history of American record labels, the most beloved companies have
always succeeded because of the tireless efforts and bold visions of
one extraordinary music lover. Corey Rusk's name isn't nearly as
well known as that of Atlantic Records' Ahmet Ertegun or Motown's
Berry Gordy. Rusk has been content to operate behind the scenes,
focusing on the bands instead of his Chicago-based company. This
non-egotistical, self-deprecating attitude is there right in the
name: Touch and Go Records.
But as he gears up
to celebrate a quarter-century heading one of the most influential
independent labels in the United States, the 42-year-old businessman
has decided to celebrate with three extraordinary days of music at
next weekend's annual Hideout Block Party -- and to step out of the
shadows long enough to consider his accomplishments.
"I'm not a
limelight sort of personality, but I guess I did feel like 25 years
is a long time, and it won't feel too self-congratulatory, patting
yourself on the back," Rusk said as he sat behind the desk in his
unostentatious office at Touch and Go's North Side warehouse.
"We're not a
particularly self-promoting label, but the one interesting thing
that made me think something like this would be good is that we have
had so many incredible bands over the years. We have been really
lucky that not only have we survived for 25 years, we haven't just
survived because we've had a few great titles in our catalog: We
have managed to put out culturally significant records, and at least
every four or five years, we have been a part of something that was
new and that hadn't happened before."
Indeed, the 31
Touch and Go bands performing Friday through Sunday in the street
outside the Hideout at Elston and Wabansia -- a gritty, urban,
industrial setting that seems especially fitting given the label's
no-nonsense, hardworking attitude -- are all the testament needed to
make the case for both the label's diversity and its impact on the
underground music scene, with acts ranging from industrial punks Big
Black (briefly reuniting for the occasion) to art-rockers the
Shipping News; the California dance band !!! to Sicilian
experimentalists Uzeda, and the subtle guitar band Seam to the
in-your-face hardcore group Negative Approach.
Touch and Go's
roots stretch back to 1980, when Rusk was a teenager in a suburb of
Toledo, Ohio, playing in a hardcore punk band called the Necros. The
group linked with Michigan punk-scene stalwarts Tesco Vee and Dave
Stimson, who ran a fanzine called Touch and Go, to release their
first 7-inch vinyl single under that umbrella. More hardcore punk
45s followed, and when Vee moved to Washington, D.C., to concentrate
on his band the Meatmen, Rusk wound up running the label with his
first wife, Lisa Pfahler, releasing albums by abrasive, experimental
bands such as Die Kreuzen, Big Black, the Butthole Surfers and
Killdozer, and establishing what some fans still consider "the
classic Touch and Go sound."
The Rusks moved
the label to Chicago in the late '80s, and it quickly became an
integral part of this city's musical infrastructure. But in 1990,
Corey and Lisa split up personally and professionally, resulting in
the first of the three biggest crises the label has weathered. In
response, Corey started a sister label called Quarterstick with two
goals in mind: Continuing to issue records, and underscoring that he
wanted to work with many kinds of bands, not just industrial-punk
"I was feeling
frustrated for a decade of having only attracted rock bands, but
having broader tastes in music and wanting to work with other
things," Rusk said. "That combined with having discussions with the
woman I was getting divorced from, so that I wanted to have this
thing that would just be mine, where I could do what I want with it,
and it would be a clean slate."
With the divorce
settled, Rusk would continue leading both Touch and Go and
Quarterstick -- for many, the two names are now synonymous -- and he
would see the company grow to a point where it now employs 25
people, issuing about 20 albums a year and managing a back catalog
with more than 400 titles. (At a time when many of the major record
companies are witnessing steadily shrinking profits, Touch and Go
had its most profitable year ever in 2005.)
"To me, all of
that is great as well as terrifying," Rusk said of the company's
current size and stature.
The good part is
being proud of what he's built. The scary part is that so many
employees and artists rely on him, a responsibility he doesn't take
"I guess maybe
one of the reasons that we have made it this long is that I'm a very
responsible personality, and things weigh heavily on me. If
something is not getting done or I feel like a situation is not
being handled right, it bothers me. I take the responsibility of
accounting to and paying our bands on time and properly as my
highest priority, and it's one of the things I've prided myself on
through our whole existence. The world of indie labels that we live
in is constantly full of horror stories of 'I never got paid for
that record.' "
quality of its releases, Touch and Go's reputation stems largely
from its ethical business dealings: It pays its bands fairly and
promptly. And, amazingly and legendarily, Rusk says that "99 percent
of the records we have put out have been without contracts" -- even
after the second and third of the big crises in Touch and Go's
history, when two of its most celebrated bands, Urge Overkill and
the Butthole Surfers, left the label amid a flurry of legal
acrimony, reneging on their handshake deals with Rusk.
"I survived all
of those things, but I was hurt by all of them," Rusk said. "Maybe
my personality is to have hurt feelings rather than to get raging
angry. All of those things hurt my feelings because the label is
personal to me. The bands I work with are personal relationships,
and I've only put out records by bands where I have really liked
To this day,
Rusk says every band Touch and Go releases has to have three
qualities: He has to like the recordings; he has to like and respect
the musicians as people, and the band has to be as good or better
live than it is on record. "There is still no rhyme or reason to how
we end up finding a band that we work with. It's still so much just
somebody in a band we work with mentioning, 'This band opened for us
and they were great,' or 'My friend is in a band and they're great.'
But one reason we opted for having this big live event is honestly
because the best bands on Touch and Go, their live shows have always
been better than even their most brilliant records."
Like any indie
label that's had a measure of success, Rusk has had numerous
opportunities to sell out to the major record companies over the
years. But he notes that fellow indies that took similar offers "got
piles of money and also had piles of trouble." He maintains that "at
the end of the day, I guess I am a control freak, and I like being
in charge of my own thing." But he also says that he's always had
too much fun running Touch and Go to call it quits -- "Even though
when you do this for 25 years, there are definitely months and years
where you have more fun than others."
"I feel like a
lot of great indie labels are started by someone who is really
passionate about music and has a good ear and has friendships with
some good bands and can relate to them," Rusk said in summing up his
experience with Touch and Go. "There's the stereotype of the guy
that starts the indie label where the side of your brain devoted to
music isn't as strong as the business side. I've been fortunate that
somehow, I'm pretty good at both."
The Touch and Go
25th Anniversary Celebration and the Hideout's 10th Annual Block
Party takes place from 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and from noon to 10 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday, outside the club at 1354 W. Wabansia. Tickets
are $35 for a weekend pass, $15 per day in advance, or $45/$20 at
the door, providing the event hasn't sold out in advance.
will preview the festival with an hour-by-hour look at the bands in
Friday's Weekend section, but more information is available now and
tickets can be purchased at www.tgrec.com/links/tg25. The
site also includes free audio clips of all of the bands in the Touch
and Go catalog.
FROM NECROS TO
BIG BLACK TO URGE OVERKILL TO CALEXICO
Here is a look
at a few of the many definitive releases in Touch and Go's history,
along with founder Corey Rusk's comments.
The Meatmen, "We're the Meatmen and You Suck" (1983)
examples of faster/louder hard-core punk from Touch and Go's
earliest era. "My friends were in all these hard-core bands that I
really loved, and they were the only people that were going to let
me put out their records," Rusk said. "It really didn't start out to
be a serious company."
released by Homestead Records in '85, the best album by Steve
Albini's legendary art-punk group was reissued by Touch and Go in
'92, along with the rest of the Big Black catalog. The label has
also released all of the recordings by Albini's current band
Shellac, and the group in between, Rapeman. For many in the music
world, the controversial musician and recording engineer would
become the public face of Touch and Go, which suited Rusk just fine.
"In general, strong public personalities are always going to be
polarizing," he said. "A lot of people love Steve, and lots of
people don't." But every serious alternative rock fan knows his
Overkill, "Supersonic Storybook" (1991)
The Jesus Lizard, "Goat" (1991)
underground legends, Urge Overkill merged punk-rock energy with an
international playboy shtick and skillful thievery of riffs ranging
from funk to metal to cheesy '70s pop, while the Jesus Lizard
represented the pinnacle of intense noise rock, with harsh guitars,
driving rhythms and the unforgettable showmanship of singer David
Yow. Both groups would go on to major labels, though many fans say
they did their best work for Touch and Go.
"Music for Egon Schiele" (1996)
Calexico, "The Black Light" (1998)
Sally Timms, "In the World of Him" (2004)
CocoRosie, "Noah's Ark" (2005)
sampling of the many diverse and eclectic offerings from Touch and
Go and Quarterstick in recent years, including the modern chamber
group Rachel's, desert folk/roots-rockers Calexico, moonlighting
Mekon Timms with a concept album presented entirely from the male
point of view and the sister act of Sierra and Bianca Casady merging
elements of hip-hop, electronica and freak-folk in CocoRosie. "Rock
is my main love, but I also love a lot of other stuff," Rusk said.
"It has always been a more eclectic label than some people have
given it credit for being."