Friday, February 1, 2008

The Chunk Records Story, Part Four

In Part One, Chunk Records began as an outlet for '80s garage band the Malarians; in Part Two, it was reborn as an imprint for limited edition 7-inch singles; then in Part Three, Chunk made a move toward bigger and better things, only to get caught in a perfect storm of hubris, naivete, and alt-country effrontery.


Chapter Six: After the Gold Rush

At the end of August 1995, I moved with my then-girlfriend from our downtown Northampton apartment to a remote two-story farmhouse at 23 Beaver Drive in South Deerfield, Massachusetts. There was an above-ground pool and a spacious downstairs bedroom that became the new corporate headquarters of Chunk Records.

A week later, my girlfriend moved out. She later said of our two-year relationship, "I was young and lost. What was your excuse?"

I had been abandoned by both my girlfriend and by the Scud Mountain Boys, who, having paid me off, were now recording their debut album for Sub Pop. I was pretty desolate, but was cheered a bit when the buyout check arrived in the mail.

In November, I had a week-long whirlwind courtship, followed by an impulse marriage to Wednesday Thursday. Most of my friends didn't give the marriage six months, but we proved them wrong. It lasted a year and a half.

CH4520: GUIDED BY VOICES/NEW RADIANT STORM KING
Split 7-Inch

Here's a near-perfect record in the grand tradition of split singles like the Sonic Youth/ Mudhoney "Touch Me, I'm Sick"/"Halloween" (orignally released on Sub Pop, ironically enough), where the two bands covered each other's songs. It is perhaps Chunk's finest hour.

Matt Hunter of New Radiant Storm King was a big fan of Guided By Voices, and soon found his band sharing bills with the Ohio-based lo-fi legends. Bob Pollard of Guided By Voices was a big fan of New Radiant Storm King, and so this split 7-inch came to pass. It was originally going to be released on as the first release of a label called Indi 500, a fledgling enterprise started up by, if I recall correctly, Nate Albert of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and filmmaker Chris Appelbaum, among others, but the venture got back-burnered when the principals all had found they had better things to do than run an indie label. That thankless task is reserved for schmucks like me. And thus the record fell into my lap.

GBV chose to cover "The Opposing Engineer Sleeps Alone" from NRSK's difficult second album Rival Time, while NRSK returned the favor by turning in a stellar rendition of "I Am a Scientist" off of Bee Thousand. This would be the last Storm King release to feature original drummer Elizabeth Sharp.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the sleeve art. The GBV side sported a collage by Pollard, while the NRSK side featured artwork borrowed from '50s sci-fi paperbacks. At the time, I was working with local graphic desgner Eric Olsson, who did the layouts of many of the best-looking records we ever did, including all three Scud Mountain Boys releases, the two DMZ 45s, and this one.

CH1012 THE VERONICA CARTWRIGHTS: One Careless Match CD

Prior to this record, the Veronica Cartwrights previous releases were all Chunk products: their 3-song 7-inch from 1993, "A Message to Pretty" on 1994's Unloved and "Frog" on Hotel Massachusetts. And so it came to pass that the band's full-length debut, One Careless Match, would bear the Chunk logo as well. Unfortunately, it also bore the imprint of another label (whose name escapes me) started by this guy (I think his name was Corey) in direct competition with Chunk, who hoped to take advantage of our distribution channels and indie cred by making it a joint venture.

The upside was that the other label paid for the pressing; the downside was that the record sold poorly, and the guy from the other label kept pestering me for money that wasn't there.

CH1013: FLYCATCHER: Pee CD

Flycatcher was supposed to be Chunk's Nirvana. Instead, the band helped dig the label's grave.

A record I committed to back when I still expected a 50 grand buyout from Sub Pop, Pee was already in production when the Scud deal went south. Otherwise, I would have pulled the plug. Not because of the music on the record, but because the band had apparently signed a contract with some Manhattan Rock Skank who was a total mental case, and who bedeviled me with phone calls threatening all manner of legal mayhem. I wasn't about to shelve the record, since it was too late to cancel the order from the pressing plant and the artwork was already done.

Despite being overly derivative of Nirvana, the album definitely has its moments, and sounds great, thanks to the stellar production of Mark Alan Miller. There was also a limited edition sampler 7-inch released simultaneously.

Unfortunately, the band broke up right around the time of its release, and sales were next to non-existent. Not exactly what we needed after the Scuds' defection.

CH1015 RAY MASON BAND: Missyouville CD

Ray Mason is a Western Mass music legend who has been cranking out his brand of "Silvertone Pop" for decades. Chunk had provided distribution for Ray Mason Band's Between Blue and Okay CD, and Ray's "Falling Down" was a highlight of the Hotel Massachusetts compilation CD. Although the record-buying public was largely indifferent to Between Blue and Okay, I agreed to release the follow-up. Part of the reason being that I was expecting a big windfall from the Scud Mountain Boys signing at the time, so I could put out Missyouville as a "loss leader," because it was a damn fine record.

Ray was fond of saying of his often under-attended live shows, "I play the same whether there's six people in the audience or half a dozen." Coincidentally, this album sold in the dozens, although it probably made more money for Ray than any other record in his catalogue, because the following year, when the ship was going down, I gave him boxes and boxes of Missyouville CDs at no cost, to sell at his gigs. Since the Great Scud Mountain Buyout turned out to be something less than the bonanza I had once anticipated, the dismal sales of this record and a couple of other non-starters pretty much blew the buyout loot.

Still, a damn fine record, and I'm glad we put it out.

HAMLET IDIOT:
CHD1016: Tango Palace CD
CH4517: Don't Let Them/Hypnotized

Here's a couple of records I don't remember a whole lot about. Hamlet Idiot was an Amherst-based noise outfit who made a series of obtuse, skronky records with producer Steve Albini. I do recall that the band paid for the pressings, provided the cool cover art, and headlined an underattended record-release show at the Bay State.

Hamlet Idiot's fearless leader Dylan Metrano later formed Tiger Saw. Although the band was pretty obscure in their day, Hamlet Idiot reunited in 2005 for a couple of shows in the Boston area. No word on the attendance.

CH4518 THE FIGGS: Christmas Shake 45

Here's another record that got delayed until it was too late to make a profit on it. Due to the demands of Figgs' manager Brad Morrison, and then having to wait for the unremarkable cover art to come from the graphic artist dude, this 7-inch got released about three weeks before Christmas, and thus sold only a fraction of what it might have.

Let me just say here that the Figgs were, and are, awesome, a great band with great material that should have been the kings of pop-punk, but unfortunately got beaten to the marketplace by Green Day.

At the time of this release, the Figgs had just gotten signed to Capitol, where they released their somewhat disappointing Banda Macho album. Some of the material on this 7-inch eventually got rereleased on a Capitol sampler CD.

The EP combined group originals with a sparkling cover of the Kinks' "Father Christmas," and along with the Cheetahs' "A Message to Santa Claus," puts Chunk alongside K-Tel, Ronco, and other great purveyors of holiday hits.

The Figgs' Mike Gent responds:

"A manager who was difficult? You actually lose money selling 45's??? You don't say?...Also, Banda Macho was not a disappointment for me. I bought at least three guitars, two amps, paid my rent for two years and made The Figgs Couldn't Get High with Banda Macho money."


CH1018 DRUNK STUNTMEN: Taking My Pee Pants Off CD

Drunk Stuntmen originally hailed from Taunton, Mass., and came west to the Pioneer Valley in the guise of a high-energy jam band called Soup ("Bring a bowl for Soup" was their slogan, as I recall). The band changed directions in 1995, reinventing themselves as whiskey-swilling country rockers. In the process, they alienated their UMass hippie fanbase but gained renown among the local indie rock cognoscenti.

Their first release under the Stuntmen moniker was Taking My Pee Pants Off, recorded in their basement by guitarist Terry Flood's brother Mike (who was immortalized by Sebadoh in their song "Flood"). True to the Chunk aesthetic of "Medium Fidelity, Extreme Quality," the disc is a little rough around the edges, but features some great tunes, most notably Alex Johnson's "Statue of Joe Raposo" and the album opener, Steve Sanderson's "Jesse James Dean," which contains the immortal line, "You can all go to hell/I'll go to Texas."

Words to live by, brother.

CH1019: TAG SALE: Trashed and Bent CD

By the end of the '90s, Chunk was a going concern in name only, as the day-to-day business of running the label was no longer my focus. Surviving was more my immediate concern at the time. However, our last two releases, although financed by the bands and released through a distribution network that was a shadow of its former self, are among my all-time favorite Chunk records.

Tag Sale was a local punk squad made up of several of my friends that was a bit polarizing, as they were loved and hated with equal vehemence by the local scenesters. I loved 'em, and I still listen to Trashed and Bent, their lone release, a claim I can't make about a lot of Chunk stuff. I even co-produced a couple of the tracks, which we recorded at the end of a chaotic video shoot for "Jet" (see Appendix B).

Among the highlights are "Rear View," "Space Frontier," and "Traversing the Wave," an homage to the Pixies that is one of the live tracks at the end of the disc.

CH1020: THE COOPERS: American Car CD

The last ever Chunk record, put forth by a young garage band in suits and ties whose demo had caught my ear. I really loved this one song about the singer buying pot in Pulaski Park, but this great song was excluded from their debut album, and since there would not be a follow-up, never got a release. I had wanted to direct a music video for that song, but since it wasn't on the CD, I did one for the title track, an unconscious plagiarism of Billy Idol's "Dancing with Myself."

The video is a visual tribute to A Hard Day's Night, shot on black and white super 8 film. Unfortunately, on the day of the shoot, we quickly lost the light, and the second half of the video is pretty dark.

Jed Smith, the leader of the Coopers, is still active musically in the NYC area, and tried to get in touch with me a while back via MySpace. I'll have to get back with him, now that I've listened to his old band's record for the first time in years.

Postscript

When I originally sat down to write "The Chunk Records Story," I had no idea it would take me four months to finish telling the tale. I made a conscious decision to focus on the music as much as possible, rather than on the often insane goings-on behind the scenes. As it was, I'm sure I pissed a few people off with what I did write. In fact, I know I did, in fact, as I received a message from Angry Johnny saying that I had made him, well, angry. Anyway, in respect to various individuals' privacy and my sense of self-preservation, I left out a lot of bad shit.

Frank Padellaro (King Radio, Scud Mountain Boys, Cheetahs, Miss Reed, etc.) put it this way:

"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 Bay State, 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."

Thanks, Frank.

I no longer have any of the master recordings of Chunk's 30-odd releases, save for a CD-R of the Cheetahs' "A Message to Santa Claus." I have very few of the actual records in my possession. After my marriage broke up, I stored the back catalog in Frank's garage. When his marriage broke up, he moved out of the house, and all the records got swiped by the cleaning crew. They eventually wound up at the Hadley flea market, and in the hands of several local collectors. I bought a few on Ebay, but it's kind of tough having to buy back records that I paid to make, and having to pay collector's prices. thanks to Ken Reed of Main Street Records for selling me at a fair price the GbV/NRSK split that I had sold him all those years ago.

Appendix A:
Announced but Unreleased:
13 Chunk Records That Never Saw the Light of Day

ARCITECHTURAL METAPHOR/SONS OF THE CORPORATE DOG Split 7"

THE CHEETAHS: It's All Going By Too Fast LP/CD

DMZ: Live at the Rat '76/Live at the Middle East '93 CD

ZEKE FIDDLER: "Socket" 45

Framin' Gloovies: A Tribute to the Flamin' Groovies LP/CD

Hotel Massachusetts II Compilation CD

LYRES: "Zebra in the Kitchen" 45

THE MALARIANS: Finished in This Town CD

NEW RADIANT STORM KING:
Singular, No Article CD, My Little Bastard Soul LP

SCUD MOUNTAIN BOYS: Pine Box 8-Track Cartridge

TAG SALE: Fuck the Age Difference EP

THE UNBAND: "Why Do You Think They Call Us Dope?" 45

Several of these titles eventually saw the light of day on other labels. Most of 'em remain unreleased.

APPENDIX B: Music Videos Directed by Mal Thursday

HOSPITAL: "Crazy Train"

TAG SALE: "Jet"

THE COOPERS: "American Car"

THE MONTREAL EXPOS: "Vladimir Guerrero"

4 comments:

JM Dobies said...

Yeah, the final chapter is a bit downbeat, something of a bummer, but if I really went into detail, it would be ten times more depressing.

Blown opportunities and bad, bad behavior were the order of the day as I went from the King of Rock to "What have you done for me lately?"

I'll have to write "Tales from the Bay State" one of these days...

- said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
- said...

You know, I created that Wikipedia article, because I've been wearing out two copies of that damn Hotel Massachusetts CD for years now. It hasn't kept me 21 forever like I'd hoped, and now some bastards have gotten together and had the article declared "not notable" and deleted. Double disappointment.

—Pete, who has learned just about enough about the world

Alex said...

this was a great, entertaining read. as a big fan of NRSK and Joe Pernice projects, it was totally fascinating. thanks for sharing.