Wax Trax Redux

Wax Trax Records’ first album, in 1981, was a “postpunk thing, Strike Under, a local band,” says co-owner Jim Nash. The second has slipped his mind. “You’d think I’d remember something like that.” But he remembers the third: it featured Divine, star of stage and screen best known for his roles in John Waters movies. “Divine was here for a movie premiere at the Biograph. In the Q and A I inquired as to whether or not he’d put out a record. He said that he’d actually recorded some songs but no record company would put them out. I said that I considered myself a record company, and we put out his record.” It was a single with the songs “Born to Be Cheap” and “The Name Game,” and Nash still has a few around. “I also have a videotape of Divine at the Park West playing the songs, with Al Jourgensen playing guitar and looking totally new wave.”

From such tempestuous origins was the label that introduced industrial rock to America born. Wax Trax’s fourth record was from an extremely challenging Belgian dance band called Front 242. “They toured with Ministry in 1983,” Nash notes, after the album came out, “and hit it off great. The rest is history.” The history, in this case, is ten years of extremely rough and uncompromising mechanized dance conflagrations by such groups as Ministry, Meat Beat Manifesto, KLF, and My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult and a total of perhaps a million records sold. All of this culminated in this harsh music’s public acceptance, in the form of best-selling albums by Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails and, of course, Jourgensen’s Ministry.

But since rock ‘n’ roll is a cruel mistress, Nash and his partner, Dannie Flesher (“I’m the one with the mouth,” says Nash), are not quite sitting on top of the world right now. The label’s too-quick growth, bands leaving for larger labels, and a confessed naivete when it comes to business put Wax Trax into bankruptcy last year. The operation was rescued by both cash infusions and management help from Steve Gottlieb’s TVT records, appropriately enough the home of Nine Inch Nails. Now Nash has his business back and TVT has a stake in Wax Trax. “I read somewhere someone said it was 30 percent,” says Nash. “It’s nobody’s business, but it’s more than 9 and less than 11. They rescued this company and they deserve that number. All our crew gets along great with the TVT crew.”

In its heyday Wax Trax sold a lot of records. So what put it into Chapter 11? An inability to put that success into a long-term operating plan, Nash says, plus lots of monetary losses. A distribution deal with England’s Play It Again Sam Records cost the company a quarter of a million. The massive shakeout in the indie distribution world in the late 80s–the collapse of Rough Trade and JEM, for example, which distributed for Wax Trax–cost lots, too. “You know, $80,000 here and $30,000 there and after a while, as they say, you’ve got real money,” Nash says.

He also admits he could have been better at holding on to his talent. “I always felt with the label that I had a long-term commitment to the bands,” he shrugs. “A lot of bands, obviously, felt that it wasn’t a two-way street and jumped ship.”

Almost all of them, in fact: Ministry is on Sire, a division of Warner Brothers, though Jourgensen’s side projects (like the Revolting Cocks) are still on Wax Trax. The Thrill Kill Kult has a new record on Interscope, which is distributed through Atlantic. Front 242 is on Sony, Meat Beat Manifesto on Mute/Elektra. KLF went to Arista just in time for a pair of smash singles, “3 AM (Eternal)” and “Justified and Ancient,” the latter a duet with Tammy Wynette of all people. “I don’t have any bad feelings,” Nash reflects, “but I do regret that I didn’t run the business better in that respect. We were always good at discovering the talent, rather than keeping it. Now we’d like to discover and keep it.”

TVT’s distribution punch is pushing the Wax Trax back catalog: “We’re selling twice as much now as we ever did.” And Nash has two new projects: the Artificial Intelligence series of “ambient techno” records, and a hot dance single by Psykosonik called “Silicon Jesus.” The latter, he says, is a little un-Wax-Trax-y. “I heard it and said, ‘Oh my god, we’ve signed Duran Duran!'”

Chart Watch

The Smashing Pumpkins debut on the Billboard 200 album chart this week–at number ten with a bullet–is probably the highest debut position ever by a Chicago artist. (The ranking translates to about 70,000 sales, SoundScan reports.) With Siamese Dream, the Pumpkins join an elite group of Chicago rock bands who’ve scored a top-ten album: Survivor (one album), Styx (five albums, including one number-one), and Chicago (12, including 5 number-ones in a row). (Cheap Trick, from Rockford, had two top-tens.) Siamese Dream was also given a “spotlight” review (generally reserved for big-name acts) in Billboard’s August 7 edition, which saw the band “charg[ing] into the big leagues with a stupendous, brilliantly produced album that combines brute force with a strong melodic sense….Expect big things from this Windy City dynamo.” In the meantime, Urge Overkill’s Saturation is doing fine on the college charts; it was number one on the Gavin Report alternative listing until it was knocked out by the Pumpkins this week. The first single, “Sister Havana,” holds at number eight on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart, and debuted at 16 with a bullet on the Album Rock Tracks chart. Geffen says the single is being played on 145 AOR stations across the country; that number, and the song’s initial 70 adds, were “astounding,” says a Geffen flack. (AOR means mainstream rock radio, not necessarily a friendly environment for bands with a sarcasm factor as high as Urge’s.) Still, Saturation hasn’t hit the Billboard 200 yet, and the “Sister Havana” video has yet to charm MTV. As for Liz Phair, she’s at number 26 with a bullet on the Gavin chart. Hitsville hears she’ll play Metro with a band September 18 (though Metro won’t confirm it).

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