The Sound of a Bubble Bursting
Fot Records had its genesis at Bloomington-Normal in 1984, when business major Steve Rubin started a cassette-only label of weird music: a series called Passed Normal contained tracks that ranged from the semi- to the extremely obscure. With help from Eric A. Ton, who supplied the label’s distinctive graphics, and Bob Harper, who under the name Pink Bob supplied both material and studio expertise, the label became known as a loving home of the offbeat, the oddly rhythmic, the unusually instrumented, the bizarrely genrecized–in a phrase, “the outer fringes of what people call rock ‘n’ roll,” as Maestro Subgum pianist Michael Greenberg puts it.
Rubin collected Fot-only material from everyone from underground cult heroes Daevid Allen (once of Gong) and Hugh Hopper (once of the Soft Machine) to more regional bands carrying on similarly unconventional missions: From Chicago alone he handled Maestro, multiinstrumentalist Winston Damon, and the genre-blending dance band Las Toallitas. After years of long stretches between releases,
Fot–named for the sound of a bubble bursting–had been gearing up of late, releasing six albums in the last 18 months, with more, including Tiny Tim’s first CD, coming up.
But Rubin died two weeks ago at 31, of stomach cancer. “He really wanted to do nothing but the best for people,” says Ton. “He was a tough little businessperson, but he really wanted to help people. He really believed in all that. His number-one concern was for the artists, maybe to a fault sometimes.” Pink Bob, who bought the label’s assets and will continue it under the name Ponk, concurs. “If he had a choice between sending a check to an artist or paying his gas bill, he’d pay the artist.”
“He was the essence of the DIY ethos,” says Greenberg. “Get it done yourself, get it out there. Even if people in Chicago didn’t know who he was, people all over the world could find the stuff on this underground network. I’ve been in some club in the middle of nowhere and there’d be Fot fliers laying around.”
Friends say Rubin hadn’t been looking good. “He’d been looking lethargic,” Ton says. “We thought he was sick, and we started really riding him to get himself looked at.” When he did go to a doctor in late March, shortly after a celebratory visit to San Francisco for an album-release party with the band Steve Horowitz and the Code, his treatment was immediately complicated by a moderate stroke. By the time doctors could actually see how far the problem had gone, Ton says, there was little they could do: a tumor in his esophagus was inhibiting his ability to eat. He died May 12.
As news of Rubin’s illness got around, Ton says, the calls started coming in. “People around the world really felt the loss,” says Ton. We got calls from Yokohama, South Africa, Radio Belgrade. When I told Steve about some of the calls, that was the one time you didn’t see pain in his eyes.”
The Achilles heel of Material Issue has always been leader Jim Ellison’s unquestioning devotion to the pop froth of the past; finessing the nostalgia problem with the blasting power of his seething rhythm section, he nonetheless runs the risk of seeming overly unironic, out of it, or naive. Where his pals in Urge Overkill cordially walk their 70s forebears to a guillotine, Ellison and Material Issue hold pool parties with the Sweet, the Raspberries, and too many bands who sang too many songs about girls. But just when it seems like the shtick might get tired, Ellison and cohorts Ted Ansani (bass) and Mike Zelenko (drums) have returned with the awesomely produced Freak City Soundtrack. The title refers to Ellison’s formative years on the northwest side; but the sound is crafted with up-to-the-minute brightness by producer Mike Chapman. Songwriter Ellison rises to the occasion, starting off the album with these words:
Well, I know it’s been a little while
Since the first time that I made you smile
So I thought I’d take a little opportunity
To dig a little deeper inside
And try to find what someone like you
Is trying to hide from me
Having set up a nice group of double entendres, Ellison smirkily abandons them for the metaphor of the song’s title: “Goin’ Through Your Purse.” He marries all this to perhaps his most thrilling chorus and perhaps the band’s tightest, most focused playing–saying something on both counts. And the rest of the record keeps up the pace, from the rolling chords of “Kim the Waitress” to the chirpy pleas of “Help Me Land.” Bonus: a remake of the band’s killer early track, “She’s Goin’ Thru My Head,” which will be Freak City’s second single. The band play two shows next weekend at Metro; they’re being recorded for material for a live EP to accompany the single, and being filmed as well, for ABC’s In Concert.
Kevin McKeough notes that the Rolling Stones’ September 11 Soldier Field show falls, elegantly enough, on National Grandparents Day….The cover of the new Maximum Rocknroll, the Bay Area-based punk fanzine, features a black-and-white photo of a kid with a pistol in his mouth, accompanied by the legend “Some of your friends are already this fucked.” The shot illustrates a special issue on the evils of major labels, and was conceived, editor Tim Yohannan writes inside, before the suicide of Kurt Cobain.