Slicker's Coming-Out Party
"My main attraction to electronic music is that it's accessible and immediate," says John Hughes III, the owner of Hefty Records and the abstract electronica artist known as Slicker. "You don't have to go into a studio. You can do stuff without needing a huge budget, so you can take a lot of chances." As a self-professed introvert, he may have another reason: he never has to leave the house. He recorded the latest Slicker album, The Latest, in his home studio in Bucktown, and though he's been making music under the name since 1998, he's never performed live in Chicago--a situation he's finally remedying with a set on Friday night, during the Museum of Contemporary Art's annual 24-hour summer solstice celebration.
It wasn't even his idea: he was approached by the event's organizers to perform as part of a Hefty showcase. "I felt a little forced to do it," says Hughes, flatly. "Everyone always tells me that I need to get out and play. But I feel a little guilty when I go up and I don't have a very interesting set to watch." It's true that the visual component of most laptop performances is only slightly more exciting than watching metal rust--but all of the performances by Hefty artists--including Twine, Beneath Autumn Sky, and Telefon Tel Aviv--will be complemented by lighting and video designed by OVT Visuals, which has done similar work for countless raves.
Hughes and his label have taken on a higher profile in the last few years. For one thing, his reputation is no longer based on his name--his father, and the label's financier at first, is filmmaker John Hughes. He started Hefty in 1995 to release records by his short-lived experimental rock band, Bill Ding, in which he was responsible for programming and electronics, and before long he was putting out music by a number of local noisy rock bands like Ilium, Ghosts and Vodka, and Chisel Drill Hammer. But his heart was in electronic music. "I didn't have any contact with any other electronic artists," he says. That started to change when he released Slicker's debut LP, Confidence in Duber--an album of clunky, weird drum 'n' bass--in 1998. He was approached by Atlanta's then-unknown Scott Herren, who released his first full-length, Folk Songs for Trains, Trees and Honey, on Hefty under the moniker Savath + Savalas in 1999. (He now records as Prefuse 73 for Warp and as Delarosa + Asora for Schematic.) Since then Hefty has attracted an impressive slate of electronic artists, including Italy's Retina and Japan's Mondii.
Last year Hughes composed the score for the Italian film Scarlet Diva, the directorial debut of actress Asia Argento. While he was flipping through his records, looking for a potential collaborator, he ran across a series of soul-jazz recordings Detroit trombonist Phil Ranelin had cut for his own Tribe imprint in the 70s. Ranelin, who was playing more straight-ahead stuff locally when Hughes tracked him down, agreed to the project, and they worked together so well that Hughes decided to ask if he could reissue the old Tribe records. "He said that most of the stuff was just lying under his bed and that he had no plans to do anything with it," Hughes says. Hefty recently released 1974's The Time Is Now! and 1976's Vibes From the Tribe, and Hughes has tentative plans to rescue additional items from the label's long out-of-print catalog. This fall Hefty will take Ranelin's music into the future with a remix collection featuring Prefuse 73, techno artist Morgan Geist, and former Company Flow main man El-P.
The musical lineup for the MCA's solstice celebration is one of the most interesting in the event's history. Besides the Hefty showcase, it includes local electronic groups K-Rad and TRS-80, hip-hop MC Diverse, New York singer-songwriter Chocolate Genius, the AACM Ensemble (a big band led by Ernest Dawkins), Congolese salsero Ricardo Lemvo and his band Makina Loca, and the Blind Boys of Alabama, a jubilee-gospel group that started in 1939. The Blind Boys' remaining members, Clarence Fountain, Jimmy Carter, and George Scott, don't have the range or the power they once did, but their new album, Spirit of the Century (Real World), has other charms. It crosses gospel with the blues, the sacred with the earthly, and the classic with the contemporary, reinterpreting material like Tom Waits's "Jesus Gonna Be Here" and Ben Harper's "Give a Man a Home" and thoroughly revamping the warhorse "Amazing Grace," setting it to the tune of the whorehouse lament "House of the Rising Sun."
The party kicks off at 6 PM this Friday, June 22, and continues through 6 PM the following day. The Hefty showcase will run from half past midnight until 5 AM and will also feature performances by non-Hefty artists LeDeuce and Forester Cobalt. Tickets for the entire event cost $8; for more info call 312-280-2660.
Who Says Underground Music Can't Make Money?
Several culture cognoscenti have recently posited the idea that watching TV commercials is a better way to discover new music than listening to the radio. Scores of songs that you'd never hear on a commercial radio station have become ubiquitous on the idiot box, among them tunes by Jorge Ben (Intel); Air (L'Oreal); Galaxie 500 (Acura); Talvin Singh (Philips); Cornershop, Arling & Cameron, the Dandy Warhols, and the Crystal Method (the Gap); the Roots and Autechre (Volkswagen); the Minutemen (Volvo); and Chicago's own Tortoise and Freakwater (Calvin Klein). Miles Copeland, the former manager of the Police, says radio wouldn't touch "Desert Rose," Sting's hit with Algerian rai singer Cheb Mami, until it became popular via a Jaguar commercial. And after Volkswagen used "Pink Moon," a song recorded in the early 70s by obscure British folksinger Nick Drake, in the summer of 2000, sales of the eponymous album exploded. At the end of 1999 Pink Moon had sold less than 19,000 copies according to SoundScan, which started keeping track in the early 90s; the current tally is 123,000.
Earlier this year Volkswagen--which has a Web page, www.vw.com/commercials, where surfers can watch its TV commercials and learn who did the music--compiled tunes from its ads on a CD called Street Mix--Music From VW Commercials Vol. 1, which it sells at commerce.vw.com. Not to be outdone by an auto manufacturer, Universal Records has joined the fray, releasing As Seen on TV: Songs From Commercials, which mixes old faves like Cat Stevens (Timberland), Iggy Pop (Royal Caribbean cruise lines and Mitsubishi), the Buzzcocks (Toyota), and Styx (Volkswagen) with contemporary upstarts like Badly Drawn Boy and Red House Painters (the Gap), Groove Armada (Mitsubishi), and Handsome Boy Modeling School (NFL). The album credits don't include any information about what companies licensed the songs.
I guess it's good that artists who can't get radio play have some other way to earn instant cash and national exposure, but the lock the corporate world has on all major avenues of access is truly depressing. Fittingly, the cover art for As Seen on TV is dominated by dollar signs.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.