Beauty and the Bureaucracy

When Chicago’s Red Red Meat and the New York trio Rex started jamming together nightly on tour in the fall of 1995, they had no intention of doing anything further with the collaboration they jokingly called Red Rex Meat. But by early 1996 there was someone else who did: Andie Brokaw, daughter of newscaster Tom and the head of Treat & Release, a fledgling imprint of A&M.

By the end of that summer, despite the geographical distance between bands and the musicians’ other commitments (Rex drummer Doug Scharin also plays in June of 44 and puts out solo records as Him), the project had a real name, Loftus, an album’s worth of material on tape, and a 30-page contract with Treat & Release. Since it was just a side project, says Red Red Meat percussionist Ben Massarella, “We figured we couldn’t lose if they were half paying attention. But we were wrong. It was bad business all the way from the beginning.”

Only this week, after more than a year of waiting and negotiating, has the record Loftus been released. Though it’s been available at some local stores for about a month, it officially comes out Tuesday on Red Red Meat’s own Perishable label.

Massarella says he read through the contract while Red Red Meat was finishing up its most recent record, in May 1996. He says, “I walked right into the control room and said, ‘You guys, we’re idiots if we sign this thing.'” Although the label had assured the band that some troublesome matters could be dealt with later, it bothered Massarella that the contract still referred to the band as Red Rex Meat, and that Treat & Release had exclusive rights to distribute the record everywhere in the world. “I told Rex the same thing, but everyone wanted to sign. Not wanting to be a party killer I went ahead and signed it.”

One section of the contract that nobody was thinking about at the time dealt with what would happen if the label simply didn’t put the record out.

Loftus recorded Loftus with Bundy Brown and Brian Deck in 11 days at Massarella’s south-side truck wash in August. They sent it to Treat & Release, and then waited. The following spring, Loftus learned that the label had folded, and that its employees and bands, including alt-rock stiffs Pomegranate and Blinker the Star, had been absorbed by A&M proper. Massarella says Loftus had very little communication with the label throughout the spring and summer, but that there were discussions about licensing the record to an independent or releasing it on A&M. Neither happened, and by the end of the summer Loftus began the process of buying the record back.

Red Red Meat front man Tim Rutili “had a phone conversation with a label person where she said she was really, really sorry that it didn’t work out and that if we wanted the record back we could have it,” says Massarella. “Unfortunately she was making a decision that wasn’t hers to make.” According to the byzantine process laid out in the contract, it could have taken up to another year just to initiate negotiations to get the rights back. So the band called in Jill Berliner, a Los Angeles attorney who’d worked for Red Red Meat before, and by December the matter was settled. The band had to pay 10 percent of the original agreed-upon budget for the record to get the rights back, but Massarella declined to reveal the dollar amount.

“I didn’t have any problems dealing with A&M to get the record back,” says Berliner. “More than anything I think [the situation] was a result of A&M’s restructuring. They were looking for what they could do with an indie record when they were just a major without indie distribution, and I think the answer was that it just wasn’t the right match.”

Massarella says that even after dealing with several labels between them, Rex and Red Red Meat are still naive about the music industry. “We just don’t know how to do business with record-label people,” he says. “This project was so much based on what the real beauty of playing music is for us. We had so much fun. It’s eye-opening when you put that against the experience of dealing with that bureaucracy. It’s the total opposite of what you’re making music for. It really brought the whole thing down.”

If Loftus sells respectably on Perishable, Massarella says, they’ll make another record and maybe tour in the summer. Califone, a new project with Massarella, Rutili, and Tim Hurley, releases its debut on Flydaddy on February 24, after which it too might do a short tour. In addition, Massarella notes, Red Red Meat’s first gig since April–subbing for Rex, who wrecked their van in Pennsylvania on the way to the Empty Bottle on New Year’s Eve–was “a ball. We probably had more fun than we had in over a year.” The experience was so positive he says it may lead to renewed activity in the near future.

O’Rourke Watch

The third installment of Sonic Youth’s experimental EP series is a collaboration with Jim O’Rourke. The 50-some minutes of abstract soundscapes, which range from pastoral calm to frenzied violence, seem to be just another day’s work for O’Rourke, who is in the midst of making a largely sample-based record with John McEntire of Tortoise. Dexter’s Cigar, the reissue label O’Rourke runs with his former Gastr del Sol band mate David Grubbs, will release two final titles in February–one by Portuguese guitarist Rafael Toral and another by minimalist composer Arnold Dreyblatt. After that O’Rourke will start another label of his own, also to be distributed by Drag City; though it has no name yet, it does have numerous projects slated, including a guitar piece by New York minimalist Phill Niblock and the reissue of a lost record by Portuguese experimentalist Nuno Canavarro that O’Rourke describes as a cross between Robert Ashley and Microstoria. An organ recording by Kevin Drumm and a retrospective of the early work of British free-jazz guitarist Ray Russell are also planned. Finally, O’Rourke is producing a couple of records by New York guitarist Loren MazzaCane Connors. One he describes as “Loren with strings”; the other is Loren with Chicagoans Drumm, Rick Rizzo, Jeb Bishop, Darin Gray, Rob Mazurek, Josh Abrams, Ken Vandermark, Michael Colligan, and Chad Taylor. Connors plays this week with Alan Licht, Gray, and O’Rourke; see Spot Check for details.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Loftus photo by Brad Miller.