The Simple Machines Story  

Kristin Thomson and Jenny Toomey
photo by Jim Saah 1991

Simple Machines was a punk la la rock experience/ partnership/record label run by Jenny Toomey and Kristin Thomson, with staffers extraordinaire Pat Graham & Mickey Menard and a lot of volunteers, out of our house in Arlington, VA. We started it up in 1990 to have lots of fun putting out our own music and that of our friends. We stressed the ''do it yourself'' ethic with an emphasis on finding creative ways to avoid the established and boring music business bullshit.

We strove to:

  • put out music we love and sell it for a fair price;
  • make everything we did beautiful, interesting and friendly;
  • pass on skills and information (to avoid reinventing the wheel);
  • use our record packaging to educate, not just to decorate;
  • see personal pleasure and fun as measures of success;
  • endorse a measured application of caffeine (within reason) to humans who have the drive to do something creative and often exhausting with their spare time, so they can still get up and go to their dehumanizing jobs so they can make enough money to buy more caffeine;
  • support our peers' efforts by working with other small labels, bands and local businesses to sustain a productive, self-sufficient punk/la la network and;
  • answer our mail and return phone calls.

We began in 1990 with the Machines compilation 7'' series. Over the next two years we released 6 4-band 7''s, each named after one of the simple machines of science. Over the following eight years, we put out a total of 44 7''s, 8 cassettes, 21 full-length CDs, 3 compilation CDs, a 7'' box set and our Guide to Putting Out Records. If you add it up, over seventy-five bands participated in our projects.

In 1992 we released Fortune Cookie Prize, with 12 bands doing their favorite Beat Happening songs. 100% of the profits from the LP and 80% from the CD were donated to Sasha Bruce House - a youth-at-risk house in Washington DC - with a total donation of over $15,000. We also put out Neapolitan Metropolitan, a triple 7"s box set that included songs from 12 bands on three ice creamy colored 7''s and a 16-page booklet with lots of information about alternative businesses and community-based groups working on tenants right issues. In 1994 we compiled the original 6 machine 7''s onto one 80-minute CD, with 80% of the profits being donated to two causes: RISE Community Cafe- a project that was being developed by our friends Jen and Patrice to provide DC youth offenders with an active alternative to the unproductive cycle of incarceration and lack of opportunity; and Wayne Taylor, a young, creative community leader and ex-Barefoot Press person who ran for mayor of Raleigh, NC.

We spent all of 1993 knee-deep in the Working Holiday project. We released a two-band 7'' every month, celebrating holidays and often-overlooked events in history, which we mailed out to the 633 series members and sold the rest through our mailorder and to stores. And on top of receiving two 7''s every other month, members also got a 1993 wall calendar chock-full of interesting facts about every day of the year, a stylish box to keep their singles in, and a birthday gift. After a year's worth of stuffing, stamping, boxing and shipping 36,000 7''s, we were ready for a party. We capped off the series with a Working Holiday 3-Day Weekend from January 7-9, 1994. Over eighteen bands from the series, plus a few special guests, and 500 showgoers braved blizzard conditions (some only barely escaping death) for a weekend of revelry at DC's Black Cat Club including a cocktail party, incredible performances by all the bands, raffles and confessions, all tied together with words of wisdom from MC Jason Noble.

In the fall of 1994 we released all the Working Holiday 7''s on one CD, plus live tracks from 15 bands at the party, and early in 1995 we compiled all the Tsunami 7''s on one CD, World Tour and Other Destinations. From 1994 on we also began to focus on more on full-length projects with a small number of bands: Tsunami, Grenadine, Ida, Liquorice, Danielle Howle, Sea Saw, Retsin, Scrawl, The Raymond Brake, Franklin Bruno and The Monorchid. In all we manufactured and distributed 18 full-lengths and a dozen 7"s for these bands, as well as sending CDs to press and radio, and helping them with their tours.

Then, on March 30, 1998

Simple Machines Records closed its doors.

We started Simple Machines for a few reasons, the most obvious being because no one else wanted to release our records. It was fun and within a year we were putting out records by our own bands and helping our friends. A few years later, thanks to some incredibly great records and Tsunami's erroneous tag as riot grrrl flagship band in England, we turned a hobby into a full-time business. Seventy releases later, we're ready to do something else.

From 1990-98 running Simple Machines was a significant, hysterical, euphoric, despairing and, all-together, extreme chapter of our lives. It took over every part of our house and mind and we've loved almost every bit of it.

In the past few years, however there have been significant changes, both personal, like Kristin's marriage to Bryan Dilworth and subsequent move to Philadelphia and structural ones, like the commodification of dissent (thank you, Baffler) and ubiquitous major label tinkering in all areas of underground music structures.

Kristin's move increased her already legendary physical and financial burden. Living between Philly and DC, she made the 6-hour commute every week for almost 4 years. The structural change, as most of you who work in music know, ultimately meant that we had to spend ever-increasing amounts of our time and money on technical areas of the music business and less and less time on music itself. Putting records out and keeping them in print became more expensive and money became a large burden. These extra costs and responsibilities made it increasingly difficult to tour and run the label at the same time, and without the touring cash cow of Tsunami it became necessary for us to take on part-time jobs. Part-time jobs became full-time jobs, and ultimately there was a moment in 1997 when we realized that if we continued this way for much longer, it wouldn't be fun anymore, and having fun is perhaps the most sacred of the Simple Machines commandments. We cringe when reading interviews by indie label owners who are bitter about their lot in life and yet continue on, whining all the way. We expected this day to come - this job is one particularly suited to the young, and their enthusiasm, impatience and idealism. So we leave it to the diehards, the exceptional and the next generation and made arrangements to close our doors.

1998 was a perfect ending spot. The success of the new Ida and Tsunami records secured the financial closure. The label's bigger bands have already moved on to the next step at majors or major indies and, for the most part, the remainder of the artists who were SMR veterans have new labels to help them out (Franklin Bruno & Secret Stars/Shrimper, Monorchid/Touch n Go, Sea Saw & hollAnd/Darla). Plus, neither of us ever believed that this would be our life's work. We've always had secret projects on the back burner (Kristin is waiting for the Flyer's talent rep to call her back and Jenny is ready to build that solar farm), and we were just waiting for the time to set them in motion. You can be sure that none of these plans involve calling slack asses for payments or back royalties or copping aliases to push brilliant music on increasingly cynical journalists.

The folks we've met running Simple Machines are the best people we've met in our lives. We'll be sad to be out of the loop but it's better to close on a high note than to let it deteriorate into a parody like so many other indie labels of yore. We hope you all can appreciate this unusual event as we attempted to close down the monolith with reputation and idealism intact. On March 27-29, 1998 we hosted the Simple Machines Finale Party at the Black Cat in Washington, DC, where 24 bands and over 500 fans kicked out bucket with us.

And finally, here is our complete catalog that will stand as a record of all the releases for the label.

Thank you for all your support.


Simple Machines Records © 1998-2007