Label Watch: Drag City
Since 1990 the two Dans of Drag City have put up a roster of artists that's as close to Norman Records canon as you're gonna get...
“Guaranteed to satisfy the most tolerant listener.” So goes the confounding mission statement of Drag City, the label and weirdo emporium that’s existed concurrently with indie music’s most exciting developments. Formed on an ecstatic whim and a 7” by noise rockers Royal Trux, Drag City has moved symbiotically with three decades of alternative music, the two Dans who founded it peeking out from Chicago to provide the globe an experimental outlet that’s given the world anything from Pavement to William Basinski.
Given their decidedly leftfield vision, their contentedness to abide in the musical wilderness, it’s staggering how much of a legacy Drag City has taken on, the label slowly but surely becoming the best tightrope walk between experimental and indie music out there. So long is the stretching arm of Drag City that their sudden appearance on streaming conglomerate Spotify came as a notable flashpoint in our year of music. People started sharing their favourite Drag City releases, introducing newbies to thirty years of avant-rock servitude as if their lives were only now beginning. Why don’t we also do that, we thought but really late in the year? And here we are.
There’s few bands as essential to the process of Drag City as Royal Trux, the noise pop shred duo comprised of Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema. As contributing architects to the label, their music has become synonymous with it. Not only did Drag City inaugurate their label with the band’s Hero Zero 7”, they let the Royal Trux sound instruct it. Early releases by Pavement and Burnout would follow on from their punkish greyscale. As time went on, the label diversified its aesthetic stock, but Royal Trux were a mainstay: their dirty, sparsely bellicose sound dabbled with lo-fi production and experimental song structures, resolutely its own thing right through to 2000’s Pound for Pound.
Royal Trux really started to capture imaginations with sophomore LP Twin Infinitives. Uncompromising and gruesomely stubborn, the record was drenched in texture and dissonance in a rude attempt to keep the listener from understanding it. In these early, experimental moments, Royal Trux would drone their scuzz punk on and on, for as long as they wanted, even if that meant fourteen minutes at a time. They deconstructed rock music with unapologetic glee.
As they entered the ‘90s, Royal Trux started to find a more relatable sound, offering potential throughlines in the blues-influenced Cats & Dogs, where distortion was an additive rather than the whole show. In ‘98, after a logistical industry headache born from Virgin flaking on representing them, they released the utterly glorious Accelerator back on Drag City, a record in service to the original cacophony and weirdness of classic Royal Trux. By this point, they’d found an accessible sound -- but weren’t above putting it into the shredder. The result was the record that placed them in alternative music history.
With a deity’s voice and a desert-dry wit, Bill Callahan has become an enduring figure in the folk music world. His songs shrug their way towards a calm, collected understanding of the world, as if Callahan were born with the life experience of a sixty-year old travelling man. At times his music is heart-breaking, poignantly subverting romantic cliches over lovelorn country twang; at others it rocks and it sways, leering at its listener as if they’re being taken for the ride to end all rides.
For as long as Bill Callahan wanted to make music, Drag City have been supporting him. They were keen to release early material under the alias Smog, and later re-released the absolute earliest of it. His music was less focused then, but all the more beguiling; with a slightly softer voice and a more wondering musical palette he created records as far apart in sound as Wild Love and Red Apple Falls, teasing out his vulnerable but mischievous personality with bare-bones guitar picking and weird experimental groove. The lyrics are what you wanna hear, though, right: “She said I had an ego on me the size of Texas / well I’m new here, and I forget / does that mean big or small?”.
Bill Callahan retired the Smog alias in 2005, after its final record A River Ain’t Too Much To Love. From there on out, his human name would suffice. It’s led to some of his most affecting music, including the plains-wandering Apocalypse and the solitary jazz-folk of Dream River -- indisputably his best record. His prolific work extends into other avenues; he’s released an improv novella through Drag City, as well as dub versions of his own music. Ever full of cheek and beauty, Callahan never ceases to find power in the spaces between ambiguity and clarity.
No Drag City, no Pavement. I’m sorry; them’s the breaks. After having a stab at the whole music thing with Slay Tracks, Stephen Malkmus’ band piqued the interest of the label, giving them a shot by releasing their EP of scuzz punk Demolition Plot J-7. To some, that’s where it all began for real; the reviews started to roll in for Pavement, and so did the fans. Above all, it gave Pavement a reason to exist at all: with a label sniffing around for them, they began to take themselves seriously as an actual band that actually existed in the actual world. A record that uses noise a little more ecstatically than Pavement did the first time ‘round, Demolition Plot J-7 is an indie rock cacophony that feels as indebted to the bluster of free jazz as Malkmus says it is.
Drag City supplied Pavement to the world; they became a Matador band, in reality, but without those early EPs, you never would’ve had the verbose and lo-fi sketches that came to define an entire generation of indie music. Before Pavement released their debut proper, the iconic noise pop classic Slanted & Enchanted, Drag City released one more Pavement EP, the extremely incorrectly titled Perfect Sound Forever. It was, in fact, an unrefined gem that sparked bright and then fizzled out forever. Eleven minutes long, its tunes were later released on the compilation Westing (By Musket and Sextant), a jumble-sale compilation that collects the Drag City years in all their glory. It really was a glorious time; not the Pavement we know, but the Pavement we’d know soon enough. Don’t cut yr hair -- and don’t forget yr roots.
If you don’t know who Joanna Newsom is by now then I really don’t think you’ve been keeping up with your alternative music homework, young 'un! One of the most inventive voices figuratively, and one of the best voices literally, Newsom has been an ambassador for all things wayward since she self-released her debut EP Walnut Whales. She grew these initial harp-plucked ramblings into something proper on her first ever record The Milk-Eyed Mender, countering folk music with a whole new idea of what it could be. Using harp, harpsichord and various organ-pianos, her sound palette appeared as strikingly unique in the world to which it was seeking to belong. And of course we loved it.
She’s been with Drag City since all the way back then (2004, ew, how old we all are), and has gone on to make records of many different hues: she’s given us the crucially innovative Ys, a collection of prog-folk opuses crafted alongside Van Dyke Parks, along with the massively generous Have One On Me, a triple-disc collection of baroque and jazz songs that ease the listener into their favourite armchair and condemn them to an evening of kindness and calm. Divers is her most recent work, an ever-accomplished work that’s lower-concept and lower-stakes, but a high in every other way.
There’s no one else like Newsom in the entirety of the music world and it’s unlikely there ever will be: when we talk about an artist having a ‘singular sound’, we’re actually just talking, in thinly-veiled code, about Joanna Newsom.
Where to start, really? Meg Baird's a California folkie who first appeared as a solo artist on Drag City with her debut full-length Dear Companion, but she’d previously been on a very different hype, creating full-blown psychedelic music with pastoral collective Espers. The band were reliving the days of avant-garde flower power, offering a noughties re-up of the New Weird America scene. Even now, psychedelic music continues to tug at Baird, with her excellent new band Heron Oblivion matching folksy arrangements with hard rock action; she’s also formed a duo with ambient harpist Mary Lattimore, working on spectral, droning songs that feel uncanny even by their standards.
Dear Companion was yet another unravelling of Baird’s creative impulses, as well as her status as a student of folk history. It featured traditionals, contemporary country rock covers and originals too, as if attaching her to the ever-branching family tree of American music. On her solo records, Baird doesn’t so much shirk her psychedelic sound as she does reframe it; her third record, Don’t Weigh Down the Light, winks at the improvised music of Espers, utilising particular ambiences and textures that consider the anachronistic way traditional music now exists.
Having collaborated with a whole bunch of indie folk faves, from scene legend Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy to sleeping hairball Kurt Vile, Baird’s adventures seem set to run and run. At this moment in time, her body of work is prolific and profound, speaking to an artist that can create delicate folk music and tremor-raising noise. You should probably be listening to her -- in one way or another.
Sorry all, but my favourite fact about Jim O’Rourke is that he was the music consultant for the movie School of Rock. Really think about that one for a second; let it sink in how few the degrees of separation between O’Rourke and Jack Black are. Here’s a man who’s produced LPs for Wilco, created free jazz with Oren Ambarchi and Keiji Haino, and delivered a series of experimental opuses all of his own. Makin’ movies with the frontman of Tenacious D.
Makes sense, though, because O’Rourke is a bona fide polymath. He’s a beloved songwriter and sound artist, but also a secret weapon in the studios of others. He’s released noise drone records best described as ‘sheer’, like Happy Days, and also made blanket soft music, as recent as this year, with his ambient LP Sleep Like It’s Winter. His Drag City output is his most publicised work, but it only speaks to a slither of the story: from the late eighties onwards, O’Rourke has been releasing a steady stream of music for experimental labels Extreme, Mego and John Zorn’s Tzadik. The thing about O’Rourke’s Drag City releases is that they are a universe unto themselves, a home away from home where the artist can try out folk music, songwriterisms, and something dangling on the edge of pop.
Where better to start, really, than with Bad Timing? O’Rourke’s 1997 debut for the label is forty-five minutes contained to four winning songs, offering the artist with his acoustic guitar and an array of ambient twinkling. Inspired by pop melody and American primitivism, the record is partially responsible for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s existence: had Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy not heard it, O’Rourke wouldn’t have become his producer. Through an enduring relationship with Drag City, O’Rourke continued to create soft, gorgeously embellished records such as Eureka and Insignificance, later returning with 2015’s Simple Songs, which offered some of his most direct, song-oriented music to date. He’s mostly off making jazz, these days, and I’m fine with that.
You know who loves to release records? The T. Rex loving, distortion worshipping, psychedelic pantomiming Ty Segall. Dude’s full of them: lo-fi ones, folk-influenced ones, cover album ones -- simply name it and it will probably manifest a week later in a cloud of weed smoke. With a slew of them appearing on Drag City, Segall is one of those rare artists who manages to remain prolific and actually good.
He’s garage rock’s leading man, insofar as he makes genuinely good garage rock. His records favour brevity, using their pulverising distortion in short, indelible bursts. Twins and Goodbye Bread, released in 2011 and 2012 respectively, clocked in at 35 minutes or under, both echoing the grunge ghosts of old while gleefully referencing a carefree history of hard rock. On 2014’s Manipulator, he continued to deliver rock ‘n’ roll pastiche, embracing glam rock on a record that was, conversely, a long ol’ slog: at 56 minutes, it’s the exception that proves the rule.
Segall’s speedy output affords him plenty of opportunity for experimentation and reinvention. Emotional Mugger took on the ideas of pop music, while Ty Rex offered an homage to his favourite goldie oldie, T. Rex. He will effectively do whatever he wants, so that you can listen to whatever you want. You could have a house built entirely out of Ty Segall record sleeves, if you wanted.
Scottish folkie Alasdair Roberts has been releasing with Drag City since ‘97, in his stint under the moniker Appendix Out. Despite numerous collaborations and a plethora of contributions to projects musical and literary, his identity stands firm: he’s a guitarist and storyteller known for constantly unravelling the notions of authenticity and tradition embedded into the words ‘folk music’.
Take 2017’s Pangs for instance. Talking about the record, Roberts spoke of a need to ‘renew’ folk music, rather than condemn it to nostalgia. In wrestling with the aesthetics of the standard, Roberts ensures that he is saying something new; on Pangs, he offered unconventional structures and dark twists on music that might otherwise resemble Fairport Convention. Roberts’ music has its own lore, and full-lengths such as Spoils have offered a middle-ground between the freakier, more psychedelic inclinations of his early band days with the sparsity for which he is renowned.
2015’s self-titled record remains a high-point, for this listener, a pure, refreshing listen that foregrounds all of Roberts’ best qualities as a songwriter. Verses twist into choruses with little to no fanfare, if only because Roberts is so steady in his craft that he need not show off to us, nor point to the crux of the matter. Much has been made of Roberts’ serving as a counterpart to another folkie, who should, maybe, be on this list: William Oldham. It is the lack of fuss, the trust in one’s own material, that makes them next-of-kin.
Up there in the introduction I quoted the Drag City slogan for you. But we can do one better. How about “Drag City: we sure do love the psychedelic music!”. I think that’d be a worthy affidavit. Drag City’s infatuation with the legendary genre of go-nowhere noise is best summed up in their commitment to The Red Krayola, Mayo Thompson’s band of rabble-rousing freaks. I’m not throwing shade: their first LP, Parable of the Arable Land, came described as a freak-out, happily coasting on the wave of ‘60s psychedelia.
Folks, that record came out in 1967. Drag City wasn’t even born then. By ‘96, though, the label was releasing as much of it as they could, opening on a particularly left-of-field 7” called Chemistry. Drag City became the great enablers, bringing back lost records like Coconut Hotel, which was initially going to be the band’s sophomore LP. It was too experimental for their label at the time, but Drag City gambled on it before blinking, celebrating the meandering primitivist guitars, spooky psych melodrama and joyous non-song.
The Red Krayola’s cobbled-together sound amalgamated folk rock, lo-fi garage, post-punk and just about any other genre that can be smashed like glass. Call it ahead of its time: it took a couple of decades for them to find the kind of understanding offered by Drag City. On occasion, Mayo Thompson’s crew could make Beefheart’s music sound like highly-structured composition; at times in their career, they’ve been a maddening proposition. And what, may I ask, is not to love?
David Berman formed Silver Jews, the quiet and quixotic sister band to Stephen Malkmus’ Pavement, back in the late ‘80s. He had his Pavement brethren involved and offering a helping hand, occasionally even crafting the songs with him; Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich founded the band with Berman, becoming two of an endless roster of artists who appeared over a fourteen year, six record stretch. We talk about them modestly, in relation to the slacker behemoth that Pavement became, but Silver Jews were just as important to the legacy of indie rock. Their mix of anxious, jittery guitars and muted lyrical realisations informed the darlings you hear today, his sound sprinkled in modern bands like Parquet Courts.
Lyrically, Berman was no Malkmus, and that suited him just fine: he’d write lyrics that teetered on collapse, a little too smart but just right with the affectations. A well-documented favourite amongst fans is the line that opens up American Water, their third and best album: “In nineteen eighty four I was hospitalised for approaching perfection”. Simple, isn’t it, except that it isn’t at all. These early records were a mix of sombre and surreal, Berman creating lovelorn meditations and then fading in songs with verbose riffage and goofy melody. Occasionally Malkmus would turn up -- he joins Berman on “Tide to the Oceans” from their debut Starlite Walker, and joins the chorus for “Smith & Jones Forever”. Which, by the way, is the kind of song that perfectly sums up the band: its silliness is delivered deadpan.
Silver Jews were a Drag City band ‘til the bitter end -- Berman even announced the band’s break-up on the label’s message board. Unlike your average favourite band, they never dipped in quality; their six LPs were individual treats in meandering and homespun indie rock, like they used to make. Listening back now, the guitars sound kinda iconic, the slacker rhythms unrivalled. Silver Jews are the aura of early indie.
Back in the noughties, San Fran’s Al Cisneros and Chris Haikus broke away from bong conglomerate Sleep to form a brand new doom band called Om. Slightly more serious and po-faced in their development of heavy epic poems, the band released a slew of mini-opuses, including 2012’s brilliant Advaitic Songs. More psychedelic and weed-adjacent than ever, the record saw Cisneros and the band’s other remaining member, Emil Amos, trade instruments throughout long, dusty doom sermons, occasionally calling on modular maestro and jack-of-all-trades Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe. Honourable mention: John the Baptist.
Dream River is a lifetime of occasion wrapped in zen. With a newfound lounge jazz aesthetic behind him, Bill Callahan’s folk songs take on a steady, sleepy pace, entirely deserving of the effortlessly brilliant observations he places in them. Perhaps his best lyric of all time comes on “The Sing”, the record’s sublime opener: “The only words I’ve said today are beer… and thank you”. He makes these lyrics, and the gorgeous, lilting music behind him, sound as simple and improvised as an absent-minded whistle. Dream River fulfils a career that’s been both vulnerable and witty, with songs such as “Small Plane” blurring the line between literal and metaphorical in ways only Callahan can.
S’cuse me while I just talk about Bill Callahan again. It’s cheating, but Wild Love is one of those weird gems you find hiding somewhere in the attic of a record label. It’s one of Drag City’s funnest releases, to be honest: with silly fanfare, raucous guitars, two minute ghost drones, half-finished songs and that real lo-fi scuzz, this stands as the most experimental Smog album out there, suggesting different things that Bill Callahan could’ve become. Like that Fleetwood Mac slowcore tune, “It’s Rough”, or the shrill discordances of “Sweet Smog Children”, which sounds more like a Guided by Voices outtake than anything. It’s from 1995, a truly ancient time, and it’s the starkest contrast you’ll ever find to the Smog you know and love.
Westing tends to be the discovery young Pavement fans make only when they’ve worn out their favourite songs on Crooked Rain, Slanted & Enchanted and the rest. Personally, it made me balk -- I’d been terming Malkmus and his crew ‘lo-fi’ and ‘slacker’ all this time, but here was the real thing, twenty-three tunes of grainy disregard. This Drag City compilation collects their first ever EP, Slay Tracks, alongside the stuff the label put out off the back of it. It’s a rarities collection as chaos, offering fanzine cuts and a mix of “Summer Babe”, effectively celebrating every agitated impulse Pavement had before they became Pavement for real. With sinewy guitars and a broken approach to the pop song, Westing stands as a little piece of music history.
Drag City got wind of Japanese psych magicians Ghost back in the early ‘90s and proceeded to release the heck out of their records. They’ve got the whole catalog of this band covered, delivering a full-bodied insight into Masaki Batoh’s love of all things heavy. Inspired by Japanese garage bands like Flower Travellin’ Band and Taj Mahal Travellers, Ghost imbibed the mind-melting dynamics and wah worship of old, nurturing their own identity with it. With the same rhythmic pulverizations and distortion-drenched sound, Lama Rabi Rabi started to make minor tweaks to the band’s sound, bringing folk instrumentation to contend with the usual hard rock bombast. At moments it became a beautiful, solitary work, Batoh and Ghost proving themselves to be a constant surprise.
The band responsible for making every music journalist in the world harp on about “rural psychedelia” had to make some assurances about Further. Their second LP, it was also their first for a proper label, rather than just one they’d set up to indulge themselves in. Promising a record of the same quality, they in fact improved upon the oblique shoegazing of their debut, offering a record that gazed up at the stars from down in the grass. Oh, right -- rural psychedelia. I get it. Further crossed between folk music and space rock, from sparsity to density, with a shrug of the shoulders, suggesting the world above could be down to earth. It’s haunted and it's homely -- you get lost in its distorted nooks and crannies, which sound like black metal compared with the standard set by Loveless.
With Bad Timing, Jim O’Rourke pretty much invented country ambient. Good for him, say I: it’s a winning combination. This gorgeous record was O’Rourke’s most tranquil to date, a melodically ambling collection of guitar flickers that echoed the famous primitivism of John Fahey, albeit with more restraint. Contained within this instrumental masterpiece is a kind of Americana informed by his unique musical upbringing, connecting the longform approach of previous releases with the post-rock structuring found in his and David Grubb’s old band Gastr del Sol. It is his finest moment as an arranger and, more importantly, his most beautiful work. If anyone wants to contend that, I’ll point them to the moment in “Bad Timing” where his bass guitar notes mingle with a gentle yet torrential downpour of chiming melody. Anxiety treated with bliss.
On Ys, harpist and songwriter Joanna Newsom did more than most musicians do in a lifetime. It was both a reinvention and a bloodletting, a record that confessed deep, personal grievances at the same time as it sought out new, progressive ideas. Working with producer Van Dyke Parks and a supporting cast of alternative legends -- including Drag City class members Bill Callahan and Jim O’Rourke -- Newsom allowed herself the time and space to meditate on loss and love. With a warm, chamber music aesthetic, her songs ranged from under ten minutes to nearly twenty, picking up orchestral suites and symphonic arrangements on their way. Its scale is unmatched, but so too is its storytelling. Many would tell you a record like this ‘meanders’ -- but it is essential only in its entirety.
This may be an objective listicle but, like all Normanites, I am a fallible human being, so here’s a record that I’m just putting on here because it’s my personal favourite Drag City release. The homespun folk antiquing of Jessica Pratt impressed on her debut LP, for sure, but developed extra warmth and colour on On Your Own Love Again. The title is perfect, as clear as day but mysterious as the night. Jessica Pratt’s songs are tinged with psychedelia but steeped in reality, offering calm meditations on love and loving. With her striking voice, spindling guitar work and disarming lyrical ripostes, Pratt’s music becomes a wise old thing, sounding like the work of a great, knowing artist who can impart advice and aphorism from up above.
Our most recent addition to the list of Drag City goodies is Eiko Ishibashi’s The Dreams My Bones Dream. A quick primer on Ishibashi: she’s one of free jazz music’s modern legends, an improviser pianist who creates maddenning networks of sound, whether on her own or with a band. She’s also a plain old songwriter who makes stunning records that imitate and innovate pop music. On The Dreams My Bones Dream, she finely balances her many skills to near unbelievable effect, grieving for family through intuitively made-up pop songs that have as many hooks as they do dissonances. Ishibashi has never honed her craft; she has diversified it, and this record serves as yet another keen exploration of sound.
Well, we’re usually wrong, aren’t we? So here’s some more Drag City records we’ve listened to and loved over the years. They’re all good, really.
- Silver Jews - American Water
- Loren Connors / Alan Licht - Hoffman Estates
- Laetitia Sadier – The Trip
- Will Oldham - Ode Music
- Royal Trux - Accelerator
- The Fucking Champs - VI
- Drinks - Hippo Lite
- Alasdair Roberts - Alasdair Roberts
- Ty Segall - Manipulator
- Bill MacKay / Ryler Walker - SpiderBeetleBee
- Natural Information Society & Bitchin Bajas - Automaginary