Kranky co-founder Bruce Adams sits down to discuss his new book, You’re With Stupid: kranky, Chicago, and the Reinvention of Indie Music. (UTPress) Adams explains the unique conditions that put Chicago at the heart of the ‘90s indie rock scene, the emergence of the kranky aesthetic, and sings the praises of Labradford. Adams’ book is full of personal memories and reflections, including meeting partner Joel Leoschke, kranky’s early roster of bands, and many fascinating recollections from the wider Chicago scene. But Bruce also provides much valuable context that helps us to rethink the history of independent music. Cutting off in 2002, just as the era of file-sharing began to really disrupt the music industry, You’re With Stupid offers an insider’s perspective on the importance of interdependence.
Episode 26: LANE DISCIPLINE
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Interview recorded between Urbana and Montreal, August 2022
Produced and mixed in Montreal, October 2022
SP* at Anchor
Many of our readers describe ACL as a resource for “recommendations,” and while I hope that what we do here transcends this zeitgeisty formulation, it really does speak to one of the core ways that we think about our role. We’re your music obsessed friends who are always happy to talk about our favorites, new and old. And how do we discover new artists? A good place to start is by digging into the catalogues of labels that have released records you love. Before “curators” migrated out of the museums and seemingly colonized every facet of our lives, the concept of curation was modeled by the best record labels. We share a similar sense of taste, so if I like one album I’ll probably find another I like as well. As a listener, we come to trust our favorite labels so implicitly we might buy a new record without so much as a preview. The once enigmatic Chicago-based kranky label has been widely influential since their founding in 1993, and exemplifies a label aesthetic.
Over nearly three decades, kranky has been home to so many of our favorite artists: Godspeed, Low, Stars of the Lid, Labradford, Pan•American, Lichens, Tim Hecker, Christina Vantzou, A Winged Victory for the Sullen, Loscil, Benoît Pioulard, Grouper, Deerhunter, and on and on. But the behind the scenes of the label had long been hazy, with founders Bruce Adams and Joel Leoschke obscured behind the persona of “mr. kranky.” That’s changed with the release of Bruce Adams’ You’re With Stupid: kranky, Chicago, and the Reinvention of Indie Music. The label first came on my radar around 2001, when I bought the CD version of Godspeed’s Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven, and while I’ve kept tabs on the label ever since, reading Adams’ book made me realize just how many records I’d missed from the early years of the label, from artists including Windy + Carl, AMP, Magnog, Jessica Bailiff, Dadamah, and Roy Montgomery.
And while a history of the first decade of kranky would be interesting in itself, You’re With Stupid does much more than that, situating the emergence of the label in a wider context, beginning with the indie music boom of the 1980s, the post-Nirvana signing spree of the early 1990s, the boundary crossing musical experimentation spurred on by the newfound access of the CD era, and, crucially, how the particularities of Chicago put that city squarely in the middle of all these forces. The 80s had been fuelled by the DIY spirit unleashed by punk, as networks of venues, zines, mail order companies, college radio stations, and tape traders helped small regional scenes expand. Adams explains how American distribution for British punk and new wave records helped facilitate distribution for US-based independent labels as well. Chicago became home to importers and distributors, while insulated from some of the market forces that drove the industry in NYC and LA. Chicago has a rich musical history stretching back to the earlier days of blues and jazz, and the city’s diversity of scenes also allowed for the emergence of hybrid forms of music. So while the mid-90s saw The Smashing Pumpkins and Liz Phair go platinum and gold, artists including Tortoise, Gastr del Sol, Jim O’Rourke, Rob Mazurek, Ken Vandermark, and many others were developing new sounds for a growing global audience of their own.
With all the attention these days divided between streaming and the vinyl revival, it is easy to overlook the transformative effects of the CD boom. As Adams explains, CDs were faster to manufacture and easier to ship. Many elusive records from the 60s and 70s (krautrock, afrobeat, free jazz, dub, musique concrete, new music, minimalism, psychedelic, etc) were circulating widely for the first time. Tastes in the relatively siloed world of indie rock were changing beyond the typical confines of the genre, encouraging experimentation with new instruments and forms. Adams underscores the defining influence of Chicago’s black musical traditions on this shift, including blues, jazz, house, and hip hop, and the AACM. Many of the same artists working for Thrill Jockey and Drag City could be found attending or hosting DJ nights dedicated to reggae, dub, drum n bass, and other genres that inspired movement beyond rock orthodoxy. One particularly interesting example in the book is how Casey Rice, who’d recorded and toured with Liz Phair and Joan of Arc, as well as being the indispensable live sound engineer for Tortoise, became inspired by drum n bass to launch his Designer project.
Before founding kranky, both Adams and Leoschke worked for other labels and distributors, including Touch & Go and Cargo, and they set off on their own in part due to their desire to do something new, both aesthetically and as a business. Chicago was already home to many excellent labels (the aforementioned Touch & Go, Thrill Jockey, Drag City, Atavistic, Trax, Wax Trax!, and many more) who were better positioned to sign local acts, and thus kranky’s roster began to reflect the decentralized network of experimentation that was taking place around the world. Kranky’s first release, Prazision, came from Richmond, Virginia’s Labradford, to whom much of the book is a thinly-disguised love letter. According to Adams, Labradford broke down the doors of indie rock, slowing down and embracing textural longform songwriting. Through their Peel Sessions in 1994 and 1996, the group helped cultivate connections in the UK and Europe, further solidified by their curated Festivals of Drifting in London beginning in 1998. Labradford also found fellow travellers in Stereolab; Adams relates how, in August 1993, Labradford’s Carter Brown drove from Richmond to New York to make sure Stereolab had synthesizers for their American tour. These transnational connections continued: connections with Bristol and Flying Saucer Attack records led to the signing of AMP; the label paid tribute to the influence of New Zealand by releasing records from Dadamah and Roy Montgomery; Godspeed cemented a connection with Montréal; and the late Peter Rehberg’s Vienna-based Mego further solidified a connection with European experimental electronic music that continues to this day.
If this international genre-bending all sounds familiar, that’s because kranky is a pioneer of an aesthetic we all live in today. Before the constant access of the internet and file-sharing, we find many of the same forces at work, just manifesting within the media ecology of the time. And it is this historical perspective that makes You’re With Stupid of particular interest, allowing Adams to humbly suggest that we might find in his experiences some lessons for the present moment. The eleven chapters that comprise You’re With Stupid proceed in roughly chronological order, beginning in late 1991 as Adams and Leoschke, then working at Cargo, dreamed of starting their own label over lunch at the “post-rock diner” Jim’s Grill, and culminating in the early 2000s and the remarkable success of Godspeed and Low. This episode provides just a partial window into this fascinating book, and likewise I touch on just a small fraction of the deep kranky catalogue. I hope you enjoy, and please do seek out Adams book.
*This episode is dedicated to the memory of Mimi Parker of Low, who died on 5 November 2022. ACL would like to extend our deepest condolences to her family, friends, and many fans.
You’re With Stupid (UTPress)
Experimental Sound Studios (ESS)
ARTIST – “TITLE” (ALBUM, LABEL, YEAR)
Labradford – “Listening in Depth” (Prazision, kranky, 1993)
Tim Hecker – “harmony in blue iv” (Harmony in Ultraviolet, kranky, 2006)
Sebadoh – “Gimme Indie Rock” (Gimme Indie Rock!, Homestead, 1991)
Archers of Loaf – “Plumb line” (Icky Mettle, Alias, 1993)
Smashing Pumpkins – “Cherub Rock” (Siamese Dream, 1993)
Jessamine – “Secret” (Jessamine, kranky, 1994)
Slint – “Good Morning Captain” (Spiderland, Touch & Go, 1991/1995)
Tortoise – “Djed” (Millions Now Living Will Never Die, Thrill Jockey, 1996)
Spacemen 3 – “Feel So Sad” (Recurring, Fire Records, 1991)
The Art Ensemble Of Chicago – “Urban Magic (in 4 Parts)” (Urban Bushmen, ECM, 1982)
Designer [Casey Rice]- “Vandal” (Vandal, Organico, 1996)
Labradford – “New Listening” (Prazision, kranky, 1993)
Labradford – “Recorded And Mixed At Sound Of Music, Richmond, Va.” (E Luxo So, kranky, 1999)
Labradford – “Wien” (Fixed::Context, kranky, 2001)
Labradford – “S” (Mi Media Naranja, kranky, 1997)
Stereolab / Nurse With Wound – “Simple Headphone Mind” (Simple Headphone Mind, Duophonic Super 45s, 1997)
Gastr del Sol – “The Harp Factory On Lake Street” (The Harp Factory On Lake Street, Table Of The Elements, 1995)
AMP – “Celestialreturn” (astralmoonbeamprojections, kranky, 1997)
Massive Attack – “Inertia Creeps” (Mezzanine, Virgin, 1998)
Magnog – “Shapeshifter” (Magnog, kranky, 1996)
Roy Montgomery – “The Soul Quitens” (Temple IV, kranky, 1995)
Windy + Carl – “Surfacing” (Depths, kranky, 1998)
Jessica Bailiff – “Beautiful Soul” (Even in Silence, kranky, 1998)
Grouper – “Disengaged” (Dragging a Dead Deer Up A Hill, Type, 2008/ kranky, 2013)
Low – “Remember” (Secret Name, kranky, 1999)
Liz Phair – “Girls! Girls! Girls!” (Exile in Guyville, 1993)
J Dilla “33” (Another Batch, 1998)
Wadada Leo Smith – “Images” [excerpt] (Spirit Catcher, Nessa, 1979)
Angel Bat Dawid – “The Oracle” (The Oracle, International Anthem, 2019)
Christina Vantzou – “The Magic of the Autodidact”  (N°2, kranky, 2014)
Dead Texan – “The Struggle” (The Dead Texan, kranky, 2004)
Stars of the Lid – “The Lonely People (Are Getting Lonelier)” (The Tired Sounds Of, kranky, 2001)
Bowery Electric – “Deep Blue” (Lushlife, Beggars Banquet, 2000)
Kevin Drumm – “Deep Breathing Doesn’t Work” (May(Part 2), 2017)
Labradford – “Lake Speed” (Labradford, kranky, 1996)
Sound Propositions is written, recorded, mixed, and produced by Joseph Sannicandro.