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What’s in a name? Veteran Chicago indie rocker Tim Rutili started Perishable Records in 1992 to release the debut album by his old band Red Red Meat–but when they signed to Sub Pop a year later, it appeared that the need for the imprint had expired. He revived it in early ’98–this time as a partnership with bandmate Ben Massarella–to release the lone album by Loftus, a collaboration between RRM and the Brooklyn trio Rex that had been abandoned by A&M. Now, 20 records later, Perishable’s time might be up.
In December ’97, a month before the Loftus record came out, Rutili and Massarella played their first show with a new band called Califone, which took latter-day Red Red Meat’s unpopular experimental phase to the next level. Free from the contractual pressures the old band had experienced under Sub Pop, they took their time developing a sound, releasing a couple EPs on other low-profile labels. Perishable gained ground a bit faster–the Loftus album made money, which went into new records by closely associated bands like Him and Orso. By the time the label finally presented Califone’s debut full-length, Roomsound, last year, it had a dozen other releases in its catalog.
A beguiling mix of revisionist roots rock, improvisation, and quiet soul, Roomsound cemented Califone’s position as one of the city’s most exciting bands. They quickly came to rival Him as the label’s best-selling act, garnering reams of critical praise, and by December the lineup, always loose, had coalesced around Rutili, Massarella, banjoist and guitarist Jim Becker, bassist Matt Fields, and drummer Joe Adamik. Perishable got a visibility boost as well, which didn’t hurt subsequent records by the Fire Show, the Sinister Luck Ensemble, the Fruit Bats, and most recently Tim Kinsella’s new project Friend/Enemy. (According to Massarella, every Perishable release since number eight, Frontier’s Suture EP, has turned a profit.) Yet Califone recently decided to license their next album to Thrill Jockey–and what’s more, Perishable’s future release schedule is currently blank.
While working on the new album–now about 80 percent done–Rutili and Massarella began thinking about devoting more time to Califone. “It’s been a long few years trying to do both, play and run the label, whether from here or from the road,” says Massarella. “We’d be setting up and doing sound checks while spending 20 minutes on the cell phone discussing Him’s tour of Japan.” Perishable has also recently lost two of its more active bands: the Fire Show, led by Michael Lenzi and Seth Cohen, played its farewell show last weekend, and the Fruit Bats, the rustic pop outfit led by onetime Califone member Eric Johnson, are in negotiations with Sub Pop.
“I loved the Fruit Bats record, and I think Eric’s a great songwriter,” says Rutili. “We wanted to keep working with him, but he had other things he wanted to do.” Perishable released the band’s debut, Echolocation, last year, and by early summer Johnson had stopped playing with Califone to focus on the Fruit Bats. He credits both Califone and Perishable for the band’s success so far, but is persuaded of the advantages of Sub Pop’s wider distribution and its more established infrastructure for supporting touring bands. Johnson and the band’s other core member, Gillian Lisee (who’s worked with both Orso and Califone), recently finished a follow-up at Engine Studios with Brian Deck, who also played drums. Deck, a former member of Red Red Meat and Califone, was the house engineer at Perishable’s in-house recording studio, Clava, but left last year to become a partner in Engine.
The Fruit Bats’ flight was the final straw for Rutili and Massarella. “It was pretty much the last thing that we needed to find out about before we decided that the label would be a minimal concern in the upcoming year,” says Massarella. “Shortly after we got that news from Eric, we decided to talk to [Thrill Jockey owner] Bettina [Richards]. It’s the best vibe we’ve ever had with another label.” Califone plan to release the new record in February and spend most of 2003 touring behind it. Massarella says he and Rutili will reassess the label’s future after that; meanwhile the office will remain open with minimal staff.
While none of them is perfect, most of the big city-sponsored summer music festivals are fairly broad-minded and accessible, designed to attract Chicagoans from across ethnic and neighborhood lines. The gospel, blues, jazz, and Celtic fests recruit top-notch performers and cover a wide range of styles within their given missions. The glaring exception remains Viva! Chicago, the city’s annual Latin music festival, which seems to get more provincial every year. In an interview for this column in 1999, longtime Viva! programmer Enrique Munoz claimed that the festival was “for the whole city” and intended to represent the admittedly daunting breadth of musical traditions from the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world. But now as then the event is dominated by artists of the same ethnicity as most of Chicago’s Latinos–Mexican and Puerto Rican–despite nationwide crazes for Cuban and Brazilian music and the increasing popularity of rock en espanol. This weekend’s Viva! schedule is depressingly predictable, promising yet more slick salsa, merengue, cumbia, and regional Mexican pop. Even the fest’s most artistically commendable booking, veteran Puerto Rican salseros El Gran Combo (who headline the Petrillo Music Shell on Sunday, August 25), feels stale–they just played here in late June.
The all-electronic Synth City bill at Metro on Saturday, August 24, is one of several forthcoming attempts to cash in on the “electroclash” craze–not the least of which is the official Electroclash Tour, with Peaches, Chicks on Speed, et al, due in Chicago on October 18. This weekend’s event features performances by a couple of the movement’s most hyped synth-pop bands–Soviet, who cover Yaz, and A.R.E. Weapons, who have admitted that their initial goal was to imitate Suicide–plus a slew of DJ sets. But headliner Green Velvet, aka Curtis Jones, aka Chicago house icon Cajmere, predates and transcends the trend. Though he delivers his hilarious narratives about alien abduction, popping pills, and taking parents to raves with deadpan detachment, there’s no trace of the electroclashers’ irony or nostalgia about his music. On his most recent album, Whatever (Relief), the tracks combine sci-fi synth riffs, abstract squelches, and roiling bass lines over grinding 4/4 beats; his closest antecedent is the industrial disco of groups like Front 242 and Nitzer Ebb, but that’s still pretty distant. Lumping this true original in with NYC’s fleetingly fashionable copycats is almost criminal–but if he’s smart he’ll absorb the jolt of attention he gets from it and then move on.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lori Wolan.