Everyone Needs a Hobby

Tim Adams, former owner of Ajax Records, has returned to the crowded field he helped cultivate. Adams started Ajax as a mail-order business out of his living room in 1989, inspiring similar companies that are now institutions; he issued the first Ajax seven-inch single not long after. Eventually he came to specialize in music from New Zealand and Australia–the Cannanes, Peter Jefferies, and David Kilgour, among others–but he also released music by some key American acts, including God Is My Co-Pilot, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, and lo-fi pioneer John Darnielle, aka the Mountain Goats. For much of the 90s, he also ran Ajax as a record store. In 1999, after putting out more than 50 singles and albums and closing two retail locations, Adams traded in the whole enterprise for a job as an insurance broker. Recently, however, he’s reemerged with another label, 3 Beads of Sweat, issuing three compilations of Mountain Goats material.

I profiled Adams in this column in July 1998, as he was opening his second store in Ukrainian Village. Demoralized and in the red, he’d shuttered the original shop on Chicago Avenue two years earlier, moving the mail-order operation back into his apartment. Then he moved it into a storefront on Western, and since the space was already commercially zoned he decided to reopen the store as well. But he didn’t enjoy it, and he lost money, and by the spring of 1999 he’d killed off both the store and the mail-order business.

“I pretty much decided to change my life,” says Adams. “I had been doing the self-employed thing for over seven years and I didn’t like what I was doing. I was burned out on music and I didn’t care; I didn’t buy any records or see many shows.” By June he’d landed his current full-time job. A year later he moved in with his girlfriend, Kathleen Tax (who last weekend became his wife), and limited space forced him to pitch most of the label’s stock, including all the vinyl. “It was nice to get rid of the stuff, but it definitely felt like the end of something,” he says.

Once music was no longer his livelihood, however, Adams gradually began buying records and going to shows again. His renewed interest coincided with a surge in interest in the Mountain Goats, whose The Coroner’s Gambit (Absolutely Kosher, 2000) and All Hail West Texas (Emperor Jones, 2002) have generated significant press. Two Mountain Goats rarities compilations he’d put out on Ajax, Protein Source of the Future…Now! and Bitter Melon Farm, were almost out of print, so last fall he reissued them on 3 Beads of Sweat–a sublabel of Ajax that had previously released only one seven-inch, in 1994. He also put together Ghana, a third collection of singles and stray comp tracks. Darnielle recently signed a record deal with the influential British label 4AD, which could expand the Mountain Goats’ audience and boost Adams’s business in the process; meanwhile, all three compilations have already shipped enough copies to break even.

Adams has also begun doing a limited amount of mail-order business for aesthetically com-plementary labels on 3 Beads of Sweat’s Web site, www.3bos.com, but he’s not interested in building another Ajax. “I’ve seen the number of mail-order sites that have popped up, and to find an obscure record now you just have to type it into Google,” he says. He hopes to reissue additional Mountain Goats material in the future, but more immediately he’ll be releasing the debut album by Baculum, a new trio featuring members of Slovenly (an LA band that made corkscrewy guitar albums for SST in the 80s), and an album by an Australian band called Art of Fighting. “It’s just a hobby now,” he says. “It’s fun to do the stuff and not feel that I have to sell x units just to keep paying my rent.”

Rock Star Lessons

Last week on the Velvet Rope (www.velvetrope.com), a gossip-driven message board frequented by music industry insiders, an anonymous user posted a private letter written to the Waxwings by Bob Salerno, who releases their records on the Chicago-area indie Bobsled. In the lengthy, expletive-peppered rant Salerno excoriates the Detroit band for giving a half-assed performance at their hometown record release party last month: “Your ‘Record Release’ show was an absolute embarrassment!” it begins. “Every single aspect of that show was chump! I CANNOT fucking believe that you did not take that show seriously!!! That was your RECORD RELEASE show! Let me say that again…THAT WAS YOUR FUCKING RECORD RELEASE SHOW!!! IN YOUR HOME FUCKING TOWN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

He also criticizes the band for not hiring their own soundman, for failing to promote the show, for making public apologies about their performance, and for taking too long to finish their record in the first place. (He notes at one point that he’s spent $200,000 on the band; the new Shadows of the Waxwings is their second album for the label.) Though his tone is uniformly abusive, Salerno makes some valid points. But what pushes me off the fence is his primer on proper rock-star behavior: “Mick Jagger wouldn’t be hangin’ out in the club before HIS RECORD RELEASE show! Make a fuckin’ statement!!! Your faces should not have been seen for ONE SECOND before you took that stage! Do you think the Rolling Stones would be walkin’ around minglin’ in the crowd before their RECORD RELEASE show?? Do you think Jack White would be caught dead in the crowd before he takes the stage?? Bush leagues!!! Dean [Fertita, the band’s front man], you’re just fuckin’ hangin’ out by the fuckin’ entrance before the show, AND SOMETIMES ALONE! PATHETIC!!!”

Salerno confirmed that he wrote the letter and told me he wouldn’t take back a single word; he feels that in context it was appropriate. “I do believe that they’re a great band,” he said.

Nervous Flyers

Last week it was widely reported that on Sunday, April 28, people of Middle Eastern descent or appearance were removed from planes in four different cities because other passengers or crew members felt uncomfortable with them on board. Among the unfortunate were 11 Pakistani musicians, all members of the acclaimed qawwali group Asif Ali Khan & Party, who were flying from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles for a charity gig.

Asif Ali Khan is a 23-year-old protege of the great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and his group features seven of his brothers and his 76-year-old father, Manzoor Hussain. According to the Washington Post, flight attendants reported that they were “sweating, acting nervous, and making frequent trips to the lavatory,” and they were removed from their originally scheduled flight. They were booked onto a later flight, but missed it while being questioned by the FBI. The next day they boarded another plane, but as it began to taxi, flight attendants and some passengers persuaded the pilots to return to the gate, where the musicians were once again asked to get off. According to manager Mohammed Saleem–who was not with the band on the plane–passengers applauded as they left. On April 30 the band finally made it out of D.C., traveling in smaller groups on two different flights.

The group’s six-city tour of the U.S. is meant to raise money for Developments in Literacy, a nonprofit based in southern California that promotes literacy in remote parts of Pakistan. Asif Ali Khan & Party will perform in Chicago this Sunday, May 12, at the Old Town School of Folk Music at 7 PM. Ticket prices range from $30 to $100. For more information contact the local promoter, Haroon Qureshi, at 847-922-8467 or 312-644-6160.

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