When most sailors are at sea, they look forward to care packages sent from home, but Doug Lefrak admits that while he was aboard the USS Nimitz, an aircraft carrier that patrolled the waters near Taiwan in 1995, he was most excited about the arrival of his subscription to Billboard. Lefrak had booked bands for the campus activities board at Northwestern University, which he attended on a ROTC scholarship, and he knew he wanted to work in the music business when he got out. Toward the end of his stint in the navy, while he was stationed in Seattle, he and Thaddeus Rudd--a college friend who'd moved back to Chicago after working for Virgin in LA--started their own label, Sugar Free, which put out four records almost immediately. Late in the summer of 1997, Rudd told him that Schubas Tavern needed a talent buyer, and in October Lefrak moved to Chicago to take the job.
During his three years at the club, he's subtly but significantly changed the complexion of the schedule. His predecessor, Anastasia Davies, had carved out a niche for the venue as Chicago's premier intimate space for traditional roots music and alt-country and a proving ground for mainstream roots rock--she gave future chart topper Dave Matthews his first Chicago show. Lefrak managed to maintain that reputation while squeezing in popular indie-rock acts like Modest Mouse and Elf Power and even avant-garde jazz players like Brad Shepik.
But at the end of this month, Lefrak is leaving--turning over his post to his assistant, Matt Rucins--to tackle another facet of the music industry: artist management. Since late last year he and Rudd, working together as Feisty Management, have been handling the popular suburban band Lucky Boys Confusion, and with the band's major-label debut due on Elektra in the spring, he needed to devote more time to it than he could find while still working at Schubas. "There's not much more I can do for Schubas beside doing what I've already been doing," says Lefrak, 29. "To continue growing on a more personal level I need to make the leap."
The young band, which plays a simplistic, extremely commercial amalgam of pop, punk, hip-hop, and ska, had developed a grassroots following by setting up its own gigs at VFW halls, churches, and YMCAs. Lefrak received a demo from them in the summer of 1998. He knew the group would be a bad fit for either Schubas or Sugar Free (which also leans toward alt-country and indie pop), but the tape nonetheless made a strong impression. "It blew me away," he says. "Neither [Thaddeus nor I] were in any way ready for full-time management, and we never even approached the subject." Instead, they simply gave the band advice--on booking gigs, on recording, on putting out records. Lucky Boys Confusion released their first CD, Growing Out of It, on their own label early last year; they've since sold more than 4,000 copies. "Over time we developed a relationship," says Lefrak. "There was a certain level of trust there beyond just helping each other out, and they eventually asked us to manage the band."
Not long after Rudd and Lefrak agreed to manage the band, Lucky Boys Confusion's tune "Dumb Pop Song" was included on a Q101 local band compilation; in late January the song went into heavy rotation on the station. (It's also included on the group's follow-up EP, The Soapbox Spectacle, released in March.) They sold out a string of five shows at the House of Blues and Metro, causing the major labels to take notice, and by summer's end they had signed to Elektra. They spent the fall in LA recording their next album with producer Howard Benson, who'd recently overseen high-gloss product like Zebrahead's Playmate of the Year, P.O.D.'s Fundamental Elements of Southtown, and Buck-o-Nine's Libido. On January 13 at Metro, they'll play their first local gig since September.
Lucky Boys Confusion is Feisty's only client now, but Lefrak doesn't discount the possibility of adding more acts to the roster in the future. Meanwhile, day-to-day operations for Sugar Free have fallen to Jo Lenardi, a former bigwig in Warner Brothers' alternative department who now lives in Norman, Oklahoma; Lefrak says the label, which has released more than 20 albums by ten bands, expects new albums from Wheat and Busy Signals in the coming year.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Kamba.