You’re with Stupid: kranky, Chicago, and the Reinvention of Indie Music
- By Bruce Adams
- University of Texas Press
- 288 pp.
- Reviewed by Daniel de Visé
- December 28, 2022
Meet an influential record label you’ve probably never heard of.
You’re forgiven if you don’t know much about kranky, the Chicago record label whose co-founder, Bruce Adams, recounts his journey through the indie rock era in a new memoir, You’re with Stupid. I didn’t know much about kranky, either, and I grew up in Chicago and have been collecting records for 40 years. I polled several music-geek friends: Half of them had never heard of the imprint. A few responded with knowing reverence.
The best-known band to record for kranky was probably Low, a melodic Minnesota trio whose own co-founder, Mimi Parker, died in November, prompting some overdue recognition. I know Low. One of their kranky releases, Things We Lost in the Fire, counts among my favorite LPs in a niche genre of indie rock typified by lovely melodies, layered harmonies, and unhurried tempos.
When I started reading You’re with Stupid, Mimi’s band provided my only real reference point. But most music fans have never heard of Low, let alone Labradford, the influential “post-rock” combo from Richmond, Virginia, or Godspeed You! Black Emperor, a Montreal collective and copyeditor’s nightmare.
Those artists are the ones mentioned on the book’s back cover, and they’re probably the most enduring acts in the kranky canon. If you’ve never heard of them or their label and you’re still reading, then dial up a live recording of Low’s “Sunflower” on YouTube. If that stunner fails to grab you, pull up the celebrated Godspeed album Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven and let it play while you read. Your ears will thank you.
Fortunately, Adams builds his account within the context of the broader Chicago music scene of the 1990s, and there you will find many familiar names. The scene benefited from the city’s setting as a hub of rail and record-industry commerce, he writes, and also from cheap rents and “an attitude of mutual support and aid,” qualities that set it apart from New York.
The scene drew notice with the emergence of Smashing Pumpkins, who broke through in 1991 with an album called Gish and challenged Nirvana for indie-rock supremacy, at least in indie-rock circles. Their sophomore release, Siamese Dream, sold 6 million copies.
Liz Phair captivated the indie community with her 1993 debut, Exile in Guyville, supposedly a song-by-song deconstruction of Exile on Main St. Urge Overkill scored a song on the “Pulp Fiction” soundtrack. There were many others, briefly popular then, mostly forgotten now, including Material Issue, Veruca Salt, and Local H.
Perhaps the most important Chicago band, in hindsight, is Wilco. Formed in 1994 from scraps of the glorious but short-lived Uncle Tupelo, Wilco was not even supposed to be the best Uncle Tupelo spinoff: that promise traveled with Jay Farrar, Tupelo’s lead guitarist, to his Son Volt project. But Wilco went on to release several of the finest rock ‘n’ roll albums of the late 1990s and early 2000s (the critical favorite is Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but the best is probably summerteeth). Wilco has remained relevant well into the new millennium.
The Washington Post’s pop-music critic recently argued that the Red Hot Chili Peppers are “the defining American rock band of our era.” Maybe so, but the Chilis’ best album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, didn’t even make Robert Christgau’s year-end critic’s list in 1991, a pretty low bar for an act with indie cred. Instead, I might choose Wilco, an ensemble that has released several masterful records while also filling amphitheaters, seeding stirring gatherings of the indie and dad-rock tribes.
Adams seems to have little use for most of the bigger artists in the Chicago scene. But he acknowledges a debt to Wilco and Tweedy, who leavened his records with interesting textures and little sonic experiments, making Wilco “the Chicago band for many people who didn’t necessarily follow the comings and goings of the city’s underground scene but were looking for some adventurousness in their rock music.”
I warmed slowly to Adams’ account. In the book’s very first paragraph, he describes driving to a diner on Irving Park Road, “by Lincoln Park High School.” That’s a suburbanite’s error. Lincoln Park High School is, of course, in Lincoln Park, a neighborhood a couple of miles south of Irving Park. The author is thinking of Lakeview High, in Lakeview. One native Chicagoan who might have proofread this volume is Danny Koretzky, co-founder of Drag City Records, another storied indie imprint. Danny and I attended Lincoln Park together.
The secret to success for indie label co-founders seems to lie in possessing an uncanny ear for great new music whose appeal does not immediately reveal itself to lesser ears. Koretzky has that ear. He and his Drag City labelmates more or less discovered Pavement, one of the finest indie bands of the 1990s, along with Will Oldham, an avant-folk genius who once penned a song about copulating with a mountain, and Joanna Newsom, a captivating singer-harpist.
Adams seems to share the gift. Low is an easy listen; Labradford is not, and almost nothing about Godspeed You! Black Emperor is easy. Yet, Adams and his labelmates plucked those artists from obscurity, and from unfathomable stacks of CD and tape submissions, and gave them the attention and recording contracts they deserved.
The kranky label and its artists existed outside the comfortable 1990s indie-rock core of Nirvana-Pavement-Wilco. Most college-radio bands of that era defined themselves as low-fi, analog alternatives to the shrill pop universe. Guitar, guitar, bass, drums was the typical format, sometimes with the stray keyboard.
‘“Indie rock’ could be used in 1992 to describe a band or dismiss it, or to do both at the same time,” Adams writes. “As a pejorative, it worked really well: ‘indie rock’ meant watered-down and weak if you liked loud rock music, and it meant boring and predictable if you were inclined toward more open-ended musical structures or approaches.”
Labradford and Godspeed favored the latter: long, instrumental jams employing all manner of instruments and tape loops and loose, billowing song forms. Their approach fell closer to the ambient sound-tapestries of Brian Eno or the longer, dronier instrumentals of Stereolab, the brilliant, Franco-British retro-synth band. Noisy New Age music, if you will.
“Labradford slowing things down was, as we saw it, as revolutionary as Minor Threat speeding things up had been a decade earlier,” Adams writes. Minor Threat was a seminal DC hardcore band of the 1980s that raised the tempo of punk.
Three decades later, kranky’s nihilist bumper stickers and pretentions of avant-garde otherness seem almost quaint. “We were heterosexual white males, from the suburbs, living on the north side of Chicago,” Adams writes of himself and his kranky partner, Joel Leoschke.
But, hey, at least they tried. And the best kranky releases sound refreshingly different, not just from other indie rock of the ‘90s but from nearly everything on the radio, or off it, in 2022. They’re well worth a listen. And You’re with Stupid is worth a read, especially if you belong to the generation that stayed up late to catch “120 Minutes” on MTV and attended Yo La Tengo shows in multiple millennia.
Daniel de Visé is the author, most recently, of King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of B.B. King.