Death metal and grindcore were fledgling subgenres when Relapse Records started releasing 7-inches by underground adherents in 1990. Before the decade was out, the Pennsylvania-based label had helped introduce the world to heavyweights like Neurosis, The Dillinger Escape Plan, and grindcore pioneers Repulsion. By 2002, they were putting out early albums from future GRAMMY-winners Mastodon and High On Fire. Today, Relapse continues its tradition of top-notch extremity with nascent death dealers Gatecreeper and grindcore stalwarts Pig Destroyer while exploring new territory with exciting outliers like heavy-shoegaze squad Nothing, horror-synth duo Zombi, and one-woman folk/black metal enchantress Myrkur. We recently spoke with label founder Matt Jacobson and vice president/head of A&R/label manager Rennie Jaffe about the secrets behind Relapse’s 30 years of success.
Spotify for Artists: Why did you start Relapse?
Matt Jacobson: Music was my passion, and I just wanted to be involved with it in any way that I could. I tried to get a job at a record store or at a radio station, but the mall record stores wouldn’t hire me because I wasn’t a pretty girl, and there was a long line of people waiting to work at the indie record stores. And radio stations—haha. I was just a young kid. So I started printing shirts and stickers for bands and things just kind of evolved from there.
Once you put out your first handful of releases, what kind of specific goals did you have for the label?
Jacobson: After we had put out maybe 10 7-inch releases—just around the time we put out our first CD and cassette—I was working late one night and I just had this realization that we had already accomplished more and gone further than I thought that we could. I started to think, “Where’s the ceiling for this?” Suddenly, we had CDs at the mall record stores where I couldn’t get a job, and we had these super-cool bands, and things were just cranking away. So the goal just became to reach the next level.
By the mid-'90s, Relapse was pretty well established in the metal underground. How would you say you carved out your niche?
Jacobson: One thing I didn’t fully understand at the time, because I was so young, was that I was getting into grindcore and death metal and those types of subgenres when they were really emerging. I didn’t realize how kind of fresh and exciting they were, so I think our timing was really good in that our musical tastes were aligned with what was happening at the moment. That allowed us to be really in tune with what was happening on a very underground level and to kind of be that conduit for those killer bands to reach larger than a tape-trader audience.
Rennie Jaffe: What I thought was special about Relapse from day one is that I don’t think it ever explicitly identified itself as a grind label or a death-metal label. They always put out stuff like SubArachnoid Space and Nebula and things like that. I don’t think we’ve ever been like, “We need to sign a grind band this year.” That’s never been our approach. For better or worse, we’ve followed our own tastes.
What’s the biggest risk Relapse has taken that’s actually paid off?
Jacobson: That’s a tough one to answer because there are so many. But when we signed Dillinger Escape Plan, they were a demo band from New Jersey. Before they even had an album, we printed 50,000 stickers and then we just kind of went all in when they had this seven-minute, three-song single. We put everything we had into them in terms of reach and recognition and contacts and resources. But they just really blew me away the first time I saw them live and I knew there was something new and unique and special about them. And the band worked really hard and made that same impression on a lot of other people.
Jaffe: As far as modern Relapse bands, I’d say Nothing was a band we signed that metal fans did not get at first. I mean, that band took a chance on Relapse—they could have easily gone the indie-rock label route. But they came from heavy music—they had been in hardcore bands—and to us, they’re at the forefront of a new trend in heavy shoegaze music. They destroy literally and figuratively onstage, and it really worked and connected and they wound up being one of the most successful active Relapse bands of the last 10 years. But if you’d told me in 2000 that a band like that would be one of the most successful bands on the label, everyone here would’ve been like, “No way.”
Relapse has been around for 30 years now. What do you see as the key to the label’s longevity?
Jacobson: I think one of the things that’s really important is that we’ve just stuck to our guns. We do what we love and what resonates with us, regardless of whether that band or style is in vogue at the moment. I feel like there’s some other labels that have often historically been interested in what’s really popular right now, and I don’t think we’ve ever really had that kind of approach or agenda. We’re just like, “Oh my god—have you heard this band?” We’re into music that really hits us, not that just checks some box from a certain genre.
What do you look for in bands to work with?
Jacobson: Generally what we’re looking for is something that’s really fresh and innovative—which, frankly, is incredibly rare and hard to do. So increasingly it’s more like what I refer to as “best in class.” Like, “Okay, we’ve heard this kind of death metal before, but holy fuck these guys are top-tier.” So, maybe it sounds like a cliché, but we’re just looking for quality. It’s so simple, but so important.
Jaffe: How a band is live is hugely important. Oftentimes, you can see a charisma or energy in live bands that might not be evident in early recordings. I mean, we’ve all heard plenty of amazing recordings and then gone to see bands that couldn’t pull it off live. So I think Relapse has a strong lineage of really good live bands, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence or accident.
What advice do you have for bands that are just starting out?
Jacobson: I always like to tell aspiring musicians and bands at any level to make sure you’re having fun. Creating music, playing it and doing something you enjoy is a great place to start. Make sure that it’s rewarding to you, that you love what you’re doing and that you’re trying to do it well. I feel like, for the most part, bands that do that can stand out. It’s hard to give specific advice about how to stand out because it’s a crowded world, but touring and self-promoting in a non-obnoxious way is a great start.
Jaffe: Play shows and tour. There aren’t many bands that Relapse signs anymore that don’t play shows. Touring is what keeps things moving for an active band, whether they’re just starting out or they’re on their fourth record. When people see a tour announced, that helps drive the streams on Spotify. That’s what prompts record stores to bring the records in. That’s what makes labels notice.