Life in the Indie Cities

From bad weather and obstacles comes great music - if you know where to look

Seattle Skyline With Mt. Rainier In Background, Evening,1990. Credit: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket/Getty

It's raining again, a few minutes ago the sky cleared, and the sun threatened, and all over downtown Seattle people stood on back porches to contemplate the day. They considered a healthy life, a life of jogging and basketball. But then the rain returned, driving them back to basements and rec rooms, back to rock & roll. "When the rain comes, what can you do but pick up a guitar?" says Scott McCaughey, a singer-guitarist with the Young Fresh Fellows. "We're indoors and alone and learn to play ourselves awake."

Indeed, many people claim a main ingredient for any music town, a town where bands spring up like guerrilla movements, is bad weather. "Snow is a key part of the Minneapolis scene," says Jill McLean of Twin Tone Records. "The cold drives you inside to play. And later, when you need to get out, you grab a guitar and head for some bar."

For the last four years, McLean has scouted and recorded music that springs from hostile climes. She has traveled south to the frozen streets of Chicago and west to the wastes of the Plains states. "Wherever kids find obstacles, I find music," she says. McLean has a dark, mysterious face and sharp green eyes. She occupies a Twin Tone office in a former mortuary on the cusp of downtown Minneapolis and is part of a burgeoning network of independent record producers, entrepreneurs who have grown up with local music scenes across the nation.

"Fifteen years ago, with the appearance of the Ramones and the Pistols, we realized that music is all around us," says Peter Jesperson, a co-founder of Twin Tone who still does A&R for the label. "We realized that our local bands were as good as anything on the radio."

For Jesperson, this discovery came in the winter of 1977, when he was working at an underground record store in Minneapolis. "This scraggly group of guys came in and asked me to listen to their tape," he says. "When I hit Play, my mind was blown. They called themselves the Replacements, and I've done nothing but make music ever since." Over the years, Jesperson has discovered and worked with dozens of bands, including Soul Asylum and the Leatherwoods.

On average, an independent producer handles five bands at a time. Far more than their major-label counterparts, indie execs become personally involved with their clients. "I've got to love a band before I can take them on," says Jesperson. "I've got to wrap myself in their songs." Indeed, a good indie producer works like a savvy minor-league manager, spotting and encouraging talent. "The older rock & roll gets, the weirder it becomes," says Jesperson. "We're here to manage that. The world is simply too big for the major labels to cover, so we police the back roads."

In recent years a new industry has developed to help the small band. In New York City, guitarist Steve Martin gave up life with the punk band Agnostic Front to help fellow musicians out of obscurity. "My band played to sellout crowds and still got no press," he recalls. "I wanted to help bands with that problem." Martin, 28, accordingly set up Nasty Little Man Public Relations, the world's least-conventional PR firm. Working the phones, he generates news stories for such clients as Helmet and Smashing Pumpkins. Vicky Wheeler runs a like concern, AutoTonic, from her Lower East Side loft. When asked how she found her way into the business, Wheeler, also 28, shrugs and says, "It's just this thing that happened when I was out of work."

More than just plucking fresh talent, Twin Tone's Jesperson says, independent producers should track down unheralded journeymen. For the last several years, for example, he has been hearing of Jack Logan, a songwriter who was born on Feb. 3, 1959, the day of Buddy Holly's death, and who now lives in Winder, Ga., where he repairs swimming-pool pumps. "People like Peter Buck call him one of the great songwriters," says Jesperson. "For years, I asked to hear his work, and he ignored me. Then he suddenly sends me about 90 songs." This April, Twin Tone will release 43 of Logan's pieces on a double CD appropriately titled Bulk.

For independent producers, like all those who follow a vocation of love, work begins long before money comes in. "Cash is rare, so you must have a deeper motivation," says producer Jeff Spiegel. Indeed, in the way of mystics, indie producers talk of a conversion experience. "When I was 15, my big sister took me to the Ramones," says Spiegel. "I was way down front, and the place was packed. I had no clue what would happen. Then they came with the guitars and the noise, and I was obliterated." Spiegel says indie producers are often the younger sibling, the kid who heard cool music coming from down the hall. "My fate was tied with music at that Ramones show," he says. "But I could never play, so I decided to boss musicians around."

While a sophomore at Macalester College, in St. Paul, Minn., Spiegel came to realize his ambition. For a few grand, he rented mixing equipment and began pressing records. His early clients included Trenchmouth and Bob Evans. As Spiegel was pursuing a childhood dream, he chose a title that harkened back to his youth. "I named my label Skene! after George Skene Jr., a crazy old groundskeeper I worked with at a golf course in Connecticut," says Spiegel. The label now occupies an office at TCI Music Distribution, in St. Paul. Above Spiegel's desk hangs a weathered newspaper photo of a smiling Skene. ("He's the force behind my vision," says Spiegel, glancing at the photo. "The only man I know who was hit by a car while driving a lawn mower.")

The life of an independent record producer is far from carefree. Dedicated talent scouts spend vast portions of their time in smoky bars listening to ragged bands. "The more I do it, the harder it gets," says McLean, who sees 200 shows a year. "I don't hear what people are doing, I hear what they're stealing. I can't listen to Crowded House without hearing the Beatles." McLean, whose own label, Clean Records, is dedicated to local talent such as Trip Shakespeare and the 27 Various, has one favor to ask: "If they ever start calling me the Grand Old Lady of Minneapolis rock, please shoot me."

Unlike her colleagues, McLean was trained for this life. As a student, she undertook a study in "tavern behavior." She selected five bars and made frequent visits. "I noted what was on the jukebox and watched people behave," McLean recalls. "Now and then, I followed someone. The most interesting bar was Moby Dick's, on Block E, a block so seedy that the city elected to tear it down. Every drink was a double at Moby Dick's, and people sold jewelry in the bathroom and told stories you wouldn't believe." Most of the trade skills McLean needed (cunning, judgment) were learned at Moby Dick's as well as this life lesson: "Never make a promise you can't keep."

At large independent labels, such as Sub Pop, in Seattle, employees see working for a record company as a tolerable white-collar post. "I've got the best job of anyone I know," says Curtis Pitts, a Sub Pop sales rep whose face graced a compilation disk called Curtis Pitts, Employee of the Month (he also picked the songs). The 23-year-old spends his days on the phone persuading record-store owners to stock his products. Pitts first came to town with hopes of becoming a photographer, but gradually his attention turned to music, and he remained. For one strange season, in Olympia, Wash., in 1989, he lived in a lean-to and ate potatoes (for sustenance) and garlic (as mosquito repellent). Five years later, he occupies a desk in downtown Seattle from which he can see over the top of the town and down to the Puget Sound. This carefree setting is somewhat shattered by the presence of a time clock. "It's still a business," says Pitts. In recent years, in fact, Sub Pop has grown fat on the Seattle sound and especially Nirvana. "The majors eat our crumbs," says Pitts. "Every time we check out a band, they're all over us, seeing if we found the next Nirvana."

A decade ago, when being a Seattle band still meant nothing, Scott McCaughey was touring the area with the Young Fresh Fellows, whose last album is called It's Low Beat Time. "I've seen my world change, and still I'm not a star," he says. Instead, he joined PopLlama Products to guide the careers of others. "I get a real charge helping someone else accomplish a remarkable thing," he says. A few weeks ago, for example, he ushered a visiting musician through his first taste of an American classic. "The Swedish band the Nomads came to town, and after the drummer finished his tracks, he went off to the liquor store," says McCaughey. "He drank an entire bottle of cheap hooch, stumbled around and lost consciousness." In the company's recording studio, displayed like a gold record, sits the drained bottle of Night Train Express.

A common complaint among indie producers is that bands take off too soon. "At a certain point, they should go," says McLean. "After all, we can only take them so far. But they often go before they've got a solid fan or song base." According to McLean, an indie label, which can inexpensively produce CDs, offers bands a place to fumble. "Still, we all know the good ones leave too soon. And by the time they move on, they hate us as you can only hate your own past." McLean works as business manager for Soul Asylum, who first signed with Twin Tone, and whenever the band members arrive at her office, they become edgy. "They hate coming here," she says. "They say it's like going back to high school."

Despite such feelings, producers express unconditional love. "You cherish them even after they forget you," says McLean. A few weeks ago, she went to a club to see her old clients the Jayhawks. Lost in the crowd, a fan among fans, she carefully followed each note. "I'm no king, but I'm a kingmaker," she says. "These guys might forget me, but no matter what, I still had a part in bringing some really kick-ass music into the world."