Living rent-free allowed me to accrue enough capital to start a small business. While I could have started any number of potentially profitable and socially responsible business ventures, I chose to bring Chunk Records back from the grave. Inspired by the rise of Nirvana and the example of Sebadoh's "Gimme Indie Rock" 7-inch, I reinvented Chunk as a purveyor of limited edition 45s. At the time, labels like Sympathy for the Record Industry were doing great things with the format, which at one time had been the dominant medium, until it was surpassed by the LP, and later the CD. I wanted to emulate the Sub Pop Singles Club, but I knew I didn't have enough loot to put out a record every month. I decided to start small, and I had just the right song to relaunch the label.
CH451: THE CHEETAHS:
A Message to Santa Claus/That's Your Problem
After the break-up of the Malarians, I made a point of not starting another band, reasoning that the rock 'n roll lifestyle was just so much wanking into the wind. However, one of the dudes on my baseball team, Ezra Gale, played guitar, as did my roommate, Chris Soucy, and we threw together a band to play at a fundraiser for the team. We called it the Mal Thursday Experience. Having gotten another taste of the joy of kicking out the jams on stage, I was hooked, and decided to turn up the knobs to 11.
Ex-Malarian John Lebhar had started a band called Farmhouse, which was sort of an uneven blend of R.E.M. and CSNY. Although I didn't care much for the music they made (I tended to dislike all of my ex-bandmates' new projects), I did admire their live version of the James Gang's "Stop" and especially their rhythm section, which I stole to transform the Mal Thursday Experience into the rock powerhouse that would become the Cheetahs. Bassist Brent Nielsen was a jazz player, but was capable of John Entwistle-type lead runs, while drummer Nelson Bragg, who now plays with Brian Wilson's backing band the Wondermints, was not only a great drummer, but also sang like an angel.
We worked up a killer set, many of the tunes ("Try It My Way," "Spundalina," "It's All Going By Too Fast," etc.) coming from a rock opera I was writing with Chris, loosely based on my old friend and bandmate Kent Garver's losing battle with heroin addiction. We went into Slaughterhouse Recording in the Summer of '92 to lay down our best stuff. Among the resulting 11 tracks was a profane rewrite of the Malarians' "Get Outta Dallas" called "A Message to Santa Claus":
Fuck you, Santa Claus / You never done nothing for me / Said there weren't no toys / When I looked under my Christmas Tree / Fuck off, Fatso You whacked-out, sad, sick clown / Get outta Brooklyn / Turn them reindeer around!
In October, Chunk released "A Message to Santa Claus" with a naked Bettie Page on the cover and a cover of the Outsiders' "That's Your Problem" on the B-side, in a limited edition of 300 copies on festive red vinyl. It quickly sold out, and Chunk Records was back on the map.
CH452: THE VERONICA CARTWRIGHTS:
Hey Girl/Mirror Mirror/Everything I Own
One of the crucial elements in Chunk's rebirth was my role as the master of ceremonies and booking agent at the Bay State Hotel in Northampton, which had started with an arts grant I had received to create a live performance series called the Bay State Cabaret, originally intended to be a mix of bands from various genres, spoken word artists, comedians, etc.
The first show, in early '92, demonstrated that the format needed to be tweaked: the female comedian wasn't funny, the spoken word guy was a waste of time and space, and the crowd was anything but. A crowd, that is. By November, I had refined the formula to feature nothing but music, with a show headlined by the Lyres and the Cheetahs that was a rousing success. Another show, in January of '93, headlined by Sebadoh, was packed to the rafters, and the following Monday, I got hired to put on regular gigs at $400 a week, plus a cut of the door. I started getting a lot of demo tapes, and began to put together the next volley of Chunk releases. I had already decided to put out singles by New Radiant Storm King, whose first CD My Little Bastard Soul impressed me mightily (they were also students at my alma mater, Hampshire College), and Angry Johnny, a local artist and profilic songwriter of psycho-billy death ballads and gutbucket, shit-kicking country-punk.
One of the demos that impressed me came from a band called the Veronica Cartwrights, named after a '70s character actress who specialized in playing nervous types, and fronted by Californian Jeff Lloyd, featuring some tasty fuzzbox action (I was always a sucker for good fuzz). I took them into the studio (on their dime, of course), and recorded four songs, three of which comprised their debut EP. Lloyd's quavering voice was off-putting to some, and some critics were unkind to the band's version of Bread's "Everything I Own," but I dug it all. Established local bands like Free Press and the Big Bad Bollocks were probably affronted that I ignored them in favor of an unheard-of little band that had only played a handful of shows, but I was trying to forge my own aesthetic, and besides, Free Press sucked. And the Bollocks wouldn't let me take a cut of the door at the Bay State (which was partly how I could afford to make records in the first place), so the hell with them.
CH453: NEW RADIANT STORM KING:
Subway Token (Save My Soul)/Rival Time (Viral Mind)/Lord Is Coming
As I mentioned earlier, New Radiant Storm King was the real deal. Their first full-length was full of good songs and good ideas, and they had two distinct voices in Peyton Pinkerton and Matt Hunter, and the third, their drummer Elizabeth Sharp, was pretty distinctive in her own right. Sharp created the cover art for their 3-song 7-inch, and the top side, written and sung by Pinkerton, "Subway Token (Save My Soul)," stands as the most accessible number in their 15 years as a band. Their friend Zeke Fiddler would later pay homage by stealing the riff for his Chunk single, "Half Inflated."
Storm King would go on to release several more tracks on the Chunk imprint, most notably the split 7-inches with Silver Jews and Guided By Voices.
For more on this fine band, go to furnacerock.com.
CH454: ANGRY JOHNNY:
Henry (with THE KILLBILLIES)
Ring of Fire (with THE CHEETAHS)
Angry Johnny is indeed a prolific artist, both as a painter of gruesome outsider art, and as a songwriter/performer, with literally hundreds of songs to his credit. His lone 45 for Chunk consists of a typically violent tale of love and revenge about an unfortunate young man named Henry, who meets his comeuppance at the hands of the local cops. The B-side was Angry fronting the Cheetahs' arrangement of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire." His vocals are a little undermixed on the record, owing to producer Sean Slade thinking that it was just a bar-band cover-type throwaway, and not destined for release as a single. He also expressed his distaste for Johnny's pig squeals over the rave-up at the end.
Apparently, it was my last chance, as a message on Johnny's MySpace page states that, "On Saturday December 1st 2007 in Provincetown Massachusetts, Angry Johnny and the Killbillies played their final show. Thank you to everyone who has supported the band over the many years."
Oh well. So it goes.
See Section/Racing for Nowhere/Tacks & Nails
Hoolapopper was a short-lived band from Ware, Massachusetts, whose demo caught my ear in late '92, as a nice blend of crunchy, metallic guitar and good ol' "pop smarts." Mind you, this was before bands like Blink 182 forever sullied the term "pop-punk" with their whining wankery. But I digress. I liked Hoolapopper, both as a band, and as good dudes. Tom, Matt, and Garrett were honest joes who could write good songs and rock a room with the best of them.
But like I said, they didn't last long, and soon moved on to other projects. Tom Shea ended up playing drums and mandolin with the Scud Mountain Boys (read all about their skulduggery in Chapter Five, "The Decline and Fall of Chunk Records"), Matt Hebert went on to front Ware River Club and his current band Haunt, while Garrett Fontes had a lengthy run drumming for New Radiant Storm King.
Chapter Three: Salad Days
1993 was what you could call a "watershed year" for Chunk, the Bay State, and the Western Mass music scene in general. The previous year, Billboard had written a story pegging Northampton as "The Next Seattle," prompted by a guy named Dave Blowhair who had a local label called JamaDisc that was the antithesis of what I wanted Chunk to be. Blowhair blew his wad on CDs by the Big Bad Bollocks, Dieselmeat, his own band (the name escapes me) and a spotty compilation of local bands entitled Big Fish in a Little Pond.
I hoped to stay around for the long haul, and build the label at a sane pace. The first step toward establishing the label had been taken. Most of our first wave of 45s had sold well enough to establish Chunk Records as a force to be reckoned with by the major independent distributors (most all of which have since been rendered extinct by the rise of digital downloads). For the time being, I wanted to stick to 7-inches, but ultimately, I hoped to develop artists that would release full-length albums for the label. Then, when they got snapped up by a major label, the buyout money would fund more records for more bands. And when those bands got signed, the buyouts would fund even more records for even more new bands.
Of course, you know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men...
One of my favorite bands of all-time is Boston's Lyres, who have churned out an amazingly consistent body of work since their inception in 1979. Formed in the wake of the break-up of Beantown punk legends DMZ, and led by the mad genius of Jeff "Monoman" Conolly, the band has gone through many line-up changes, but thanks to Jeff's obsessive vision (some would call it "tunnel-vision"), they have remained true to their time-worn aesthetic. Inspired by '60s garage bands like the Sonics and the Remains, the Lyres' sound combines Conolly's distinctive voice and Vox organ playing with tremoloed guitar, crash and boom drums, and the fluid bass work of Rick Coraccio.
I approached Conolly about releasing a Lyres 45 on Chunk, and he was receptive, providing I paid him an advance, and use his ace version of Richie and the Renegades' "Baby It's Me" as the A-side. The B-side was an alternate version of the Roadrunners' "I'll Make It Up to You" that I preferred to the version on the Happy Now album on Taang!
The resulting vinyl was one of Chunk's finest hours.
Both sides were reissued a couple of years later on Norton's Those Lyres compilation.
CH457: ZEKE FIDDLER: Half-Baked/Half-Inflated
Zeke Fiddler was a fixture in the Northampton scene. While at Hampshire College, he began to perform his original compositions at shows on campus, and was later adopted as sort of a mascot by J Mascis and the Dinosaur Jr. entourage. When I met him, he had just inked a deal with the indie label SpinArt to release his Waterproof album, which had to be negotiated away from Dave Blowhair, with whom Zeke had signed a criminally one-sided deal in '92. I booked him to play a show at the Bay State, and we became friends. He told me he had hated me for making fun of his name on the air when he had called in a request to The Mal Thursday Show on WMUA a few years earlier, but I assured him I probably just said "Zeke" a bunch of times because it was a cool name. Anyway, at the time, I was recording a lot of the shows with a TEAC four-track, and took a liking to one of his songs, "Half-Baked."
Can't really blame him for that one.
In my case, a lot of it went into the pocket of the late, great Arthur Lee, mercurial genius of L.A. psychedelic/folk rock legends Love.
By the Summer of '93, word had spread that there was finally a hip venue in Northampton for touring rock bands. One of the booking agents I worked with called to see if I had an opening on a Monday night for Arthur Lee & Love, who were doing an East Coast club tour.
Unfortunately, Monday was the one night of the week I couldn't book, as there was a pre-existing condition known as "Blue Monday," where Bid Ed Vadas & the Fabulous Heavyweights played the white man's blues every week. I tried to persuade Big Ed to let me have one night -- I even promised to pay his usual guarantee for not playing -- but he wouldn't budge. I then tried to negotiate with Jordi Herrold, the owner/manager of local folk/jazz club the Iron Horse, and a notorious dickhead. He said that the date was available, but that he was disinclined to give it to me. Same thing at Pearl Street, the mainstream venue next door to the Bay State.
Undeterred, I booked the show at the Northampton Center for the Arts. Long story short, lacking the publicity arm of the other venues, and the hipster cachet of the Bay State, the show drew only about 50 people, and I took a bath. To add insult to injury, the next day, when I took Arthur out to lunch at the Northampton Brewery, he hit me up for another grand for songwriting royalties and the use of his trademarked logo on the Unloved double 7-inch. When I showed him the artwork for the record, which was a sketch of him by New Radiant Storm King's Peyton Pinkerton, he was livid, saying, "Who's that Ubangi-looking motherfucker? Is that supposed to be me? Looks more like Hugh Masakela!"
At considerable expense, the artwork was redone, and the following year, Arthur played the Bay State to a full house. I almost broke even on that one.
Here's a record that I can remember very little about. I don't remember the song titles, or much about the band. I remember their singer was named Todd. They were UMass kids, I think, and they paid for the pressing. This was another record that Zeke counseled me against putting out. I figured, hey, the more the merrier, right? My distributors were suitably unimpressed, and I think we sold less than a hundred total. Unfortunately, there was another equally nondescript but slightly less obscure band by the same name from the Pacific Northwest, and also a fairly good one from Australia who are still around.
Still, I must have liked them, because I wouldn't have released it regardless of whether or not they were footing the bill.
The Lumber who made this EP have since vanished. Into the woodwork, you might say.
CH4510: SILVER JEWS/NEW RADIANT STORM KING Split 7-inch
The best-selling title in the history of the label, this one came about because of the fact that David Berman of the Silver Jews was an MFA student at UMass, lived in the same apartment as Zeke Fiddler, and had a mutual admiration for New Radiant Storm King. The Jews were originally a lo-fi art project by Berman in collaboration with Steven Malkmus and Bob Nastonovich of Pavement that found a home on the ultra-hip Drag City label. The band evolved into a vehicle for David's brilliant imagery and proved itself capable of musical depth and beauty, with or without Malkmus. At the time, Pavement was totally hot shit, indie rock gods of the moment, and that certainly didn't hurt sales of the record.
The tracks: "Sabellion Rebellion" and "Old New York" by Silver Jews; "Rocket Scientist" By NRSK.
"Half Baked" – Zeke Fiddler
"Phone Call" – New Radiant Storm King
"Sunday" – Home
"Hooked" – Lumber
"I'll Make It Up To You" – Lyres
"You're No Boy Wonder/Nothing You Can Do" – The Unband
"Traces Of Alignment" – Skinner Pilot
"Miss America" – Tizzy
"I Love You, Girl" – Queer
"Falling Down" – Ray Mason Band
"Frog" – The Veronica Cartwrights
"Nuclear Man" – Angry Johnny and the Killbillies
"Four Wheeled Friend" – Fuzzy
"Alone At Last" – Steve Westfield
"Stolen" – Hoolapopper
"Miami" – The Dots
"Ten Long Years" – The Maggies
"Believe You Me" – Miss Reed
"I Should've Sued" – Squeek
"I Like My Life" – Philth Shack
Though I haven't listened to it in many years, I was proud of Hotel Massachusetts, which was intended as a musical snapshot of a time and place, and certainly succeeds on that level. I know I regretted some of the choices in terms of which bands made the cut, and looking at the track list now, I cannot recall some of them at all (who were the Dots?). The cassette version contained a few more artists, like Mother Holly and a couple of others, but we didn't make too many of 'em, as I recall. Also, the printer really fucked up Eric Talbot's great comic book cover art. The major accomplishment was that Chunk was now dealing in full-lengths, not just singles.
Ultimately, it would be our undoing.
In Part Three of "The Chunk Records Story," Mal releases some of the most popular titles in the Chunk catalogue, but begins to regret not having taken any business courses in college, as his attempts to grow the label are thwarted by naivete, stupidity, and alt-country effrontery.