by Ethan Stanislawski
Justin Sinkovich is one of the best, most respected musicians from one of America's best music cities. So how has his new band, the Poison Arrows, gone ignored, and what does that say about how the music industry and the Chicago scene operate in the present day?
In the past year, I have interviewed three musicians and bands who, independently, lit up when I mentioned the name "Poison Arrows" and "Justin Sinkovich." These three bands were about as diverse as they come: one was a Canadian electronica band, one a guitarist in New York City, and another a garage rock band from Chicago. And yet each not only talked about having loved First Class, and Forever, the debut album of Poison Arrows, but two mentioned that they had worked with Justin in the past and have been meaning to get in touch with him.
The relative frequency of this occurrence was surprising for myself a journalist, especially one who doesnít play an instrument or produce any music of his own, yet who was the only person to include First Class, and Forever on any Pazz & Jop ballot in 2009 (on MOG.com another site I wrote for, its poll of the music blogosphere and self-acknowledged group of music dorks put the album in the top 50). The album was not reviewed by Pitchfork, Spin or Rolling Stone. The band received coverage in the Chicago Reader before the release, and the album received a fawning review in Time Out Chicago. I gave it a glowing review at Prefixmag.com. But that was about it.
And yet to my ears, it was one of the best albums that Iíve heard in years, one that would appeal just as easily to fans of post-rock, prog-rock, kraut rock, and noise rock. It was produced in Steve Albini's Electrical Audio studios in Chicago, and the influence of both Albini-style noise and Tortoise-style ambiance are both on display. Itís not an easy pop album, but to my ears, it ranks with the work of Slint, Mission of Burma and Sonic Youth, among the best American experimental rock recordings of the past quarter century.
Itís not unusual for a criticís favorite albums to go completely ignored in even the sub-mainstream realm, especially these days (Sinkovich cited the fact his self-run label, File 13, has yet to release any significant recordings outside The Poison Arrows). But the peculiar contemporary circumstances that have led to the ignorance of the Poison Arrows are particularly upsetting. Justin Sinkovich has been a fixture in Chicagoís music scene ever since he moved from Tennessee in 1997. His work with Atombombpocketknife made him a local favorite, and his self-started websites, the Trouser Press-style website Epitonic.com and betterpropaganda.com, were among the first legal MP3 distribution websites in the country, rivaling fellow Chicago start-up Pitchfork.com in both traffic and esteem for a half-decade upon being founded in 1999. After the frustration of getting labels and bands on board, Sinkovich sold the website, right before digital music became legitimized with the opening of the iTunes Store in 2003. When the Poison Arrows stopped by New York City in their supporting tour of First Class, I discussed this with Justin, who had just re-acquired Epitonic. There was a look on his face as if he acknowledged he had missed a serious window of opportunity (he was not able to speak of future plans for Epitonic by this articleís deadline).
Since then, Pitchfork has moved its main operating headquarters to Brooklyn, and the subsequent domination of Brooklyn bands in online coverage is almost certainly not coincidental. Yet when Sinkovich moved to Chicago in the late í90 ís, he said it was the best place to go for music.
"One of the main reasons I moved up here because at the time if you were in a band and you wanted to move to a hotbed, you'd move to Chicago. Though there are a lot of great bands that come from here and are still great, they tend to leave, and not focus on a Chicago scene. So people here just pick their favorite bands here and there that they like."
Sinkovich took a position at Touch & Go records--another Chicago-based indie hub, which he left in 2008, right before the label and distribution services closed shop. He has committed to teaching at Columbia College in Chicago full time, where he works with students on the college-run record label and music production. running a label with students (he noted that the Chicago's local hip-hop community also has a more active presence with his students than in his generation). This prevents the Poison Arrows from touring regularly, and even though heís one of the go-to persons for accommodations for bands on the road when they reach Chicago, his inability to tour has left a lot of missed connections and opportunities by bands and industry insiders who only get to see him once every six months. "We've talked to a lot of bigger independent labels, and there's a huge percentage that ask for us, but our records are pretty weird, and they don't feel very comfortable taking a chance on us. Our new record doesn't have much from a marketability standpoint.Ē Outside Chicago, the Poison Arrows tend to draw crowds out of bassist Pat Morrisí origins with the seminal math rock band Don Caballero (though at the band's recent show at Toronto's NXNE festival, a fan in front wearing a Don Caballero shirt was unaware of Morris' involvement with both bands). The Poison Arrows, formed in the mid-2000s, released multiple EPs before releasing their first full length First Class, and Forever (Sinkovich jokingly referred to the album as his Chinese Democracy in the Reader). The follow up came just a year later. Newfound Resolutions is the product of a much more intensive recording process, one Sinkovich said mirrored the turmoil going on in the band membersí personal lives at the time (I didnít speculate, though in full disclosure, after listening to the Poison Arrows I learned one of my friends in Chicago was dating him at the time of First Classís release). Less accessible than its already experimental predecessor, Newfound Resolutions lacks the rocker quality that made songs like "Total Beverage" and "Twenty Percent Brighter" instantly attention-grabbing. Itís a much darker, more intricate album that requires repeated listens, and for a band struggling to gain new fans and cash-strapped industry insiders, itís a bold creative step that will most likely win over neither group but only increase the loyalty of current fans.
In fact, while many fans will casually celebrate the demise of the music industryís larger culture, The Poison Arrows demonstrate the devastating effects a crippled institution can have on its middle and lower financial players. At the height of the music industryís profitability in the early Ď90ís, indie labels were thriving along with the majors. Of course, indie veterans at the time proceeded with skepticism that was understandable and ultimately justified. Whereas major labels had the ability to swooped into a city like Chicago in the mid-Ď90ís to promote acts like the Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair and Urge Overkill, the industry's upheaval has had devastating effects for local musicians around the country, even in major hubs like Chicago.
"Chicago bands used to be fine with just settling here. But there's not the kind of infrastructure here anymore. There's an attitude here right now that people are just happy to play whenever. That's not to say bands aren't ambitious, but Chicago's not super-conducive to anything more. The odds are really stacked against you. It's a much slower conversation, because everyone who wants to do something with us asks when we'll be playing somewhere else."
"Right now, there's a real need for someone to take charge of the local scene. There's not a label that can promote local acts in quite the same way." He mentioned that he was bummed to see Flameshovel, a much more pop-oriented local label, slow down production and lose a lot of artists. Of course, he was quick to note that there are still plenty of Chicago bands getting national attention. The Ponys, one of the more prominent Chicago bands in recent years, signed to Matador in 2007, and the Smith Westerns have received national coverage from their debut off the relatively new Chicago-based label, HoZac. Justin sent me an email after our phone conversation to mention that Chicago's booking agencies were "second to none" and particularly helpful to local bands.
And yet, when I asked Justin if he was more optimistic or pessimistic about the music industry than when he moved to Chicago, his answers leaned towards the latter.
"It's easier to start a band here, because Chicago's living costs are cheap, but there's not a lot of support for bands here, or keeping any bands here. I remember 10 or even 8 years ago, people would move here to become part of the music community. Now I don't think that's the case." Sinkovich also mentioned that he has a difficult time keeping tabs on new bands, as he can't go to shows as frequently in the past (though his students at Columbia certainly keep him updated).
All of this explains how a musicianís musician, an online music media pioneer, and the creator of an album exceedingly well-received by anyone whoís heard it has gotten lost in the cracks, savvy and prescient about the future establishments as he may be. With any luck, his Columbia College gig, where he is very popular among students, will provide Sinkovich the one thing most music industry vets have lacked for quite some time: stability.
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