Band To Watch: Record Setter
Record Setter had been playing shows for six years, and Judy Mitchell doesn’t remember a single person singing along. She doesn’t really remember many people showing up, period — mostly friends around the Denton, Texas DIY scene and the bands that would indulge these Reddit lurkers to let off steam and accidentally wreck their equipment playing derivative emo to an empty room. “Lots of blood on the guitars,” she quips during our Zoom call.
Record Setter had been dormant for about a year and a half prior to their 2017 EP Purge. It was a notably more ambitious work than 2014’s Dim — which was recorded for about $400 in a makeshift Fayetteville, Arkansas studio — and its sole ambition was to end Record Setter. Judy planned on moving to Fayetteville for good with her spouse and maybe pursuing a more stable and financially viable career in IT. Her brother Jake, Record Setter’s drummer, didn’t think too far beyond that. But when they embarked upon their presumed farewell gigs with a new lineup — Jacob Morrison on bass, replacing Kyle Pennington, who shifted to guitar — Judy and Jake were amazed that two, maybe three people already knew the words to Purge highlight “Multiple Attempts At The Same Thing.”
“We never played this venue before, we didn’t know these people,” Jake recalls. Maybe it was just a couple of random University of North Texas kids in a city that regenerates its population every year. Whatever the case may be, Judy had a revelation: “Those older songs were forced, I spent years slaving over them and they weren’t even that good,” but the more honest she got, the better the response. “Purge was this half-step, not being able to let go and say just what I want to say truly or fully,” she says. “With this one, I’m not doing that.”
There is nothing timid or vague or cryptic about Record Setter’s proper debut I Owe You Nothing, which the band plans to premiere on Halloween night and officially release the following Friday through Topshelf Records. If Purge was the sound of a band on its last breath, Record Setter is on some Nikki Sixx shit here, springing back to life with 1000cc of adrenaline jabbed into their system. “How long have I been standing just staring at the floor?” Judy shouts during the opening seconds of “Someplace,” guitars revving in place and then dropping out to shine a spotlight on her way out: “How long was that door open? I never noticed it before!” Record Setter then hit the ground running at 200 mph, melding screamo abrasion, pop-punk melody, and molten shoegaze textures, their past decade of musical and emotional repression burned off in an all-consuming blue streak. I jotted the following in my notes during the first listen: early Touché Amoré covering a Dogleg cover of the Hotelier’s “Life In Drag.”
Record Setter sent an advance of I Owe You Nothing to critics as a gapless 30-minute SoundCloud with no song titles, and that will always remain the definitive version even when it hits streaming services on Nov. 6. The unconventional structures make it nearly impossible to ascertain the borders between its 11 songs anyways, presenting I Owe You Nothing as an album that works as an all-consuming, immersive experience whose pleasures lie in its segues and transitions as much as its hooks. The drum fill between “Someplace” and the tapping guitar lead on “Sometimes” thrust Record Setter from Judy’s personal hell to a overcrowded Denton basement show; seconds separate no-fi metal chug and sparkling Mineral balladry; an entire album of dynamics plays out between the five minutes of “Present Tense” and “A Portrayal,” an unintentional but fitting nod at their fellow Texan hardcore firebrands in Portrayal Of Guilt. It plays out like an expertly crafted DJ set of emo’s most beautifully pained and painfully beautiful offshoots.
“I’ve always been very beholden to how every action warrants some kind of reasoning, everything you do in your life, you need to explain why,” Judy states, elaborating on the title and also illustrating its central paradox of its forthrightness. While “I owe you nothing!” can certainly be directed at a parental figure, it represents her broader philosophy of trusting one’s own intuition and not having to explain yourself.
Judy and her spouse were together for the first year of her gender transition before an amicable divorce, and the immediate aftermath plays out in the more aggressive first half. “There’s this gender discovery/dysphoria getting let off on the album, especially the front because I wrote that immediately after writing Purge,” Judy says. “I’m alone in Fayetteville, writing the first half of the record, and a lot of those thoughts and lyrics are a lot fresher than they are now.”
I Owe You Nothing also serves as a referendum on Record Setter’s own evolution as a musical entity. “I’m not emotive enough,” they repeat throughout “Sometimes,” a glimmer of self-reflective humor on an otherwise deadly serious post-hardcore album, alluding to the band’s past as an unworkable concept: an emo band that wouldn’t let themselves express how they actually feel.
The Mitchells learned how to play instruments and suppress their emotions while growing up in Houston’s enormous, evangelical Pentecostal fellowship. After their family migrated towards a slightly less fundamentalist, “more Hillsong” church, the teenage Mitchells started their first band.”“What were we gonna be called? 3ndless Pursuit — with a three, of course, because of the third day,” Judy recalls. They went with Bare Truths instead and gained a reputation as the local worship band that would play metalcore shows, foreshadowing their entree into “secular” music. “Christian metalcore is huge,” Jake notes, with Judy adding that seeing Every Time I Die open for Underoath was “an eye-opening experience for us and the only way we’d be introduced to that.”
Judy describes the earliest incarnation of Record Setter in 2011 as “a Joyce Manor ripoff band,” an incredible feat given that Joyce Manor’s debut album came out only months earlier. The duo dropped this sound after realizing they couldn’t play fast enough and moved towards a rougher but no less reverent take on Basement and Title Fight’s burly pop-punk upon moving to Denton, mostly unaware of the bustling music scene surrounding UNT — which in recent years spawned Parquet Courts, Neon Indian, or, more pertinent to Record Setter, dearly departed screamo agitators Two Knights. “We were very green in the scene, trying to shoehorn our way in any possible fucking way that we could,” Jake says. Record Setter would play shows with anyone who’d have them, even if they had to play to seated crowds who were there to see twee-leaning indie acts like Told Slant and Free Cake For Every Creature.
The window was closing for Record Setter by the time they recorded Dim; by 2014, Judy recalls that bands were shifting to “more clearly pop-punk or emo,” rather than the “late-to-the-party Title Fight worship” Record Setter was offering. “I really had it in my head, that’s what Record Setter was for some reason, and we stuck to that for years.” By 2017’s Purge, Record Setter had become a craftier project — the melodies and the screaming were sharper, the lyrics more pointed, the production slicker. But the overall sound reflected what Judy actually was: a super-poster on the r/Emo subreddit who she jokes “built up a little audience” before she got fed up with people defending Jesse Lacey and made the fatal mistake of baiting the Brand New board; she hasn’t been back since.
So when Purge started to gain a little traction online, Judy admits to being baffled. “I’m not posting on Reddit asking for people’s thoughts, I’m not asking my girlfriend to film this song, there’s just 10 stories where people are tagging it.” Their confidence was also buoyed by the shows that immediately followed, mostly with what she lovingly calls “r/Emo hype bands”: Macseal, Prince Daddy And The Hyena, Mall Cops, Pool Kids, and a warmly remembered gig with awakebutstillinbed at a local taco shop. “Even meeting Two Knights, it was like whoa… seeing the crowd they draw and their reaction compared to us,” Judy remembers. The Mitchells started to see a path for themselves: “If we got on the road, it would probably be the same story…but we just never toured.”
This might actually make Record Setter better prepared than their peers to weather the current circumstances. “Quarantine played a huge role in our re-approach, because we had this whole time to sit and listen and toil over mixes,” Judy says. The Mitchells estimate that the rework of I Owe You Nothing with Purge producer Michael Briggs took about six months. Moreover, as Tom Breihan pointed out in his most recent hardcore column, 2020 has been both invigorating and wildly depressing for fans of harder guitar music, leaving us all to wonder how much impact can a hardcore record really have. Dogleg, Stay Inside, Nuvolascura, Infant Island, Gulch, Mil-Spec and many others should be out on the road capitalizing on the buzz created by their instant scene classics, and instead, they’re suspended in limbo. Meanwhile, Record Setter have been able to take their time and strategize the best approach for sharing I Owe You Nothing with an audience that will remain entirely online for the foreseeable future. “Start calling us ‘content creators,'” Jake jokes.
Record Setter was the first artist that Denton independent promoter Regina Bugarin took on for management at Lost And Found Touring, a Philadelphia-based agency. They never actively shopped I Owe You Nothing but jumped at the chance to consummate the longstanding mutual interest in Topshelf Records — a label that released Whenever, If Ever, The Lack Long After, Keep Doing What You’re Doing, and essential samplers (2013 is especially essential) that played an enormous role in establishing the emo revival canon during Record Setter’s embryonic days.
“We’re just trying to get a White Claw or Cheeba Chew sponsorship,” Jake deadpans, and while the Mitchells understand that their new partners are navigating a completely upended industry, they still offer access to the connective and creative assets befitting an album of I Owe You Nothing’s caliber. When looking at what bands have produced as alternatives to touring in 2020, Judy grumbles, “I’m a little bit dumbfounded at the lack of creativity. If I had some of these band’s budgets and platforms, the things that they could be able to do with video or stage production.”
Even with their more modest backing, the band have designed the premiere of I Owe You Nothing as, quite literally, a blockbuster event. “We created a whole theme for the evening, it’ll be like a sleepover where everyone’s staying up all night to watch movies,” Judy shares. “[Kyle] has created Blockbuster labels and we’re gonna film the whole thing on a set in his studio so we can drop in this footage on an actual CRT television.” Essentially an album launch party playing out on Twitch (and later to be archived on YouTube), the stream will feature performances from a number of bands interspersed by the members of Record Setter playing MC for the night via webcam, all leading up to the first playback of I Owe You Nothing. Going beyond the rudimentary “putting a camera in front of an acoustic guitar” setup that passes muster for most livestreaming, the event aligns with Judy’s renewed interest in how artists can work within their current restrictions to innovate multimedia storytelling.
Despite bringing its first two minutes to a cathartic repetition of “I am not a man! But I’m still a person!” Judy hopes that listeners hear a universal cry for acceptance on one’s own terms rather than fixating on her specific experiences. “A lot of people will probably want to look at Record Setter and say something very particular about my gender, or they’ll cast the whole album in this view of trans-ness or LGBT, or whatever people want to talk about,” Judy grouses. She sees I Owe You Nothing as a story of “separation,” leaving behind relationships and belief systems that no longer life that doesn’t fit your current circumstances. “I’m not the kind of person whose gay or trans-ness is anything about my personality, really,” she states plainly. “The reality of how small that portion of identity plays into my life is not insignificant, it’s very significant. The most important thing is telling your story honestly and demonstrating people are a whole person.”
04 “Present Tense”
05 “A Portrayal”
06 “An Impression”
07 “An Exploration”
08 “Rigor Mortis”
10 “Future Tense”
11 “Fail And Fall”
I Owe You Nothing is out 11/6 on Topshelf. Pre-order it here. Record Setter will premiere the album on Halloween night, 10/31.