A row of band posters are hanging slightly askew in the living room of Brent Ritzel's apartment, barely hinting at the twisted philosophy he applies to music.
"I'm not the kind of person who sits down and listens to music for enjoyment, which is kind of weird," admits the 27-year-old publisher and editor of Tail Spins, a bimonthly magazine dedicated to the local rock scene. Ritzel says nowadays the music press and other media determine how the public perceives bands even before hearing them play. For example, he thought Helmet sounded like Pavement just because he read it. Perversely, bands may then get caught playing to these preconceptions. So Ritzel devours press releases and newspaper clippings for local bands, maps out their musical influences, divines their marketing strategies, and tries to forecast how specific outfits will fare in the days ahead. "Music has always been about culture more than music itself, anyway," he says with a smirk.
No matter how absurd Ritzel's reasoning may seem, for the last three years Tail Spins has provided a forum for his insolent musings. After graduating from Northwestern with a degree in philosophy, Ritzel played in a series of rock bands while working in a north suburban mental hospital--perfect preparation, he says, for writing about musicians. "Most musicians are as dysfunctional as the patients," he explains. "If they were normal people they wouldn't be interesting." Ritzel says he wanted to start a music magazine infused with cynical humor, influenced by comic publications like Mad and Cracked.
During its first year, everything in Tail Spins was written by Ritzel (and it showed). But in time his amateur operation found a following, not surprisingly, among local rock musicians, many of whom became regular contributors. "Now almost everything we publish is written by musicians, or at least by people who play in bands." For a time, Ritzel tried to branch out with a record label, producing 13 CDs by such local groups as Rustbucket and the Charming Beggars, but he's given up that side of the business. "It was all part of the learning process." Now all his energies are devoted to the magazine and his own band, the Great Brain.
The most recent issue of Tail Spins boasted 128 pages, a glossy color cover, interviews, feature stories, and 237 record reviews. The magazine can be purchased at 1,500 newsstands in the U.S. and Canada for $3, but 7,000 free copies are available at "about 100" locations in Chicago and Evanston. Ritzel distributes it himself out of his 1988 Ford Escort station wagon. Through it all he's remained clear about his ultimate goal: "I want to help the local scene."
To that end, Ritzel has organized 100% Loud, a one-night art exhibit of T-shirts plugging Chicago bands and music posters by artist Steve Walters. Local bands have been invited to submit recordings, and one song from each group will be played throughout the evening. 100% Loud takes place from 6 to 9 PM this Friday at Propaganda Screenprinting, 2222 W. Belmont; admission is free. Call 549-6736 for more.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.