Virginia is for music lovers, and Warren Parker, owner of WarHen Records embodies that perfectly, as a Virginia native, with his roots firmly planted into the grounds in Charlottesville, Virginia. We met up at La Michoacana Taqueria in Charlottesville, a favorite of his, to chat about what Charlottesville has to offer the music community at home and abroad. A sticker he placed on a gutter at least three years ago is still visible, and Parker joked that La Michoacana is the “official” restaurant of WarHen Records.
Six years ago, WarHen Records was born when Parker and Mike Hennigar got together as business partners. The two didn't put much thought into the label’s name, leading most people to believe it was a sort of play on their names. Even after Hennigar left, Parker continued to release well...whatever he wanted.
Parker was a music lover even before WarHen got its start. Growing up as an only child helped shape him as a person. Without music, he'd be a "shell" of a person. He just wouldn't be anything. Music has always been there for him, and it’s something he always found himself curious about.
“It evokes so much emotion; pain, loneliness, joy. Everything,” he said. “There’s nothing else in my world that can make me feel all the things that music does. I think maybe if I tapped into that at a young age, and came to the conclusion of “Why would I deny something like that? Why would anybody?” This is what is working for me, so I’m just gonna run with it.”
In his younger days, Parker worked as a college radio DJ at Guilford College. Seven of his eight semesters were spent getting involved with college radio, and he grew to love it. “The more I think about that, that kind of played a role in all of this, just because I love the act of broadcasting. Having a playlist or thoughts or whatever it is on what I find interesting, or that moved me, and being able to share that with other people. I think that is the same path as putting a record out. Sort of sharing something that you’re a part of, or you’re interested in, or something that moves you.”
He felt comfortable behind the scenes, working shows at Charlottesville's esteemed Jefferson Theater. "Getting to be behind the curtain and doing it from the inside, was really appealing to me," he said. He has a deep history of working at the Jefferson as well, going back to 2009, when he was hired as the production manager. He spent seven years there, calling it “a tremendous experience,” and one of the highlights of his professional and personal life.
His love of working behind the scenes blossomed in college. He worked at a venue in Cape Cod, Massachusetts in the summer. “That’s sort of where I started that whole chapter of my life; kind of seeing how a show was put together, versus just buying a ticket and going. That really interested me. There’s some blurred lines between how a show gets put together, and how a record is constructed too.”
In Virginia, Parker noted that there’s a lot of talent he wants to see showcased. He feels at home in the Blue Ridge. Virginia is a special place for music lovers. He said that there’s a tie that brings everything together, because it’s such a vibrant state, in this “weirdo pocket” in the country. To the north, heavy hitters in punk music got their start. Moving down towards the southwest, country music has deep roots.
“It flows through the state really well, and there’s a lot of people who just feed off of energy from different areas. I think there’s also some sort of cosmic energy that comes with a state that has both the beach and mountains. You can see a lot all at once if you just take the time to really pay attention. I think Virginia just has a lot to offer. Both geographically, but creatively too. It’s this weird, in-between state where it’s the South, but it’s a ‘Northern’ Southern state.”
When it came time to start releasing records, Parker said “yes” a lot when approached by people. “A lot of them are friends,” he said. “I have a lot of friends in bands, and they’re talented. It’s a fun way to help them get their music out there, and be involved and do things with them.”
Some of WarHen’s releases are by nationally known artists, like King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. Others are Commonwealth born and bred artists, like Dogwood Tales, who will be releasing a new LP through WarHen, and Saw Black, an established WarHen artist. When asked why he wanted to release “Polygondwanaland,” Parker was excited, not because they’re a prolific band, or because he likes them a lot.
“I think that the music is cool, and a little all over the map, so you can’t pigeonhole them. That record was interesting! Releasing it as public domain is gutsy. I don’t ever recall that being done before. That was really fresh as well, just seeing a different method of putting a record out. More than anything, I saw it as a call to arms. Like okay, here is this gift. Let’s see what you’ve got. I thought that was a really special thing that they did. Part of me was excited about it, because they’re a bigger band, and I knew it would probably sell some records. At the same time, I was inspired by them just being open to doing that.”
He also thought the release was a neat way to showcase other creative aspects of WarHen that go beyond the music, because “it’s not always just about the music.” Now, he likes to pay a little more attention to who, why and when he releases things. These days, he’s less of a “yes man,” and not “putting stuff out with reckless abandon.” Ultimately, he wants the band to have the final say on everything.
“There’s so much incredible stuff out there, and a lot of times the music that hits me the hardest, on the level of artists I’m working with, they’re not really gonna be getting...I feel like some of them might not have as much of a chance. It’s nice to give people a ‘home.’ That’s the point I’m trying to make. It’s fun to curate a roster and to give artists a place where they can feel like they get the best bang for their buck, and they can put out their music in the fashion that they want. It’s all meant to be shared, and meant to be heard by others. If I can provide a platform and a space and a reputation for doing that, then I think that I’ve succeeded, regardless of whether I’ve made any money. I don’t make any money. But it’s never really been about the paycheck for me. It’s always been about the art and the music first.”
Over the past six years, every single piece of music that WarHen has released has had an impact on Warren Parker’s life. Really positive impacts, at that. He wants people to take a chance and listen, while spreading the word.
“It gives me inspiration regularly. I think there’s always something to be said about that. Roll the dice, and give something a listen. I think everything I’ve had my finger on...these people have something to say and I like what they have to say. And I want to celebrate what they have to say. I want to share what they have to say with everyone else. If you like what you hear, tell a friend.”