Automatic Recordings sampler
  • Aaron Dexter
  • Automatic Recordings sampler

If you end up hanging out at the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival’s north stage Sunday afternoon chances are you’ll see a burly man passing out copies of a red cassette housed in a black-and-white paper sleeve—it’s the sampler for a new local label called Automatic Recordings. Label founder Aaron Dexter, the talent buyer at the Owl, will be the guy giving away the tapes. Dexter’s plan for Automatic Recordings is to release music by local rock acts that regularly play in DIY spaces in Logan Square, Humboldt Park, and Pilsen.

A couple groups featured on the label’s cassette sampler are actually playing the Logan Square festival Sunday afternoon: Melkbelly play at 5 PM and the Funs go on at 5:45 PM. Anyone who enjoys the gritty, energetic Melkbelly should keep an eye out for Dexter, because every tape he’ll pass out will include a coupon to access the digital presale of Melkbelly’s forthcoming debut, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania will be Automatic Recordings’ first release, and Dexter aims to drop it at the beginning of August.

“I’ve always been more of a fan of the music scene here than anywhere else,” Dexter says. He grew up in the surrounding suburbs, observing a bevy of local bands and labels from afar before moving here six years ago. “Since moving here I took advantage of all the DIY spots,” Dexter says. “One of the first venues where I saw a show in Chicago was at the Mopery.” He’s also taken a shine to traditional venues, and he’s had a major role in turning the Owl into a musical hot spot in Logan Square.

Dexter was an early supporter of the 4 AM bar, which opened in September 2011. “I would go in and hang out with Scott Spidale, the general manager, and we just kind of talked about the potential of the place,” he says. Dexter started booking regular DJ nights and began throwing free shows at the beginning of 2013—within a year he’d put together some impressive shows at the Owl, including ones with 60s psych outfit Silver Apples and noise heavyweights Wolf Eyes. “You gotta smack people over the head when you start to do something new,” Dexter says. “You really have to make an impression.” He’s still throwing concerts that pique my interest even when I’m unable to go—just last month the Owl hosted a free show with local instrumental-metal heroes Pelican.

Another part of Dexter’s plan to make the Owl a hot spot came in February 2013 when he launched the bar’s in-house cassette label, Parliament Tapes. Originally the label released DJ-curated mixes but these days it traffics in live recordings of bands that play at the Owl. Mike Lust records the shows and the Owl makes 100 cassette copies of each set—Dexter gives each band 60 tapes of their respective set for free and sells the rest in the Parliament Tapes vending machine, which the Owl debuted in September 2013.

Dexter is still overseeing Parliament Tapes even as he launches Automatic Recordings, which is much more of a personal project and will focus on vinyl instead of cassettes. In fact, Dexter feels quite close with everyone involved in the label thus far: “It’s become a family almost.” That family unit includes the aforementioned Melkbelly and the Funs as well as Whitegold—Dexter is planning to release LPs by all three bands by the end of the fall. The Automatic Recordings’ network also extends beyond those outfits. Dexter reached out to Basic Cable drummer and graphic designer Ryan Duggan to help craft the label’s design and logo, and some of the label’s bands are recording at Logan Square studio Public House Sound.

When Melkbelly and the Funs play Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival on Sunday their sets will double as an informal prelaunch for Automatic Recordings. It’ll also be the public debut of a dream Dexter’s had ever since he became involved in the local music community—to add to the legacy of Chicago labels with one of his own.