When I announced that I was writing this book, I was immediately asked several times if Albini would be providing a cover blurb. The question was posed partially seriously and partially sarcastically, with the ratio dependent on the questioner.
By Bruce Adams
The following is an excerpt from You’re with Stupid: kranky, Chicago, and the Reinvention of Indie Music by Bruce Adams, published by the University of Texas Press as part of their American Music Series.
The poster at Jim’s Grill told a small part of the tale. It showed Smashing Pumpkins posed at the back of their van, equipment stacked up, with “ON TOUR NOW” emblazoned at the bottom. A white rectangle extends across the bottom of the poster, a standard design element that allowed local promoters to fill in show details. The quartet was doing their roadwork, “getting in the van,” to paraphrase the book by Black Flag’s Henry Rollins. Smashing Pumpkins played the same venues as ostensibly “cooler” bands did. They played for free at the tiny Blackout Records store. Their mix of ’70s arena rock gestures and bubblegum pop was no more or less legit than that peddled at the time by other bands. Why then was animosity directed toward the band? It grew as the Pumpkins’ trajectory upward became more and more apparent.
Was it because Billy Corgan was reputed to be “difficult”? He didn’t bother to hide his ambitions, or his artistic control over the band and what he later called an “attack posture.” Smashing Pumpkins were quickly taken on as management clients by Joe Shanahan, owner of the Cabaret Metro club—the venue every band wanted to play. Choice bookings at the club followed. One example was opening for English punk rock legends the Buzzcocks in November 1989, a highly coveted gig. When I was working at Touch & Go, the Minneapolis trio Arcwelder opened for a Smashing Pumpkins show at Metro and were eager to display and mock a list of requests from Corgan posted on the door of the band rooms backstage that began with an entreaty for silence in the dressing rooms before Smashing Pumpkins played. It was a demanding and controlling list, but Arcwelder did accept Corgan’s invitation to open the show. Their house, their rules. Was the source of the hostility that Smashing Pumpkins avoided the gatekeepers? In fact, they jumped the gate altogether, scoring
a Sub Pop single and then signing with the quasi-indie Caroline Records and positioning themselves to move up to major label status. There was no lip service offered to any independent ethos, no mea culpas for arena ambitions.
Say what you want about the music or Corgan as a person, Smashing Pumpkins presented their fans with carefully considered branding and packaging that obviously reflected Corgan’s interests and aesthetics. The debut album was well titled, as Gish after the 1920s movie star Lillian Gish, which evidenced Corgan’s interest in silent film. Expressionism, chiaroscuro,
melancholia, and large-scale gestures, all characteristics of the medium, were parts of Smashing Pumpkins’ music and performance. As the years passed and the band’s success justified more elaborate packaging and presentation, Billy Corgan was able to indulge his tastes. The video for “Tonight, Tonight” in 1996 even included a nod to Georges Melies’s 1902 film A Trip to the Moon. In 2017 Corgan would create a silent film of his own called Pillbox to accompany a solo album.
In 1992 drummer Todd Trainer and guitarist Steve Albini begin playing together in the band that came to be called Shellac. When I announced that I was writing this book, I was immediately asked several times if Albini would be providing a cover blurb. The question was posed partially seriously and partially sarcastically, with the ratio dependent on the questioner. Such is Albini’s place on the indie rock totem pole as a musician, producer, and commentator. From the time his group Big Black emerged and Albini wrote for the influential Forced Exposure and Matter fanzines, the guy has been a prominent, influential,
and, at least in earlier times, acerbically unfiltered voice. Written selections like “Three Pandering Sluts and Their Music-Press Stooge” and “The Problem with Music” top his Greatest Hits. Add the prominence Big Black gained, followed by the brief, justifiably controversial life of the regrettably named Rapeman trio and the now long-lived Shellac to the credibility stakes Albini brings to the table. Top it off with his production work for
groups like Pixies, Palace Brothers, Slint, and Nirvana, at first in his own home and beginning in 1995 at Electrical Audio studios, and the chips are stacked pretty high. For a lot of people
interested in underground rock, Steve Albini ably defended the values of economic and artistic independence, as in the “Pandering Sluts” letter to a music critic: “Out here in the world, we have to pay for our records, and we get taken advantage of by the music industry, using stooges like you to manipulate us. We harbor a notion of music as a thing of value, and methodology as an equal, if not supreme component of an artist’s aesthetic.”
In late 1993, Albini wrote an article published in Chicago’s Baffler magazine. The subtitle of “The Problem with Music” essay, “Some of Your Friends Are This Fucked,” rang true to many readers.
But the wide-bore rhetorical shotgun Albini took to the issue was problematic. Referring to Liz Phair as one of three pandering sluts was untoward, to say the least, and contributed in a small way to the prurient interest some male fans and writers took toward her. The “no way but the indie way” presented a false choice to many musicians whose bands were not going to get the opportunity to work with Touch & Go or Thrill Jockey or Drag City. Sound engineer and Liz Phair guitarist Casey Rice puts it simply: “It was like ‘Satan has come to Chicago.’ And
you’re in league with Satan if you entertain the idea of a major label deal. It could be personal. Being in studio and seeing a lot of the bands that were involved in that stuff, they were kind of closed out of the clique of cool music. People were mean to me because I worked in a studio.”
There was, as Lisa Bralts-Kelly accurately puts it, “posturing on all sides.” Joel Leoschke and I found the financial figures that Albini broke down in his Baffler article to be dead on. We had seen how, even at the indie level where we worked, promotional budgets were excessive and designed more to inflate labels’ and bands’ self-images than to efficiently promote music. These observations were being integrated into our own plans for a label. Recording and touring budgets were often inflated, as Albini ably demonstrated. Being pretty cynical guys ourselves, we observed that Albini took on major-label recording projects and benefited from the system he criticized. To his credit, Albini did not take “points” or percentage of royalties, a particularly parasitic practice among many producers. Steve Albini stated his fees up front and took on clients from all sources accordingly, while specifying that his services were strictly those of a recording engineer and not those of a “producer,” manipulating and guiding bands’ musical directions through the recording process.
One prominent target of Albini’s ire was Urge Overkill. Given my personal experiences at Touch & Go working with the trio, in 1994 I found Albini’s acidic attitude toward the band to be a day late and dollar short. A well-timed “those medallions make you look silly” around 1991 could have saved everyone a lot of grief. Who knows, maybe he tried. By 1994 Urge Overkill were probably beyond shaming and were receiving plenty of positive reinforcement for their velvet-jacketed schtick. They received plenty of press and MTV play, and toured across the country.
There were some bands working on the fringes of the scene who were less interested in the guitar-centric template that dominated Chicago. Sometime in 1991 I witnessed an in-store performance by a five-piece band called Shrimp Boat at the new Tower Records megastore in Chicago. The quartet explored non-rock time signatures and jazzy song structures, and played multiple instruments with a light touch that was idiosyncratic without wallowing in self-indulgent artiness. The band was honed via a residency at Phyllis’s Musical Inn in Wicker Park, playing mostly to School of the Art Institute of Chicago students. Brad Wood
joined the band in 1989, after recording the Speckly album at Idful Studio: “I was tired of uber-pro musicianship. Shrimp Boat was a band of musicians who couldn’t play (yet) and who did not give a damn. Expression was their main goal. We played some epic, long sets that defied what a night of ‘rock’ music was supposed to be. I enjoyed playing ten-minute-long versions of our songs. If the audience was dancing and sweating, we would keep playing and let Ian (Schneller) and Sam (Prekop) unwind a bit on guitars.”
At the Kansas City Art Institute in Missouri, four seniors in a quartet called the Coctails were pondering their next move. Mark Greenberg remembers, “We decided to self-release an LP
of the songs we had made together. It seemed weird to put out a record and walk away, so we agreed to move together to Chicago to see what we could do. Archer Prewitt had played Shrimp Boat tapes for us, and we were all excited that a band like that could exist in Chicago.” Patrick Monaghan, who was managing the Wax Trax! store at the time, visited a friend in Kansas City who took him to a show: “One of the bands played slightly jazzy garage music in beat-up thrift store tuxedos. I was confused and charmed. They were not cool, but they sure were fun and different than anything I’d run across. And they were fearless in tackling instruments that only one of them had really yet mastered. They were moving to Chicago, and (a friend) Anne had given them my number at Wax Trax! to carry their record. They used the Wax Trax! turntable to play it for Sue and Julia of Lounge Ax. When their LP came out, I gave them the front window.”
David Grubbs moved to Chicago in 1991 to attend graduate school at the University of Chicago. He had a band called Bastro that worked the noisy, razor-edged side of the street where Touch & Go bands were often found. He had started a band called Gastr del Sol. His bandmates John McEntire and Bundy Brown were playing with a new outfit in town called Tortoise. As David puts it, “The fact that I was returning to school and John and Bundy were committing more time to Tortoise made it a propitious time to reimagine the group. It seemed kind of comic to us: Gastr del Sol’s lineup on our first record, The Serpentine Similar, was the same as the final lineup of Bastro, but the m.o. had shifted: a greater use of space, the introduction of acoustic instruments, and a very different relation to singing and
Gastr del Sol would be joined by Jim O’Rourke, a native Chicagoan whose experience with tape editing, the form of avant-garde collage music called musique concrète, and connections to the world of improvisation would propel the band into wider waters and make Gastr “a group that had no fixed membership.”
Grimble Grumble began as a duo playing at workmen’s bars in the evocatively named far southside Chicago neighborhood Slag Valley, once the site of steel mills. Named after a gnome in an early Pink Floyd song, the band wore their ’60s psychedelia influences on their sleeves. The group began as the duo of Christine Garcia and Reuben Rios playing in workingmen’s bars, then eventually moved to Hyde Park, got involved at the University of Chicago radio station WHPK, and took on two more members. Drummer Michael Bullington had been in a band called Pritchard and remembers that he joined Grimble Grumble via a “very ’90s Chicago” way: “some WHPK DJs moved to Wicker Park from Hyde Park and happened to live near us. The Pritchard guitar player would practice very loudly in our apartment, and they heard him and thought, ‘That must be the guitar player from Urge Overkill,’ rang our doorbell, and asked if we’d want to play.”
Grimble Grumble, complete with a fog machine for live shows, was a band intent on playing long, exploratory songs featuring cloudlike guitar textures in the tradition of English bands like Spacemen 3, My Bloody Valentine, and the band they got their name from, Pink Floyd. As the drummer, Bullington, says, “I’d only started playing drums a few years prior . . . so I was like, ‘If you’re willing to work with me through my learning curve, I’ll be your drummer.’ Luckily, they were willing, and it came pretty quickly. In some ways, the drums would lead the
band through dynamics and a lot of the songs were open-ended, so if I kept playing, everyone else had to.”
The group befriended a Dearborn, Michigan, duo Windy & Carl after opening for them at a college rock showcase at the Metro. The groups toured together. Grimble Grumble also
found sympathetic listeners across the international underground. By 1996 they were releasing singles on English labels like Enraptured and Ochre Records, appearing on split singles, and putting out a ten-inch EP on the Dearborn-based Burnt Hair
label. Eventually their self-released debut CD was combined with other tracks by a German label. Despite operating at a geographic disadvantage from their Hyde Park base, removed from the northside clubs and record stores, Grimble Grumble were able to record at the University of Chicago and reached listeners across the Atlantic.
Bruce Adams, who has worked in the music industry since 1988, is the co-founder of kranky records, which was established in Chicago in 1993. He left kranky in 2005 and continues to work in the industry.