Fan First, Mogul Second
In the spring of 1995, while working as shipping manager for Touch and Go, Howard Greynolds was asked by Drag City owner Dan Koretzky if he’d be interested in managing an upcoming tour by Palace. Greynolds said yes, but the job turned out to be more than he’d bargained for: “Before we started, Will [Oldham] asked me if I’d ever played guitar, and I told him that I had played a little bit in junior high school,” says Greynolds. “He said that was good enough. That was a good one.” He ended up playing in that lineup of Palace along with former Slint guitarist Dave Pajo, reading scrawled notation from a notebook every night. Although he claims he was “pretty good” by the end of the trip, the next time around Oldham hired him strictly as a tour manager.
Greynolds’s brief career as a rocker was over, but something else grew out of that adventure: over the next year he released three seven-inch singles by acts he’d befriended on tour, including Pajo, San Francisco’s Dura Delinquent, and Calexico, who went on to sign with the Touch and Go imprint Quarterstick. Greynolds named his label All City, and its catalog has since grown to include 11 singles, two EPs, and, most recently, a handful of full-lengths.
Growing up in Cleveland with parents who were into classic rock and country, Greynolds was an avid music fan at an early age. “My dad took me to see Kiss on the Dynasty tour, and the trade-off was that I went with him to see Springsteen on the River tour, and I ended up being a much bigger fan of the stuff he took me to see than what I wanted to see,” he says. In the late 80s he fell in love with the Touch and Go school of grind rock, and while attending John Carroll University, he let the band Tar stay on the floor of his apartment. He and bassist Tom Zaluckyj remained friends, and when Greynolds moved to Chicago in late 1993, Zaluckyj suggested that he try to work at Touch and Go.
While his girlfriend and eventual wife, Mary Kearney, brought home the bacon
as a manager at a south-side Target, Greynolds took a job at Kinko’s and got an unpaid two-day-a-week internship at the label. Within two months Touch and Go owner Corey Rusk had created a full-time job especially for him. “Overjoyed” that he was doing what he loved, Greynolds says, he found extra time to stuff record sleeves at Drag City. He also handled mail order and miscellaneous other duties at Thrill Jockey, which at the time was still a one-woman operation and couldn’t afford to pay him.
In May 1996, Greynolds went to work for Thrill Jockey full-time, doing publicity and production, but he continued to put out singles, including one by singer-songwriter Shannon Wright, who went on to sign with Quarterstick, and one by Pennsy’s Electric Workhorse, who became Red Stars Theory, who are now on Touch and Go. Last year, upon discovering that Def Jam owner Russell Simmons had legal rights to the name All City, Greynolds rechristened the label Overcoat, and with the market for seven-inch vinyl drying up, he switched his focus to full-length records. So far he’s released an EP by Columbus punks the New Bomb Turks and LPs by the Austin country-rock band Knife in the Water and the moody Chapel Hill pop band Kingsbury Manx. But his biggest projects yet are due in October: the debut album by International Airport, a Pastels side project, and the long-awaited fourth album by folk rocker Richard Buckner, The Hill, a song cycle based on Spoon River Anthology. Buckner will probably perform some of the new material when he plays at Schubas this Saturday and Sunday.
Overcoat is demanding more of Greynolds’s free time, but he refuses to set a deadline for making it a self-sustaining enterprise. “If two years from now I’m able to do it full-time, then great. If not, then hopefully I’ll still be putting out good records that people care about,” he says. “I’m a fan first and foremost. Doing records is just taking fandom to the next level.”
Another Recent Arrival
Ken Dyber, who runs another emerging local label, Aesthetics, came to Chicago in much the same way Greynolds did–after connecting personally with someone in a band he admired. As a marketing major at Plymouth State College in New Hampshire, Dyber started out hoping for a job with a ski resort or a snowboarding company. But after learning to play bass and spending three and a half years as music director of his college radio station, he reset his sights on the music industry. He gave radio a whirl, interning at a Connecticut commercial alt-rock station between his junior and senior years, but soured on that segment of the biz after a media conglomerate bought the station and fired most of its staff. In 1996, a few months after graduating, he started Aesthetics, signing a Boston rock band he loved called the Lune.
In the spring of 1997 he went to see Isotope 217 in Boston and struck up a conversation with guitarist Jeff Parker, with whom he’s still friendly. He offered to put out their first record, but the band ended up going with Thrill Jockey. That fall Dyber decided to move to Chicago, and last year he released an Isotope 217 remix EP that is so far his label’s biggest seller. “I’m striving to make a living from it, and I was hoping that after four or five years I could do it full-time,” he says. “But it’s still a labor of love right now.”
Other groups on the Aesthetics roster include the ambient duo Pulse Programming and the Tortoise-influenced instrumental trio 33.3. This fall Dyber plans to release the debut LP by DJ, producer, and former Deadly Dragon Sound System regular Daniel Givens and the vinyl version of the debut album by the Eternals (which will be released on CD by the D.C. label DeSoto). And this Tuesday he’ll release Music of a Sinking Occasion, the debut album by his own band, the arty atmospheric pop quartet L’altra. The band celebrates by opening for John Fahey next Friday, July 21, at the Empty Bottle.
Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at email@example.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Howard Greynolds; Ken Dyber photos by Nathan Mandell.