Melissa Geils isn't someone a casual music fan would recognize, but to many of the people immersed in the Chicago punk and garage scene—the ones who play in bands or go to three shows a week—she's not just a fixture but a pillar. She's filled lots of different niches in the community, excepting the obvious one of playing in a band. Over the past decade she's DJed at a ridiculous number of dance parties and shows. In the early 2000s she interned at Choke Distribution, and later in the aughts she wrote music reviews for Punk Planet and Venus. And for 12 years she's worked at Lincoln Square record store Laurie's Planet of Sound, where she's now a manager. One thing she hasn't done is run a label—but that's about to change, as Geils and two friends launch BLVD Records together over the next few weeks. Pronounced "boulevard," the label's name pays tribute to the thoroughfares of Logan Square, where they're all neighbors.
"I've been going to shows ever since I discovered the Chicago punk scene when I was like 15," says Geils, who's now 33. "Ever since then I've been an avid Fireside Bowl supporter. I guess that's how it started—my obsession with bands, especially local stuff, and the punk community and all that." She grew up in suburban Buffalo Grove and moved to the city at age 19, and she says she quickly went from an "audience bystander type" to an active champion of Chicago music, albeit "in a behind-the-scenes, helping-out sort of way." She used her job at Laurie's to recommend local bands to record shoppers, and she used her connections in the scene to help get releases from more local labels and artists into the store.
Geils describes herself as anxious, but that's not the first thing anyone would notice: she's personable and down-to-earth, with a disarmingly no-bullshit demeanor. That character, combined with her expertly tuned ear, helps explain how she ended up with a record label despite a modest level of personal ambition—it's easy to think of BLVD as an inevitable outgrowth of the mutual trust and affection between Geils and the Chicago garage-punk scene. Alex White, a regular on that scene with the bands White Mystery and Hot Machines, certainly sees it that way. "If anyone's going to start a label in town, it should be her," White says. "Since Melissa's been such a part of this music getting made, it's pretty exciting that she's going to be part of releasing it. She's a total Chicago homegirl."
A record label is something Geils has been thinking about for a long time. "Probably for the past ten years," she says. "I never really had extra money and stuff like that." The impetus to finally do it came from her roommate Nick Myers, who also works with her at Laurie's: last year his band Vee Dee finished their self-titled third album and couldn't find anyone to release it. "I was just kinda like, 'Fuck it. I'll put your record out somehow,'" she says.
Geils took the idea to Eric Marsh, a filmmaker who works in the College of Computing and Digital Media at DePaul. She'd discussed starting a label with him several years prior, when they both regularly DJed at Club Foot, and he'd been saving money with an eye toward eventually funding some project or other. When BLVD presented itself, those savings became its seed money; Geils calls him the "business/taking-care-of-crap guy," and he handles the label's dealings with pressing plants and mastering services, among other things. The two of them brought in Alex Foucre-Stimes, a graphic designer and animator, to be the "label art/design/Web guy." Everyone contributes to BLVD financially, and their goal is to bear equal shares of the burden, once they figure out what everything costs—Geils is in charge of shipping, distribution, and promotion, but because none of that has happened yet the accounting is a bit speculative.
BLVD is strictly doing vinyl and digital downloads, and last week the jackets for Vee Dee came in. It'll hit shelves in Chicago and beyond as soon as the actual LPs arrive, probably in early February. For now the label's digital editions can only be had via download codes packaged with the records, but it plans to eventually offer stand-alone digital releases.
The Vee Dee album represents what Geils calls one "leg" of the label's operations: "promoting music that we love by people that we like." It filters muscular riffs and chunky barre-chord garage-rock progressions through wild psychedelia, leaning heavily on wah-wah pedals and tape echo. The label's other leg is reissues: "stuff we think is cool that never really got out to the world," as Geils puts it. The first, also due next month, is a vinyl pressing of Astrobrite's 2001 collection Crush. Astrobrite began in the mid-90s as the solo project of guitarist Scott Cortez, who in 1991 had cofounded the cultishly adored shoegaze outfit Lovesliescrushing in East Lansing. He moved to Chicago about ten years ago and befriended Geils, who calls him "the shoegaze guy in the 90s in America that nobody really knows." She hopes to rerelease Astrobrite's entire discography, which has never been pressed on vinyl. She'd also like to reissue some vintage Chicago punk, like Joe Losurdo's label Regressive Records has been, but she's still figuring out what sort of red tape she'd have to struggle with to do that.
There's definitely an audience for chunky, heavy psych rock, and shoegaze has seen a resurgence in the past few years—but neither is exactly a big-money proposition. BLVD is starting with 500 copies each of the Vee Dee and Astrobrite LPs, and plans to press more if people keep buying them. The label's three principals see it as a labor of love, not a potential profit machine. "It's stressful in this day and age to start a record label," Geils says. "I haven't been telling anyone about it until recently, because it was stressing me out just talking about it." Since word got out, though, she's had no shortage of bands asking her to release their records. She prefers not to identify them until she's in a better position to plan ahead, but one thing she can say for sure is that BLVD will focus, at least loosely, on Chicago-based artists.
"I don't really care if people hate everything we put out," she says. "It's stuff I love. That's all that really matters. We're just huge fucking fans. We just wanna put that stuff out there as much as we can."
Though Geils sometimes seems to have boundless enthusiasm for the local scene, she has her limits. The hours she puts in bartending at Late Bar probably don't help. "I do get burned out," she says. "This sounds so tacky, but as I get older it gets harder to stay active in the community. I've had those days when I'm like, 'All these people are snobs, I hate everything,' you know? But music's just been such a huge part of my life. The independent music scene in Chicago has been such a huge force in my life. It's completely molded me as an adult. I don't even know where I'd be without it. There's this little part of me that just wants to give back in a way that's a little more productive than going to shows and playing records."
BLVD Records promises to be plenty productive, but Geils can't rule out giving back to the scene as a musician too. Though she doesn't play an instrument yet, that's less of an impediment in punk than almost anywhere else. "A couple of girlfriends of mine a few weeks ago were talking about starting a riot-grrrl band," she says. "Maybe one day a band will happen."
"We'll see," she adds. "I'm a little busy."