After over a decade of running Get Better Records, label owner Alex Lichtenauer believes the label is finally getting started. Beginning in 2009 in New Hampshire by Lichtenauer and their friend Nick King, the label began as a way to show representation for their friends’ bands in the punk and hardcore community; a scene that undervalued or overlooked queer voices.
For years, Lichtenauer viewed the label as a way to get these records out into the world when no one else would and to release their own music —Lichtenauer also plays and tours extensively in the post-punk band Control Top. But after moving the operation to Philadelphia a few years ago, they started to be embraced by the city’s burgeoning music scene and have been releasing records by some of the area’s most exciting artists before the rest of the world has been able to catch up.
Ears to Feed caught up with Lichtenauer to talk about the label’s evolution from focusing on political releases to embracing it all, moving to Philly and meeting the members of Empath, the headache of putting together a 100 plus band compilation, being inspired by Sadie “Switchblade” Smith of G.L.O.S.S. and Dyke Drama and so much more.
Take me back to the beginning. What was your inspiration to start Get Better Records?
I started Get Better in 2009 and I’ve always had a fascination with record labels. I was always playing in bands and I would send my music to record labels and they would never write me back. At a certain point, I decided to start my own so that I wasn’t ever relying on anyone else to release music through a label. That’s how it started.
Were there any labels that you looked up to as a kid for influence?
Epitaph was a huge one. Fat Wreck Chords was one of my favorite labels growing up. Most of which, I’m not into this kind of music anymore. We’ve kind of adapted our label model based off of those labels. Most of those are artist-run labels which I really liked about them. They weren’t [run by] some person who just liked music. They were run by musicians which was extra special.
What was the first release you feel really put the label on the map?
The label started in 2009, but I didn’t take it seriously really until three years ago. For almost the first 10 years of us being a label it was always putting stuff out from my friends. I always took it seriously, but now I spend almost every day working on the label as opposed to back then when I would spend maybe two hours a week. So, it’s funny to say we started in 2009, because it doesn’t feel like we started for real until a couple years ago.
I would say the two releases that got us noticed. The first one was with the HIRS collective. We did an LP with HIRS and Jenna, who helps to run the label. The reason that put us on the map was Shirley Manson from Garbage did guest vocals on it. Laura Jane Grace sang on it. There was also Sadie from G.L.O.S.S. and people from Limp Wrist. Pretty influential queer and trans artists were on it. That was the first big release where I was like, “Oh shit, this is more serious than I thought it was going to be.” That’s when I really started taking it seriously.
But then the Empath record that we did really put us out there. That was when Pitchfork was noticing us to and all of these other labels started going after Empath and ended up buying the catalog from us. HIRS was when I started taking it seriously, but Empath was where I was like, “Oh shit, this is for real.”
How did you first start working with Empath?
It’s actually really funny. The day myself, Garrett, Kathy and Gem from Empath all moved to Philly the exact same day. In 2015 we all moved to Philly. We all had the same landlord and we lived two blocks away from each other. This was before Empath started. It was right when Perfect Pussy was breaking up. I had to go pick up my house keys from their house, because that’s where our landlord was. They lived with a bunch of other people I knew. We all met that day and had the worst landlord ever.
Then we just developed a friendship because we had so many mutual friends and they lived a couple blocks away. They would play at my house because I had a house that would do shows. It was a very casual thing. I was like, “Let me do your tape!” It’s funny now because that tape now is owned by Fat Possum. I would say that’s the release that really [was big]. Pitchfork reviewed it and it got a “Best New Track.” I had never heard of Pitchfork. Seriously, I heard about Pitchfork like three years ago when that came out.
We all talk almost everyday. We’re really tight. Almost every release on Get Better started as a friendship. That’s what I think is really cool about our label. There’s no stranger on the label. There’s no one I don’t talk to at least once a week.
Philly has such an incredible scene right now. Has it been an inspiring scene to document for the label?
One hundred percent. I started the label when I lived elsewhere and since I moved here the label has grown so much. I think it’s because of all of the artists that live here. I think we have one of the best scenes in the country right now. So many incredible bands — both big and small — are from here or have ties to Philly. When there were shows, I would see all of the bands first. There’s not many labels here either, so I was seeing all of them and picking them up before anyone had ever heard of them. I think Empath was a prime example of that. Even though Garrett was in Perfect Pussy and Kathy played in Allison Crutchfield’s band, they were very unknown until that first tape came out. Not that I think Get Better made them who they are with that tape, I just think they’re a very special band in that way.
Let’s talk about the compilation, A Benefit Comp To Help Pay Medical Bills For Those Activists Fighting Against Fascism & Racism, you put out in 2017. It has 119 different artists contributing songs. Were you surprised how that all came together?
That turned into a 100 plus band compilation overnight. I wasn’t planning that at all. Anyone who is trying to plan a 100 plus band compilation is out of their mind. That was not my intention by any means. I wanted probably 20 bands but the emails came flooding into my inbox., I couldn’t keep up with it to the point where we were close to 80 and I said, “Let’s just get to 100.” I reached out to maybe 30 bands and I think word of mouth really picked up and 100 plus bands were sending their songs.
Has it been a struggle to maintain artist and label relations with the pandemic?
If I’m being completely honest with you, I think it’s enhanced by a lot. Something that I’ve noticed is Get Better last year doesn’t even compare to what it is now. I think it’s because I play in a band and we were on tour all of the time. Now that I’m not on tour all the time, I’m putting all of my efforts into the label and I’m talking to my artists way more. Today, I had three other calls today with artists on the label. That wasn’t how we used to operate. I talk to people way more frequently and more at length now because I have the time for it.
Looking through the label’s history, your dedication to activism and creating a platform for LBGTQ+ artists is really inspiring. Was that always your main goal when starting Get Better?
When I first got into punk I was very into the political activism of it. When I first started a label I didn’t identify as queer or non-binary or anything. It was 2009 and the language wasn’t there so I didn’t identify as that even though I always was. The roster was very different than it is today but the ethics were always the same. Even though it wasn’t a queer focused label 11 years ago, it was always about being artist friends and making political statements and being a label that doesn’t do things just to make money. [It was about] promoting our friends and having a message behind it.
That’s kind of even changed to. Not every release we do now is political like it used to be. I always wanted to do political stuff, but now I realize there’s more out there than doing a political message 100% of the time.
I feel like the Empty Country album is destined to be looked at as an underrated masterpiece. Do you have any other albums in the Getter Better catalog that you feel similarly about?
That’s our top selling record. First or second, I’m pretty sure. Good question. That one is really incredible. I feel like it kind of got overlooked. It came out March 20th last year and that was a week after the shut down. I think it got a little buried press-wise because of that. I think the Empath LP Active Listening, I think that’s a fucking masterpiece. That got a lot more attention than Empty Country but I think down the line people are going to go back to that record. I think the HIRS record is incredible. Just wait until you hear the next one that’s coming out …
When does the next one come out?
Well, there’s two. There’s one coming out in June. That’s a compilation of 100 songs, a double LP. Very limited pressing. Then there’s going to be another record like the first LP with a bunch of guest people on it. That probably won’t be coming out until later this year or next year. That’s going to be really wild.
Okay, [back to] records that I think should get more … whatever (laughs). I think Bacchae’s Pleasure Vision went under the radar for a lot of people. It’s really, really good. It’s incredible. They’re a post-punk band from D.C. It came out in early March right when things started to get weird. But that record is incredible and didn’t get the attention it deserved.
G.L.O.S.S. put out two of my favorite hardcore releases of the past decade. Sadie is such a hero. How has it been working with her and releasing projects like Dyke Drama?
I’ve known Sadie for 10 years. I used to live in New Hampshire when she was living in Boston and we became friends. I don’t know if you know her other band People Watching? They have a split with Nona from Philly and also with HIRS. We released both of those splits and those.
She’s great. All of the stuff with G.L.O.S.S. and then Dyke Drama was about to blow up. I remember seeing her in Philly after G.L.O.S.S. had already exploded and she was just so unhappy being under the spotlight in the way that she was. If you try to call her now, I think she has a cell phone now but she had a landline telephone for the longest time. She’s very much not on the internet. I think it kind of freaked her out how big G.L.O.S.S. got and she was put in the spotlight as being the “Trans Spokesperson.”
She’s great and we’ve worked with her many times. I think that the Dyke Drama record is great and is also very overlooked. She also played drums on that Tankini record which is very good and also very overlooked. She’s great to work with and a huge inspiration.
Tell me about the operation now. How has it been hiring more people to help you with Get Better?
It’s been really interesting having other people work at the label. Also, sidenote, I started this label with my friend Nick King in 2009. Then he left the label a year later. He was the original co-founder and he left in 2010 and I continued it on. I think for me having other people work at the label has been such a learning experience. I don’t like being a boss. I’m very much still learning how to have people work for the label and reporting to me. It’s a weird experience for me. But having the help is much needed because that’s how I think we’re going to grow with people that aren’t just me and my brain thinking about stuff.
Tell me about Get Better Fest. How did that initially come together and would you ever consider putting on another festival now that shows are opening up?
Definitely. There was supposed to be a “Get Better” tour last year. It was going to be a month long tour that was Get Better bands that would do a regional run with local bands each night. A band from Philly would play like five or six shows in the area and then jump off. We did a lot of planning for that and it ended up never happening because of coronavirus. We were going to do a 10 year anniversary fest, but none of this really happened because of coronavirus. Also, in 2019 I was on tour most of the year so a lot of stuff was put on hold because of that. But I would definitely do it again. The first two were in New Hampshire when I was living up there and that was honestly where I met so many of the people who I’m still friends with and talk to today. A lot of people who went feel that way. Definitely, we’re going to do it again.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.