Trends may come and go but Drag City remains – thankfully – Drag City. The Chicago based imprint was founded in 1990, just as grunge was about to change American rock music forever, but has perennially sat out of step with its surroundings. Whether it’s allowing Royal Trux to be unleashed upon the world, chancing upon Joanna Newsom or sticking by Alasdair Roberts the imprint has defiantly stuck to its own tastes.
“We put out a fanzine called Travel & Fist which was the first effort to pull together our resources and do something exciting” Rian Murphy recalls. From this loose knit collection of high school friends emerged Drag City, all enveloping stuffing and struggling to get by. Gaining momentum, the label gained its first employee in 1994 before steadily building a team. “With the owners all in we have about 8 at this point and one fellow in London who has an office down in Brixton and oversees all the activities in the UK and in Europe as well” Murphy explains. Not that the label has reached the giddy heights just yet: “If we find ourselves in the midst of a particularly demanding ship date it wouldn’t be unusual for everyone to end up out in the warehouse. So pulling orders, packing boxes – hefting, baling, whatever”.
This discipline extends to every member of the Drag City team – even the interns. “If it were for something a little more soulless I might not be here but y’know it’s definitely a worthy cause. When people come here we tell them: you don’t have a job description. This is primarily what you’ll be doing but if we need to send you out with wheat-paste to put posters up on the walls that’s a part of it too. So just prepare yourselves.”
The tight-knit nature of Drag City ensures that the label retains a palpable sense of community. “This is about relationships. We don’t want to take some group in, make a record and then if the next one isn’t so big cut them loose,” Murphy states. “It’s more about – we like what you do so keep on doing it. In that context, you’re in for the long haul with this person, you want to keep facing the world with this person. What that’s led to is a great long string of things with guys like Will Oldham, Bill Callahan, Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema. I do think that new artists who come in her see that and it gives them a feeling of confidence that if we want to talk to them it’s not just because we want to suck their blood, drain it out real quick and get onto the next one”.
The label's sense of community has another benefit, though, which isn’t so readily obvious. Using tips from their own artists, Drag City are able to expand their roster using the tastes of people they trust, respect and admire. “It’s a label but because it’s based on relationships and long-running relationships – Will Oldham never stops bringing stuff to us. The number of groups that we’ve signed to the label based on the recommendation of artists on the label who are already there is surely equal to the number of artists who we’ve plucked out of thin air. So that’s something which is also really fantastic about it and keeps things fresh and moving forward. Whether or not we’re going out to the shows and scoping out new talent we can count on someone going: I think you ought to listen to this. They opened for me, somebody gave me a cassette of this – which is sort of what happened with Joanna Newsom. I mean, there’s only so far you can go listening to demos which have been submitted. After that you need word of mouth, people you can trust and everything beyond your own eyes and ears”.
Sticking to their guns for two decades, Drag City have been able to construct a discography which is the envy of labels across the United States. Playing the long game, the label are beginning to find that sustaining their catalogue means that some of their lesser known artists are beginning to get a chance to shine. “Drag City – as successful as we’ve been – has always existed on a smaller scale” he explains, “on the fringe of anything even remotely resembling the mainstream, with just the occasional launching of a flaming arrow into the territory to let people know that we’re there. But other than that we’ve been able to survive because we’ve kept it close to the ground, I suppose. If that was to change and people were to be like: ‘you know what? We don’t care about your catalogue any more we just want the new things’ that would be.. a bummer”.
Pausing, Rian Murphy looks back on one of the label’s first challenging moments. “One of the compelling thoughts about putting Twin Infinitives out as a record – which was the third Drag City record which ever happened – was: man, even if nobody likes this today they’re going to look at this in 20 years and say “what the fuck?” That’s a real goal. If you’re putting something out that you think has merit then leave it out so that someone can see it in 20 years. Those things were always a consideration because there we were in 1990, putting out records that few people had heard of from the 60s and 70s and delighting in them. We felt that we were going to be a part of that tradition in what we did. Catalogue is a big part of what we do and if it weren’t it would be a lot less fun”.
At one point, Rian Murphy reflects on Drag City’s decision to remain independent – especially when so many labels around them have been swallowed up by major corporations. Musing on the everyday struggle to push forward, he says: “This is the exchange for never selling 49% of ourselves in exchange for a bankroll. Whatever we can do here is based on what we made and how successful we’ve been, so I would say that’s a fair trade”.
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Drag City have a few artists touring the UK over the next few weeks - Six Organs Of Admittance, Dope Body and Rangda, to be exact - with dates lining up as follows.
Six Organs Of Admittance
21 Birmingham Supersonic Festival
22 London Birthdays
23 Glasgow Glad Cafe
24 Nottingham The Chameleon
20 Brighton The Hope
21 Birmingham Supersonic Festival
23 Leeds Brudenell Social Club
24 Glasgow Nice N Sleazy
25 London Birthdays
17 Leeds Brudenell Social Club
18 London Corsica Studios
19 Cardiff SWN Festival
20 Birmingham Supersonic