Tower Groove Records is worth its weight in vinyl
Tower Groove Records is releasing a double-LP compilation over three shows this weekend.

Call it a rags-to-record story: Fueled by frustration with other labels, the members of bluesy local quintet Magic City joked about the idea of creating their own. They could just do it themselves, right? (Right?) With bravado on the brain, it wasn't long before organist Adam Hesed took the thought seriously. Last June he had one idea, no plan, no support system and, even worse, no funding. In their place, he had sweat equity, good friends, a few beers and a borrowed back yard.

He made do.

The result is Tower Groove Records, a label-cum-co-op established to organize the St. Louis scene while promoting it with the kind of aggressive good nature cemented through decades in its venues and basements. Almost than a year from its founders' first inkling and nine months from their first announcement, the label will release its wildly insightful, overtly ambitious debut this Friday, May 18. The first ever Tower Groove Records compilation features two LPs, 21 songs and 22 bands, many of which weren't certain they'd ever hear a final product.

"It was very much just an extremely vague, undefined idea," Hesed admits, though it should be noted he and many others spent more than twenty hours a week developing that vague idea. "It was just friends who go to shows and play in bands, and then people started showing up in our back yard and talking about tax ID numbers. I can't even remember when it became real."

That reality likely struck around October, when Tower Groove opted to ignore expectations altogether. They were more like hopes, Hesed says. And despite being artfully named Tower Groove Records, the working musicians' collective is not really a label, he insists. He doesn't like the word. He prefers to use another: community. His peers borrow still more: movement, action, fellowship and, with no embarrassment, family.

Within the collective, it is a universally acknowledged truth that a city with as much talent and dynamism as St. Louis must be in want of a voice, someone to push this music outside city limits. To take that idea from the short term to the long, Hesed, co-founder Duane Perry, Jason Hutto and the rest of Tower Groove's core are counting on the group's politics (or lack thereof), its freewheeling, turn-taking conversations and utilitarian organization. Other than striking the initial chord, Magic City has not been the group's focus since its inception, though the band's debut LP, Les Animaux Épouvantables, was also the label's.

In its early planning stages, organizers pulled in as many local musicians as they could gather at random, enthusiastically outlined Tower Groove's general idea and then gathered them all in the Cherokee back yard of Warm Jets USA's Hutto over Schlafly and sass. As attendance jumped from 10 to 40, the label moved from general to specific.

Much of the early history is lost: Nobody really remembers who came up with the name Tower Groove, for example, but the title itself propelled a mission statement. Instead of releasing one band's albums, Tower Groove would release many bands' music — and then many more bands'. Groups don't sign to Tower Groove, they join it. Only four people have official titles at the collective, and that's only for tax reasons. No one makes any money. No one uses the world "label" around Hesed.

And while it's still too early tell what being a Tower Groove outfit really means, early signs suggest it comes, at the very least, with an outreach structure. Aside from the ties of community, Tower Groove has found its bands gigs, audience members and  equipment to borrow.

"A lot of people had bad tastes in their mouths from working with the music industry and other record labels, so we wanted to see if we could create something by, of and for musicians and artists, rather than some project where the musician is an afterthought," says Matthew Frederick, brass player in Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra. "Everyone had a stake in it and was contributing something important — vital, substantive ideas and plans. It really felt — and still feels — like a true, bottom-up movement."

Most group decisions followed the consensus model, and those that didn't deftly avoided drama. To pay for start-up costs, each of the first 22 bands donated $50. Organizers funneled that $1,100 into a September carnival at Off Broadway that netted the $5,500 required to produce a double LP big enough to include one song from each band. This also proved their own willingness to contribute. The decision to focus on vinyl became one of the group's earliest and easiest because, well, CDs are horrible.

"They're like straws, just a bunch of wasted plastic," Hesed says, recalling the group's unanimous decision to avoid the medium. It doesn't hurt that his cassette player died two years ago, and he has yet to replace it. "I feel like a record is the only proper way to listen to recorded music. That's it."

Although the first album relies heavily on south-city sounds — and, in particular, Cherokee district grit — it transitions freely between sugary pop, soft singer-songwriters, Western acoustica, noise, hardcore and several dimensions of gray area. Recording at Hutto's Smokin' Baby studios, each group took to the booth for three hours max to add one song apiece to the album. (The Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra, which composes film scores, contributes backup layers to four of the tracks.) Each set of musicians played through the same drum kit and amps, and Hutto's musty, 18-by-24-foot space contributes to the cohesive basement aesthetic carried across genres.

The goal is to encapsulate the city's sound one compilation at a time, to archive it through a tangible, curated exhibit. Surprise quickly outweighed skepticism, and those musicians who weren't acquainted made quick introductions over backyard beer or at the collective's Off Broadway listening party.

"I've gotten excited about things before that didn't end up working out, so I went in very skeptical," Bunnygrunt's Matt Harnish says. "But these guys have seen good ideas go to waste, and they didn't want that to happen here, too."

That concern propels the collective's future plans, which replicate the simplicity of its first year. Arranged throughout St. Louis staples like Vintage Vinyl, Euclid Records and Apop, only 500 copies of the compilation will hit the market. A little more than 50 of these are already gone, swept up during the comp's Record Store Day pre-release. The follow-up will likely be limited to the same number and funding schedule, and Tower Groove's founders are open to making the carnival an annual event.

But that's where similarities end: The sophomore compilation will focus on an entirely new lineup with no repeated bands, and its curators hope to move far outside of south city with the next selection. To bridge the gap between the two large-scale projects, Hesed is planning the fall launch of a Tower Groove singles club, through which followers can pay $20 for four months of St. Louis seven-inches. One side will highlight an artist from the new comp, the other the old. But right now, it's a little too soon to call anything Tower Groove touches "old."

Especially since its creators have so much riding on this weekend. Are they ever worried it won't work out? "Sure," Hesed says.

Often? "Yeah, we are right now, in fact. If people don't come out to the release, if we haven't sold the records, then it hasn't worked out. Artistically, it already has, but this is for St. Louis, so we hope St. Louis cares."

And if St. Louis cares, maybe Columbia will, too — and then maybe Kansas City and Lawrence, Kansas. Ideally,  Hesed and Perry aim to take Tower Groove on the road, or at least the local highway, through an I-70 review to endorse partnerships between the scenes.

"We've all seen these ideas throughout our careers, but that's all it amounted to: ideas," says Eric Roy, lead singer of the Hot Liquors. Now that Tower Groove has proved it's serious, he's focused on the future. Shows on a riverboat would be cool, he says, but first there's the matter of cementing stability and a reputation as a friend of St. Louis sound. "This time, it's finally being taken seriously and professionally enough to change the map of St. Louis rock & roll."

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14 comments
Dadoggy
Dadoggy

No matter what the outcome is, the music on this record is phenomenal, start to finish. I couldn't believe it. I hadn't even heard of half these bands and now I've got 4-5 new favorite bands. Can't wait for tomorrow night.

Matt Frederick
Matt Frederick

St. Louis is a city with oodles of musical talent and artistry ... and very little capital. Since time immemorial (for this 35-year-old dude, anyway) it's been this way.

"Making things happen," therefore, requires more labor to make up for our lack of capital. "Making things happen," therefore, requires more cooperative and creative thinking through pooling our talents and ideas and then effectuating them in an egalitarian way. Insofar as this process is informed by ideology, the ideology is informed by practical necessity. "Making things happen" without a lot of capital requires this approach.

Getting attention outside of St. Louis is a desire of every band/artist who is a member of Tower Groove Records. Neither Tower Groove Records nor any promotional vehicle, for that matter, is a "silver bullet" for satiating this desire for attention outside of St. Louis. Rather, Tower Groove Records seeks to be a complement to bands/artists individual efforts in this regard. Again, this has come about through practical necessity. Over the last couple of decades labels large, small and "indie" have cut their A&R budgets to practically nothing. It's as go-it-alone as it's ever been, and this go-it-alone trend will likely continue. Tower Groove Records hopes to provide a platform of support for artists looking to reach out to larger audiences both in town and outside of town. Not everything need nor should be go-it-alone ... especially when part of the reason that bands in a particular town "blow up" regionally or nationally is that a critical mass of sorts (be it for the band or the "scene") was created in their home towns. Critical mass happens through cooperative effort and support!

As Harnish says in the comments, it's "baby steps." I would add that it's often "two baby steps forward and one baby step back." Growing something sustainable takes time, care, trial and (often) error. Growing something sustainable requires a commitment to quality. If we were rich, then this would be easier. Since we're not rich, we must be more careful. We must invest more time. We must be more committed to quality. Baby steps are the only kind of steps that we can take.

We're taking them.

Matt Harnish
Matt Harnish

I'll address the second question first. I don't speak for Tower Groove, just for me, but here goes...

Short answer: No, it does not. The LPs include a download card for the digitally inclined. I believe the download is or will be available on its own, as well, so please listen as you please! Enjoy!

Long answer: Yeah, it kinda does. The whole purpose of this is to bring a bunch of different people together & create an artifact of this specific moment in this specific (ooh, I hate the word, but sometimes you gotta say it) "scene." Vinyl is just simply a better medium for this sort of grand statement of purpose. We could have had everybody record their track at their practice space & upload it into a "Tower Groove Cloud" & then each of us have a carnival in our own back yards & then skype it with each other & how would any of that have been any fun? This is a bunch of people who think this thing that we're doing is cool & we want you to think it's cool also, not cuz their/my band is cool (though all the bands are pretty great), not cuz vinyl is cool (though it really is), but because dammit, we made this cool thing & we want you think it's cool! Have you seen one? It's cool! It has art in it & it sounds amazing! And none of us could have or would have done it on our own. Ideas came flying in from everyone at every stage.

And, on a regional level (moving sort of on to the first question, though I suspect it was just a snark & not an actual question), there are small pockets of things like this happening in other cities & that's what we're tapping into. Nobody is gonna get signed because they had a song on this thing & who cares? But there are communities of bands in New Orleans & Austin TX & Oklahoma City & Lawrence KS & more that we're finding as spiritual kin to Tower Groove. We're all in this together & ideally being supported or endorsed or whatever you wanna call it by Tower Groove might get more people at their show here. Then it's easier for a Tower Groove band to get a good show in their city & on & on. It's baby steps & it's trial & error & it won't always work. And who cares? It's fun & we made this cool thing!

See ya at the shows!

Matt

blueophelia
blueophelia

Guess I could have shortened that whole rant to "Fuck hipsters and their 'you must be this hip to own this music' bullshit."

And no, that's not snark.

Fred L
Fred L

That was 100% pure USDA Prime snark, and if you pulled your head out of your ass you'd realize it. The music will be available on vinyl or as a download. What's wrong with that???

Matt Harnish
Matt Harnish

So...we'll put you down for the "download only" option?

blueophelia
blueophelia

Snark is a brand of sarcasm, and I am entirely sincere in my hatred of this hipster elitism. Fuck it and the horse it road in on.

Had the gang decided 8-track was the way to go, and graciously dropped a download card in the sales wrapping, the issue would have been the same: they've opted for a gauge of current hipness over just getting the goddamn music out.

Or so it seems based on the article. I'll cave there. Perhaps if it had simply said the release was available on LP or digital download, instead of allotting a paragraph and a half to preening and posturing over going vinyl and how awful CDs are, it would have read simply as 'the format is what the format is' instead of 'damn, we're so hip it hurts.' And maybe, instead of waxing vaguely about 'the city's sound', if they'd gone Matt's route with 'archiving a moment in this scene for this scene'--not city boosting, in other words, just scene boosting--it would be less frustrating wondering how this reaches out to anybody not already listening to these bands.

Maybe a subheader would clear that up? "Sorry, great unwashed of St. Louis, this is just the scene talking to itself again. Move along, nothing to see here..." (THAT's snark.)

blueophelia
blueophelia

This sounds like a nice way to promote each other in the scene, to other people in the scene (not so much 'a bunch of different people' as 'a lot of the same people, at a lot of the same parties'), but it's also a lot of preaching to the choir.

Not skyping the backyard shindigs isn't the same as not actively scorning commonly used media in favor of a hip shibboleth that shuts out anyone not as cool as you, so you don't have to rub elbows with St. Louis's uninitiated (the horror!).

blueophelia
blueophelia

The vinyl snobbery's a real turn-off. Does it really matter so much what medium your audience is using to listen, so long as they're listening?

Chris
Chris

vinyl isn't snobbery! it's awesome!

blueophelia
blueophelia

Vinyl to the exclusion of other formats is snobbery.

It's intentionally restricting your potential audience not to people who would love the music, but to people who love the nostalgic yet now hip record players that stopped being widely available amost thirty years ago. It shuts out people who are interested in the music in the interest of catering to people who like to fashionably swap their '80s LPs.

Why does it matter if your audience is listening on a Walkman or an iPod? Because the latter isn't hip enough to go retro? Fuck that noise. If it's about the music, you shouldn't give a crap whether your audience still owns a record player.

Matt Frederick
Matt Frederick

Tower Groove Records Volume 1 is now available on Spotify!

Guest
Guest

How is this going to get any of these bands attention outside of St. Louis, exactly?

 
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