Boxmedia's Balancing Act
One night in December, Brent Gutzeit came home to his east Ukrainian Village apartment to find a window broken and his stereo and his backpack missing. The sound system, which included a pricey digital audio tape player, was a bummer, but the bag was a devastating loss: Gutzeit is a musician who also runs the fledgling improv and experimental label Boxmedia, and tucked away inside his pack were original artwork for several of the imprint's releases and a pair of Minidisc players--one of which still held the master copy of an album he had recently finished for the Japanese label Meme. Distraught, he split for Michigan, where he spent the holidays with family, and upon returning learned that the CD jackets for four more Boxmedia releases had been destroyed in a fire at the die cutter's.
"I've been hitting all of these walls, but whatever, I can still get by," Gutzeit says, sitting amid piles of records, tapes, and CDs in the cramped Wicker Park one-bedroom to which he recently relocated. "It'll just take a little longer."
He's got inertia on his side: since graduating from Kalamazoo's Western Michigan University in 1994 with a bachelor's in sculpture, Gutzeit's been moving at the speed of sound. In August of that year he headed for Nagoya, Japan, to study with renowned ceramicist Ryoji Koie on a two-week scholarship. But he had ulterior motives: while in school he'd discovered Japanese noise bands like the Boredoms, Ruins, and Ground Zero, and he wanted to infiltrate their world.
When he finished with Koie, Gutzeit hopped a train to Tokyo, where a former classmate had an apartment. He survived on a diet of bread and rice for a month, until he landed a job in a bar that catered to Americans. Michael Hartman, who'd played with Gutzeit in a drone project called Liminal back in Michigan, soon joined him, teaching English to get by, and the two shared a one-room apartment. Using a combination of instruments--they've been known to include electric koto, drums, and a 20-string steel "bass"--and electronics, they started playing what Gutzeit calls "junk noise" under the name TV Pow.
Gutzeit returned to the States the following February with an address book full of solid contacts, including guitarist Taku Sugimoto and turntable artist Otomo Yoshihide. Over the next two years he split time between Chicago, where years earlier he had met Thymme Jones of Cheer-Accident, Ken Vandermark, and former Flying Luttenbachers guitarist Dylan Posa; his hometown, Davison, near Flint, Michigan; and Kalamazoo. He worked at Reckless Records and Whole Foods here and spent a week as a janitor in Flint: "I got a job at Coca-Cola, cleaning the floors on the third shift. I was there for a week before I failed the drug test," he claims.
Hartman came home too, and TV Pow--which now included former Liminal bandmate Todd Carter--managed to play regularly, and Gutzeit became involved in the improv scene that revolved around Myopic Books. In early 1997, he and Hartman spent another three months in Japan, where TV Pow played 13 dates and Hartman presented a two-night festival in Tokyo, featuring acts like Merzbow, C.C.C.C., and Melt-Banana. But by the end of the year Gutzeit was back in Chicago, close to broke and working at Reckless again.
He also took on a part-time job at a wood shop, and that's where he met Bill Groot, who about a year ago became the silent partner and financier of Boxmedia. Like a number of brave souls before him--including Eighth Day Music's Adam Vales, whose failures were detailed in this column last year--Gutzeit was eager to bring the work of local improvisers and experimentalists to a larger audience. Last year the label put out a TV Pow album, a CD split between tabletop guitarist Kevin Drumm and Sugimoto, a double CD by pianist Jim Baker and percussionist Michael Zerang that was originally made for Eighth Day, and the first album by the minimalist quartet Town and Country (which has since gone over to Thrill Jockey). Initially Gutzeit played it conservative, pressing only 250 copies of each release. Then, in July, the Michigan plant that manufactured the CDs raised its minimum run to 1,000. But so far so good: the first title affected by the change, Town and Country, has nearly sold out.
In the next few weeks Boxmedia will release the debut CD of the improv quartet Pillow; 35 Grapes (19 Shown), a duet recording by Zerang and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm; and The Improvisation Meeting in Chicago, a collection recorded around town last spring featuring several Japanese artists and a raft of talented locals. Also in the works are a recording by jazz saxophonist David Boykin and a two-CD international noise compilation--one disc of loud stuff and one of quiet selections by the same artists--featuring the Swiss duo Voice Crack, Austrian sound artist Pita, and Yoshihide.
Gutzeit also plans to rerecord his stolen album for Meme, and next month the local Kranky label will release Mosquito Dream, his two-year-long collaboration-by-mail with ambient guitarist James Plotkin, whom he met at a Jim O'Rourke gig in Tokyo. He now has a full-time job, running a wood and thin-metal shop for the Art and Design department at Columbia College, and a few weeks ago he began programming Monday nights at Roby's. This week he's booked Boykin's Outet, and starting on February 22, Lonberg-Holm will conduct his Lightbox Orchestra experiment there on the last Monday of each month. Friday at Lounge Ax, TV Pow, Boykin's group, Town and Country, and the trio of Zerang, Baker, and Lonberg-Holm perform in a Boxmedia showcase.
Phil Bonnet, a longtime local recording engineer, was found dead in his car by Chicago police early Tuesday morning. At press time no autopsy had been performed, but he is thought to have suffered an aneurysm. Bonnet, who was 38, played guitar in Cheer-Accident and had recorded everyone from the New Duncan Imperials to Jim O'Rourke. He was respected by many for his generosity toward struggling bands.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Brent Gutzeit photo by Brat Miller/ painting by Erik Gustafson.