Photography Anthony Franchino
“I just wanted to do it the best, cheapest, and coolest way I could.”
Ricky Hamilton is not one to mince words. His relentless ambition and brass-tacks approach has seen Quality Time Records, the record label he formed in 2013, garner an impressive roster of talent that is on the precipice of becoming Cleveland’s premier showcase for sound in 2018.
“I was on the road from 2012 to 2014 and I saw there were no real labels from Cleveland,” Hamilton speaks on the impetus of the label’s creation as a sense of duty, fueled as much by passion as practicality. “There was this void. I got back in town in 2014 and I kept running into old friends. They said things like, ‘No one’s putting out good music. People are making cool music, but no one’s actually putting it out.’ I asked why and they were like, ‘Because everyone’s just high and don’t know what they’re doing.’ So I figured, I’ve got experience, I guess I’ll fill the void.”
Forged from the most modest of means, Hamilton’s quest began with a fateful hand-me-down. “Basically, this dude Chris was like, ‘Hey, man, have this tape dubber’ and I was like, ‘Oh, sick’. I took it home and dubbed, like, twenty of my own tapes and was ready for more bands so I just made some calls and the first thing I did was put out five tapes in 2012 including Joyframe, Nico Missile, Andrew Pitrone’s Best Wishes, Bad Vibes, and Dionysian Mystery.”
Recording on cassette tapes in a digital age that increasingly prides itself in non-physical streaming platforms may seem counterintuitive, but they have proven a valuable cornerstone to Quality Time that belies the immediacy of their projects and the DIY ethos that runs throughout the label in addition to their other format releases. “I felt like everyone I knew had 1995 to 2005 cars, and they all had tape decks. It just made the most sense. And on tour, all we ever did was just jam tapes.”
Part of Quality Time’s success rests in Hamilton’s ability to assemble a diverse retinue of acts like Ma Holos, Bad Vibes, Shagg, Venus Flytraps, Pig Flayer, Fascinating, Another Mother’s Milk, and more that present a wide array of genres and styles while maintaining core sensibilities to what Hamilton describes as “gutter pop.” “The idea behind gutter pop is that the people making it understand the right mix of street rock, city rock, power pop, punk music. It’s not one thing,” he explains. “There are punk labels that just do punk or indie labels that just do shoegazer or whatever. I like anything that’s tough and has a good melody. It’s made from kids who grew up in the Bush years with the AIDS epidemic and everything that was terrible.”
The style of music produced is, of course, critical, but no less fundamental to Quality Time is a sensibility shared among the acts. “It’s in the personalities too. If anyone comes at me and they’re too corporate or not trusting, I get freaked out and I don’t want to work with them. Everyone I do work with, I’m lucky, because they’re all very true to themselves. They’re true lifers in music. They’re working at bars trying to tour all the time. They’re not corporate shills pretending to make music and be part of something on the side.” This principled approach is a two-way street that sees Hamilton paying that faith forward towards the bands he represents.
Speaking to Hamilton’s transparency, Robert Joyce from garage glam act, Ma Holos, adds, “He instantly made his intentions known. His whole business plan, it treats the artists well and everyone gets a fair cut. He also obviously has good taste.”
“I’ve never actually inked a contract,” admits Hamilton. “Everything is on a handshake. Anybody who is on the label is free to go to another label at any time. I don’t want to hold my friends back. If Warner Brothers wants you to put out a record, you should go do that.”
“It helps to be part of a community,” adds Quality Time alumni Aubrey O’Brien of The Venus Flytraps. “You can rep each other’s shit and show up to each other’s shows. It’s good because you can usually expect a certain number of people to show up and support you. Booking shows is easier because you always have someone else who can hop on and wants to play.”
Marty Brass, who serves as Quality Time’s utility player and features in Shagg, Ma Holos, Fascinating, and Pig Flayer underscores this sense of community. “We have enough bands to fill up an entire bill, and if Pig Flayer can’t play, then Shagg probably could. So we’re always ready to go and want to play as much as we can with whatever act possible.” He adds, “The thing about Quality Time, it’s just open to such a diverse and eclectic sound.”
What makes the label so appealing to such a wide retinue of acts is the freedom to experiment and maintain their own identities while still part of a larger collective. Venus Flytraps bassist, Kelly Venus, underscores the importance, “We have complete control over everything we put out. There’s no one trying to tell us to do something different. We oversee everything that we put out, which is really important to us. We don’t need someone whispering in our ears telling us what to do. Ricky has always let us do anything we wanted.”
Hamilton, and to a larger extent, Quality Time, seeks to facilitate rather than capitalize on the bands under their banner. “What I can do is work as a producer, make sure the record sounds good, connect people to the right people and then they have to take it from there. There’s a huge DIY aspect and I always tell the bands that,” remarks Hamilton.
Joyce considers Quality Time a “vehicle for the music.” Hamilton elaborates further on his analogy, “You have to hop in the car and take it where you want to go. You gotta make a sick record, book a tour, make sure you’re making cool artwork.”
Hamilton’s ear for innovative acts serves him not only as curator of the label, but a loyal mentor for up-and-coming bands. Nat Cherry of Shagg and Cotton Ponys explains, “What’s cool is if there’s a newer band, he gives them an opportunity to put out stuff for the first time. He’s willing to bring people on board and help release stuff for the first time that they might not be able to otherwise.” An aspect that encouraged the band, Pack Wolf, to initially reach out to Quality Time over other potential labels. Their guitarist Kevin Roche details, “[Hamilton] was really accepting because we were young and didn’t really know that much but he really liked us because we were young. He thought he could help us out and he really did.”
The vested interest between label and band are indicative of the collaborative nature of Quality Time, which sees individual successes of musicians and bands as barometers to the success of the entire label. Hamilton beams like a proud parent when charting the continued evolution of Pack Wolf since joining the label. “They’re ambitious. They played like fifty shows last year and went on a big West Coast tour. They really came into their own. They started with really modern influences and worked back in time. I’ve really seen them follow the path I’d hoped. When they started they were just eighteen with a seventeen year old manager and now they’re kind of adults, I guess. I’ve seen them grow up on the label,” he reflects.
Even with the label’s prolific output, Hamilton laments certain efforts becoming lost in translation. “I feel like there’s a huge disconnect between what the bands and record shops are doing and what the press is covering.” Adding, “I feel that street culture has taken a hit. People live so much on their own, isolated. You can be in contact all the time, but you’re not getting new stuff. One of the coolest things ever is when you see a flyer and it looks sick and you just check it out and it’s awesome and there’s no technology there, outside of a printer.”
Despite realistic concerns, Hamilton refuses to succumb to cynicism. “I just want Cleveland to keep growing and I don’t want it to look like L.A. or Austin, but I want to have our own niche that people look at and know, ‘Oh, that was Cleveland’s style in 2018. They had the look, they had the bands, they were working together.’”
To that end, Hamilton has big plans for Quality Time in 2018. In addition to a bevy of acts releasing new material, the label’s growth won’t just be limited to the studio. “I’m working with a booking agent so I can get more bands on the road. I’d like to see every band, at the very least, do ten to fifteen dates next year, if not more.” Cleveland remains the heart and soul of Quality Time, but that doesn’t mean Hamilton is shy about expanding their scope. A goal he’s already making good on, having just secured spots at this year’s SXSW for multiple Quality Time acts. He adds, “I would love to get a couple international bands on the label. I think that would be so cool to bring through some bands from Glasgow or Shanghai, some cool bands that want to check out the Rustbelt.”
Comprised of some of the most creative and dynamically engaging acts around, the immensely supportive inter-dependency shared throughout the Quality Time roster is unmistakable. The unflinching positivity shared among the bands sees the label’s collaborative output firing on all cylinders. The spotlight they share is on an ever-expanding stage, proving the label exponentially greater than the sum of its parts. Aided by Ricky Hamilton’s deft blend of zen and practicality the motley legion gathered under Quality Time’s banner know no half measures and settle for nothing short of excellence; and in return, provide Cleveland exactly that.
You can check out Quality Time records and the rest of the bands on Bandcamp and Facebook @qualitytimerecords.
Spend some quality time with the label’s all stars
Robert Joyce, Marty Brass, Pat Richie, Joey Nix
“The scene in Cleveland goes in waves, but it seems to be in a pretty good place right now. We’ve got a lot of friends that are playing music right now that I feel are some of the best in the city.” –Robert
Check out: Self described as “Cleveland’s finest gutter garage glam freaks” their Fast Money EP absolutely lives up to the hype.
Nat Cherry, Marty Brass, Ricky Hamilton
“The lyrics are a lot about violence in the world and what’s going, sexuality and being young.” –Nat
Check Out: An unflinching, lo-fi battering ram, Shagg’s self-titled debut is a brilliant take-no-prisoners full length album that expertly blends heavy with heart.
Kevin Roche, Matt Yormick, Nate Eberhardt
“I see being young as an advantage as people generally gravitate toward newer stuff.” –Kevin
Check out: Quality Time’s resident wunderkinds, Pack Wolf’s latest release, Sonic Pressure, takes everything great about rock ‘n roll and makes it even better.
THE VENUS FLYTRAPS
Aubrey O’Brien, Kelly Venus, Alfred Hood, Mike Hood
“I don’t feel like we’re in line with anything that’s happening anywhere. We’re complete outsiders. We’re like a Clockwork Orange gang in rock ‘n roll.” –Alfred
Check out: Everything you want out of rock ‘n roll, their Clamp Down EP is an honest to God tour-de-force to behold.
Marty Brass, Ricky Hamilton
“We try to capture the current underground scene as much as we can; to be able to push as much music out as we can in a smart way and still have fun.” –Marty
Check Out: Fused from an alchemy of Quality Time’s all-stars, Fascinating’s Dice Game is a love letter to garage punk and pop that is sheer fun from beginning to end.
Bae B Jenna, Kiah Seoul, Nat Cherry, Macy
“It’s music through the eyes of someone who lives here, in this post-industrial weirdo place.” –Nat
Check out: Their self-titled full length debut release has just dropped to local acclaim. With innovative sound and unflinching material, the Ponys should be on everyone’s radar.
Ricky Hamilton, Carter Luckfield, Marty Brass,
“As for Pig Flayer? I torture my guitar.” –Marty
Check out: It’s harder to find anything that flies from 0 to 60 faster than Pig Flayer. If you’re looking for an all-out sonic assault, do yourself a favor and pick up their Life Alert EP and thank us later.