What to say about a man who for the past 20 years runs one of the most active labels in Europe and who has had a more than 90 releases, including Seein Red, FxPxOx, Vitamin X, I Shot Cyrus, Betercore, Catharsis, and Coke Bust; and non-stop organizing shows, tours, etc. Not a lot of philosophy — Robert is a very important figure in European HC punk scene and a good friend. Interview by Nemanja Bošković & Sanja Mandić.
Robert Refuse (photo by Aneta Fila)
What attracted you to get involved with punk, how did it start?
It’s all started for me in the late ’80s. The special feeling and incredible amount of energy coming out from punk music was very inspirational. I thought it’s the most sincere thing that can happen to teenage kids on different levels — music, politics and personal stuff. Age didn’t count that much anymore as I was getting support from older punks and felt welcome from day one. The message of punk bands was critical and direct. In the reality of Poland in the ’80s, it was like a mind-opening thing to listen what punk bands had to say where there was still censorship. It was incredible to find out that there are punk and HC movements all around the world, and this structure of independent bands, labels, venues, zines. It’s like discovering a different world behind the daily bullshit from your school or TV.
Can you describe your beginnings? What was the main purpose and crucial moment to start putting out records, and what kinds of reactions did you get?
Refuse started in 1993, first as a distro and fanzine, then booking shows, and three years later a small tape label. In the early ’90s hardcore punk was still very political, or became even more so as some factors of the scene started to become more mainstream. In Poland we had a transformation of the system from “communism” to “capitalism” which resulted in a deep economic crisis, frustration, and the explosion of Christian bigotry and the neo-nazi movement (yes, even in a country that suffered so much from this ideology). Western European countries became the European Union and the US got involved in the Gulf War. All of these issues were reflected in punk/HC lyrics and it was very influential to me. At the same scene, HC/punk in Poland was very active and impressive. What was very important too, European straightedge HC was on the rise and linked to anarchist, leftists and antifascist politics. Bands from this period, like Manliftingbanner in Holland, Nations On Fire in Belgium, and Cymeon X in Poland, somehow defined what become Refuse Records — combining straightedge with politics and DIY hardcore punk.
Anyway, around 1994 the local scene in Warsaw went downhill and there were less bands coming to town, fewer shows. From the late ’80s people involved in Qqryq Productions were booking many shows, and thanks to them there was a growing number of people getting into underground punk/HC. At this point they stopped booking shows to focus more on their label. I decided to do something with it and start booking shows and told Stasiek (RIP) from Qqryq that we should do shows together, so this is how is started with booking shows, which I still do on a regular basis.
I had no special plans to start a label, but during the summer of 1994 I talked with my friends from local defunct band Kto Ukradl Ciastka about putting their tape, then a live tape of Cymeon X, and after that Zlodzieje Rowerow’s debut tape. They became one of the most important bands in Poland in the next 17 years and the best-selling band on my label. So, it was definitely good start.
Then it was growing up, putting out releases for international bands on different formats, with over 90 releases so far.
Robert with Seein Red and Jenni Emancypunx in Warsaw (photo by Kuba)
What are some of your other best-selling releases, and which ones didn’t go that well? Did you ever regret releasing a band?
Besides Zlodzieje Rowerow, there were plenty of bands who were also good sellers, like Anchor, Coke Bust, Catharsis, Blank Stare, Birds Of A Feather, New Winds, The Tangled Lines, I Shot Cyrus and more. Some could have done better but they split up, and my policy when a band is done than I’m done with doing any more pressings. For many years I was happy saying that I have no regrets about bands I put out, until last year when I put out a band called Noose, from Chicago. This is my regret, but I still consider two members of this band as friends.
Do you still plan on releasing CDs or you will stop, as that format seems to be dying. Which format do you prefer?
I still do occasional CD releases, the latest one was the Mindset discography. My favorite format is 7″ or 12″ vinyl, but still what’s on the records is more important than format, so I’m definitely not gonna get rid of the CDs in my collection.
Last year you were in Serbia, was that your first time here? What were your impressions? Did you know much about the Serbian HC punk scene, any bands you like?
I’ve been in Serbia a couple of times but unfortunately only for shows, so it would be great to visit Serbia more often and spend a couple of days hanging out with friends and checking out the places and local food. I have always had good impressions visiting Serbia — it’s such an interesting place with a complicated history. Sure, I’m familiar with Serbian bands. I really liked bands from the last decade, like Lets Grow and Unison. I know Novi Sad is a very active place with shows and bands at the moment.
Robert with Tzn Xenna (photo by Pepus)
You released the Lets Grow Disease of Modern Times LP, and also went with them on their European tour. What was your experience with them? Are you satisfied how that release turned out?
I think Lets Grow was one of the very best bands coming from Europe in a last decade or so, not just Eastern Europe or Serbia. They got some recognition on an international level with releases on US labels and two international tours but they would have done better if they’d been from Holland, Sweden or Germany. The hardcore punk scene is very Western-centric at the end of the day. Also, for a band from a country where you had to ask for a visa to visit each country, it makes things so much more difficult. I’m really satisfied with this release and all the members from Lets Grow are nice, friendly and dedicated people who did a lot for their local scene. It was great to see Ljubia and Dario again last summer.
I spent only couple of days on their first European tour and it was a great time! On their second tour I was involved in the show they did in Berlin with Jaibo.
Any chance to have some new bands from Serbia on Refuse Records?
If any more bands come close to the standards of Lets Grow then, sure, I’m always open to work with bands I like.
Tell us about the venues where you organize shows, what are the conditions, and how do you manage to pay bands? In Serbia if you charge more than 3 euro for the show, the show will be considered expensive, so it’s really hard to get enough people who would pay 5-6 euro to see a touring band play here.
I’m booking the shows in different types of venues, but mostly DIY centers or as many punk-friendly venues as possible. Conditions are different too and it’s not always easy to break even, but it’s also not that far from reality. I’m booking shows in Berlin and Warsaw and entrance is usually a bit cheaper in Warsaw. When I started booking shows in the early ’90s, I was losing money at most of the shows, as there were no options to have DIY or cheap venues in Warsaw. Luckily, it’s not happening that often anymore. Many times it all depends on the bands and how attractive they are for the audience. The biggest shows or festivals I did were with over 1000 people, smallest one with 40 people in the crowd.
Sure, in countries like Serbia, currency and economical difference means that bands and promoters can have hard time breaking even, it was the same in Poland. The difference is really small now, compared to the prices of the shows in Germany for example.
How did you come up with the idea of re-releasing discography LPs by Catharsis? And is it true that in two weeks it was completely sold out? Will they come to Europe to promote it? Will it be just a couple of reunion shows or they plan to continue playing?
I was supposed to do the show for CATHARSIS in 1999 but they cancelled the show since their singer, Brian, lost his voice. Then, in 2001, we had a second chance and we did show for them in Warsaw with Sin Dios from Spain, Antichrist and April from Poland — great show, we became friends. A couple of years ago I got an offer to put out their discography on vinyl as a co-release with Crimethinc. — four-LP discography, crazy plan, but I was happy to do this and it came out early this year. Yes, the first press as a box set was sold very fast and now the repress is coming out as a two double-LP’s. It should be gone soon, I guess. Catharsis played three reunion shows in January in the US and this summer they’re coming to Europe for a couple shows, including some festivals, like the Refuse Anniversary Fest in Warsaw, Fluff Fest in Czech Republic, and Ieper Fest in Belgium.
Robert with Nick and Staffan
Mailing releases overseas is insanely expensive, postage is almost as much as the cost of the record, if not more. So how do you organize distribution? Do you have any plans on cooperating with US labels to have your releases co-released there, just to avoid sending it from Europe?
It’s all true, increasing shipping prices are killing the DIY network, trades and good distribution. Refuse Records releases are distributed by many foreign distros. Ebullition and Revelation are doing wholesale distribution for Refuse releases in the US. Yes, I do cooperations with US labels as well and I did before with labels like 625, Grave Mistake, React! or Crimethinc.
Do you plan on having some surprises for the anniversary shows?
There will be two anniversary festivals — the first one in Berlin (19-20.07.) with a bunch of bands, like COKE BUST (US), BETWEEN EARTH & SKY (US), HOUNDS OF HATE (US), VITAMIN X (NL), REMISSION (CHIL), VIOLENT REACTION (UK), REGRES (PL), O INIMIGO (BRA), THUGxLIFE (PL), AGENT ATTITUDE (S), GOVERNMENT FLU (PL), STAY HUNGRY, THE CORPSE (PL), VOWELS, XWALK AWAYX. The second one is in Warsaw (2-3.08) with CATHARSIS (US), COKE BUST (US), BETWEEN EARTH & SKY (US), ANCHOR (S), O INIMIGO (Bra), NOTHING (Germany) and bands from Poland like TZN XENNA, THE CORPSE, CYMEON X, EYE FOR AN EYE, REGRES, GOVERNMENT FLU, BURST IN (final show) and THUGxLIFE. So, different generations of bands. I was asking mostly bands connected with Refuse Records and some bands I like a lot who are on tour in this period. I’m looking forward to seeing all the great bands and meeting lots of friends at the same time!
Since you’re from Poland, which used to be a communist country, can you tell me how it was for you growing up behind the Iron Curtain? Now that Poland is a part of the EU, what are in your opinions, positive and negative, about it?
It was an interesting experience but I’d prefer not to go back in time. It’s a different reality, more grey and depressing. Anyway, I’m glad I had a chance to live in these two systems, two realities, to see the differences and the things that they had in common. In the ’80s there was less personal freedom, difficulty with travel, no free speech, censorship, no democracy, etc. At the same time there was so much creativity, so much potential and you can see it through punk bands from Poland of this period. It was a massive movement, even behind the Iron Curtain.
The current political and economical situation in the “Western world” reminds me a lot of the old days. Everyone though that Eastern Europe would go in the direction of Western Europe/USA, but I’m afraid it’s quite the opposite. Deep economical crisis, social cuts, new forms of censorship and also new forms of social control and spying — sounds like the modern Western version of the KGB to me.
As for the Poland as a part of the EU — I can see more positive than negative aspects after joining EU by Poland on a personal level. It’s easier to cross borders, it’s easier to travel, and being the owner of an EU passport is sort of a privilege. Anyway, there’s many bad points about it as well. I’m far from being an EU enthusiasts. Poland has become the defenders of the eastern EU border. We’re part of Fortress Europe now, so Poland has to show that it’s keeping security on the eastern border. We don’t have that many well-established human rights institutions or organizations like Sin Papiers or No One Is Illegal, who would do monitoring of human rights abuses towards immigrants on the eastern border. That’s why institutions like Frontex can work hard to keep illegals out of the EU no matter what the cost, including human life.
Any last words?
Thanks so much for interview! Hello to all my friends worldwide!