Cold Blooded Old Times: Drag City at 30

Will Schube pays tribute to the epochal indie-rock label, which celebrates 30 years of business in 2019.
By    July 31, 2019

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Dress sexy at Will Schube‘s funeral.

If you were to randomly arrange every Drag City release onto a dart board and take aim, chances are your dart will land on some sort of masterpiece. This is how the Chicago-born label has functioned since its inception in 1989. It’s a home for quiet works of genius, the sort of records that unfurl before you slowly, delicately revealing tricks and turns that end up becoming moments of pure magic. It’s not the immediate bombastic arrival of pop hits. For 30 years now, Drag City has been an unimpeachable bastion of rock and folk music stretched to their logical limits. It’s in this space of unpredictability that so many of their artists have thrived, with many existing in this realm exclusively. From Joanna Newsom to Bill Callahan, Royal Trux to Ty Segall, Jim O’Rourke and Silver Jews, Drag City has spent three decades willing a scene to its vision. The sound of modern Chicago wouldn’t exist without the label’s unrelenting portrait of a weirder, more eccentric world.

Is it possible for a record label to have a soul? In the case of most majors, the answer is obviously no, but when a team tries to balance the pursuit of profit with a distinct vision and philosophy, each subsequent artist and each album those artists make tends to reveal something about a grander vision.

The first half-decade of Drag City’s existence are highlighted by releases that glow in the light of retrospect. ‘89-’94 found the label putting out early music from Pavement, Royal Trux, Silver Jews, Palace Music, and Bill Callahan’s Smog project. In 1994 they released the seminal debut from Jim O’Rourke and David Grubbs’ Gastr del Sol. A collection of these songs are highlighted on the still magnificent Hey Drag City compilation, which begins with Will Oldham’s voice leading Palace Brothers on “For The Mekons et al.” Pavement appear with “Nail Clinic,” bathed in acid and seemingly recorded with the band submerged under water. For those that miss the caked-in-dirt, shit-kicking days of Pavement, this is an essential moment.

The striking thing about this compilation, and many of the artists who are still affiliated with Drag City, is how relevant they still are. When I spoke with Bill Callahan for The Fader at the end of May to discuss his first LP in six years, we discussed how it was funny, a little bit nostalgic, and very heart-warming that both he and Dave Berman were releasing albums in the same year, after so much time away from the game.

“It’s like all the zombies have awoken,” he explained by  laughing but not really finding the notion funny. In a sense, it’s true. Drag City has always had the oldest roster in the league. They’ve infused the gang with young talent—Ty Segall has probably written three new albums since you started reading this piece—but the label has always been about empowering the artists they grew with to stay original, to avoid becoming legacy acts. That’s why Callahan is allowed to take six years off and make a starkly stripped-down record, unlike anything he’s done before. Dave Berman has emerged from that cave in Tennessee where we last left him 11 years ago. Although he’s no longer a silver Jew. Now, he’s a purple mountain. Equally majestic, still slightly mysterious and askew. Will Oldham now acts and has GQ photoshoots. The music is less frequent, but he’s still as powerful of an aura as Drag City offers.

What would you pick if tasked with defining this first era of Drag City by one release? Jim O’Rourke’s Bad Timing is a singular statement. It’s a nearly perfect album of strangely arranged guitar music, using electronics and pedal steel and strings to orbit around the open-strummed beauty of his six string. It’s 40 minutes and not a single moment is wasted, and it’s one of the few Drag City releases not on Spotify, which makes it feel all the more special in this era of hyper-accessibility. Or maybe you fancy yourself a Palace Music devotee. There’s certainly no logical argument against Viva Last Blues as a perfect folk record, an emblem of a time and place conjured through the motifs of music from the hills. Oldham’s voice is so enchantingly broken, one foot on the balance beam but never slipping to the mat. Perhaps, though, you’re a Smog or Silver Jews superfan, using their early LPs as an infrastructure from which both projects would build stunning discographies.

Each of these albums have intense followings, but the Venn Diagram between them is occupied almost exclusively in that middle overlap. People who like Will Oldham also like Bill Callahan and Silver Jews. This is because Drag City existed—and still exists—as a link, as an old-school curatorial guide. “If you like this, may we suggest this next?” This is a ‘zine cloaked as a record label.

How else are we to draw a link between O’Rourke’s turn of the century epic Insignificance to the emergence of Oldham’s new name, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, or to the world stopping debut by Joanna Newsom, Milk-Eyed Mender The question is a simple one: Are these relationships natural, or artificially attached because these artists of different ilks all happen to be aligned under a singular entity? Is there a common thread that links the artist and as such champions Drag City as purveyors of taste?

The key lies in the way the label has expanded. Fiction, poetry, films, and soundtracks all litter the DC discography. There’s a fascinating score for Harmony Korine’s 2008 feature Mister Lonely by Jason Pierce from Spiritualized and Sun City Girls. Then, there’s a Sir Richard Bishop solo album from ‘07 and all of a sudden you’re reminded that the label released Scott Walker’s Tilt in 1995. This universe is both insular and ever-expanding. Drag City has spent 30 years creating a home for radically uncompromising artists and continually populating it with new additions and refined takes on the original core. How different is Dave Berman now than he was in 2007? Drag City allows the man to find out over the course of a decade of wandering. The label is only a label in the loosest sense of the word. Instead, it feels more like a collective, in which artists old and young filter in and out to stand atop the mountain and offer their latest work.

Perhaps the answer to any questions about Drag City’s longevity can be illuminated by a just-released David Berman interview on Aquarium Drunkard. In discussing artists like Springsteen and Willie Nelson, Berman doesn’t mince words: “”They don’t just kind of lose it—they completely lose the ability. It’s been something I’ve wondered and feel like the answer is that they get older, their lives get more comfortable, they rarely hear any bad news, they lose touch with the way people are living, your brain becomes less plastic, you’re less able to let your mind wander, you’re less able to have a persona,” he says, before adding, “There’s a million little things. All I know is that the answer is: You have to write harder. You have to be harder on yourself.

For 30 years, Drag City has made the right move almost every time. They’ve tried to populate their roster with artists who care more about the work itself than any of the noise that surrounds it. It’s a hub for musicians and poets and filmmakers in the truest sense of the phrase. As every single thing has found a way to become a commodity in 2019, a label resisting this urge for three decades is an oasis in the desert. In the purgatory of the modern music industry, Drag City is an Eden. Or maybe just a really fun Hell.

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