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The Boston Phoenix Slanted Enchantments

Ten Years of Drag City indie

By Douglas Wolk

JULY 17, 2000:  The first two records on the Chicago label Drag City came out a bit more than 10 years ago, at the beginning of 1990. Its founders, Dan Koretzky and Dan Osborn, had been working in the independent-distribution network. Having been impressed by self-released records by Royal Trux and Pavement, they offered to release singles by the two bands -- "Hero Zero" and the Demolition Plot J-7 EP, respectively. At the time, American independent rock was in the middle of a huge DIY boom; all around the country, fledgling labels were putting out vinyl by fledgling bands, spreading the word about them through an informal network of 'zines and stores and tours and radio shows.

Ten years later, few of those indie-rock labels are still active -- the significant ones can be counted on the fingers of one hand. But Drag City, the most idiosyncratic of the bunch, is thriving. Osborn and Koretzky have released close to 200 records on the label itself and its subsidiaries: Palace Records (Will Oldham's friends and relations), Dexter's Cigar (Gastr Del Sol-organized reissue projects), Moikai (Jim O'Rourke's favorite avant-garde recordings), Blue Chopsticks (David Grubbs's corner), and Sea Note (records with an unusually high what-the-hell quotient).

The secret of Drag City's survival is that Osborn and Koretzky haven't just recorded the musical community they've built around themselves, they've looked to see where that community's ideas can lead. The history of Drag City encapsulates the last 10 years of American indie music and the way it's saved itself from extinction by transforming from a relatively unified front into an unclassifiable mass.

The earliest Drag City records have a more-or-less identifiable sound: the messed-up, art-steeped guitar noise of Pavement and Royal Trux and the lesser bands of the period (Mantis, Burnout, Vocokesh). Pavement's Perfect Sound Forever EP is indie rock as fetish object: a 10-inch vinyl record with a cryptic design and songs that wriggle like snakes emerging from a vat of recorder grot. It kept flying in and out of print so fast, you had to work a little at tracking down a copy -- which just made it more appealing.

By 1993, though, Pavement had moved to Matador Records, and Drag City was dabbling in some indie-rock tributaries. Alumni of Slint were involved in the Palace Brothers, Will Oldham's prickly fever-folk group, and King Kong, a Stax/B-52's-inspired party band; DC documented both of them. Smog, who'd made a couple of gristly, deadpan guitar-rock records, cooled down and opened up their sound to icy prettiness.

And then Drag City hooked up with Gastr Del Sol, the team of Jim O'Rourke and David Grubbs, who became the label's dominant musical force in the mid '90s. "I think the Grubbs/O'Rourke axis is an example of us being involved in the Chicago scene," says Rian Murphy, Drag City's sales manager. Murphy's been employed by the label for six or seven years, but he'd helped stuff singles and so on from the beginning. (He's also a drummer who's played with a handful of Drag City bands, including Palace Songs and Chestnut Station.) "In the early '90s, you could see Jim O'Rourke four or five times a month at various venues, and we'd been enormous fans of David Grubbs's early band Squirrel Bait from when we were teenagers, and he was a fellow who had ideas. And you could send Jim to any recording session anywhere and he'd have a contribution to make."

Grubbs's fondness for Texan weirdo Mayo Thompson's long-running art-rock group the Red Krayola led to a revived version of the group involving everyone from Grubbs and O'Rourke to visual artist Stephen Prina to Victoria's Secret model Rachel Williams, as well as reissues of most of the band's '70s and '80s catalogue, and the first appearance of a few experimental Red Krayola projects from the '60s. Individually or together, Grubbs and O'Rourke were involved with seemingly half the records DC released in those days, as well as overseeing Dexter's Cigar; meanwhile, various core and satellite musicians from Smog and Royal Trux and Palace played on and produced one another's records. Eventually, Drag City's roster started to seem like one big band with dozens of names and sonic ideals, all moving away from the rock that spawned them and toward terra incognita.

The label also developed its reputation as a grand-scale art project fond of odd, extravagant gestures. (That had been an element almost from the beginning -- the third Drag City record was Royal Trux's squalling, formless, anti-song double LP Twin Infinitives.) Desert Storm, for instance, were a Chicago band (with some label-staff involvement) who decided to be a strictly local phenomenon; their two singles are sold only in Chicago-area record stores. The Sundowners released three singles on the Sea Note imprint that sound totally different from one another because they have entirely different groups of musicians playing on them.

The culmination of that period was the Drag City Revue that took place at Tramps in New York on September 4, 1997. (The New York artist Steve Keene, who painted the cover of Pavement's Wowee Zowee, immortalized it in a series of paintings of the New York skyline captioned "We're also going to see that Drag City show at Tramps too.") Seventeen different Drag City artists played short, exuberant sets to a packed club, backed up by a "house band" built around Grubbs and O'Rourke. But the Gastr partnership had pretty much dissolved during the making of Camofleur, and the two spent most of the evening looking daggers at each other.

Each has gone on to work separately with DC, but their ideas have diverged. So has the rest of the American indie scene, which has all but abandoned raw 4/4 guitar rock (though Royal Trux, after a short major-label fling, have come back to hold up that end of Drag City) and traded DIY fun for serious sound-hounding. Both the label and its listeners have been searching for new noises outside their own place and time. DC had been connected to the wider world from early on -- in 1991, it released I Hear the Devil Calling Me, a compilation of artists from the New Zealand label Xpressway. And over the last few years, DC has expanded its international reach, releasing albums by the Japanese psychedelic band Ghost, England's Movietone and Flying Saucer Attack, the Australian guitarist Mick Turner, and the German jazz/electronics group Tied & Tickled Trio.

The label has even gone into print publishing, both books (most recently, folk guitarist John Fahey's rant How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life) and 'zines (the near-dada literary 'zine the Minus Times will soon be joined by a hand-written and hand-drawn garage-rock/psych chronicle, Galactic Zoo Dossier). "One of the main principles of the label is of being really culturally immersed," Murphy says. "A lot of those labels that were around [10 years ago] were devout about the idea of a new music; the Drag City perspective has always been more about connecting to the history of culture. Something like the cover of the Hey Drag City compilation [designed by the Hipgnosis collective, who'd done album artwork for the likes of Pink Floyd] came from fandom, checking out old LP covers and going, 'Wow, Hipgnosis.' And all you have to do is make a phone call instead of sitting there wishin' and wantin'. The thing that distinguishes Drag City is reaching out and making a connection."

Drag City's greatest hits:

* Pavement, Westing (By Musket and Sextant) (1992). Drag City's best-selling album, a compilation of the raw, brainy, deliriously confident early EPs on which Pavement established the sonic vocabulary of '90s indie rock. Gets more audibly influential every year.

* Jim O'Rourke, Eureka (1999). In which Mr. Experimental Music/Improv/Tape-Splicer Guy discovers the power of soft AM-radio pop and comes up with something that's gentle and appealing on the outside but grows trickier and more clever the more attention you pay to it.

* Stereolab, Refried Ectoplasm (1995). A splendid introduction, collecting the luscious mid-'90s singles on which Stereolab found a comfortable middle ground between late-Velvet Underground pop and the avant-garde music of the '60s. The song title "John Cage Bubblegum" is a good indication of what they were up to.

* Palace Brothers, There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You (1993). The first album by the prolific Will Oldham, and the finest: a dozen half-hallucinated songs with one foot in the pre-Depression folk tradition, slowly spun out by a ragged but powerful crew including most of Slint.

* Smog, The Doctor Came at Dawn (1996). Bill Callahan's lyrical and musical vision seems so numb and austere, it's easy to miss how bleakly funny he can be. This 1996 album teems with suggestions and jokes beneath its gray surface, like a collaboration between Randy Newman and Samuel Beckett.

And five you maybe missed:

* Folke Rabe, What?? (1997). Released on Gastr Del Sol's sub-imprint Dexter's Cigar, this reissue of an obscure 1970 piece of Swedish experimental electronics (augmented with a 1997 mix that's simply the original at half-speed) is a phenomenal, dense wave of constantly mutating harmonics -- nothing else sounds anything like it.

* Hot Toasters, "Fish and Doctor" seven-inch (1994). An exceptionally weird little single that can be described only as a hybrid of extreme Japanese experimental music and, like, Styx. Rian Murphy calls it "the undiscovered gem of the Drag City catalogue."

* Silver Jews, "The Arizona Record" 12-inch (1993). A looser-than-clams collaboration involving poet David Berman, Pavement's Steve Malkmus, and friends. Half the songs seem to have collided with the tape by sheer good fortune; the other half seem to have missed it altogether.

* Neil Hamburger, America's Funnyman (1996). One of the most high-concept comedy albums ever, the concept being that Hamburger is a hard-touring comedian who has no sense of timing and no sense of humor. Which means it ends up being hilarious. In its way.

* Plush, More You Becomes You (1998). The only album to date by Liam Hayes, who's probably best known as the singer/piano player from High Fidelity. His first single was lushly orchestrated, but this is a spare, poignant late-night album, half Badfinger and half Alex Chilton.

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