The informal slogan of New Jersey’s Don Giovanni Records is “local hits for the drunk and alone crowd.” It’s a fitting characterization of a DIY label incubated in New Brunswick, a Rutgers-stuffed town close enough to New York City and Philadelphia to feel overshadowed by those neighbors, but remote enough to rally around its cultural isolation. In New Brunswick, the local punk legends aren’t the Ramones or Television, but Lifetime and the Bouncing Souls. Thanks to a long-standing lack of all-ages spaces, musical adolescence doesn’t transpire at club-matinee showcases, but rather in Alissa’s basement or C.J.’s old house or a dusty cellar billed as Meat Town USA. This makes New Brunswick effectively a frat-splattered island where a little-known punk band called Stormshadow could very well have made the most perfect record no one has ever heard, at least according to the hundred kids who remember Set on Destroy. Two of those kids are Don Giovanni co-founders Joe Steinhardt and Zach Gajewski, and their undying determination to release that lost relic has indirectly inspired them to draft their own chapter in the unwritten 21st-century sequel to Our Band Could Be Your Life.
If scripting DIY history seems like a dramatic conceit, let’s first consider how Don Giovanni snagged its best-known export, the Promethean power-shred trio Screaming Females. Late one night a few years ago, after driving down to one of the band’s D.C. shows, Steinhardt told drummer Jarrett Dougherty that if Screaming Females didn’t let him release their next record, he’d kill himself. The ultimatum was a rhetorical flourish, of course, abetted by many hours of drinking and talking. But his purity of intention convinced Screaming Females to join the label the next day.
“He was just an honest, legit dude,” recalls front lung Marissa Paternoster, who not only entrusted Steinhardt with her solo album, Noun’s Holy Hell, but also worked on his forthcoming full-length under the moniker Modern Hut and will be a member of his upcoming wedding party. “We would be really uncomfortable dealing with anyone else at this point.”
Don Giovanni dates back to 2004, when Steinhardt and Gajewski were Boston University students playing in a scrappy hardcore outfit called Talk Hard (a Pump Up the Volume nod) who split the cost of making their seven-inch Sarah Connor’s Will (a Terminator 3 joke) and arbitrarily chose another DVD-remainder-bin reference as their invented label. (The opera Don Giovanni was a plot point in the 1998 Bob Saget–directed bomb Dirty Work.) “We were idiots,” Steinhardt says now about the goofball allusions, though he remains the kind of droll guy who poses for photos with a saucepan on his head. “We would’ve picked a different name if we knew we’d still be doing it with real bands.”
That first pressing was a lark, but acts back home like Kamikaze, the Degenerics, and Red Bank’s Snakebite wanted Don Giovanni to put out their music, too. So Talk Hard’s singles earnings went into manufacturing Kamikaze’s Seppuku, and that EP’s reimbursements funded a third record, and the money kept rolling this way for more than seven years. To this day, Gajewski and Steinhardt have, by all accounts, never personally profited. “The way I measure success is: Have people heard of our bands?” reasons Steinhardt, a guitarist and songwriter who’s also studying for a Ph.D. in risk communication at Cornell and managing mail order from his Ithaca closet. “The ultimate success will be when someone like my sister or my dad—who doesn’t listen to any [of this] music—has somehow heard one of our bands,” he admits. “That’s worth $1,000 to me.”
Don Giovanni’s geographical affiliations now extend to Brooklyn, comprising an impeccable roster of sludge-pop antiheroes and sly-feminist muscle and cement-punk champs: the horn-soaring jangle pop of Laura Stevenson & the Cans; the lo-fi sadgaze of Waxahatchee; the ferocious Brooklyn veterans of loft-fuzz sing-alongs Shellshag; Black Wine, a sorely underappreciated blast of early Weezer melodies and SST thrills. Just last month, the exuberant grrrl-squall duo Hilly Eye jumped aboard. “Joe described the label to me as being a family,” explains guitarist/vocalist Amy Klein. “That’s the thing that really sold me on it.”
This weekend, Don Giovanni will throw its fifth annual showcase, which Screaming Females will headline in the run-up to the April release of their fifth full-length, Ugly. Although they enlisted Steve Albini to help record this monster, they were never interested in putting their music out on a bigger label. “When I have talked with lawyers and managers and people who, quote-unquote, wanted to take us to the next level,” Dougherty explains, “they’re aiming to just jump on something that’s already been created. We think it’s way more interesting, as fans of the history of punk rock, to be part of a legacy. Would you rather be the newest band on Sub Pop? Or is it more important to be Mudhoney?”
The fifth annual Don Giovanni Showcase takes place at Death by Audio on Friday and at the Music Hall of Williamsburg on Saturday.