People who say the music industry is corrupt obviously haven't met Kurt Schroeder of Catalyst Records. He can often be found bending his tall, lean frame over a pool table at the Alley Cat, pausing between shots to sip from an always non-alcoholic beverage. If you lure him away from his game for a chat, his intelligence and moral aptitude are palpable; despite his having every right to adopt a holier-than-thou attitude, Schroeder abstains, speaking out only when there is an absolute moral obligation to do so. As Catalyst's founder, he behaves in perfect accord with the positive message of the label.
Catalyst Records grew out of a 'zine in the '90s, at a time when, according to Schroeder, "There weren't any major labels doing hardcore and it was all small and local, so it seemed really accessible." It was founded on a strict ideology and hasn't budged since, with a roster of bands that are all straight-edge, all political and mostly vegan.
"The basis of the label is the straight-edge part of it," Schroeder explains. "That means living a life free of intoxication; I call it maintaining mental clarity. Since I became vegan, which means living without any animal products in your life, I've been pushing it with the label as well. For me, it's part of promoting justice in your own life and promoting a lifestyle that doesn't benefit from the suffering of others."
Like in much hardcore, the vocals aren't always intelligible, which makes getting a specific message across a problem, and the music is on the razor's edge between order and disorder. One band on the label, Anchor, features distorted riffs, fervently screamed vocals and speedy drumbeats, which place them in the company of early hardcore greats like Bad Brains or Black Flag, while coherent compositions put them in the realm of modern hardcore. Schroeder's own band, Risen, is another paragon of staunch morality, characterized by chugging, heavily distorted riffs, unintelligible but intelligent vocals, frenetic tempos and hard-hitting drums.
Through Catalyst Records, Schroeder tries to combat a misogyny that runs rampant in the hardcore and metal scene, actively supporting bands that are openly feminist: "A scene that doesn't involve women is incomplete," he maintains. Now-defunct Californian female-fronted band, Gather, was formerly on Catalyst, and devoted itself to bringing down patriarchy in all its forms. In her farewell message to the fans, Genie stated that "Until this entire civilization is in ruins, the struggle continues."
Is an adherence to genre and a specific lifestyle inhibiting? Schroeder says yes, but counters that "The point of the label is to represent these ideas that I believe in. In the past five to 10 years, hardcore has become very corporate. There are a lot of bands who sell a lot of CDs that have nothing to say and just have a certain musical style. That's not what I'm trying to do, so I'm OK with a limited sale opportunity."
But even a label as principled as Catalyst needs to advertise. Schroeder uses Myspace.com as his main marketing venue -- "It's not perfect, but it's free and it works," he says -- supplemented by word of mouth and, most of all, by encouraging bands on his label to tour as much as possible. When a band tours behind an album, they serve as spokespeople, according to Schroeder. If a band performs well, people are more likely to buy their album and notice which label they're signed to, which will lead to more interest in the label itself.
Schroeder says that, over the years, he's become less involved with the local music scene because less people are interested in the causes of veganism and straight-edge. "The current of the hardcore scene in the U.S. became superficial and involved in things I didn't care about," he reports. "Especially in the Midwest -- there wasn't really a hardcore scene here that I wanted to be involved with." He's branched out into other parts of the country and world to find people who share his ideals, and found an audience for his label on the West Coast and in Europe. If sales have expanded, he still feels political and vegan hardcore is a niche market.
Schroeder's plans for Catalyst Records? To keep spreading the message. He plans to release a DVD of live footage of Catalyst bands and finish recording with his own group, Risen. In the meantime, you can find Schroeder playing pool, or behind his table at hardcore shows, selling music and merch that promotes the founding ideals of Catalyst Records.