Label Stories – Drag City: We Built This City
Since 1989, Drag City has risen to become one of the world’s most prolific independent labels – with an eclectic roster featuring Joanna Newsom, Bill Callahan, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Ty Segall and many, many others. Murray Stassen gazes inside the world of this Chicago music institution…
Drag City don’t chase hit records. What they look for in a new signing – according to Rian Murphy, the man at the helm of this storied Chicago-based business – is “someone with a sense of humour”. Humour doesn’t pay the bills, though, unless you’re a comedian, of course, and the vast catalogue of music this company has released is no joke.
However, Murphy’s brief answer to the question of how he would define a typical Drag City signing sums up the sense of community the label has developed over nearly three decades. If an artist shares the company’s outlook – whether that’s in terms of humour, creative freedom or acceptance of the collective weirdness of all the other individuals on the label combined – then there’s a good chance they’ll be working together for a long time, regardless of how ‘inaccessible’ their records may sound.
Drag City’s discography includes releases by David Berman’s Silver Jews; acclaimed multi-instrumentalist folkie Joanna Newsom; 60s crooner turned 21st-century avant-garde mystic Scott Walker; garage-rock genius Ty Segall; alternative country singer-songwriter Bill Callahan; indie pioneers Pavement, and the off-kilter psychedelic two-piece project of White Fence’s Tim Presley and Welsh artist Cate Le Bon, called Drinks.
Murphy: “Would you believe it if we told you we’d heard he was the next Cobain, and that’s what got us interested? Well, don’t, that’s bullshit! And it’s good it hasn’t turned out that way (not just because of the suicide, either). Ty’s got an independent way of looking at what he’s doing and a desire to keep doing music things that are fun and musically fulfilling, something which we feel very sympathetic to. Ditto for making records that showcase different sides of the same rock – surprises in music are what we love more than anything else. Then, there’s the psychedelic guitar solos, plus a nice bonus of institutional rage and an irreverent sense of funny. What’s not to love?”
The label’s roster is eclectic to say the least, making it easy to see why the company is regularly referred to as “experimental” in the music press; but Murphy tells us that with its music encompassing “various permutations of rock and roll”, in no uncertain terms, Drag City identifies as a ‘rock’ label.
“As it says on the website: ‘Guaranteed to satisfy the most tolerant listener’,” says Murphy. “We’d like to think that the eclecticism has played a part in what people think of us, but it’s ultimately whatever records people like are what defines us.”
Drag City was founded by Dan Koretzky and Dan Osborn, who set up the label in Chicago in 1989, releasing its first 7″ single (DC1) in 1990 in the form of Hero/Zero by Royal Trux, the garage-rock duo consisting of Jennifer Herrema and Neil Hagerty.
DC2 was Demolition Plot J-7 by cult rockers Pavement. It was their second EP and their first release for Drag City. DC3 and DC4 were the Twin Infinitives double LP by Royal Trux and Pavement’s Perfect Sound Forever.
Pavement went on to sign with Matador, releasing their debut LP Slanted And Enchanted on the label in 1992, playing on the same Reading Festival bill as Nirvana and becoming one of the most influential indie-rock acts of that decade. Drag City was in there first, though.
What was true for the label back in the early 90s, as described in a 1993 Spin article, remains the same to this day. Drag City find artists and release their music way before they are considered critical darlings by the press or public.
Furthermore, while their former peers – such as Matador and Sub Pop – started doing deals with, and selling off percentages of, their companies to bigger music corporations, Drag City are as independent as they were in 1993.
“We hope the current consolidated business model of the future, that turns control over to massive corporate enterprises, will not eventually absorb and eradicate those who wish to do things not aimed at the metrics and demographics of the greatest possible multiples,” explains Murphy, commenting on the state of the independent record industry.
“Of course, this was a concern back in the days of major labels and the ubiquity of chain stores,” he continues. “There’s every possibility that we will survive, cockroach-like, [in] these current waves. But there’s another cockroach in the room, and it is looking bigger and stronger than ever, so who knows?” Murphy doesn’t make it entirely clear precisely which ‘cockroach’ he is referring to, but the recent IPO of a certain Swedish streaming giant may offer a clue.
Murphy: “If Mike Donovan’s got a rival in the effed-up, but-oddly-on-the-nose lyrics, it’s Tim Presley, whose White Fence is yet another great West Coast band we’ve gotten together with in recent years. Lately, Tim’s been working with Cate Le Bon, whose last record we did, after which we did Tim’s first solo LP, produced by Cate. In between, they made the first Drinks record, which totally fucked up our whole year back in 2015! As the saying goes, however, second time’s the charm. Working with the double threat of Cate and Tim is a heady experience, and we’re hoping that all our years in the business up until now have prepared us. But they probably haven’t… we’ll soon see.”
Drag City have always had a strong focus on vinyl, and kept their catalogue off streaming services because the deals offered were deemed to be unfair towards the artists. But in July 2017, they finally made much of their repertoire available to stream on Apple Music.
This year, they’ve made most of their catalogue available on all the other platforms, too, which is a pretty big deal, having held out for so long, with Murphy writing in the label’s April newsletter: “Streaming is SO 2015, but we’re here for the party now, so – let the pigeons loose! And now that it’s really happening, it’s, you know, whatever.”
But does that mean that Drag City feel there can finally be a healthy coexistence between physical and digital formats? “Apple was most amenable to our terms, which were laid out in an attempt to understand the coexistence between physical and digital,” Murphy elaborates. “Anything we do in that area is part of an attempt to try and be heard by the audience that is there and not elsewhere – an audience, we are presuming, made up of the people who no longer buy CDs or download music. As to whether or not it is fairer, or if there may be a healthy coexistence, we hope so – but only time will tell.” Commenting on the label’s long-term dedication to vinyl, however, Murphy says that it’s “still the most expressive way of delivering the music”.
Murphy: “Sic Alps were the first of these groups, before Ty Segall and Wand. Actually, before Sic Alps was Six Organs Of Admittance… Anyway, Mike’s from Sic Alps, and he’s in The Peacers now, and making his own solo music on the side. Mike is a real slick songwriter with a flair for his own kind of hooks and production sound. His lyrics make for top-notch brain-addled pop that extends the canonical style for that sort of thing by crashing together psych, punk and industrial in just the right formula. He gets points for introducing us to Tronics. More people will do well to cover him too, like Ty did on Manipulator. Killer songs!”
“It was the main form [of music] when we were coming up and then later, when CDs were beginning to happen, LPs invariably sounded better, plus they looked better. And that never changed.” To that end, he says the US and European vinyl revival of the last few years “has been really good” for the label, although he says that he’s “not sure that it turned anything around or saved it”.
“The margin on LPs is low, and therefore their profitability is much tighter than the potential to profit with CDs, but it is nice that people still look to LPs for a way to hear the music,” he says.
“For a few years, during the feeding frenzy of ‘vinyl is back’, which has been a thing for about a decade now, turnaround times were longer. These days, it tends to be easier again. Such are the cycles of our business.”
As well as finding and developing new talent, with an A&R process based largely around recommendations from the label’s artists, a big part of Drag City’s vinyl output has focused on reissues, resurrecting records by the likes of Manchester’s Big Flame, Louisville punk band Squirrel Bait and seminal Detroit proto-punks, Death.
“Looking back at the catalogue, reissues were in the mix right away,” agrees Murphy. “The reissue of the 1970 Mayo Thompson album Corky’s Debt To His Father is still one of the great ones that we’ve been able to reintroduce. And later, on an entirely different tip, Death.
Murphy: “It’s been five years since the last Bill Callahan record, but he’s never far from our thoughts. It’s not just that we’ve worked with him for nearly 30 years… but also because so much of what he’s imparted in his songs has settled close to our bones and becomes known again to us on a daily basis. If there were to be something of an evolution in the sound of Drag City… Bill would make a definitive case study, with his early DIY sound and gradual accumulation of rock signifiers in a variety of arrangements over the years. Plus, Bill makes us laugh with a sense of humour that only we can understand, if not share. Very much looking forward to the next we hear from him, but we’re willing to wait.”
“We like all kinds of music from all different periods, so it’s exciting and fun to be involved with vintage material. As with the rest of the choices on the label, it is something that’s decided by the mystery of aesthetics, which may or may not revolve around whether or not something is mind-blowing, funny or weird, or some combination of the three.”
Murphy tells us there have been a number of defining moments for the label over the years, mentioning the 1997 Scott Walker album Tilt as having “always stood out as a real point of pride”.
He also cites a couple of now-legendary festivals (The Drag City Invitational in Chicago and the Drag City Review in New York) held in the early 90s, featuring performances by the likes of Silver Jews, Royal Trux, Pavement and Smog as key events in the label’s history.
“A lot of the people we worked with at the time were in attendance and played and hung out, and it was amazing. Looking back, that seems kind of special,” he says. “Whenever we have a record land on the Billboard charts, with Bonnie Billy, Joanna Newsom, Ty Segall or whoever, that’s always an interesting moment. But the biggest defining moments aren’t moments at all. They are the compounded days, months, years and decades of working with these same artists over and over, and delighting at aiding and abetting their musical growth and legacy.”
Murphy: “We’ve mostly talked about singer-songwriters… they’re a big part of what we do. But the other side of it involves the psychedelic; that which moves you in an enigmatic and physical way. Groups like Ghost and The Fucking Champs have given two extreme versions of this, and then again, there’s groups like Six Organs Of Admittance and OM, who have a spiritual thrust and an individual vision. We loved OM as a bass-drums duo, and once they’d come to Drag City and expanded to a trio, our minds were blown again. We thought the whole crux of it was the duo sound; they transformed those bare bones in an unpredictable and compelling way.”
The label has released a large body of work by prolific Californian garage-rock star Ty Segall who, over the years, has developed his output from lo-fi, one-man-band noise rock to his most recent LP Freedom’s Goblin, which spans garage rock, punk, neo-disco and psychedelia.
Co-engineered by legendary producer Steve Albini, the album made it to No. 10 in the official UK Vinyl Album chart in February and No. 1 on the Billboard Vinyl Albums chart. His last two albums, Ty Segall (2017) and Emotional Mugger (2016), peaked at No. 4 and No. 2 on the Billboard Vinyl Albums chart respectively.
Based on Segall’s current career trajectory, Murphy is confident one of his next releases will break into the actual Top 10.
“Absolutely [it will],” he says. “Breaking in and breaking out are both high on the list of distinct possibilities for Ty.” With our interview nearing its end, Murphy considers the future of Drag City. “Obviously, it’s a way of life that’s supported by a staff in addition to the roster of artists, all of which the label supports in return. It continuing allows all of us to keep working. The hope is that the music of all these diverse people continues to be made not simply available – there are many others who can and will step up, if we can’t – but to be available from us, as part of our collection of their things.”
Murphy also offers advice for anyone trying to make a success of their indie record company: “Bring things you want to the marketplace, keep an eye on the bottom line and work with people you don’t think you’ll ever have to go to court with,” he concludes. “That just ruins everything.”