Published Oct 25, 2015Stomp Records started with a bang. In 1979, Matt Collyer's older brother had just returned to the family's home in suburban Toronto after a semester abroad in England. "He pretty much came back a punk and a rude boy," recalls Collyer.
Adopting punk's "year zero" approach to music, he quickly sniffed out Collyer's Electric Light Orchestra record. "He put a firecracker in the middle of the vinyl and threw it in the air," he says. "It blew up. I was forced to listen to ska and punk."
Fast forward 36 years and it's a good bet that as co-founder of Stomp Records, 46-year-old Collyer has inspired at least a couple of older brothers to trash their siblings' record collections. This year marks the Montreal punk and ska label's 20th anniversary and bands new (the Beatdown, Los Kung-Fu Monkeys) and old (Planet Smashers, Subb) from the label's roster are playing a series of gigs across the country, celebrating its continued success in an era where record labels are an anachronism.
Yet back in 1995, "Stomp was a necessity," says Collyer. "There was no one else in Canada releasing ska." By the time the label dropped the landmark Canadian ska compilation All Skanadian Club, the genre was on its third permutation. Ska started in Jamaica in the 1960s as an attempt to mimic the sounds of American R&B and soul. It was exported to England where groups of multi-racial, working class kids gave the music a political edge. Bay Area legends Operation Ivy helped popularize a punk-ska hybrid in the States and by the early '90s, it was pun-inflected party music, an upbeat antidote to dour grunge and gangsta rap. "You played ska back then, people would dance. You played garage, people wouldn't. I like playing music but I also like having fun. So [I figured] let's do both."
By the time the Planet Smashers formed in 1994, with Collyer on guitar and lead vocals, a scene had already coalesced around King Apparatus in Toronto and Me Mom and Morgentaler in Montreal. Collyer had moved there to study engineering at McGill. "We were getting together and doing these horrible jamboree jam parties." Someone suggested they start a band and Collyer figured he'd give it a shot and see what happened.
The Planet Smashers wanted to sign with Toronto's punk label Raw Energy Records. When that didn't happen, they hooked up with Montreal's other local ska crew, the Kingpins, to release a split seven-inch. That eventually snowballed into the 16-track All Skanadian Club. "It pretty much laid the entire foundation for everything that followed."
With Collyer and the Kingpins' Jordan Swift handling the backend, the Smashers' self-titled debut was Stomp's second release. By 1998, buoyed by ska's growing mainstream popularity, particularly in the United States, the label was a self-sustaining enterprise. They opened a storefront office on Montreal's Mount Royal Plateau that sold records along with imported Fred Perry and Ben Sherman shirts. "We were the hipsters of the day!"
The good times wouldn't last though. Like other late-'90s genre fads — swing, electronica, nü-metal — the ska bubble burst as the new century dawned. "The backlash was well deserved," says Collyer. "There were four or five bands playing ska in the city. Four years later there were probably 20 and they were terrible. That happened everywhere."
The big warning sign for Collyer — who took over from Swift after the latter bowed out in 2001 — was the shuttering of venerable New York label Moon Ska. "The distribution manager said the biggest mistake was they were pushing the genre, not pushing the bands," he says. "We changed everything after that and started going after everything — punk rock, mall-punk, street punk, folk kids…"
Belvedere and Flashlight Brown marked Stomp's first forays outside of ska. Shortly after, they merged with local punk label 2112 Records, whose big act Reset later morphed into Simple Plan, becoming the Union Label Group. Booking and management arms soon followed.
Still, the label was in debt and in danger of closing its doors when a writer from the Montreal Gazette dropped off a copy of Bedouin Soundclash's album Root Fire at the office. Blown away by what he heard, Collyer brought the group to Montreal, where they recorded Sounding a Mosaic "for nothing." It took eight months to crack commercial radio, but "When the Night Feels My Song" finally took off. "It went nuts. We felt like a real label."
Plenty of successful artists have passed through Stomp's doors; Collyer released the first Flatliners record, managed Walk Off the Earth and, in another lifetime, future members of the Stills (as the Undercovers) and Patrick Watson (Gangster Politics) were part of the label's roster. "It's a passion for me. I'd like to be rich, but that's not the main thing for me or anyone at Stomp."
Today, Stomp is based out of a third floor office above local venue Club Soda. With a five-person staff, Collyer admits that much of his job these days consists of pushing paper.
Looking back over the last two decades, he claims the label hasn't been that impactful on the Canadian music industry. Rather, he measures Stomp's success by the lives he and the bands whose records he's released, have touched.
And the label continues to release new music. Though still heavily associated with ska, they've added a diverse array of new artists to the lineup including two Edmonton bands, rockabilly crew Raygun Cowboy, "hipster beard punks" Fire Next Time. "We've already got most of next year planned out," says Collyer. "But we're still signing! We're always looking."