Salsa for Spanish: Teen River Talks

Teen River is a label that spoke to me both musically and visually when I first started receiving tapes from them in the mail earlier this year. They stood out with their wildcat midwestern madness and eclectic musical catalog. TR is not yet one year old, but they've released well over thirty tapes - in fact I believe they're over sixty titles now. I'm lucky enough to be in a position as a music fanatic, writer, and musician to get to the bottom of these kinds of crazed theatrics, so I figured it was time to talk with someone (anyone) associated with TR. Label co-founder and musician, Gordon, was willing to talk with me one hot August night about his label's beginnings and why Chicago has one of the best damn tape (and music) scenes around today.

JD: Hey man!
Gordon: Hola. That’s salsa for Spanish. What’s up?!

JD: Thank you for taking time to chat. I'm really digging the label.

Gordon: Thanks dude that means a lot. [It’s] hard to get people outside of Chicago to listen these days.

JD: Understand that…

Gordon: The music community in Chicago though, whoa! It’s exploding.

JD: Seems that way.

Gordon: …but in this non-mainstream way.

JD: When did you start up?

Gordon: I moved to Chi in ’07 and started the label in Dec. of 2011. I started with a friend, Katrina Stonehart - we both lived at this space called Ball Hall.

JD: When you moved, was it for music? art? life?
Gordon: No idea why I moved…

JD: Where from?

Gordon: I was living in a small college town Manhattan, KS. I’m from the Kansas City area. I went to college at KSU.

JD: Were bands playing there? making music?
Gordon: Yeah. It was kind of nice because there was basically nothing alternative there. We started booking shows in a basement and also at this bookstore. Got a lot of heat from the rural college folk. It’s always a cool feeling starting something where you know nothing is going on.

Dude I started Teen River with was not there, he was traveling in his band Baby Birds Don’t Drink Milk. On the way to SXSW one year I stopped in Manhattan, KS and there Katrina was. For some reason I asked him if he wanted to go to SXSW then move to Chi with me, and then it happened.

JD: Cool, so after you arrived in chi-town, how did you arrive at “cassettes” as the vehicle for success?

Gordon: Well I started booking shows at this place Ball Hall in 2008. It goes off with a BANG. Shows were never in such high spirits. I was booking for touring bands and getting every single Chicago group I could get my hands on to play there. It was going over so well, really felt like the community was growing into something super energetic, raw, and full of TALENT!

Then Katrina moved in like in 2010. He had always inspired me. He has this tape label called Solid Melts - loved everything he put out. He put out a split with me (Famous Laughs / Sea Priest) and I was stoked. We started jamming a lot and playing a few gigs going under the name Headless Horse Head. Recording to 4 tracks like EVERYDAY. Days and days worth of material on tapes somewhere in a box. So we basically just started Teen River as a way to put out this material. We had a bunch of other friends who were making music like J Fernandez, Vehicle Blues, Potions, Big Sandwich, Spooky Moon, etc. so we just decided to throw a giant party at Ball Hall and release 12 different tapes all at once...that was in December.
I really think though, ball hall had a lot to do with this label’s start. I had so many great relationships with people thru that place, it was a great place to play - a giant ballroom built in like 1933. Sounded amazing in there
It’s always amazing when shows can happen in basements and such, but when kids can throw not only huge 200+ people shows, AND get it to sound good, felt like something was going right.

JD: How did the name Teen River come about?

Gordon: It came about because Headless Horse Head used to practice at this shitty warehouse space that had a soda fountain and one of the soda’s was called Green River. It was this intensely green soda, looked like radiation. We’d drink like 3 glasses of it and jam.

JD: Are you more into the label or making music as an artist?

Gordon: Good question! I love doing both because it allows me to take a break from one or the other. I’d say I have more of a supportive presence in Chicago than a musical one, but I still play out a ton and record weekly. I also record bands at TR headquarters.

JD: What gear do you use to record bands?

Gordon: Tascam Portastudio III, a nice tube pre-amp, an old Tascam mixer, some shitty and not-so-shitty mics. We got a killer drum set that was given to POTIONS (who I live with). We also got a Fender Vibrolux, UNIVOX and Heritage guitars, an endless boat of keyboards, Rhodes, Roland space echo…

JD: That’s a pretty great set up.

Gordon: You record?
JD: Yeah, with the assistance of my younger bro who is a "trained" recording engineer. Though I prefer Tascam machines and bedroom set-ups.

Gordon: Hell ya! I love the bedroom makeshift set-ups because I’m endlessly and ALWAYS happily surprised at the outcome. I don’t like real studios.

JD: So you and Potions are active with co-releases via his Pretty All Right label, how did that come about?

Gordon: We’ve been in a band together for a few years now, called Distractions. He lived at this awesome loft space called Halfway Lounge and my projects played there, I started jammin’ with him…His songs are amazzzzzing

JD: Why is Teen River so prolific? How do you manage it all?

Gordon: The way I work is weird. I work in moments of furious calamity...and that’s just what I look for…There’s all these kids that know they have an idea, so I push them to just get it down. However it be.

That’s what I’m looking for. Those really intense two-week sessions, making an album you didn’t really know you could make. More often than not the outcome is so great. I’m fortunate for that. There’s a lot of talent around here.

JD: Where do you get your tapes and how do you dub 'em?

Gordon: The tapes I get from various sources, National Audio’s got some good deals, or Delta Media has different lengths and colors. I dub them myself with tape decks, but I got a nice system via computer/interface.
All machines are calibrated with a test tone.
JD: And the art...who takes charge? You guys? The artists?

Gordon: Ahmm it depends. It’s a mix. I do a lot of collages, etc. I usually ask if they want me to do the art. It’s up to the artist.

The Christmas Bride in the studio.

JD: TR tends to release large batches, what's coming up in the future?

Gordon: So much! Sept. 19th is next batch, watch out for this group Mako Sica. They are bizzareee. Oh and another tape, Sen Di Nah - major head boggle. Chicago is strange and weird. While there’s a lot of straight pop music, there’s infinitely more fucked up, damaged weird shit.

JD: Do you guys have a preference for mind-fuck music or more guitar (i.e. band/"song") oriented stuff?

Gordon: Definitely not preferential on that. I have projects that go both ways (Headless Horse Head vs. Famous Laughs) and I’d say that maybe one will get more reception due to accessibility, but that is also a subjective thing. Chicago has great reception for the weird and wild, especially live. Kids will definitely come out to rage at a weird show…definitely a community to experiment in.

I mean just last night...[ed.note: Aug. 7th] the Empty Bottle (straight up one of the best rock venues in America) held an insannnne show for this scuzzy punk free jazz group called Tiger Hatchery, and ONO played - they’ve been around since '81 - weird dramatic, dissonant, theatrical jams…girl came out in a wedding dress and sang “Blue Velvet.” You better believe it was PACKED. Show of the summer for sure.

JD: Sounds like a demented hallucination.

Gordon: …but it’s telling, that music is very, very inaccessible - more cerebral I guess. You gotta be wired a certain way, but like I said, with all that weird stuff - comes the other side. The straight pop is unbelievably good here.

JD: That’s why the label is so good, the sheer diversity of the music!

Gordon: Yeah and I mean, I’m just like one of a billion labels here.

JD: I like Spooky Moon - some psyche-retroish, but not bullshit ya know?

Gordon: For sure. That kid is a great songwriter. He kind of just showed up outta nowhere this past year. [He] does all those recordings in his bedroom by himself. I play drums with him live sometimes.

JD: Where should people start when they discover the label?

Gordon: Well I guess Bandcamp is the best place to start if you want the back catalogue and if you want to buy. Otherwise there’s the two soundcloud's:
Since this is very community based, most of the tapes are long gone and I’m not too interested in doing reissues unless I see a big demand. So maybe the best place to start is really just with the new batch and subscribing to newsletter. I just add your email to a contact list and send one out once a monthish.
JD: Any last thoughts?