Touch & go

September 3, 2006


  • Throughout the history of American record labels, the most beloved companies have always succeeded because of the tireless efforts and bold visions of one extraordinary music lover. Corey Rusk's name isn't nearly as well known as that of Atlantic Records' Ahmet Ertegun or Motown's Berry Gordy. Rusk has been content to operate behind the scenes, focusing on the bands instead of his Chicago-based company. This non-egotistical, self-deprecating attitude is there right in the name: Touch and Go Records.

    But as he gears up to celebrate a quarter-century heading one of the most influential independent labels in the United States, the 42-year-old businessman has decided to celebrate with three extraordinary days of music at next weekend's annual Hideout Block Party -- and to step out of the shadows long enough to consider his accomplishments.

    "I'm not a limelight sort of personality, but I guess I did feel like 25 years is a long time, and it won't feel too self-congratulatory, patting yourself on the back," Rusk said as he sat behind the desk in his unostentatious office at Touch and Go's North Side warehouse.

    "We're not a particularly self-promoting label, but the one interesting thing that made me think something like this would be good is that we have had so many incredible bands over the years. We have been really lucky that not only have we survived for 25 years, we haven't just survived because we've had a few great titles in our catalog: We have managed to put out culturally significant records, and at least every four or five years, we have been a part of something that was new and that hadn't happened before."

    Indeed, the 31 Touch and Go bands performing Friday through Sunday in the street outside the Hideout at Elston and Wabansia -- a gritty, urban, industrial setting that seems especially fitting given the label's no-nonsense, hardworking attitude -- are all the testament needed to make the case for both the label's diversity and its impact on the underground music scene, with acts ranging from industrial punks Big Black (briefly reuniting for the occasion) to art-rockers the Shipping News; the California dance band !!! to Sicilian experimentalists Uzeda, and the subtle guitar band Seam to the in-your-face hardcore group Negative Approach.

    Touch and Go's roots stretch back to 1980, when Rusk was a teenager in a suburb of Toledo, Ohio, playing in a hardcore punk band called the Necros. The group linked with Michigan punk-scene stalwarts Tesco Vee and Dave Stimson, who ran a fanzine called Touch and Go, to release their first 7-inch vinyl single under that umbrella. More hardcore punk 45s followed, and when Vee moved to Washington, D.C., to concentrate on his band the Meatmen, Rusk wound up running the label with his first wife, Lisa Pfahler, releasing albums by abrasive, experimental bands such as Die Kreuzen, Big Black, the Butthole Surfers and Killdozer, and establishing what some fans still consider "the classic Touch and Go sound."

    The Rusks moved the label to Chicago in the late '80s, and it quickly became an integral part of this city's musical infrastructure. But in 1990, Corey and Lisa split up personally and professionally, resulting in the first of the three biggest crises the label has weathered. In response, Corey started a sister label called Quarterstick with two goals in mind: Continuing to issue records, and underscoring that he wanted to work with many kinds of bands, not just industrial-punk groups.

    "I was feeling frustrated for a decade of having only attracted rock bands, but having broader tastes in music and wanting to work with other things," Rusk said. "That combined with having discussions with the woman I was getting divorced from, so that I wanted to have this thing that would just be mine, where I could do what I want with it, and it would be a clean slate."

    With the divorce settled, Rusk would continue leading both Touch and Go and Quarterstick -- for many, the two names are now synonymous -- and he would see the company grow to a point where it now employs 25 people, issuing about 20 albums a year and managing a back catalog with more than 400 titles. (At a time when many of the major record companies are witnessing steadily shrinking profits, Touch and Go had its most profitable year ever in 2005.)

    "To me, all of that is great as well as terrifying," Rusk said of the company's current size and stature.

    The good part is being proud of what he's built. The scary part is that so many employees and artists rely on him, a responsibility he doesn't take lightly.

    "I guess maybe one of the reasons that we have made it this long is that I'm a very responsible personality, and things weigh heavily on me. If something is not getting done or I feel like a situation is not being handled right, it bothers me. I take the responsibility of accounting to and paying our bands on time and properly as my highest priority, and it's one of the things I've prided myself on through our whole existence. The world of indie labels that we live in is constantly full of horror stories of 'I never got paid for that record.' "

    After the quality of its releases, Touch and Go's reputation stems largely from its ethical business dealings: It pays its bands fairly and promptly. And, amazingly and legendarily, Rusk says that "99 percent of the records we have put out have been without contracts" -- even after the second and third of the big crises in Touch and Go's history, when two of its most celebrated bands, Urge Overkill and the Butthole Surfers, left the label amid a flurry of legal acrimony, reneging on their handshake deals with Rusk.

    "I survived all of those things, but I was hurt by all of them," Rusk said. "Maybe my personality is to have hurt feelings rather than to get raging angry. All of those things hurt my feelings because the label is personal to me. The bands I work with are personal relationships, and I've only put out records by bands where I have really liked their music."

    To this day, Rusk says every band Touch and Go releases has to have three qualities: He has to like the recordings; he has to like and respect the musicians as people, and the band has to be as good or better live than it is on record. "There is still no rhyme or reason to how we end up finding a band that we work with. It's still so much just somebody in a band we work with mentioning, 'This band opened for us and they were great,' or 'My friend is in a band and they're great.' But one reason we opted for having this big live event is honestly because the best bands on Touch and Go, their live shows have always been better than even their most brilliant records."

    Like any indie label that's had a measure of success, Rusk has had numerous opportunities to sell out to the major record companies over the years. But he notes that fellow indies that took similar offers "got piles of money and also had piles of trouble." He maintains that "at the end of the day, I guess I am a control freak, and I like being in charge of my own thing." But he also says that he's always had too much fun running Touch and Go to call it quits -- "Even though when you do this for 25 years, there are definitely months and years where you have more fun than others."

    "I feel like a lot of great indie labels are started by someone who is really passionate about music and has a good ear and has friendships with some good bands and can relate to them," Rusk said in summing up his experience with Touch and Go. "There's the stereotype of the guy that starts the indie label where the side of your brain devoted to music isn't as strong as the business side. I've been fortunate that somehow, I'm pretty good at both."


    Hideout block party

    The Touch and Go 25th Anniversary Celebration and the Hideout's 10th Annual Block Party takes place from 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and from noon to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, outside the club at 1354 W. Wabansia. Tickets are $35 for a weekend pass, $15 per day in advance, or $45/$20 at the door, providing the event hasn't sold out in advance.

    Jim DeRogatis will preview the festival with an hour-by-hour look at the bands in Friday's Weekend section, but more information is available now and tickets can be purchased at The site also includes free audio clips of all of the bands in the Touch and Go catalog.


    Here is a look at a few of the many definitive releases in Touch and Go's history, along with founder Corey Rusk's comments.

    Necros, "Necros" EP (1981)
    The Meatmen, "We're the Meatmen and You Suck" (1983)

    Two sterling examples of faster/louder hard-core punk from Touch and Go's earliest era. "My friends were in all these hard-core bands that I really loved, and they were the only people that were going to let me put out their records," Rusk said. "It really didn't start out to be a serious company."

    Big Black, "Atomizer" (1985/1992)

    Originally released by Homestead Records in '85, the best album by Steve Albini's legendary art-punk group was reissued by Touch and Go in '92, along with the rest of the Big Black catalog. The label has also released all of the recordings by Albini's current band Shellac, and the group in between, Rapeman. For many in the music world, the controversial musician and recording engineer would become the public face of Touch and Go, which suited Rusk just fine. "In general, strong public personalities are always going to be polarizing," he said. "A lot of people love Steve, and lots of people don't." But every serious alternative rock fan knows his name.

    Urge Overkill, "Supersonic Storybook" (1991)
    The Jesus Lizard, "Goat" (1991)

    Two Chicago underground legends, Urge Overkill merged punk-rock energy with an international playboy shtick and skillful thievery of riffs ranging from funk to metal to cheesy '70s pop, while the Jesus Lizard represented the pinnacle of intense noise rock, with harsh guitars, driving rhythms and the unforgettable showmanship of singer David Yow. Both groups would go on to major labels, though many fans say they did their best work for Touch and Go.

    Rachel's, "Music for Egon Schiele" (1996)
    Calexico, "The Black Light" (1998)
    Sally Timms, "In the World of Him" (2004)
    CocoRosie, "Noah's Ark" (2005)

    Here's a sampling of the many diverse and eclectic offerings from Touch and Go and Quarterstick in recent years, including the modern chamber group Rachel's, desert folk/roots-rockers Calexico, moonlighting Mekon Timms with a concept album presented entirely from the male point of view and the sister act of Sierra and Bianca Casady merging elements of hip-hop, electronica and freak-folk in CocoRosie. "Rock is my main love, but I also love a lot of other stuff," Rusk said. "It has always been a more eclectic label than some people have given it credit for being."