For all their various tastes, serious record geeks fall into one of two categories. Some like to sit, dragonlike, on their stashes, and if they encounter anyone with enough record-collecting chops to know how rare and precious their treasures are, they'll rub that in his face. Others are evangelizers—dudes who'll burn you a CD-R of anything in their collection, no matter how valuable it is, if they think you'll dig it.
Robert Manis is an evangelizer of the most extreme sort—the sort whose crusade to save his favorite records from obscurity extends to actually getting them rereleased (or even released for the first time). By day he manages mail-order and eBay sales for Vintage Vinyl in Evanston, but he's been running rescue missions like this for about a year and a half.
His first was Cosmic Lightning, a collection of insanely rare 80s material from Chicago glam-punk anomaly J.T. IV, aka John Henry Timmis IV. Manis did the assembly, and Steve Krakow (aka Plastic Crimewave) released it on his Galactic Zoo Disk imprint via Drag City in 2008. Timmis's feverish instability made his songs more difficult to digest than typical punk, and the album appealed largely to fans of outsider music—it sold about 1,300 copies. Manis's next collaboration with Drag City, released in early '09, did much better: he put the label in touch with the surviving members of early-70s Detroit protopunk band Death, and . . . For the Whole World to See became Drag City's best-selling reissue, moving more than 10,000 units. It got Manis quoted in the New York Times, and his 5 percent cut of the profits paid his rent for a few months.
Now Manis has gone solo. Though he says he'd be happy to work with Drag City again on the right project, he's launching his own label, Moniker Records. Its raison d'etre, he says, is "to seek out stuff that's never been on vinyl or that's so ridiculously rare that it deserves a reissue, that it deserves to be put back into the bins."
On March 9 Moniker will drop its first release: a reissue of Clean Your Clock, the 2005 debut album by unhinged Chicago folk rocker John Bellows, originally self-released as a CD-R. "I saw John perform at Heaven Gallery last March," Manis says. "He blew my fucking mind. It was something indescribable. He was very charismatic, vibrant, completely psychotic. He ripped his shirt off and somebody put a wooden chair on his head and he started hitting the back of the chair and sang this children's book story that he'd read his kids earlier in the day. And at the end of that he takes the wooden chair off and sits on it and plays this epic song about being make-believe. My ex-wife started crying."
Manis decided then and there he wanted to rerelease anything Bellows had for sale—and that turned out to be Clean Your Clock, which he listened to several times that night. He approached Drag City with the album, but the label didn't bite. "I never got much reaction from them," he says, "so I was like, 'Fuck it, I'll just put it out myself.'"
Clean Your Clock is mostly three-chord seizures that sound about like what you might expect from someone who'd play with a chair on his head. Or someone who'd go on tour, as Bellows did, as an invited but unbooked guest act with Chicago noise-punk outfit Coughs and squeeze in a set at every one of their shows—even if he had to do it from the audience. Fans of the J.T. IV record or, say, Wild Man Fischer will get off on it for sure. And now and then Bellows drops the craziness and offers up something gut-wrenchingly brilliant like "Bare to the Bone," which sounds like Townes Van Zandt crossing wires with Mellow Gold-era Beck.
The next artist on Moniker's release schedule, penciled in for early this summer, is Yva Las Vegass, the Venezuelan-born Seattle street musician who fronted Krist Novoselic's post-Nirvana group Sweet 75. Both she and Bellows come from what Manis calls "this weird gray area of all of these new artists who've only put out CD-Rs. My goal is to put it on wax, because that's the format of integrity." But he also plans to revisit the MO that paid off with J.T. IV and Death, reissuing records that came out in tiny runs decades ago (if they were ever released at all).
Like those Drag City projects, Manis's future forays into obscurity will require him to do a lot of detective work. That's OK—the hunting, not the having, is the exciting part for him. "I don't need to own the material object," he says. "That's why I like to release stuff more than I like to collect stuff." His own record collection is small, at least by the standards of hard-core vinyl obsessives—he goes for quality, not quantity, and guesses he has maybe 300 LPs and 60 singles.
Recently Manis has been trying to track down a Los Angeles rockabilly band from the early 80s—a couple weeks ago, after posting fruitlessly for six months on Craigslist, he finally found a member of the group through the Blasters. He's also on the trail of a 70s California synth-psych project and a power-pop group from Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Manis, 31, grew up.
Though the Tulsa band's studio lineup briefly included members who went on to be major players in the 80s alt-rock scene, Manis won't go on the record with the names of any of these artists, or even with too many identifying details. He's worried that another label specializing in reissued obscurities might poach his picks—and not only would that ruin his fun, it might also be worse for the musicians. Manis takes pains to secure permissions from the artists whose material he's releasing (when necessary he works with producers, labels, or managers as well), and he offers them 50 percent of any profits. Needless to say, not every reissue label is so scrupulous; some are little better than bootleggers.
He's got good reason to be concerned that someone else might want to get to this music first—though Yva Las Vegass and the synth-psych band are long on personality but perhaps a little short on tunefulness, some of the other stuff on the CD-R he burned for me could easily be as popular as Death. Manis doesn't worry much about whether he'll have another breakthrough album, though. It seems possible, but he isn't counting on it. He wants to give otherwise lost music a second chance, not grow a company.
"I don't want to be a Matador or a Drag City," he says. "I don't know how long it's going to last. It's an experiment."