Tooth & Nail

My first memories of recorded music come from sometime around the age of five or six. My parents had a big hi-fi system with smoothly scrolling knobs that let you pan endlessly through the radio dial, and a turntable for their record collection. I had some children's LPs featuring a character named Psalty the Singing Songbook. Imagine a combination of Barney, The Blue Man Group, and an exuberant children's pastor with a love of Richard Simmons and classic hymns. There were also lots of Keith Green records floating around along with some Paul Simon and a couple collections of Ohio State Marching Band fight songs. 

For much of my childhood my exposure to music would continue to come mostly through my parents. At age seven your friends aren't turning you onto new bands, so it was pretty much whatever dad would rock in the family car on long road trips. Praise and worship music, more Paul Simon, Randy Stonehill, Jackson Browne. I fell asleep plenty of nights listening to Wee Sing America tapes.

When I reached the point where I was interested in exploring music on my own, I was restricted for the most part to artists who were making music within an explicitly Christian context. Mainstream groups occasionally impinged on my consciousness through sheer dint of their ubiquity (Metallica, Green Day, Tupac, Marilyn Manson), but I wasn't buying their albums. No, my allowance money was going to purchase CDs by bands like Petra, DC Talk, Dakoda Motor Co., and White Cross. Some of this was good, some of it was haplessly derivative. I wandered blindly from one genre to the next, like a pill bug whose rock is forever being lifted up. It was a blissful time in my life. I can remember making a band of Lego characters and playing with them while blasting Guardian's "Miracle Mile."

Things took a dramatic turn one day in the fall of my eighth grade year. While on one of my regular pilgrimages to Linda's Bible Bookstore, I picked up a CD with a cover featuring three fresh-faced teens staring back at the camera. The band's name, MxPx, was a kind of cypher. It meant nothing to me and could thereby contain every strange emotion evoked by the sight of a tattooed Christian kid in a Social Distortion t-shirt. To this day I'm not sure what compelled me to buy the album, but I did. Upon being ferried home in the ancestral minivan I ran to my room and threw the new disc into my boom box. I immediately hated it.

To my virgin ears, the "music" coming out of the speakers sounded like a gang of syphilitic raccoons being blowtorched with a flamethrower. But tough luck, you know? Because this was back in the days before digital downloading, before Napster, YouTube, or Spotify. There was no moving on to the next thing five seconds later if you didn't like your first choice. You bought a CD, you listened to it. 

So I spun it again. And then again. Soon, something strange came over me. It was like Tinkerbell had shaken her pockets out over my bowl cut, sprinkling me with some unfathomable dust that opened my eyes and unstuffed my ears. I found myself nodding along, thrilling to the speed of the music, which had only moments before seemed insanely fast. That squealing sound, like several cars being slowly crushed by a huge magnet? That was a level of distortion I'd never been exposed to. It was like wading through an ecstatic auditory Chernobyl. I was hooked. Something raw and invigorating welled up in me (and, people, we're talking about punk covers of Keith Green songs), something I'd never felt before when listening to music. I'm not exaggerating when I say that that record opened my eyes and ears to a new understanding of what art could be. At some point I flipped the jewel case over absently and saw a little logo in the bottom corner comprised of two letters. T&N.  

Over the next ten years I would fall in love with numerous bands on the Tooth & Nail Records roster, including Zao, The OC Supertones, Dogwood, Craig's Brother, and Slick Shoes. Their albums filled aimless car rides and pleasantly pointless afternoons spent hanging out in my friends' bedrooms. I went to an unending procession of shows at tiny Bay Area churches where I saw bands like Watashi Wa, Burnt Sienna, Noggin Toboggan, and Nifty Tom Fifty open for (often vastly superior) Tooth & Nail acts. I took guitar lessons from Andy Snider of Craig's Brother. I drove five hours each way to see Zao play at Chain Reaction in Anaheim. I filled the storehouse of adolescent memory with songs and shows and patches and safety pins. To this day, any of a hundred different Tooth & Nail tracks has the power to evoke intense and detailed memories of a wonderful, innocent period in my life.

Tooth & Nail celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. In a stroke of unbelievable fortune, I'd moved to Seattle a few years earlier and become friends with one of the label's art directors, Jordan Butcher. He informed me he was going to be heading up a project to create a book detailing the label's history. I still remember the talk we had at a Seattle dive bar where he officially asked me if I wanted to collaborate with him. We were both a little merry in our cups. I was so excited I could barely contain myself. The option to pre-order the book, which is being released in conjunction with a feature-length documentary on the Tooth & Nail story, went live this week. Looks like they're only printing 1000 copies.

During the writing process I spoke with legends of the Tooth, including Ronnie Martin, Mike Herrera, David Bazan and Bill Power. At times I had to pinch myself, it was all so surreal. "What would my thirteen year old self think of all this?" I found myself wondering more than once. What would my brother, or buddies like Jeff Hazen and Joe Ruppert think if they could be listening in on these conversations?

Through out the process of writing the book, I must admit to having been both intimidated and humbled by the knowledge that thousands of people the world over have their own fond memories of having grown up as Tooth & Nail kids. I hope those of you who end up leafing through it will take great pleasure in venturing out with me onto the cobblestones of memory lane. 

Ben Bishop