The Indie City

You're with Stupid: kranky, Chicago, and the Reinvention of Indie Music BY BRUCE ADAMS. AUSTIN: UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS PRESS. 288 PAGES. $27.

The cover of You're with Stupid: kranky, Chicago, and the Reinvention of Indie Music

IT IS FITTING THAT BRUCE ADAMS’S NEW BOOK, the sardonically titled You’re with Stupid: kranky, Chicago, and the Reinvention of Indie Music, begins at Jim’s Grill on the North Side: it was the first place I remember seeing a promotional poster for this new band, the Smashing Pumpkins, who were regular customers of Bill Choi’s Korean-inspired restaurant when they were first starting out.

The Pumpkins, as they came to be known, were one of the first alternative-rock bands to break out of Chicago and sign to major record labels in the 1990s (others include Liz Phair, Urge Overkill, Wilco, and Veruca Salt). Their debut album, Gish, released in 1991, came out around the same time as Nirvana’s Nevermind, the grunge band’s sophomore album that would go on to shake the foundations of the popular-music trends of the time: manufactured boy bands and misogynistic, Sunset Strip hair metal. It was a much-needed sea change.

But let’s back up a few years, to set the scene of what was to come. After attending college at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, in the mid-1980s, Adams worked at a record shop and wrote for the fanzine Your Flesh. He caught the indie-rock bug, as it were, inspired by the then-burgeoning independent-music industry that had grown out of labels like Dischord in Washington, DC, Sub Pop in Seattle, and Touch and Go in Chicago, which presented a more artist-friendly path for bands to make a living selling records, CDs, and cassettes, while also touring small- to medium-size venues.

Adams found his way to Chicago, where, by the mid-1990s, there was a golden age of independent businesses thriving in unison: record labels (Drag City, Thrill Jockey, Atavistic, Bloodshot, Carrot Top), distributors (Ajax, Cargo, Southern), record shops (Reckless, Dusty Grooves, Wax Trax!, the Quaker Goes Deaf), underground press (the Chicago Reader and Newcity, but also Lumpen and Stop Smiling), and venues (Cabaret Metro, Lounge Ax, the Empty Bottle, and Double Door). As Adams documents, it was a near-perfect ecosystem for creativity and experimentation.

I should know. I grew up in Chicago and worked at some of the labels Adams writes about in this book. He does a great service in sketching out the different rosters and aesthetic approaches they took. “The people behind the bars or record store counters, or piling the boxes up in warehouses, were often musicians, or artists, or both,” he writes in the first chapter. “Well-stocked record stores and distributors brought records into the city, giving people opportunities to listen to and process music. . . . Rent was cheap enough that people didn’t need full-time jobs and could pursue their enthusiasms.” Chicago was, as Adams calls it, “a fertile center of the American indie rock scene.”

Adams and his business partner, Joel Leoschke, founded the record label kranky in 1993, after working together at Cargo, then one of the biggest distributors for independent records in the US and Canada. Above Joel’s desk at work hung a handwritten sign that read, “Curmudgeon Records.” Adams explained that the name “kranky” fit better on the spines of records than “curmudgeon,” but the sentiment is peak-1990s, self-deprecating humor.

kranky was focused on experimental music in the analog, ambient, electronic, and psychedelic genres—much of which fit under the larger umbrella of post-rock, a term coined by writer Simon Reynolds in The Wire magazine in 1994. kranky’s roster was always interested in otherworldly sounds, pushing sonic soundscapes to new territories, even if the musicians were using vintage instruments and equipment.

You’re with Stupid is both a cultural history of the Chicago music world at that time, as told through the record labels and distributors that Adams worked for, and a how-to road map to founding a DIY operation. In the beginning, Adams and Leoschke even wrote out their “the kranky kommandments,” a charter for how to run an effective, profitable, and integrity-driven record label at the height of the major-label feeding frenzy.

Like many independent labels of that era, they weren’t following trends but were instead creating a niche. Along the way, the music industry changed dramatically with the introduction of Napster and iTunes, followed by the streaming giants, who pay a pittance per million streams. By the mid-aughts, Adams decides to sell off his share of the company and moves to downstate Illinois, while Leoschke relocates to Portland, where he continues to run the label today.

The environment that had made Chicago so vibrant and world-renowned started to come undone. Most of the musicians and bands that had called Chicago home and jammed with each other in myriad other groups left for the coasts (or elsewhere) as the ecosystem of those labels, clubs, distributors, and press faltered in the post-digital age.

“There can be little doubt that Chicago in the 1990s and early 2000s was the cutting-edge music scene in the US,” notes Josh Madell, one of the founders of Other Music in New York, toward the end of the book. “These artists . . . [brought] together jazz, noise, modern classical, global, and experimental sounds . . . creating something forward-looking out of all that history.”

Adams closes the book like he begins it, in the early twentieth century, with the musical migration and experimentation of Louis Armstrong, who followed his mentor and hero Joe “King” Oliver from New Orleans to Chicago, in search of a better life in the North and also a new style of jazz—this guided his creative spirit. That spirit is very much still alive on a nightly basis at venues like Constellation, the Empty Bottle, and Corbett vs. Dempsey, an art gallery, record label, and performance space.

The whole era can be summed up in the title Adams chose for chapter nine. Then as now, Chicago will always have “an audience hungry to hear what would happen next.”

J. C. Gabel is a writer, book editor, and publisher based in Los Angeles.