Interview: Sean Ingram of Coalesce and Blue Collar Distro
Originally published in AMP
Band members and label owners are frequently granted opportunity for public discourse in the printed format, and we zinesters are, admittedly, a group prone to parley our feelings and opinions because, well, we can, damnit.
Interestingly, I cannot think of a single instance where I’ve picked up a zine and heard the story of a merchandiser. You know those buttons covering your punk-sack? Behind every one is either a hardworking machine or a thrifty woman or man with a hand-crank. You know that stack of t-shirts that went flying when you were thrown into the merch table at the show last weekend? They didn’t design and screen print themselves, fool.
The independent music world depends greatly upon a slew of people out there who burn the midnight oil making buttons, stickers, canvas patches, and other goodies to promote their products, propagate their messages, and maybe even make a buck here and there. Those people all have their stories, too, and what better person to share his inspirations and tales of success than Sean Ingram, co-owner of The Bear Press?
Sean took the time this past autumn to offer a peek into the world of a merchandising fanatic, and also offered a little insight to everyone’s favorite on-again, off-again metal band, Coalesce, for whom he’s tendered service as throat-mangling vocalist since 1994.
To delay the expectations of everyone who reads this for “Coalesce talk,” I’d like to first ask you about your merchandising company, The Bear Press. When did you become involved in manufacturing merch?
Ever since I was like 12 years old I’ve wanted to make merch. When I was 16, I had my own skateboard company, I did my own zine…I just always have liked creating things.
What was the zine?
It was called Our World, a skating zine, and then I had a skateboard company called Reaction Skateboards. I always liked doing that kind of thing, but it was frustrating for me because I could never actually make it myself; I had to outsource everything.
When I finally realized that everything was done by screen printing, I thought, man, that’s what I want to get into. Even at the beginning of Coalesce, I’d be paying people seven or eight dollars per shirt, selling them for 10, and making two dollars, and, you know, kind of pissing and moaning the whole time.
Finally I just got a screen and learned how to use it. It was a simple screen…I used one color, a soy-based ink, and I learned the techniques. I wanted to screen really cool shirts, not just white/black ink on white shirts. I made shirts for Coalesce on a couple tours, stuff like that, and our profit was amazing, so we said, “Wow, if we make our own shirts, we can actually afford to go on tour!” And then the band broke up for, like, the 50th time… (laughter)
So I stuck with the merch company. I bought a button press, and was doing that more or less as a hobby — Dan Askew from Second Nature went in on the button press with me, because we didn’t want to pay the button press we were using. Dan and I soon found out [that making buttons] was tedious, so we didn’t really push the pins too hard — we had those little hand-cranks, and they’re a pain in the ass! (laughter)
Is that what you were using back when you started making buttons for me?
Yeah, just a hand-crank. I’d say 99 percent of button-makers who make one-inch pins — anything you find in the back of a punk magazine — if they’re doing one-inch pins, they’re using a hand-crank. They’re affordable; you can pick them up for $250, sometimes $150…that’s not that much of an investment to make pins, but you can always tell who’s not serious about it because they have a limit: “We only make 500.”
We eventually bought four or five presses, and then we were basically hiring our friends and paying them a nickel per pin, and they could sit and smoke out and watch TV and press pins, and it was a perfect marriage. So we were doing that, and then we ended up getting No Idea’s account. We were making a lot of pins for No Idea; like up into the tens of thousands, which is not bad! It was doable on the little hand-cranks, but then we got a job from Mark at Hydra Head for 40,000 Cave In pins that needed to be made pronto.
So what we did was we took the money and bought the automatic press. There’s only one company we know of who makes them, and it cost us about eight grand! But we just bought it, and it’s a kick-ass press, man. You can really crank out the pins, and they’re better too. When you use a hand-crank, it just smashes the pin in, but when you use an automatic press, it rolls it in a really strong, forceful, fluid movement. The pins are tighter on the actual button, and they’re not flat — they’re tight, round, and bulbous-looking.
We’ve developed our own techniques, too, to where the cuts are perfect every single time, and we got a new account with a new printer, so our prints are perfect every time, because that can be another problem — with prints, it’s really hard to get good, full-color prints from your local mom-and-pop store. You really have to search to find somebody good.
I think it’s interesting to hear you say, “Ever since I was a little kid I’ve wanted to make merch.” That’s something I’ve never heard anyone else say!
Yeah, it’s funny because anyone who knows me knows I’m a merch freak!
Back in ’98, Jimmy Eat World jumped onto a Coalesce show in Baltimore at this place called The Sushi Bar. Not many people were there; maybe a hundred or so. I was really into Clarity back then — well, I still am, I love that record — but when I introduced myself to them, they had all this merch that they were fighting and throwing in boxes, and the first thing I said was, “Here, let me show you how to do your merch on the tour so you get rid of all these boxes.” (laughter) So I ended up teaching them how to fold their shirts and helping them, and they were saying, “Oh, wow, okay!”
I’m sure now they have a semi full of merch, so it doesn’t matter, but back then it was pretty cool! But that’s the thing; I’m all about merch. I’m all about presentation at our shows.
You could become a “freelance merchandise advisor guru” (laughter).
I love it. Nine times out of 10 that merch you see at shows is going to go for three times that amount on eBay later on. So why not present it nice to where people will want it? If it’s just thrown on a table like a pile of shit, nobody wants it.
So who are the people involved with The Bear Press?
Myself and Andrew Fisher are the main partners, and we have a couple of employees: Alison Burgher, Eric Graves — who is in the band Esoteric — and a few other guys that come every once in a while, but Alison and Eric are our main employees.
How many hours a week do you suppose you are putting into the company?
Shit, too many! I have two jobs: one that really supports me during the day, but since we’ve been getting so many jobs lately, I’m starting to work full-time here.
So you’re working two full-time jobs.
Basically, yeah, and my wife and kids come over at night and we’ll hang out and have dinner. We have about 3,000 square feet now, and I’ve brought the girls’ bikes down and they’ve got a place to draw and play. It’s actually a cool place to be! It’s not a stuffy, dirty place. It’s huge! We’ve got a lounge area in the back, our whole office area, there’re toys everywhere. It’s cool.
Now, you’re located outside of Kansas City, right?
Yeah, in Eudora, Kansas, down the street from Red House Recordings. It’s the same town that The Get Up Kids album Eudora was named after.
What are you doing as your other job?
I’m usually hanging wallpaper, but as of recently I’ve just been working straight at The Bear Press! I own that [wallpapering] business too, which I don’t like. (laughter) It pays, and there’s no overhead, but man, I just don’t like hanging wallpaper! It’s the worst thing in the world! Just hanging the fancy paper with the flowers and all that shit on it for bitchy old ladies… (laughter)
Away from wallpaper and onto more obvious questions! When Coalesce broke up for the last time — when it seemed like it was really going to stick — did you really think it was the end, or did you have an inkling that, one day, you’d be back?
Ah, I was just glad to be done with it. I was so fed up with Jes [Steineger, former guitarist]. I just didn’t even want to deal with it at all. It was one of those things where you want to do something, everybody else says they want to do something, but when it comes to the moment of truth — to actually make an effort to keep it going — you need to do it. Not going out of your way, necessarily, but following through with what you’re supposed to do: if you’re going to book a show, tell the rest of the band. If you’re going to write a record, finish out the record. If you’re going to sign a contract to do all these split records, then show up to do them. Just little things like that. Silly little things were constantly an effort when they shouldn’t have been; they just should have been common sense!
Have you reconciled?
He just didn’t want to do it, and instead of being a man and saying, “I don’t want to do this anymore,” he would just lead everybody on. I was glad to be done.
When I was doing the last record [1999’s 0:12 Revolution in Just Listening] I didn’t put as much into it as I probably could have. It was one of those situations where you say, “Okay, this is my last shot, I’m going to be an asshole and tell everyone how I really feel, and not try to candy-coat everything.” That’s kind of what I did on the last record. I probably could have made it more bad-ass, but in retrospect, I’m kind of happy with how it came out.
It took a year before I could even listen to the record. None of those songs were ever played, ever. Jes had riffs, James [Dewees, drummer] had drum ideas, they put together the music and said, “Here, if your lyrics don’t fit, fuck you.” So I got the record and made the lyrics fit as best I could, but I had no input on changing things.
So basically, the record was made, they walked out, and you were left with it.
Yeah, to finish it off, and wait there with Ed [Rose], and mix it and everything. As soon as they were done, everybody was out the door and they were gone. I had nearly two months to just listen to the music, and I was there during practices, so I had an idea of what I wanted to do.
What do you say to the rumors that some of the lyrics to your song, “While the Jackass Operation Spins its Wheels” was sort of a “middle finger” pointed at Jes?
No, no, no, it was not! He thought there was — there’s a line that says, “I’m through looking after you, second-guessing your next move, staying up all night, learning the big words.” He thought that was about him, and it got circulated around on the Internet board, but no, I’ve never written a vindictive song about Jes or his family, ever. I can say that in all honesty.
The only song that was written about Jes was written with Jes about situations he was going through, and it was called “My Love For Extremes.” He’s an extreme dude. If he’s a Mormon, he is the Mormon; if he’s a Krishna, then he is going to take over Ray Cappo’s place (laughter). He just gets so stoked on different religions, it’s the most bizarre thing in the world! But it’s hard to take, and I don’t have any desire to be around that.
It all worked out for the best, because Jes finally settled on a religion, James found The Get Up Kids, Nate [Ellis, bassist] went on with The Casket Lottery, and I started my merch company. Everybody got something out of the deal.
James Dewees is in both the Get Up Kids and Reggie and the Full Effect, correct?
And he’s still doing Coalesce, at least, when you guys are together?
Yeah, whenever he’s in town and has time.
How did you end up recruiting new guitarist, Cory White?
Well, he was a fan of the band. I’d been talking about getting the band back together…James wanted to do it and Nate backed out on us, but Stacy [Hilt, original bassist] joined us. Corey is in Esoteric and was Andy Fisher’s guitarist–
And he had some big shoes to fill, because Jes is a great guitarist. And you only have one guitarist on stage, correct?
Yeah, Jes was a great guitarist, but that was the thing — Jes never played the songs live. He just played distortion and a couple slow riffs. Well, as soon as Cory started playing, he was like, “No, this is way I’m playing it; this is the right way to play it.” He put his own mark on it.
Wait, Jes never played the riffs live that were on the record?
Never. He would be really meticulous in the studio–
Is there any particular reason for that?
Just laziness, sloppiness, eccentricity; I don’t know, maybe he’s a genius, who knows. He has the talent, he just chose not to use it. If you see some of our old videos, like when our DVD comes out, you’ll hear it. But now, with Cory, it sounds like the CD. As soon as we went into practice and the songs were sounding like they were supposed to, we knew we were on the right track. We knew he was the guy. It’s just awesome. And he’s fun to be around! We’ve never had a tour where it was…
Well, yeah! Exactly! We’ve never had a fun tour! We went on this last tour and there was absolutely no bullshit. No hard feelings, no catering to anybody. “Hey, let’s drink.” “Okay.” “Hey, let’s eat.” “Okay.” “Hey, let’s go to sleep.” “Okay.” Everybody was on the same page, and that was the first time that’s ever happened with Coalesce. I just missed it, man! I always wanted to do a “last show,” and that’s originally what this whole thing was about: just a last show with a replacement guitarist, and that’ll say a lot about the way Coalesce was.
We just wanted to play one show, and then James said, “Fuck that, we’re going on a whole tour! I’m going on tour!” So he set up practices and we did it. First practice, we blazed through five songs, picking up right where we left off. It was the coolest feeling in the world.
After playing sporadically throughout 2002, Coalesce played their final shows in early December and officially called it quits for the thousandth time on December 16th. With this band, a reunion is never highly unlikely, but in the meantime Sean keeps busy with his many projects.