In 1957, Polish immigrant brothers Leonard and Phil Chess converted a former automobile parts factory into the Chess Records Studio and Office at 2120 South Michigan Ave. in Chicago. After years at a makeshift rented studio, the purchase of the building enabled the brothers to record their own artists whenever they wanted. The main studio room at Chess, with its unique acoustical dynamics and absence of right angles, helped to define their sound, which would later become famous all over the world. Today, just down the street at 2255 S. Michigan, Truckstop records and studio is literally a stone's throw away from the former Chess site and is avidly keeping the flame of independent recording alive. Contrary to popular belief however, their studio was not built on the site of an old Stuckey's.
Truckstop is not your average drive-through recording studio. It's more of a collective, with musicians who come from all different disciplines and backgrounds playing on each others records and tours, or just getting together for a good old jam session and running tape to see what comes out. Such was the case when "The Boxhead Ensemble" came together for the first time. In 1995 Joe Ferguson, Michael Krassner and Braden King, an Atavistic Records employee and film maker, rented the South Michigan loft as a live/work space for their not-yet-formed band when Atavistic's head, Kurt Kellison got wind of it and "pulled a Chess." He suggested that Truckstop (as the loft space had now come to be known) house some of his recording equipment so that his label's groups could have a cheap alternative to the more costly recording studios around town. In return, King, Ferguson and Krassner would be able to use the equipment whenever they wanted to.
The first major project came about as Braden King was finishing up work on his 1997 documentary Dutch Harbor and needed a score. Michael Krassner threw together an impressive cast of characters including Ken Vandermark, Jim O'Rourke, David Grubbs, Rick Rizzo and Doug McCombs, and they all sat down for a five-hour jam session. Dutch Harbor premiered in Chicago to rave reviews and toured the country with different variations of The Boxhead Ensemble playing a live, mostly improvised score.
Truckstop, the label, also had its start in these early days. Started by Braden King and Joe Ferguson, Truckstop began by releasing three records in a row, Glyn Styler, Bobby Conn and The Goblins. A month into editing Dutch Harbor, Braden realized he wanted to concentrate on film making, so Kurt at Atavistic (Truckstop's parent label) took over releasing and promoting the three records. In the meantime, Joe had signed Pinetop Seven and eventually started running the label on his own. The first three bands did one more record each, Pinetop Seven has done four and the prolific Simon Joyner has released three (of his 10 total). Joe also signed Michael Krassner, who put out a solo record and two Lofty Pillars records. Other releases include Boston's T.W. Walsh, Scott Tuma, Matt Marque, TOE and Fred Longberg-Holm's Terminal 4. Many of Truckstop's records were recorded right outside Joe's office in the Truckstop studio by Mike or Joe, and feature crossover musicians from the Truckstop pool.
As I made my way up the four long flights of industrial-strength concrete stairs to Truckstop's perch, I could hear the sound of a distant, haunting guitar, organ and some percussion. Walking into the control room, I saw Mick Turner and Jim White of the Dirty Three mixing a piece of music for a Sydney play. Turns out those guys are just a couple of the many talented artists who regularly pull in their rig for a cup of hot coffee and slice of apple pie at Truckstop. Further investigation revealed projects in the works by, or involving Jeff Tweedy, Califone, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Simon Joyner, Pinetop Seven and many, many more musical innovators. I sat down with Joe Ferguson, Michael Krassner, and Dave Pavkovic, a fellow trucker and founding member of TOE.
Michael Krassner: This neighborhood used to be 'record row'. Chess records and BJ and Palace records. The Stones had that song '2120' about Chess records. They recorded there. So we're kind of like one of the last stands. There are a few studios in the neighborhood though, kind of hidden away.
Let's talk about some of the bands that have recorded here.
Joe Ferguson: A lot of what goes on here, but not specifically all that goes on here, is affiliated with the [Truckstop] label. Like the two TOE records, two Lofty Pillars records, which is Mike's band and a Mike Krassner record, the last three Simon Joyner records we recorded here. So a lot of it sort of integrates itself and the two work together. With that there seems to have built up a kind of community of musicians that appear on other people's recordings
Like a pool, a collective?
MK: Mick and Jim [of Dirty Three fame] have done a lot of stuff here and'
Dave Pavkovic: Glen Kotche'
JF: It's like 18 people.
MK: Songs: Ohia, Manishevitz, Boxhead Ensemble. Joe and I also recorded a Dirty Three tour of the West Coast that we're going to mix here. Also some live things that we did like the Table of the Elements festival at the Empty Bottle with John Fahey, Gastr Del Sol and others.
MK: You saw the stage. We don't do a ton of shows, but once in a while there's a show here for free.
Like the Drag city New Year's Eve party?
MK: Yeah, it was 1999, 'cause someone did that Prince song, "1999".
Have you had any trouble by the police?
MK: No, that's why we don't charge any money. We've had the cops here. When the Nerves played, the cops were here like three times in one night. They were cool, there was probably some beer here that people had brought and some under age people so we just had to assure them that we weren't contributing to underage drinking. If there were minors here and we were charging, we could get in big trouble.
Can you think of any recording highlights?
DP: The Dutch Harbor stuff, those have been really, really great sessions.
MK: With The Boxhead Ensemble, one of the first things we did here was the soundtrack to the film Dutch Harbor which had a lot of pretty interesting musicians. We did it in one day and it was all improvised using a lot of different combinations. What was great about that is it seemed to have forged a lot of relationships. It was the first time a lot of people played together. That's where Dave met Doug McCombs and it was the beginnings of TOE, where they all decided they had a really good time and they made a record together. That was the first time Ken Vandermark played with Jim O'Rourke. Rick Rizzo recently was talking to me about that day and how ever since then so many things have come up because of that one session, and it led to so much stuff. At that point I think that Eleventh Dream Day wasn't playing that much and he was teaching and not playing a lot of music. That session got him connected with Jim O'Rourke and then Jim started using him in a lot of different stuff. That's definitely a highlight of Truckstop.
Was everyone just kind of playing together at once?
MK: I had an idea, a total experiment and I was prepared for it to totally fail, but it seemed to work out really cool. It was, 'Lets just get a bunch of people, interesting musicians'" We had some film footage and we're trying to do some music to this film, and I was like, "Maybe we can just all watch some stuff and talk about it." It wasn't everybody all playing together at once. The idea was to get some different combinations of people playing and trying to create some different ideas. A lot of it was really gray and a lot of it didn't sound so great and didn't work, but a lot of it did work. That's kind of the beginning of the Boxhead Ensemble, where it kind of became the idea of getting different people. They aren't necessarily improvisers - some are indie rock and rollers doing this type of thing - and they seemed to have a fresh approach to it. It seemed pretty unpretentious and they had their own language that they knew, and I thought the music turned out pretty interesting. So, that all started out here and we've continued to do those sessions up until about a month ago. Jeff Tweedy was here playing with Fred Longberg-Holm and Jessica Billey just doing instrumental music, [for a new Boxhead Ensemble record] which he hasn't done a lot of. But he's a fantastic guitar player and he was really excited to do it.
JF: We recorded a bunch of different sessions over the last 9 or 10 months of different line-ups. We probably have about 30 hours of stuff.
MK: That's one of the great attributes of ADATs is that I'd never be able to afford to record this stuff analog. Unless we did it all live to 2-track.
So you obviously have no aversion to digital tape
MK: A perfect example is when we did this stuff with Mick and Jim. They're kind of improvising for this soundtrack that they're doing [for the play in Sydney] and the idea was "we'll just run tape and we'll just play" and they ended up recording about 3 hours worth of stuff. They had a very low budget. So for stuff like that and all of the live recordings we've done, it's a lot more manageable then bringing an analog machine into a club. Especially when you're pulling a lot of shows in a row, it certainly has its advantages.