By Mabel Suen
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The waist-high stage and hardwood floors of Illegal Tone Recordings have seen their fair share of stomping feet. The thick walls have absorbed countless screams of enthusiastic showgoers. ITR has been a consistent and singular pillar of grass-roots music in Belleville, Illinois, since 2007. The management has provided an inclusive environment for local artists by keeping every show all-ages and alcohol-free. But on January 31, the doors will shut permanently, leaving behind a deep footprint in the history of local music.
In 2006, Erik Wolfe operated a small recording studio out of his second-story loft. A reference in name to Wolfe's former band Evil Illegal, ITR was first conjured as a modest recording space that catered to local artists. Wolfe quickly brought his ambitions to a larger building at 6 South Church Street right off of Belleville's main drag, a central location between the city of St. Louis and the greater rural areas of Illinois.
"Originally the space was made up of two big rooms separated by a wall with a ten-foot-by-ten-foot pass-through," says Wolfe. "One side would be the studio, and the other side, where the venue is now, was going to be a kitchen, family room and full bathroom so I could live there."
8 S. Church St.
Belleville, IL 62220
Category: Music Venues
Region: Belleville/ Fairview Heights
But the space was destined for different things. "In July 2007 my band was planning a tour and thought it would be a good idea to play in Belleville," he says. "I had a big empty room with a small bathroom in the corner and lots of PA equipment, so it made sense to have the show there."
ITR opened at a vital time when other spots in Belleville stopped having concerts. The first show happened out of necessity, but the newly opened space was a perfect fit for a missing niche in the city's music scene.
"All these great people had extraordinary amounts of energy and just needed a place to let it explode. ITR was perfect for that. You have four walls, a small stage and a wide open room. I thought, 'What harm could come from it?'"
On September 7, 2007, a volunteer staff of Wolfe's friends and local artists ushered in an excited crowd to the new space. "The concept for the venue from the day it opened was to never have young people, whether they be in a band or not, feel like they were being judged. I wanted to give all bands a chance," says Wolfe. "There are a lot of kids and not a lot of places they can go and just be themselves without being judged."
Wolfe and his volunteer staff had a productive inaugural season, while new renovations occurred in the building every few weeks. Less than two months after launch, ITR hosted a Halloween celebration with more than 100 kids in attendance — a full house for the cozy show space. ITR was a communal effort from day one, as Wolfe's close friends worked security and kept an eye out for everyone's safety.
"I loved hosting the shows because all my friends would come out, and all of their friends would come out. I would manage the shows, but the lineup was up to whoever booked the show," Wolfe says. "For the most part everyone was on the same page and didn't want to fight or ruin anyone's evening, so there were few times one of us had to step in and actually be security."
A conventional venue with a bar tends to pay the bills with the sale of liquor and cover charges, but an art space such as ITR must rely on donations. When a venue's goals include attracting local acts as well as touring bands, money can become an issue.
"I made it known upfront that I can only afford to pay [the bands] a portion of what we get at the door. If the door does poorly, they don't get paid as much. ITR was a DIY space but had to be treated as a regular business at the same time," Wolfe says.
ITR had many contributors and volunteers, but none so dedicated as Josh Jenkins. Known for his exuberance as the frontman for Egg Chef and most recently Trauma Harness, Jenkins has spent the last five years booking and promoting concerts in and around the Belleville area.
"I pretty much was around ITR from the get-go. After school I'd drop by and just hang out as they were putting drywall up or repairing something, or just hear a goofy rap that Erik had recorded and laugh about it...hear him recollect stuff," Jenkins says.
ITR enjoyed half a year of gaining momentum until its success caught the attention of Belleville City Hall. In late March 2008 Wolfe was ordered to halt operations. The city of Belleville claimed that ITR was not in compliance with the teen center safety ordinance. The closure only sparked local interest and enthusiasm.
Pat Cadaver led a protest with several supporters through Belleville's Main Street, capturing the attention of local media. ITR volunteers and attendees showed a heavy presence at the city council meeting that followed. Cadaver represented the music community with a prepared speech, and Wolfe worked with the city, agreeing to a compromise. The once-shut doors of ITR were pried open again.
"It was nearly closed for a year, and the fact that the city finally compromised and allowed it to start operating again felt like this big war was won. The reopening was great," Jenkins says. ITR started up again on February 20, 2009.
After nearly two more years of fostering the development of the local scene, Wolfe shifted his focus to his career in Web development. He continued running ITR until early 2011, when Jenkins and fellow volunteer Andy Peterson took charge of booking duties.
"In my mind it had been a fixture of the Belleville music scene for years. At the time Josh and I took over, it was either we run the place or nobody does, which would've been a devastating blow to the scene," Peterson says.
Peterson had always been involved with ITR, but his growing role bred changes in the venue's last year of operation. Peterson took an active role in booking and made additions, including a distro table to sell records and tapes.
"It started as just one room to play shows in, but we kind of envisioned it being much more multipurpose. One of the first things we did was clean out the basement, which soon became known as Tarpland," Peterson says. "Then we got the idea to have outdoor shows in the back courtyard, so we cleaned that out as well."
Jenkins and Peterson pulled from their own shallow pockets to keep ITR alive, birthing a concession stand to help pay the ever-growing costs of operation. Despite challenges with shrinking attendance and enthusiasm, Jenkins and Peterson have stayed persistent in keeping the space alive. ITR faced the many trials all small venues do.
"Sometimes local bands drop off the day of the show, leaving a gaping hole in the lineup. Sometimes touring bands don't show up, and they don't answer your phone calls. Sometimes equipment breaks or the power goes out," Peterson says. "Sometimes nobody comes to the show, which I think is probably the worst thing that could happen."
After four years of working through all of it, the tough decision to close the doors has been made. The venue is going out on January 31 with the same party atmosphere it started with. Seven bands are confirmed, including the reunion of Oh No You Didn't!, as well as the Vanilla Beans, Dem Scientist, Superfun Yeah Yeah Rocketship, Suburban Epidemic, French Fry Guys and Spastic Plastic. The show will offer up its loudest slice of aural heaven to the denizens of Belleville.
Jenkins and Peterson wanted to have the last hurrah on the venue's last day of operation, meaning a weekend shindig — when it's easier to draw a crowd — is out. This is an event for the enthusiasts. The lineup is stacked and diverse, pulling the artists together who have spent their sweat and effort at ITR for a spirited sendoff.
"The major focus of Illegal Tone Recordings was the idea of creating a positive environment where anyone could come to and enjoy, no elitism or pretensions," Jenkins says.