Often, these projects sit on a foundation of an individual’s particular passion for their chosen creative field but end up providing more benefit to the broader community than was ever expected. They form the backbone of our creative scene, but often go undocumented in the wider story of the city. We’ll be highlighting just a handful of the amazing projects that exist because people were determined to make them happen, celebrating the value they provide and pulling back the curtain on exactly how they got there.
For our first interview, we spoke to Derrick Johnson, one of the co-founders of Make-That-A-Take Records; a DIY punk rock record label and live music collective based in Dundee. From regularly putting on gigs and producing records from their base at Conroy’s Basement to organising their annual festival Book Yer Ane Fest and so many other projects in between, they’ve been making things happen for over 16 years now. Over a coffee at Rad Apples (their sister project) we talked through how their collective has developed since its formation, about their definition of punk, and the importance of giving independent projects the benefit of the doubt.
(Creative Dundee): So how did Make-That-A-Take come about?
(Derrick Johnson): Make-That-A-Take started like any other ridiculous punk label. I grew up in Alyth with Michael Lindsay, one of the other co-founders and I’d gotten into punk in adolescence; I’d found the guitar, three chords and a distorted amp, and thought, “Great, I’m a songwriter now. I can’t play the guitar properly but I can kind of play three chords and I can turn it up really loud and shout.”
So I was playing in bands from then but when I went to university I got more politically involved in it, I guess around the time of the Iraq war. I met Barry Kydd and I was in a band called Try Hards with Ryan Destroy. In 2006, all four of us were doing garden parties and putting on our individual shows and we were like, “Surely this would be easier if we just pooled resources?” Which were nothing at the time, it was basically our two bands putting up and putting on whatever touring band was coming through and that was our collective.
It was kind of amorphous for the first couple of years and then 2008, Michael and my friend Ben [bass player, Uniforms] who also grew up in Alyth, and Kevin Henderson [drums, PMX] formed a band called Joey Terrifying and that kind of levelled it up a little, because in terms of my own engagement that was the first full UK tours I’d booked. Book Yer Ane Fest kind of started around that time too, and then I guess 2011/2012 was when things went up a notch again when it went to a three-day festival.
(CD): It sounds like it’s been a very natural, organic progression to where you are now.
(DJ): Yeah, it was never conceived of as a career goal, it’s not like 25 years ago Michael and I were sitting around being like, “Okay, in 25 years…” All of us do our own different things and have our own skill sets. We never decided we were going to be like any of the labels we grew up listening to, it was just like “They’re doing it, and they seem like a bunch of idiots like us. Why can’t we?”
(CD): As a punk label, I’m curious to see how you define punk, because I think there’s a lot of stereotypes that come along with the idea of what it is. How would you define it?
(DJ): If you ask 100 punks the same question you’ll get 101 different answers. I guess it’s almost a meaningless word now. But to me, it basically means independent, creative thinking, critical thinking, engagement with the world around you, fighting against injustice in the most positive way you can in whatever the circumstances you find yourself in. Rather than an aesthetic, or strictly a sonic aesthetic.
As a label we’ve put out everything from, I guess, Bed of Wasps are the gnarliest, heaviest thing we’ve put out—they play like really bleak, intense, metallic hardcore. But I play acoustic as Tragical History Tour and we put out a Broken Stories record, which is an acoustic and fiddle-driven folk duo. So it’s a combination between ethics and principles.
(CD): It’s a very open definition of the genre.
(DJ): Yeah, we want everyone to feel welcome. I remember playing at The Old Westport Bar in Dundee on my 16th birthday and I had terrible bleached blonde hair—kind of like I do now, strangely—and got made to feel like a complete asshole from a lot of the “cooler folk” and I just remember how much that sucked. I never wanted to make anyone feel like that. So now, I guess I’m kind of that age that some of those folks were when I was 16 and we have a lot of different bands come in here and we just try to show them what our version of punk is about.
(CD): So when you’re deciding to put out a record, what’s your thought process? What’s happening behind the scenes that we don’t see?
(DJ): There’s no hard and fast. Essentially, in terms of the label, I won’t put anything out that doesn’t move me in some way and that’s hard to quantify. But we want to do the thing and put out a record, so that’s what we’re focused on. We’re not thinking, “Okay, how are we going to market the tour?” it’s like, “Right what do we need to do? We need to get that record recorded, mixed and mastered, we need to contact the pressing plant, we need to make X amount of money to pay everyone”.
We don’t have the budget that big labels have; PR for a new record by a big band, on a big label might be £30,000. But subcultures are exactly that; they’re subcultural, so there’s so much of that PR that you can do for yourself. I guess Make-That-A-Take has an advantage in that it has literally hundreds of years of shared experience but also, we’re honest. You don’t need to share every little thing that’s happening and be like “here’s the crack” but being honest and saying that things are delayed, we’ve fucked up with this tour, we’re skint, this gig is cancelled, not everyones going to be able to come to the Book Yer Ane Fest because of Covid, you know, if you can foster that positive relationship, it makes everything easier, including things like marketing.
(CD): Yeah; although at some point you’ll have to market it and sell the thing, that’s never going to be the focus, and if people can see the authenticity of that for themselves in the way you communicate that makes a massive difference.
(DJ): Yeah, I’m anti-punk as a marketing strategy, I am pro-punk as a Do It Yourself or preferably, Do It Together principle. That interests me more.
(CD): So if selling things isn’t the focus, how do you deal with the realities of running a DIY label within the constraints of a capitalist system? How do you continue to run the business and stay afloat?
(DJ): Make-That-A-Take has basically no overheads and I do not take a wage from anything it does. In the 10 years that the bank account has existed, it’s never been overdrawn but it’s oftentimes been super close to the line. We have been in a position before where we can’t put anything out until we shift a bunch of this, whatever this may be. We’re quite fortunate that we haven’t been in that position for quite some time, but it’s always a major undertaking putting out a record. Essentially, it’s all based on trust and handshake agreements, word is bond kind of stuff. Especially in a community like DIY punk, everybody knows everybody and so if you fuck someone over, everyone’s going to know about it.
But whatever we’re doing, we decide things money-wise straight off the bat—either like 50/50 or, “I’m getting this, you’re getting this back”. Whatever the case may be, that’s dealt with first so if we’re going to do this thing, folk make their money back. Whether that’s the band, the label, whatever and then if there’s profits to be shared, everybody wins. I guess we’re an artist-friendly label, but being artist friendly doesn’t mean we’re enabling artists to get into lots of debt.
(CD): It’s a very honest way of working.
(DJ): I think most people generally want the same thing. Most artists, in my experience, want to be treated well, with some respect and dignity, play a nice show, feel welcomed, get fed, get paid their agreed fee and have a place to sleep or at least know about their sleeping arrangements before they come to the gig. And we just try to be a little safe spot for touring bands, and the hope is that when we go on tour, we’ll be extended that same courtesy.
And again, that’s all come from learning; gone are the days where there’ll be 16 people piled in one person’s flat. But in essence the spirit is the same. It’s about trying to represent what’s going on in the current moment and treat people as fairly and equitably as possible, whilst acknowledging that there are differences between equity and equality and discourse is nuanced and humans are nuanced. And I guess that’s the route of it all, and over the years that thinking has coalesced into the way we try and operate. It’s maybe idealistic or utopian or whatever—I can see how it can be seen like that—but I actually think like love, anarchy is a verb, it’s something that you do.
(CD): Well that’s the thing isn’t it? It might be idealistic but you’re doing it. It’s not just an idea; you’ve made it physical. It’s just as credible a way of working as any other.
(DJ): Yeah, I think so. Just like you don’t need a cipher to have a relationship with music, the relationship you have with music is your own. Just like the bands don’t need a label to be rad bands. But if I can help amplify that, then great.
(CD): It feels very much like a true collective, like the success of the whole comes from the fact that everyone involved supports the project in whatever way they can. Can I ask, how did the pandemic affect you? How did that change what you were doing?
(DJ): It was tough. It was definitely when having few to zero overheads was handy, and again it’s definitely where the community and friends rallied. We only put out one physical product, it was a Paper Rifles CD and John [Paper Rifles] refused to allow me to pay for them. He was like, “We’re making this CD anyway, we want to put it on Make-That-A-Take” and I was like, “I want to put it out but I’ve got no money” and he was like, “Well, we’ll pay for the CDs and we’ll sort it later” and it has since been sorted, but that’s the kind of selflessness that comes with the community.
I try not to pan-handle or abuse, I don’t want to ask people for money under any circumstances; I would far rather sell you a record. Like, you want to help me? Cool, buy that new All Depends record for twenty bucks or tell your mate to buy that new All Depends record for twenty bucks rather than saying, “Hey, we need money to survive.” Which may be true, but I have a lot of guilt about that.
(CD): Looking at it from the outside, it seems like you and the project are so interlinked—the things that have influenced you personally influence the work that Make-That-A-Take does. Do you ever feel like you need some separation, some kind of a break?
(DJ): There’s no objectivity in anything to do with Make-That-A-Take, because it’s all friends, connections. And for me, myself, it’s my relationship with music, punk rock or my understanding of it, and it’s been the thing that’s been with me for my whole life. When things are running well, it’s the greatest, and I’d say the majority of the time it doesn’t feel like work because it’s kind of just what I’ve always done. If I wasn’t doing it for Make-That-A-Take, I’d be doing it for my own band or own music or own art or whatever that other interest may be.
I have made changes though. Not being in a band for the first time since I was a teenager is a big change. I think initially, for me and especially for Make-That-A-Take, a lot of touring was an escape, like, “I don’t want to grow up.” But as you do grow up, you realise like “God, I’m 40 years old, what am I doing here?” And here is a bathroom in Wrexham at 3 o’clock in the morning or whatever. I’ve got some friends who I love and respect dearly who still do it but I don’t want to be on tour sleeping in a van every night for three months, I want to stay at home and go to bed at a reasonable hour sometimes. So it has evolved.
But generally, I don’t know what I’d do with my life if I wasn’t doing this. I’d probably have a lot less stress and I’ve got no doubt that the time will come but for me, as Derrick, I’m not done with punk rock yet. I’d like to think I’m a true believer, but once that goes out we won’t do it again because I’m certainly not doing it for the money. I’ve lost more money than I’ve ever made through music. But I’m not saving for anything. I would’ve spent that money on something else.
When it comes to money, I’m actually, I think, quite a cautious person. Other people might see it as reckless abandonment or shortsightedness or whatever. I don’t. Because despite all the “radicalism”, we still want to be able to do this, so I consider things. The scale of what we’re trying to do has grown but the principle of those ideas and heart remains the same, and I’d like to think a little purer, a little less egoic than before. Back then, it was just us saying, “Listen to our band, listen to our band”. I’m a terrible listener so it takes some time for these things to take root, but over the course of the last 16 years, I’ve had a lot of conversations and gigs and learning and eating shit for zero thanks and that’s okay, because at those points, the fact we were doing it was enough. And I still feel that in my heart. I think you can tell, or I hope that comes across; that there are shits given.
(CD): You totally can. Since you spend so much time supporting other people, what’s the thing other people can do to show you some support?
(DJ): I think the answer is always the same no matter what you’re talking about; come. Come to the shows. Come check out the bands. Dundee has a wonderful musical community, whether it’s punk rock or hardcore or alternative or whatever the case may be, it’s all about the humans. Our church of punk—what a ridiculous phrase—is a wide one and we try to be inclusive not in a tokenist way but of ideas. And not to wave the flag of “oh look at us” but I don’t think there’s many other examples of bills, of musical communities where a band like Indica could comfortably share a bill with Nicola Madill. To me there are direct connections between those bands that have nothing to do with sonics and everything to do with ideals and thoughts and maybe a reflectiveness.
So in terms of what I’d like people to do, look at what we have. I don’t mean just Make-That-A-Take but in our city. Almost any scene or culture you’re looking for exists here, you’ve just got to scratch that little bit deeper. Maybe come a little bit further back than the West End and the Waterfront and there are interesting things going on all over the place.
There’s always a space for those who’ll do the thing and are doing the thing, whether it’s punk or hardcore or motors or tables or furniture or food or setting up your own support groups or community larder or community projects like Food Not Bombs. Literally, any projects you can set up autonomously with groups of people are to be encouraged. DIY projects need the benefit of the doubt; both myself and Make-That-A-Take wouldn’t have been here without it so I think that for myself forms the crux of it.
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