Call it a rags-to-record story: Fueled by frustration with other labels, the members of bluesy local quintet Magic City joked about the idea of creating their own. They could just do it themselves, right? (Right?) With bravado on the brain, it wasn't long before organist Adam Hesed took the thought seriously. Last June he had one idea, no plan, no support system and, even worse, no funding. In their place, he had sweat equity, good friends, a few beers and a borrowed back yard.
He made do.
The result is Tower Groove Records, a label-cum-co-op established to organize the St. Louis scene while promoting it with the kind of aggressive good nature cemented through decades in its venues and basements. Almost than a year from its founders' first inkling and nine months from their first announcement, the label will release its wildly insightful, overtly ambitious debut this Friday, May 18. The first ever Tower Groove Records compilation features two LPs, 21 songs and 22 bands, many of which weren't certain they'd ever hear a final product.
"It was very much just an extremely vague, undefined idea," Hesed admits, though it should be noted he and many others spent more than twenty hours a week developing that vague idea. "It was just friends who go to shows and play in bands, and then people started showing up in our back yard and talking about tax ID numbers. I can't even remember when it became real."
That reality likely struck around October, when Tower Groove opted to ignore expectations altogether. They were more like hopes, Hesed says. And despite being artfully named Tower Groove Records, the working musicians' collective is not really a label, he insists. He doesn't like the word. He prefers to use another: community. His peers borrow still more: movement, action, fellowship and, with no embarrassment, family.
Within the collective, it is a universally acknowledged truth that a city with as much talent and dynamism as St. Louis must be in want of a voice, someone to push this music outside city limits. To take that idea from the short term to the long, Hesed, co-founder Duane Perry, Jason Hutto and the rest of Tower Groove's core are counting on the group's politics (or lack thereof), its freewheeling, turn-taking conversations and utilitarian organization. Other than striking the initial chord, Magic City has not been the group's focus since its inception, though the band's debut LP, Les Animaux Épouvantables, was also the label's.
In its early planning stages, organizers pulled in as many local musicians as they could gather at random, enthusiastically outlined Tower Groove's general idea and then gathered them all in the Cherokee back yard of Warm Jets USA's Hutto over Schlafly and sass. As attendance jumped from 10 to 40, the label moved from general to specific.
Much of the early history is lost: Nobody really remembers who came up with the name Tower Groove, for example, but the title itself propelled a mission statement. Instead of releasing one band's albums, Tower Groove would release many bands' music — and then many more bands'. Groups don't sign to Tower Groove, they join it. Only four people have official titles at the collective, and that's only for tax reasons. No one makes any money. No one uses the world "label" around Hesed.
And while it's still too early tell what being a Tower Groove outfit really means, early signs suggest it comes, at the very least, with an outreach structure. Aside from the ties of community, Tower Groove has found its bands gigs, audience members and equipment to borrow.
"A lot of people had bad tastes in their mouths from working with the music industry and other record labels, so we wanted to see if we could create something by, of and for musicians and artists, rather than some project where the musician is an afterthought," says Matthew Frederick, brass player in Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra. "Everyone had a stake in it and was contributing something important — vital, substantive ideas and plans. It really felt — and still feels — like a true, bottom-up movement."
Most group decisions followed the consensus model, and those that didn't deftly avoided drama. To pay for start-up costs, each of the first 22 bands donated $50. Organizers funneled that $1,100 into a September carnival at Off Broadway that netted the $5,500 required to produce a double LP big enough to include one song from each band. This also proved their own willingness to contribute. The decision to focus on vinyl became one of the group's earliest and easiest because, well, CDs are horrible.
"They're like straws, just a bunch of wasted plastic," Hesed says, recalling the group's unanimous decision to avoid the medium. It doesn't hurt that his cassette player died two years ago, and he has yet to replace it. "I feel like a record is the only proper way to listen to recorded music. That's it."
Although the first album relies heavily on south-city sounds — and, in particular, Cherokee district grit — it transitions freely between sugary pop, soft singer-songwriters, Western acoustica, noise, hardcore and several dimensions of gray area. Recording at Hutto's Smokin' Baby studios, each group took to the booth for three hours max to add one song apiece to the album. (The Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra, which composes film scores, contributes backup layers to four of the tracks.) Each set of musicians played through the same drum kit and amps, and Hutto's musty, 18-by-24-foot space contributes to the cohesive basement aesthetic carried across genres.
The goal is to encapsulate the city's sound one compilation at a time, to archive it through a tangible, curated exhibit. Surprise quickly outweighed skepticism, and those musicians who weren't acquainted made quick introductions over backyard beer or at the collective's Off Broadway listening party.
"I've gotten excited about things before that didn't end up working out, so I went in very skeptical," Bunnygrunt's Matt Harnish says. "But these guys have seen good ideas go to waste, and they didn't want that to happen here, too."
That concern propels the collective's future plans, which replicate the simplicity of its first year. Arranged throughout St. Louis staples like Vintage Vinyl, Euclid Records and Apop, only 500 copies of the compilation will hit the market. A little more than 50 of these are already gone, swept up during the comp's Record Store Day pre-release. The follow-up will likely be limited to the same number and funding schedule, and Tower Groove's founders are open to making the carnival an annual event.
But that's where similarities end: The sophomore compilation will focus on an entirely new lineup with no repeated bands, and its curators hope to move far outside of south city with the next selection. To bridge the gap between the two large-scale projects, Hesed is planning the fall launch of a Tower Groove singles club, through which followers can pay $20 for four months of St. Louis seven-inches. One side will highlight an artist from the new comp, the other the old. But right now, it's a little too soon to call anything Tower Groove touches "old."
Especially since its creators have so much riding on this weekend. Are they ever worried it won't work out? "Sure," Hesed says.
Often? "Yeah, we are right now, in fact. If people don't come out to the release, if we haven't sold the records, then it hasn't worked out. Artistically, it already has, but this is for St. Louis, so we hope St. Louis cares."
And if St. Louis cares, maybe Columbia will, too — and then maybe Kansas City and Lawrence, Kansas. Ideally, Hesed and Perry aim to take Tower Groove on the road, or at least the local highway, through an I-70 review to endorse partnerships between the scenes.
"We've all seen these ideas throughout our careers, but that's all it amounted to: ideas," says Eric Roy, lead singer of the Hot Liquors. Now that Tower Groove has proved it's serious, he's focused on the future. Shows on a riverboat would be cool, he says, but first there's the matter of cementing stability and a reputation as a friend of St. Louis sound. "This time, it's finally being taken seriously and professionally enough to change the map of St. Louis rock & roll."