Electronica in the House

House music has sprouted like a spider plant since its birth more than two decades ago. Techno, speed garage, acid house, drum ‘n’ bass, gabber, and 90s electronica are among its progeny–but here in Chicago, where house began, its more experimental offspring are largely ignored. Important postrave artists, from England’s Autechre and Squarepusher to Wisconsin’s Bogdan Raczynski, have never performed here, and only a few natives have moved beyond house’s ubiquitous four-on-the-floor beat. “In Chicago it’s house and house and house,” says Adam Dorfman, one of a handful of people working to redress the situation.

Last year Dorfman launched Endpoint Recordings to showcase the output of local electronic experimentalists. Ironically the label is funded by Radoslaw “Radek” Hawryszczuk, one of the city’s biggest champions of classic house and techno. Radek, 24, started a label of his own, Dust Traxx Chicago, in 1997, after graduating from Bradley University with a degree in criminal science. He pressed 3,200 copies of a 12-inch single featuring music by house and techno stars Paul Johnson, Robert Armani, James Christian, and New Yorker Frankie Bones, all of whom he’d befriended at raves. The record sold out, turning a small profit, which he put into a second release.

Three years later, Radek has two full-time employees–one of whom is Dorfman–and has released more than 60 singles and CDs on three different imprints: straight-up house on Dust Traxx, “deep” (or soul- and gospel-influenced) house on Nite Life Collective, and relentless minimalist techno on High Octane. He’s taken up the torch dropped by Cajual, the label run by Curtis Jones (aka Cajmere, aka Green Velvet), which folded in 1997; his stable is loaded with former Cajual artists, including Johnson, Glenn Underground, DJ Rush, and Boo Williams. Dust Traxx has manufacturing and distribution deals with a number of important smaller labels, including Catalyst and Clashbackk Recordings, the house imprints owned by Chicago DJs Terry Mullan and Felix da Housecat, respectively; STX Records, the vanity label of New York techno star Joey Beltram; and Nocturnal Interludes, a new vocally oriented house label overseen by Johnson. It also promotes raves and doubles as a booking agency for several of its artists.

Dorfman proposed that Radek add Endpoint to the Dust Traxx family of labels not long after he started working there, in August 1998. “Half the people I knew in college were bedroom producers,” says Dorfman, a 24-year-old who studied theater at Northern Illinois University. “They had little studio setups in their bedrooms and they were coming out with really nice abstract, experimental electronic music, but there was no outlet for it.” Several of those college chums, including Jason Terchin, who performs under the name Diminish, persuaded Dorfman to create that outlet, and Endpoint debuted last year with a compilation of mostly unknown artists drawn from their circle of friends.

Blandly titled Endpoint Compilation 01, the CD delivers a mix of post-Aphex Twin ambience, wiggy drum ‘n’ bass, and corrosive oscillator overdrive. It has its low points–the lowest being Second Man’s unconvincingly menacing “Abusing Rob”–and most of the artists reveal their influences a bit too baldly, but it’s promising. Dorfman has since released an album of ominous, abrasive ambient soundscapes by the local trio Rehab, and in February will add the debut album by Salvo Beta to his catalog. Diminish, Salvo Beta, and Supplement–a side project of Rehab–perform in an Endpoint showcase Saturday at 9 PM at HotHouse. The event is part of Mike Javor’s impressive “/bin” series.

The Ax Finally Falls

As you’ve probably heard by now, Lounge Ax will close on January 15 after more than a decade as a gritty cultural oasis in Lincoln Park; the building has been bought by a banker who told the Trib’s Greg Kot that he’s losing on his investment by letting the club stay even that long. The eulogies that followed the news have without exception raved about Lounge Ax proprietors Sue Miller and Julia Adams, praising them for the way they’ve treated bands and for the prescience of their booking. And indeed, over the last 15 years nobody has introduced more great rock bands to Chicago than Sue Miller. Starting at the tiny West End in 1984 and pairing up with Adams at Lounge Ax in 1989, she was responsible for early shows by the Minutemen, American Music Club, Husker Du, the Feelies, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, 10,000 Maniacs, Giant Sand, Camper Van Beethoven, and the Replacements. And her fair and knowledgeable dealings with countless local bands were a genuine rarity at the time.

But there’s a whiff of nostalgia in even “objective” reports like Kot’s, which called the loss to the scene “incalculable.” In reality, the quality of Lounge Ax’s offerings had been slipping for some time before the big bad banker gave it the boot. Miller, who like Adams is 42, says her job is harder now, “not only because we’re senior citizens but because the business has gotten harder.” Indie and alternative rock, her specialty, went out with yesterday’s papers, overwhelmed by a much broader range of niche interests, and the zeitgeist moved to Wicker Park years ago. Miller had a son, Adams notes, “and wasn’t here as much.” And Miller’s longtime assistant, Mark Greenberg (formerly of the Coctails), who kept his finger on the underground’s pulse and continued to bring in exciting new bands, quit earlier this year. Well-run establishments like the rootsy Schubas, the dumb but powerful Double Door, and especially the eclectic Empty Bottle have all taken slices of the pie. Sadly, though it may now be slightly more difficult for unknown local bands to get good gigs, Lounge Ax’s absence will probably not have a great impact on the average concertgoer.

Miller maintains that she and Adams want to find a new home for the club, but they’ve been searching for a new space for more than five years–a quest accelerated by a much-publicized 1996 dispute with a new neighbor over noise issues. They say the city makes it very difficult to open a new bar with live entertainment. If and when they succeed, Miller hopes that the loyalties she’s cultivated over the years won’t have faded too much. “Every booking agent and band that I’ve expressed that concern to, even remotely, says that we’re crazy,” she says, “that everyone will want to come back here, that Lounge Ax wasn’t Lounge Ax because of the four walls, it was what it was because of the people working here.”

Meanwhile, Miller hopes to go out with a bang, booking nothing but old favorites for the club’s last two weeks on Lincoln Avenue. So far the farewell is anchored by Shellac and a one-time-only reunion of the Coctails, the club’s de facto house band for much of the 90s.

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