After 25 years, the influential indie label Touch and Go still rocks.
|Photograph: Anna Knott|
|Touch and Go owner Corey Rusk inside label headquarters|
One of Kurt Cobain’s posthumously published journals contains a list titled
“Things the Band Needs to Do.” Written at the top are (1) make a demo, (2) make a press kit, and (3) find a practice place. Fourth on the list? Make “connections with Touch-n-Go.”
The reference was to a Chicago record label with a roster that reads like a who’s who of underground rock’s earliest days (Big Black, Slint, the Butthole Surfers, Urge Overkill). This year, Touch and Go celebrates its 25th anniversary, and, from September 8th to 10th, it fetes the occasion with a three-day summit of bands at The Hideout Block Party. Highlights of the festival include performances by Ted Leo, CocoRosie, Calexico, and Shellac, plus a Big Black reunion.
Internet sites like MySpace can unite musicians and audiences with just a click. But in 1981, Touch and Go founder and owner Corey Rusk was a high-school student pressing seven-inch records out of his grandmother’s house in Toledo. “Because I was a 16-year-old kid, everything I learned about how to be a record label I either learned or made up as I went along,” says Rusk, now 42.
Rusk moved to Chicago in 1986, a time when the Midwest was exploding with bands that wanted to expand the boundaries of punk. “It was certainly great timing,” he says. He brought along the label, which, over time, served as a bridge for groups like the Jesus Lizard and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who eventually went on to the major labels. “I can’t be that insulted with a band going to a major label,” Rusk says. “The way we operate and what we do is intentionally different.”
The Hideout Block Party (at The Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia Ave.; 773-227-4433) runs September 8th to 10th. Tickets are $35 via ticketweb.com.
Rusk is notorious for his drive (“James Brown is the second hardest-working man in show business,” notes David Yow, of the now defunct band Scratch Acid). In 1990, Rusk created Quarterstick, a sister label, and a distribution company. Despite the scrappy economics of independent rock, Touch and Go now employs two dozen or so full-time staffers. Many of its titles are still in print. And the adventuresome roster of bands past and present have earned it a reputation as one of the most influential rock labels in operation. Perhaps most pleasing to Rusk is the label’s solid reputation among musicians, who say its handshake contracts and 50-50 split in profits have given them financial stability in an infamously unstable business. “I still get checks in the mail,” says Yow, of Scratch Acid, one of the bands reuniting at The Hideout.”[Rusk’s] reputation went before him,” says Jon Langford, of the Mekons. “He’s a beacon of integrity in a cesspool that is this industry.”
Rusk feels particularly appreciative of this sort of tribute since a near-fatal motorcycle accident in 2001. While racing in Daytona, he crashed and was run over by a fellow biker. His spine separated from his pelvis, he suffered internal bleeding, and he broke 20 bones, including both arms and a leg. Today he reports his body is still “creaky” but there is no less spark in his step. “I feel lucky to do this for a living.”