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Courtesy of Tower Grove Records
Revolutions have been born in unlikely places before, in beer halls and rice paddies and libraries and rural retreats. So it’s maybe not such a jump to think that a group of St. Louis musicians would try to find a new way while chatting over (many) beers in the backyard of longtime rock linchpin Jason Hutto.
And it doesn’t hurt that the group has been meeting in a grassy plot of land located just a stone’s throw from the magical corner of Cherokee and Compton, one of the spiritual centers of St. Louis’ bohemian underground for the better part of two decades; that’s been true since a little pixie-dusted bar called the Way Out Club set up shop on the block some 17 years ago. Today, Cherokee Street, in just that immediate stretch, has a bookstore, a couple of print shops, a locally-themed tee-shirt enterprise, a ramshackle garden center, multiple art galleries, and, importantly, El Lenador, a music club inside a Mexican restaurant that was decorated by mid-20th century Germans. It’s at that quirky club, on any night of the week, that you might see the many members of the Tower Groove Records collective spilling out of the front door, trailing cigarette smoke and smart-ass commentary.
Though he’s a reluctant figurehead to the movement, it makes sense that Hutto has taken on such a key role in the operation. Since relocating from Kansas City, he’s formed and fronted rock bands like The Phonocaptors, Sexicolor and his current Warm Jets USA, alternating those pursuits with roadtrips as a guitar tech for the much-loved Son Volt. He was a co-organizer of the first South Side Rocks Off pub-and-music crawl on South Grand. His basement is also a studio, and it’s there that multiple groups have recorded all or parts of their CDs and 45s. And he’s also bartended at key locations like Mangia, CBGB and Crack Fox, all locations where music’s an inherent part of the experience.
But Hutto’s one to note that this is a group endeavor. He quickly points to Adam Hesed, the charismatic organ player of Magic City, as initiating the project. As the Tower Grooves’ emerging lore has it, Hesed looked around for an official label for his group’s debut CD; without finding an exact fit, he decided that a new one was needed. Discusses commenced. And then Hutto cites Duane Perry as another early catalyst; though not currently playing or recording with a band, he’s drummed for various groups over the years and wears his musical leanings, in a sense, on his sleeve, as the logo for his late band The Red Squares adorns his right forearm.
“I’d guess that it started with them,” Hutto figures. ”And then other people started coming on board. The more conversations we had, the more meetings... it sort of became this ‘thing.’”
At the root of “the thing” is the idea that a label could coalesce around a group of musicians from different generations and varying musical styles. The current crop of participants veer from those whose band efforts date back to the early ‘90s, to those who were in kindergarten back then.
The first order of serious business, meanwhile, is also two-fold: on Sunday, September 4, the collective will be hosting a day-long rock carnival at Off Broadway, with music-and-drinking inside and food-and-games (and more drinking) outside. The funds raised at that show are specifically earmarked for a double-LP compilation album with a targeted early-spring 2012 release date. (Those not owning a turntable needn’t fear, as they plan a digital download opiton, or a CD-R, in each package.)
Putting all the pieces into place has been an interesting experience in group dynamics. Last Monday evening, just shy of 20 people gathered in Hutto’s backyard, filtering into plastic chairs around a patio table and metal pool. There, they chain-smoked, drained Stags and discussed some of the specifics about the September 4 event, even breaking off into sub-committees; one dedicated itself to food, another to the carnival games, including the ever-popular dunking booth. If it was about fun, it was also about business.
While wisecracks flowed as freely as the beer, it was obvious that some of the old heads were to there to keep things on-task. Since only one woman was in attendance—KDHX’s marketing guru Birgid Spears—guys should be able to understand the rough roles that were self-assigned in these simple Godfather-ian terms. Hutto’s the much-loved, somewhat-feared Don Corleone. Hesed’s the nuts-and-bolts man, the concigliere Tom Hagen. And Perry’s the enforcer with a smile, a more-outgoing version of Tessio.
In fact, Perry set off the night’s meeting with a salty monologue that compared and contrasted the music scenes in St. Louis and Seattle, where he’s just returned from. While leaving aside the specifics of the address, the end message was this: St. Louis has soul, it just has to organize in a way to show it to the rest of the world. It wasn’t a message that the local RCGA might understand, but it was full of civic spirit and enthusiasm.
Hutto admits that other efforts in the recent past will serve as nice templates for what he’s looking to help accomplish here. He points to the still-moving Big Muddy Records as one such example. Another that’s even more apt is the old Rooster Lollipop collective, which coalesced around the bands that played the old Way Out Club, groups like Ouija, Free Dirt and the Highway Matrons, who played countless shows together, while releasing compilation albums and specialty one-offs, like 45s, whenever funds and time were made available.
“I learned a lot from them,” he says. “Including better ways to discuss needs amongst a group.”
At times, that entials the ticklish issue of money. Part of becoming a member of the collective, in fact, means kicking in some starter funds. Initially, that’ll be a modest $50 fee to get on the compilation disc and to be added to the roster of carnival-playing bands. Asked if that fee’s as much about commitment as it is to the actual dollars, he admits there something to that.
“That is part of the intent,” he says. “It shows a level of dedication to this. It’s such a small amount for a band, $50, but it’s also the starting capital for the party. If everyone that’s interested becomes part of this, it’s going to be like 16-17 groups. That’s going to be a release that takes lots of money.”
But creativity will also be involved. For example, the bands recording their own song for the compilation will play on a shared backline, using the same drums and amps, allowing Hutto to work faster, with less turnover. Meanwhile, the Rats and People Motion Picture Orchestra, a group that plays along to an ever-growing list of classic, silent films, will donate their string section to any TGR band that wants to add strings to their song, according to member Matt Frederick. That might mean just playing a session, or writing string parts specifically to a track, no small offer when you think about it.
That type of communal spirit is what Hutto feels will lead the merry band of collaborators down a path of longevity, as well as hyper-creativity.
In fact, part of that growth, he feels is coming through an interesting, philosophical dynamic that’ll have to congeal as the TGR concept moves along.
“Once you get 60 people moving towards the same thing, you need some type of governance,” he admits. “Interestingly, you do wind up thinking about different policy theories, which is kind of bizarre.”
While some of that remains longer-range planning, the short term involves bringing attention to the first Magic City full-length, which’ll be hitting stores shortly. In theory, all the groups will help in promoting that show and getting the veteran group some attention. Then, rather immediately, it’ll mean getting word out on the Off Broadway carnival, as well as any shows that collective members are playing. If the membership comes through, there’ll be no small amount buzz being generated by the Tower Grooves Records crew in coming months.
“It’s been crazy,” Hutto admits. “We’ve literally had people competing to get the word out on what we’re doing. And we haven’t even put out a press release yet.”
Score one up, then, for organic revolutions.