Bob Andrews’s career in the music business started out as a lark. While the Nashville native was toiling away at a drum shop for seven bucks an hour, his friend Ken Coomer was drumming for alt-country heroes Uncle Tupelo. “I saw that Ken was having a good time on the road all of the time, and I thought it might be cool to do that, to travel around,” says Andrews. “So I bullshitted my way in.” He wrote to the band’s manager, Tony Margherita, touting his abilities as a drum and guitar technician; around the same time Uncle Tupelo’s road manager quit, and Andrews landed the gig. He moved to Saint Louis, where Margherita was based, in 1993.

Within a couple years he’d gone from stringing guitars–for Uncle Tupelo and then Wilco–to pulling strings. In 1995, when Margherita moved to Chicago, Andrews took over as manager for another of his bands, the Bottle Rockets. “I didn’t really know what I was doing,” he admits. “I was just kind of faking it.” But since then, Andrews has moved to Chicago as well, and in recent years he’s emerged as something of an innovator in the industry. He’s now one of the principals at Undertow Chicago, a management company, record label, and booking agency that’s tackling its multiple functions with unusual synchronicity. When a band is successful enough to need a label, a booking agent, and a manager, three separate parties normally handle those tasks–and if they don’t communicate well, the band suffers. But in the last year and a half Undertow has developed a model where one team–Andrews and booking agent Meggean Ward–can theoretically take care of everything.

So far only a handful of bands have been in a position to take advantage of the complete package–Chicago’s Dolly Varden, the Saint Louis alt-country band Nadine, and Dallas indie rockers Centro-matic–but the operation seems to be picking up steam. Last week Undertow released The Palace at 4AM (Part 1), the debut album by former Wilco multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett and longtime friend Edward Burch, and reissued Sweet Life, one of four out-of-print albums by the twangy alt-rock band Varnaline, who now record for Steve Earle’s E-Squared label. Bennett and Burch are booked by Ward, and Varnaline is also managed by Andrews.

The Bottle Rockets may have been dropped in his lap, but Andrews pursued other clients more actively. He was enchanted by Dolly Varden after seeing them open a Bottle Rockets show in 1995; a few months later he came to Chicago to see them play again and sheepishly inquired if they had a manager. In short order he had a similar experience with Centro-matic. He also added Nadine, old friends and roommates from Saint Louis, to his roster. After the Bottle Rockets signed to Atlantic, they felt they needed a “bigger” manager. “Plus, I was working with Dolly, Nadine, and Centro-matic by then–all bands that I love very much–and I really wanted to focus my efforts on them,” he says.

In 1997 he waded in further when Nadine couldn’t find a U.S. label to release their first album. A mutual friend, Mark Ray, operated a modest studio and rehearsal space called Undertow; Ray, who earns his living as a designer at an ad agency, laid out the artwork and lent them some equipment and the name, and that year Undertow released its first album, Nadine’s Back to My Senses. The record sold 1,000 copies in the U.S., mostly at shows, and in 1999 Undertow decided to release another.

In the fall of 2000 Andrews moved to Chicago to be with his girlfriend, Laurie Grams–now his wife–and Undertow now functions as an umbrella company for the label, the management company, the studio in Saint Louis, and a booking agency; each partner operates as an independent contractor. The Chicago office is run out of Ward’s Uptown apartment. But that may change. “Mark had been talking about him moving to Chicago for a while before I decided to move,” says Andrews. “Then I got serious with Laurie and beat him to it. He still has plans to move here sometime….We never even talked about breaking up when I decided to move. He was very excited that we’d have a Chicago office.”

A casual conversation between Andrews and Ward, an old business acquaintance, led to the decision to bring a booking agency into the mix. Formerly the drummer for the New York indie-rock band Juicy (led by Kendall Meade of Mascott, the Spinanes, and Sparklehorse), Ward had spent a year and a half working for Gold Mountain, the management company that handled Hole, the Breeders, and the Lemonheads. When Juicy’s increased activity began to interfere with her job, she was dismissed. She tried making the band her top priority for a while, but by 1997 Juicy was through. “I came back to New York, and after touring a couple of times, sleeping on people’s couches, and being really broke I decided I needed a real job,” she says. She found one at Billions, the Chicago agency then booking bigger indie acts like Pavement, the Jesus Lizard, and Will Oldham, but during her three years at the company she worked primarily as an assistant and never got to put together a tour. “It’s such a good place to work that no one really leaves, which meant it was kind of a static place for me,” she says.

Having booked several of Juicy’s tours, she felt sure she was capable. She’d met Ken Stringfellow of the Posies at the home of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Lounge Ax co-owner Sue Miller–where she was baby-sitting and he was crashing after a show–and had recently begun booking shows for Posies-related projects on her own time. After joining Undertow, she picked up Andrews’s management clients, and now books a total of 17 acts. Many can be classified as alt-country, including the Handsome Family, Kelly Hogan, and Rex Hobart, but she also represents garage rockers the Deadly Snakes and the Dishes and veteran indie rockers the Ass Ponys.

In addition to the Bennett and Burch album and the Varnaline reissue, Undertow has recently released a solo album by Centro-matic’s Will Johnson and the latest Dolly Varden album, Forgiven Now. Dolly Varden front man Steve Dawson has rarely had a good experience with the music industry. Between Dolly Varden and his previous band, Stump the Host, he’s twice been rebuffed by major labels at the last moment. Dolly Varden’s last two albums were released on the New York indie Evil Teen, and the second, The Dumbest Magnets, was delayed for nearly six months. “We had to call and threaten legal action to get them to release it,” says Andrews.

Dawson’s not worried about anything like that happening with Undertow. “I completely trust Bob,” he says. “There’s not a doubt in my mind that he would never do anything that would hurt the band, whereas with pretty much anyone in the music business there’s always a thought that this person is going to screw me over eventually.” He also appreciates Undertow’s integrated approach. “At this point there’s not much difference between management and the record label because they’re all trying to target the same stuff. I don’t think [Bob] needs to make phone calls as manager and then go ahead and make phone calls as label guy. It’s the same thing now.”

Although Ward and Andrews admit they must sometimes scrounge to get by–Ward still moonlights as a cocktail waitress–they seem deeply confident in the company and the artists affiliated with it. “I’m financing the record label with my credit cards,” says Andrews calmly. “I’ve got $14,000 on them right now, but I know I’ll make it back.”

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