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Thursday, December 14

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Transmission
« Rhymefest Working His Way To The Top William Elliott Whitmore at Reggies Live »

Feature Thu Jan 17 2008

Feeding the Flames

The eternal caveat of anyone going into the music business is that you'll work a long time to climb that ladder — and you might only make it halfway. Particularly under siege is the business model of the record label. There are more and more means of distribution, discovery, and devouring music — not all of them involving money flowing towards the artists, let alone their label. While major labels are splintering into vanity imprints in a frenzied rush to lose the stigma of their RIAA antics, small, truly independent labels have only their good name and tastemaking abilities to get them through the day. Flameshovel Records exists in a middle zone for record labels in Chicago. Although still years younger than some local labels (decades in the case of Delmark), they've moved beyond your usual "friends in bands" label. Thanks to a high profile addition of Tim Kinsella's Make Believe to the label in 2003, the fledgling label was able to attract several other larger acts beyond their previous scope and catapult themselves into the ranks of respectable indie labels in Chicago. Now that they've had artists grace the Lollapalooza and the Pitchfork Music Festival stages and consistently receive national press, it's safe to say Flameshovel is on the map. But in their tiny office, Jesse Woghin and James Kenler are still definitely working their way up the ladder.

Feature 1/17 transmission

Jesse (left) and James (right) at the Flameshovel offices

Gapers Block: So let's start with the basics. The label was started in the summer of 2001?

Jesse Woghin: Err…yes. The first record came out in July 2001, although we were getting work done as early as December 2000.

GB: And that record was your friend Judah Johnson?

Jesse: Yeah. Daniel Johnson was a friend of ours in college — the drummer of my band in college was good friends with him and his band, and when we all graduated, he also joined Judah Johnson. They were looking for someone to put out their EP, and we were looking for something to do. So we kinda jumped right in. At the same time, we'd just met the guys from Viza-Noir, and so their EP came out at nearly the same time.

James Kensler: It was originally Jesse and our friend Nash, and I didn't come on until that fall – we all went to college together, but I was a year behind. Jesse and I actually went to high school together.

GB: Nash? I thought it was Noah...

Jesse: Noah Mewborn, Nash Static, he has a lot of different aliases. He's a web designer now in Brooklyn, he left a few years ago. He comes to shows now and then, but he's not really involved otherwise.

GB: Is that why the biography says that you originally split your time between Brooklyn and Chicago?

Jesse: That's probably something Nash wrote when he moved to Brooklyn — but we've always been here.

James: it's all lies.

Jesse: and whatever it is, it's probably no longer relevant.

GB: (taking mock notes) "Enigmatic co-founder fills bio with lies, leaves mysteriously".

James: That's about the truest thing you could write, actually.

GB: Jesse, you're also a member of The Narrator — how long have you been involved with that band?

Jesse: About five years now — just under. We were going to put out our first seven inch ourselves, and then we thought — well, we do have this label…so ever since then, we've been on Flameshovel. I mean, there were a couple bidding wars…

James: I was looking at them for my own personal label…

Jesse: …and my vanity label was really interested in putting it out…and Quincy Jones, too. (laughs)

GB: In addition to the Narrator, you also play with Chin Up Chin Up, correct?

Jesse:Actually, I used to — I don't anymore. It just got a bit much — I loved it, but when Narrator started getting bigger and touring, I couldn't handle doing both. I did write and record the last album and tour with them, but Narrator is my primary passion — and what pays the bills.

GB: There were some strange circumstances surrounding your joining the band — after the loss of Chris Saathoff they asked you to become their full-time bassist. How did you come to accept the position?

Jesse: It wasn't an immediate thing, really — Chris died in February, and I didn't start playing with the band until about 18 months later. They had Mark [Young] of Appleseed Cast filling in for a long time. It was…well, once we put out the first Chin Up Chin Up album, we all became good friends. And we're still really good friends with Jeremy and those guys. We hung out all the time, and Jeremy kept bugging me: "C'mon, play bass, just try it for a show" — and so I did. We played one show at Fireside Bowl, and afterwards I just said "Okay". It happened pretty organically, aside from Jeremy's pushing for it. It was really fun, and I wish I could still do it but… — just too much right now. I still make some guest appearances — I played with them at Lollapalooza. I wouldn't rule out the chance of me playing with them again.

GB: And James, do you have any musical projects of your own?

James: I have no musical talent whatsoever — My one active community service is to not perform any music myself.

Jesse: You're on every Narrator record!

James: I am, that's true — but that's just so I could get on All Music Guide. Am I on All Music Guide?

Jesse: You have to be for that last record… (note: James Kenler remains criminally unnoted on AMG for his contributions to the Narrator.)

GB:So your office is directly above/behind the Empty Bottle — how does that come into play in your business?

Jesse: It's like Seinfeld — [Empty Bottle owner Bruce] Finkelman comes through bursting through the door like Kramer all the time.

James: I work the bar downstairs as well — that's where I moonlight. It's been great — we did a label showcase there on the Fourth of July a few years ago…it also really lets us keep our ear to the ground for bands. Although sound check is really loud…it influences our music industry hours, which are a little later than most people's — and we're doing it in some really loud conditions. But it's a good situation.

Jesse: He hasn't kicked us out yet.

GB: I recently had a similar problem with my landlord over an American Gladiators party.

James: I really wanted to watch that! My girlfriend wouldn't let me.

Jesse: I forgot about that! Was it as good as the original?

GB: They were lacking the giant metal balls.

Jesse: Lots of steroids? Or HGH?

GB: Hard to tell.

Jesse: I was watching a clip of the old show the other day, and I was so confused — how did I ever think that these guys were so cool as a kid?

GB: What do you guys do for food around here — Bite for every meal?

James: I oscillate a lot – I'll go through a period where I'll eat like, 2.6 meals a day here, and then I'll have to stop. But I love Brian's cooking. Sometimes we'll sneak across to places like Andrezej Grill across the street — it's quite good. And Café Balou down the street — I don't quite go there often enough.

Jesse: I tend to bring my lunch a lot.

GB: So let's talk about bands you've seen around that have caught your eye.

James: This band Netherfriends — and Black Ladies — it was one of the more interesting shows I've seen lately. It's nice to see another generation of Chicago music coming along. I think both bands are made up of kids who are at Columbia right now. Nether Friends actually have a Bound Stems connection, so we're keeping our eye on them.

Jesse: Head of Skulls they were good. They sound a bit like like Drive Like Jehu. I was pretty blown away by how huge they sounded. The Oxford Collapse put on a great show recently, but that's like saying "my sister is in a really awesome band"…

James: …All the guys in the band are actually Jesse's sisters. (laughs)

GB:What's on the horizon in terms of Flameshovel?

James: We'll might be involved in another SXSW party with the Hideout — that was a lot of fun last year.

Jesse: Oh, and Mannequin Men are playing at the Abbey Pub on the 18th.

GB: Did they ever find their stolen gear?

James: The cops found some of the gear, but not all of it —
Jesse: So if anyone sees their gear…give it back. We've also got a new Make Believe record coming out in April-ish, and a new Bound Stems coming out in June-ish. We're also releasing a 7" from White Savage in May — it should be rad. The rest is pretty hush-hush for now.

GB: Is it Quincy Jones?

Jesse: Quincy would fucking kill me. Yeah, in the spirit of Radiohead, and all these bands leaving their major labels, we're doing the new Disturbed record — but you can't tell anyone.

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

Read this feature »

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