Monday, October 29, 2007

The Chunk Records Story, Part One

After being listed as a "Hero" on the MySpace page of the Sierra Grille in Northampton, Massachusetts, former site of the Bay State Hotel, the club I ran for several years back in the '90s, I got a mess of "Friend Requests" from people and bands I knew and worked with back then.

It got me thinking about the old days. At the same time I was promoting live shows at the Bay State, I was also running an independent label, Chunk Records.
So I figured I would write an informal history of Chunk, the little indie that professed to be "obscure but rewarding," and promised "Medium Fidelity, Extreme Quality," releasing over 30 titles between 1986 and 2000, by artists including Guided By Voices, Sebadoh, Silver Jews, New Radiant Storm King, Lyres, and DMZ, to name but six. So I Googled some of the bands whose records I'd put out, and searched for images to accompany the telling of the tale.

In the process, I discovered that some clown in London had started another, different, and I gotta say, highly inferior label called Chunk Records. An imprint that specializes in "Lounge Hop," whatever that is. Well, according to the Sunday Times, it is a style of music "pioneered by DJ Neil Nuff - old school hip hop meets funk, house and chill in the new party sound."

No wonder I've never heard of it. Sounds like complete ear vomit to me.

But I digress. Clearly, the story of the real Chunk Records is a story that must be told, and who better to tell it than me, the man who lived it, and can sort of remember bits and pieces of it.

Chapter One: Chunk Records is Born

Back in the Spring of 1986, I had just graduated from Hampshire College with a largely useless Bachelor of Arts degree in Creative Writing and Theatre. I split up with my cute L.A. girlfriend, who promptly went home and started dating some dickhead whose video was getting played regularly on MTV (for the record, it was one of the guys from David and David -- I think his name was David). After six years as a college student, I was thrust into the real world with no girlfriend, no job and no prospects. I could have applied to grad school or gone out and gotten a real job. But I wasn't having any of that.

I was in a rock & roll band.
The Malarians had formed in the Spring of 1984 as an homage to the mid-'60s garage bands that I dearly loved. Clad in black turtlenecks, specializing in four-chord rave-ups and crude lyrical motifs, the group evolved from an art project into a working band over the Summer of '85. I convinced guitarist John Lebhar to join the band, and become "Johnny Tomorrow." I co-opted the rhythm section of local punk band Pleasant Planet, drummer Eric Payne, alias "Lime Rickey" and bass player Kent Garver, a/k/a "Slater Awn." I was "Mal Thursday," the lead singer, harmonica player, and organist, but I was no great shakes as a keyboard player, so I got original member Jimm Erickson (a/k/a "Reverend Jimm" a/k/a "Jimm Chanson" a/k/a "The Old Man and the Sea") to sit in on Farfisa organ. He was later replaced by Bob Sherwood, better known as "Bob Medley," who had played drums in an earlier incarnation of the band.

Hey, if you wanted to be in my band, you had to have a stupid pseudonym. More than 20 years later, I still use mine, albeit strictly part-time.

So, having just graduated from college, instead of pursuing a legitimate career, I went into the music business. If we were going to make it, we would have to make a record. And since no self-respecting record company was going to sign us, we made up our own. Thus, Chunk Records was born. The origin of the label's name came from Johnny's day job doing construction at the local VA hospital, where a certain unfortunate Viet Nam vet with shrapnel in his brain was often heard to exclaim, "Chunk!"

The Malarians:
In the Cool Room
Tracklist: One Time Only/The Lone Star Surfer/Gilligan’s Wake/Super Lungs (My Supergirl)/Old Enough To Know/Little Girls Cry/Tuesday’s Child/Mopar/Brightness/Deep Inside/Up To No Good
Earlier that year, we'd travelled to Wallingford, Connecticut, to record at Trod Nossel Studios, where the Wildweeds had recorded their 1967 hit record "No Good to Cry," and where fellow garage revivalists Plan 9 had cut their first LP. We made a record that sounded nothing like what I heard in my head, and not nearly as good as we sounded on stage. But we had made a record, and we sold a shitload at our shows and in the local shops. The highlights included a nice arrangement of Donovan's "Superlungs (My Supergirl)" and a couple of holdovers from Pleasant Planet, "Brightness" and "The Lone Star Surfer."

I'll let ace garage-o-phile Moptop Mike Markesich explain the difference between In the Cool Room and the Malarians' live attack: "I saw these guys play three times in New Haven, CT, where I live, back in '86 - '88. I bought their LP when it came out, and I couldn't believe how bad it SUCKED! VERY slick, synthy-sounding...NOTHING like their live shows. I thought these guys were incredible live. The first time I saw them, I was floored. One of the best sets of 60's garage I've ever heard. Lots of energy, and could these guys SING! They covered "Little Girl" by the Syndicate of Sound (No one else has come close to doing this justice), and "Walk In The Sun" by the Turtles, which blew me away -- I mean, who in 1986 would cover that track? ...The Malarians were strictly all about FUN. Their sound was GREAT and their live sets RULED --swingin', rockin' and just plain done right. Which has always made it a mystery to me why their LP In the Cool Room blew quite so hard. There's a 12" EP called Know that gives you a MUCH better idea of what they were all about. With their haircuts and singer Mal Thursday's (JM Dobies) Buddy Holly horn-rimmed glasses, they looked totally Zombie-fied, and they had a GREAT presence and a really strong sound. JM was a major ham and a blast to watch..."

In 2009, Johnny Tomorrow retrieved the 24-track master from Trod Nossel, baked the tapes, remixed and remastered the record, restored the smokin' cover of the Unrelated Segments' "Where You Gonna Go," and voila, the album now sounds like it should have in the first place. Even MopTop Mike would dig it now. The remixed, remastered version is available as an mp3 album on iTunes, Amazon, and all the other usual suspects, and the limited edition CD can be had exclusively at The Malarians Online Superstore.

Unfortunately, back in '86, we didn't really know what the hell we were doing. But redemption was just around the corner...

The Malarians: Know

Tracklist: Once Upon A Time (In Your Mind)/Hexon Blood Beat/Good Times/What’s New, Pussycat?/No

Having grown disenchanted with the sound on our first album -- the overproduction, the dry mix, the Jiffy Pop drum sound -- we shopped around for another studio. I wanted to record at Fort Apache, a funky 16-track studio in South Boston where the Pixies had recorded some of their best stuff, and that's where we ended up. We worked with Jim Fitting, from the band Treat Her Right (which featured a pre-Morphine Mark Sandman) and Sean Slade, who would go on to co-produce Radiohead's The Bends and Hole's Live Through This, among others.

Unfortunately, we were a little short on cash, the chump change we made on gigs not being enough to fund another full-length. So we had to make do with an EP, which was a drag, because we were at our peak musically, had better songs, and we'd finally found a good place to record. We'd also figured out how to better market the band (although we were still pretty much clueless), and our second record, the Know EP, got good reviews, radio airplay all over the country, and charted on CMJ. For the cover art, we used an old photo of me taken by my Dad back in 1966 (our first LP's cover art was a variation on the Beatles' first album, Please Please Me, with the Northampton State Mental Hospital standing in for the EMI building).

All five songs on the record were worthwhile: "Good Times," was a strong cover of a hilarious Texas garage 45 by Nobody's Children; "Hexon Blood Beat," another number we borrowed from Kent and Eric's old punk band, was a vicious, hard-driving instrumental; "No," which started out as a Cramps-like creeper, had evolved into a gothic epic of malevolent fury; my favorite cut, "Once Upon a Time (In Your Mind)," which I co-wrote with Bobby, was a menacing blend of baroque folk-rock and all-out stomp; and our version of "What's New, Pussycat?" always used to slay 'em when we played it live.

However, we failed Economics 101 because we'd used a significant portion of the run as promos to get all that press and airplay, quickly sold out of the copies we had left, and never were able to repress. Instead, we went back to Fort Apache to record the Great Lost Malarians Album. So it goes.

Know was reissued as a two-for-one album with the 1989 live recording Finished In This Town in June 2010 by Chunk Archives, and is downloadable on iTunes, where you can get the 5 songs from the EP for $4.95, or all 20 songs for $9.99, likewise on Amazon, CD Baby, and all the rest; Also available as a limited edition CD exclusively at The Malarians Online Superstore.

CH1003: The DeMilos
Arguably the most obscure title in the Chunk discography, the DeMilos' EP was originally going to be self-released, but the group felt that being affiliated with the mighty Chunk label would help them get press, airplay, gigs, and the all-important "indie cred." Ten years later, when the label was on its last legs, the practice was revived for releases by Drunk Stuntmen, the Coopers, and Tag Sale, among others. So the DeMilos paid for everything, and we lent 'em the logo, for what it was worth. Ultimately, not much, as the band broke up soon thereafter. Bass player Cheri Knight ended up in the Blood Oranges, and made some nice Americana/alt-country stuff on her own.

CH1004: The Malarians: Finished In This Town

Get Outta Dallas!/Hexon Blood Beat/Broke Down/Prison Habits/#1 Hit Song/Brightness/Action Woman/Sky Wild/Astral Plane/Good Times/Paranoia/This/She Lied/No/Good Times/Don't Want You Either

For reasons once clear and now obscure, the band began to disintegrate in 1989. For one thing, Kent had developed a severe chemical dependency problem, and road trips to gigs and to the recording studio often required a detour to the methadone clinic in Holyoke. Johnny was growing frustrated with a lot of things, and looked forward to having "a real band" with a "real singer." Bobby had an acoustic duo where he could indulge his obsession for XTC and "songcraft." When I started a side project with Kent and my friends the Lonely Moans, so I could play some Stooges-like stuff and be free of "group democracy," the other guys took this as an opportunity to bolt. Johnny, Bob, and Eric tendered their resignations during a rehearsal, to which I responded, "Well, I shall have to replace you then." It was straight out of Spinal Tap.

Kent and I soldiered on, honoring a commitment to open for Treat Her Right at the Rat in Boston. We used a cassette of backing tracks from our unreleased album and one from the Beach Boys' Stack-o-Tracks in place of the departed members. It was Garage Karaoke. When I explained to Mark Sandman that three-fifths of the Malarians had quit the band, he replied sagely, "That's sort of like when three-fifths of a marriage breaks up."

Out of spite, sheer orneriness, and lack of better things to do, Kent and I continued the band, recruiting Mike from the Moans, Steve from Wingtip Sloat, and a guy named Peter "Spec" McHugh (we called him that because we told him he had gotten the gig "on spec," meaning we didn't have to pay him). We hired a mobile recording truck and taped our second gig, at the Zone in Springfield, scene of many triumphant shows in the past.

The resulting live album, produced by me and Sean Slade, was a cassette-only release, because by the time it came to make the CDs, the band was no more. Kent and I overdubbed most of the lead vocals at Fort Apache, owing to the poor performances that had been captured live. I remember I had to talk him out of committing suicide prior to the dubbing session. "Just cut your vocals, man," I told him, "Then you're free to do what you have to do."

Since the live engineer had neglected to mic the audience, we covered up the depressing lack of crowd noise with random soundbites from biker movies, heavy on the Dennis Hopper.

Finished In This Town was reissued 20 years later by Chunk Archives as a two-for-one album with the 1988 Know EP in June 2010, and is downloadable on iTunes, Amazon, CD Baby, et al; Also available as a deluxe limited edition CD exclusively at The Malarians Online Superstore.

After the 1990 release of Finished In This Town, I decided to get out of the rock & roll business altogether, but, like Michael Corleone in Godfather III, "they keep pulling me back in!" I started another garage band, Mal Thursday and the Cheetahs, and revived the Chunk label. But that story will have to wait until the next episode.

In March of 1994, unable to overcome his addictions, Kent ultimately did take his own life. I miss him.

In Part Two of "The Chunk Records Story," Mal reinvents the label as a purveyor of Limited Edition 45s. It's a laugh-a-minute tale of music, money, madness, and mayhem, with special guest stars Arthur Lee, David Berman, and Jeff Conolly a/k/a "Monoman" a/k/a "Pokemonojeff."


806051 said...

What a tale! I wish I was there to experience it in person. You are still a legend...the review from the guy in Conn. is great.

Wasn't the Offspring somewhere in the mix?

it's... said...

there was also a sine qua non precursor ... called "The Answer" ...
and very 60s hullucinogenic it was

Ellis Deem said...

I'll take eighties stupidity over 00's liquidity any decade.

JM Dobies said...

First off, no, 806051, the Offspring weren't in the mix. The Offspring were in my balls. But Chunk did put out stuff by Sebadoh, DMZ, and members of Pavement and Dinosuar Jr., for what it's worth.