In the 1990s, Chicago became a hub for alternative and independent music, and Bruce Adams was there. As co-founder of influential experimental label kranky records, he had a firsthand seat in the influential scene. His new book You’re With Stupid is his history of the label and the city it called home. It’s an amazing and insightful read into one of the more low-key scenes of the era. We were happy to sit down with him and ask him a few questions.
When did you get into experimental music? Was there an artist who was a gateway drug for you?
I came to experimental music via my interest in loud music. I explored what’s loosely defined as “industrial music” as I got interested in punk and post-punk. Some records that made big impressions on me were Throbbing Gristle’s Funeral in Berlin, The Unacceptable Face of Freedom from Test Dept., and Plague Mass by Diamanda Galas. Having a radio show at WCBN in Ann Arbor led to some happy accidents, for example, when I tripped across Horde by Mnemonists. The book details how I got into ECM and EG releases via the cutout bin at various stores. I got a cheap copy of Art Bears’ Winter Songs and started to acquire releases from the Recommended Records catalog. I subscribed to Chris Cutler’s Recommended Quarterly and learned about an independent ethos that predated and operated outside the punk rock/indie rock network I was familiar with. While working at Schoolkids Records in Ann Arbor, I came across a copy of Tower of Silence by Organum. That record, in particular, opened my ears to a dense, fluctuating sort of ambient/drone music I hadn’t heard before. You could call that a gateway, I suppose.
You had a history of working with independent music labels before you started kranky. Can you recall any specific incidents or occurrences you witnessed that at the time made you say, “if I had a label, I would never do that?”
Working at Cargo Distribution in Chicago gave me daily examples, in retrospect. The most vivid example is from 1992 when Phil Hertz, the manager at that branch, finagled a “deal” to get the Cargo logo on the artwork and exclusive distribution for the Wild 7-inch single by Cell. It was the high-water mark of the 7-inch format and major label Goldrush, and Thurston Moore was directing Geffen to various bands, having picked a big winner in Nirvana. Many people at the time assumed that working with a major label would boost their band/label/distributor into the sales or reputational stratosphere. The single was pressed on yellow vinyl, and a couple thousand copies arrived in the Chicago warehouse as a Cargo “exclusive.” Without getting too judgmental (okay, being VERY judgmental), it was obvious to Joel, me, and our co-workers from listening to the music that Cell was not going to break out and that Cargo would derive absolutely no benefit from being connected with the single. The single stayed exclusive to Cargo’s shelves and, eventually, a dumpster.
You’re With Stupid covers the rock scene in Chicago, but some of those things are far and away from what kranky was doing, such as Smashing Pumpkins and Material Issue. Did you and Joel feel connected to anything larger than kranky in Chicago, or were you not looking to identify as a regional label? Did you fear a danger of becoming known as too specific to Chicago, a la Sub Pop in Seattle?
There was no danger of that. Between Touch & Go, Drag City, and Thrill Jockey, good bands in Chicago had labels to work with. We would not be identified with a specific sound, cadre, or local bands even if we tried. Joel and I felt a kinship with those labels (and others,) and kranky was a Chicago label in a more collegial sense. From the get-go, we knew we had to look beyond Cook County and wanted to release a different kind of music outside the borders of “indie rock.”
The tale of Tomorrowland and the New Age/Windham Hill comparison story is funny, because it’s so facetious on the reviewer’s part. How did the band take it?
I can’t recall, to be honest. I’ll bet they laughed heartily.
Could you have predicted that Stars of the Lid would transform from a drone rock band into modern classical chamber music? What did you and Joel think of modern classical? Was it a style that you and Joel would have ever considered for the label?
Joel and I were interested in artists like Arvo Part, Paul Giger, and the Hilliard Ensemble, so we saw Stars of the Lid’s transformation over the years as logical. For us, it was parallel to Labradford collaborating with string players: another palette of sounds to color with. Had the opportunity to work with artists working in chamber music or contemporary classical vein presented itself, we certainly would have considered it.
Is there one particular release from your time at the label that you felt didn’t get the love or audience it deserved? If so, what was it, and can you make a case for it now?
You could see the entire book as an argument that Labradford never got the credit they deserved. In particular, I go into the album Preparation by Philosophers Stone as being overlooked. It’s a unique evolution of the Bristol/Flying Saucer sound into haunting and evocative territory. I heard threads of Dead Can Dance and Scott Walker in it, and I often think of the album as a hidden gem
Purchase You’re With Stupid: University Of Texas Press
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