Down and dirty

The underground sounds of Vice Records

Vice magazine, which originated in Toronto in 1994, has always boasted a cooler-than-you attitude. It chronicles a world that's so underground, it's close to burial, and it has become a must-read for the style-minded and left of center. One of the highlights of each issue is Vice's scathing "Do's & Don't" section, which skewers celebrities and even poor ol' everyday saps.

The mag recently ran a picture of a leather-clad Britney Spears with the caption: "Talk about aging gracefully, Britney has gone from 'just a girl' past 'more than a woman' and right over to 'revolutionary drag-queen S&M superstar.'"

Now that the magazine is a success, Vice has expanded its reach to include books, retail stores in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto and London, television and film properties, and, perhaps most visibly, a music label. The magazine has long tried to spotlight cool, below-the-radar acts, so the label is a natural extension. And although the magazine and the label exist "as sovereign entities," according to Vice Records exec Adam Shore, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

With acts spanning from quirky British rapper Mike Skinner, who records as the Streets, to indie-rockers the Stills, the label reflects a sensibility that's as eclectic, edgy and offbeat as the best of the magazine.

"We're not a genre label," Shore says. "With all the shitty music that's flooding the airwaves, we feel like it's our responsibility to put out good music. We make music for people who have to have the latest and best shit." Created in August 2002 with the backing of Atlantic Records, the label was originally created to release the debut album by the Streets in the United States. But in the two years since its birth, Vice Records has amassed an exciting lineup of acts, three of which — the Panthers, Death From Above 1979, and Vietnam — are on the road as a part of the first Vice Records Tour. (The concert promo poster, incidentally, features a drawing of a woman with red fingernails bloodily scratching the name of the bands into her arm.)

Talking to the performers, you get the feeling that they actually like the label they record for — a fairly uncommon sentiment in the creatively stifling, bottom-line-obsessed music biz. "[Vice loves] our music for the same reason we love our music," says Jesse Keller of Death From Above 1979, a duo that is becoming known for its meld of danceable beats and explosive guitars. "We didn't have to change our sound at all. We do whatever we want."

Co-headlining the Vice tour are Panthers, whose members draw influences from varying psychedelic acts and heavy-hitters such as Black Sabbath. Things Are Strange, the group's second full-length album, retains a signature hardcore energy while adding a certain lushness. "Our sound has really developed a lot," says lead singer Jayson Green. "The first album was rushed, and the EP was a little more together. On this album, we wrote everything collaboratively. You can tell, the songs are a lot longer."

Opening up for the two acts is Vietnam, touring in support of a new album, The Concrete Is Always Grayer on the Other Side of the Street. Unlike its harder-edged labelmates, Vietnam's sound is marked by soft guitars and reflective lyrics.

Together, the three acts speak to the burgeoning diversity of the Vice label, which hopes to bring these bands from the underground to a more widespread acceptance. Says Vice's Shore, "We like to bring artists from obscurity into the forefront."