Look for the Indie Label
When Wax Trax sold controlling financial interest to New York's TVT back in 1993 it seemed to mark not only its passing as an underground force but also the top of a slippery slope for Chicago's independent rock scene, where Touch and Go remained the only original pioneering label that wasn't gasping for breath.
But the business-equals-pleasure principle that founders Dannie Flesher and Jim Nash started out with (and that Touch and Go still thrives by) lives on in the work of two former employees, Ken Waagner and Kurt Griesch. And though Waagner's HitIt! label and Griesch's Perdition Plastics differ greatly in size and scope, together they represent an entire new wave of nationally and internationally recognized Chicago indies that also includes Drag City, Thrill Jockey, Kranky, Skin Graft, Okka Disk, Bloodshot, Sugar Free, and Ohiogold.
"I had always enjoyed turning people on to good records, no matter where they came from or what style they were," says Waagner, 36. "I saw starting the label as an extension of that." It was a view he came to the long way: prior to moving here from Detroit in 1991 to work in radio promotion for Wax Trax, he'd done time in college radio, band management, retail, and concert promotion. And less than two years after arriving, he quit Wax Trax, frustrated by the financial roller-coaster ride. "One week we were going to do a deal with so-and-so major label and the next week we didn't know if we were going to get paychecks," he says.
A short stint with a production company led to a relationship with Los Angeles semi-independent label Dali, which had done records by Ethyl Meatplow (the former industrial dance band of Geraldine Fibbers' Carla Bozulich), British ambient artists Ultramarine, and hard rockers Kyuss. From A and R he quickly moved up to label manager, and under him Dali put out albums by Detroit shoegazers Majesty Crush and a compilation of stuff that had been released by British proto-acid-jazz imprint Dorado. Waagner had also gotten commitments from Kansas City rockers Molly McGuire and Britain's Seefeel, Beatnik Filmstars, and Butterfly Child when, in October 1993, Dali and its parent company, Chameleon, went belly-up.
Waagner says he freaked out for a few days, then pooled his resources (including support from Alan Kubicka, owner of Chicago Recording Company) to launch HitIt! with a single by Molly McGuire; the label's released more than 20 records since. The label functions as an alternative to the big labels, he says, which is appreciated by 'O'Rang, an experimental project by former members of Talk Talk, and the Bells' Chris Connelly, who did very different work with Ministry and the Revolting Cocks.
Unfortunately, the hard-earned wisdom of these elders doesn't always trickle down to the kids. "It's the young bands that don't know better," Waagner says.
"I worked with Molly McGuire for three years and it was great, but as soon as Epic came along and made them a shitty offer, they jumped at it. I didn't stand in their way, but I tried to reason with them." The band's been dormant now for eight months, waiting for Epic to give them the go-ahead to make a second album.
Though HitIt! has worked with relatively few Chicago artists--Waagner's released a single by Triple Fast Action and a Bells album and plans to put out an LP by the DJ collective Deadly Dragon Sound System--he says the city's energy is important to the label: "The amount of people that are self-employed or creatively employed doing the things they want to do here is just so awesome."
Kurt Griesch, 27, works in his girlfriend's dad's antique store to pay the bills because the music he releases on his Perdition Plastics label doesn't have much commercial potential. But his background is remarkably similar to Waagner's. Obsessed with records since childhood, he worked at Northeastern Illinois University's WZRD, at the Chicago arm of independent record distributor Cargo, and at Wax Trax, though not at the same time as Waagner. "Those experiences convinced me that the way I'm doing this is a better way for me," says Griesch. "I look at the label as an extremely personal venture, and I don't make distinctions between good personal practices and good business practices."
Since releasing King of Sweet, a 1994 album by His Name Is Alive, because he felt he "needed" to, Griesch has added only five more titles to his catalog: two solo albums by Thymme Jones (of Cheer-Accident, Brise-Glace, and Illusion of Safety), a collaboration between HNIA's Warren DeFever and the Pale Saints' Ian Masters, the debut solo album by Chicago tabletop guitarist Kevin Drumm, and an archival collection of spoken-word cut-ups by the late experimental artist Brion Gysin. "I want the label to grow, but I want it to happen with integrity," he says.
Although Griesch plays guitar--he toured as a member of Illusion of Safety a few years ago--he has no interest in releasing his own music on Perdition Plastics. A collaboration he did with German experimentalist Christoph Heemann will probably come out on Heemann's Streamline label. Perdition's next projects may involve Heemann and another German, Ralf Wehowsky. But his overseas interest doesn't mean he's no longer looking here. "There's so much going on here," he says. "It's just a matter of taking the time to find it."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ken Waagner and Kurt Greisch photos by Brad Miller.