Looking Back: Steve Albini, David Yow, Rob Crow Chat About Touch and Go’s 25th Anniversary

Now here’s a blast from the past. A blast from the past from the past, actually.

Touch and Go Records 4 eva.

(Go here to read my review of the Touch and Go’s legendary, three-day 25th anniversary bash in Chicago in 2006.)

Before Fall Out Boy, before the Academy Is … — hell, even before the Smashing Pumpkins — there was Touch and Go Records. Like those bands, the trailblazing record label’s reach has extended far beyond its Chicago base of operations, but come September, it’ll be enshrining its 25 years of influence with a massive anniversary gala designed to dazzle indie rock’s shrewdest scholars.

Scratch Acid, Big Black, Man … or Astro-man?, Killdozer — while they’re not exactly household names, the underground goons that shattered eardrums and tore punk rock a new one decades ago will be wreaking havoc once again in commemoration of the label that sustained them. Think of it as “A Mighty Wind” for the indie-rock masses.

“We are jumping back over the shark to f— your sh– up one more time,” said Birdstuff, drummer for interstellar surf-rockers Man … or Astro-man?, whose imaginative satire played during the closing credits of “Space Ghost Coast to Coast” and earned them an affiliation with TV’s “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”

While many of the shark-jumpers raising Cain on September 8-10 at the Hideout might only be recalled by your hippest uncle, Touch and Go and its family of offshoot imprints have included the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV on the Radio, Ted Leo, Henry Rollins, Butthole Surfers and Calexico. The label has remained viable as seminal punk imprints like SST, Slash, Taang! and Homestead closed up shop or went on hiatus and others like Vagrant and Matador turned to larger labels for extra financial support.

“Going back to that first impression, when we went to Chicago, saw their offices, saw their aesthetics, saw that [the label was based in] an old warehouse … people’s hearts and minds were of a certain work ethic,” said Joey Burns, whose Calexico will be playing the event and are on Touch and Go’s sister label, Quarterstick. “[They were] really active, not only in music but in their lives and outside of work, whether they made music themselves or made other kinds of art or had families.”

But the label’s distinction goes far beyond that. Along with Dischord Records, which Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi) co-founded nine months earlier in 1980, Touch and Go established a business model that seems downright ridonkulous by today’s standards: oral agreements instead of recording contracts, and profits split 50/50 between artist and label. It’s a model the labels continue to abide by.

“It seems to me that Touch and Go and Dischord Records are almost identical in that, when they were just getting their legs, they both managed to put out about 20-30 consecutively excellent, influential records,” said Andy Coronado, whose Monorchid were announced Friday (August 11) as the last band on the bill. “They did so with an extremely limited budget and network, using the same handshake-deal method they do now. Each label still to this day has a commitment to the same ideals that they began with.”

Every artist interviewed for this piece humbly echoed the same theme: The celebration — for which the Hideout is opening its lawn to accommodate 6,000 people — isn’t as much a self-interested attempt to relive the old days as it is about giving back to Touch and Go.

“A great label is one that puts out great music, that they also think is great music, does what they can to make sure the band gets what it needs to make the best music it can, gets the music out to the people that would want to hear it, then shares with the band prompt and fair wages for the work they’ve accomplished together,” said Rob Crow, whose Pinback issued their 1994 LP, Summer in Abaddon, through the label. “Touch and Go not only fall into this classification but probably defined it in the first place.”

Steve Albini, who has engineered (he spurns the term “producer”) Nirvana, Pixies and Nine Inch Nails, spoke in even grander terms about the significance of the label. “Touch and Go isn’t just a benchmark for how a record label should behave, but how people should behave. … A lot of people in business behave like bastards and excuse that by saying, ‘You have to be a bastard to survive.’ … That’s a common excuse in the business world, and Touch and Go has demonstrated that that’s pure nonsense.”

Albini will be rolling out his long-running project, rarely seen rock nihilists Shellac, at the shindig. But it’s his earlier ensemble, noise-rock misfits Big Black, who are shaping up to be one of the main attractions — even though they’re only scheduled to play a couple of songs.

“Big Black taught me to appreciate the power of abrasion,” said Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner, who lamented that he won’t be able to make the event and expressed equal enthusiasm over Scratch Acid and Negative Approach’s reunions.

Still, Albini shrugged off Big Black surfacing. “It’s not about Big Black wanting to get back together or even an audience wanting to see Big Black,” he said. “It’s that … to not honor Touch and Go would be an insult by way of damning with faint praise.”

Girls Against Boys and Didjits will also be reconvening their original lineups for the affair. Ted Leo + Pharmacists, the Black Heart Procession, CocoRosie, !!!, the Shipping News, Quasi, Pinback, Enon, Supersystem and the Ex will represent still-active bands, with Uzeda, Three Mile Pilot, Seam, Arcwelder, the New Year and Pegboy bulking up the bill. Packing the weekend’s full potential, a bevy of additional performers — including Brick Layer Cake and PW Long — will play a few songs between the main sets.

The lineup has more or less jelled at this point, although label founder Corey Rusk said, “The Big Black thing, I just never thought that was going to happen. So anything is possible.” Anything except, that is, for a reunion of his band the Necros, which were the first ones to put out a release on the label. While rumors of comebacks by his band, the Jesus Lizard and Albini’s controversial Rapeman have been floating around, they are extremely unlikely to reunite at this point.

“If suddenly three more bands want to get back together to play a full set, there won’t be enough time,” Rusk said. But, he added, “If anyone else wants to get back together to play a few more songs, we’ll be open to that.”

The reunion of Scratch Acid — the raw-to-the-bone Austin, Texas, band that started tormenting the Lone Star State the same year Butthole Surfers did (1982) — is as anticipated as Big Black’s. If not more so, since they’ll be playing a full set.

Frontman David Yow, the minstrel of mayhem whose subsequent Jesus Lizard eked out a now-classic split single with Nirvana back in the day, will be hocking a loogie of new life into Scratch Acid. His sarcastic wit still fully intact, he envisioned what the crowd reaction will be like at the weekend fest: ” ‘Wow, those guys weren’t very good at all! And wait till you see this next band — they really suck!’ It’ll be hilarious.”

(Originally published on MTV News on August 10, 2006.)

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