- Jiayue Yu
- International Anthem founders David Allen and Scott McNiece at the label’s offices in Bridgeport’s Co-Prosperity Sphere
Just about everything Scott McNiece has put his heart into since high school has revolved around music: playing in bands, organizing shows, putting out records. Like most people with such obsessions, he's had to work straight jobs to pay the bills. In 2010 he became a food runner at Gilt Bar, the first business in the sprawling Hogsalt Hospitality empire built by restaurateur Brendan Sodikoff—and after learning that McNiece was a musician, Sodikoff asked for advice about the music piped into the restaurant. For fun, McNiece began creating digital playlists for Gilt Bar. As Sodikoff opened other spots over the next couple years—including Maude's Liquor Bar, Au Cheval, and Bavette's—McNiece added playlists for them, and what began as a hobby turned into a job. With Hogsalt as his first client, he launched Uncanned Music in 2012, a full-time business that supplies background soundtracks to a growing list of local bars and restaurants.
It wasn't the first time McNiece had seized an unlooked-for chance rather than pursuing a plan, and it wouldn't be the last. Thanks to a similar happenstance, he and his old friend David Allen are now running one of the most innovative, aesthetically savvy, and open-minded record labels in Chicago. Launched in December 2014, International Anthem has released a dozen titles, focusing on adventurous but generally accessible jazz—some of it groove oriented, some relatively traditional, some more abstract. The albums' beautifully designed packaging—with Japanese-inspired obi strips on the LPs—has helped International Anthem find a foothold in the increasingly atomized music marketplace, and the label's unflagging support for its artists has not only helped raise their profiles but has also attracted much-deserved outside attention to the Chicago scene.
The ball started rolling in summer 2011, when jazz drummer Ian Springer stopped by Curio, the basement bar beneath Gilt Bar. He didn't know McNiece, but he liked the room and mentioned that it seemed ideal for live jazz. McNiece didn't consider himself a jazz person, but with Sodikoff's blessing, he invited Springer to bring in other musicians to play shows.
McNiece had moved to Chicago in 2009 from Bloomington, Indiana, with his postpunk band Prizzy Prizzy Please, and he felt more at home in DIY punk than in jazz. "I had some Blue Note standards and I loved Mingus, but I wasn't really deep on it," he says. That was already starting to change, though, and it soon led him to start booking jazz at Curio himself.
McNiece was living in Roscoe Village at the time, and on a Sunday in February 2011 he'd popped into the Hungry Brain—to him, it was nothing more than a bar in the neighborhood that he hadn't yet checked out. Of course, the Brain had been presenting free jazz and progressive improvised music since 2001, and it was hosting a show that night with a group that included trumpeter Jaimie Branch and alto saxophonist Nick Mazzarella. McNiece got fired up about what he saw and heard—the energy and vibe felt vital to him, and anchored in a grassroots community that reminded him of the underground punk scene.
Jaimie Branch, Fly or Die
On her long-overdue debut album, protean trumpeter Jaimie Branch leads a group of current and former Chicagoans.
He'd been exposed to very little jazz in Bloomington—he remembers seeing respected trombonist and educator David Baker—and it hadn't spoken to him then. The music at the Brain was different, though, and McNiece was immediately hooked. "Once I realized it was a thing here, it kind of flipped me out," he says. "I started getting thirsty for it. I started going regularly and following all of the Umbrella Music shows on the Internet, going to the Skylark and Elastic and the Hideout."
In August 2011, after Springer had been playing at Curio for about a month, McNiece shifted gears to launch a weekly Monday-night series, Trio in Curio, as an outlet for his new fascination. The first group he booked after taking over included bassist Anton Hatwich and drummer Dylan Ryan, and though he knew it'd be a while before he could find his way around the local scene, Hatwich gave him some encouragement to keep going. "I remember him saying something to the effect of, 'Don't worry, you guys are paying decent guarantees for free improvising—the cats will find out and be calling you in no time.'"
Meanwhile McNiece continued down the rabbit hole, using liner notes to lead him from one musician to another. "I was going to see stuff every night I could, reading, going to Jazz Record Mart, learning about the AACM—Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Braxton," he says. It took years, but eventually that passion would give birth to International Anthem. This Saturday, May 13, the label celebrates its newest release, Not Living in Fear by string trio Hear in Now, with a show at Constellation. (It's part of the annual Chicago Jazz String Summit, organized by the group's cellist, Tomeka Reid.) It follows critically acclaimed albums by the likes of drummer Makaya McCraven, guitarist Jeff Parker, cornetist Rob Mazurek, and trumpeter Jaimie Branch.
Mazzarella was one of the first to perform at the Curio series, leading a trio with Hatwich and drummer Frank Rosaly, and he convinced McNiece to start booking artists for extended runs instead of switching up each week. "One night I told him about how the trio used to have a monthly gig at the Morseland, how it served as a workshop to develop new material and ultimately led to the recording of our first album, Aviary," says Mazzarella. "I explained how valuable I thought a steady performance engagement could be in the creation of new work. He took it to heart and offered me a monthlong weekly residency at Gilt Bar in July 2012."
That residency led to others, including one that would produce the music on International Anthem's eventual first release. Trio in Curio wrapped up in December 2012 with a month of weekly shows by Mazurek, bassist Matt Lux, and drummer Mikel Avery. "I had attended a few concerts there before and thought the room splendid for some minimal music ideas I was working on at the time," Mazurek says. "With the vaulted brick ceilings and acoustics of the space, it was perfect to record. I felt an immediate compatibility and friendship with Scottie, so we played the concerts and recorded everything to great effect."
Rob Mazurek & Emmett Kelly, Alien Flower Sutra
The unusual pairing of cornetist and sound artist Rob Mazurek and singer-guitarist Emmett Kelly (of Cairo Gang fame) delivers spacey explorations marked by lyrical tenderness.
Those concerts were the first that McNiece recorded. For the first he used a handheld device, and for the second his friend Dave Vettraino brought a more sophisticated digital setup. For the final concert of the residency McNiece convinced Allen, who'd already gotten involved in Uncanned Music's playlist business, to travel from Carbondale to record the show on quarter-inch four-track tape.
"It was pretty obvious to us right away that we wanted to put that music out," says McNiece. He and Allen would eventually release it as the album Alternate Moon Cycles, but it took them two years.
In the meantime, McNiece continued to run a jazz series at Bar Deville, which he'd started in September 2012 (and overlapped briefly with Trio in Curio). Then in January 2013 the Bedford extended him an invitation to do regular bookings, which allowed him to offer an extended engagement to Curio alum Makaya McCraven.
"We both drew inspiration from the Rodan series that Jeff Parker and Josh Abrams had been holding down for some time," says McCraven. "The concept was to bring creative music into different types of spaces with younger and broader audiences, while trying to create the space and opportunity for the scene to grow and flourish." McCraven didn't play every week, but he appeared more often than anyone else—and Vettraino recorded every session during McNiece's run at the Bedford, which ended in April 2014. (Leroy Bach kept the series going for a bit.)
Over the course of his residency, McCraven developed the idea of editing together the live recordings into an album, using samples, loops, and collages in an extensive postproduction process.
"Originally recording every week was more for documentation and using the weekly sessions for a potential release or a writing tool," McCraven says. "My concept for the music was 'spontaneous composition' that could stretch from more avant-garde to groove based. We knew we were going to use the recordings in some manner, but it was open ended. At first we were also doing a weekly Soundcloud post for marketing purposes. During this period I was getting deeper into Ableton production, editing and sampling other recordings I had. When I played them some of the tracks, they were very encouraging and supportive of my creative process, and I regularly checked in with different pieces I was working on for feedback."
Makaya McCraven, In the Moment
Adventurous drummer Makaya McCraven turns studio beat maker, expertly melding group improvisations and propulsive rhythmic landscapes.
The studio creations McCraven assembled from the Bedford sets would end up on his album In the Moment in January 2015. By spring 2013, when McNiece and Allen began mixing and mastering their recordings of Mazurek and McCraven (as well as a solo album by art-rock singer Rob Jacobs of Wei Zhongle), they were dead set on launching a label. They coined the name International Anthem (McNiece liked the way it evoked "the simple concept of diversity unified by music"), and in August 2014 they launched a Kickstarter campaign.
McNiece was initially wary of asking the public for money, but he talked himself into it. "I thought a more positive way to look at it was like being vetted—does your concept do anything for the community?" The community seemed to think so, and the campaign raised $15,000. That wasn't quite enough to cover the costs of those first three releases, which included lavish vinyl pressings, but McNiece and Allen were already prepared to divert some of Uncanned Music's profits to fund International Anthem.
The label's releases quickly attracted attention—particularly McCraven's album, which gained the support of tastemaking British DJ Gilles Peterson. In a little more than two years, International Anthem has re-pressed the vinyl edition of In the Moment three times and the CD version twice, accounting for nearly 3,500 physical sales—a healthy number these days for a jazz album, without even considering digital sales.
The success McNiece and Allen had achieved with McCraven's record didn't escape the notice of guitarist Jeff Parker, who'd played on some of the drummer's Bedford shows. For years he'd been wanting to make an album incorporating electronic beats and samples, and he thought International Anthem might provide such an effort a good home. "I'd met Scottie from working with him on gigs at Gilt Bar, the Bedford, and Trenchermen," Parker says. "I gathered that he was really into vinyl, and he seemed committed to putting out a quality record. Then I saw that he was very serious about it after noticing how magnificently he presented In the Moment—in terms of product quality and promotion. I asked him if International Anthem would be interested in helping me to make this record, and he was super excited about it."
At that point, in spring 2014, International Anthem was already taxed by the production of new releases from Mazzarella's trio and from the label's first non-Chicago act, North Carolina experimental-rock duo Ahleuchatistas (Allen had booked shows for them in Carbondale before moving here in 2013). But McNiece and Allen scraped together the necessary funds—mostly to pay for overdubs in LA, where Parker lives, by drummer Jamire Williams and saxophonist Josh Johnson. Parker's album, New Breed, eventually came out in June 2016, and considering how many year-end lists it ended up on, it was worth the investment.
Jeff Parker, The New Breed
Imaginative and versatile guitarist Jeff Parker, known for his work in Tortoise, explores a dynamic mix of limber jazz and hip-hop-derived grooves.
International Anthem's catalog tilts heavily toward jazz and improvisation, but the label has also released a few records from artists on the fringes of rock music, including Ahleuchatistas, Jacobs, and Bambi Kino Duo (aka Brian Case of Facs and trumpeter and EVI player Justin Walter, formerly of Nomo). McNiece and Allen also apply the ethic they absorbed during their time in DIY punk to the way they run the operation. They don't just love the music they put out—they also build strong relationships with their artists, sinking plenty of sweat equity into each deal.
Early last year, for instance, they helped Nick Mazzarella get to New York. "Mazzarella has been beating Chicago to death," says McNiece. "The missing element is that he needs to play New York, which would help him and the record—so we put a tour together for him, funded it, and went out there with him." This was McNiece and Allen's first time traveling to support one of their artists, and they booked everything themselves and then piled into the van alongside the saxophonist. "We realized that we could come to New York every few months and do something, even if it's a bit of an expense," says McNiece. "It's going to help the energy of what we're doing in Chicago, because Chicago people are going to be excited by it, and it helps getting press in New York."
At Mazzarella's New York gig in January 2016, Jaimie Branch shared the bill with a quartet she'd put together for the occasion—cellist Tomeka Reid, drummer Chad Taylor, and bassist Jason Ajemian, all of whom share Branch's deep Chicago roots. She impressed McNiece and Allen so much that the label made a record with her too: Fly or Die, her long-overdue debut, came out last week. International Anthem's second New York event, in June 2016 at Le Poisson Rouge, featured Branch's quartet, Mazurek's Chicago Underground Duo, and a star-studded McCraven band with saxophonist Greg Ward, trumpeter Marquis Hill, bassist Junius Paul, and vibist Justin Thomas. It earned a glowing review by Ben Ratliff in the New York Times. The label has since organized similar showcases in New York, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, spreading the good word about Chicago improvised music—and about International Anthem.
Hear in Now, Not Living in Fear
Transatlantic string trio Hear in Now (cellist Tomeka Reid, New York violinist Mazz Swift, and Italian bassist Silvia Bolognesi) melds jazz, classical, and folk with crisp improvisational rigor.
The label has been releasing a flurry of new titles. A few weeks before the Branch record came out, it dropped the debut of Bottle Tree, a spacey R&B trio with vocalist A.M. Frison, drummer Tommaso Moretti, and producer and keyboardist Ben Lamar Gay (who's usually a cornetist). The Hear in Now album that the trio celebrates on Saturday comes out in early June. "Scottie has put a ton of energy into this record in particular," says Reid. "I've not really seen that from other labels that I have worked with. They really care about every part of the project, from the physical product to the production of the music to how it's received, and I think that makes the artists that they work with feel good and cared for."
Allen moved to Portland, Oregon, in January 2015 to be with his partner, jeweler Natalie Joy, but he still works for Uncanned Music and for International Anthem—he visits Chicago at least every month. He's modest about the kind of praise Reid lavishes on the label: "We just do what seems necessary."
International Anthem's upcoming projects include as many as four more albums from McCraven, as well as Junius Paul's debut as a bandleader (for which McCraven will provide the same sort of postproduction he did for In the Moment). In August it'll release the first record from New York-Philadelphia-D.C. project Irreversible Entanglements—an intense jazz-poetry quintet featuring saxophonist Keir Neuringer, bassist Luke Stewart, and electrifying spoken-word artist Camae Ayewa, aka Moor Mother. (The group plans to play Chicago for the occasion.) Also in development is a collaboration between Ahleuchatistas and local trio Ohmme.
McNiece and Allen are unbothered that they still have to subsidize their label with money from their other business. They're thrilled that more and more people—not just fans but also artists—seem to be catching on. "We realized that there was a living tradition here, and we're super excited about it, wanting to be part of it," McNiece says. "We've got nothing but positive feedback from the musicians." The fact that he judges International Anthem by the number of artists whose music it's released who love what it's done for them—he doesn't talk in terms of sales unless somebody asks—means that success will never be out of reach. v