Chicago's Bloodshot Records Turns 15 | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Chicago's Bloodshot Records Turns 15

Bloodshot Records is celebrating its 15th anniversary with events this week at the South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. Critic Althea Legaspi met with owners Nan Warshaw and Rob Miller at a bar near Bloodshot's offices to talk survival in the indie music world.

ROB MILLER: Chicago in the mid-‘90s was just percolating over with talent and it was being ballyhoo'd as the next Seattle with you know Urge Overkill and Liz Phair and Smashing Pumpkins and all that…

MUSIC: Smashing Pumpkins – “Today” – Siamese Dream

MILLER: And so every you know, sleazebag A&R guy was descending upon the city and signing anyone who could spell “guitar” and then we saw a lot of these bands that were just kind of doing this roots thing that were getting ignored and we thought with all the you know naiveté of a bunch of kids wanting to put on a dance to save the teen center we thought hey, let's start a label. What the hell do we know?

MUSIC: Moonshine Willy – “Way Out West” – For a Life of Sin (Bloodshot's inaugural compilation)

Warshaw says their first release, a compilation of music called For a Life of Sin, was a snapshot of this overlooked group of artists.

NAN WARSHAW: Those bands were doing something unique and exciting at the time that motivated us in the same way you know early punk rock had when we were in college.

MUSIC: Waco Brothers – “Plenty Tough Union Made” – To the Last Dead Cowboy

One such artist was Jon Langford, a man whose name has become synonymous with Bloodshot Records. Miller says it was a memorable meeting.

MILLER: Nan and I were sitting in the Empty Bottle, the old Empty Bottle I think, before they moved to the current one, and Jon Langford walked in. And I said, that's Jon Langford from the Mekons, go ask him to be on the compilation, because I am catatonically shy, and Nan is…

WARSHAW: The opposite.

MILLER: The opposite yeah I was going to say something else. And talked to him and there it went.

MUSIC: Ryan Adams – “To Be Young” – Heartbreaker

Another early signing came in an unusual way. Each year Bloodshot Records throws a day party in Austin, Texas at the annual South By Southwest festival. In 1996 there was a buzz surrounding Bloodshot's bands and major label A&R and other industry folks were scoping their event for talent. Miller says it was nerves and stress at this party that led to a very important chance meeting.

MILLER: When I first met Ryan Adams, it was, we were throwing up in adjacent toilets in Austin. And Rhett Miller from the 97s introduced us. And then a few years later we're putting out his solo LP.

That record, Heartbreaker, has become their highest selling record to date. It fit the label's early Insurgent Country style. That's a genre Miller coined. Much to his chagrin, it has become a catch-all phrase. Since its early days, Langford says Bloodshot has been the ideal home for bands like the raucous Wacos. He says the label's passion is what makes them artist friendly.

LANGFORD: I feel there's always been a spirit there, some sort of weird idea of community or something.

Insurgent Country is far from the community of newer bands that have signed on like Scotland Yard Gospel Choir and The Detroit Cobras. However, Miller and Warshaw say there is a common thread.

MILLER: What does tie the Bloodshot sound together if there is such a thing is that we do and our artists have an appreciation and a varying degree of receptiveness to American roots forms…

WARSHAW: It seemed like a natural progression to me, certainly we broadened our scope because we've been able to because we continue to exist. And so in many ways it's felt like the same road, you know, but with more lanes.

That expansion includes new label artist Exene Cervenka, who will be releasing her solo album, Somewhere Gone, on Bloodshot in June. The X and Knitters frontwoman has been a consumer of the label's since the beginning, and that mutual fondness led to 1999's Bloodshot album homage to The Knitters. Cervenka says the right label adds stability for artists.

EXENE CERVENKA: I respect them and I know that. And, there are so many things in being an artist that you don't have a clue of who you're working with or what you're doing next or where you're going to show up and what the audience is going to be – everything is just an unknown. And I think that's the really solid thing to go with.

MUSIC: Ben Kweller – “Send Me Down the Road” – Sawdust Man 7-inch

BEN KWELLER: So, we came up with this idea to do a 7-inch for the song “Sawdust Man.” And it's the B-side to “Sawdust Man” is this track called “Send Me Down The Road” and that's an exclusive song just for Bloodshot Records. And what I love about it, so much, is that it's the first time that I've released a song that's only on vinyl and you can't even get it as a digital MP3 yet.

Young pop artist Ben Kweller became a Bloodshot fan from listening to Whiskeytown records, and like with his release, the label is discovering something old is making the rounds again. Vinyl sales are on the rise, and Warshaw says for the first time, Bloodshot Records is offering all of their releases in vinyl.

WARSHAW: I mean it's because there's a grassroots fanbase that wants to buy vinyl . . . We're trying to make each one special, putting a digital download dropcard in each – that's sort of thing, but for the hardcore fans, they want the vinyl, and it's great to be able to do vinyl again.

MUSIC: Ha Ha Tonka – “Walking on the Devil's Back” – Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South

Bloodshot has a big year ahead with a dozen releases including albums by Ha Ha Tonka, Justin Townes Earle, Deadstring Brothers, Wayne Hancock and Scott H. Biram. And while turning 15 is cause for celebration, it comes on the heels of truly troubling news in the indie label world: last month, the venerable Chicago indie label Touch And Go records announced they were drastically cutting operations, shuttering their distribution arm, and laying off employees. Warshaw wonders what this means for indie labels.

WARSHAW: An emotional reaction is you know if a label as iconic and established as Touch and Go, and this is a label that we and so many other labels look to as the ideal of how you're supposed to run an indie label – if a label like that can go under, what does it mean for the rest of us?

For now, their love for the art keeps them going.

WARSHAW: I see doing this as long as there's still exciting music to put out and as long as we have a way to keep doing it – and furthering these artists careers – I mean we wouldn't do it if we weren't helping or making a difference, or feeling like we could, at least.

MILLER: I would like to think that in 20 years with some weird kid probably from Germany or something is gonna put together some huge Bloodshot box set or something that I don't have a lot to be embarrassed about. That it is incredibly humbling to be a part of the history of music, to have some place in that, in the arc of roots-inflected music in this country and to be thought of kindly in that way.

MUSIC: Wayne Hancock – “Shootin' Stars from Texas” – Tulsa

Bloodshot Records celebrations kicks off tonight in Austin, Texas, at the Yard Dog. Check out more behind the scenes action from the South by Southwest Festival.

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