Chapter 3: Chicago (Jeff Mueller)

During my freshman year of college, I was constantly strapped for cash. It wasn’t like I was poor—money had been set aside for my first semester that was to be used for food and books—but my mother made the mistake of telling me that I could spend whatever money I had left over at the end of the semester however I pleased. So I didn’t eat or buy most of the books I needed for classes, and at the end of the semester I bought a guitar. Second semester I was on my own.

Before the start of my sophomore year I transferred schools. A friend gave me the idea to start writing music reviews for the school paper. I was told that I could contact any record label I wanted, and when I told them I was working for a school paper they would send me any new album I wanted—for free! It seemed like a brilliant idea. I was a strong writer—I’d just changed my major from Computer Science to Communications and English—and working for the news media would be a perfect role for me at my new college.

The first label I contacted was Touch and Go; I had heard that they were generous with their press links and could get me into shows, set up interviews, and prepare me with any new addition to their catalog—so I sent in a very long and rambling letter in a cocksure tone, trying to sell myself as the next Lester Bangs. A kinder response than I deserved came from Chad Nelson, who for the next three years helped me in so many situations that I actually ran out of ways to express my thanks. He was the person who got me in touch with Jeff Mueller.

[Jeff Mueller – “Every Eye” MP3]

I’d first heard June of 44 as a freshman in college, and was fascinated by their sound. Then when I heard Shipping News, the music worked its way under my skin and drove me wild. I would write about those bands countless times for different publications, hailing their songs as brilliant exercises in controlled catharsis. Three-Four and Flies the Field feel like at any moment, a track might explode in noise and just pummel the listener. The songs keep you waiting for the crescendo, assuring you that at any moment things will fall apart. Sometimes, it just won’t happen. My heart races in anticipation and I’m left wanting more after every song. It’s thrilling. From the first time I heard June of 44 I knew I had to discover everything I could about these artists.

The band members’ resumes read like a Who’s Who in independent rock music. The basic bands would be Rodan, June of 44, but these projects branch out and encompass a seemingly endless list of bands. Tara Jane O’Neil, The Sonora Pine, Rachel’s, Codeine, Rex, Lungfish, Naysayer, The Crownhate Ruin, Just a Fire, The King Cobra, Directions in Music, Retsin…On some nights, I would sit staring at a blank Microsoft Word document, trying to write an article or an assignment, and I would start playing connect-the-dots with all these bands and their members. The lists would go on for pages. All these talented people are integral to the landscape of modern music. From Louisville to Chicago to New York and all places between, those who have contributed to these projects—regardless of whether they are aware of it or not—have helped enormously to shape the future of independent recordings.

Before Chad Nelson left Touch and Go, he helped me with my largest request—he put me in touch with Jeff Mueller and scheduled a meeting for us while I was in Chicago. Along with my friend and hostess Jet, Jeff and I spent a perfect evening in July drinking and conversing about everything from childhood to parenthood, the city of Chicago and beyond, his experiences and predictions for the future.

***

Tuman’s is on the corner of Chicago and Leavitt, in a three-story red brick building located next-door to Muzyka and Son Funeral Home. There’s a large ‘Old Style On Tap’ sign gracing the façade. The sun is setting. I open the front door into an antechamber and am greeted by a set of wooden batwing doors. I push my way through, letting them swing shut behind me. I’m looking for an unfamiliar familiar face. Slunk over the bar, a guy with greasy black hair and a tattered white t-shirt shifts his position to raise a guarded eye in my direction.

In 2001, Chicago Citysearch voted upon this place—the Alcohol Abuse Center—as being the best pick-up bar in the city. Its doors closed in 2003 only to open again, renovated and under new ownership that brought a sacrilegious shift in attitude that subsequently left many former regulars yearning for the depravity and brutal rawness this venue once offered. Whereas Tuman’s once catered to all walks of life—misanthropic artists and booze hounds, addicts and unsuspecting suburbanites—professionals and yuppies just getting off work are congregating in nooks, socializing and nursing drinks. Other than the gritty guy at the bar, the smattering of bodies this evening look out of place in this hallowed dive.

I step outside onto the patio, the sun is setting and I take a seat at a table adjacent to the bar’s brick exterior. There are maybe ten tables in this fenced-in space. It is quiet now. Only three tables are occupied. I’m talking with Jet, waiting for Jeff Mueller to arrive.

He walks down Leavitt towards the bar’s entrance; all wiry, dressed in black pants and an olive-green collared t-shirt. His hair is brown and untamed. He has a long face, a high forehead and a prominent nose. The slightest hint of stubble covers his face. When he finds his way to the patio, he asks, “Evan?” And I nod and stand to introduce myself. He sits down and instantly launches into a brief history of Tuman’s.

“People would just come here and get Schlitzed. It’s nice, but again, it was completely shredded and destroyed two years ago. It was just a keg that was in there and people would come in and pay five bucks. It was called the Alcohol Abuse Center.”

“Yeah, I saw that sign,” I comment.

“Oh, yeah, that’s the old front-end of the storefront. These people who own a really fancy bar-and-grill on Divison Street bought the license and ownership and the name and everything. All the woodwork in there is original and has, like, one thousand years of paint. Saloon doors…but with the niceness comes a certain air of constipation and bizarreness as well. It’s kind of like, ‘Hmm…these don’t necessarily go here…’ The thing for me is, I live right down the street.”

“When did you move here?” I ask.

“We moved here first in 1995,” he says, meaning he and his wife, although he immediately adds, “I kind of moved here with four or five hundred other people, which is a nice way to move to the city.” He smiles. “Do you mind at all if I smoke?”

Jet and I don’t mind. We’re rolling our own.

Jeff removes a pack of Reds from his shirt pocket and fishes for a cigarette with his thumb and index finger. He flicks a black plastic lighter and takes a drag. “So, yeah,” he begins. “Who have you talked to so far?” He holds the cigarette between his index and middle finger and rests his arm on the table. As he exhales he looks upward and exhales the smoke into the fast-approaching night sky.

“I just came from Louisville. I spoke with, um, Tim Furnish from Crain, Stephen George at LEO…I spoke with JK McKnight, the guy who is putting on Forecastle, and then I stopped by Wild and Woolly to see if Todd Breashear was there. I think his wife just had a baby.”

“Really?” He takes another drag and reaches for the ashtray, tapping the butt of his cigarette softly. “Oh, wait. I knew she was about to have a baby. That’s amazing.”

A waitress comes by to take our drink orders; a Guinness for Jeff, and a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale for myself. He takes another drag, slow and long, and exhales off to the side.

“Yeah. Todd Brashear,” I continue. “I called him and he said, ‘I might be around but my wife is due that week, so stop by and if I’m there, I’m there.’ He wasn’t, so I’m just assuming.”

“He’s a fantastic man, sweet and nice. Like, the genuine big nice guy. Had you been to Louisville before?”

“No, first time.”

“What’d you think?”

“I thought it was…it really left me in awe. I mean, I don’t know what I expected when I got there, but when I left, I thought, ‘This is an incredible artistic community.’ Not just music or whatever, but all the other facets as well.”

“Yeah,” he nods, “It’s a pretty incredible place. I think if we left Chicago…I mean—this isn’t to say that I want to move back to Louisville—but, having visited so many other cities at this point for music, Louisville kind of leaves you feeling mystified, or just strangely—like you’re in on some secret.”

“So you were in Louisville for two or three days,” he continues, questioning me. How was Tim?”

“Tim…Tim was kind of cool…” I trail off, uncertain how to answer.

“Was he kind of quiet?”

“Yeah, a little…” I try to stifle a nervous laugh.

“Yeah!” he exclaims, chuckling.

“I mean—I didn’t…I was skirting around saying that. But, what I heard from everyone who knows Tim is that he’s a great guy, a lot of fun, and I went to over to his house and I was sitting there ringing the bell and no one answered. He comes downstairs, kind of quietly and wispy, you know, floating through the house. We went upstairs and sat in his studio where he was working on some Parlour recordings. He spoke for maybe thirty minutes and it was just, like, long pauses and really thought-out—but short—answers.”

“Yeah,” Jeff nods. “Yeah.”

“It was so great meeting him, but at the same time I was begging for something good.”

“Yeah, I know. For me, he’s one of my favorite people in Louisville. You know, we rarely see each other. We lived together for a few years.”

“Oh really?” I say, getting back to asking the questions. “What was your experience like in Louisville? The generation that’s there now seems to revere a lot of those bands dating back to Crain and Rodan and Squirrel Bait, or Slint.”

He takes a final drag from his cigarette and stamps it out before he begins to answer. “I suppose, at the front end of Slint—and even now, throughout whatever international acclaim they’ve garnered—that’s always been a happy aside. In Louisville, certainly at the beginning—at the end of the ‘80s, and at the beginning of the ‘90s—there was a certain amount of…” he furrows his brow, “really frenzied energy, when everyone was doing something—and it wasn’t really about getting out of the city as much as it was about doing stuff in the city. Louisville exists in a place where it’s three or four hundred miles away from any other major music area. We lived on that island. Before I was involved in music, I was going to see music. Crain was probably the most influential band for me. I lived with Jon [Cook] and Tim, and they practiced in my house. Being there and seeing that happen was such an inspiration for me. Seeing them work, practice—three or four hours a day, four days a week—working really hard to make something solid or good, was a really positive experience for me as far as exploring my own creativity. And that holds true for more than a handful of other bands brewing at the same time.”

“Slint is Slint,” he says. “It’s a three-legged monster that kind of rambles on and on and on and on. One of my favorite bands—and another enigmatic subterranean creature. Them being somewhat friends of mine, I had that inspiration as well. Here’s a band doing all this stuff that I never saw, and that’s making all these things that I felt really positive and good about—and then there was Crain working all the time, and I got to see the process. The onset of music, for me, was just about watching everyone else do stuff.”

“So this all pooled together and inspired you to start with Rodan?” I ask.

He nods and drinks from his pint glass. “Yeah, Rodan was a rap band before it was a rock band. We were a rap band who was trying to make it rock—had no element of rap whatsoever. We were recording and, like, we had a Portastudio Tascam eight-track MKII cassette recorder that we recorded all these rap songs on, and, um,” he starts to laugh, “we thought, ‘What are we going to do with this? We can’t really play this music because it’s completely insane and unrehearsed.’ It was like a collage of stuff, and then we tried to play it live and we were vibrant and powerful, I suppose. We let it become what it was.”

“Once Rodan had run its course, you started June of 44 and moved to Chicago,” I commented. “By that time Louisville had picked up a ton of press and notoriety. Playboy Magazine even called it ‘The Next Seattle’ or something, like it was going to follow in the footsteps of the grunge explosion.”

“For a while I think Louisville became too aware of itself,” Jeff answers. The city became cognizant of its own success. At that point, I was living here, but as far as me returning to the city and seeing what was happening, I thought there was a certain amount of novelty, where people were just trying to make something that was the next big thing. People were trying really hard, as opposed to just freaking out and making whatever they wanted.”

“But there were still some good bands…”

“During the late ‘90s? There were some great bands. There was 456, an amazing band that’s no longer around. There was Liberation Prophecy…that was kind of a jazz-type thing. Six horns—it was really, really intense. Some things were following the experimental edge but were just not accessible enough that people wanted to invest time. Other things fully took on the national acclaim of the city. That band, Days of the New, was suddenly a big deal. There was My Morning Jacket also, which I thought was really good music, but had strong pop accessibility.”

“I think a band like My Morning Jacket is vastly different from what, normally, people expect to come out of Louisville,” I note.

“Yeah,” agrees Jeff. I think that was a reaction to the ‘island’ suddenly becoming larger when it didn’t need to.”

I haven’t noticed until now, but it’s dark outside, the lights have come on, and the patio is filled almost to capacity. Two waitresses rush back and forth between tables taking orders and seeing that everyone is satisfied. The blonde looks harried; the brunette seems more reserved. Jeff reaches down and pulls his chair closer to our table. The young professionals behind us are laughing and screaming, and Jeff looks visibly affected. After we both half-turn to catch a glimpse of the commotion, we pause for a moment and drink from our pint glasses.

[Rodan – “Shiner” MP3]

“Was it easy moving from, as you said, an ‘island’ to a sprawling metropolis like Chicago?” I ask him.

“I didn’t immerse myself much in the city. I still lived within my own little pod; I was busy with June of 44. I mean, 1995 to 1999 were probably the busiest years of my life as far as travel is concerned. I was busy working with John at Fireproof Press—which is a letter-press business that did all of the June of 44 artwork and packaging—and surviving, because I was constantly broke and just trying to make a living. As far as moving to Chicago, and trying to experience what was here—there was definitely a certain amount of stratification between the bands that are from here, as opposed to the ones that move here.”

“That seems like it might be a common problem in major cities.”

“I think it takes a certain amount of time to get involved,” he explains. “For me, it was the same in Philadelphia, and the same here. It will be the same if we move somewhere again. If we go back to Louisville, where I’m deeply rooted, it will take six months to a year just to reintegrate to the city.”

At this point the table behind us erupts in laughter and cheers. Jeff looks over his shoulder to see what the commotion is about. There’s one kid in particular whose machine-gun laugh draws all of our ire. Jeff looks to Jet and then to me.

“Do you want to find another table?”

We all agree that this is in order.

We grab our drinks and move down to the other end of the patio. As we rise from our seats, the kid looks up and watches us momentarily before interjecting a trite one-liner that draws some hoots from the table of yuppies. Once we’re at a safe distance, Jeff wastes no time lashing out about the kid.

“He was making me a little insane.”

“What can you do?” I innately respond.

“Move,” he says matter-of-factly. He lights another a cigarette. “Did you ask a question before? After that,” he indicates the yuppie, “I don’t remember…”

“When you moved to Chicago from Louisville, did you find that there were more venues in which to perform?” I ask.

“June of 44 was never really a local band. For the duration of the band, our favorite place to play in Chicago was Lounge Ax.”

“I think that place has reached legendary status since its closing.”

“It was really…” he searches for a description. “I don’t know. It was just a room. A room with a bar in it, you know? The bar was in the front and the bands played in the back. Lounge Ax epitomized what was necessary at the time. It wasn’t a very big space, the capacity…they jammed four-hundred fifty to five-hundred people into it—and maybe that was it. Every night, they had a show that was going to be at least four-hundred people, and it was going to be uncomfortable screaming at people like we were then, and hot and smoky and gross. It was like a snarling place that had a really warm environment. The ladies that ran it, Sue and Julia, are incredible.”

“And then they had problems with zoning or something, right?”

“There was a license thing,” he explains. That neighborhood became really chic and really, uh, it gentrified super-quick. And the dude that was in the back started raising Cain about the noise. The building inspectors found out they didn’t have a license, which cost about forty-five or fifty thousand dollars. In the city of Chicago—anymore—you cannot just open a bar. It has to be a cabaret that serves food, also. So like, Lounge Ax had no resources to facilitate a kitchen, or even a short-order kitchen, to make fries and stuff. They were jammed in, and so they had to shut the doors, which was a real detriment to the city.”

“Most musicians tend to agree that, as a performer or fan, the rest of the Chicago musical venues aren’t anywhere near as impressive or invigorating.”

“Yeah, I mean…you had the Fireside, which still sort of does shows, and there’s the Empty Bottle. I don’t get it. Some people do, but I’m just nostalgic for Lounge Ax. People get the same feelings for Empty Bottle, but I go there and I feel disjointed, like, ‘This place has no true identity. It’s just like a bar in the city.’ Schuba’s has a really nice bar and it’s warm and comfortable, but it’s inundated with a variety of people—you never really know if they’re coming to see the band, or if they’re in the neighborhood and coming to talk. The Bottom Lounge, that’s more like an amplified, blown-up version of the Empty Bottle. It’s like a real large show room, but you never feel like you’re locked into the bands. When you are there, you don’t really feel confident. And then there’s the Metro, which is…really bad.”

“I’ve heard things that it has to do with the management at Metro—is it more about that, or is there a problem with the room itself?” I ask.

“Yeah, I think it has to do with the management,” Jeff answers. “There are always meat-headed bouncers and security guards, ticket prices are inflated, you never walk in there and feel like you’re going to see people you know. You always walk in there and you’re like, ‘Here I am at this venue.’ It has the same symptoms of the Empty Bottle—it’s just like any bar. I guess if you wanted to draw an analogy about ‘scenes,’ Lounge Ax embodied the idea that people would go there, and you could pretty much anticipate the same ten or twenty people who are there any night that you go there. The Empty Bottle, well, I love the bar staff there, so if I go there and they’re busy, I’m like, ‘Cool. I’ll go sit on the couch and play Photo Hunt,’” he starts to chuckle. “I’ll lose all my quarters and go home early.’”

***

“Since you moved here, have you been able to watch other bands in these venues come up through the ranks and—”

“Yeah,” he answers. “It happens really fast.”

“Really?” I’m surprised. “You’re the first person who thinks that.”

“The city pretty much figures it out quickly. There’s a band called Pit Er Pat who were formerly the Blackbirds. They’re some friends of mine and they started, maybe, two years ago. My friend Fay [Davis-Jeffers] and then these two other guys [Rob Dorn and Butchy Fuego], all of a sudden she was like, ‘Holy shit! We’re on Thrill Jockey!’—and that’s what happens. And sure, there are other bands that take a long, long time to fill clubs.”

“You mentioned Thrill Jockey—I wonder if maybe the strong presence of indie labels like Touch and Go, Drag City, and Thrill Jockey attributes to the burgeoning of new acts?”

“Yeah,” Jeff elaborates. I mean, I’m not entirely certain but I think that there is—as opposed to a city like New York—a certain element of creativity that I think is great, as a creative-minded person. I think a lot of people that play music in this city are blue-collar, and do it because they love to do it. It’s similar to Louisville in some ways.”

“Tim Midgett also mentioned this, he called it the ‘workman-like’ mentality of Chicago musicians.”

“Oh yeah, totally. I mean, I’m no careerist.” He cracks a smile. “I’ve been fortunate in my span of playing music that at certain points I’ve done better than others. It’s been an extraordinary source of strength while by no means being a source of financial security. I’ve never really gone after any type of benefits. I feel like a lot of my contemporaries in the city probably feel the exact same way…” he’s grinning, now, “…short of maybe Billy Corgan.” We all laugh for a few moments before he continues, “Are you talking to him?”

“I…don’t…think so?” I say, hopefully.

“He can probably tell you all about…he played three sold out shows at the Metro!” The excitement in his voice is feigned. “I’m sorry, that was rude.”

“I’m of a generation that went through a huge Smashing Pumpkins thing, so I can’t deny my roots. I wore Smashing Pumpkins shirts to high school, like, every day.”

“That’s normal. I mean, some Smashing Pumpkins stuff was…” He’s looking for the words. “There was some stuff there.”

“It seems like a huge joke to everyone else in the city at this point.”

“It was a shit week for the local press that week he was on the cover of every newspaper and magazine. The fact of the matter is that I think he’s incredibly gifted and creative, and I think he’s really intelligent. I mean, I saw him maybe four years ago on Politically Incorrect and he said some of the most hardcore, direct, biting things. I wonder if he’s always like that, or if it’s some sort of costumed-disguise to fool people?”

“Tim Midgett cracked a joke about it yesterday,” I tell him. “He’s also mentioned it a few times on the Electrical Audio message-board.”

“Speaking of Electrical Audio, as far as, like, people that are in the community and people that are in the Chicago music scene, they have infinitely more experience and probably a stronger understanding of what’s here. Even Steve Albini, or Bob Weston when he’s there, will come in on a session and hear us mixing something or playing something back and they’ll say, ‘How did you do that? What is that?’ They have no sense of, like…‘I know more than you.’ It’s always that desire to increase their own knowledge of possibilities that they can explore. And Greg Norman is one of the people who is always there learning, and it shows in the things that I’ve heard that he has recorded. And, of course, Steve Albini is an endless source of really smart interpretations—and really direct and honest understanding interpretations—on just about anything. It’s funny because, I like to consider him my friend. I don’t know him super-well, but when we see each other we hug, and that’s how I’ve balanced if he’s my friend or not.”

“I guess that’s a pretty good barometer.”

“But yeah,” Jeff continues. “When I talk to people around the country about Chicago in the ‘80s and into the ‘90s –when he was recording everything—the snowball effect after In Utero when everyone was asking, ‘What’s up with Steve Albini, is he as big a dick as everyone says he is?’ It’s just absolutely not true. He’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. It’s just that he has an opinion. And I think that the angst and bad energy that circulates around him is because he had an opinion that he actually stood behind.”

“Yeah. I’ve read a bunch of old ‘zine articles and see things he has has written or said in the past, and they’re very consistently smart and poignant.”

“You know, when people question him he won’t get defensive, he’ll just dismantle whatever the questioning was. As far as community-builders in Chicago are concerned, he’d bend over backwards for anyone who did anything with integrity. Anyone that’s going after anything with conviction—and with bands like Silkworm, or my friend Shannon Wright, with us…he would do anything. With Rodan, he did the cutest thing—if I can say Steve Albini did the cutest thing—when we were recording with Bob at Steve’s house, he went to this street fair and saw a stonecutter who was making people’s names out of ground-up stone on his engraving machine. He had one made that said ‘Rodan.’ It’s one of my prized possessions.”

“Would you classify Steve as an ‘elder statesman of the community’ as far as the independent music scene is concerned?” I ask.

“I’m embarrassed to say so, but yes.” He tries to stifle a laugh. “I looked up to him—not necessarily as far as where he stands on things musical, but for rules of thumb to live by. I don’t know anyone who, in this city—” He stops to find the right words. “He and Corey Rusk have more integrity than most anyone. Just by watching them and seeing how they do things, watching how they formulate their decisions, I feel that their hearts are extremely placed in the right location.”

[June of 44 – “Pale Horse Sailor” MP3]

“Do you think Chicagoans are culturally aware?” I ask Jeff.

“I think Chicago is one of the last truly segregated cities in the United States. The north side is predominately white. The south side is black. The west side is hispanic. Economically—not necessarily the amount of income that actually comes into those families or people who live in those parts of the city, but economically as far as the way the government in the city distributes tax dollars—you can certainly tell how those parts of the city are maintained, based on where the money is coming from. The schools on the west side are in tragic need of repair, even more so on the south side. The north side schools, they’re not great schools, but they’re definitely in better condition and have better teachers. The same holds true for hospitals.”

“Can the citizenry come together in their respect for the artistic movement, or is it just more of the same?”

“The artistic community is one of the most integrated parts of the community,” he says. “The Mexican Fine Arts Museum is in the southwest part of the city. People from all walks go there to involve themselves in it. The galleries in the north-central area, they work really hard to curate shows that people from various walks of life can enjoy. As far as jobs and the cross-section of people in the schools go, it’s pretty strange. It’s one of the substantial reasons why we left the area my wife and I moved. I don’t want Leo, my son, to grow up in a school that is all white kids. It’s not socially fair for him to get that understanding of the way the world is.” He pauses to reflect. “You live outside of New York—do you think it’s integrated?”

“Well,” I begin, “None of the people that I know went to New York public high schools—so in that regard I would say, yes, it’s very segregated. You have the families who can afford to send their children to the high-end private schools, and then pretty much everyone else is left to fill up the public schools. I mean, when you walk around on a day-to-day basis, much like you would in any city, it appears to be integrated. There’s a huge undercurrent of segregation, though. I see that in almost every city. You have the ‘Little Italy’ area, and the ‘Chinatown’ area—which I think inherently, even though it’s something that has historical context to it, says something about the inability of people to come together.”

“Yeah, right,” Jeff says. “I feel…I agree. I think New York is totally segregated. The boroughs are all divided into their own little isotopes, too. In this city—Chicago—it makes perfect sense. I mean…this neighborhood, five years ago, was all Latino and Ukrainian people. During 2001, they voted in a new alderman named Manny Flores, who is very much for urban renewal. They’ve taken a lot of the dilapidated buildings, destroyed them, and built these new condo monsters that inflate property taxes—and families that have lived here thirty or forty years can no longer afford six thousand dollars a year in taxes. So they’re forced by design to leave their homes.”

“Has it affected anyone you know?”

“It’s sad,” he comments. “I’ve seen people that have lived here for so long, just kind of getting booted. A lot of people from the west side—the far west side, like in Downer’s Grove and smaller cities that are thirty miles or twenty miles away from here—are moving back to Chicago because the neighborhoods are, visually, becoming better. I think that the suburbs are going to become inundated with all the people that have been kicked out of these areas. If you’re getting squeezed, you’re probably just going to find wherever you can. We rent a place. Our rent is super-cheap, and we have a nice apartment. It’s not a nice building, but it’s a nice place. Over the past two years—since we’ve moved in there—I’ve seen probably one-third of the original residents leave. The process is: first you move, then the buildings get torn down, finally a new condo gets built. I don’t know where those people are going to go.”

At this point I’m feeling a little speechless. Jeff notices and takes his theory a step further.

“Our building is sure to get torn down. The property is probably worth three or four hundred-thousand dollars.”

“Oh, wow.”

“Yeah,” he continues. “It’s a perfectly fine building, too. It’s just not new and cinder block and cracker-boxy, or any of those things. No one would want to buy it to live in, so they’d have to tear it down and build something new.”

“ And the bureaucracy probably encourages it,” I posit.

“Yeah.”

“What kind of stance does the local government take toward the artistic community—and they understanding?”

“I used to think so, but I don’t anymore,” Jeff says. “There was a time when grants flourished in the city, publicly-funded and federal grants. That money has been squeezed as the economy has gone down the tubes. Anymore, I feel like artists sort of, sadly, pave the way, you know?”

“Yeah, I understand.”

“The artistic community in Chicago is predominantly white, and the white artist in the city—not having enough money to live in a super-nice place—ends up renting an apartment in a moderately sketchy neighborhood, largely because that’s what they can afford. And they do so with full respect to the people who live in those neighborhoods. They don’t move in and carry themselves in a way that’s like…” He pauses. “The artists in those parts of the city know that they’re imposing on these people. And the more artists that move into these sort of…disheveled areas, the whiter they become. Then they get new sidewalks, then more white people come, and then buildings are torn down for condos.”

He reaches out for his lighter and sparks another cigarette. He takes a long drag and exhales. “This neighborhood, I think this neighborhood is second to Poland as far as the Polish natives are concerned.”

“I think that’s been sort of a long-standing stereotype of the area,” I say unsurely.

“For everything I’ve said, I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon. I mean, I love Chicago, and it’s been great to me. I have a lot of fond memories. It’s more the bureaucracy, and their lack of respect for what creativity is here.”

“I think you could probably say that for anywhere, though. Any city you go to, there are going to be gripes against the government for stifling the art movement.”

“Unless it’s broke—unless you go to Detroit where they’re selling houses for five dollars to artists, just to facilitate growth and rebuild the neighborhoods—you know? They’ll offer whatever they can to somebody who can do something with the ghettos. Louisville, in that light, is an antithesis. I think there’s a strong support for the artistic community.”

“I think that’s what left a really strong imprint on me when I was there,” I say. “You could tell from anywhere in the city that there was respect—or even love—for the creative minds in the city.”

“Yeah. It stands alone in that light. There’s a whole lot of money in it now. Another thing that Louisville has—that Chicago sort of lacks in some ways—is that there were a lot of places in the early ‘90s—really small places—that wanted to facilitate music. There was a place in Louisville called Café Da—” He turns around and points to the iron fence maybe four feet behind us. “If you take this fence over to the wall—” he points at the wall to which our table is adjacent, “and then down to the door—” he points across the little courtyard, perhaps ten yards away, “that was the size of this place. There was a counter that would serve baked goods. The band would set up in front of that counter, and then forty or fifty people would jam into this space. It’s one of the only places I’ve ever seen Slint. They hosted shows three or four times a week. There were two or three places in the city that were like that—venues where it was more about the notion of having it exist. That was all that really mattered. It wasn’t about critical acclaim or fame or people paying attention, it was about surviving and continuing.”

“And in Chicago?”

Jeff stamps out his cigarette. “In Chicago, I’d say that there’s a niche that is untapped—where people are interested in it continuing, because it’s inevitable. There’s no survival tactic that’s happening in Chicago. It’s all clubs that want to sell a lot of liquor, and want to make a lot of money—and whoever they can put on stage that’s going to bring in lots of people, that’s what they’re interested in. It’s not about, like, freaking out, or hosting the shittiest band in the history of shitty bands just because they want those bands to get better, or give them a venue to expose themselves, you know?”

[Shipping News – “Paper Lanterns (Zero Return)” MP3]

“Slowly,” I say, “I’m getting the impression that the larger the city I go to, it’s just going to be more apparent that there’s a catch twenty-two relationship between the artistry and the community or government. There are all these benefits, but then there’s an equal number of debilitating factors.”

“I think that’s true. I think that’s consistent and very true, actually. In New York, you’re not looked down upon if you’re a renter. It’s just the way life is. You rent an apartment and you stay there for twenty or thirty years. In Chicago, you might live in an apartment that costs seven-hundred and fifty or eight-hundred dollars a month, but then two years later that neighborhood becomes the next big neighborhood and your rent could be nearly doubled.”

“There is no rent control.”

“Right. Your landlord could say he’s raising your rent. You get one-year leases, if you’re lucky, and your landlord is just always trying to give it to you.” He shifts gears quickly. “There’s a certain amount of cajoling that has to happen in order to break through in this city. My friend Adam has been playing music in Chicago since the age of sixteen, and he’s thirty now. One thing that always hits home with me is when he says, ‘I’m just going to keep doing it this way, because I don’t have the energy to go hang out at the rock club anymore. I don’t have the desire to do that.’ It’s funny, because there are a lot of people that I know who use the age thing as a sort of resistance. They’re doing other things now. It makes me want to vomit. There are so many people I know who were in really good bands that had great energy, and became something else. It’s almost like they think, ‘Oh, that’s just something that I did when I was younger.’”

“I suppose maybe the drive slows with age.”

“Well, maybe what I was pursuing heavily, like, ten years ago, I feel that way. I was out every night going to see bands all the time, and doing as much of it as I could because I was—and still am—entirely interested in all this. I mean, I’ve got a baby. It’s a fantastic and beautiful thing. I want to stay at home and see what he’s doing,” he says, smiling.

“The impressionistic youth might find that to be a depressing and harsh reality,” I point out.

“Oh, no…I couldn’t imagine—” He stops. “My wife and I are very committed to me doing this, and it’s not because I have a baby that it all stops. We’re both fully immersed in having it go on—and, in fact, she’s been hell-bent to get me to leave and do things, and play shows and tour. It just has to be somewhat more restrictive. As far as Leo is concerned, when I’m fifty-five and a house painter, when he turns twenty and that’s all I’m doing…if he says, ‘Well, what did you do before I was born?’ and I tell him, ‘Oh, I roamed the earth with music and I made artwork all the time, but when you were born I stopped,’ he would kick my ass. If I raise him with any ounce of integrity—or what I believe to be strong—he would lay me out and have no respect for me, and be totally depressed and forlorn in his own right. My wife wouldn’t be attracted to me. She’d ask what happened to me. There is no way in the history of history that I would stop doing any of the things I was doing before my son was born. It’d be untrue.”

“I have no basis for comparison,” I say quickly. “I’m just entering the real world now, but I think you have the right idea. I mean, you have to do what makes you happy, and with as little added conflict or stress as possible. You navigate those waters well.”

“I think as far as, like, when we were talking about blue-collar workers before, or people who do things to fortify their lifestyles, it’s hard—at the front-end—to find a job that’s going to enable you to do the things you want to do. But when that particular thing occupies too much space, the time you spend on the creative side slowly starts to get pinched. For me, that’s the time to go. There’s people who find strength and security from wealth. For me, the way that I find my strength and stability is by doing what I like.”

“Which is being constructive with your time.”

“Yeah, I mean, if I squeezed all my creativity out of my life, that would be a false sense of security, because I would lose it. I would be a bummer to be around, and I’d constantly be wishing I was doing something else. It seems natural to me to have four different things happening congruently.”

“To keep the, I guess you would call it, the depressing aspect of job-working in the margins, as opposed to taking up the majority of space in your life,” I say.

“Yeah. Fortunately, I’ve found jobs that I like to do. As far as running a print shop is concerned, and even with music, I feel like the more you commit to those things and the more you invest in those things, the more they give back. I certainly wouldn’t say that I’m a success, or that it’s worked out for me—but I’ve been able to make my life work and I’m happy. You know, it’s worked in that light. I couldn’t have asked for anything more, really. I’ve got a baby. I’ve got a wife. I’ve got my house. I’ve got three jobs that I really love to work. I don’t have the fancy cars. I don’t have three computers. I don’t have a satellite cell phone. I don’t have a Tivo,” he starts to laugh. “I don’t have all that crap, but I don’t care about it either. I feel like my neighbors, who live in their fancy condos might look into my windows and think about how they can’t wait for our place to be torn down.”

“And you foresee that happening—you see your building being torn down?” I ask.

“Oh, yeah. Probably some time in the next five years, my landlady will tell us the property is worth a ton of money, and the cycle will sustain itself.”

***

“It’s interesting, the reactions you get in certain cities,” Jeff begins. “I think that for a long time [in] the Olympia, Washington scene, their reaction to music was to be a-musical. And I thought that was pretty poignant. You know, for the type of politics that most of the bands on the label try to perpetrate.”

“K Records,” I add. “Their aesthetic seems to encapsulate that premise, most of their bands sound remarkably similar.”

“Well, Unwound doesn’t,” Jeff points out.

“Unwound was a Kill Rock Stars band, but they were a bit of an anomaly for Olympia,” I concede, “but even their sound, from an album like Repetition to Leaves Turn Inside You, moved in a K Records-like direction. The first time I heard them I thought they sounded like Shellac. [But] Leaves Turn Inside You is more into that spacey ambient sound. Maybe they’ve adapted to the area?”

“Sure…sure…” he thinks it over. “But then there’s a whole bevy of, like…well, the ‘Riot Grrl’ movement, and things like that. I don’t know—I mean, I wish I had positive feelings about the ‘Riot Grrl’ movement.”

I smile and ask jokingly, “You’re not digging the new Sleater Kinney?”

“I actually like Sleater Kinney! I like Heavens to Betsy—I don’t know that I even quantify it as that kind of ‘Riot Grrl’ music. They’re definitely part of it, but I’m talking more about…”

“Bikini Kill?”

“Not Bikini Kill, but maybe Bikini Kill.”

“Hmm.” I start to think about it a bit more deeply.

“More like…Brat Mobile?” he suggests.

“Yeah, that’s a good one.” I should have said that first.

“Yeah. It was like…it had all this possibility. It was like, all these people who it seems were pushing them forward, saying, ‘Be this! Be this!’—but there was no fiber or integrity to it. It just kind of went like—” he smacks the tabletop hard with his palm—“and it was such a disappointment to me because I was thinking, ‘Yes! Finally! You’re doing it! You mean it…what do you mean? Wait—Wait—Where’d you go?’” He starts laughing. “But as far as the music was concerned it was more about the political—”

“Oh, yeah,” I interject, “the pent-up aggression from decades of sexism and misogyny.”

“Sexism in music, and sexism in general,” he agrees. All that stuff, it kind of became exactly what it was kicking against. It became cutesy, and it became a magazine—or pretty much all these magazines, and products that have no…” He drifts off.

“The way you’re describing it reminds me a lot of modern punk-rock and what it means to be punk today,” I say.

“Canned punk?” He asks.

“Exactly.”

“It’s white belts and junk.” He laughs. “It’s the White Belt Community, where everyone is looking for some fashion incentive. I can’t even wear clothes anymore.”

“The minute people lay their eyes on you, you’re doomed. They’ve sized you up, they’ve classified you, you’re in a genre, and there’s no way out of it,” I decree.

“Yeah, and that’s my problem with the ‘Riot Grrls’! It was kind of like they went from—I keep trashing the ‘Riot Grrls’.” He leans over my recorder and whispers, “I’m sorry, ‘Riot Grrls’. I’m sorry.” Then he continues, “And the other thing about the ‘Riot Grrl’ movement, if I may continue about the ‘Riot Grrls’ now that I’ve told myself I’m not going to talk about them—you had to fit the mold in order to be accepted. I mean, if it’s a movement for women, it seems like all women should be accepted into the ‘Riot Grrls’—but there was a certain outfit, a uniform. It’s like in the punk-rock male community; you had to look like a UPS man or security guard. In the ‘Riot Grrl’ movement, you kind of had to look a little edgy, a little trashy, and a little broken. If you looked ‘together,’ or if you looked a certain way, you didn’t look like what the anticipating model was. It makes me sad.”

“My impression is that, at some point—” I pause. “The music industry, in general, is dependent on classifications and genres—and each one seems to, at one point, go through that moment when it seems like it’s lost all meaning. At the same time, there’s still that presence of the original goal, a morsel of the honesty or integrity, or whatever—but it just becomes a damaged version of the original, is what I think I’m trying to say.”

“It just becomes a gray shape,” Jeff says. “It all becomes gray, and you can name the music industry—it could be an actual cartoon character—but then, you have bands that are doing completely insane things. You have things that are just completely reacting against that, and making really beautiful and moving music.”
“I mean, if you take any aspect of art—be it painting, or music, or…comic book drawing, they all seem to fit that same mold at one point or another.”

“Yeah,” he agrees.

“I think that I—” I stop myself and wonder where I’m going. “Well, I’m hesitant to refer to myself as a musician, but the thing that keeps me interested—the thing that draws me to art in general—is the fact that it’s, like, it’s a beautiful cycle of how five or ten people in a common area can have something that they hold so dear, and they’ll make something out of it. At the same time, there are ten or twelve people who see what’s being held dear, and they want to react to it. It’s just perpetuating itself in all these different facets of art.”

“Yeah. I’ve always had a hard time putting a genre on something, or even being interested in what a genre is. I just feel like, whatever I was feeling right at the time, or however it came out of my hands or mouth, is the way it was supposed to be. It’s not really about any of the things that people might attribute it to. I feel genre names like ‘rock’ and ‘math rock’ and ‘post rock’ are easy and possibly necessary terms that were invented by people who write about music, so that people who are reading their reviews might be able to identify what’s being said. For me, when someone asks me if I consider myself ‘post rock’ I tell them I don’t know what the hell that is. They’ll say, ‘It seems like you draw influences from King Diamond and REO Speedwagon and—”

“Don’t forget the rap!” I remind him.

“Grand Master Flash…” he continues, “all these things. I mean…I am what I eat. I’ve seen these things, and they go into me and they inspire me. It isn’t like I sit down and I consciously write something, and it’s going to be one particular thing. Whatever happens, happens.”

“You’d be naïve not to expect that everything you experience in life plays into what you create. Even if it’s a melody you’ll never remember you heard once in a Weird Al song or something.”

“Yeah, I think so, too,” he says. “At the other end of the spectrum, I think that there are things that come off as cheap imitations, because they are. There are people who think Shellac is a great band, and they want to sound like that. They want to make that music, and have people identify it as their music,” he says, as he slaps the table again. “They idolize things in such a way, they hold it in such high regard that they actually think, ‘I want to have that. I want people to look to me for that thing,’ as opposed to really respecting the art for what it is, and then getting frustrated when they create something that is completely a reflection, and getting frustrated because they’re not gaining anything.”

“I don’t know how present it is in Chicago—but in New York, it’s hard to go to a show and not see a band that makes you think, ‘Okay. I get it. You have the complete Velvet Underground discography loaded into your stereo at home.’”

“Oh, like the whole current MC5, Gang of Four madness. There has been an infinite number of bands that have done this before the current crop of bands—a few that did it well—and only one that it actually is.”

“I think that played into my psyche a little when I drew up this project,” I tell him. “I wanted to make sure it wasn’t straight band profiles: I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just highlighting the work of similar-sounding bands. I want it to be a portrait from the angle of bands looking at the places they come from, because I think it paints a clearer portrait of a band than just lumping them together with a bunch of other bands that may sound the same, putting it in a book with a common heading, and trying to sell it.”

“I think that’s interesting,” he says. “It touched on a really interesting topic for me, which is, identifying music with other music. As far as the amount of creativity that’s happening in Louisville is concerned—from the late ‘80s through today—I think that at the beginning, Louisville wasn’t on the map, and they weren’t trying to keep up with anyone. Only a handful of people there really knew what was happening on the national circuit, so it was interesting music—but it was also kind of rearing its head in its own fashion, in its own format. Probably the biggest and most influential band to come out of Louisville, as far as our scene is concerned, was Slint. Slint didn’t become that entity until long after they disbanded. They did that reunion tour last year, and played to more people then they did in their entire career as a band.”

“Slint was, I think—and you will know this better than I—a basement band, a party band, for the most part. They didn’t want to be known as musicians really trying to get out and break something open, they just wanted to be artists.”

“Yeah, I think that they were just so enigmatic that it would never have crossed their minds, as much as just doing it for what it was. Their shows—I wouldn’t say they were painful—but they were…you saw them on this tour, right?”

“I did,” I answer.

“You had to be really patient to get through them,” he finishes.

“With the breaks between songs?”

“If you thought those breaks were too long…” He shrugs his shoulders. “Ten minutes? Fifteen minutes between songs? They were just kind of doing it because that was what it was. They wrote these songs and they wanted them to come off right, and they’re really just craftsmen and musicians at the same time.”

“I think, aside from the stragglers in the crowd shushing everyone during those pauses, it came off beautifully.”

“Yeah, yeah…I didn’t get to go, but I wanted to. What I meant to say is—if that’s the case, if Slint is the main band put to Louisville—and they weren’t fully realized until after Spiderland was recorded, then how did all these other things that were happening—I mean, there were bands like Freakwater, Evergreen, King Kong—”

“Metroschifter and Kinghorse,” I add.

“Kinghorse was another intense, inspirational experience for me,” he relates. “Their shows were always really, really good. At that point I was fifteen years old and seeing Kinghorse, without ever having listened to Black Sabbath. If you listen to Kinghorse, it’s like, it’s fucking Black Sabbath. Straight out of the south end, Louisville dudes who are typical Louisville guys—I don’t want to sound mean, but—surly, beer-drinking, freak hippy, really great dudes. Seeing their shows was like opening a door. Cinderblock was another band. Scott Richter was in a band called Sunspring, before Metroschifter. Spot was a really influential punk-rock band. There were all kinds of stuff. Did you ever see Suburbia?”

“No,” I answer.

“It was kind of like Suburbia. It was pretty good…” Jeff stops and looks down at the watch on his wrist.

“I’m sorry, have I kept you long enough?” I ask him, suddenly realizing how long we must have been talking.

“I don’t know, I probably should go. I just put Leo to sleep before I came over here. I think I’m gonna…”

He rises from his seat and we shake hands. Before taking off, he gives Jet the address for his letterpress business and invites us to stop by, since tomorrow we’ll be at Grant Park for the Intonation Music Festival. I tell him I’ll give him a call, and, as quickly as he approached hours ago, he glides through the gap in the fence and disappears. I sit down at the table and break down my tape recorder. I lean back in my seat, glance over at Jet, crack a smile and rub my eyes. It’s been a long night. I look around, the tables have changed and the people are dressed differently than they were three hours ago. Around the corner, on Chicago Avenue, the traffic has slowed. We rise from our seats and head out the front door, getting maybe ten feet down the sidewalk before I realize that we never paid our bill.

“Hey,” I say to Jet, “did Jeff pay for his beer?”

“I don’t think so,” she answers, but she hadn’t had anything to drink and hadn’t really kept track of it.

“Shit,” I thought aloud. “Do I have to go back inside? Do you think that they’ll notice?”

“Probably not,” she says.

“So…should I just bolt? That seems horrible.”

Her answer is a shrug: “It’s not my problem.”

In my mind it’s almost more embarrassing to walk back inside and admit I walked out without paying than it is to keep going at this point. That’s the crippling neuroses that runs my life. Do I look an an idiot for walking out without paying only to return and admit it, or do I just walk out without paying? I make up my mind, and my pace quickens as we slip away from the Alcohol Abuse Center. As we’re nearing Jet’s car, I hear rushed footsteps and I freeze momentarily—is it our waitress? But I look up and it’s Jeff.

“I got halfway home and I realized I stuck you with the bill! What do I owe you?”

“Oh…we also forgot to pay. I don’t think anyone noticed. We did change tables.”

“So—are we just bailing?” he asks, looking amused.

“I think so.”

He laughs and says, “If they catch me running past I’ll pay, but I don’t think anyone here is going to notice!”

3 comments

  1. |

    Tumans was the best. Great jukebox, awful bathrooms, crooked pool table, and $2 Guinness. It was a tragedy what they did to that place.

  2. […] that I spent a night interviewing him in Chicago back in 2005, which you can read (in its entirety) right here. And although I’m sure Jeff has long forgotten that evening I consider it to be the highlight […]

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