St. Louis' newest record label, Ascetic Records, is aptly named. Co-founder Hieu Nguyen has definitely been practicing strict self-denial, and it looks like all his discipline is finally paying off. The 25-year-old started the label five months ago with his childhood friend and bandmate, Matt Snell. To finance his dream, Nguyen moved back home with his parents two years ago, and he's been socking away half his paycheck (from his day job at a podiatry office) every week since. "It's always been something we've wanted to do," Nguyen explains over drinks at the Delmar Lounge. "Labels like DeSoto -- we always thought they were really cool. We talked about it for years and put some money aside. Last year, right around this time, we stopped talking about it and decided, 'We're not married. We don't have kids. Let's do it!' There's no one else I'd do this label with right now except Matt. Matt keeps me in check; he protects me from me. I'm like, 'Record deals for everyone!' -- or at least that's how I would be. Basically, we have three criteria for bands: They have to write stuff we like, be a good band, at least as far as we're concerned. They have to be willing to work, get out there. And we have to like them as people -- that definitely seals the deal."
Already, they've put out five releases: a split 7"-single on blue vinyl with Nguyen's and Snell's arty female-fronted punk-rock band, the Movement, on one side and Rocket Bar mainstays Riddle of Steel on the other; three CD/EPs, featuring both aforementioned groups and the now-defunct Hoover McNoover; and a compilation called Phylum Silica, which boasts 15 local bands, ranging from Collinsville, Ill., staples Ring Cicada to dreamy psych-pop newcomers DozeMaryPool. After this initial signing-frenzy, Nguyen plans to focus on promoting his releases and, with any luck, making some of his money back. "We put in $15,000," Nguyen confesses with a sheepish grin. "We've spent maybe $10,000 of it already. My goal right now is not to have to fund it anymore, to let it run on its own. We've had, like, $1,000 so far in sales; I'm amazed that we've done that much already -- it's definitely a humble start."
Nguyen's learning on the fly: He's contacted like-minded labels, such as DeSoto and Asian Man, for advice on band contracts. He's hoping to work out a national distribution deal, and he's paying a New York company to do radio promotion. Right now, Ascetic is selling the CDs at shows and on consignment at Vintage Vinyl and select Streetside locations. "I don't think anyone's going to go try to buy it at Sam Goody or anything," he laughs.
Nguyen considers himself a fan first and a businessman second. Although he's excited about Ascetic's potential, he doesn't expect to make a killing: "The bands understand where we're at. I don't want to lock them up or anything. Next year, we might have absolutely no power to do anything. They realize that if we do well, they do well, and if they do well, we do well. We cover the recording costs, the pressing costs, help with the posters and shirts and all that. Once we break even, we'll start breaking it 50/50. When we became incorporated, we had to assign officers and stuff. I'm the president, and Matt's the vice-president. We've got our little stock certificates and everything -- they're in a closet, collecting dust, basically."
Nguyen, whose parents emigrated from Vietnam the year before he was born, considers himself lucky to have his family's support, even though his priorities sometimes leave them mystified. "With me being basically an American kid, we definitely hit some rough spots. They always wanted me to be a pharmacist because they thought it was an easy job or something. They thought, 'All those music guys are all junkies! You'll be dead by the time you're 30!' My dad is pretty laid-back, and my mom is really protective -- but she's made great strides. She knows I'm spending a shitload of money, and she understands it's what I really want to do. If all this goes to hell, I'll settle down and do something else. But I've got a chance to, so I figured I'd better take it. It's really cheesy, but somehow I feel like I've definitely got more than my fair share, so I feel like I can't fuck this up. I guess I'm a hippie at heart. Don't tell anyone."
Ascetic is hosting three showcases this month to promote the compilation: on Oct. 13 and Oct. 14, at the Hi-Pointe, and on Oct. 20, at Three-1-Three. Check out their Web site at http://rocketbar.net/main/ascetic.