A look back at 25 years of Touch and Go with Steve Albini, David Yow, Corey Rusk and more
An online exclusive
Label founder COREY RUSK / Photograph by CHRIS STRONG
Monday, September 18, 2006
LABEL ORAL HISTORIES (ONLINE EXCLUSIVE)
For the next six weeks, STOP SMILING will be posting a series of oral histories from the founders of several successful independent record labels who have helped shape the Chicago music scene. Included are insights from the staffs of Thrill Jockey, Brilliante Records, Flameshovel, Bloodshot and Hefty Records. These posts will appear on Mondays throughout September and October.
To kick things off, we're taking a look at Touch and Go Records in a piece that originally appeared in Issue 27: Ode to the Midwest. This issue is available for purchase on this site
Touch and Go Turns 25
By Katie Hasty
In early 2001, Touch and Go Records owner Corey Rusk was severely injured in a motorcycle accident that paralyzed him from head to toe. For a number of weeks he was told he’d be unable to move, then that he’d be unable to walk and finally that he’d be unable to walk without using a walker. After a year — and a full recovery, spending time in the hospital at least once every month — Rusk returned to the T&G offices in Chicago full-time.
“I think that accident was instrumental in helping Corey realize he doesn’t need to work 365 days a year,” says David Yow, principle member of early punk troupe Scratch Acid and, later, the singer of the Jesus Lizard. “That’s why I’d call James Brown the second hardest working man in show business.”
Today, a handful of motorcycles act as decor in Rusk’s office, lined up against a bare brick wall and aimed at his desk. He points to two disparate spots on his body, explaining that between them his body was full of metal — the screws and joints that helped put his skeleton back together. “We used one of my X-rays as the cover art for an artist sampler we did,” Rusk says.
Rusk lives with his job, taking up residence in the same building as the office, a business publications distributor that was converted into T&G headquarters in 1996. In the early days in Lansing, Michigan, where Rusk grew up, he’d pile boxes of records on the stairwell of his apartment. Later on, he and his then-wife Lisa Pfaheler moved to Chicago and operated the label from their home.
Now in his 40s, it’s not as though Rusk can’t do things differently. He had been in thrash-punk group the Necros while in high school, and traveled around the Detroit area as a teenager to play shows. He was only 17 when he became friends with Tesco Vee, the frontman of the Meatmen, who ran a fanzine called Touch and Go with friends out of Lansing. Together, they came up with the money to put out some Necros singles under the Touch and Go name.
“There was no real plan for a company or a label. It was like, ‘Well, we’ve got to get this record out there somehow,’ Rusk says. “It was in early ’81 that the 7”s from the Necros and [hardcore band] the Fix came out. I’d deliver pizzas to make things happen. Suddenly, we started to meet all these other people, like the folks from Dischord.” Washington, DC-based Dischord Records, founded by Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye (who later formed Fugazi) and Jeff Nelson, had established a hardcore/punk indie community a year before Touch and Go had started a semi-official roster, focusing their attention on bands within the DC area. MacKaye would produce the Necros’ 1981 nine-song EP, and operated on the same plane with Rusk in the years to come, carving out their niches and surviving as independent labels. Rusk left the Necros a couple years later to focus solely on running the label. Tesco Vee, meanwhile, moved to DC at the end of 1982, and left the full operation in Rusk’s hands, including the duties of releasing the Meatmen’s albums. Rusk moved to Dearborn after high school, and never set foot in college.
“The albums we put out started making a little money. So it occurred to me we could put out even more stuff,” Rusk says. He simply started writing letters to or calling bands that he liked, asking if they cared to join his roster. “I’ve always liked diverse kinds of music. But at that point, the only people who are going to let you put out their record are your punk friends.”
“Punk friends” is a term that would eventually be applied to legends like the Mekons, Polvo, the Jesus Lizard, Henry Rollins and Big Black, as well as contemporary outfits like Calexico, Black Heart Procession, Blonde Redhead and Shellac. For Rusk, the emphasis has always been on “friends.”
“I only want to work with bands that, first of all, are doing interesting things. But I have to know them and get along with them,” Rusk says. “When I want to sign a band, I’m not out to be the highest bidder. I don’t want to work with people who make me miserable. I want to look forward to having dinner with them and hanging out with them.”
To ensure a comfortable, friendly relationship, Rusk pays bands what is by industry standards a generous 50 percent of the records’ profits, both from sales to royalties. Particularly in the early days, he operated on handshake contracts and dealt with groups on a record-to-record basis. With only a few exceptions, bands were free to release whatever they wanted, and were free to sign with other labels.
“It was always important to me to feel like, if I’m going to convince a band to let me put out their records, I’d better believe that I’m going to do the best possible job for them — or else they should go to some other label,” he says.
T&G doesn’t necessarily offer advances, but does help manage the finances with the artists to meet individual goals.
“He never tried to convince me I was the next ‘big thing’. All he knew is he liked my music,” says singer-songwriter Nina Nastasia, who released The Blackened Air, Run to Ruin and the reissue of her debut Dogs through the label. (She will release her upcoming album on Fat Cat this September.) “Corey’s very realistic and very accessible. He will always take the time to talk to you. The whole label, they just kind of let you do what you do.”
“Everyone at Touch and Go is down to earth, intelligent and genuinely into music,” says Calexico’s Joey Burns. “They have a Midwest work ethic — a self-sufficient style of putting out your own records and organizing your own business affairs. Corey has excellent experience and always has the most intuitive and articulate things to offer regarding decisions.”
Rusk and his company have always relied primarily on word-of-mouth marketing to sign bands; seeing artists play a show or relying on the helpful insight from his co- workers as to who is making “interesting music.”
“Touch and Go to me is Big Black, Shellac, Butthole Surfers, Jesus Lizard, Slint,” explains Pinback’s Rob Crow. “When I heard they were happy to do our records, it was a total dream. I never thought something that cool would happen to me. Apparently, someone at the label enjoyed what we did.”
In its 25-year history, Touch and Go has signed only one artist it discovered in its unsolicited demo piles. That band was Killdozer. The one that got away: Nirvana. “I met Kurt Cobain at a Nirvana show, around the time Bleach came out,” says Rusk. “As I was talking with him, he said, ‘Touch and Go was my favorite label growing up. We sent you a demo but we never heard from you.’ Back in those days, we listened to every demo. We’d still felt like some kid took the trouble to send this to us. I actually kept every demo that ever got sent to us back then, so I got home and dug through every box in the garage. I felt like, ‘Did he really send it?’ But it wasn’t there. ‘Did I throw it out? Maybe it never made it?’ I loved Bleach. It was heartbreaking, because here was a great band that sent us a great demo.”
Another friendship that has generated much of Touch and Go’s esteem is Rusk’s relationship with omnipresent Chicago recording engineer and musician, Steve Albini. Having first joined the label with Big Black, then Rapeman and ultimately Shellac, Albini has not only added to the catalog, but acted as an unofficial A&R rep, passing on sessions by artists like Nastasia after they recorded at his Electrical Audio Recording Studios.
“Steve’s been an incredible supporter and friend of the label for over 20 years,” says Rusk. “I met him while living in Detroit. I was booking a show in need of an opening band. I called them up in Chicago. Big Black came out and played, and afterward he and I went on the roof and talked about fireworks. We’re both just fascinated by fireworks.” “My current band is still on Touch and Go because we think there’s no better place to be. We have the best label in the world,” says Albini. “All the bands that are on the label are bands that Corey has an affection for. I’ve handed some recordings to him, but he’s the one who falls for them ultimately.
“Conventional wisdom says that businesses need to be doing things in a formal way or with some legal routine. In that kind of reduction, most businesses fail doing just that — playing it safe. Touch and Go as a label is an honorable and legitimate partner. No one has an advantage over anyone else, and it naturally becomes mutually beneficial. Conventional wisdom is based purely on the preponderance that you’re doing business for the wrong reasons — purely based on making money. Touch and Go is driven by passion and doing what they consider important.”
While consensual handshake deals have generally served Rusk well in the long term, it was a lawsuit involving the Butthole Surfers and their back catalog that forced Rusk to think twice about such a laidback policy. The Buttholes, who had jumped to major label Capitol in 1991, began to earn more critical acclaim as the ’90s roared on. As their popularity began to pick up, they ultimately sued Rusk for the rights to their debut Psychic... Powerless... Another Man’s Sac, as well as five other records and a video, which were under verbal agreements from the label’s early days. A judge ruled in favor of the band, citing that the verbal agreement set no official end date of copyrights. Rusk had to fork over a settlement and destroy the remaining copies of the records.
“The first two bands I worked with who hadn’t already been my friends for a long time were Die Kreuzen, from Milwaukee, and the Butthole Surfers,” Rusk told the Chicago Reader in 1999, after the decision had been handed down. “In reality, doing this on a handshake basis may be hard to defend but, in 18 years, I’ve tried hard to only work with people I thought I could be friends with and who could understand how it is I want to work. This is the only time I’ve ended up in court.”
“Corey’s changed since then. He’s more practical,” says John Schmersal. Both of Schmersal’s bands, formerly Brainiac and now Enon, have put out records through T&G. “His bottom line now is ‘I don’t want to get sued again.’ He doesn’t want to be in the hole because of somebody else.”
Though Rusk has never attended business school, his adopted DIY ethic taught him the nuts and bolts of manufacturing and distribution, which eventually opened the doors for a small business on the side, manufacturing and distributing records for a number of other important independent labels, including Drag City, Thrill Jockey, Estrus, Kill Rock Stars and Jade Tree. While Rusk is consistently described as “friendly” and “agreeable,” he’s upped the label’s reputation with his ability to do business and remain fiscally responsible.
“I first heard about Touch and Go Records [from Louisville’s] Rodan. They were on tour in 1994 and their van broke down outside Tucson,” says Burns, who resides in the Arizona town. “Susanne Dawursk from [Chicago’s] Flower Booking called to see if I could help out. After getting their van fixed and driving it out to them in Los Angeles, I received my first check from Touch and Go.” Calexico became part of the payroll as musicians in 1997 with Spoke.
The label’s catalog has certainly changed, moving from punk and hardcore to more experimental sounds. The label survived divorce, a motorcycle accident, a lawsuit and band breakups. TV on the Radio leaves, Ted Leo comes in. Scratch Acid disbands and begets Jesus Lizard.
“Looking back, with every new era, there have always been people who think we’re sellouts because we don’t still put out exclusively hardcore records,” says Rusk. “But putting out the exact same thing would just be boring. What else could I do in the next 25 years but put out more records?”
For more information on Touch and Go, visit the label's official website