DS Interview: Chris Wrenn of Bridge 9 Records on Celebrating 25ish Years, Running a DIY Label, and Sully’s Brand

The terms “hard work” and “blood, sweat, and tears” get tossed around almost nonchalantly in the punk community, not necessarily because the words have lost their impact, but because they’ve become staples of what’s so great about the genre. Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi was pretty spot on in describing punk as “playing music for music’s sake and being part of a family for family’s sake.” Bridge Nine Records founder Chris Wrenn lived by this mantra in pouring everything he had into backing the local hardcore acts he’d grown close with. And after years of DIY promotion and creative forms of funding, Bridge Nine expanded to become, not only a staple of the Boston hardcore community, but a full-blown label touting some of hardcore punks’ most influential names.

Diligent and untiring labels like Bridge Nine, ones knee-deep in the very scenes they represent, have helped fuel the genre, I’d say, as much as the artists themselves, if not more so. Formed in the summer of 1995 in a college dormitory and mainly focusing on 7″ releases, Bridge Nine was a way for Wrenn to contribute to the flourishing and ever-motivated punk scene of Boston, MA.

“With DIY and hardcore punk, obviously there is this drive, it’s a culture of doing things and contributing. It’s not a lot of people just watching from the sidelines, it’s people that kind of roll up their sleeves and say, “okay, I can do this, this is how I can contribute”. And for me, all my friends were in bands, but I wasn’t in a band. So I wanted a way that I could kind of give back, but also something that I could do to make me a part of the process.”

“So for me, it was starting a label, but I didn’t even mean to start a label necessarily, I was helping my friends put out seven-inches and having them pressed. Because in 1995, when I decided I wanted to do that, it wasn’t a unique idea. There were a lot of people my age that were putting out seven-inch records with their friends’ bands.”

But in pre-internet days, information for starting a label, or even having records pressed, especially on a smaller scale, was extremely hard to come by. Through the help of some friends-of-friends, Wrenn was able to learn enough to put into action what would eventually grow into a full-blown record label and a full-time career.

“So, when you decide like, “oh, I want to put out a seven-inch or I want to help my friends do it”, especially at that time, information was pretty hard to come by. It was pre-internet, so there was no “I’m just going to Google this and find out how to do it”. You had to find somebody who knew what they were doing or had done it before; I mean, there were no real instructions on how to start a record label or press records. There were books, but a lot of them were bullshit and they weren’t really at the level that I was trying to be at, which is fairly small.”

“I was connected with somebody who had a label, a friend of a friend. I didn’t know him, but literally just gave him a call and just said, “What do you know? I want to put out a record, where do I even start?” And this dude was cool. He gave me a list of contacts, kind of walked me through it, and told me where I should get a record pressed.”

“So our first handful of records were done at a pressing plant in Nashville, Tennessee called United Record Pressing. They’ve been around forever, I think since the sixties at least, it might even be older than that. I know that they were the first pressing plant, I think in the U.S., to press the Beatles records. So they’ve been around the block a hundred times, pressed all sorts of records. Basically, I just called them and said “I want to press a record”. And they’re like “Alright, send us a DAC cassette with the audio, send us the artwork for the center labels, and a money order for whatever number of dollars it was at the time.”

“And we still work with them to this day, they just pressed something for us this year. 28 years.”

And thus, Bridge Nine Records was born. The label’s early days were defined by seven-inch releases for local acts such as Tenfold, The Trust, and Proclamation, with the label’s first full-length coming in the form of 1999’s “Taken By Force” by Proclamation.

Chris Wrenn working in the basement art department of Tower Records on Newbury Street (1999)

After close to 5 years, Bridge Nine turned a corner. Wrenn joined forces with a group of close friends, the founding members of American Nightmare, and was able to take the brand across the nation and internationally.

“After about four years of just putting out seven-inch singles with friends’ bands, I started working with American Nightmare. Again, their first record was just another seven-inch single, I’d done a handful of them at the time, but they were the first band that was willing to just hit the road, tour, and get out of New England. Because a lot of the bands I was working with prior to that didn’t really even leave Connecticut or Massachusetts, kind of just stayed local. They were the first band that was like “we want to go hit the road, tour everywhere”.”

“For me, it was an opportunity for them to wave the Bridge 9 flag and for me to wave theirs and for both of us to go across the country, go over to Europe, and be ambassadors for what we were doing.”

“So it was probably Summer of 2000 when, instead of just being a local thing, kids all around the world are starting to pick up and get interested. It was still a few years after that before it was like “oh wait, I have to quit my job and just focus on this.”

With this spike in popularity and awareness, Wrenn was faced with a common problem among any subsect of the punk community: lack of funding. Wrenn’s day job in the Tower Records art department was enough to make ends meet personally, but nowhere near what was needed to fund a label. Through an equally creative and unique solution stemmed, what I would argue, is one of Boston’s most defining brands. What originated as a label-funding campaign fueled by bumper stickers and Yankees-hate merch, Sully’s Brand has now flourished into a celebration of Boston pride under the slogan “Believe in Boston”.

“It’s funny cause it’s never really been like a full-time job for me, it’s never been an exclusive thing. I’ve always had other things that I’ve done at the same time to make it happen.”

“Spring going into Summer of 2000, I had signed American Nightmare, I mean it was just like a loose deal. But they were in the studio, had big plans for their record and I needed money. I was working at Tower Records in the art department, making like $7.50 an hour. So I didn’t have money to even cover my own bills, much less push this band.”

“So friends of mine and I went to Fenway Park where the Red Sox play, it was like less than a mile from our apartment. I was already making all these bumper stickers and t-shirts and stuff for punk bands, so I started making stuff for sports fans and would sell it in the street to people leaving the games. Early on, it just riffed on the rivalry with the Yankees, we would make Yankee suck merch, sell to people leaving the Red Sox games.”

“It was wild! You would just be mobbed, just trading money and stickers and t-shirts. Yeah. I mean, it was crazy, it was like drug dealer money with significantly less risk.

“So it was initially just an opportunity to go find money elsewhere and put it into putting out records. I had tried some of the more traditional routes at the time; my family wasn’t in a position to loan me money, I went to banks and couldn’t get a loan because I was fresh out of college, couldn’t even afford my student loan, much less another loan. I had no collateral, no car, no anything that I could put up to guarantee something.”

“We just had to figure out how to do it ourselves. After a few years, we raised a lot of money doing that, I mean we would come back after every game, a thousand bucks cash, and I would go the next day and buy money orders and send it to pressing plants and pay for magazine ads, all this stuff that the label needed and things that the bands needed. We even bought one of our bands, Terror, their first tour van with like bumper stickers.”

Summer of 2000 Fenway Courtesy of Kate Bowen

Funds were now taken care of, and the business took on a life of its own. What was initially used as a means to fuel the label soon emerged as a formal brand.

“After a few years, I realized this was a better business than putting out punk records and I wanted to expand on it. So I came up with the name Sully’s, started exploring other stuff that wasn’t based on the rivalry with the Yankees, started focusing on Boston stuff and it just grew into its own company. For 15, almost 20 years, they just kind of co-existed in our office, one whole side would be records and black t-shirts, and the other side was all sports stuff. And after a while, I started to meet people that were Have Heart fans, but also wore t-shirts from Sully’s; there was a lot of crossover.”

Just four short years after sales first began on Lansdowne St. outside of Fenway, Wrenn’s business was gifted some major media coverage with one of Boston’s favorite hometown heroes and a connection that stood the test of time over 15 years later. Ben Affleck’s love for Wrenn’s DIY brand eventually led to significant screen time in “The Town” [one of Nasty Nate’s all-time favorites], the Boston-set crime drama directed by, and starring Affleck.

Ben Affleck in “Killin With Schillin” Sully’s Brand tee,
c. 2004

“Ben Affleck wore one of our shirts back in 2004, which was cool. It was during the run for the World Series. And he was, you know, kind of showing it off in the picture.”

“And then in 2009, he was directing a movie, that movie “The Town”. Their costume department reached out to us and said “Hey, we bought a couple of your shirts from a local store and we’d like to use them in this movie.” I didn’t know anything about the movie or what the potential was for it. But I was like “yeah, you’re welcome to, I’ll sign whatever. And while you’re at it, take a look at our website and if there’s anything else, let me know. They faxed me like a four-page handwritten list of everything they wanted. It was just like, holy shit. It was like eight of every shirt, like two different sizes.”

“So I drove them down to the costume department when they were filming, hit it off with the woman who was the costume designer, and we basically became their print shop for everything. We ended up having, I think, six of our t-shirts in the movie. One of our Believe in Boston shirts was on Ben Affleck in a scene, we had this shirt that said Irish Pub Boxing that was on Jeremy Renner, we made the hockey jerseys at the end when they all go out on the ice.

“It was like Christmas for a while because all these people, they wanted to buy the shirts that the actors were wearing and they got them from us.”

From their early days of putting out local New England hardcore seven-inches to a few short years later being featured in major publications and more than one feature film, Wrenn’s DIY approach and motivated work ethic were common themes that allowed the label to grow to much more than a local brand. Wrenn’s dedicated mentality and laborious practice not only helped further punk rock’s grassroots reputation, but also served valuable in keeping Bridge 9 and Sully’s Brand afloat.

Labels are often the first to be overlooked in terms of the impact COVID-19 had on the music community. Artists and venues were at the forefront of attention when disaster struck, culminating in months of canceled tours and restricted gatherings. However, even businesses such as Wrenn’s, one’s enjoying mainstream success, were not invincible. Yet again, in true punk rock fashion, Wrenn was unafraid to get his hands dirty and got to work, utilizing the same DIY, creative approach that had proven successful over 20 years prior.

“Some of my best ideas have come when my back’s been against the wall, and with the pandemic and everything that came along with it, everyone’s back was against the wall, it was kind of like a do-or-die situation for a lot of people and a lot of businesses. And for me, you know, you just get creative. DIY has been fostered in the punk scene since the beginning. And, you know, I came into it wanting to use my hands and get involved. I think people in punk and hardcore are a little more, resilient, like they’re just willing to work harder, at least in my experience.”

“The pandemic was pretty tough because we had to let most of everyone go, temporarily at least. I had Sully’s, a screen printing business and Bridge 9, all three businesses were in the same space, and literally overnight, we had to send everyone home. It was a month, two months, we depended on mail order.”

“Thankfully, we had a pretty large inventory of stuff. So we started doing mystery boxes and had like these inexpensive, but good value mail order items that people could check out to help support us. And we were just kind of on this really low autopilot for a while.”

“Everything that Sully’s does as a brand is related to tourism and sports and both of those were gone. So I was just like sending packages to people, like just trying to get a buzz. So I looked up Ben Affleck, sent him a few shirts with a card that just said “Hey, it was the 10th anniversary of “The Town”, it was real sick that you included us in your movie and we’re still stoked about it. Here’s some stuff from Boston and thank you”.”

“And he wore all of that. Like every day he went out on these pandemic walks with his girlfriend wearing our shirts. Like that was really, really cool. And so we set up a few more things over the next year or so, and he was repping stuff from Bridge 9 and from Sully’s, which was very cool.”

Ben Affleck Sporting Sully’s Brand “Believe in Boston” Tee During COVID (2020)

Although business slowed for Bridge Nine and Sully’s brand during the 2019-2020 shutdowns, the COVID-19 storm was weathered and Wrenn was able to look forward. Both brands continued expansion and a new storefront location emerged, one much better suited for Wrenn’s objectives.

It was Summer of 2020, we had been in this same building for 14 years, and our old landlord said he was selling the building. So we were in a period of uncertainty, we were kind of trying to find something new. And the new landlord comes in and basically says “I’m going to double your rent”.”

“I mean we had some good times there, but I wanted something new. So through the pandemic, we had to let everyone go, find a new building, and then basically renovate it and get it up and running. And, so the last few years have been some of the craziest, hardest working years I’ve had, but also some of the best because we’ve landed in a much cooler spot.

Wrenn outside of the new Bridge 9/Sully’s Brand Headquarters

“It’s awesome, it has this big retail space up front. So we have our own record store, it has a big warehouse in back that we’re going to start having bands play, and it’s right on the main street in this kind of quiet, North of Boston town. It’s kind of weird to be selling Dead Kennedy’s records alongside Bridge 9 releases and Minor Threat and Slayer LPs, but here we are.”

“We got the keys on a Friday and then two days later, like on Monday, we get a phone call from a location scout for a movie. And it was for this movie called “The Tender Bar” starring Ben Affleck. And they’re like “we want to use your building for background in one of these scenes. So Ben Affleck came like two weeks later and filmed a scene in front of our building, which was just a crazy coincidence.”

“It’s kind of like “Oh man, the universe maybe is showing me that we’re on the right path.” We got a chance to chat with him briefly, thank him for repping the brand. And then his assistant asked us to design a t-shirt for him as their wrap gift. So, we ended up designing a shirt, it had his signature on the inside of it and we printed like 500 of them for anybody that worked in the film And that was cool, full circle moment.”

Through all of the excitement, from backing local bands in early Bridge 9 days to taking the label international, from selling bumper stickers and “Yankees Suck” merch outside Fenway to establishing a legitimate brand that’s been displayed in movies and major publications, Wrenn’s label was able to reach, and surpass, its 25th year of production. 25 years of operation holds much to look back on and Wrenn had difficulty choosing just one highlight.

“[Celebration for our 25th] was supposed to be 2020. We were going to do a whole bunch of cool stuff, but obviously, that all got kind of blown up. So we pushed that off to the 30th.”

“One of the cool things about doing a label for me has been finding new bands, bands that I get excited about and I want to help other people to know and be able to hear. And we’ve been able to do that with a bunch of bands, the earliest one probably being American Nightmare because those were guys I lived with. They had a demo, they wanted to record something, and being able to be there at the ground level was very, very cool, knowing their potential and kind of helping them realize it.”

“But it’s also really cool, and I found as just a music fan, to be able to work with bands that I liked before I even started the label. H2O, for example. I mean, I was a huge H2O fan before I even started Bridge 9. Never thought when I started the label that I would ever have a chance to work with them, and now we’ve been working together for 15 years. Or when I worked with Slapshot for the first time, I was a Slapshot fan in high school, going into college, and then to be able to put out a Greatest Hits record for them. That was 20 years ago, last fall, and to be able to continue to work with them over the years, it’s just, it’s cool.”

With 25 years in the rearview mirror and the 30th quickly approaching, Wrenn shows no signs of slowing down with either brand. During the COVID shutdown, Bridge 9 shifted their sights away from signing new artists and aimed at 25th-anniversary reissues.

“So we’ve had, I think nine different LPs that we’ve put out with like silver jackets and silver vinyl, kind of leaning into the 25th anniversary color.

Chris Wrenn (center, holding sign) and members of Boston’s hardcore-punk scene peddling “Yankees Suck” merch at Fenway in the summer of 2000

With shutdowns and restrictions a thing of the past (hopefully for good), Bridge 9 has been able to shift back to a focus on signing new artists. 2023 saw the signing of 2 new artists, Heavy Hex and Incendiary Device, the release of 5 records and 7 exclusive variants, as well as assurance that much more is sure to come.