By Allison Babka
By Bob McMahon
By Allison Babka
By Tef Poe
By Mabel Suen
By Daniel Hill
By RFT Music
By Dew Ailes
Comic-book enthusiasts turned weirdo noise-rock peddlers Mark Fischer and Rob Syers first helped to fund a seven-inch record in 1991 with the novel idea to provide seedy panel-art comics in place of standard liner notes. The resulting vinyl-and-comic combo was the first of many, and the enterprise dubbed SKiN GRAFT Records emerged through the next decade as a champion of marginalized music. Since its inception, the label has released more 100 pieces of noisy, unruly sounds. Most album art begs for passive viewing, offering a sloppy graphic or pensive photograph in lieu of proper visual stimulus; SKiN GRAFT gleefully broke that mold.
Fischer and Syers first conceived the label in 1986, while attending school in St. Charles. Following a tenure at Chicago's Touch and Go Records, Fischer moved back to St. Louis with new found focus and determination, driving the fledgling label into the public eye with quality releases and more than a few comic tie-ins. After years spent bouncing between the River and Windy cities, the SKiN GRAFT Records founder has finally made a home far from the Midwest in Vienna, Austria.
SKiN GRAFT pushed unholy mergers of Japanese noise and American punk/hardcore to help birth a new, twisted infant of experimental rock. Equal credit falls on the bands involved and Fischer himself, who set up promotion and distribution channels that managed to reach new audiences. In recent years the frequency has faltered, but the potency of each release remains.
On June 21, SKiN GRAFT Records returned home to St. Louis. Three of the label's bands, Xaddax (Brooklyn), Lovely Little Girls (Chicago) and Yowie (St. Louis), conquered the Schlafly Tap Room with positively brain-bending rock. Fischer brought a merch table of rare releases including vinyl, cassette and discs that ranged from the label's humble start to the present day. In the midst of this madness, Fischer met with us to discuss the ebb and flow of his seminal label.
Joseph Hess: The first SKiN GRAFT record happened during your time at Touch and Go Records. What did you learn in Chicago, and how did you apply that knowledge?
Mark Fischer: SKiN GRAFT had existed as comic zine for years in St. Louis when Nick Sakes approached me about collaborating on a comic book to go with a Dazzling Killmen seven-inch single. At the time I was attending the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, so it was conceived as a project I could also turn in for credit in my printmaking class. I printed 500 comic books on the school's offset press and had seven-inch records manufactured to go along with the books. I knocked out a few more credit hours by interning at Touch and Go Records during my last year in school. I'd go from a morning lecture on the New York school of gestural abstraction to sitting at a dirty coffee table with David Yow [The Jesus Lizard] and Rick Sims [The Didjits], creating in-store display mobiles fashioned from spare Die Kreuzen LP jackets.
Once I finished school I was hired by Touch and Go and eventually became the manager of the shipping department. Touch and Go started distributing SKiN GRAFT titles with the third release. The education I received was invaluable for all of the obvious reasons. I could see how everything was done. The lessons I learned allowed me to really apply some marketing muscle to material that any level-headed individual would deem unmarketable. SKiN GRAFT was always a square peg. We relished goofing on the music business from within. We started marketing our music as "now wave," as a tongue-in-cheek reaction to all of the media attention "grunge" music was receiving. Suddenly major music magazines in Europe began writing about now wave as a bona fide movement. Once that started getting attention, we had to distance ourselves from it, so we declared the label as being "post-now," poking fun at the kinda insufferable "post-rock" moniker that was running rampant in Chicago. The bands and I have had a lot of fun playing "music business" over the years.
The SKiN GRAFT curated Oops(!) indoors shows and tours were marks of an active heyday for noise rock. Are there any plans for these events in the future?
I'm positive we'll do an Oops(!) indoors show again someday, but it would have to include the theater and low brow performance art between bands that was regrettably excised from the national Oops(!) tour that made the rounds with Arab on Radar, the Locust and Lightning Bolt years ago.
Oops(!) indoors was our take on the old Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland adage of "Let's put on a show!" where a bunch of misfits fix up the barn, put up a stage and entertain their hearts out. The Oops theater group was cut from the same cloth; we just used mustachioed Cookie Monsters and Mighty Fuckin' Robot costumes instead of minstrel paint. The surviving key players of the group are ready and willing to reunite, but we're scattered all over the place. It's just a matter of someone putting together the funding to make it happen. I still have the Karate Chimp outfit.
Having stayed afloat for more than twenty years, you have seen artists grow then falter. Many musicians tend to struggle with balancing "real life" and art. Chloe Lum, vocalist for AIDS Wolf, spoke on this in 2012, saying: "The vibrant scene we were part of seems to barely exist, and it turns out that no one is actually interested in an hour-long record of very formal harsh jams." How do you respond to this sentiment?
Yeah. That was sad. It's hard being in a band that doesn't compromise. AIDS Wolf were unique in that they received a lot of media attention before their first album came out, and most of it focused only on the surface elements — the name or the initial promo pics of the band in the raw — but once the music was out, by design, the sounds they made only resonated with a niche audience. Maybe they suffered some backlash because they were name-dropped in Spin. AIDS Wolf toured relentlessly and were always pushing themselves creatively, but they hit a wall where they felt that they were surrounded by indifference. There will always be a "scene" for this music, but it's distressing that it may mutate away from being able to provide a minimal amount of financial or emotional support to touring bands.
What's on deck for the near future?
More Ruins late in the year, a single of unreleased alternate Arab on Radar tracks and hopefully something to honor Strangulated Beatoffs' quarter century of service. We'd all like to get Yowie's first album out on vinyl one of these days.
Have you considered doing a comic collection or anthology of the label's visual works?
I've daydreamed about designing an art book compiling a lot of the behind-the-scenes stuff. Some of the old comics are available for reading in the comics section at the website. The color weekly Gumballhead the Cat comic series that Rob Syers and I collaborated on for the Chicago Reader is the most likely candidate for a proper comic collection, but we have no specific plans right now.
What does St. Louis mean to you now that you live in Austria?
Spiritually, I'm a product of this town. When I was twelve, I had a stack of K-SHE 95 vinyl stickers stashed away in a shoebox under my bed. Physically, even though I'm working in Vienna, the label's mail-order facilities are housed in St. Charles County.
Growing up here in the 1980s, it seemed like a bunch of people had a bit of an inferiority complex and set their sights on moving away to Chicago or somewhere else. For me, seeing Dazzling Killmen play was a defining "Judy Garland" moment. This band is right here where we live. Right here in St. Louis. We had it better than we realized back then. Drunks With Guns and Strangulated Beatoffs are bands that couldn't have originated anywhere else in the world.
At the homecoming show, having Nick and Al here, two guys who've been a part of SKiN GRAFT since the very start, seeing all of those Lovely Little Girls on the stage, seeing my mom and stepdad man the merchandise table, seeing the people come out despite Black Flag playing down the street, seeing St. Louis' very own Yowie play... I'd swear to god, I was wearing ruby slippers. There's no place like home.