The South Loop was a much more likely location for an underground music and arts space in 1999, when Griffin Rodriguez first moved in. McCormick Place West didn't loom over the block, and the neighborhood wasn't enveloped in the scaffolding of what seems like dozens of concurrent construction projects. Back then the loft known today as the Shape Shoppe, 4,000 square feet in a former warehouse, was headquarters to the local Truckstop label and housed a couple recording studios—one run by the Truckstop guys and the other by saintly soundman Elliot Dicks. Rodriguez's old band Bablicon accompanied a screening of Metropolis at Truckstop in '98, and by the following year he was living there.
After the Truckstop crew moved out in 2004, the remaining residents started opening it up for more public events, and though unlicensed it became a significant venue for Chicago's underground music scene. The Shape Shoppe (Rodriguez says the name evolved from a friend's story about a suburban shave shop) hosted acts covering a major swath of the nonmainstream musical spectrum, from experimental jazz combos to the art-damaged freak ravers of Baltimore's Wham City scene. In fact it was the space's association with Wham City and its poster boy Dan Deacon that ultimately led to its demise as a venue. Last March, in a fit of enthusiasm and bad judgment, Pitchfork published the details of an otherwise secret-ish Deacon show there, alerting a couple hundred more fans than the space could hold. The neighbors—mostly artists in adjacent loft spaces but also residents of new condo developments—already had their patience worn thin by a busy week of shows at the then nearby Nihilist space, and right after Mahjongg got the show started the cops showed up. After that the Shape Shoppe closed its doors to the public.
During its live music heyday, the loft housed no more than a handful of residents at any given time, Rodriguez says, but the atmosphere was always electric. "Most people lived here six months to a year—that's how long they could handle it. The space back then was a lot more chaotic. It really made it an interesting space." Things are a lot more mellow now, he says, and the population is fairly stable—Rodriguez (who also keeps a proper home with his wife), Chris Kalis, Nick Broste, and Dylan Ryan, all dedicated musicians who play in at least six different projects, including several with one another.
Since the bust last year they've restored the space from the anarchic party pit it briefly became to something more like the bunker for workaholic music geeks it was before. "I think a lot of people know the Shape Shoppe as a venue," Kalis says, "and don't realize that it's always functioned mainly as a studio and a community space. It's not like it went back—it's always been like that."
Go past the large, airy living room/kitchen combo—the last remaining vestiges of the space's former loftiness—and you enter a warren of rooms packed with instruments and recording gear, much of which Rodriguez, a producer and engineer, purchased from Truckstop. Some rooms function as practice spaces and others as bedrooms, but with all the gear it can be hard to tell them apart. "Before I was dating my wife," says Rodriguez, who got married last fall, "I could probably be here for a week at a time."
The heart of the space is a semipro-quality studio with several tracking rooms and a control room recently outfitted with a vintage Neotek Series III mixing desk. It's birthed records by many of the bands orbiting the Shape Shoppe scene. "We wanted it so you can just go jam out in the control room and have a bunch of cool stuff happen," explains Chris Powell, also a producer and engineer. "Something about the energy and the vibe of it not being so much a recording studio as feeling like your friend's cool spot that they jam at and now you're jamming at."
"Bands like Bird Names and Killer Whales could never make a record in a real studio," Kalis explains. "They kinda need this vibe."
Other studios may have better gear, Rodriguez adds, but "those are the kind of studios where people get freaked out at because you can just feel that money. Money and music sometimes don't mix so well." Rodriguez wouldn't specify rates but said the goal is to keep them reasonable: "Most of the music we want to make is by people who don't have a lot of money yet. We want to be able to make those records more than anything else."
One of the most recent Shape Shoppe creations is Miami Ice, the latest full-length from Icy Demons, a deliberately weird reimagining of hip-hop as jazz-funk party music. It's not the first Icy Demons release to be recorded at the Shape Shoppe studio—band members include Rodriguez, Kalis, and Powell after all—but it is the first to be released on Obey Your Brain, the label Rodriguez launched last year with Powell and currently operates with Kalis. (Powell, who's based in Philadelphia, is expected to take a more active role once things slow down with his other band, Man Man.) Rodriguez says a few disappointing experiences with other labels—"either people who were friends of ours and definitely meant well... or people who just totally blew it"—pushed them to "fully go for it."
By the end of the spring OYB will release a limited Man Man 7" followed in the summer by Miami Ice and the U.S. version of an album by the art-funk outfit Chandeliers—in which Kalis plays bass and keys—that's currently only available in the UK. In the fall there'll be something with Zach Condon, ringleader of the indie-Gypsy collective Beirut, then a record by Tennessee rapper Count Bass D. "The whole thing here has always been musically diverse," explains Rodriguez, "and I want the label to reflect that."
The Obey Your Brain Jump Off!, a fund-raiser for the Shape Shoppe that doubles as a premature release party for Miami Ice, which drops July 15, is planned for this Friday at the Hideout, where Nick Broste can regularly be found working the door. In typical Shape Shoppe fashion, the lineup has sort of a clubhouse feel—along with Icy Demons, it features loft regulars the Killer Whales and Philly's Buffalo Stance. "We're trying to keep the same vibe," says Kalis, "but at another venue. Same people, same bands."
The acts "seem very disparate," says Rodriguez, "but together they make sense. Everybody's really different and everybody comes from really different backgrounds but we're all unified by this similar aesthetic that you can't put a finger on. There's a certain energy behind it all, a feeling of this attitude of, I don't know, the Shape Shoppe sound."v
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