By Mark Guarino
“Like a very fine wine,” is not exactly how one would describe the music of Dollar Store’s Dean Schlabowske. The songs on “Money Music” (Bloodshot), his band’s second album just released, are tailored more for the hard-chugging PBR set who are likely to spin a healthy dose of turbocharged country on their home stereos.
Yet Schlabowske, a Chicago music veteran for the past 20 years, lives a double life as an independent wine merchant. In April, he opened Cellar Rat, a wine shop in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood that offers 350 varieties from all around the world, Italy and France in particular. It is an unexpected career for a singer and songwriter known for raging songs of political and social discontent.
“I’m a pretty laidback guy in my day-to-day life, so maybe in music is where the aggression comes in,” he said.
Dollar Store will immediately be familiar to fans of the Waco Brothers, Chicago’s beloved country punk band. Schlabowske and Jon Langford formed the band as a lark in the early 1990’s that since more or less defined the country punk aesthetic that became the blueprint of the alt-country bands of that decade and beyond. The Waco’s blue collar anthems, plus their love of the antiquated stars of the Grand Ole Opry, gave them a musical roadmap and the authenticity that they sustained over seven albums. (An eighth, a live record recorded at Schubas, is due late this year.)
Although his art projects and pedigree with the Mekons helped elevate Langford’s profile, Schlabowske is the band’s driest wit and songwriter with the cruelest pen. He is from Muskego, Wis. where his mother worked in hospital administration and his father ran an auto repair business that specialized in restoring vintage cars. Milwaukee sat just a few miles away, but Schlabowske remembers the city’s musical prospects as dismal.
“It was really frustrating. Milwaukee was an extremely conservative town when I grew up … It was the same 20 or 30 people at every show. A different club would open and close every few years. None of the bigger touring acts came through town,” he said. “It was kind of a wasteland. We wanted to get out as soon as we could.”
After stints in Minneapolis and New York City, Schlabowske moved to Chicago in 1987 and ended up working with famed producer Steve Albini. At that point, Schlabowske fronted Wreck, the noise rock band in the unusual position of being signed to Wax Trax!, the Chicago industrial rock, dance and punk rock label, home to Front 242, KMFDM and RevCo, among others.
“We were the guinea pig guitar band,” Schlabowske said. “They kind of realized in the late 1980’s that the climate was changing a bit and they weren’t necessarily going to be successful putting out industrial records forever. As it turns out, they weren’t successful much longer anyway.”
Wax Trax! shuttered in 1990, about the same time Schlabowske approached Langford to produce Wreck’s final album, which ended up never seeing the light of day. Originally from Leeds, Langford moved to Chicago soon after and a partnership formed.
“Both of us were going through difficult times with our respective bands. The idea of the Waco Brothers was an opportunity to play music and have fun and not worry about the music business,” Schlabowske said.
Schlabowske, 41, formed Dollar Store four years ago with Waco drummer Joe Camarillo and bassist Alan Doughty as an outlet for his prolific songwriting. (Guitarist Tex Schmidt joined for this second album.) “The idea was to definitely try and incorporate some of the noisy elements of Wreck in a more rootsy context that wouldn’t be necessarily fit with what the Waco Brothers would do,” he said.
At its core, “Money Music” is a relentless rock album, combining rockabilly energy and gunning guitarwork on songs like “Wasted Away,” where the guitars nail down go-for-glory riffs that are later dismantled and twisted apart. Songs pounce from the beginning while others stretch with introspection. “Work = Reward,” an endorsement of sticking to your best intensions, is loose-limbed, sounding like a raw gem from Buddy Holly’s songbook.
As a lyricist, Schlabowske skewers towers of power from a workingman’s perspective in ways that never sound trite. “The whole wide world is company town,” he sings (“Company Town”), a riff on globalization. About facing the compromises required for fame: “There’s already enough cowboy songs to last ten lifetimes/would you do anything to be a long-term memory?” (“Star”).
Dollar Store plans to tour intermittingly throughout the rest of the year, due to Schlabowske’s schedule at Cellar Rat. He became curious about the wine business 18 years ago, which led to a position running the French section at a local Sam’s Wine and Liquors where he traveled many times to France and Italy on buying expeditions.
The two worlds are linked in one simple way: “I’m a firm believer that small is beautiful.”