Manifest Destiny #1: Permanent Records

Posted by on April 25, 2014

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We’re living in the golden age of vinyl reissues and new releases, the new Golden Age.”
-Lance Barresi, Permanent Records LA

Permanent Records began as a single brick and mortar shop in Chicago, and as co-owners Liz Tooley and Lance Barresi moved to Los Angeles, their westward expansion added private press oddities to the store’s in-house imprint and weekly new releases. A standard press line about Permanent cites their expansion as evidence of the vinyl market’s strength, pointing out the enduring boost given to small stores by the vinyl resurgence. Beyond commerce, Permanent Chicago and LA present an aesthetic that offers great insight into the soul of recorded music. If recorded music necessarily pairs commerce and art, Barresi and Tooley show that that relationship need not be opposed, and can also shed light on diverse artistic visions.

For the first installment of my Manifest Destiny, I assembled interview materials with Permanent Records’ Lance Barresi over the phone (and via email), and Bill Roe and Dave McCune at the Chicago shop during Fall 2013 (other research materials included the store’s mailing lists and Discogs). My goal for this column is to explore the terrain between art and commerce, in order to construct narratives about how we enjoy music. “Why (or How) do we consume music?” need not be a separate question than, “Why do we appreciate music?” Both questions together can expand our experience of recorded music beyond its basic history.

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Many write about the “vinyl renaissance,” and there are as many angles as points of consumption. Some focus on the sheer volume of production, noting the statistics of vinyl records manufactured, or citing vinyl sales. Others underscore or argue about the continued difficulty of running an independent label, even during the “renaissance.” Within this environment, Permanent Records Chicago and Los Angeles maintain their distinctiveness through a combination of private press and deadstock oddities, rare new releases, used selections, and a curated label.

This aesthetic pairs an appreciation for the unexpected with a careful eye for detail. Using this eye to filter, both the LA and Chicago stores can spin degraded noise punk and expansive psych through a common thread. At the Chicago shop, Dave McCune noted, “You come across the best stuff when you’re not looking for it.” He continues, “You can’t wake up in the morning and go, ‘All right! I’m going to find the next great private press record! It has to be part of your way of life. You have to always be out there, always looking for stuff, and the good stuff will naturally come to you.”

Bill Roe, also of the Chicago shop, observes a similar connection between private press culture and unexpected finds. “[With] the Streets Living Theater record, Lance got in contact with the Marlon Cherry guy. Those records came into the shop in a trade.” Roe explained his thinking when he first encountered the record: “I don’t know what this is, it’s private press from the 80s, it looks cool. I bought it for a couple bucks, because I didn’t know what it was, and it turned out to be awesome. Lance got in touch with the dude, and he had two solo records.” From one type of private press score, a trail of other releases or projects can follow.

Over the last year, Permanent’s newsletters and bins have included more and more deadstock, private press, and rare records; like Streets Living Theater’s self-titled release and the Marlon Cherry records. The mailorder archives suggest that Permanent curated well over 30 distinct deadstock or private press titles from April 2012 through February 2014. These titles follow no strict era or genre lines, running from 1960s commercial folk-pop to tour records by Coachwhips / The Intelligence, or research-driven, field-recordings documenting blues songs from the early 1900s. My personal initiation occurred about a year ago, when I dove into the unpredictable outsider punk of End Result’s Ward LP. The album was a revelation, exposing a previously unknown vein in Chicago’s musical anatomy, circa the 1980s, and it drove me beyond the classic, comfortable reference points of Touch and Go Records, Big Black, or Naked Raygun.

One of the store’s first big leaps into private and dead stock releases saw several reissues from Ohio’s Clone Records in spring 2012. Since then, Permanent has consistently offered extremely rare titles that give artists a new chance to present their story and vision. In Permanent’s own story, private press and deadstock titles in their bins highlight one of the benefits of moving west and digging for records in California. Co-owner Lance Barresi explained, “I am out digging for used records a whole lot more than I ever had the opportunity to while I was working at the store in Chicago.

“I’m not necessarily digging more for private press records because I think it’s exceptionally lucrative, or because it’s trendy,” Barresi continued. “It’s more a matter of convenience. I am coming across more rare stuff in general. When I find it, listen to it, and it’s something I haven’t heard before and it’s interesting, a lot of times I’ll try to track down the people behind the music, if I can.”

In some cases, the musicians behind private press gems can be difficult to find. Following the common thread of unexpected gems, however, Permanent are able to provide artists with new — or perhaps, renewed — audiences. “In the rare occasion that I get in touch with them, when I can find them, I’ll always ask if they have any copies of their particular record for sale,” Barresi said. “It works out occasionally, and that’s why they’re showing up at Permanent more. “ The Little Dutch record is one example where Permanent’s efforts allowed an artist — John Nathan — to retell his story.

In other cases, even with some new, limited releases, the customer base at Permanent can produce exclusive distribution opportunities for the store. Here diverse audiences meet the store’s ability to acquire otherwise rare titles. Two recent examples include the Bonehead Crunchers series and the American distribution debut of Fuzz Club Records. “We came in so big on the initial order that the label is going to sell out immediately,” Barresi explained. “A lot of times, when it comes to something we have an exclusive on, it’s usually more based on there being a limited quantity and a label not having enough to distribute more copies than we’re bringing into the USA.”

These unexpected finds, private releases, and new audiences parallel other local movements that have unearthed artists from previous decades. One of the best examples in Chicago is powerful noise/gospel ensemble ONO, a peerless group who have played in Chicago’s independent scene since the 1980s and resurfaced in 2012 with reissues on Moniker Records and Priority Male Records. Not unlike End Result, ONO eschew the common markers of orthodox Chicago punk and indie rock. Bill Roe connected ONO to the spirit of inspiring or calling forward in private press and reissue culture:

“You see more and more of that stuff come out, and bands like Ono completely resurrecting themselves, and being better than their original incarnation, that’s a nice call to arms. Maybe that will inspire a band that they played with back in the day to say, ‘Oh man, I got all these records sitting around that I made. Maybe I could try selling them!’”

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Recently, Permanent’s in-house label reissued Bil Vermette’s Katha Visions, which earlier served as one of their unexpected finds at the Chicago shop (as a 1984 album on Rainforest Productions). Roe and Dave McCune describe the acquisition of Vermette’s solo work, discovered while assessing his personal collection…

“Our buddy Steve Krakow said, ‘My friend is selling off a bunch of his records,’ a lot of early krautrock, all original stuff,” McCune said. “So we went over and checked it out. He had all this gear set up, this analog synth and electronic equipment. He was like, ‘I actually have a box of my records,’ and so we checked it out. You’re always curious about what these dudes did back in their day. Especially when you have the context of the music that they’re listening to, that certainly can indicate that you’re onto something cool.”

Krakow, perhaps more commonly known as Plastic Crimewave, had previously featured Vermette’s work in his Chicago Reader column, Secret History of Chicago Music. McCune explained that Permanent became connected with Vermette’s record because, “[Krakow] wasn’t actively doing anything with the project, so we got the thumbs up. Bil didn’t even have the master reels any more, he had this mixed down tape. He passed the tape along, shared some anecdotes of his time…”

Roe recalls the hunt for source tape and their feelings on discovering Vermette’s solo work. “I was completely blown away, not only by the collection, but also by the box.,” Roe said. “Bil’s box was sealed. It had not been opened since 1985. It still had the original tape. It was pristine. We were the first people to touch those records.

“It was thrilling,” Roe continued. “I’ve bought sealed records before, and it’s always a great feeling. ‘This record is 40 years old, and I’m the first person to play this record.’ I’m the first person that’s going to be able to listen to this.”

McCune summarized the encounter with Vermette’s record collection and Katha Vision: “We literally got to watch an artist, and go back and envision and learning his creative process, and you also got to see the end result of the process.”

“It’s cool to see the threads of his taste, and how he made his journey,” Roe added. “How he started with krautrock, and moved into the electronic stuff. You wouldn’t necessarily think of it, but you see how it unfolds into late-1970s post-punk and early-80s synth, minimal stuff, and new wave.” Both Roe and McCune made it clear that appreciating a record takes on another dimension in the context of an artist’s own collection.

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Chicago’s independent scenes consistently morph. The layers of the city, perhaps bolstered by the sheer size of its neighborhoods and infrastructure, hold their secrets well. Orthodoxy evolves over time, as specific labels achieve success, but the strength of “unknown” music that seeps out over time renders a Canon impossible. Within the last decade, projects such as You Weren’t There, Permanent’s Busted at Oz compilation reissue, and the reconfiguration of noise savants ONO provided strong counterarguments to any notion that the city’s 1980s punk history was complete. Permanent has served as a physical space, label, and conduit for this revival of Chicago’s unorthodox. The importance of a “brick and mortar” shop transcends “niche markets,” driving record consumption into a realm that overturns canonical music histories.

As records from End Result to Bil Vermette surface, a greater correspondence emerges between playful, careless punk and transcendent electronic kraut experimentation, providing a rich glance at Chicago’s musical legacy. The rediscovery, appropriation, and distribution of these records affirms an attitude that Chicago’s independent history is consistently writing itself, and never fully formed.

“We’re always looking for the stuff that’s head and shoulders above the rest,” Barresi added. “Like the Rich Ristagno reissue on Drag City that they did [in 2013], there’s only a handful of records that sound like that. The beauty of private press records is, the best private press records don’t sound like anything else, whether it’s Bobb Trimble, or Raven, or whoever else.”

These finds come in all quantities, from the notable Clone Records backstock score, to privately pressed records — like the Little Dutch 7” bundle featured in the summer of 2013 (and restocked in February 2014). These titles follow a diverse range of styles, decades, and labels, but they meet in Tooley and Barresi honest, open attitude about music. Where history and aesthetic split between camps, known and unknown, underrated or overplayed, an attitude or vision for creativity can bring together seemingly disparate tastes.

Alongside their brick-and-mortar stores and online shop, Barresi and Tooley settle their label between the shifting polarities of psych, punk, and peculiarly local oddities. Permanent’s label began by spanning ultra-local releases emanating from their previous home of Columbia, Missouri, as well as French oddball projects. These early albums included CAVE-oriented releases (such as Warhammer 48k’s album and the first CAVE EPs) and albums from The Anals and Cheveu. Perhaps their most sought after early releases are two tape reissues of Drunks With Guns. Over time, the ultra-local projects proliferated to Chicago and Los Angeles (most recently including Merx and Basic Cable), and the label’s profile expanded to luminaries like Obnox, Ty Segall, and Lumerians. Barresi presented an apt summary of the label’s approach: “There’s nothing predictable about it.”

“Roll with the punches, stick with our guns, put out what we’re stoked about,” Barresi continued. “There are certain bands we’d love to deal with, but we can’t afford to. While we could probably figure it out, I don’t want to sit down and deal with a bunch of contracts and figure out how to get a band an advance, and pay for a publicist, and this that and the other thing. Good records sell themselves, and that’s how we run the label. We press as many as we think will sell, and we repress when the demand is there.”

Barresi’s first love at Permanent is stocking the store, which ultimately places the scope of the label’s releases in perspective. Still, within the last few years, some of Permanent’s original signings have moved to notable independent labels. CAVE and Bitchin’ Bajas ultimately landed at Drag City, while John Dwyer’s Castle Face imprint snatched Running (after Captcha and Rotted Tooth), and Purling Hiss jumped to Richie Records, Mexican Summer, and Drag City.

“There are two ways of looking at it,” Barresi speculated. “You can look at it as Permanent being the little guy who has their finger on the pulse, or Permanent being the label who knows what’s going to hit next but can’t quite figure out how to keep those bands on the label. It’s a fair assessment to look at it that way. It’s not that we can’t figure it out, but there are established indie labels that have all their ducks in a row, and they have everything step up in a way that’s appealing to a band that’s looking to take the next step.

“It’s not necessarily a bad thing for us, it’s totally fine, because that’s where we’re comfortable,” Barresi explained. “No royalties, no lawyers, none of the negative or lame parts of running a record label are involved. “

The connection between the label’s releases and the recent approach to deadstock, private press finds might best be found in Permanent’s reissues of Psyclones and Afflicted Man: forgotten, unclassifiable acts lost between trends and popular developments. Dave McCune tied the label’s aesthetic to, “a method of creating the art. Across the releases, there’s a lot of people playing a lot of different music on the surface, but there are a lot of like-minded people.”

Bill Roe’s attention to detail is made clear when he describes the process of assembling packaging for these reissues. With the Afflicted Man jacket they used for the reissue, “it was the best one they had available, and it was good but thrashed. There were very obvious scratches, and wear marks across the front, corner bends, and you could see all sorts of gunk on it. I went into photoshop and either cloned some of the background parts, or recreated it, or redrew part,” Roe explained. “It’s really anal, meticulous work, but I kind of get off on that sort of thing. Using computer illustration or design is the closest you get to going back to actual drafting.” Echoing their reverent approach to the source materials for their Vermette reissue, the archivist’s attention to detail further enhances the artifact, providing an opportunity to re-engage with an artist’s unique expression.

As these like-minded people surface through private press or deadstock finds, reissues, and new records by new acts, the distance between history and creative forms shrinks. Permanent Records’ efforts in each of these areas proves that a musical vision need not be chronological, or that musical history does not need to be orthodox or linear. Here, consumption and art reshape lost and new musical forms into equal, even indistinguishable, statements. When these musical artifacts are placed together, each story emerges on its own terms.