Clean air act
Smog Veil records brings its green agenda to Chicago.
Chicago’s revered independent record labels are often called innovative and groundbreaking. One thing they are rarely called is an old boy’s network. And while that characterization may be a bit of an exaggeration, the recent series of high-profile anniversaries celebrated by Touch and Go, Thrill Jockey and Bloodshot certainly suggests that these labels have become a stalwart old guard, leaving little room for new kids on the block.
Consequently, it’s not surprising that an important indie label’s relocation to Chicago has barely registered on the cultural landscape. But this week, in collaboration with the Chicago Humanities Festival, Cleveland-birthed Smog Veil Records seems to officially be declaring itself a member of Chicago’s arts community with its sponsorship of the Complaints Choir at the Museum of Contemporary Art Saturday 3 (see “The gripe stuff,” page 57). And though this musical performance art piece may differ from the label’s punk-rock and metal roots, it’s a fitting introduction for such an unorthodox company.
In 1991 Frank Mauceri was finishing law school when he and his then-fiancée, Lisa, decided to start a record label (in part to avoid the doldrums of a lawyer’s lifestyle). They released a popular single by regional crossover-metalheads Spudmonsters, and after establishing his legal niche (Frank represented city governments against cable companies) the couple found themselves running a record label and a law practice that were both relatively successful. After corporate-friendly federal legislation made Frank’s law specialty unprofitable, they decided to concentrate all their efforts on music.
Over its first decade and a half, Smog Veil served Cleveland’s musical heritage better than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, becoming home to the city’s legendary Pere Ubu, and reissuing archival recordings by long-lost Cleveland underground bands the Pink Holes, the Dissidents and, most prominently, the first official Rocket from the Tombs release. The label also has an impressive roster of non-Ohio acts (including the New Christs; Unknown Instructors, featuring Mike Watt and George Hurley of Minutemen; and Canadian bodybuilder, monster slayer and absurdist rocker Thor).
For its 15th anniversary the label decided to expand its reach by relocating to Chicago. “All our bands always did well in Chicago,” Frank offers. “I think we’ve got that sort of hardworking rock & roll ethic that people here have an affinity for.”
Lisa adds, “People in the music business are just friendlier here than in New York and L.A. And we thought our green agenda would be more accepted here than in New York, or even San Francisco.”
That agenda has slowed Smog Veil’s release schedule since arriving in Chicago. The label (which is named for a pollution-spewing Godzilla adversary) has been concentrating on becoming a model for environmental friendliness. While its moves toward plastic-free packaging and paper-free publicity are commendable, its most impressive achievement has been the renovation of the Wis Tavern building, a former Wicker Park bar the Mauceris now use as both a home and an office. The two-story building has been radically remodeled, with power and heating provided by geothermal wells in the basement and solar panels and wind turbines on the roof. The rehab also utilized numerous recycled building materials (including floors made, in part, from crushed unsold Smog Veil releases).
“We didn’t know how our punk-rock friends would react to this,” Lisa says. “One said, ‘Oh, you’re hippies now.’ ”
“That was sort of the joke reaction,” Frank quickly adds, “but people really dig it.” (Perhaps one of the label’s secrets to success is the seamless collaboration between the spouses, marked by how often they complete each other’s thoughts.) Making the Smog Veil HQ particularly worth digging is that, despite drawing upon patchouli-scented philosophies, the ultra-swank decor suggests a pad in which James Bond might reside—if he was really into ’60s Nuggetsrock.
With its command center operational, Smog Veil is ready to stake its place in the Chicago scene. This week’s concerts not only mark a coming-out, but also the (unusual) introduction of the label’s first Chicago artists, as the dozens of locals participating in the Complaints Choir will eventually be featured in a documentary and soundtrack. “This is a really unique Chicago thing,” Frank says. “Not only because of the people involved but because these are really Chicago-style complaints—”
“—and,” adds Lisa, completing her husband’s sentence, “they’re mostly about the CTA.”