, but I think we’ve always tried to help each other out. I think it’s hard from my perspective to see “rivalry” cause I’m the oldest and I just did what I wanted to do and my brothers kind of followed. We were surfers and partied a lot, smoked lots of pot and did lots of drugs in high school. Then punk rock came along when I was 17 and that changed my life. I was already playing music with Mark and when we heard punk rock we realized that it was for us. We’ve just done most everything together since we we’re little, we’re only 12 months and 2 weeks apart.
How did you guys get into music? What got you guys into the scene?
We played music since we were young; we took piano lessons when we were young and then I played sax and Mark played violin in junior high. It was our grandfather who suggested we start playing music when we were in high school and bored one summer when he was visiting. And when I heard Elvis Costello’s “My Aim Is True” on the radio in summer ’77 and then read a report on the Sex Pistols later that summer as they were about to play in SF, I decided that punk rock was something for me. I realized that all the rock’n’roll that I had been listening to growing up didn’t mean much anymore. It was played by rock stars that had nothing to say to me. All that was left was sex and drugs, but the politics and the intelligence was gone. Punk rock showed me that I could make my own music and say what was on my mind.
Are you still as idealistic as you were 20 years ago? What pissed you off then and what pisses you off these days?
I think I’m still an idealist, but it’s probably tempered a bit with age. Maybe I’m a bit cynical… you get tired of banging your head against the wall for years and start dealing with the mundane realities of living in a capitalist society. Most of the same things that pissed me off when I was fourteen still piss me off now, that people are starving and dying and that it doesn’t have to be that way. That this country has so much possibilities to make things better and it doesn’t. That the political system is a major reason for this and that multi-national corporations still run government in most of the “western democracies” and that money is more important than life and the welfare of the planet. Yeah, I’m still pissed.
Why the transition to swing?
Actually, I was the first one into swing. I was taking vocal classes at junior college, and instead of singing some modern song I would find these old swing vocals. Originally Youth Brigade was called the Swing Skins Brigade, a skinhead swing band, but we couldn’t play our instruments well enough so that didn’t happen. Then my brothers really got into swing in the late ’80s and started Royal Crown Revue. Adam had been into rockabilly since the late ’70s.
Tell me about the Amazing Royal Crowns / Royal Crown Revue showdown. Did you smack them down?
My brothers were unceremoniously forced out of the band in spring ’94 as the other members got greedy. We had nothing to do with the whole Amazing Royal Crowns fiasco and actually Youth Brigade played with them when it was starting and we thought it was pretty fucked up, but pretty typical of the bullshit that had taken over RCR. They became a major label band and just wanted to make money. They ended up getting screwed over by lots of people and I think they’re suing each other. Karma always gets you in the end.
What do you think about today’s hardcore, now that it seems to have veered away from punk and more towards grindcore/metal?
I don’t really like “hardcore.” I think a lot of it is an excuse for lame metal bands to pretend they’re somehow “punk” but they’re not. Anyhow, all these labels are stupid, punk rock has always been about music and a lifestyle. You don’t do it part time or pretend that it was an influence on your lame metal band. I never liked metal, it’s the child of mindless dinosaur rock from the ’70s that was the reason I got into punk rock in the first place. It’s music for sheep.
Which YB record are you most happiest with? Which song is most definitive of YB?
Oh, I’m happy with them all, but “Sound & Fury” was pretty magical. The songs we did for the split were also really great. I couldn’t begin to decide on what’s most “definitive.”
What’s in store for Youth Brigade? I know it’s not your top priority, but will there be a Geezer Brigade down the road?
Old Brigade, Geriatric Brigade, Over The Hill Brigade, Middle-Aged Brigade, I’ve heard them all. Who knows what’s in store, we just wrote a new song yesterday and as long as people keep coming and we have fun, we’ll do it I guess.
What’s your favorite Rush album?
I can’t stand Rush. I never understood the fascination of teenage boys’ of skinny long-haired guys that look like girls singing with high voices. That band just sucks in my opinion. I don’t like metal/rock bands.
Who was your biggest crush?
A girl named Teresa when I was in grade 7, I guess. Nobody famous or anything like that.
Bar Mitzvahs: Annoying obligation or punk rock?
Depends on what you do with the money. We started BYO with ours, so for us it was very punk rock. Not to mention some of the first sex I had was with girls at Hebrew school when I was 12 and the Bar Mitzvah was one hell of a party!
What was the most adrenaline-pumping, exciting experience you had on tour?
One? There are so many. Riots in Amsterdam, fights at shows, sex in crazy places, drunken and drugged out nights you can’t even remember. Amazing shows, amazing people and places, it’s a great way to travel and live.
Help celebrate BYO’s 20th bday by visiting them at www.byorecords.com and ordering loads of CDs! They got some good shiznits.