Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Chunk Records Story, Part Three

Part One and Part Two of "The Chunk Records Story" traced the evolution of the indie imprint from vanity label to trademark of quality (and quantity) with releases featuring New Radiant Storm King, Sebadoh, Silver Jews, and Lyres, among others. With the 1994 compilation Hotel Massachusetts, Chunk moved beyond vinyl into the realm of CDs.

Chapter Four: The Beginning of the End

Hotel Massachusetts had sold well for a comp, and proved that Chunk was more than just a boutique label dealing in the hipper-than-thou 7-inch vinyl format. I wanted to find a band to groom for development into a major label act, that was as yet undiscovered, but who would be ready when the majors came calling. Like Sub Pop had done with the money they made when Nirvana signed with the David Geffen Company, Chunk could then further develop its roster of bands, and be a legitimate, profitabl
e independent label.

One night, I was having a pint at the Northampton Brewery when it hit me that the little group playing the open mic was just the band I'd been looking for. The Scud Mountain Boys weren't your garden variety indie rock band. Far from it. They didn't even have a drummer. But they had a genius songwriter and a haunting, lonesome sound that was truly unique.

I decided to make them an offer they couldn't refuse. They didn't refuse, but they would later renege.

No less an authority than Robert Evans once said that "there are three sides to every story: yours, mine...and the truth."

Here's mine.


Steve Westfield wa
s a local singer-songwriter who had been around since the early '80s heyday of the Western Mass Hardcore scene. He was best known from his days with the Pajama Slave Dancers, a joke-punk act with several LPs to their credit, featuring titles like "Train Wreck on Prom Night" and "Full Metal Underpants." He later went solo, and made a series of records, of which "Sittting on the Bottom of the World," his side of this split 7-inch, is fairly representative. The thing that helped garner sales, reviews, and airplay of this otherwise unremarkable performance was the presence of Sebadoh's Lou Barlow on the track. It also attracted the attention of Lou's new label Sub Pop, but they weren't interested in Steve Westfield. They were interested in a Slow Band all right, but not Steve's. It was the Scud Mountain Boys they wanted.

The Scud Mountain Boys - Joe Pernice, Bruce Tull, and Steven DeSaulniers - were the band on which I had chosen to focus my efforts to take Chunk to the next level. They had great material, a cool stage gimmick wherein they performed seated around a table, and a unique sound: confessional country rock on heavy downers. They put the depression back into "No Depression." Their half of the record, "Television," captured their slow acoustic aesthetic perfectly, but was just a warm-up for the one-two punch that was to follow.

CH4512: TIZZY: "New Jersey"/"Betty vs. Veronica"

Tizzy was a band that was two-thirds female, full of quirky energy and poppy, punky songs. They were one of the bands featured on Hotel Massachusetts, and their 7-inch reflected the DIY
ethos of Chunk by its painstakingly hand-painted sleeve. The band members added the paint as fast as I could sell the records, which wasn't all that fast, but it sold respectably enough.

SCUD MOUNTAIN BOYS: Dance the Night Away CD

Track List: Freight of Fire/One Hand/Peter Graves' Anatomy/Letter to Bread/Television/(She Took His) Picture/Where's the Playground Susie?/Combine/Silo/Reservoir/ Sangré de Cristo/ Sweet Sally/Closing Time/Kneeling/Helen

Whereas the Scud Mountain Boys' split 7-inch with Steve Westfield was intended as an appetizer, Dance the Night Away was meant to be the main course, a tour-de-force displaying everything the band did well. As the bigtime beckoned, the Boys had added former Hoolapopper frontman Tom Shea on drums and mandolin, and he appears on several cuts.
A couple of the tracks dated back to their days as the Scuds, an earlier, electric incarnation I had witnessed playing at Sheehan's, and later booked on one of the first Bay State Cabaret shows. I remember my foremost first impression of the Scuds had to do with Joe's girlfriend, who was quite lovely (the phrase "cupid's bow mouth" comes to mind). Some of Joe's best songs ("Grudge Fuck" comes to mind) were directly inspired by her.
The Scuds were OK, but the Scud Mountain Boys were great, and had indie cred. They were a band's band, a critic's wet dream.

Anyhoo, when I made my offer to sign the band to Chunk, the Scud Mountain Boys were still a fairly well-kept secret, and completely unknown outside of the Valley. We had a sit-down at the Bay State, with their producer and designated consigliere, Thom Monahan, sitting in. I offered them a deal that would include the split7-inch, the CD release of Dance the Night Away, a vinyl pressing of their previously cassette-only Pine Box (and also on 8-track cartridge, if possible), plus the all-important option for a third full-length, that would necessitate a buyout should they sign with a bigger label, as per my master plan.

We shook hands like honorable men, and I arranged to have our agreement drawn up by a local attorney who shall remain nameless, although I will say that she was the sibling of one of the Mamas and Papas. Unfortunately, by the time she actually drew up the contract, the records were already released, and the feeding frenzy had begun.

CH1008: MISS REED: Corn CD

Anyway, this was another band-financed effort that hoped to exploit the indie cred of the mighty Chunk label, but failed to sell for various reasons. It was too pop for a lot of the indie rock types, and too metal for the shoegazers. Also, it's best track was already on Hotel Massachusetts.

Miss Reed was a band that was less than the sum of its parts. Leader Ray Neades was a talented songwriter and excellent guitarist who I'd played with in the Cheetahs and who would later be part of the plus-size AC/DC tribute band Beefy DC. Bassist Frank Padellaro, who I also played with in the Cheetahs, would go on to replace Stephen Desaulniers in the Scud Mountain Boys, and front his own band, the genius King Radio. Dave Trenholm, another once and future Cheetah, is a skilled arranger and guitarist who would also be part of King Radio. Drummer Paul
Pelis was a heavy hitter who would go on to play with several top combos.

Ray passed away in December of 2009.

CH4513 & CH4519: DMZ: Live at the Rat '76 Volumes 1 & 2

Vol. 1:
First Time is the Best Time/Boy from Nowhere/Go to School
Vol. 2:
Ball Me Out/Lift Up Your Hood

These records came about as the result of another advance paid to Jeff "Monoman" Conolly of the Lyres, and were originally intended to be teasers for a full-length release that would also include a 1993 DMZ reunion show. Though that CD eventually came out a couple of years later, it was on another label, not mine.
These tracks are the very best recordings ever made of DMZ at the peak of their punk power. While their Sire LP suffers from overproduction and a bad mix, courtesy of Flo & Eddie, the Live at the Rat songs sound absolutely killer, having been remixed from the original multi-tracks and lovingly mastered by Erik Lindgren.

"First Time is the Best Time" was DMZ's first 45, and features an incredible vocal performance by Conolly that is an unholy marriage of Joey Ramone and Bryan Ferry. Studio recordings of three of the tracks wound up on Bomp's Relics LP, but those versions pale in comparison with these. "Go to School" was previously unissued in any form, and helped Volume One sell out faster than almost any other Chunk release.

Slow Down, This Is Not Monte Carlo

The Push Kings were nice, Ivy League boys who were seduced by the lure of indie rock obscurity. They sent me a demo that my girlfriend fished out of the pile of unlistened-to cassettes in my office, and popped in the tape deck. "They sound just like your beloved Pavement," she said, and damn if the songs didn't sound just like outtakes from Slanted and Enchanted. I played the Push Kings demo for Pavement aficionado Zeke Fiddler, who gave it a bemused thumbs-up.

Through David Berman, we arranged for Pavement's Stephen Malkmus to write liner notes for the resultant 7-inch EP, SlowDown, This is Monte Carlo. They were suitably dry and ironic:

"The all-around sound of this group reminds me of many things. The heritage is all-apparent: tense-chordal future sound, indeed! The orthodontist straightens my teeth, the PUSH KINGS rearrange them in a way only a god could design. Their sound is incisor rock, and if we are lucky, all bands will sound like this one day."

Chapter Five: The Big Gundown

1995 was our best year yet, at least the first half of it. I was on a roll, as every new release increased the buzz about the label. I even got a raise at the Bay State. I now had interns to help me with the day-to-day business of running the label. I had guitarist/accountant Frank Padellaro, formerly of Miss Reed, to help with the bookkeeping. I had a publicist to handle press and radio for the Scud Mountain Boys CD and the label as a whole.

I had made the right choice as to which band to focus my resources and energies upon, as the Scud Mountain Boys scored one great review after another, their CD was selling briskly, and they were now being courted by the likes of Sub Pop and Warner Brothers. Joyce Linehan at Sub Pop, somebody I had worked with since her days booking Green Street Station in Jamaica Plain (or was it T.T. the Bear's in Cambridge?), wanted the Scud Boys wicked bad, to use the vernacular. She arranged for them to be flown out to Seattle, to meet the head of the label, Jonathan Poneman.

I got left on the tarmac, so to speak.


"This time of year the light comes through the pines in flat beams and spark points, glancing off the frost that decorates the grounds of the light-studded medical cities. For a six-sided second I feel like I'm back in the haunted Piedmonts, a decorated major in the Japanese Inner Space Program, renewing my vow to bear down on the truth even if there is none for the hundredth time.
After the exodus of the Calm Reflectors I had started seeing the Scud Mountain Boys around town with their Baltimore haircuts, the guitarist's guitarist carrying his 1873 'trapdoor' Springfield rifle, the progeny of the muzzle-loading French Charleville muskets that had whacked so many Redcoats around these hills. I had heard it was the band's tradition to lay dinner on the table uncooked and then set the table on fire.

I was out for a walk with Mr. Fiddler the other night, when he turned to me and said, 'this is the time of year when the region is at peace with itself.' I turned to laugh in his face when the impulse subsided. He had been right of course. I'd already seen it happen in the slide projector's cone of lit dust: the November sky hovering over lives of dark employment like a televised clay bank, breech-loaders replacing muzzle-loaders, crows wired to the sky like marred pixels, portraits cubed into accordioned life while every single object of perception waited for us in the air conditioning. Yes, tennis crested in the seventies, killing Eddie Money and the last of the Holmby Hills Rat Pack, but how many times did we have to witness the L.A. fireplaces reflected in L.A. wineglasses before it ended?

You meet these suburban kids with Biblical names, but there are walls behind their eyes, strange mathematical mountains at whose base we sit playing our native keyboards and rinsing our teeth with digital snow. I'm starting to believe that the inscription above the portal describes this side, not the next.

Few people know that George Washington's favorite song was 'The Darby Ram,' or stop to think that before he was a statue he scratched his weld, got the hiccups, and danced alone in his room. All the 'human things.' He must have been scared when he fought in the woods, hiding in the dormant Christmas trees, his hand gripping the black walnut musket stock.

In those times and these we turn to the pacifics of a Gamelan orchestra for transport and release. We stand by the hind legs of a K car, listening to the new city cassettes, searching for some sign of human residence here beneath the justifiably uncelebrated Massachusetts sky.

This treasured early work brought calm forecasts and sad peace to our house. I hope you take it with you when you go."

- D.C. Berman

Original Liner Notes to Pine Box LP

As promised, the LP reissue of the Pine Box cassette was delivered on time to coincide with a series of showcase gigs in New York and Boston. I even had an old-timey circus-type showprint poster made to commemorate the releases. As I mentioned earlier, the attorney I'd hired had taken several months to complete the contract that had been agreed to by the band when had our sitdown in late '94. By the time she'd had it drafted, the band were no longer willing to sign it.

As they began to receive offers from bigger labels, they hired an entertainment lawyer named Josh Green, who counted R.E.M. among his clients. He told them in no uncertain terms that they didn't need to pay me anything. So one night I was summoned to the Scud mansion to discuss our deal. It was an ambush. The knives were out, and they would find their mark.

The band informed me that not only would they refuse to sign the contract to which they'd already agreed, but also that I would not be receiving a buyout, as they figured I had already recouped the money I'd spent to produce their records. Besides, they reasoned that any buyout I received would come out of their end of whatever deal they signed. Stephen D was particularly vehement that the original agreement wasn't "fair." Turned out that he had been nursing a grudge since the Scuds were left off the Hotel Massachusetts CD. Hey, if he'd bothered to give me a copy of the Pine Box cassette, I'd have gladly bumped Squeek or the Dots in favor of the SMB.

Joe demonstrated great balls by paraphrasing Sally Tessio from The Godfather: "It's nothing personal, Mal, it's just business."

Anyway, I walked away from the meeting completely shattered, enraged at the band's betrayal, and especially at myself, for not having gotten it in writing. I had counted on the friendship I'd forged with the guys in the band to somehow overcome their ambition.

How naive can you get?

I guess they figured I would take it lying down, turn the other cheek, and go away. Instead, I got on the phone to New York.
So they had R.E.M.'s lawyer, and he was telling them to blow me off? So I hired the guy who'd represented Scat Records when Guided By Voices signed with Matador, and he assured me that I'd get paid. Maybe not the $50,000 I might have made had I done the paperwork beforehand, but probably about half of that. Cool, I figured, that's enough to keep us going in the right direction.

A couple of days later, Stephen D approached me, obviously very pissed off. "What are you trying to do to us?" he asked.

"All I want is what you agreed to."

"The Sub Pop deal might not happen now. I hope you're happy."

"No," I told him, "I'm not happy at all. This whole thing has left a bad taste in my mouth."

He walked away. A few days later, I sat down with Joe Pernice at Rooster's, a diner in Sunderland, Mass., to try to come to a resolution of the dilemma.

He started by offering ten grand. I turned it down.

He asked what I'd be willing to accept. I told him.

I should've asked higher, but I liked and respected the guy, especially his talent. The guy's a fucking genius. And an excellent negotiator.

He said we should meet in the middle. I stupidly accepted.

We shook hands, for the last time.

My lawyer ended up taking almost a third of the payout, leaving me with enough money to make a couple of full-lengths and a 7-inch or two. Unfortunately, back when I was expecting 50 grand, I committed to a some records that ended up selling less than zero, so that money was already lost, so to speak.

CH1006: SPORE/QUEER: Phuko & Flanista Split LP

This split LP took a while to actually come out, so despite the matrix number, it actually was released months after CH1007 and CH1008, by which time both Spore and Queer were in their decline phase, or already broken up, and past their peak as commercially viable indie rock bands.

Or so the dismal sales of this record would indicate.

Not that there wasn't some good stuff to be found on it, including Queer's cover of "Hot Child in the City" and the two bands covering each other's songs, but I was stuck with boxes and boxes of unsold Phuko & Flanista LPs that ended up in the local landfill after the label went under. But I'm getting way ahead of myself.

In Part Four of The Chunk Records Story, Mal gets married, gets fired, and goes broke. Featuring a bold last volley of releases by Guided by Voices, New Radiant Storm King, The Figgs, Drunk Stuntmen, Tag Sale, The Veronica Cartwrights, Ray Mason Band, The Coopers, Hamlet Idiot and Flycatcher.


JM Dobies said...

It was with some trepidation that I published Part Three. I wrote most of it back on Nov. 21-22, but held it up while I searched for DC Berman's liner notes for the Pine Box LP. Thanks again, Miranda.

Still ISO Malkmus's liners for the Push Kings' EP.

Frank said...

If I was Macaulay Culkin, numbers were bees, and Chunk Records was the film My Girl, then, yes, I did the bookkeeping for Chunk Records.

JM Dobies said...

Does that make me Dan Ackroyd or Anna Chlumsky?

In Frankie's defense, the books were a mess, and he acted in a largely advisory capacity. For instance, he advised me that I should maybe keep the books using an actual accounting program instead of miscrosoft word.

Anyway, the trepidation I felt in publishing this part of the story is because this was an ugly chapter in the history of the label: friendships were lost (with many more to come!), feelings were hurt, money was lost, and I was the architect of my own downfall.

Anyway, should anybody else who was there take issue with the telling of the tale, remember that my memories are selective and subjective, and most importantly, that I got over all this shit many years ago. I don't have an axe to grind here, just a rock 'n roll story to tell.

Frank said...

I love the part of Mike's Unband book where he says the numbers should be tabulated by a machine or at least a Chinaman with an abacus.

In your defense, I've found your history extremely entertaining and surprisingly even-handed. I laughed out loud when you described Miss Reed as less than the sum of its parts. It was my favorite review since, "this record is blander than corn and harder to digest"

The part you are really missing in the downfall of Chunk is how you were completely out of your mind. It isn't like you made one or two bad decisions. You were making them too fast to count.

The thing is, I miss those days more than I care to admit, and you, your delusions of grandeur, and your bitter wit will always stand out as high points in my memory.

In the end, Chunk Records was a mirror image of you. It was hard to tell if all those records had any impact on anyone, until they were gone, and you realize what an empty hole was left in their place.

The day you left the Baystate, the Northampton music scene started its long slow death, or at least it contracted some kind of withering illness. The day Chunk put out its last record was the day most of our delusions died. Without your boundless influx of positivity and energy, it was impossible (for me anyway) to suspend disbelief. Most of us woke up one day to realize we were coffee shop employees, cooks and sales clerks.


PS - I think you're more of a Jamie Lee Curtis.

JM Dobies said...

Thanks, Frankie.

I'll have to get cracking on the zany and humiliating final installment of the Chunk Story...

John said...

Sorry about those lousy sales from the Spore/Queer split EP. It seemed like such a good idea at the time...

Chunk was a great label - I was just listening to the Supreme Dicks track on the Unloved 7 inch - I can't believe that wasn't a big hit.

John (from Queer)

JM Dobies said...

Hey, John, you guys rocked! And the PHUKO & FLANSITA split was a great record. Unfortunately, the lengthy delay with the cover art doomed it sales-wise.

"I Love You, Girl" was my favorite cut on HOTEL MASSACHUSETTS.

Arcandy said...

I have to agree with Frank, here, Mal. I left Northampton for Brooklyn in the summer of 00' and by then it was already dying music-scene wise. Now, it's like it has no center. Every time I visit I think about how much you added to that town. Sure you were batshit crazy for awhile, but hell, I can relate, and you never, ever did anything to slight me. In fact, you were the most encouraging person in my life up until that point. Feel good about what you accomplished in that town.

Bryk said...

(Shakes head) I... I... didn't know. Thanks. I shall burn my "Early Year" in contempt.