It was when Louis Posen started going blind that he first saw the value of philanthropy. The L.A. punk scenester had grown up a fixture in local clubs like the Palladium and the Whisky, catching shows by the likes of X and Black Flag. But by the time he turned 19, Posen got news that would change his life.
"I was diagnosed with a retinal degenerative eye disease which doesn't have a treatment or a cure, and so my family got involved in the foundation fighting blindness," he recalls. "It sort of led me over the years, as my eyesight has decreased, to realize that I should be grateful for the things that I do have, that I do have control over, and try to help out those who aren't in such a good situation."
Posen began by founding Hopeless Records in 1993, after reading a book called How to Run an Independent Record Label. He fashioned a 10-foot-by-10-foot office in Van Nuys, a suburb north of L.A. Hopeless's first release was the seven-inch single "11 Oz." by the melodic punk band Guttermouth. Six years later, Hopeless was prospering, thanks to underground favorites like the Dillinger Four and Against All Authority. By 1999, Posen started Sub City Records, a charitable division of Hopeless, which donates funds to such nonprofit organizations as the Women's Justice Center and the Multiple Sclerosis Service Society. That year, he also launched the Take Action Tour, a punk-rock and hardcore bill that raises money for the National Hopeline, a suicide-prevention hotline (its number is 800-SUICIDE). In its first four years, Take Action has featured artists ranging from raunchy rock gals the Donnas to agit-prop Swedes the International Noise Conspiracy. Combined with proceeds from a compilation CD released each year in conjunction with the tour, Take Action has made more than $300,000 for the Hopeline.
This year, the tour boasts its best lineup yet, headlined by Poison the Well, one of the first breakout metalcore bands. The group's most recent LP, the stellar, staccato You Come Before You, debuted in the top 100 of the Billboard album chart in July.
"I think it's absolutely one of the most important causes to support today," Poison the Well guitarist Ryan Primack says of the Hopeline. "It would be really, really cynical and complacent of us to not think that we could do something to help each other.
"We're definitely not the kind of people who would ever try and push our thoughts or our ideals on anybody. It's just more about presenting people with information: 'Here's something that we think matters. You should check it out.' If you don't want to check it out, awesome. If you do take the time to check it out, awesome -- it's right over there. It's really important for people to make their own opinions."
Of course, the hardcore scene often confuses sermonizing with social awareness; when it comes to societal ills, there aren't many worse than a tattooed Oral Roberts lecturing a rock-club crowd. Thankfully, the Take Action Tour is pretty much devoid of proselytizing. There's a message available, but it's mostly confined to the information booths and petitions that circulate in the lobby.
And while all of Take Action's bands support the cause, economics also plays a role in who signs on. "We were just aching to get out on the road. They approached us, and it was a no-brainer," says Ben Wienman, guitarist for the New Jersey hardcore virtuosos Dillinger Escape Plan. "We're excited that some of the proceeds are going to people who really need the help -- and that's it," Wienman says. "The reality is, every band is getting paid, the remainder of the money is going to a good cause, and everybody's happy. Hopefully, something that's an awesome outlet for me and gets me through hard times will result in some kind of funding to go towards a cause that will help other people. We're not going to sit and pretend that we're doing this for the kids or we're doing this for anybody but ourselves. We're going to go up there, we're going to get out of it what we get out of it, and anyone else can get out of it what they want."
For most in the audience, that primarily means a kick-ass show. Seeing the Dillinger Escape Plan live is like wrestling with an octopus: The band's cerebral poly-thrash comes from so many directions, it's hard to know whether to bang your head or scratch it. It's joined by Poison the Well, which spent the summer knocking the Warped Tour on its heels with a textured blend of rough-hewn melody and scabrous riffs with art-rock underpinnings. The fast-rising emo outfit Further Seems Forever plays tensile, guitar-driven rock that brings to mind the impassioned charge of At the Drive-In. The bruising metalcore of road warriors Shai Hulud and 18 Visions is tight as a clenched fist. It all should make for a night of hardcore fireworks.
"It's not supposed to be like going to school," Posen says with a laugh. "It's supposed to be fun: hanging out and having a good time with friends, listening to music you love, and combining that with learning something important that could change your life."