Blowing Off Steam

When Challenger takes the stage at the Fireside Bowl on Saturday to celebrate the release of Give People What They Want in Lethal Doses (Jade Tree), the lineup ought to look familiar: the group shares three of its four members with long-running local outfit Milemarker. But despite the similar rosters, Challenger means to stake out its own territory.

“Challenger is consciously trying to be more straightforward, whereas Milemarker tried to confound people’s expectations,” says Al Burian, who shares songwriting and vocal duties in both bands with guitarist Dave Laney. “In [Milemarker] if we felt like people [were] starting to have us pegged as a new wave band, then we’d start writing slow metal songs. With Challenger it’s less of that confrontational attitude. And more of us trying, as the record title says, to give people what they want.”

Originally from North Carolina, Milemarker has played astute, politically charged punk since 1997, releasing a series of increasingly adventurous albums. Burian and Laney, the band’s principals, began Challenger in 2002 as a casual side project. Says Laney, “There was a lot of pressure in Milemarker to do stuff, to take advantage of this great opportunity or that. And it wasn’t fun, it was stressful. So we were like, ‘Let’s just start this other thing for fun.'”

Burian, who plays bass in Milemarker, switched to guitar, and the pair began writing and demoing a clutch of tunes inspired by SST’s mid-80s catalog–music that combined breakneck tempos, noisy guitars, and thoughtful melodies. “The basic thing with Challenger was not really very high-concept,” says Burian. “It was just to have a band with the standard two guitars, bass, and drum lineup.” (Milemarker’s roster includes a keyboardist.) Drummer Timothy Remis, who played on the Challenger record, later dropped out, and Burian and Laney recruited Milemarker bandmate Noah Leger to take over. Burian overdubbed the bass tracks in the studio, but for the past couple months Challenger has relied on bassist Jessica Hopper, better known as a publicist and the editor of Hit It or Quit It.

Give People What They Want in Lethal Doses came out in February, but Challenger has had to wait till now to play a release party–Laney was struck by a hit-and-run driver in January while working as a bike messenger, and when Jade Tree put out the album he was still sidelined. “I got a metal plate and six screws put in,” he says, pointing to his shoulder and collarbone. “And I just got out of the sling I’d been wearing.”

The band spent a couple months rehearsing without him, but Laney resumed his duties in time for Challenger to join the Jade Tree United/ package tour–its Chicago stop this weekend doubles as the band’s CD-release show. Challenger plans to tour the U.S. and Europe for most of the rest of the year, and when they get home Laney and Burian intend to start work on a new Milemarker album.

Burian and Laney have also continued to put out their long-running zines, Burn Collector and MediaReader, respectively (Burian and Hopper also write for Punk Planet). The wait between issues has been growing, though, due to the demands of their various musical projects. “[They] used to come out a few times a year, but that’s been harder and harder to keep up. Between the bands and the fanzines, we definitely work full-time,” jokes Laney. “Although I’d hate to break down our hourly rate.”

More From the Langford Juggernaut

Jon Langford–of the Mekons, the Waco Brothers, and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts–has teamed up with his friend Peter Wright, formerly a Mekons publicist and Rykodisc executive, to start an Internet-only imprint called Buried Treasure, apparently to prove that a record label can keep busy releasing nothing but new albums and reissues from Langford and his mates.

“We just wanted to find a way to make this stuff available without going through the whole cumbersome process of big distribution,” says Langford. Because Buried Treasure plans on pressing only 1,000 to 2,000 copies per title and working directly with online retailers like Amazon and CD Baby (as well as selling discs from, its expenses will be modest. Says Langford, “We can break even at like 350 in sales. Basically, we’re cutting corners on everything but the quality of the music.”

The Mekons and Wacos have relationships with Touch and Go and Bloodshot, respectively, and though the labels have already released limited-edition or online-only albums from Langford and friends, he doesn’t want to press his luck. “I don’t want them to feel that they have to put out everything I’m involved in,” he says. “That’s too much of a burden for anyone to bear.”

Buried Treasure officially launched this past week by releasing Uncle Dave & the Waco Brothers’ Nine Slices of My Midlife Crisis and a concert disc from Langford’s 80s agit-folk trio the Three Johns. “Uncle Dave” is rock scribe turned travel writer Dave Herndon, who recorded the set of his hard-luck country originals with the Wacos a year or so ago, mostly in Langford’s home studio. The Three Johns disc, Live in Chicago, documents a single night of the group’s first American tour, back in 1985. A vinyl edition of the album was released by the now defunct local indie Last Time Round in 1986; the Buried Treasure version is remastered, with three previously unreleased bonus tracks.

Future releases, which will arrive in batches of two or three every few months, include a record from English singer-songwriter Kevin Coyne backed by the Pine Valley Cosmonauts; a solo album from Mekons cofounder Tom Greenhalgh; a Jon Langford/Richard Buckner duet disc; and a reissue from Hangahar, a 1979 collaboration between Sally Timms and the Buzzcocks’ Pete Shelley.

They’re Outta Here

Local hip-hop label Galapagos4 is heading to Oakland on May 1. “We’ve got some artists and some connections in California, and we want to see what we can do with [the] label running it from out there,” says Jeff Kuglich, who founded the imprint in late 1999 with rapper Offwhyte, DJ White Lightning, and art director Josh Grotto. He’s quick to point out that G4’s presence in Chicago will remain strong: “We’re going to continue working with more people from Chicago, ’cause that’s where we started,” he says. “We’re not trying to lose that, we’re just trying to build on it.” Offwhyte and Grotto will remain in town as the label’s local A and R team.

Galapagos4’s next release is LifeLikeMovie, the debut LP from Oakland-bred MC Mestizo, who recently returned to the Bay Area after a stint in Chicago. The label’s schedule for the rest of the year includes albums from Qwel and Maker, Denizen Kane, and the Typical Cats, a supergroup featuring Qwel, Qwazaar, Kane, Natural, and Kid Knish.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.