For Lansing-based DIY musician Tommy Plural (real name Tommy McCord), starting a band and running a record label go hand-in-hand.
Having launched The Plurals in 2005 with drummer Hattie Danby and bassist Nich Richard, Tommy and his bandmates took a page from DIY musicians of the past and simultaneously started their own label, GTG Records, all while still attending high school. The label has since released 134 albums, with a dozen active bands at any given time.
Tommy said The Plurals, composed of three songwriters, are rooted in the tradition of ’80s punk and alternative, like The Replacements, Hüsker Dü and Dinosaur Junior – “so punk-influenced, guitar-driven melodic rock ‘n’ roll.
“And there’s all kinds of variations within that, but that’s the guts of it,” he said.
According to Tommy, it’s also based on democracy, division of labor and a shared dislike of the once popular emo-core, screamo scene.
The name, however, just came from a T-shirt logo generating website in the early 2000s, he quipped.
Tommy, who is both the band’s guitarist and the head of the record label, said despite the ongoing pandemic, The Plurals have finished releasing their fifth album, an ambitious endeavor known as the BEES project – an album’s worth of material divided among three EPs, “Mumblebee,” “Grumblebee,” and the recently released “Stumblebee” – while also completing a first for the label, an entirely livestreamed and socially distanced music festival for the 13th annual GTG Fest.
Speaking with Middle Music on Nov. 29, Tommy dove into how the DIY ethos has influenced the band, drove the mission of his label and helped them get through the early part of the pandemic.
MM: Why did you start GTG Records in high school?
Tommy: We thought if we do put a band together, we should put out a record, of course. We took inspiration from Minor Threat and The Misfits and Black Flag and all those bands, and those bands started their own labels back in the late ’70s, early ’80s. So we’re like, “Oh yeah, that’s what you do. You start your own label,” not really knowing what that meant. And then a couple of years later we started really figuring it out, both the band and the label. So it’s always a communal thing.
MM: How does a DIY label work?
Tommy: Our original plan was just being an online source to list our friends’ records – this is back 15 years ago now – the thought being, if we all put the [GTG] logo on our demos, which basically is what it was then, and directing everyone to a website and having everything listed there, we’re also promoting each other’s activities. So that sort of grassroots distribution/promotion environment is still key to what we do. At this point, as the industry has shifted toward digital and vinyl, and limited physical releases, the arrangement now is we still have the web presence of course, there’s the GTG Records Bandcamp digital web store that has everything in print up there at the moment, then we have a sort of rotation of funds for putting out vinyl releases.
MM: How do you pick the vinyl releases?
Tommy: Basically, a band will get a vinyl release if the band will actually tour and be out there playing, because there’s way more money available out there [selling records at a concert]. So we have a schedule we stick to, funds allowing, where we put out a record, that band pays it off, and after everything is paid off from the initial loan, we split things down the middle from there. And eventually funneling that back into the next release. So I figured out a bunch of this stuff on my own with the help of friends, so a lot of the time people come to me for advice on “where should I get the vinyl mastered? Where should I get it pressed?” I’m happy to be a consultant on those things because it can be daunting and expensive.
MM: Why did you form The Plurals?
Tommy: Well, we were in small town Michigan, what else do you need? (laughs) No. I had been playing in a band that’s still together, Drinking Mercury. It’s actually a GTG band, it released another album last year, and that’s the band I started in middle school. But the other main guy in that band moved away for a while and Hattie Danby, the drummer in The Plurals, she was playing in kind of like a goth rock band, but we were all from neighboring small towns in Michigan, and when the pool is limited, you kind of find the other people that are on your wavelength really quick. It can be really easy. You know, we ask [for someone who can play bass, and someone says] “Oh my friend Nich, he plays bass, he’s never been in a band before, but he might be a good fit.” And he was, and 15 or 16 years later we’re still together. And then you know, we’re located in Lansing, but we’re all from nearby, but Lansing is the urban hub, and we all had a shared vision that we wanted to travel the world and play music, so we really dedicated ourselves to it.
MM: Have you traveled the world?
Tommy: We’ve done the whole continent quite a few times. Haven’t left the continent, but yeah. I’ve never played a show in Maine or Utah, but I’ve got all the other states. I have friends in Maine. I just haven’t made it over there yet. Next year.
MM: How does the DIY aesthetic influence the band?
Tommy: We take a lot of inspiration from the DIY rock godfathers, I’m thinking specifically at this point Fugazi and bands of that ilk, SuperChunk from the ’90s to a certain extent as well.
We definitely think a lot of musicians have horror stories of working with shady promoters and I certainly did that early on with Drinking Mercury, my psychedelic first band. We spent way too much money making a really crappy demo because someone had dollar signs in their eyes. “Oh, these high school kids don’t know what they’re doing.” So, it’s very much that by sort of working within the more DIY framework, you have a better chance of working with people who share the same values as you. When I say “values,” I mean music as community, and pushing the artistic quality perhaps over the commercial quality, although money is nice.
So I’m kind of finding that sweet spot with people willing to put in the work to put on good shows and put out cool records, but not at the expense of basic human ethics, and morality. That’s kind of what got us into it. We don’t want to pay to play at the city rock sports bar that’s run by a terrible capitalist slimeball. So we work with the people that, maybe they just put on a show in their basement, but it’s a safe space and the music is quality and you actually get to keep the money. And maybe some of those people also put on shows at the bar in town. … And the label is kind of an extension of that, you know, working with other labels, and our vinyls are distributed through Recess Ops, which is a distribution branch of a San Pedro California Record Label called Recess Records, which is founded by a guy named Todd Congelliere, an ’80s/’90s pop punk veteran, someone from the DIY world, therefore someone we were comfortable working with.
MM: What are the challenges of using a DIY framework?
Tommy: It’s a slow burn. We play the same town over and over, and just kind of hope that you get a slight and subtle increase in attendance and returns over time. And sometimes you don’t. And sometimes there’s just no answer for why it didn’t work. But usually it does, if you maintain a good schedule. The financial windfall isn’t rapid, but if you stick with the DIY ideology, avoid taking on a huge overhead in your operation, you can make it work.
Even in a year like this, I make part of my living off DIY music. I make the rest off of teaching, but it’s still coming in, even without the touring. The Plurals, in all the years we’ve spent, basically living out of a van, we’ve always profited. We’ve stayed in the black, pretty much the whole time. And we were sleeping on people’s floors and maybe repairing a piece of gear more often than we should have been, but it works. So the upside is you know that you’re working with good people and you have another home out there. That’s sort of how it goes working in a DIY network.
We’ve worked with all kinds of promoters that, maybe after they make their cut of the door, they don’t remember your name the next time you call them. So when you work with people who share your values, then you’ve always got somewhere to stay the next time you’re in town. Quality over quantity.
MM: Any advice for touring?
Tommy: The trick is to do a fundraising show right before you leave, and make sure the first couple shows you have are going to pad your accounts so when you get a couple days away from home, you know you’re OK. My dad’s a small business owner, so he kind of passed some advice onto me.
MM: When did GTG Fest start?
Tommy: Well, the first proper fest was in 2008, and we’ve kind of let it be different things. It’s just supposed to be a big party, a celebration of the label and the community. Whoever was active at the time, they’d play a set, and we’d have some of our friends play. So the first incarnation of it was basically just a backyard party, a daylong barbecue with bands. Great time. I wish we still had the space to do that. And it kind of got to be too big to have in someone’s backyard so we started doing it at venues and then it became a weekend-long thing. This year we pared it back significantly. We did a daylong live stream and we had kind of a central location. We were running on a rotation so there would never be more than six people in the building. Then we had people stream their sets remotely. We had people stream sets from New Jersey and Chicago and Detroit and other places. So how many years is that? The 13th annual festival this year. Lucky 13. The 13th fell on a pandemic.
MM: “Stumblebee” is the last part of the 3 EP BEES project. How were you able to complete it during a pandemic?
Tommy: So we sketched out the BEES project in the beginning of 2019 and, just because we knew our drummer was pregnant, we knew we weren’t going to tour this year or probably the next year. So what can we do to keep things going?
We put out the first EP [Mumblebee] in May of 2019 and then the second EP [Grumblebee] came at the end of that year. And we had sort of started working on the third one [Stumbebee]. We had the basic track list figured out, and we started working on the third volume at the beginning of the year and then COVID lockdowns hit and we were already struggling to maintain a consistent schedule with a small baby in the picture now, and then now we can’t even get together.
So after thinking about it a little bit, I wrote a new song, the first song on it, “18-49,” which is about being really frustrated at what appeared to be a lack of civic engagement in my generation in thinking about the election in the fall. So we wanted to finish this and put something out. We were all quarantined at this point, but we had basic tracks for half of it, drum tracks and things, we just had to get the other songs figured out. So I cobbled together a new recording set up, and I set it up in my basement and sort of sifted through what I had, and I had the others record things and send them to me, and they worked remotely, and that’s not the style of the band at all. Most of our other records were largely recorded live in a room and then we would overdub extra vocals and punch in a guitar solo or something like that. So it was interesting in that regard. And in a lot of ways it kept me sane in the spring lockdown, just having something to work on.
And then for the final bits I had Hattie come over and record on my porch. We were still not trying to go into each other’s houses. So there are birds in the background and stuff and the neighbors next door were playing Bob Seger really loud, and I was like “Oh man, I’ve got to get a license clearance for the sax riff seeping into the background of my recording.” But you couldn’t hear it.
So then we put (the “Stumblebee” EP) out in June right before the stay at home order was lifted in Michigan. But it was kind of a personal victory to get this thing out. We were super happy with it and the circumstances behind it made it more atmospheric and a little more psychedelic in regard to production. I haven’t fully produced a project for The Plurals in a really long time. Normally I have other people working with me on it, so I found myself finishing it. And it was great and shortly after we got it online my basement got flooded and I had to tear (the recording setup) down. Nothing got damaged, but it was kind of serendipity. We had a few livestream concerts to promote it over the summer. Now we’re kind of waiting for the future to come into focus and collect (all three EPs) onto a vinyl and do some real shows.
MM: What’s the focus of “Stumblebee?”
Tommy: The BEES project was meant to be – because we knew we weren’t going to be able to go on tour behind it – a tribute to the spirit of traveling and the spirit of the community, good and bad, so there’s lots of songs about, in a veiled sense, the DIY scene and the possibilities and the flaws and the realities that come with it.
MM: What’s with the albums’ names?
Tommy: So “Mumblebee” (the first EP) is sort of like the tentative introduction. The first song on it and the first lyric is “You better keep it down if you want to stay here.” That’s about staying in someone’s house that maybe is kind of unfriendly toward (you staying there) but still took you in and you don’t know why. “Grumblebee” (the second EP) is angrier. That includes the song about police brutality and wondering if you should move away. And “Stumblebee” is, I don’t why we called it “Stumblebee,” but it works with the rhyme, and it’s about trying to keep moving. We’ll go with that. This is great. You’re helping me figure out how I’m going to ultimately sell all of these as a cohesive thought!
MM: Has the pandemic posed any challenges to the label?
Tommy: Oh sure. So I mentioned before Drinking Mercury. We put out an album digitally at the end of last year and put down a deposit on a vinyl and figured out the artwork on the vinyl. Got all this squared away in March this year. So we were like “OK, we’ll have the pressing in April you know, sweet. We have all these music festivals, and all kinds of things,” and then everything got canceled and I was like “Oh, well my whole strategy for releasing this vinyl is gone, I’ve got to figure something else out.”
So me and some other guys from that band started doing this daily staying at home series that we ran on the GTG Facebook page, and we called it “Staying Home with GTG Records.” So everyday from the middle of March to the middle of June, we had different people – some affiliated with the label, some not, some who reached out to us to get involved – post solo, mostly phone-shot videos of themselves playing music on the Facebook page just as a way to keep things going a little bit, and then we had this record and it was just sitting around. So that has worked. It’s a slower burn than usual, but I’ve got some orders for that vinyl this weekend so I’m working on it.
Then we pushed back a release entirely for this band, The Soods, a kind of space rock collective. We did finally put that out in October. We had a full tour scheduled for them and all that had to be canceled. So that’s been challenging.
… We have basically only put out digital stuff since the pandemic came on. But we will return to a physical format. We’re doing a CD release of The Soods next year and I’m putting the finishing touches on a new project right now. Kind of a more like a folk, classic country influenced thing called Wild Honey Collective that will be out online in December and we’ll probably do a later vinyl release. But as I said before, we kind of do things on a rotation, and as it sells then we put it into the next release. Without shows, I do a lot of my sales at shows, so at GTG Fest we make a big chunk of change to fund the next release, and that didn’t happen, so we’re still plugging along, but a little more low key, because when I start putting my personal bank account into the label I need to start being more careful.
MM: The Wild Honey Collective is a country project. Is that a departure for you?
Tommy: It is and it isn’t. All of this stuff is intertwined. … Over the last few years I’ve really been exploring old country rock, The Byrds and its various offshoots, Gram Parsons and Michael Clarke, all this great stuff, so I’ve been looking for an album for that. And my fiancé, she plays fiddle and she’s from a more folk background and we’ve been looking for something to do together and one of the guys from Drinking Mercury, Timmy Rodriguez, he’s interested in kind of pursuing that a little bit more. …
Some of [the album] is acoustic and I’ve got a great Lansing-based pedal steel player named Drew Howard to contribute some songs to it. So I’ve been learning all kinds of things about recording that I haven’t done before. I was like “Oh, I’ve never mixed a pedal steel guitar, so, challenging.” But I love it. It’s a very intimidating instrument. I don’t understand how it works.
MM: You’ve been together for about 15 years. Why do you think you’ve lasted so long?
Tommy: I think the key is we were friends first before we started the band. Anyone looking for advice on how to start a band with longevity is make sure you start it with people you like being around, because once you start working semi-professionally, you’re stuck in close quarters, very close quarters in a minivan for two months.
MM: Anything you’d like to plug before we go?
Tommy: The current releases. We’re still pushing that Drinking Mercury [self-titled] record that came out a year ago; The Soods, we just put out their album, “Ornaments of Affection” in October, so those are the current things I’m trying to shove in front of people’s faces. And then The Wild Honey Collective’s debut album should be out before Christmas and then we are also going to be doing a concert, documentary film of the livestream GTG Fest we did this year. We simultaneously recorded everything. Like multitrack. So we’re going to make an edited version of the best performances. And me and some East Coast musicians, we’ve been curating a music livestreaming group called Best Friend’s Club, and every week we have a curated show with people livestreaming. We try to run it like a venue, and right now that exists as a Facebook group, but we’re actually going to start hosting on bestfriendsclub.us, an independent platform in the new year, running our own site people can livestream on. In lieu of touring, that’s what I’m doing to keep live music alive this winter.