It's hard to talk about music with Mark Ray and Chris Grabau without the word "love" coming up a few dozen times. These two St. Louisans share a love for honest music; a love for musicians who employ an independent, do-it-yourself ethic; and a love for St. Louis' musical community. Recently Ray and Grabau combined these loves by becoming the proprietors of Chicago-based Undertow Records -- and bringing the label back to the city in which it began.
Undertow Records began in 1997 as a collective of St. Louis artists and musicians, including Ray and the members of Nadine. The initial idea was to have a self-contained entity through which bands could record and release their music. To increase the collective's self-sufficiency, Bob Andrews began managing and booking Undertow artists, keeping nearly every aspect of a band's existence under one umbrella.
When Andrews moved the operation to Chicago a few years ago, Undertow's practice and recording space remained in St. Louis while nearly everything else went to the Windy City. Over the past few years, Undertow's management roster became such a large responsibility that Andrews and Ray decided to reconfigure the Undertow empire.
"Bob Andrews was trying to do all the label work and also artist management work, and when he got Jesse Harris and American Music Club as artist-management clients, it got to be overwhelming," recalls Ray. "I talked with him for a couple months on how to keep it going, and we decided that the best way to keep it going would be for me to literally create a new, separate company. Both would have the name Undertow, but we'd have two different operating companies. We literally just split it up and kept the name. It purely was a move to make Undertow bigger and to be able to handle more."
Since that move took place late last year, not too much has changed outwardly for the label. Andrews had signed a solid collection of bands to Undertow, including the Mersey-influenced Redwalls, Tennessee's roots-rockin' Glossary, the Centro-matic offshoot South San Gabriel and the sunstroked Dreadful Yawns. Mark Ray now serves as de-facto label head while coordinating all the artwork for the label's releases, and Chris Grabau works with distribution and day-to-day operations. In March Undertow hired St. Louis music-scene veteran (and former RFT music editor) René Saller to do promotions and publicity work.
As for Undertow's mantra, Ray puts it succinctly: "Bob only manages bands that he loves, and we only put out records that we love."
Undertow prides itself on being an artist-friendly label, which makes sense considering the label's heads are musicians as well. Ray fronts the atmospheric Americana combo Waterloo (one of Undertow's flagship bands), and Grabau is the singer-songwriter behind Magnolia Summer, another band that melds Midwestern soul and sonic inventiveness. Both men moonlight in the other's band, and this sort of sharing of ideas and resources is central to Undertow's mission. For each release, Ray designs the artwork and packaging at no cost to the artist, and the company helps to produce the record at its in-house studio. Every band also has full copyright control and retains control of the master recordings. As for record sales, the band receives 50 percent of all earnings after cost.
And while Undertow is happy to help bands on its roster, the label expects the artists it signs to have a fair degree of self-sufficiency. Most Undertow artists will shoulder the expense of recording their albums and then use Undertow as a way of distribution.
"Jay Bennett's a great example -- Jay completely makes his own records, he doesn't need any production assistance," says Ray. "People like Jay or Waterloo or Magnolia Summer -- the artist takes care of getting the record finished themselves and they almost prefer it that way. They don't want any involvement from anybody else."
Bennett, whose new record Bigger than Blue was released last month, will be a good object lesson for the label's ethos. The former Wilco multi-instrumentalist plans on releasing three records over the next year, each one distinct yet connected to the others.
"He definitely sees it as a three-record cycle. It's kind of Jay's version of [the Magnetic Fields' three-disc opus] 69 Love Songs," explains Ray. "He's in a real state of flux as an artist. He's had to contend with the Wilco fallout; he's gone through a lot of personal issues; he's gone through a divorce. This is a good test of us to see if we're really artist-friendly, because he really believes he's got three records to put out; he's not even open for discussion."
Undertow's move back to St. Louis has raised a few eyebrows around town, and questions abound: Will this make Undertow a "St. Louis label" that releases records by the city's best and brightest? Will this be the crucial ingredient in making our city a viable musical metropolis? Can a St. Louis rock explosion be far behind?
Both Ray and Grabau are clear in their goals to make the label a national entity, not just a Midwestern vanity label for a few local bands. "There is a certain kind of creative passion that comes out of people here, because they know they have to do it for themselves, and I think we have a certain DIY aesthetic that is very St. Louis. Part of me wants to say, 'Yeah, we're not going to be looking at St. Louis bands that closely, it's more of a national thing,'" says Ray. "On the other hand, I am influenced by the creativity that comes out of St. Louis when people have the scrappiness to do it for themselves, and they pull themselves up by their bootstraps here. Because no one is looking, you have to shout louder."
Despite these mixed feelings, Ray anticipates considering some local bands as potential acts. "I think probably just by proximity Chris and I may end up hiring a few more St. Louis bands than when Bob was doing it, but we're going to strive for it not to be a St. Louis label."
Ray and Grabau are also concerned about being at the center of any supposed scene. "People divert their attention and think of it as a scene, but the people who are really doing a lot of things consider it a community atmosphere. They share musicians, they share equipment, they share resources," says Grabau.
"There are a lot more things that need to happen in St. Louis than just a record label. There's no one catchall. There already is a scene in St. Louis -- there isn't a competitive scene, it's communal. Undertow's role would be to be a part of the community -- the Chuck Berry project is an example of that," says Grabau.
The Chuck Berry project, a CD that Undertow will release later this year, will feature several St. Louis artists reinterpreting their favorite Chuck Berry songs. Artists signed on for the project include Jay Farrar, the Bottle Rockets, Fontella Bass and Murphy Lee.
So while Undertow Records may not be the linchpin to St. Louis' emergence as an indie-rock hotbed, you can expect the label to be an active member in the community and to release interesting, challenging music. For a label that values community over critical acclaim, St. Louis will be a good fit.