And The Bands Play On
AND THE BANDS PLAY ON
By Joshua Hammann
Photos by John Nation
LOUISVILLE'S INDIE-MUSIC SCENE IS ATTRACTING NATIONAL ATTENTION AGAIN. IS IT FOR REAL THIS TIME, OR JUST ANOTHER WAVE OF HYPE?
The main office at the headquarters of Ghetto Defendant Records is a mess. Jeremy Saunders, the 20-year-old owner and operator of the independent record label, is sitting at a small desk in the corner, working intently with a clumsy, wooden screen frame. Black, red and white ink stain the desk and Saunders' fingers as he passes the screen printer over one of a thousand 11-by-7-inch envelopes. Similar envelopes in stacks of 10 are scattered around the room.
For the past three weeks Saunders has been working night and day, screen-printing skulls, astronauts and the Ghetto Defendant logo -- a handgun with the words "the message has become clear" written under it -- on the envelopes. When completed, they'll serve as jackets for the first record released by local band Church of Astronauts (and by the Ghetto Defendant label).
As Saunders makes the final pass on another cover/envelope, he leans back in his chair and gives his neck a vicious crack. He then turns his attention to a large pile of mail spilling off his desk onto a larger pile at the foot of his chair -- mostly receipts from record distributors and bills from record-pressing plants. Saunders dives into this mound of paperwork and debt trying to figure out if Ghetto Defendant Records will survive long enough to release another record, or if he might just make enough to get an office that isn't his bedroom in his father's house in the Highlands.
Ghetto Defendant is an independent label, which technically means that Saunders enjoys no support, financial or otherwise, from a major record label. Beyond that, running an independent label means that Saunders pays for the recording of the music, usually creates the record jackets and covers, and handles the records' distribution. When it's all added up, Saunders could be looking at a $3,000 price tag for only 1,000 copies of a two-sided vinyl record -- what used to be called a "45" but is now more commonly referred to as a "seven-inch" record.
Saunders' business problems, while fairly daunting, are nothing new in Louisville. Since the late '80s Louisville has seen the rise and fall of several independent labels run by local entrepreneurs (most of them in their 20s or early 30s) and fueled by local music.
This boom-and-bust ferment in the local independent music scene has fed -- and so far failed to sustain -- several waves of speculation around town and nationally about the possibility that Louisville is on the verge of becoming "the next (insert name of hot-music-scene city, usually Seattle)."
The latest wave to break on our shores has come in courtesy of Playboy magazine, which in its April 1998 issue called Louisville a "music mecca" and listed Louisville-based Initial Records as a "label to watch."
The recent success of the Louisville-based band Days of the New -- and its affiliation with the new Distillery Sounds recording studio in Distillery Commons -- has added some resonance to the buzz, as has the success of Initial Records' Krazy Fest, a three-day event in late May that brought 18 punk, hardcore and indie-rock bands to the Brewery's Thunderdome. A further boost could come from Louisville City Stage, a free-to-the-public, city-funded concert series on the Belvedere that features local bands.
But those who have surfed this wave before know it takes a lot more than a hot band or two or a mention in a national magazine to move Louisville's music scene to the next level.
To thrive, the scene needs an infrastructure of music clubs that cater to unproven and experimental sounds (and the younger-than-21 crowd that such music often attracts), affordable high-quality recording studios, and independent record labels willing to produce and distribute the records and CDs of local musicians.
Louisville certainly has had its share of on-the-verge bands. The current list of hot groups includes Days of the New, The Enkindels, Cooler, Elliot and Engine. In the last decade such bands as Slint, Endpoint, Palace and The Rachels have captured regional or national attention. Likewise, the city has its share of proficient recording studios and enough people like Saunders who are willing to risk their time and money for the love of the music and the infinitesimally small chance that they might find the next Nirvana.
So when, if ever, is Louisville's time going to come? And if not soon, what's holding us back?
Veteran observers of the local music scene say Louisville has everything it needs to hit the big time -- with the possible (and important) exception of the live-music venues that are the foundation of a thriving music scene.
Ed Lutz, 29, owner and operator of Ground Zero, a Bardstown Road record store specializing in independent-label music, started his own label, Three Little Girls, in 1990, when Lutz was barely old enough to buy a legal beer.
Eight years and 14 releases later, Lutz has turned his full attention to Ground Zero and describes Three Little Girls as "dormant."
The reasons for Lutz's record-label burnout are typical: "It was a combination of not getting any money back and having to put everything you have into it," says Lutz.
Despite the difficulties of keeping a label going, independent operations keep springing up in Louisville. Besides Ghetto Defendant, there are several others in the area currently doing business, including the Noise Pollution, Toothless Records and Damn Entertainment labels.
Some other prominent outfits have fallen by the wayside, including two groundbreaking Louisville labels of the early '90s, Mike Bucayu's Self-Destruct and Scott Ritcher's Slamdek Records, the latter of which had its own Warholian 15 minutes of fame in the early '90s thanks to a photo and mention in Rolling Stone magazine.
But the jewel in the crown of Louisville's independent labels these days is Initial Records. In a tiny office on East Broadway overrun with record-filled cardboard boxes, 24-year-old Andy Rich and 28-year-old Scott Ritcher (who eventually kissed Slamdek goodbye) conduct the label's day-to-day business.
Rich founded Initial Records in Kalamazoo, Mich., in 1992 while attending the Haworth College of Business at Western Michigan University. After spending some time in Louisville with bands he was producing (including local bands Guilt and The Enkindels), Rich decided he liked the people and the music scene here, so in December 1996 Initial Records was reincarnated in Louisville. Two years and one mention in Playboy later, Rich himself is amazed at Initial's success.
"Our growth has been completely exponential," he says. "We are 10 times bigger than we were a year ago at this time, and that has been a big surprise to me."
With a paid attendance of about 3,400, Initial's first Krazy Fest], held the last week of May, wasn't quite on the same radar screen as Lollapalooza or Lilith Fair, but it was a marked success by local-independent-label standards.
"No one got rich, but every band got paid a lot more than they would have got paid if they had decided to play any other show that day," says Rich. After the event, he was even contacted by some local economic-development officials who wanted to know how Initial had pulled it off.
As for the Playboy mention, Rich says the buzz among the locals has been nice, but "it hasn't helped record sales any."
But for all its seeming success, Initial faces many of the same obstacles that other local independent labels have faced, including a Catch-22 battle between financial success and the independence that they so prize.
Almost by definition, independent record labels form and thrive around an attitude of skepticism about -- if not contempt for -- everything in the music business that is established and mainstream. In such a culture the drive to succeed financially often runs counter to the spirit of independence that was the label's initial reason for existing.
Ritcher says the kids who buy indie-label records and attend local shows don't seem to realize that Initial is a business with bills to pay.
"These kids bitch because the prices of shows went up from five bucks to six and a seven-inch costs them $3.50," he says. "And these bands they're paying to see aren't coming down here because they're nice guys. We're paying them to play."
Watching Rich and Ritchter at work in the Initial headquarters, dressed in pressed shirts and print ties, it's clear that they are serious about what they're doing, but not so serious that they've forgotten why they got in the business in the first place.
"All we can do is stick around, and if it stops being fun, which is the first and foremost reason I started and continue to do the whole thing, then Initial will go away," Rich says. "I have no idea if we will still be here in five years."
In a quiet, almost nondescript neighborhood in Jeffersontown, Mike Baker, a 33-year-old with a B.A. in music from Indiana University and six years of recording experience under his belt, studies the 32-channel soundboard in front of him and slowly nods in time to the music being played just down the hall. Two guitarists and a bassist are in the kitchen; the drummer plays in the living room.
The band is connected only by headphones and the notes of the song, but in his little room down the hall Mike Baker hears it all. DSL Studios (the letters are the initials of the person who owns Baker's recording equipment) is nothing more than a gutted house. Where couches, chairs and tables should be there are piles of microphones, boom stands, cords and random pieces of recording equipment.
Baker and DSL have been and continue to be very important to the music scene in Louisville, recording some of the best local hardcore and indie bands in recent years, including Endpoint, Metroschifter and Falling Forward.
Baker doesn't advertise his services, but he's been recording in Louisville for long enough that word of mouth now suffices to bring many of Louisville's bands to his doorstep.
"I was always very impressed with the underground scene in Louisville," Baker says. "There was no competition between the bands. They played shows together and bought each other's records. I think that's how I got so much business. A band would record here and tell their friends, 'Hey, this guy's real good and real cheap.'
"The important things are in place (in Louisville). We have the artists and the talent and it's all good."
Baker is by no means the only person in Louisville tweaking the treble on a recording console. Falk Studios, located on Fern Valley Pass, has been recording in Louisville since 1971 and has two engineers and two full-size studios. Mom's Musicians General Store on Frankfort Avenue has the Sound on Sound studio located in its attic. The main engineer there, Howie Gano, was responsible for laying down tracks for Louisville's influential (and now defunct) band Slint, whose intricate, arty sound can still be heard in the music of many popular indie-rock bands around the country.
Herb Simrall's Outer Limits studio has been recording local bands for about five years. The 23-year-old Simrall has worked on both sides of the microphone, having played guitar in the popular Louisville band Erchint and having recorded such local bands as The Aasee Lake, Southbound and Wino.
"I was cheated out of some good records when I was a musician," Simrall says. "A lot of engineers want to do it their way, but I feel it's important for a band to record the record they want. That's why I started recording."
To make recording more affordable, Simrall sets his prices based on what the bands can afford. "There are too many good bands that can't afford good recording, and I don't like that situation," he says. "Every band should be able to hear a quality recording of themselves."
Simrall thinks the local scene is actually a bit quieter these days than in years past. "The music itself seems a bit mellower," he says, "and sometimes it seems as if there is no scene at all."
Inside the Sugar Doe Cafe the heat is curling up the walls and dancing across the ceiling in thick clouds of sweat and noise, but the Friday-night crowd seems oblivious to the subtropical milieu as they watch Mike Weis, singer/guitarist for The Loved, flail and twist and stab his tobacco-brown Epiphone hollow-body into the air. Behind Weis, Benny Clark and Joey Yates lay down a seamless foundation of rhythm, looking up only occasionally to engage each other with a smile and a nod. As The Loved tears through a song, the mostly 16- to 21-year-old crowd moves and shakes as one. There is no stage. There are no barriers. The Loved and the crowd are unified. This is live music, Louisville-style.
Recording studios and independent record labels are an important part of the infrastructure of any vibrant local music scene, but the music that fuels it all first gets made and heard and talked about at live shows.
Which brings us to what may be the achilles heel of the Louisville music scene: a lack of suitable venues.
Most Louisville clubs that used to host punk, hardcore and indie rock -- clubs like The Zodiac, [CD Graffitti's]], Tewligans, The Machine and Uncle Pleasant's -- have either closed their doors altogether or closed them to all-age shows.
For many newer bands, the 15- to 21-year-old crowd makes up a large portion of their listeners and potential record buyers, so it's important to the bands to have clubs where this audience can see live performances.
The reasons why so many clubs have closed or changed admission policies are varied: Some clubs were badly managed; others just got tired of dealing with the clientele that attends all-age shows.
The fact is that kids who pay a five- or six-buck cover charge to get in a club often act like they own the place. The Machine, in St. Matthews, had trouble with fights. Louisville Gardens couldn't handle kids violating its no-smoking policies and wrecking the bathrooms. More recently, the downtown club Sparks was prohibited from hosting all-age shows by state Alcohol Beverage Control officials because of the potential danger of having minors in an establishment that sells alcohol. (A new state law that went into effect July 16 allows bars to admit minors as long as the liquor is locked up.)
The Sugar Doe Cafe is one of the few venues left in town that regularly offers all-age shows that feature local bands. When owner Mia Frederick opened the Sugar Doe, she didn't envision it as a place for kids to rock. But when Jon Cook, an employee there and former member of the now-defunct Louisville band Crain, asked Frederick if she would let him put on a show at the restaurant, Frederick gave him the go-ahead. In December 1997 the Sugar Doe held its first live concert.
With its concrete walls and floors, the back room of the Sugar Doe is one of those rooms that just happens to be great for music. The space is tight, the acoustics are spectacular, and the music is loud. On a good night, more than 300 people can squeeze in, and since there is no stage the band is on the same level as the audience; when band members look out, they see only a sea of faces.
Frederick says the music shows have helped her achieve one of her goals for the Sugar Doe -- attracting a diverse clientele.
"I wanted to provide a positive atmosphere where getting paid is not the most important thing," she says. "But people know that I take care of the bands and I take care of the money. And I love seeing middle-class people eating dinner and knowing that the night before some raging kid was standing on that same table rocking out."
The shows have gone well, but the fact remains that the Sugar Doe Cafe is a restaurant, not a nightclub. It's hard to run a restaurant six days a week and then hang out until 1 a.m. waiting for the bands to finish and the kids to leave. And the Sugar Doe has had complaints from neighbors and parking problems on show nights.
So Frederick recently opened another venue, the Mercury Paw, in an East Main Street space that was once known and revered as City Lights and the Zodiac Club. The Mercury Paw doesn't cater to minors right now, but Frederick says she plans to hold some all-age shows there in the near future.
Both of Frederick's clubs appear to draw good crowds: The Mercury Paw was wall-to-wall people by 10 p.m. on a recent night when the band King Kong was playing, and the Sugar Doe is always packed on nights when a band plays there. Still, Frederick isn't satisfied with the choices available to younger audiences.
"I might end up having to open another venue for all-age shows only," she says. "It would be close to the Mercury Paw so after a show those who were old enough could come by and grab a beer, but it would have to be on separate premises."
So where does all this place Louisville in the national music scene?
Initial Records owners Rich and Ritcher say booking agents have told them that Louisville is still a "secondary market." Despite Playboy's endorsement, music-scene veterans say the lack of steady and reliable spots for live shows has kept the city from fulfilling its potential as a "music mecca."
Andy Tinsley, who once managed Endpoint and has been booking shows for out-of-town bands for many years, professes long-range optimism. He says he still gets four to five calls a week from bands wanting to play in Louisville. "Bands definitely want to play here," he says, "but we don't have anyplace to put them. We need a constant place to do shows."
Tinsley also points to the local music scene's lack of promotion and advertising as obstacles. And he sees the potential for a Louisville musical explosion as a double-edged sword.
"I would love to see Louisville gain national recognition because I love to see bands get big, and that kind of national exposure would be good for Louisville bands and out-of-town bands alike," he says. "But sometimes I think I want Louisville's music scene to stay the same, because the people who would stand to make the most money off any major explosion -- sound companies, club owners and promoters-- don't care about the music."
Rich has similar concerns.
"This thing has happened before," Rich says, "and they will go away as fast as they came. It's all circular. And Initial doesn't even want to be connected to the industry. We're happy where we are."
Mia Frederick says she doesn't expect to see a picture of Bardstown Road on the cover of Rolling Stone anytime soon. "Louisville doesn't have a fully developed infrastructure yet. There aren't many places to play and The Mercury Paw just opened. But the people are ready for it and I think it can happen. I believe it will happen."
Frederick remembers hearing talk when she was living in San Francisco in 1992 and 1993 that Louisville was going to be "the next Seattle."
"People always try to pigeonhole Louisville," Frederick said, "But to be honest, no one can really figure us out."