If you are a regular reader of Aquarium Drunkard, when you hear names like ECM, Kompakt, or 4AD, you probably immediately associate those labels with their visionary founders: Manfred Eicher, Wolfgang Voigt, and Ivo-Watts Russell, respectively. Though Chicago’s kranky Records shares several things in common with the aforementioned labels—namely, an uncompromising and well-defined aesthetic focus and a reliably loyal fanbase—the label’s founder, the mysterious “mr. kranky,” appeared from the very beginning to pointedly subvert the notion of the label boss as a taste-making auteur. To kranky fans following the label’s earliest releases following its inception in 1993, it was pretty apparent that this elusive “mr. kranky”—whoever he was—was the kind of man who shirked the spotlight. Perhaps he was even a misanthrope. Even the label’s insistence on the stylized lowercase rendering of its logo seemed to subtly suggest a kind of introversion or humility.
By decentering the personalities involved with both the production and distribution of the music, right down to the album art—two of the so-called “kranky kommandments” decree that neither lyrics nor artist photos would appear on album sleeve—kranky ironically and perhaps unwittingly acquired a mythical status, even as the label released high profile albums by Low, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Stars of the Lid, and Deerhunter, not to mention records by seminal and oft-imitated artists like Labradford, Tim Hecker, and Grouper.
At some point during my own feverish mid-90s kranky obsession, I discovered that “mr. kranky” was, in fact, two people: former Cargo distribution employees Bruce Adams and Joel Leoschke. Adams left the label in 2005, succeeded by Brian Foote, who, in addition to co-running his own excellent label Peak Oil, currently co-manages kranky alongside Leoschke. Adams continued to work part time in the music industry in various capacities and recently published a book, You’re With Stupid: kranky, Chicago, and the Reinvention of Indie Music [University of Texas Press, 2022], which succeeds as both a memoir and a cultural history of a brief wrinkle in time when a few Chicago neighborhoods seemed to comprise the center of a then-flourishing underground rock universe.
Aquarium Drunkard spoke to Adams about kranky kommandments, the ways in which the world of publishing differs from the world of music, and the trappings of “functional” music. | j jackson toth
Aquarium Drunkard: First of all, my condolences about Mimi [Parker]. I know she was a friend of yours.
Bruce Adams: Thank you. It’s been a struggle. My wife and I both knew Mim and Alan pretty well. We last talked to them in April when Low played in Urbana. So, we saw the second-to-last ever Low show. It’s been tough, and I had a book event in Austin the day of the funeral, so I couldn’t make it, and that was a little tough, too, but we carry on and do what we do.
AD: Speaking of book events, you’re on a short book tour right now. How’s that going?
Bruce Adams: It’s been a fun ride, getting in touch with people again and making reacquaintances. I can tell you that libraries and bookstores are a lot more accommodating [than nightclubs].
AD: No gear, either. No loading in or out.
Bruce Adams: Well, books, but…
AD: [Laughs]. Right. I really appreciate the way your book expands the focus beyond kranky, encompassing the larger Chicago scene at the time, as well as the post-Nirvana major label feeding frenzy. What made Chicago so special during this period?
Bruce Adams: Chicago was a distribution node in a way that, say, DC, Seattle, or Olympia was not. That meant that, in my case, I was working first at Kaleidoscope distribution and then at Cargo distribution, with musicians and people that owned labels. It meant that if you went to a record store in Chicago, you were likely to get imports, for instance, before someone in Los Angeles or Seattle or even Minnesota was. So, I think that played a role. It was part of the ecosystem. And then, just being centrally located meant that if you were in a band, you could take a weekend and go to Madison and Minneapolis, or you could go the other way to Cleveland, or even down to St. Louis. There was a sort of a conduit between Chicago and Urbana-Champaign back in those days, which meant that bands like Hum or the Poster Children could play in Chicago, and vice versa.
AD: kranky existed and flourished amidst the 90s music scene in Chicago, but it was not regionally focused the way, say, Dischord was in DC. When you mention in the book that kranky didn’t even release a Chicago artist until the James Plotkin / Brent Gutzeit 1999 album, Mosquito Dream, I thought, “That can’t be right.” But if you exclude people who moved to the city, like Mark [Nelson], it’s true. I’m assuming this avoidance of local talent was at least somewhat intentional.
Bruce Adams: It was partly the circumstances and partly a decision to place ourselves apart. As we looked around, and we saw bands that we might be interested in from the local area, we realized that Touch & Go or Drag City or Thrill Jockey were going to pick them up pretty quickly, and that, in some cases, those labels had a few more resources and things to offer than we did. That was the economic differentiator. The second part of it was the aesthetic differentiator: when we started out with Labradford and then Spiny Anteaters and Jessamine and Dadamah, we could see an aesthetic beginning to form, and there weren’t very many bands in Chicago that were that were working that side of the street, so to speak, so we didn’t pursue certain things.
AD: According to the book, the ninth kranky kommandment is as follows: “kranky artists shalt not talk about mr. kranky specifically, only kranky as an entity.” Why the desire for you and Joel to remove yourselves personally from the work?
Bruce Adams: There are a couple of reasons. I think we were always trying to keep in mind that Joel and I were not the show; the musicians are the show. The second thing for me is, having worked for Cory Rusk at Touch & Go for many years, I saw how he kept to the background: he didn’t do interviews, he didn’t push himself forward as any sort of empresario or string-puller, when he very easily could have. Part of that is his personality, and part of that was a conscious decision on his part to avoid that. So, in a lot of ways, our role models behaved that way. Joel and I were both huge 4AD fans, and Ivo Watts-Russell was very definitely in charge of 4AD, and everybody knew he was in charge of 4AD, but you’d be goddamned if you could find an interview with him or a picture of him, which suited the mystique around their label. And to be honest, kranky did cultivate that a little bit, because we felt that it drew attention to the label as a whole and the bands as a group. And, quite frankly, it’s a lot of work to do that kind of stuff; it detracts from the other work you’re going to do, and Joel and I were both doing kranky part time. In a lot of ways, there simply wasn’t time to go, “Hey, look at me.”
AD: Yeah, I think the Ivo Watts-Russell comparison is a great one. When I read Martin Aston’s Facing The Other Way: The Story of 4AD, which I’m sure you’ve read, I was struck by how hands-on Ivo was with everything on the label while still remaining so media shy.
Bruce Adams: One story I didn’t put in the book is that Ivo sent us a postcard when The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid came out. At that point he had sold 4AD off, and he was not directly involved in the management. He was living in New Mexico or something, I think. So, we get this postcard from the desert from Ivo saying: “Stars of the Lid are the best band around right now.” And Joel and I had to scrape our jaws up off the floor and bask in that for a little bit.
AD: In 1998, there was an Aquarius review of a Tomorrowland album on kranky that referenced Windham Hill. You write in the book about how it took five years for someone to make that comparison, presumably to your chagrin. Culturally speaking, “New Age” is no longer a four-letter word. Does it surprise you to see Pitchfork doing Enya retrospectives, and labels reissuing new age cassettes on vinyl? How do you process this change?
Bruce Adams: Well, first of all, I don’t process it; I refuse to process it. Secondly, my formative views of New Age were as a record store clerk at School Kids Records in Ann Arbor in the early to mid ’80s. So, I ask you to use your powers of imagination to summon up a vision of someone who might be buying a lot of New Age records in the 1980s; not only the hippie connotations, but also the class connotations that come with that. I hate to associate any type of music with the people that listen to it, or judge it in that sense, but in my 20s, I did that, and there are still residual vibes. And the other thing is that any “genre” is a judgment by someone to put a certain form of music into a certain category. I have problems with functional music, though dance music is a wonderful exception. I have problems with music that is devised or marketed to fulfill a particular function.
AD: Are you referring to the dominance of the “chill out playlist?”
Bruce Adams: Yeah, exactly. The notion that this music is intended to make you feel a particular way, whether it’s beer-drinking-and-hell-raising or whether it’s chilling out in your sensory deprivation tank, it just rubs me the wrong way.
AD: There is a brief epigraph in the book by music writer Bill Meyer: “I’ve lived through a golden age, and I didn’t realize.” As much as I enjoyed You’re With Stupid, I was also plagued, as I read it, by these overwhelming feelings of sadness and nostalgia. Like the fabled New York of CBGBs, the ’90s Chicago scene you describe flourished in large part due to cheap rent, numerous places to rehearse, and a vital community of like-minded people, where bands could survive without having to juggle three bartending or barista jobs. It drew people not necessarily because it was hip or cool, but because it was inexpensive, and the people who lived there or moved there made it hip and cool. I guess what I’m trying to say is: I live in Green Bay, Bruce. Where the fuck is everybody?
Bruce Adams: I don’t want to be like one of those older people, who, when I was in the record store, were telling me, “If you weren’t at Woodstock, you have not experienced life to the fullest.” I live in Urbana-Champaign where there’s a lot of music going on, it just doesn’t happen to be music I’m personally interested in. And there are house shows and things like that. So, my default argument is always that there are things happening, you just don’t know about them.
AD: Is that because major labels with deep pockets aren’t flying A&Rs out to check out and sign the best five bands in every little scene?
Bruce Adams: I think it’s because of a couple of things. I think it’s the flattening of music that the internet has created, so that everything is perceived on the same screen at the same time, with a lot of the context and the flavor removed. I think it’s because that technology also gives people the opportunity to communicate directly with each other, and if you’re not in the loop, you don’t know. And I think that—especially post-COVID, but even pre-COVID—touring has become a miserable thing. How do new, young bands make that jump to a greater level of visibility? I’m really in love with a band from Chicago called Lifeguard. They happen to be teenagers; one of them is the son of Brian Case from Disappears and Facs. They’ve managed to release their own records, tour, and play some larger venues. The band Horsegirl, also from Chicago, have done the same thing. I think these Rock & Roll Camps are beginning to produce a new cohort that’s going to move up and be noticed, but I think it’s going to take a lot longer. And in a lot of ways, I feel like the network that existed in the ’90s when we were around is going to have to be rebuilt. Seeing stuff [live] is great, and the big cities like Chicago are always going to have an advantage in that, where even at the worst levels of gentrification, there still appear to be little niches where people can carve out space. It just might be a little more difficult. I think we will see more [local] scene stuff appearing because the only way that people can get themselves organized and play out is at the local level, because it’s so difficult to go across the country. The other thing is that, in my eyes, the demise of a lot of record stores and a lot of distributors has made things more difficult. That, and just the scale of things. I joke with people and say, “300 copies is the new 1000.” I see a lot of great musicians selling tapes, and I’m like, what the fuck? All respect to the format, but in my view the fact that musicians and labels have to resort to this really tells a lot about where things are right now.
AD: Well, speaking of formats, there’s an early kranky ad reprinted in the book, and I noticed that CDs were priced at $11ppd and LPs were $8ppd. I’m very grateful you provided historical proof of this, because I often tell disbelieving new vinyl collectors that the reason why I often opted for LPs over CDs in the ’90s was merely because LPs were often cheaper. What do you think of the current so-called vinyl resurgence?
Bruce Adams: It’s good and bad. I’m really glad the format is there. I’ve heard all the horror stories about the delays in production, poor quality pressings, and things like that. One thing that does kinda piss me off is that the price of used vinyl has been raised to match that of new vinyl. So, you go into a record store looking for a used record and you’re like, “Come on, this is a $4 record.” That kind of bothers me, and in the long run, I think it’s going to hurt the format, because used records are sort of the entryway for a lot of people, and they encourage people to buy records and listen to records, and makes it more affordable for people, ultimately, to buy new records. I think some record stores are shooting themselves in the foot with that sort of policy. But I’m pretty format-agnostic at this point in my life.
AD: Me too. I don’t stream, but as far as physical formats go, my policy is: the more music I can hear, the better.
Bruce Adams: Yeah. And having moved two times in the last five years, at my advanced age, I’m not hauling records around anymore. And I worked for record stores and distributors, so, realistically, somewhere around two-thirds-to-75% of my collection is stuff I never paid for. So, if there’s somebody out there who will enjoy this stuff, it’s better for them to have it than for it to be sitting on a shelf in my house where I don’t listen to it.
AD: In the book, you’re pretty tough on certain indie bands who signed to majors. Someone once theorized to me that the reason every indie label now requires artists to sign contracts is because of the Butthole Surfers incident with Touch & Go. Was that as much a watershed moment as I’ve been led to believe?
Bruce Adams: Not for us. When we started out, we had a very simple two-page contract that we adapted from one that Patrick Monaghan of Carrot Top Records gave us. The Butthole Surfers imbroglio happened after kranky had started, and I think there were some personality issues in there that are as important as the contractual issues. I don’t know how it affected other people. I happen to think that understanding is good, mutually agreed-upon terms are good, and there’s nothing wrong with putting that in writing. For the deals that kranky had that have continued on a handshake basis—Pan•American, Stars of the Lid, Windy & Carl—the evidence is there that those sorts of agreements work once trust and accountability are established.
AD: You sold your share of the label to Joel in 2005. In the book, you do leave us hanging a bit on one specific detail, and as it is clear from the book that you and Joel are still good friends, I thought it was okay to ask: why did you ultimately decide to leave the label you co-founded?
Bruce Adams: My comment on that is that sometimes a business relationship reaches the end of its lifespan, and that’s all. Also, I would say that when you’re 45 years old, the charm of staying up till four in the morning talking to somebody about music in a smoky bar begins to lose its shimmer. I had gotten married that year, in August of 2005, and I sold the label in December, so I tell people I was married and divorced in the same year.
AD: What are you working on these days?
Bruce Adams: I’m a freelance writer, mostly for higher education, and haven’t been actively involved in music, although a band called Cleared from Chicago recently asked me to write a bio for them for their new record on Touch. That was flattering and a real privilege, and I wouldn’t mind doing that again for other people.
AD: What in your opinion is the most underrated kranky record?
Bruce Adams: Flies Inside the Sun’s An Audience of Others (Including Herself) and the debut Philosopher’s Stone record, Preparation, are both drastically underrated. I love the Boduf Songs records on kranky; I think [Boduf Songs’] Matt Sweet’s work is grotesquely overlooked. If you can imagine a young Nick Drake who grew up playing hardcore and heavy metal, and whose favorite band was Iron Monkey, who then decided to make more acoustic music, then you have an idea of what Matt is up to. It’s acoustic guitar stuff, but it’s weird acoustic guitar stuff. Scary. Gloomy.
AD: You and [kranky co-founder] Joel had to both enthusiastically back a project for kranky to undertake it. Were there any signings you remember having to fight for or against, or where that consensus didn’t exist? You don’t have to name names.
Bruce Adams: There were times when a consensus did not exist, and the band did not get signed. And of course there were a lot of situations where we would have liked to do something, and we couldn’t. In the book I write about how we were really interested in a lot of the bands that were coming out of Bristol [UK] in the wake of Flying Saucer Attack: Crescent, Movietone, all of those bands that were at the time on a label called Planet. We reached out while we were still working at Cargo, because we’d been getting those records from Cargo’s UK office. We reached out and we never got a response. Same with Master [Wilburn] Burchette.
AD: Burchette is an example of a guy whose records I’d been hearing about for 20 years, but you just could not find those records anywhere, and back then, of course, that meant you couldn’t hear them. Finally getting to listen to them was definitely a revelation.
Bruce Adams: Yeah, Guitar Grimoire was, to my mind, not that far away from what Roy Montgomery was doing. We were really interested [in Burchette]. As it turns out, later on, someone at Numero Group just kept initiating contact with him until something happened. Back then, we were too busy to ask more than twice, I think, and we never got a response [from Burchette]. You know, we probably didn’t summon the correct extra dimensional entities.