By Mark Guarino
In Kurt Cobain’s posthumously published journals is a list he titled “Things the Band Needs To Do.” At the top is make a demo, followed by make a press kit, and find a practice place. Fourth on the list? Make “connections with Touch-n-Go.”
The Nirvana leader was one of many bedroom rockers with dreams of landing on the Chicago label, due to a band roster (Big Black, Slint, the Butthole Surfers, Urge Overkill) that reads like a who’s-who of underground rock’s earliest days. In today’s MySpace world, getting your music heard is a few clicks away, but back in 1981, high school punk Corey Rusk had only imagination and sweat to work with as he pressed 7-inch records out of his grandmother’s house.
“Because I was a 16-year-old kid, everything I learned about how to be a record label I either learned or made up as I went along,” he said. “It seemed unreal that enough people would be interested in music that I wanted to put out and that we would be a business.”
Touch and Go is now in its 25th year, a milestone marked by a three-day summit of its bands at the Hideout Block Party in September. It may not be Boeing, but in the scrappy economics of independent rock, Touch and Go is king: 24 full-time employees, all of its titles still in print, an adventuresome roster of bands past and present and a reputation as one of the most influential rock labels still in operation today.
With fans as far as Japan and Europe expected at the Hideout celebration, Touch and Go has inspired the most loyalty among musicians who say the label’s 50-50 split in profits and handshake contracts helped create financial stability in a famously unstable business.
“I think with Corey saying ‘I’ll put out your record, you do what you want and if we make any money we’ll split it 50-50 and that’s it’, there was nothing scary about it,” said David Yow of Scratch Acid, one of the bands reuniting at the Hideout. “I still get checks in the mail.”
“(Corey’s) reputation went before him,” said Jon Langford of the Mekons. “I didn’t know to trust him at all but the way it played out, he’s an beacon of integrity in a cesspool that is this industry.”
Rusk grew up in Toledo but moved to Chicago in 1983, right when the Midwest was exploding with bands expanding the boundaries of punk. “It was certainly great timing,” he said. “I have really warm feeling about that whole time period.”
Over the years, Touch and Go expanded to create Quarterstick, a sister label, and a distribution company. It also gave bands like the Jesus Lizard and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs a bridge to the major labels. “It’s sort of like apples and oranges,” Rusk said. “I can’t be that insulted with a band going to a major label. The way we operate and what we do is intentionally different.”
Rusk, 42, is notorious for his work drive (“James Brown is the second hardest man in show business,” notes Yow) so it’s ironic it took a recreational motorcycle accident to almost end his life. In March 2001, Rusk was racing bikes in Daytona when he was run over by a fellow biker after a crash. His spine separated from his pelvis, he suffered internal bleeding and broke 20 bones including both arms and a leg.
Today he reports his body is still “creaky” but there is no less spark in his step. “I feel lucky to do this for a living.”
Twenty-five Touch and Go bands including Big Black, Quasi, Killdozer, Ted Leo, Scratch Acid, CocoRosie, Calexico, Girls Against Boys, Pegboy, Seam, Shellac and others are playing the Hideout Block Party, Sept. 8-10. Three-day passes are $35 available via ticketweb.com. Profits benefit Tuesday's Child, Literacy Works, and the Thomas Drummond Elementary School.
Essential Touch and Go (and Quarterstick) highlights over 25 years
By Mark Guarino
1. Butthole Surfers, Locust Abortion Technician (1987)
Austin pranksters predate grunge
2. Big Black, Songs About Fucking (1987)
Raging guitar rock horror show
3. Slint, Spiderland (1991)
Melancholy space rock from Louisville
4. Jesus Lizard, Liar (1992)
Epic, dynamic noise blowout
5. Girls Against Boys, Venus Luxure No. 1 Baby (1993)
Sinister-sounding industrial disco
6. Dirty Three, Horse Stories (1996)
Gorgeous melancholia with violin, guitar and drums
7. Mekons, Retreat From Memphis (1994)
UK band’s Americana barnburners
8. Shellac, 1000 Hurts (2000)
Rock machinery from Steve Albini and Co.
9. TV On the Radio, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes (2004)
Electronic, soul and doo-wop interweave
10. Calexico, Garden Ruin (2006)
Arizona collective’s Tex-Mex pop