Larry Livermore is a fixture of the modern-day punk world. After co-founding Lookout Records in 1987, he helped pioneer the pop-punk sound of the 1990s and released the first albums by influential bands like Operation Ivy and Green Day; he left the label in 1997. In 2014, Livermore, in the audience, was thanked by the members of Green Day during their acceptance speech into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
TIME spoke with Livermore about his new book, How to Ru(i)n A Record Label, the early days founding Lookout Records and what it would take to start a label in 2015. The book also features rare images from photographer Murray Bowles, who captured Green Day when they were first known as Sweet Children—see those above.
TIME: What was your favorite story you remembered while writing this book?
Larry Livermore:In 1989 I put on a show in the Vets Hall up in Garberville, California, population 1,300, and afterward, because it was kind of far to drive back to the Bay Area, Green Day drove up to my house in the mountains to spend the night. Because there was another band staying there who had already called dibs on most of the floor space, Billie [Joe Armstrong] and Mike [Dirnt, Green Day’s bassist] elected to sleep in the van. The dogs were barking a lot more than usual that night, they were cuddly little creatures, but they typically would set off quite a ruckus whenever they heard something in the woods, and this being a near-wilderness, there were plenty of critters and creatures out there. So I didn’t think anything of it, and I, along with everyone else in the house, slept in quite late. It must have been 10 am by the time I wandered outside to find Billie and Mike, both of whom were barely 17 at the time, still hiding in the van after a mostly sleepless night, terrified that my “ferocious” dogs would attack them if they got out. “Yeah, they might have licked you to death,” I retorted, but the boys didn’t find it that funny. They’ve long since graduated to better accommodations when on tour, but I don’t think they’ll ever forget that first night.
Why did you want to start a label?
It might sound flippant, but at the time most of the music I was hearing on the radio or seeing in the stores sounded nothing like what I was interested in, and it dawned on me that if I wanted any decent new records, I was going to have to make them myself. And of course it was the only way my band and my friends’ bands were likely to get heard.
The first time you saw Green Day perform, where was that and what was your first impression?
It was in the autumn of 1988, in a tiny cabin high in the mountains of Mendocino County. It was off the grid, just as my own place was, so we had to use a gas generator for power and candles for light. They played for five high school kids who sat quietly on the floor in front of them. Billie Joe and Mike were only 16 themselves at the time, and this was only their third or fourth “show” as a band, but before they’d finished one or two songs I was determined to make a record with them.
Did you think they were going to make it?
It might sound like hyperbole, but it’s not: I literally thought to myself that these kids could be as big as the Beatles. At the same time, I’d been around long enough to know that many bands with enormous talent and potential don’t necessarily attain the success you’d expect them to. But again without hyperbole, I’d never seen a band with this much talent and potential.
What made you walk away from Lookout?
I’d always been primarily driven by the excitement of discovering and building new things. Sitting in an office overseeing a large and rapidly growing corporation had never been on my agenda, and I found myself actively rebelling against the typical music business activities that people now seemed to expect of us: the nonstop hype, the phony enthusiasm, the treatment of every artist and every release as a product to be flogged to the public like soap powder instead of being allowed to grow organically and to find its own cultural niche. And, to my own discredit, I felt like I began to lack the fortitude to stand up for what is right and to keep running the label the way I knew in my heart was right. In other words, I let other people push me around a little too much, ironically the one thing I had always counseled my artists against doing.
Did you ever want to start another label after Lookout?
I was tempted a few times, usually when friends of mine were having trouble finding someone to release their records, records that I was sure would be successful if the public had a chance to hear them. But thankfully I was sensible enough to lie down and take a time out until the urge passed. There are other, mostly younger people, who are far better qualified to carry the record label torch forward these days.
What was going through your mind when you sat in the audience during Green Day’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction?
In giving their acceptance speeches, each of the members of Green Day looked me in the eye and thanked me for one thing or another that I’d done back in the early days of Lookout, and though we were sitting in a hall packed with more than 10,000 people, it was an incredibly intimate moment, almost as though we were sitting somewhere having a private conversation. Apparently the TV camera focused on my face while I was listening and there’s now video evidence of me sitting there with tears streaming down my cheek, but I was barely aware of it at the time. If anything at all was going through my mind apart from immense gratitude at having been a part of this amazing journey, it was images of those days when all we seemed to think about was playing music with and for our friends, when the music and the camaraderie was all we ever expected to get out of it, and when that was always more than enough.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to start a record label today?
Remember that history doesn’t repeat, it rhymes. Someone who tried to copy today what Lookout did in the 1980s would fail abjectly because circumstances are so altered. Much of what we were doing was innovative then, and had to be, because we didn’t have the resources or connections to do it any other way. It would be a self-defeating cliché today. Somebody starting out now would need to be just as innovative, probably even more so, and that means learning to use, and when necessary, subvert the new technologies that have sprung up in recent years. Lookout did best when it flew under the radar. It did worst, and ultimately failed, when it tried to go head-to-head with the big boys. That’s not to say that an independent label can’t eventually become a major player in the music business. Over the decades quite a few have, though most went the way of Lookout, if not always as spectacularly. Even if you defy the odds and manage to operate like and compete with the established giants, you only do so by becoming one of them. Reach that point and you’ll most likely have lost all sight of whatever it was that made you want to start a record label in the first place.
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