On a recent Sunday morning in a cold, unmarked storage unit in Canton, Domenic Romeo reads shipping information on his sticker-filled laptop as a heavily distorted guitar bellows from the speakers.
Surrounded by hundreds of vinyl records, band T-shirts and other eye-catching ephemera, the 38-year-old owner of A389 Recordings — Romeo's Baltimore-based independent record label specializing in the darkest and heaviest of hardcore and metal — is in his element. He stuffs another padded manila envelope with merchandise before double-checking a packing slip.
“Who are your top five bands?” Romeo, wearing a tour T-shirt of his all-time favorite band, Kiss, asks a reporter. “We don't judge here,” he says with a smirk, before ribbing an employee nicknamed “Superior Alex” for his love of Bruce Springsteen.
Even as a husband and father of three, an engineering assistant by day and a retired musician, Romeo remains the same music-obsessed fan who fell in love with metal, through watching horror movies, while growing up in Toronto. His unwavering passion speaks to the success of A389, which has released more than 150 records and celebrates its 11th anniversary this weekend with shows at the Sidebar, Metro Gallery and Charm City Art Space.
Romeo moved to Baltimore in 2001 to fill in as a touring guitarist for the hardcore band Comin Correct, and eventually liked the city enough to stay. Baltimore quickly inspired Romeo in significant ways. He started the band Slumlords with coworkers at his first job with a property preservation company. (The “A389” comes from the type of lock they placed on houses after winterization preparation.)
The label that would become Romeo's life's work was born a few years later, after he felt the need to support local hardcore lifers in a band called Bring It On.
“They were a bunch of old Baltimore dudes who didn't get to travel because they had families or jobs,” Romeo said last week in-between sips of hot chocolate in a Towson bookstore. “But the record was savage. I took them under my wing and it went from there.”
Since then, Romeo has released records, almost exclusively on vinyl, at a pace that suggests A389 is larger than its mostly one-man-show reality. Romeo has a small cast of volunteers who help on Sundays, and he finally hired his first employee last year. Still, A389 — which ships orders worldwide, including to Japan, Indonesia and Russia — begins and ends with Romeo, which is how he prefers it. Typically in his car, he listens to every submitted demo, usually a couple dozen per week, and does his best to respond to every act. They know a stamp of approval from A389 means instant credibility and authenticity in a scene with no shortage of aspiring bands.
With more than a decade of experience as a respected tastemaker and label head, Romeo said the formula for finding the next A389 release is unchanged.
“I'm always going to make the decisions because I don't think anyone can decide what's going to be an A389 release except me. There's a certain magic to it,” he said. “I just have to listen to it and within 10 seconds, I just know. ... The high from it is unbeatable.”
He is not guided by potential sales (A389 only presses between 500 and 5,000 copies of each release), flavor-of-the-month bands or youth culture. Instead, Romeo runs A389 like a fan, which explains why his most cherished releases are by “bucket-list bands” he has loved for years: Integrity, Gehenna, EYEHATEGOD and the Black Dahlia Murder.
“They reminded me of when I was 16, going out and doing it,” said Romeo, who also played guitar in the band Pulling Teeth. “The satisfaction of watching a band grow from nothing to completely dominating what they do — it's been a wild ride.”
Last Sunday, before arriving at the storage unit for a full day's work, Romeo posted a photo online of his three young children on his lap. With the black hood of his sweatshirt up, Romeo grins for the shot. “Apologies #A389 HQ ... I'm running a little late this morning” reads the caption.
Family is Romeo's main priority now, which partly explains his plans to slow down and only release nine records in 2015. He loves fatherhood and introducing new music to his kids.
“We'll listen to Cannibal Corpse and then we'll listen to the Village People,” he said.
There is no doubt, though, that A389 remains a vital aspect of his life. It's why Romeo, who now lives in Carney, estimates he still spends 50 hours per week working on the label — filling orders, listening to demos, promoting releases and other unglamorous tasks — in addition to his Monday to Friday day job. “I just dive into it and give it my all,” Romeo said. “When it's time to clock out, I hang out with my kids and put them to bed. When I clock out from that, it's back to business.”