Everybody's Kranky: In a recorded talk, Bruce Adams discussed his recent book on the rise of Chicago's thriving 1990s independent music scene and the influential record label he cofounded

MUSIC WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Bruce Adams and his book You're With Stupid

For a guy who cofounded a record label named kranky—small k, thanks—that used marketing slogans such as "Honk if you hate people, too," Bruce Adams is one of the nicest people in the music industry.

Adams' new book, You're With Stupid: kranky, Chicago, and the Reinvention of Indie Music, recalls not only the rise of his experimental label but also the inventive, genre-hopping sounds that were coming out of the city in the 1990s. It was also a time when major labels swooped into town to sign the likes of The Smashing Pumpkins, Urge Overkill, and Liz Phair after Nirvana showed corporations that the independent music scene could sometimes provide commercial hits.

A former Ann Arbor resident, Schoolkids Records employee, and WCBN-FM DJ, Adams moved to Chicago in 1987 to work for various music-distribution companies. He also worked at the influential Touch & Go Records as a publicist, handling bands such as Ann Arbor's Laughing Hyenas as well as Slint, Die Kreuzen, The Jesus Lizard, and many other bands that took the energy of punk rock and twisted it into new forms of dynamic and frequently very heavy music. 

But in 1993, Adams and his colleague Joel Leoschke looked at the stacks of indie-rock CDs and 7-inches flooding into the Cargo Distribution warehouse where they worked and decided they wanted to do something completely different with their record label. The duo took their inspiration from 1970s progressive-music labels such as Editions EG, which counted Brian Eno's transformational ambient albums in its catalog, and ECM Records, which focused on jazz (and classical) that came from a more European approach to improvisation; more open to exploring space and unique timbres rather than blues-informed swing. They also looked toward German kosmische musik of 1970s groups such as Neu! and Cluster as well as then-contemporary psychedelic bands such as Spacemen 3, which played drone-based rock 'n' roll.

Adams and Leoschke wanted kranky to represent music that was artful, hazy, and deep—and they found the perfect first band for their new label: Labradford.

Prazision was the debut album by the Richmond-based duo (later trio) Labradford, which used guitars drenched in reverb, 1970s analog keyboards that weren't popular then, and sung-spoken vocals that blended into the vast smudge of ambient sounds. 

The label went on to release albums by godspeed you! black emperor, Stars of the Lid, and kranky's most popular act, Low, the slowcore band fronted by the husband and wife duo of Alan Sparhawk and the recently deceased Mimi Parker. The label still continues to this day, releasing forward-looking music by Grouper and Jessica Bailiff as well as albums by Dearborn's Windy & Carl and Ann Arbor's Justin Walter.

Adams and Leoschke used what they learned from working for indie labels and distribution centers in order to not make the same mistakes they saw happening over and over: treat the bands with respect, pay them, and only release music you love. In the words of American poet Joe Perry, kranky "let the music do the talking."

A lot of music memoirs are filled with gossipy details, but since Adams really and truly is a nice guy, You're With Stupid avoids any deep, dark revelations or pointed barbs. It's more a survey of the vast amount of creative musical endeavors that defined Chicago in the 1990s rather than salacious tales of excess.

Adams discussed You're With Stupid at the Ann Arbor District Library's Downtown branch at 6:30 pm on Thursday, November 17. I was the guy interviewing him, and we talked about the kranky's groundbreaking music and the 1990s Chicago independent music scene.

A video of our chat is below, and for those unfamiliar with the label, Adams picked five tracks and added commentary to introduce new listeners to the kranky sound:

Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's take on "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" is a mystery that explores a spectrum of emotions and relationships

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Christopher (played by Drew Shaw) feeds his dog while sitting on a couch in the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Drew Shaw (along with Rosie the dog) stars as Christopher in the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Photo by Tom Steppe.

Cassie Mann was a fan of Mark Haddon’s best-selling novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and was excited when Simon Stephens' stage version became a hit in London and New York.

“I went to New York and saw the Broadway version and just loved it,” she said. “It’s got so many elements to it. It’s a family drama, it’s got humor, it’s a mystery, it’s got themes of perseverance and it’s a good character-driven play and yet it’s got a love of fun stuff that goes along with it.”

Mann wanted to direct a production for the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre and was all set to stage it in 2021, when the show was canceled because of the pandemic. This pause gave Mann a chance to delve a little deeper into the play and its unusual perspective.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time begins as a mystery. Fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone discovers the corpse of a neighbor’s dog and sets out to discover who murdered the dog. Though never explicitly remarked on in Haddon’s novel or Stephens’ play, Christopher is on the autistic spectrum. The story of this mystery and what comes after is told from Christopher’s perspective as a sort of therapy suggested by his teacher, Siobhan.

The play is a family drama revolving around Christopher’s troubled relations with his parents. But it’s also a celebration of his determination, his wit, and his mathematical genius.

Mann read some books on autism and one book in particular influenced her approach to the play.

Who's Running the World? The Miller brothers' prolific musical output spans genres, decades, and all of 2022

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Nonfiction

Back to Reality: Laurence Miller, Bill Frank, and Benjamin Miller were Nønfiction—one of many bands featuring the musical Miller brothers, which also includes Roger. Photo via Laurence Miller.

When running down the famous musician alumni of what is now known as Ann Arbor's Pioneer High School, the list is pretty much always the same: Bob Seger, three members of The Stooges (Iggy Pop plus Ron and Scott Asheton), and Bill Kirchen of solo and Commander Cody fame.

But the most prolific musical grads with the most varied and creative musical styles who matriculated at the place formerly known as Ann Arbor High School are undoubtedly the Miller brothers, Roger and twins Laurence and Benjamin. The three of them formed the psychedelic rock band Sproton Layer while in high school, making an album in 1970 that went unreleased until 1992: the well-praised With Magnetic Fields Disrupted

The brothers are the sons of Robert Miller, a University of Michigan ichthyologist, and Frances Hubbs, who together studied fish in desert springs as well as their fossil ancestors.

Roger left Ann Arbor to pursue composition studies at CalArts and then moved back across the country to Boston where he cofounded the influential art-punk band Mission of Burma in 1979. He also continued his experimental work exploring improv and prepared instruments and performed soundtracks to silent films in the Alloy Orchestra. He lives in Vermont now and continues to pursue creative endeavors, from art to music.

Laurence and Benjamin have moved around, too, with the latter living in Chicago and then New York City between 1993-2014. But they have since circled back to the region where they grew up and continue to conjure an endless series of creative projects tackling every genre, from serial compositions to children's songs.

As with Roger, the twins' musical output continues to this day, with Benjamin usually exploring the further edges of sound on new recordings and Laurence digging through his endless supply of tapes from throughout his career, cleaning them up, and releasing them on Bandcamp. The twins (and sometimes Roger) also still perform together in various new or revived projects.

In the summer of 2022, I realized all three Miller brothers had albums coming out—some new, some reissues, some unheard—and also discovered a few recordings by them from earlier in the year that I missed.

One of those releases is by a nervy, new wave-era trio called Nønfiction that Laurence and Benjamin helmed from late 1981 to spring 1985—and the group was reforming for a one-off show at the 2022 FuzzFest in August at The Blind Pig, though it would feature Ben's son on drums rather than original member Bill Frank.

I emailed the twins to find out more about that band (and some of their other recent releases) with the intention to do a Nønfiction profile before the concert, but Laurence was diagnosed with COVID a week before the gig, and the trio had to cancel its FuzzFest appearance. (Benjamin has since gotten COVID, too, and is still feeling the effects.)

Rather than abandon the quotes Laurence and Benjamin sent me for the now-stalled feature, I decided to incorporate them into a post that highlights the Miller brothers' numerous 2022 releases—including a new album from Roger—that Pulp had yet to cover this year. (Links to the articles featuring all of the Miller music we've already covered are at the bottom of this piece.)

The Miller brothers' circuitous musical journey deserves an in-depth interview and probably requires a map to follow accurately—perhaps a future Pulp project?—so consider this article a brief introduction to their long creative histories by way of the new and old music they released in 2022.

Out of the Cave: Rapper Killa Kam stepped into the spotlight in 2022 with an outstanding debut album

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Rapper Killa Kam performs on the of porch Super Dope and Chill Studios in Ann Arbor.

Rapper Killa Kam performs on the porch of Super Dope and Chill Studios in Ann Arbor on October 15, 2022. Photo courtesy of Kamryn Thomas.

Killa Kam has the kind of speedy and confident flow that pairs well with an atypical hip-hop producer like Scary Steve Klingbiel, who mixes in off-kilter sounds with his beats that might trip up a less talented rapper.

Together, the duo produced the excellent Cave That I Left album, which showcases a dynamic new voice on the Washtenaw County music scene.

Formula 734’s “Volume II” Album Documents Post-Pandemic Perseverance for Washtenaw County Men of Color

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Formula 734's AnimeKing performs at a Re:Claim event in September.

Formula 734's AnimeKing performs at a Re:Claim event in Ann Arbor. Photo taken from Washtenaw My Brother's Keeper's Facebook page.

Formula 734’s Volume II chronicles the ongoing perseverance of Washtenaw County men of color in a post-pandemic world.

The hip-hop collective’s second community-based album features insightful tales of self-determination by lyricists confronting daily struggles and aspiring for future change.

“Coming out of COVID, we’ve had to appraise our value of everything. In listening to the young guys, they’re using music to appraise their thoughts about relationships, school, and mortality,” said Rod Wallace, who co-executive produced the album with Jamall “Buff1” Bufford.

“We always say that kids are a lot more resilient than adults are … but in the same token, when they look back and when we look back at this time, it was a time the entire world transitioned in a way. This music is them making sense of that transition.”

To ease that transition, Wallace and Bufford reassembled an intergenerational team of men to write and record 10 cathartic tracks for Formula 734’s Volume II.

They created the album in partnership with Washtenaw My Brother’s Keeper, the Ann Arbor Community Foundation, the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office, Project Plugin, and Creativity Fluidity Productions.

Fine Tuning: Martin Bandyke says goodbye to his morning radio show and hello to having even more time for music

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Martin Bandyke's morning show on 107.1-FM in Ann Arbor is wrapping up but he'll still be on the station every Sunday with his Fine Tuning program.

Martin Bandyke's morning show on annarbor's 107one is wrapping up but he'll still be on the station every Sunday with his Fine Tuning program. Photo by Christopher Porter.

It always seems like Martin Bandyke is smiling on the radio.

A grin doesn't make a sound, but the way Bandyke enunciates his words and presents them to his audience every morning on 107.1-FM gives listeners the impression he's speaking through a smile.

A recent visit to the WQKL studios near Briarwood Mall in Ann Arbor confirmed as much:

He actually is smiling as he speaks.

Whether reading traffic updates or music news, Bandyke projects the sort of positivity people appreciate when they're trapped in their cars during a morning commute or settling in for another day of the 9 to 5.

The DJ's convivial charms have radiated through the radio for 40 years—starting in 1983 on WDET 101.9-FM in Detroit—but on December 22, Bandyke is stepping away from his morning-drive show and entering semi-retirement at age 68. He'll still host his long-running Fine Tuning program every Sunday afternoon on the station, still choosing every song that's played on the show, just as he did during his public radio days.

Bandyke's first stint on the air was in 1983 co-hosting WDET's Monday night show Dimension. He had been trying to get his foot in the door of Detroit radio ever since graduating from the University of Michigan in 1976 with a bachelor of arts degree in radio, television, and film. His on-air opportunity came when he was a music buyer for his hometown Dearborn Music record store. Bandyke, a drummer, and Ralph Valdez, his longtime friend and frequent bandmate, were invited to co-host Dimension, which they did together through 1990. While Valdez continued to host Dimension, which moved to Sunday nights, that year Bandyke was hired full-time as the assistant music director, and in 1991 he took over Judy Adams' on-air shift from 10 am to 1 pm. He later moved to afternoons and in 1995 added music director to his duties at the station.

This is the part of the tale where Bandyke's voice and expansive music tastes entered my life.

Pull up a chair and let grandpa tell you a story.

Sparks and Sawdust: Erin Hahn's romance novel "Built to Last" reunites childhood sweethearts on a home renovation TV show

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

A close-up portrait of Erin Hahn is on the left; the book cover for Built to Last is on the right.

A house is not the only thing being fixed up in Erin Hahn’s new novel, Built to Last.

Two childhood stars, Shelby Springfield and Cameron Riggs, try to rekindle their love when they are brought back together for a home renovation TV program set in Michigan—though things get off to a rocky start, not unlike how things ended. Lyle Jessup, their other costar and the person who caused conflict when Shelby dated him after Cameron, turns out to be the one who brings them together with his TV pilot proposal. While Lyle never left Hollywood and its gossip, Shelby and Cameron have diverged on their paths and must find out if they can work together again—and even have another try at a relationship. 

During a visit from Lyle, who becomes the showrunner, the now sober Shelby watches Cameron’s longtime friends, Beth and Kevin, at their bar: 

My cheeks hurt from smiling so hard and the fizzy ginger ale does a little swirl in my stomach. These two make it look so simple. You meet, you fall in love, you get married and have babies, and you spend the rest of your life with that one person who likes you best, who you like best. 

Both Cameron and Shelby are wildly attracted to each other, but the question becomes whether they can push past the drama of filming and reconnect. 

Cameron reflects, “Maybe I wasn’t looking for something to tie me down. Maybe I’ve been looking for someone, an anchor. And not just any someone. Not like the proverbial 'someone,' but her. As in, she is the only one.” He senses how important Shelby is, but their relationship could either be just a pivotal part of growing up or a long-lost—and now found—real deal. 

Hahn lives in Ann Arbor with her husband and two kids. Previously, I interviewed her about her last book, 2021's Never Saw You Coming. We connected again to discuss Built to Last, Hahn’s fourth book.

A modern Marion takes the lead in U-M’s "The Heart of Robin Hood"

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

The Heart of Robin Hood

Erik Dagoberg (Robin Hood) and Stefania Gonzalez (Marion) practice swashbuckling on a ramp during rehearsals for U-M's production of The Heart of Robin Hood. Photo by Chris Boyes.

The legend of Robin Hood has been told for centuries. In the usual version, he is a nobleman who has been forced from his estate. He gathers a band of “merry men” who are dedicated to robbing from the rich and giving to the desperately poor.

But in earlier versions of the story, told in verse and song, Robin robbed from the poor but didn’t give to the rich and didn’t have noble aspirations. Playwright David Farr has returned to that earlier version of Robin Hood and to a very different Maid Marion, who challenges the outlaw to be a better man.

The University of Michigan Department of Theatre and Drama will present Farr’s The Heart of Robin Hood at the Power Center for the Arts, December 8-11.

Director Geoff Packard said that Farr takes a decidedly different view of Robin Hood and his Merry Men.

In Real Time: Chickenwire Canöe’s rock-opera concept album “Joey Wendt” tells the tale of a budding conspiracy theorist during the pandemic

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Chickenwire Canöe’s Mike Gentry, Brian Delaney, Tim Delaney, and Tony Mitchell explore the mind of Joey Wendt on their latest rock-opera concept album.

Chickenwire Canöe’s Mike Gentry, Brian Delaney, Tim Delaney, and Tony Mitchell explore the pandemic plight of Joey Wendt on their latest rock-opera concept album. Photo by Misty Lyn Bergeron.

Brian Delaney admires how Gordon Lightfoot documented the 1975 sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior.

The Chickenwire Canöe guitarist applauds the Canadian folk singer-songwriter with respectfully recounting the tragedy and remembering the 29 lives lost in his 1976 hit, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

“For somebody like Gordon Lightfoot to be able to write that story to song in a way that didn’t capitalize on somebody else’s calamity, that’s always stuck with me. That’s art in the moment … you’re looking at a situation and documenting it,” said Delaney, who’s from Dexter.

“When I thought about that calamity and then thought about the pandemic, I knew it would be a real crime not to have somebody document it in a somewhat well-rounded way.”

By summer 2020, he landed on a pandemic-themed album and contacted childhood friend Mike Gentry, now Chickenwire Canöe’s vocalist-guitarist.

“I just sat down and wrote a proposal to Mike, and I briefly outlined with bullet points what it could be as a concept,” Delaney said.

“The concept was a record of vignettes of what we were going through related to the pandemic. Some of the best art will take you back to a moment in time where you’re like, ‘This could have only happened then.’”

U-M Gilbert and Sullivan Society celebrates its 75th anniversary with pirates, policemen, and paleontologists

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

UMGASS's 2022 production of The Pirates of Penzance

Left to right: Craig Rettew as The Pirate King and Matthew Grace as Major-General Stanley in costumes for UMGASS's 2022 production of The Pirates of Penzance. Photo courtesy of UMGASS.

With cat-like tread, a rollicking band of pirates will step upon the stage from December 8-11 as they have done about every four years since 1949 when the two-year-old University of Michigan Gilbert and Sullivan Society (UMGASS) gave its first performance of The Pirates of Penzance.

Sparkling tunes and lyrics replete with irony, wit, conflict, and romance make it no surprise that UMGASS would celebrate its 75th anniversary with a production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s two-act comic operetta. Director David Andrews says, “It’s probably the best known and best loved of Gilbert and Sullivan’s pieces.” Andrews says the show doesn’t just have catchy melodies that people hum on the way out: “Some people are humming on the way in,” he says of the well-known show.