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Interview Thu Mar 20 2014
Most of us would agree that the countless Chicago-based record labels and the bands they champion are a plethora of riches. The labels range from the commonly known to the newer upstarts, from Thrill Jockey to Drag City, but while many of these labels do feature many Windy City bands, only a few are exclusively for bands from the city. Notes and Bolts forges its own fiercely Chicago-centric path by focusing its attention on bands that call Chicago home. The label originated from a podcast created by Kriss Stress, who would have Chicago musicians and bands come in to spin their own tracks, as well as selections from other Chicago favorites.
Friday, March 21, marks a new chapter for the label, as they put on the first show of a monthly residency at the G-man Tavern, 3740 N. Clark St. (formerly known as the Gingerman), starting at 9pm. Kicking things off will be Chicago-based bands Swimsuit Addition and MTVGhosts, and you can find out all the information about the show by clicking here.
To learn more about the G-man residency and all things Notes and Bolts, I spoke with Micha Ward, who runs the day-to-day operations of the label. We talked about the label's inspirations, their unconventional approach to releases, and how the inclusiveness of Chicago's music scene can be its greatest attribute.
What is your role at Notes and Bolts and how did you come to be involved with it?
Notes and Bolts has essentially been a document of the underground of Chicago music for about a year-and-a-half. It was started by a gentleman named Kriss Stress, and the label portion started off as an offshoot of the podcast. Some of these younger bands weren't getting any distribution in any physical form. I came onboard last year to take over the label.
So the show led to the formation of the label, in a sense?
Yeah, while we were able to bring Chicago artists in and highlight them via the podcast, it was a sort of a limited medium in terms of exposure, unless we can get some publicity for the podcast as well. But we saw that even some of the mid-level or smaller labels in Chicago were not really Chicago-focused. So Notes and Bolts, the label side of that situation, came out of an attempt to get some of these younger bands, or some of these less established bands into a physical format, whether vinyl or tape or flexi disc; they could take them to their shows and sell and promote themselves.
It's exclusively Chicago-based in terms of the bands that release on the label; can you speak about how the Notes and Bolts crew selects groups to work with?
We try to do things that are on the little-less commercial side and eclectic; if you're a Chicago folk-pop band, or something like a singer/songwriter, that may be a little more mainstream than what we try to go for. There are a lot of young, underground punk bands; we do a lot of electronic, and things like that. We really just do what we like; if we like a band, we'll work with them. There's no contracts or anything, and it's very free form.
You distribute on a lot of unconventional formats. The flexi discs were particularly interesting, and something I was somewhat unfamiliar with.
The flexi disc is a cost-effective, economical way to get a 7-inch vinyl single out into the world. If you're familiar with MAD Magazine back in the day, in the back of their magazine you could rip out a flexi disc and play it on your record player. We've actually put things out on 3x5 floppy disk as well. There's some talk in terms of doing some digital releases. We try to have fun with this stuff. Some of them are not as accessible as I think we would like, though we did sell a lot of 3x5 floppy disks, but I can't believe anybody had anything to play it on. But we try to have a little fun with that, and use that as a vehicle for promotion for our artists.
From past interviews, I've read that Dischord Records in D.C. was a big inspiration for Notes and Bolts in terms of its focus on a specific city and scene. Are there other labels, whether in Chicago or elsewhere that may also have been influential in terms of how you approach running Notes and Bolts?
Well, for me, being from North Carolina, there's Merge Records, and the way they cultivate their artists with a very hands-on approach, a very small office, and a few people. So from that perspective, the way I'd run the label is the way they started out in the early 80s; I'd take a lot of that philosophy in the way I'll work with Notes and Bolts. Kriss is a man of many scenes, and Dischord was certainly a big influence for him. As we come to Chicago, labels like Bloodshot and Drag City, those guys are ones we're going to look up to. Hozac is definitely one we look up to and one we aspire to, as far as a Chicago-based label.
Is there something that seems to differentiate Chicago's scene from scenes elsewhere, something about this city that has struck you as being particularly surprising or notable?
I've lived in a lot of places; I've lived in New York, Seattle, Chicago, D.C., and I was involved in most of those scenes when I was there. I think one thing I could say, and most people say this about Chicago, is that it is very non-competitive. Bands don't seem to have that, and I don't say this in a bad way; I'm sure they're competitive to increase their talent, and bring listeners in, but it's very welcoming for new bands and new ideas. I can't say that for New York, certainly, and not Seattle now; Seattle hasn't been that way since the 90s. But certainly what seemed odd about Chicago, and maybe odd is the wrong word, but certainly refreshing is that bands are really supportive of each other and want to get the best out of each other.
I'm from New York City originally, and for being such a big city, it can be very insular in terms of the scenes that are there. New bands can have difficulty trying to break through.
You come to a punk show in Chicago, and you'll see a guy that makes ambient drone music. And vice versa, you'll see a guy in a surf-punk band really getting into what this guy is doing with drone stuff. There is a wide array of influences in the Chicago scene, but what it really has going for it is its inclusiveness.
There's also the Chicago Underground Music Archive, which is in conjunction with Notes and Bolts.
The Chicago Underground Music Archive is an offshoot of Notes and Bolts, and one of the things we do outside of the podcast and the label itself. The Underground Archive is essentially an archive of live sets; we, as a label (including Kriss, myself and Dale Price, who is on the label) take our recorders out to shows and we ask bands if we can record them. We've also opened that up to anyone in the Chicago area or the Chicago scene who records sets, and we allow them to submit those as well. It's taken a bit of a backseat to what we've been doing lately; we haven't done much over the winter with it, but we've definitely put up some very excitable sets. We've also put together what we'd consider to be a mixtape called Gnarly Shivers, and we invited bands to make a tape of what they're listening to and we've put that on our Facebook page.
It's a great resource to have at your fingertips; there could be this kid in Ohio and his favorite song is from a show at the Empty Bottle last November.
Right, absolutely. The venues in town have been very receptive as well. Sometimes there can be a lot of politics that can go into recording a show, but with the bands we've tried to work with and the venues we've tried to work with, everyone has been supportive of that. And we don't do it...if you've ever worked with a record label or anything of that nature, you don't do it to make money. We just want to document the scene.
Speaking of shows, Notes and Bolts has a show at the Gingerman Tavern coming up on the 21st, which will be the first show in a monthly series at the bar?
That's correct; we're booked at the G-man for March, April and May. Once we get those three dates, we'll discuss with Metro and the G-man. It looks pretty good, we'll just put on the first three shows and go further from there.
Notes and Bolts has put on shows in the past, and I was wondering if this monthly residency might offer some new opportunities.
We've done a lot of stuff with the Bottle, and a lot of stuff with the Burlington in Logan Square. Wrigleyville is a bit of a different animal, a different atmosphere, and it's an opportunity to get Notes and Bolts bands into a new area. While Chicago is very inclusive, the neighborhoods can seem disconnected, so we think that bringing in a different band into the area, you know, since it's not Ukrainian Village or Logan Square, we think it's really going to help them expand their audience in Chicago, and outside of Chicago.
I think Wrigleyville is more of a transient neighborhood than a lot of neighborhoods, you'll have people that come in for a couple of years then move to a different part of the city or out of the city. So I think it's constantly new people, and that's going to be good for the bands; like I said, Notes and Bolts doesn't get money out of it. But the bands, they'll get themselves in front of a different audience.
What's coming up regarding Notes and Bolts? Any plans on the horizon with the label?
With these G-man shows specifically, in April we're going to have a band called Panda Riot that would put out a record with last year, and a band called Axons, which is a offshoot of a duo called Love and Radiation. We have LPs from Swimsuit Addition, a band called She Speaks in Tongues, and several flexi discs in between. This year, we flipped our focus a little bit from putting out thirty things a year to putting out six big LPs, and various sundries, tapes and records in between those. So it's going to be a big year for us in terms of shifting to that larger format with LPs. We put out Panda Riot's LP and had a collaboration with Boulevard Records to put out the new Pink Frost. We'll continue to put on these shows around town, and something we did last year for the first time is a toy drive and we're going to do it again this year at the Bottle around the Christmas season. We're going to give back to the community, and I know that sounds like a cliché, but it's been really great.
We've been really happy, and the community has been really receptive. We see ourselves as an outlet for bands, and we don't consider ourselves an end-all, be-all. We see ourselves as a stopover to get onto Hozac or to Drag City or Bloodshot or one of the bigger labels. We want to be a stepping-stone to help these bands along the way.