That’s right. Over the course of a couple years, the band wrote and demoed a batch of over 40 songs, inquired with a host of their favorite artists (e.g. Jad Fair, Sentridoh, Simon Joyner and Chris Deden) to record them and, after receiving the finished tracks, assembled a tribute album . . . to themselves.
If this reverse logic sounds a bit confusing to you, well, you’re not alone. But for those in tune with the activities, performances and recordings of these longtime musicians/performance artists/geniuses, it’s totally something Wckr Spgt (commonly pronounced “Wicker Spigot”) cherishes.
The tribute, dubbed Smooth Sounds: Various Artists Play the Future Hits of Wckr Spgt, is released by Upland-based label Shrimper Records. The comp features liner notes written by former (and occasionally current) Spgt guitarist and indie legend Franklin Bruno, hand-colored booklet art, and is available in double CD, MP3 and limited-edition (250 copies) cassette formats. Yes, we said “cassette.”
In fact, the cassette’s actually an important piece of this scene’s puzzle. The northwest quadrant of the Inland Empire’s underground music circle originally grew largely from the dubbed cassettes of artists who found the medium affordable and accessible, forming what’s been coined “cassette culture.” So, it’s not surprising that Wckr Spgt and Shrimper would release tapes in the age of MP3s instantly beamed via Wi-Fi connections—it’s really more testament to the idea of doing exactly what they want to do.
Wckr Spgt’s recording history is tied to the popular analog format that’s known for melting in a hot car or ending up devoured by tape players. It was the band’s primary medium, which released everything in the ’80s on cassette, mostly through their own label, Anthropology Records. As the band tells it, they weren’t initially a live outfit, instead focusing on self-recording the punk-inspired experimental music that became its forte.
And when Wckr Spgt finally started playing shows, the few local (and not-so-local) clubs were unreceptive, so many early gigs were either parties or special events (which sometimes ended with police pulling the plug).
ROCK LIKE AN EGYPTIAN
Already experimenting on record, the members of Wckr Spgt differentiated themselves from the standard rock show by experimenting on stage. Vocalist Joel Huschle and guitarist Mark Givens note the band often played art shows and concentrated on the event as a whole as opposed to just the music. Fans have driven as far as the Bay Area just to catch them in action.
Examples abound: Wckr Spgt once lip synched an entire show. The band also performed in a Pitzer philosophy class, reading an original rock opera over music hailing from a couple boomboxes with Bruno eating cereal out of an automobile beverage caddy. Members of Spgt once played wrapped in plastic.
Or there’s a recent gig at Characters in Pomona that found the group encapsulated in a wooden box constructed over the duration of its set. (“Just wait until we do ‘Wckr Spgt in a pyramid,’” says Huschle. “We’ll have 10,000 Egyptians building one over a period of 18 years.”)
“It’s always been a creative outlet, it’s gotta be exciting and it’s gotta be interesting, because that’s why we do it,” says Givens. “If it’s not interesting, then it’s time to change it up a little bit.”
Seemingly sharing a parallel outlook is Dennis Callaci, the sole operator of Shrimper, a Rhino Records manager and member of local greats Refrigerator. With well over 100 releases since its inception, Shrimper’s featured countless terrific Inland Empire locals plus several nationally recognized names in the indie plane, including Creeper Lagoon, Dinosaur Jr./Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow and The Mountain Goats. And this latest Wckr Spgt release also marks Shrimper’s 20th year in operation.
“Dennis didn’t even realize that it was going to be the 20th anniversary,” says Givens. “It was pointed out to him . . . That’s when he came to us, and we were working on this tribute album, and he said, ‘I would like to make that the celebration of the 20 years of Shrimper.’ That’s really cool. That’s a really nice thing to do. And that’s kind of the way Dennis is, too. He’s not out there to make his name. So, the fact that he doesn’t want to become famous for that is telling. It’s very kind, it’s an honor for us to be involved in paying tribute to Shrimper.”
According to Callaci, Shrimper initially morphed from several projects he had been involved in during the late ’80s, including self-publishing a comic with his brother and friends, running a cable access show featuring artists, musicians and strange skits, and a band that he had been performing in for five years prior to the label’s launch.
“The label was started because there were a number of artists in the IE at that time that were like-minded in a punk aesthetic, but idiosyncratic and miles away from one another stylistically who were not being documented,” Callaci says.
FALLING IN LOVE
Shrimper’s earliest days were some of its most difficult. Callaci notes that he had no capital, so he dubbed cassettes that were cheaply purchased.
“The only directive was to get music out that meant something to me,” he says. “I was sure that it would be discovered—maybe not in a year and maybe not for 20 years—by discerning ears were it made available.”
Releasing tapes allowed Callaci to eventually press vinyl and CDs. Shrimper’s catalog would have some titles selling in the hundreds, and others in the thousands. But it was the cassette—in all of its variable stages of sonic fidelity—that might’ve led labels like Shrimper (and certain associated bands) to being tagged by some with the “lo-fi” term, something Callaci says he still doesn’t understand.
“I think it grew out of necessity and became an easy aural cue to identify an artist,” says Givens of the tag. “Then, like all good music labels, the meaning evolved to encompass all sorts of things that would not have been considered ‘lo-fi’ initially. It’s like indie rock being usurped by major labels, taking the term from its lowly origins as ‘independent music’ to the more generic and general meaning used today. It no longer means ‘independent’ and it’s a fool’s errand to cling to the origins. The same is true for ‘lo-fi,’ though on a much smaller level. The production value was dictated by the equipment and methods, sure, but I think the important thing was being able to document and record the thoughts and ideas of artists who were not—for financial and motivational reasons—going to take their music into a studio to record.”
Throughout the course of Shrimper, Callaci says that he’s avoided becoming a “legitimate” record label that’s had to rely on straight commercial success methods just to stay afloat.
“Some years, I have put out 20 releases, others two,” he says. “Turning down major label distribution, publishing, publicists, lawyers, contracts and all [those] other gold-plated pursuits has allowed me to keep not only the worst aspects of the record industry at bay, but also find like-minded artists that are not hungry to be the next flash then yawn. I still love music, and falling in love with a recording that you want the world to hear is akin to falling in love with someone.”
CONFESS YOUR SINS
Add Wckr Spgt to the aforementioned romance. Callaci connected with the band in Shrimper’s early years after finding a unique kinship in their operations.
“I felt like they were accomplishing on a grander scale what my friends and I had been doing one city away for years having never crossed paths with them,” he says. “My pre-Refrigerator band would film music videos at Winchell’s Donut House at 2 a.m., perform rock opera/installations at the dA [Center for the Arts] in Pomona and had a proclivity to record a ‘record’ every other week or so with a theme or differing direction from the last. When I first heard Wckr Spgt, there was certainly the feel of having been kindred spirits. They are still, to this day, more prolific and imaginative than any other artist I have ever gotten close enough to see the inner workings of.”
And such imagination extends to the forthcoming 11-hour Wckr Spgt tribute/Shrimper Records anniversary show at the dA in Pomona this Saturday. In addition to the dozen bands slated to perform, there’s a bouncy house(!), video confessional (“where you confess your sins against Wckr Spgt”) and even an auction of ultra limited-edition lathe-cut EPs. Proceeds from the event help support the art center’s operation and there’ll also be shows (with other artists) held in Vermont and Montana that same weekend to commemorate the band and label’s longevity and continuous innovation.
THE OLD PIGEON HOLE
“I still have a fear of the old pigeon hole, because they’re terrifying,” says Givens. “And occasionally I’ll say that we need to do something different because it needs to be exciting for me . . . And to me, the show’s got to be interesting. It’s an outlet for creativity, it’s a way to express different art things we want to get across.”
“There is a divide in me between not taking anything that I do seriously while ultimately being serious about the direction that I take the label,” says Callaci. ”I think record labels are generally anathema to art, so I don’t run Shrimper like a record label; I run it as more of an art collective. If a record sells well, I have more money to take chances on more artists that I admire or find worth in.”
“If I were to do the things that hundreds of kind-hearted folks had advised me to do over the last 10 years—websites, legal departments, blogs, interviews and all the other mechanizations that mean nothing to me—I would have given up years ago. You do not have to become what you are against to be successful.”
Wckr Spgt Tribute Release Party at dA Center for the Arts, 252-D S. Main St., Pomona, (909) 397-9716; www.dacenter.org, www.wckrspgt.com. Sat, July 24. Noon-11PM.