Home Music Music News

Repressed Records: 15 Years of Doin’ It Yourself

Ahead of their 15th anniversary Opera House showcase, the two owners of the beloved Sydney record store trace their often-turbulent history.

Ahead of their 15th anniversary Opera House showcase, the two owners of the beloved Sydney record store trace their often-turbulent history.

The shop is uncharacteristically busy for a Tuesday evening, Chris Sammut tells me. The founder and co-owner of Repressed Records fidgets behind the counter, straightening various home-printed flyers, adjusting the volume of the CD player and apologising to me, a loop only broken by duty, as the next in a steady stream of customers approach: a neatly dressed office worker buying a pair of near-new CDs for eighteen bucks; a Uni-aged denim jacket scruff picking up Angie’s new LP; a shy, stick-thin kid perusing every shelf, thumbing through the zine collection near the door, gazing up to the selected vinyl ‘staff picks’, before enquiring about the cost of a free street press magazine; a mum trying to hurry along her flock of primary school-aged children while simultaneously negotiating the selection of a specific second-hand DVD as a birthday gift for one of them, refusing requests for Austin Powers, Mad Max (the original), the Rocky trilogy boxset, before settling on 22 Jump Street for $6.

Sammut’s business partner, Nic Warnock, enters, weaving through the categorised vinyl stacks and narrow aisles and the scattering of ten-minutes-before-close browsers. Laptop under arm and visibly flustered, he recalls his day of tech glitches — email attachments and corrupted zips and unopenable design files — to all in earshot, before settling on a stool behind the counter.

Some sixteen years Sammut’s junior, Warnock sports shoulder-length locks, a paintbrush moustache and an assertive manner. He speaks in stream-of-consciousness stories, darting between recollections of scrappy Adelaide indie-rock weirdos, Lindsay Low Hand, and his teenage love of Wu-Tang Clan with an unfiltered, opinionated passion that’s in stark contrast to Sammut’s reserved, matter-of-fact manner, every sentence of the latter measured twice before commenced. They’re an odd couple.

No surprise then that their paths only crossed through chance circumstances.

“I walked in and there were all these signifiers that this was a shop of interest to me,” Warnock recalls of the first time he stepped foot in Repressed Records in 2004. The shop, at the time located in Penrith — a suburb 50 kilometres west of Sydney — immediately drew the then 17-year-old in with the “proto-punk, CBGBs scene and first-wave U.K. punk stuff on the walls.”

Warnock had recently moved down from Cairns to study design at the University of Western Sydney’s Penrith campus — sold by the school as being “maybe Parramatta distance from the city”, he now jokes. Mindful of stretching the $1,600 he’d saved from working at Gloria Jeans during high-school as far as possible, he entered Repressed that day because he’d heard about their second-hand CD selection and was excited over the idea of picking up “Pere Ubu and Captain Beefheart for accessible amounts of money.” He exited with a job.

Up until then, Sammut had worked at the shop by himself since it opened in 2000. While initially serving as a satellite outlet for Parramatta’s Beatdisc Records, two years on Sammut took over the lease, “bought a whole lot of stock off [Beatdisc] and changed the name to Repressed Records and just made a logo out of clip art.” Two years later, by the time Warnock started as a part-time employee, Sammut had begun the slow evolution away from simply sourcing second-stock from local suppliers, instead importing directly from overseas distributors and straight from smaller labels, as well as starting to focus more on “underground punk and metal stuff, which obviously has its selling point in the suburbs,” as Warnock now recalls, explaining that, as a result, the shop started to earn a specific reputation amongst lifelong music fans (“lifers”, as he affectionately labels them) both locally, and from far further afield.

“I know Lawrence [Hall] from Royal Headache was coming in. He didn’t live in the area, but there was sometimes reasons for him to come out. There was always these ‘sometimes reasons’ for people”, says Warnock. “We had a small customer base that were actually legitimately interested in music that wasn’t visible in other places.”

But as loyal as their customers were, their patronage proved no match for discount super-chain giant, JB Hi-Fi, which opened an outlet nearby in 2007 in the recently renovated Westfield shopping mall. Coupled with a surge in music downloads, it seemed the fate of Repressed Records had been decided.

“People didn’t come outside anymore,” Sammut recalls, with a clearly frustrated tone. “You’d be standing there on a Saturday, there’d be three lads walking down the road, swearing their heads off, and a few old people buying their meat and groceries.”

After a tough few years — fending off increasingly regular taunts from locals (‘as if you’d have a record store?’) — Sammut was ready to throw it all in. Nic, meanwhile, had finished up his University degree and was planning to migrate closer to the city, sparking the idea that they should give Repressed one last shot.

“It was good timing,” explains Sammut of the drastic decision to move the shop fifty kilometres east to the inner-west suburb of Newtown in 2009. “I honestly thought — and convinced my wife — that, I just didn’t think it was over. The initial thing that got me into [running a record store] was that I had nothing to lose. That’s what made me want to keep it going.”

repressed 15 years 2
Sammut (left) and Warnock at Repressed Records, Newtown. Credit: Matt Coyte.

‘Keep Newtown Weird’. While the staple VW Kombi bumper-sticker slogan has been repurposed with a tongue-in-cheek sense of irony over recent years amidst the suburb’s embracement of gentrification, it’s a motto that remains a head nod to Newtown’s history of embracing creative, outsider culture.

Newtown is a place synonymous with local music history. A place of countless stories (told with evolving extravagance) of witnessing that band-that-never-made-it build their own stage from milk crates before a set at the iconic Sandringham Hotel — the long-standing venue more commonly as the Sando, more recently known as the Newtown Social Club and soon to be known as a novelty mini-golf bar called Holey Moley “that turns traditional putt putt into a multi-sensory labyrinth of unique holes”, as their website proudly proclaims. A place often diluted down to a selected cast — that guy that still cruises down the main drag, King Street, on his rascal scooter blasting ’60s rock, the face-tattoo guy with the pet ferret, etc. And, as it would turn out — amidst the vegan cafes, butchers converted into hidden bars and boutique cheese emporiums — still the perfect place to set up a record store specialising in “a general alternative thing”, as Warnock explains, complete with hand air-quotes.

“We were suddenly selling a lot of copies of Burial, and Afrobeat CDs and those Nigerian rock compilations,” he says of the most noticeable change when opening in Newtown. “We were just a bit more clued in on at that type of customer. It wasn’t super niche. It was stuff that people were reading about in the weekend magazine culture supplements.”

Simultaneously, Repressed began a shift towards becoming a specialist supplier of music from the local scene, fueled by Warnock’s own record label, R.I.P Society, which he established the same year the shop moved east. Over the two years that followed, releases from Royal Headache, Dead Farmers, Circle Pit, Straight Arrows, Kitchen’s Floor, and Warnock’s own band, Bed Wettin’ Bad Boys’, established R.I.P. Society as a centrical point of the vibrant Sydney underground music scene. And Repressed became the unofficial frontline distributor.

“We didn’t think it would be the sole thing that would pay the bills,” Warnock now explains, adding that they always envisioned that “major indie rock staples or crossover things”, such as “PJ Harvey or Sonic Youth”, would always be the shop’s main source of income.

While likely an accidental strategy (as Sammut’s repeated insistence that he “no business experience or anything like that” suggests) the pair have slowly carved out their own market as the one-stop source for all that exists beyond the cluster of artists from the “weekend magazine culture supplements”. Alongside R.I.P. Society’s fifty-plus releases over the past eight years, the output of local labels, such as Missing Link (“and all the staff had their own side labels as well”), Dual Plover (“that was really weird shit”) and Aarght, as well as international imprints, In The Red, Siltbreeze and Goner, have kept the store’s homemade wooden shelves stocked with plenty of stuff rarely available elsewhere.

Leading to, as Sammut proudly states, the shop’s bestsellers list featuring releases almost entirely by local bands, such as Royal Headache, Eddy Current Suppression Ring, Low Life, Woollen Kits and Total Control.

“We had a small customer base that were actually legitimately interested in music that wasn’t visible in other places.” — Nic Warnock

“There’s no way in this world I’d ever hedge the future of the business on [major labels],” Sammut responds when asked about whether another JB Hi-Fi-like introduction continues to loom as a threat to the store’s future.

“People come here for a certain reason. I think we’ve still got that ‘underground-y’ kind of vibe so there’s a sense of excitement of finding something new that you’re not going to find elsewhere. I think that means a lot to people.”

Alongside which, Sammut says Warnock’s entrenchment in the local scene, his contacts and the fact he’s “always really switched on”, has been a key component of their success. Praise, while seemingly accepted by his younger business partner, is jokingly reflected, Warnock suggesting the source of their current stability is far more pragmatic.

“It’s just too much of a pain in the ass for someone to steal our audience and not enough of a bloody reward,” he smirks, explaining that it’s just not logistically viable for someone to “go to the trouble of coordinating shipping five copies of three records from one label, and seven copies of four records from another, from the other side of the world to here.”

repressed 15 years rh
The ‘stage invasion’ during Royal Headache’s set at Repressed Records’ Vivid show in 2015. Credit: Prudence Upton.

‘I think even after the stage invasion, wasn’t there some sort of lockdown or bomb threat or something?’

Against my better judgement, I’ve queried Sammut and Warnock about the Repressed Records showcase, as part of the 2015 Vivid Live festival. The show was abruptly ended by police during Royal Headache’s headline performance after some members of the crowd climbed up onto the stage.

“That ‘stage invasion’ was blown out of context,” Warnock continues. “The cops monitored the call for security to come up onto the stage, and then it escalated. If it was just the Vivid security, people would’ve been quietly ushered down and then Royal Headache would’ve played a quiet one and people would’ve been ‘oh my god, I can’t jump up and down fast to this one, I feel like an idiot, I’m going to have to go back to my seat’. It would’ve just cleared out naturally, but then there was that reaction to these fluoro-vested cops coming in that just made everyone feel like their fun was being stepped on.”

“I was just done with really caring and could just laugh at it all, but I remember Chris being pretty annoyed about the fact that this had overshadowed all the positive things…”

“I was so angry,” Sammut interjects, “Someone called me to do something after [the event] and I said ‘why didn’t you have any interest before, now a few people jump on stage…'” He trails off, before taking stock, quietly adding that “it’s understandable, it’s all just clickbait shit. There’s no point getting angry about it.”

Thankfully, the Vivid organisers weren’t overly fazed about the events that unfolded (“I was more worried about it than them”, Sammut now laughs), even when television news camera crews were posted outside the store the following day “just for some context on this ‘unruly record store’.”

Despite all that unwanted attention, both now look back at the event positively, Warnock recalling a specific story of a friend’s dad (“a pastor, or a minister”) travelling to the show under concerns of their child’s involvement in the Sydney music scene — and, as he perceived, association with “unsocial behaviour” — only to be pleasantly surprised.

“He said ‘I can really see that there’s a community here, this is a good group of 500 people in a room, watching music’. It’s pretty cool that you can feel kinda rebellious in [doing] these events, but people’s parents can still feel welcome and feel that their kids are involved in a world that isn’t destructive, but constructive.”

That same ethos and sense of inclusiveness is reflected in the eclectic lineup the pair have selected for their upcoming 15th anniversary show on Thursday, June 1st at the Sydney Opera House, once again as part of the Vivid Live festival. The list of acts pulls from several scenes — geographically, generationally and stylistically — and includes Melbourne proto-punks, Total Control, ’80s experimentalists Severed Heads, industrial/techno artist Lucy Cliche (previously of the brilliant Sydney band Naked On The Vague) and the raw ‘downer rock’ of Brisbane’s Matt Kennedy, aka Kitchen’s Floor. And while Sammut says, with a wry smile, he “would’ve loved to get a metal band as well, just to really rub it in a bit”, he proudly explains that the line-up, although varied, primarily serves as “a celebration of D.I.Y. culture and something people have made themselves.”

“From my perspective I can see the tangent between everything playing on this lineup,” explains Warnock, looking over the list of acts on the poster hanging on the wall behind him. “There’s so many parallels in the types of music. Not everyone on this lineup had some youth experience with noisy guitar bands, or some typical experience with D.I.Y. in the strict punk sense. Not everyone was in a high school hardcore band, but there’s a lot of connections to some type of music counterculture. I guess the tangent that runs through is ‘for the greater good of music’.”

“I don’t think any of [these acts aim to] please anyone or be a ‘somebody’ or create an identity out of it. I think there’s some kind of pure idea of making something and expressing something about their life or just a degree of creativity or imagination. We’re trying to make some differentiation between what I would call underground music culture and careerist music culture. I think a lot of them have accidentally become a ‘something’ or a long-running thing, or meant a lot to somebody, unbeknowingly.”

There’s clearly few things Warnock is more passionate about than the underlying driving force of creative pursuits and how this is reflected in output. He could, quite literally, bury us in his thoughts on the subject for hours. Sammut, however, simplifies that common methodology, saying that “from their beginning, whacking something on tape or whatever, [these bands] haven’t really compromised anything — and now they can come and play the Opera House!”

It’s a fairytale story the softly-spoken Sammut happily buys into, and also willingly extends to the shop itself, adding that the gig is “for us and the bands, [showing] something we’ve achieved ourselves.”

And that’s what Vivid get when they task Repressed with curating a night of their festival.

Not merely the pair’s contacts — as artistically rich as their metaphorical Rolodexs might be — but rather two people as invested as any acts they could possibly approach. Not merely fans, or supporters, but comrades, who’ve pursued a near-replicated goal alongside those names included on the final poster.

As well, Vivid get a single identity to gather an eclectic, seemingly unconnected, cluster of artists under — Repressed. A title that doesn’t represent a specific scene, but instead has come to serve as a representation of a specific ideal.

Because Repressed is far more significant than it’s physical storefront at 413 King Street, Newtown. More than just a convenient place where you can pick up a six dollar second-hand DVD for your son or Radiohead’s new album on the day it’s released or the demo cassette of that band you saw the night prior at a Marrickville warehouse space.

Repressed, without any sense of contrived foresight, have fought their way through a fairly turbulent decade-and-a-half and created their own world. Best of all, they’ve invited us to share it. See you there on Thursday night.

Repressed Records’ 15th Anniversary show is at the Sydney Opera House for Vivid LIVE festival, featuring Total Control, Severed Heads, Miss Destiny, Lucy Cliche, Kitchen’s Floor, Fake (Cassius Select/bv), Angie, Francis Plagne, Skyline and Horse Macgyver (Live Visuals). Tickets available here.

Top photo: Chris Sammut (left) and Nic Warnock at Repressed Records, Newtown. Credit: Matt Coyte.