D2D Interview: Lisa Fancher

The span between the late 1970s and early 1980s was a powerful period for small booze business in California. Microdistillation was just getting underway and boutique wine stores were beginning to offer an alternative to the big box outlets. Change was in the air and many of the seeds for our current renaissance were planted during that era. Today there are still a handful of small California companies established during this period that are very important to my everyday existence in the booze world. St. George distillery, for example, founded in Alameda by Jörg Rupf back in 1982, has become a major partner for our store. Germain-Robin would be another illustration, established by Hubert Germain-Robin and Ansley Coale in 1982 up in Ukiah. My current employer, good old K&L, is only a few years older: created by Todd Zucker and Clyde Beffa in 1976. Yet, it wasn't just the spirits business (nor strictly NorCal) that saw an uprising of energy at that time. In the late 70s, punk rock was also beginning to gain a major foothold in the U.S. and the Los Angeles region was quickly becoming a center of creativity for the genre. In 1980, a little record label called Frontier, established in Sun Valley by Lisa Fancher, put out an album by the Circle Jerks called Group Sex. The rest, my friends, is history.

So how do I know Lisa Fancher and why are we featuring her now in the latest D2D interview? Let me give you a little back story. In 2014, I began writing posts about some of our hotter deals on booze under the term "Dramarama". Given my love of pop music (especially from the early 80s), I started coupling these posts with videos and songs from that period just for fun. That's when I got an email from Julie Masi, the general manager from Frontier Records, telling me how much she enjoyed the Suicidal Tendencies bit; one of the many bands signed to Frontier at that time. It turns out that not only were the gals from Frontier loyal customers of our Hollywood store, but they were also big whisky fans and readers of the K&L spirits blog. Who knew?! From that point on we struck up an acquaintance, which ultimately turned into a business venture between people whose love of music, art, and booze were simply too strong to deny. I can't reveal too much at the moment, but let's just say that in 2015 you're going to see a little collaboration between K&L, Frontier, and one of the other companies listed in the opening paragraph. It's going to be epic and easily the coolest thing we've ever done as a retailer (or maybe that any booze retailer has done).

In the meantime, however, let's get to know a little bit more about the dynamic Lisa Fancher, the woman who helped shape punk rock in California and put out some of the most beloved records from that era. Don't let the sweet smile or the blond hair fool you: this hardcore, punk rock chick can still beat all of us up and she still loves to drink. In this D2D interview we talk about the similarities between whisky and record collectors, the ways in which the music and booze industries diverge, and how drinking champagne at a punk rock show isn't really the move, even at this stage in our lives. Previous editions of the D2D Interview series can be found by clicking here, or the link to our archive on the right hand margin of this page.

David: I’ve always felt like the music and booze businesses are closely linked. There's the obvious connection with bars and live music, but having worked in both wine and record shops I've seen that the aficionado/collector aspects are also very similar. Before you started Frontier Records you were a record collector. How did you get into collecting?

Lisa: I got a lot of records by default from my older sisters, so that wasn’t really collecting. I would just play them and say, “This is good. This is garbage. This is awesome.” My oldest sister Lynn had the first Velvet Underground record with the banana peel cover. When I was thirteen I started going to the swap meet at Capitol Records when it was in the actual parking lot. I’d either take the bus or try to get a ride with someone there. I never had much money, but I always worked in record stores or had some kind of a job counting records somewhere. I would buy whatever I could at the time, but then as I got older and got a car it was easier. That led me into writing, oddly enough, and I convinced Greg Shaw at Bomp! Magazine to let me write for his fanzine and it all kinda continued from there. But it all started with me being crazy for music, not being able to get enough of it, and trying to discover new things. Someone I admired would say who their influences were and I’d try to track one of those records down. 

David: You then entered the business side of the industry, which sometimes takes the fun out of it for hobbyists. A lot of winemakers or distillers were also fans before they worked in the business. You’ve followed a similar path. What were some of the obstacles you were confronted with in that transition?

Lisa: Obviously it’s a huge commitment when you’re using your own money to fund a record, rather than just being a fan and buying a copy of it. Going to see a band or writing a review of a gig is one thing, but when you actually decide to invest your own money then you’re pretty serious. The aforementioned Bomp! Magazine also had a record label, so I knew a bit about where to go to get the various steps done—where to get a cover printed, where to do vinyl manufacturing—but knowing those steps and actually doing it are two different things. Finding out all the pitfalls, how printing works, how album covers are made, you have to understand that this was all pre-computer. Everything was done by hand. For instance, I would take an album cover that consisted of little pieces of paper stuck to a board with wax—no one who’s young can even fathom this—but sometimes by the time I got it to the printer all the wax had melted and the stuff had moved around. Then with recording you had to think: is the band going to show up? Are they going to hate each other? Are they going to break up before the record even comes out? It’s always different and it’s definitely been a blast, but there’s no college course that could ever prepare you for the experience. If you’re not extremely patient, and/or good at dealing with people you’ll never make it. 

David: That sounds exactly like the booze business! Did you think you’d still being doing this thirty five years later?

Lisa: I never thought it would be this long. I never dreamed that people would buy all those records years later.  Of course, I hoped they would! But really it was just something to do. I never could have imagined, however, that people would still be really into The Circle Jerks or The Adolescents and tell me how those records changed their lives. That makes me feel pretty cool!

David: I also worked in record stores during high school and then early on when I first moved to San Francisco. The customers are exactly the same. There are a lot of different identities at work; people who consider themselves a part of something very particular and who pride themselves on that association. For its first few years Frontier Records was primarily a punk rock label. In the mid-80s, however, you started branching out into different genres. Did you meet any resistance from fans who didn’t agree with the direction you were taking?

Lisa: Absolutely. A lot of people never followed anything I did ever again! It wasn’t until years later when I put out the Weirdos compilation or the Dangerhouse compilations that the people who were only interested in the punk stuff came back around. I guess with any indie label you’re expected to keep doing the same thing. But there was just no way. It wasn’t as if there weren’t any more good punk bands to sign, but a lot of them—I won’t name any names—were putting out this jokey stuff, or it was super derivative. So I thought I’d let the kids take it back over. It’s not that I wanted to do more grown-up stuff, but I did want to do something I was still excited about. I’ve never released records to make money, which is pretty obvious (laughs). I never thought I was going to take over the world with my records. And I did not! But I’m still here.

David: I think that’s a consistent theme that ties into both music and alcohol. A lot of the people on the consumer side don’t want things to change. But when you actually work in the business, you’re constantly searching for change—for something new and exciting. 

Lisa: With both wine and record collecting, when you get in on the ground floor—whether it’s with Super Tuscans or Oregon pinots—you think to yourself, “This is amazing!” But then—and it’s not because of me, obviously—these categories just explode and then the prices become prohibitive. That’s why I always keep moving around and look to discover new things; things that haven’t gone over $100 a bottle. Look at Pappy Van Winkle on the black market now for hundreds and hundreds of dollars.

David: That’s exactly where I was going with that! Thanks for making that point for me.

Lisa: It would be nice if things were reliable. The nature of wine with vintages, however, is that you might have a good year or a bad year, so you’ve gotta keep your eyes open and look around for new stuff.

David: Does that excite you? 

Lisa: Absolutely! That’s what it’s all about for me. I can’t stand doing the same thing all the time, or drinking the same thing. There are things I’ll always like, of course. I’m a traditionalist. I don’t like super gnarly IPAs; those San Diego-style palate wreckers. I like balance. If that makes me an old fuddy-duddy then so be it. I don’t want anything over-oaked, I don’t want anything too extreme. Gimmicks suck.

David: You want the classic, well-made version.

Lisa: Right, and that doesn’t mean you’ve gotta spend a thousand dollars. It just means you’ve gotta keep your ears open, listen to people, go to tastings. I sometimes wish wine was like music where there could be a YouTube for tastings. That would be so much easier!

David: What do you like to drink these days?

Lisa: Let’s see….my favorite thing to drink if I’m going to be drinking a whole bunch is Champagne. It doesn’t have to be actual Champagne, but you know something sparkling if I’m going to be power-drinking. If I’m not power-drinking, then lately I’ve been enjoying American whiskey. I really like Breckenridge and some of the newer producers that have popped up. I’m not really a traditionalist when it comes to liquor, which I know is the reverse of everything I just said about wine! It doesn’t make any sense. I really loved your Faultline Bourbon. I’ve almost killed an entire bottle by myself, which is pretty rare.

David: So you’re into Champagne and Bourbon now, but what were you drinking back during the early punk days of 1980?

Lisa: Whatever there was. Whatever the band had. If it was really cold I could drink as many beers as I could swallow, or whatever other rotgut they had around. You know, maybe a Costco-sized bottle of liquor, but that sort of drinking just hurts too much now. It was really fun back then though. If I even smell Jaegermeister now I will hurl.

David: I think it’s great to evolve from youthful drinking binges into something a bit more enjoyable. It’s when you lose the aspect of fun in that appreciation that I get worried. For example, I used to collect Sonic Youth records—or I guess CDs as I got older. I would buy any Sonic Youth album I didn’t have—imports, demos, singles—even if I didn’t like the tracks on the disc. You’d have Thurston Moore playing experimental guitar for twenty-seven minutes on some of these things. I might never listen to it, but I felt like I needed to buy it anyway. That’s the point when I crossed over from buying music for fun into something much more restrictive. It was almost a chore or a duty. Could I call myself a “serious” Sonic Youth fan if I didn’t own everything they put out? I see a similar pattern in the booze industry where fans are looking to get every single new release that comes out. Some almost feel like missing out on certain bottles threatens their status as a serious whiskey drinker.

Lisa: I realized a long time ago with record collecting that I was never going to be able to compete with people who had money, or who were able to travel to London and put it all on their American Express card. I realized I was never going to be the biggest and best record collector ever, so in the end you really just need to make yourself happy. With alcohol it’s the same thing. I’ve tried stuff that was popular or known to be good, and it may or may not have registered with me. I don’t buy bottles based on scores anymore. I try to taste everything first. Some things are cheap though, so really it doesn’t make a difference taking the risk. If I don’t like it I can always give it to someone else. But you have to keep an open mind. Even though I don’t like the San Diego IPAs, every now and again Stone will make something where they dial it back and I really enjoy it. If you have your mind set in stone that you don’t like something, then you will just reinforce your own prejudices, which is stupid.

David: Were you as open-minded of a drinker back in your bad-ass punk days?

Lisa: I can tell you a funny story about drinking back then. I actually got thrown out of one of my own shows. It was a Frontier night with The Pontiac Brothers and Naked Prey, and we were drinking so much before we ever got to the show that I was just annihilated before we ever got there. I remember the Pandoras were there. They were sitting at a table and they had been filling up a beer pitcher with pee—it was really gross (laughs). Then there were these general bikers that hated us, so I kept running around grabbing the pool balls from the ones who were serious about trying to play billiards, throwing them around the room. It was like Keystone cops with people chasing me around and trying to get me under control. Finally the security guard got a hold of me and threw me out of the show. Nobody saw it happen, so no one knew where I was, and it was my show! I walked back to one of the band member’s house, jimmyed a kitchen window open, and just climbed in. I was sitting there in the kitchen waiting for them to get back from the show at like 2 AM. That was probably in 1987, however, rather than back at the beginning. I was too busy back then to get wasted!

David: When you’re the owner of a record label do you usually hang out with the bands or is there a need to separate business from pleasure?

Lisa: It all depends on the situation. Some bands are the super nervous type and they don’t like people going backstage with them. Others are great fun. I remember back in the days with The Supersuckers, they were incredible to hang around with. With others you might not want to hang out with them—it’s like going to the library. Very quiet, and nooooo fun.

David: What about some of the more popular bands from Frontier like Suicidal Tendencies or The Adolescents? Were they easy to have a drink with?

Lisa: The Adolescents—with Rikk and Casey—those guys really knew how to party. And Tony, too. Today, however, there are many sober members of that band because they just can’t do it anymore. But you shouldn’t be drinking if it's not fun anymore—like if it becomes a job or a chore, or goodness forbid you runover someone behind the wheel. If you can’t get drunk unless you drink two Costco-sized bottles of vodka, then you should probably stop. Good advice, right?

David: That’s one of my biggest fears as someone who works in the industry—that drinking will eventually become a job or a chore, rather than something I still enjoy. Did that ever happen to you with music?

Lisa: I feel that way all the time. There are times when I wish I wasn’t in the music business and that I could just be a fan. I go out a lot and I still buy a lot of records. I still love going to shows because that’s still separate from the business side of it. But I had my little piece of the rock. I co-own my distributor now (ILD) so things aren't as unstable as they were during the 2000s when I didn’t know if Frontier was going to survive from day-to-day. The shrinking amount of record stores is pretty brutal. I think it’s finally stabilized, but it’s always tough to say because once a decade there’s a huge shake-out where a number of people go out of business.

David: The booze business is that way, too. It’s very cyclical. There are huge growth spurts, but then the bottom falls out when tastes change. It seems like the music business would be equally as prone to these shifts in fashion.

Lisa: Oh absolutely. For example, at this point in time it’s very difficult to get any space in the record pressing plants because all the major labels are suddenly putting out vinyl again. They see everyone else doing it right now and they want to get in on something hip. But that will end eventually. Urban Outfitters has vinyl now, you know? So it’s the hip, trendy, groovy thing to be doing. But that will stop and eventually they’ll go back to selling pillows, or moustache mugs, or whatever they sell there. Because it’s not a place to buy records, you know? There’s no community feel there. You buy records in a record store. You hang out in there, you here something playing over the loudspeaker, and you say, “Who is this?” Those are the places where you learn about new things. And, okay, Youtube.

David: I think that’s one of the best parts of K&L. There is a community here that comes to discover new stuff. But that’s an issue for me, too, when it comes to the modern age of consumerism. I feel that both the music and booze businesses are moving into a generational shift where the majority of its new customers are using top ten lists, or numerical ratings to decide what they like, rather than simply discovering things organically on their own. 

Lisa: A top ten list can be a good and a bad thing. They’ve been around forever. But if Pitchfork is your one and only God, or Robert Parker, or whatever, then you’re going to be missing out on so many other things. But everyone is beholden to advertisers, I don’t care who you are. 

David: I agree completely, but ultimately I think what I’m getting at is the inability to take a risk. To eat at a restaurant without Yelping it first. To buy a bottle of wine without looking to see what score it got. I didn’t read reviews when I bought records as a kid. That’s not how I found out about new music. I would just talk to my friends or watch MTV. Today, I still know people who will email me and say, “Hey, the new so-and-so record just got a 9.2.” What does that even mean?

Lisa: That’s something that’s really taken over the wine world. I absolutely despise the whole numerical scoring thing, but—hey—it’s a game and people pay attention to it. But it’s for that reason that I don’t subscribe to many wine email lists anymore. It’s great when wines that I like get good scores, but what does it mean for all the other wines out there when I’m just wandering around a store, looking for something interesting, and all the signs just say “93 points”? To me, that’s meaningless. 

David: I’ve never discovered anything new or exciting by following a score; at least not that I can think of. It’s always been a recommendation or piece of advise from an actual person. The best thing I’ve discovered in the past year—both music and booze-related—came from you and Julie at Frontier. You guys sent me the Christian Death album because you thought I’d like it, and boy did I ever. I’d completely missed the boat on that band, which is shocking because it’s totally my genre and my kind of thing. Do you know how exciting that was for me? I still listen to that album almost every day on the way to work. Based on what I like, someone made a recommendation that completely changed my entire life! I got to go back and rediscover something incredible that I never knew existed, which only prompted me to ask Julie for more suggestions. I still have never even bothered to search online for what other people think about Christian Death, or what kind of reviews people have given it. All I want to do now is find other things like it.

Lisa: Christian Death is iconic and that's their best album by far. Other bands can be gateway bands. You get into them and then you have to go back and find all the other stuff that lead to that point. When Green Day blew up in the 90s all those kids had to go back and listen to The Stooges, Dictators, The Boys, and they said, “Ahh, now I get it.” Then maybe you think the original band is terrible in comparison!

David: That’s exactly what happens with wine. You try something and you like it, then you try to discover new things that are similar and you realize there are all these more-exciting, lesser-known, more-interesting versions of the thing that got you interested in the first place. Isn’t that more fun than simply picking things off a list that other people say are good? You build something that way. Many people who buy a bottle of whisky off a list take one sip, and say, “Next!” Same goes for music. They see the score, download a few songs, play them for a day, then move on to the next shiny thing. For me, however, when I discover something organically, the pleasure I derive from it is so much more long-lasting. I’m still obsessed with that Christian Death album almost eight months later. I’ve never gotten over it.

Lisa: Isn’t that funny? When I made that record—I think I was 21 or 22 when we were recording it—I never dreamed that someone decades later would even like it, or get so fired up about it. That’s amazing. 

David: And were I only looking at scores and following lists, I never would have discovered it.

Lisa: I see a lot of lists in the LA Weekly where they do things like “The Best Punk Records of All Time” and they’re all from last twenty years! Not that I’m bitter—mind you—but I’m like, “Are you fucking kidding me?” They’ll put a Blink-182 album in there and I’m thinking, “Not only is that not top ten, it’s not even top one hundred!” But, if you’re twenty-four, you’re like, “Fuck yeah! Blink-182 is the shit!” So I guess it’s all relative.

David: So how does that make you feel? You were there at the beginning, playing a role in one of the most important musical movements in the history of the United States, and now you’re seeing it take off into something far greater than you ever expected that's still reaching new listeners today. 

Lisa: I think it’s great! There have been so many great new bands that have kept it going. I love Jawbreaker, for example. I’m as good of friends with them as anyone I knew from before mainly because I was such a super fan. And in the 2000s there have been tons of great punk bands like The Men—and they’re as good as anyone who ever existed, in my opinion. They’re not designed to be on the radio, or on the cover of magazines and have girls screaming at them. They’re just flat-out awesome. Them, and The Marked Men from Texas, which eventually broke up into two bands, High Tension Wires, Mind Spiders, and Radioactivity. OBNIII, Protomartyr, Bass Drum of Death, and so on. There are still great bands, punk and otherwise, coming out all the time who would never fit into a major label. That would be the kiss of death.

David: So when you listen to punk music now, what type of drink do you have in your hand?

Lisa: I think beer still goes best with punk music. Don’t you love that Fidlar song: “I drink cheap beer. So what? Fuck you!” I wouldn’t drink Chimay with it (laughs). But I think that’s a really great anthem because punk is so much more fun when you’re drinking shitty beer. Any beer, really. It’s not really a cocktail kind of a thing, getting it all over the floor, making a big mess. I never know who’s going to come flying through the pit, so I don’t really want to be holding anything really expensive in my hand. 

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll