LABEL PROFILE In Their 15th Year, Metal Label Brutal Panda Fights Through The Grief By Brad Sanders · November 08, 2023

Bob Lugowe says that running Brutal Panda Records has become “an exercise in grief.” Mike Lara, the Philadelphia label’s co-founder, passed away unexpectedly last year at 40, and Lugowe found himself partnerless amid the campaign for the biggest record they’d ever done: a reissue of Local H’s Here Comes the Zoo. Lugowe jokes that it felt like a cosmic fuck you from Mike, a final prank played by one best friend on another. But it was only funny in a laugh-to-keep-from-crying kind of way.

“That was so hard, just dealing with the grief,” Lugowe reflects. “Then my cat, who was my other best friend, passed a month after Mike. So, it was a dark, rough time. I tried to do everything myself, including packing and shipping all the orders, and the record was so delayed at the plant. It was a nightmare. I thought I couldn’t do it. And I wasn’t gonna do it anymore, and I was searching for my next path.”

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Lugowe eventually got some much-needed assistance and decided to carry on in his late partner’s honor. After weathering the worst kind of existential crisis, Brutal Panda celebrates its 15th anniversary this year. It’s a milestone that must have seemed unimaginable when a couple of Third Eye Blind–loving interns nicknamed “Stoner Mike” and “Juggalo Bob” launched a new label from the Relapse Records offices back in 2008.

“[Relapse] was a small enough label that everyone working there became friends,” Lugowe says. “Drew Juergens was working there, who runs Translation Loss Records. My boss at the time, Gordon [Conrad], used to run Escape Artist Records, and he was managing bands on the side. Greg Drudy was there, and he was running Level Plane Records and Enucleation Records in addition to working at Relapse. So, we were kind of inspired by seeing these hats that people were wearing at the label, and the things that people were doing on their own. We were like, ‘Fuck it, why don’t we do this too?’”

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The first Brutal Panda release was a vinyl edition of Hungry for Nothing by the New Jersey noise-rockers Fight Amp, licensed from Juergens’s Translation Loss imprint. Lugowe financed the pressing by taking out a student loan. “We were just like, ‘We want to do this,’” he remembers. “We have no idea how to do it, but let’s just give it a shot. That was the first record, and the rest was kind of history.”

Brutal Panda will commemorate that history this December, with a series of 15th anniversary shows featuring Kowloon Walled City, Local H, Cherubs, and other mainstays of the label roster. The shows will be staged in honor of the late Mike Lara. With luck, they’ll be as memorable as the first show Lugowe attended in Lara’s honor after his passing.

“After Mike’s funeral last year, which was in Corpus Christi, Texas, I went and saw Third Eye Blind with Cory [Brim] from Glassing,” Lugowe says. “They happened to be in town that weekend. It was perfect. We went to, like, a NASCAR racetrack, and had VIP tickets, and we watched Third Eye Blind to honor Mike. And we were doot-doot-doo’ing all through the night together. It was fantastic.”

Lugowe selected eight key releases from the Brutal Panda catalog to help tell the story of the label. Read about them below.


Kowloon Walled City
Container Ships

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A crucial early triumph for Brutal Panda was the sophomore album by San Francisco’s Kowloon Walled City. When Container Ships was released in 2012, Lugowe and Lara were still mostly licensing vinyl from other labels or releasing relatively low-pressure 7-inches and splits. Container Ships, by contrast, was a new full-length by a rising band. “It was really cool to get that trust,” Lugowe says. “And I think the fact that we worked at Relapse helped, because it was obviously like, ‘These guys know what they’re doing.’”

The austere, doomy noise rock on Container Ships still feels every bit as provocative as it did a decade ago. Lugowe remembers being blown away the moment the album hit his inbox. “When Kowloon delivered Container Ships, the artwork was just so different from what else I was seeing out there. Just a beautiful, stunning photograph of a container ship on the front of the cover, with block font with the band name, and this spacious but dense music that didn’t sound like anything. We were like, ‘Whoa. This is something special.’” 

Cherubs
2 Ynfynyty

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Austin’s Cherubs helped define the sound of ’90s noise rock on their landmark albums Icing and Heroin Man, but the band broke up shortly after releasing them. Brutal Panda brought them back. 2 Ynfynyty marked Cherubs’ glorious and unexpected comeback, 21 years after they first called it quits. “2 Ynfynyty was one that brought us more attention,” Lugowe says. “It was like, ‘Who is this label who’s getting the Cherubs to reform?’”

On the strength of records like 2 Ynfynyty and a killer live show, the Cherubs of today reach an audience of fans who weren’t even born in time to enjoy their original heyday. “Cherubs are a band that had an amazing period in the ’90s, but I feel like their new stuff is just as strong,” Lugowe says. “I just saw them at TV Eye [in Queens, New York] a few weeks ago, and they just killed it. They had these crazy, psychedelic, trippy visuals behind them, and the music is timeless. They’re a band that really represents Brutal Panda, because there’s so much [there]. There’s indie stuff, there’s artsy stuff in there. It’s very cerebral music, but it’s also got punk-rock attitude and a sense of humor.”

Glassing
Twin Dream

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“Mike went to shows all the time,” Lugowe says. “His favorite thing to do was take a bunch of mushrooms and go see live music, so he was always out on the prowl, seeing new bands.” One such prowl in Austin led him to catch an early set by Glassing, the black metal-ish trio whose sound also encompasses shoegaze, post-hardcore, and noise rock. Lara was captivated by their performance, and when Lugowe was able to see the band at a Levitation showcase, he was equally floored. Brutal Panda released the band’s Spotted Horse album in 2019, and two years later, they followed it up with the crystalline level-up that is Glass Dream. Lugowe will always remember the first time he heard it.

“My mom was sick,” Lugowe recalls. “She had cancer, so I was at home taking care of her, and I needed the fresh air and getting outside and getting away from it all. So, I was walking around. I got the album, put it on my high-quality headphones, ripped a bowl, and was like, ‘Whoa, this is fucking special. This is an amazing album.’”

Zozobra
Savage Masters

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2013’s rollicking Savage Masters was the final album by Zozobra, the sludgy trio of Caleb Scofield, Adam McGrath, and J.R. Conners—all of whom were also members of Cave In, Lara’s favorite band. (“This was Mike’s fanboy one,” Lugowe confirms.) While Cave In has always largely been driven by singer/guitarist Stephen Brodsky, Zozobra was a chance for Scofield to stretch his legs as a frontman. “That makes me really happy, giving an outlet to musicians who are in bigger bands, but then who wanted to have their own creative projects, too,” Lugowe says.

Scofield died in 2018, and when Lugowe went to work on the 10th anniversary edition of Savage Masters earlier this year, he found himself reflecting on the link between his fallen brother and the Zozobra leader. “I was talking to Adam and J.R. about that, when we were doing the 10th anniversary,” Lugowe says. “We were both thinking about our respective partners so much. It felt good to shine a light on each of them through that.” The deluxe reissue is dedicated to Scofield and Lara.

Local H
Local H’s Awesome Quarantine Mixtape #3

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“The Local H thing really was a dream come true for me, in the same way that the Cave In stuff was for Mike,” Lugowe says. He was on the street team for the legendary Chicago alt-rock duo back in high school, hustling 2002’s Here Comes the Zoo at Philly area shows. (Brutal Panda gave that album its first-ever vinyl release last year, in a full-circle moment that Lugowe says still feels surreal.) But it’s the Awesome Quarantine Mixtape—featuring covers of Prince, Blondie, Eurhythmics, and more—that’s marked the deepest collaboration between the band and label to date. “We gave them full rein of creativity,” Lugowe says. “They wanted to do a 7-inch box set in addition to a 12-inch vinyl, and we were like, ‘Fuck yeah, let’s do it.’ Because me being a superfan first, I know what I would want for this stuff. And when they sent us the track list, I was like, ‘Wait, there’s not one but two Prince covers on here? Holy shit!’”

The kicker: Lugowe had a day job at Sony at the time, and he found himself working Prince’s first posthumous record on the same day he was releasing Local H’s Prince covers on Brutal Panda. Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.

Fight Amp
Constantly Off

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Fight Amp’s first record was Brutal Panda’s first release, so it only makes sense that their final album, Constantly Off, would also be released by the label. Lugowe and Lara worked with the New Jersey band from their origins to their 2015 swansong, even helping nudge them into launching their subsequent projects, Low Dose and Rid of Me. Fight Amp didn’t wrap up their run as superstars, but with bands like Chat Pile and Couch Slut now ascendant, they retroactively look ahead of their time. “They were one of the first young bands to bring back noise rock in America,” Lugowe says. “Then some other bands were getting bigger than them, and that happens a lot. It’s a timing thing. It’s sometimes that the listeners aren’t ready for this sound yet. And I think that was a little frustrating.”

Lugowe has remained close with the former members of Fight Amp, and he says he doesn’t take for granted how special it is to be able to work with a band for its entire run. Relationships like those are why he’s in this business. “You go a little above and beyond,” he says. “That’s something I’ve always taken pride in. I’m not just putting out records. It’s a lot more than that.”

Boyfrndz
Impulse

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Most of the albums on this list—and in the Brutal Panda catalog—can at least be described as heavy, if not quite metal. Boyfrndz don’t fit that bill. The Austin band makes nervy, prog-y indie rock inspired by Trail of Dead and The Mars Volta—a far cry from the noisy, scuzzy work of Fight Amp and Cherubs. “Mike was living in Austin and was a fan of them, and was seeing them live and stuff,” Lugowe says. “He wanted me to check them out, and I was a little hesitant at first. But the music speaks for itself.”

Brutal Panda released Boyfrndz’s 2014 debut, Breeder, and they doubled down with 2016’s Impulse, which Lugowe describes as he and Lara “trying to be a real record label.” They flew the band to Philly, where they stayed at Lugowe’s mom’s house and recorded with indie superproducer Jeff Zeigler (Kurt Vile, The War on Drugs). The record lost money in the end, but Lugowe still cherishes the experience, both for what it taught him about running the label and for the time he got to spend with the band. “We were just shooting the shit with them every night,” he beams. “And taking them to Wawa every day. We have some great photos in front of multiple Wawas.”

Melancholia
Book of Ruination

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The newest record on this list is the debut LP by Melancholia, the sludgy, metallic duo of vocalist/guitarist Gage Lindsay and ex-Wild Throne drummer Noah Burns. Brutal Panda put out the first Wild Throne EP back in 2014, and Lugowe and Burns stayed in touch long after that band dissolved. “It’s full circle, just like all the best things in life,” Lugowe says of the impending release of Book of Ruination. Lugowe compares his first listen to Book of Ruination to those first sessions with Container Ships and Twin Dream; he heard it once and he just knew. It came at the right time, too, shortly after Lara’s death. “I kind of needed it, to keep me motivated,” Lugowe says. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to put the label to bed. I had just had a lot of loss and caregiving in my life, and [the label] is a lot of work. But when I heard this one, I was like ‘This is so good that I have to put out, because I don’t want anyone else to put it out.’”

“I know that Mike would love it,” he adds. “I know that he’d be so excited about it.”

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