In late 1998 Norah Utley printed up 1,000 promotional buttons that said “I (heart) Norah (TM).” For the next three years she handed them out at shows and bars around town. “You know how there’s bands that you’ve never heard but are really well-known because people always wear their buttons?” she says. “That was my attempt to try and do the same thing, but with myself.” Utley’s buttons have since turned up as far west as California–a friend of hers spotted somebody wearing one in a club in LA. “I still get people coming up to me saying, ‘Are you the Norah, from ‘I heart Norah?'”

These days, though, Utley has something more conventional to promote. Three years ago she started Shit Sandwich Records, a tiny label that’s earned enviable loyalty from garage-rock collectors across the country with its seven releases to date. “I think it’s pretty impressive,” says Eric Friedl, aka Eric Oblivian, who runs the Memphis trash-rock institution Goner Records. “It took me ten years to put out seven releases. . . . She seems to have her finger on the pulse of some good stuff that’s going on.” The Shit Sandwich catalog includes seven-inches from locals like the Tyrades and M.O.T.O., Memphis neo-new wavers the Final Solutions, and ferocious Baltimore postpunks the Fuses. All the singles have sold out their initial pressings, and Utley plans to put out a Fuses LP–the label’s first full-length, and its first record to get a CD release–early next month.

Utley grew up in the far northern suburb of Grayslake and launched her first label, the short-lived Dental Records, while still in high school. She graduated in 1994 and moved to Logan Square a couple years later, picking an apartment within walking distance of the Fireside Bowl. Soon she was a fixture on the local garage and punk scenes, DJing regularly at Club Foot and Delilah’s and checking out five shows a week.

“It was like a full-time job,” she says. “I spent most of my early 20s really wasted and really talkative, so I met a lot of people.” In 1997 one of those people helped Utley find work in the music industry, handling sales for the now-defunct distributor Rotz Records. In 1999 she took a similar position with Choke Distribution.

In August 2000 at the Fireside, Utley and several friends debuted as Airbrush, an air-guitar band complete with air drums and lip-synched vocals. “We’d burn CDs of songs–mostly Motley Crue and cock-rock stuff–and then record our own between-song banter, which we’d also lip-synch to,” she says. “I would have to get super, super wasted to perform, though, because it was completely embarrassing.”

Limp Bizkit guitarist Wes Borland happened to catch that first show, where a huge, rowdy crowd had turned out to egg Airbrush on. “We actually had to have people act as our security because the audience was acting so crazy,” says Utley. “It was like a real Motley Crue concert.” Impressed, Borland invited Airbrush to open a few midwest dates for his side project Big Dumb Face. “But he hated us so much ’cause I was so obnoxious,” says Utley. “At one point he said to me, ‘If I wanted to be on tour with Fred Durst I’d be on tour with Fred Durst.’ I was like, ‘He thinks I’m like Fred Durst? That’s terrible . . . and awesome!'”

After two gigs Borland kicked Airbrush off the tour. “It was funny because there were more people turning out to see us than his band,” says Utley. Airbrush continued to perform locally for about a year and even managed one more regional date, with the New Bomb Turks and Zeke in Green Bay, before splitting up.

In spring 2002, with help from Choke owner Chuck Wren, Utley started Shit Sandwich. Wren put up half the money for the first release, which wouldn’t come out for a year, and let Utley operate the label out of the company’s office near Belmont and Western. Utley based the Shit Sandwich logo on the Stiff Records design and lifted the label’s name from This Is Spinal Tap–it’s the two-word review of the fictional album Shark Sandwich.

For her first three releases, Utley pressed between three and five hundred copies. Then she put out the M.O.T.O. single. “That’s where people–especially from out of town–started paying attention,” she says. Beginning with her next release, from the Tyrades, Utley ordered records in batches of 1,000 or more. She also began pressing the first hundred copies on colored vinyl. “Now it’s amazing. People will have placed orders like two minutes after I put things up for sale,” she says. “The last two records sold out the colored vinyl in a day.”

In November 2003 Utley debuted in her first real band, Headache City, with Mike Fitzpatrick and Dave Head–their previous group, the White Outs, had been her second release. She plays keyboards, though she likes to joke that she’s only in the band because neither of the guys is any good at talking to the crowd when somebody breaks a string. “I feel like such a dork sometimes, ’cause I’m actually playing in my favorite band, which is really weird,” she says. Headache City has released a seven-inch on Shit Sandwich and plans to put out a full-length on the label later this year. The group was the only Chicago band at Goner Fest in January, and last month it played three gigs at South by Southwest–including a joint showcase for Shit Sandwich and another Chicago punk label, Criminal IQ, that drew a wall-to-wall crowd.

Other forthcoming Shit Sandwich releases include a single from the Busy Signals–a new power-pop group featuring current and former members of the Tyrades, the Krunchies, and Atlanta’s Carbonas–and another from Texas band the Marked Men. “Right now I’m at the point, miraculously, where I don’t have to put my own money into [the label] anymore,” Utley says. “It’s paying for itself, and that’s all I really wanted.”

On top of the label, her band, and her day job, Utley designs and makes baby clothes, pillows, and plush toys under the name Sheriff Peanut. “Plus I’ve got two dogs and I’m getting married at the end of May [to Paul Wear, aka Velcro Lewis guitarist Paulie Rocco]. So it’s been pretty hectic lately.”

On Saturday night Utley presents her first hometown label showcase at Cal’s, the South Loop dive bar that’s a favorite haunt for many local garage acts. The lineup includes Headache City, the Busy Signals, and Eric Friedl’s band the Dutch Masters, who got in on a technicality–they don’t have plans for a Shit Sandwich release, but a related band, the Jenny Jeans, is putting out a single on the label in the fall. The show doubles as a slightly belated 29th birthday party for Utley, capping a week she’s dubbed “Norahukkah.”

“I try not to take myself or anything I do too seriously,” she says. “I hate when you meet record-label people and they’re always going on about price points and bullshit like that. I just really like music and I want to put out records I’m proud of. That’s about it.”

Headache City, Busy Signals, Dutch Masters, Killjoy Confetti

When: Sat 4/16, 9 PM

Where: Cal’s, 400 S. Wells

Price: $5 suggested donation

Info: 312-922-6392

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