The Vortis Diaries: Record release party

July 27, 2011

Since we first came together in the band a decade ago, guitarist Tony Vortis has been pushing to realize a longtime dream: He wanted to release some of our music on vinyl. And, though it took a while, we’ve finally pulled it off.

Tony is not one of those obnoxious LPs-über-alles absolutists and sonic-purity snobs, and he’s certainly not a hipster whose embrace of vinyl started some time after the first Record Store Day and the now-regular appearance of “vinyl revivalarticles. He just has a thing about the medium that… well, I’ll let him explain.

“A record is a physical, real product. You interact with it. You take it out, and if it’s colored, cool vinyl, all the better: an unexpected, unique treat! You look at the D.I.Y. artwork and any fun inserts you get. Then you slap the wax to your turntable and apply a needle. The needle interacts with the grooves to create a real sound. And a record, for maximum effect, forces you to play it loud—what better thing than that for punk rock! There’s natural distortion, pops, and warmth. Again, you’re listening to something real and organic. And in our case, with a split 7”, you get two bands in one! It’s a community on a disc.”

Tony Vortis at the record release party. Photo by Kimisha Pierce.

Eloquent fugger, isn’t he? Since the band released its first two albums on CD with a Chicago label that essentially croaked a short time later, Vortis has been content to press a limited number of shiny discs to sell at shows while mostly floating its music on the Net. (That is, at least for post-Professor discs numbers four and five; the third and last set with the former Vortis front man really didn’t get out there at all, for a number of reasons starting with slacker ennui—we were so slow to get around to it that there soon was a new set of music we were much more excited about, and it seemed cooler to just leave that one as a “legendary lost album.”) Since the band is a labor of love and mercenary concerns are nonexistent, we always have recorded just because recording is a blast and we’ve wanted to preserve the sounds of the moment before progressing to whatever comes next. So we embrace the advice Martin Atkins dispenses in his Tour:Smart seminars: Bands at the D.I.Y. level shouldn’t worry if people are downloading their music for free; they should worry if people aren’t.

Now, I’ve been playing in bands since I was 13, and with some two dozen groups since, I’ve acquired a rather lengthy D.I.Y. and indie-label discography that already includes one vinyl LP and six 7-inches. When Tony Vortis hyper-enthusiastically proposed that we cull a few songs from our latest Internet release for a joint 45 with our friends the Cathy Santonies, I really was just going along for the ride—and I assume the same was true for Louie Vortis, since he doesn’t even own a turntable. The Santonies also seemed game largely because Tony was willing to do all the work, and he waxed as poetic when describing why he enjoyed that process as he did when spieling about why he loves playing vinyl.

“The process of making the 7” is likewise organic. You create the label for that record. After sending in the recording and label art, the record is pressed and sent to you in white sleeves. Then you create the artwork for the cover. You photocopy and cut the covers up. You craft any fun inserts. You assemble the final product (granted, it can be a monotonous pain in the ass to stuff records in sleeves, inserts in sleeves, then those into Mylar bags, but done with a few beers and friends, it becomes a satisfying party). The artist is more intimate with the product, just as the needle to wax is more intimate. You have greater control, and it’s cheaper!”

Indeed. Though the number of vinyl pressing plants is far, far fewer now than when I made my first 45 toward the end of the indie-rock ’80s, there still are numerous reliable options out there, and Vortis went with the one most often recommended by bands whose platters we’d admired when we’d shared a bill with them. Founded in Nashville in 1949 as Southern Plastics, and counting Chicago’s Vee Jay Records (which issued the first 7-inches by the Beatles) and Motown among its clients at a time when many plants were reluctant to work with black-owned labels, United Record Pressing (thusly rechristened in 1971) has been going strong ever since, a proud analog outpost amid the deluge of digital dementia.

Despite the relative rarity of vinyl these days compared to compact discs (which may soon become extinct themselves), the cost of professional production is comparable and very reasonable: The price for pressing 300 joint Vortis/Cathy Santonies 7-inches in randomly mixed colored vinyl (Tony’s idea) with plain paper sleeves and one-color printing on the center labels: $662. Sure, we could have spent a lot more if we wanted to go with fancier packaging or have United do the assembly work; the company’s Web site offers a handy quote generator spelling out all the options and costs. But, as Tony noted, doing it yourself really is part of the fun and some of the allure for folks who might want to buy one: “This isn’t a piece of plastic; this is some art that we made!

Louie Vortis and Radio Santoni. Photo by Kimisha Pierce.

We did hit one speed bump. As a bridge between the Vortis side and the Santonies side, Vortis recorded a cover of the signature song by Poly Styrene and X-Ray Spex with Radio Santoni on guest vocals. Shortly after submitting the mastered music on CD, United sent the following letter:

Dear Anthony,

It has been determined that this release contains a cover song, “Oh Bondage, Up Yours” by Marian [sic] Elliott. This song is available for license on the Harry Fox Agency website at www.harryfox.com. Once the license is obtained, please forward the email with the approval…

Our initial panic that we’d have to take the song off the record quickly dissolved when we discovered that Harry Fox, like most licensing firms these days, couldn’t make the process more simple or economical. The cost for us to license the classic tune (determined by the song, the medium on which it would be distributed, and the number of copies): $27.30, or .091 cents per copy. We were happy to pay it, and all the more so after its author lost her battle to breast cancer in late April and it became our small tribute to one of punk’s greatest and most unique voices.

In any event, my initially nonchalant attitude toward the project quickly flipped and I was infected by a measure of Tony Vortis’ excitement when the test pressing arrived from Tennessee and putting the needle to the groove for the first time was as much of a kick as it had been when I did it for the first 45 I played on 22 years ago. It was amplified when my bandmate produced the stack of finished 7-inches that he’d lovingly assembled, and it peaked when Vortis and the Santonies played a record release party a few weeks ago at Pancho’s that for once actually was a record release party, instead of a gig merely celebrating a new recording.

There might be something to this vinyl fetish after all.

Vortis photos by Kimisha L. Pierce.

Vortis plays at the Abbey Pub at 9 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 5, with C.J. Ramone, Johnny Vomit, and Spare Change. And, yes, Tony Vortis will have 7-inches for sale.

THE VORTIS DIARIES

May 31, 2011: Rock 'n' roll rituals

Mar. 9, 2011: Stage patter sucks

Jan. 27, 2011: Finding catharsis at Cal’s

Dec. 15, 2010: An evening at Pancho’s, the new (and far superior) Ronny’s

Nov. 14, 2010: A trip to Milwaukee

Oct. 11, 2010: Dance Fever

Aug. 30, 2010: A road trip to Madison

July 26, 2010: A weekend at Wall to Wall

July 12, 2010: An evening with F*cked Up

June 21, 2010: Six hours at Ronny’s on a Saturday night

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