Unbound by rules or genres, Gordon Stoneheart and Teen River Tapes are turning the standard release process on its ear and loving every minute of it. Teen River proves that if your underlying goal is simply to have fun, not much can go wrong. Operating in Chicago for roughly three years now, the label is a constant source of new life in the home recording community. Leaving no stone unturned, Teen River releases music from the noisy and ambient to poppy bliss, creating a sense of community that transcends the genres involved.
After their showcase and Tarnation release show at The Empty Bottle, Gordon Stoneheart and I met for a banana split and some laughs at Margie’s Candies. It quickly became apparent that Gordon is really into doing what he wants, and it just so happens that what he wants tends to be pretty fucking cool.
ASHLEIGH DYE: Can you start off by telling me how Teen River came to be? Or, more so, how Headless Horse Head came to be? You’ve said before that Teen River started, initially, as a way to release HHH music.
GORDON STONEHART: I met Drew in Kansas. I’m from Kansas City and he was just living there because it was better than his middle Missouri town. We were in really shitty bands that played together, and he went on to this band that was fucking legendary. It was called Baby Birds Don’t Drink Milk and they were always my favorite band. They were really noisy, ambient, but good pop songs. There was no one doing what they were doing in Kansas. Then I moved to college and eventually here. Drew was touring with that band non-stop. I went down to SXSW with this band and played this house show and Drew was randomly there and not living anywhere and asked, “Can I go with you?” And I said “Uh, yeah.” Ha, so I was living at Ball Hall at the time, an alternative space that existed near North and Kedzie, and he didn’t really have anywhere to be. He was fine with going wherever, so he moved into Ball Hall with me. He was the person that taught me the most about music, as far as electronics go; so we just jammed nonstop at this warehouse at Diversey and Pulaski.
AD: Tell me more about this practice space you had. Was this the place with the soda fountain?
GH Yeah, it was weird. This guy who has a clothing line that’s apparently really big in London ran the whole building, I don’t know. It’s called “Dealr.” With no second E. They had a big pool table and a fancier side, and this big soda fountain with this crazy electro-plasmic green soda called “Green River” and we would just stay up drinking that and recording for hours. We mainly moved out because no one paid rent. Then we got out of there and Headless Horse Head had all this music to put out, we basically had like eight volumes we wanted to put out in the course of a year and we ended up putting out eight volumes in the course of three months.
AD: How do you think living at Ball Hall affected you creatively?
GS: Well we could have shows, so that was rad. And then, basically, when we wanted to put out 20 tapes at once it was the most fun vibe to do it in. There’s no other place where it would be as fun and accommodating. It was a big ballroom, it was really pretty, and every one of our friends was a part of it. People were involved; they felt like they belonged, it wasn’t pretentious at all. We were able to, in December 2011, throw a party where we released 12 tapes, then had another where we released 20 tapes. The next release was at Lake Paradise, another warehouse space I lived in.
After we put out a shit ton of stuff and Ball Hall was unfolding a little bit, Drew moved to New York for a while. So I kind of took things over myself. But now Drew is back and its great because if anyone needs to record anything to be put out Drew is who I would go to for that, so he’s still involved.
AD: How do you guys get connected with the bands you release? Was it mostly through the shows you put on at Ball Hall?
GS: I think since that was such a long running place, we were having shows a couple times a week. This is such a huge city, and there are so many bands. [Teen River] became this nurturing thing that made people feel comfortable and want to record. So basically the way I get in touch with bands is they get in touch with me. Or I see them live and approach them. I’m a fan of seeing a band live first. That’s where tapes sell the most, at live shows. If bands kill it live their tapes will sell. So that’s a major aspect, as well.
AD: You have a really wide range of releases you put out. Tarnation and Headless Horse Head are so experimental and ambient, while The Christmas Bride is super poppy. Do you have any favorites that you’ve put out over the last few years?
GS: The Toupee release one is one of my favorites. The Health&Beauty tape, its like singer-songwriter, guitar stuff, but the most well done of any of that shit that’s out there. Nobody does it better than Brian. He recorded it all himself. I’d say the most successful tape, though, is the Julie Byrne tape. She moved away a while ago, but she lived at Ball Hall for a long time. She’s a singer-songwriter, ultra alto voice. It’s instantly captivating.
AD: What’s the process for putting out 20 different albums at once? Do you make a certain number of tapes for each artist or is it on an as-needed sort of basis?
GS: When we did those releases, the batch of 20, we did 30 of each. So it was about 600 tapes. My set up now is in Roscoe Village. I used to just take my shit everywhere and dub tapes all the time. I do dubbing in real time, and it take me so long. I’m always doing it. Whenever I’m home, now, my machines are always going.
AD: A constant humming in the background
GS: It’s a service really; I have a lot of people asking me to do it. I’m hoping, one day, I won’t have to have a job. There are so many variables with dubbing, the machines are alive and you have to take care of them, because if you don’t they’ll die in a month. These machines have motors and belts; it’s like a car. They all sound insanely different, but I might just be a freak and have listened to tapes every day of my life.
AD: What’s Teen River’s relationship with Lillerne Tapes like? You guys seem to have some overlap in releases sometimes.
GS: That dude is one of our best friends, Gabe. Drew and Gabe are the dudes I learned how to do everything from. Basically learned how to make things fun, he’s always known how to make things fun. He started Lillerne when he was back in Kansas just for fun. Gabe’s more of like an internet-savvy person. He doesn’t have showcases in Chicago. He’s based in Chicago, but he’s known more around the country than he is just in Chicago. His batches always sell out.
AD: Do you guys have any plans or release dates in mind for 2014?
GS: I’m really focusing on vinyl right now, actually. I run this dual label called Lake Paradise with my friend POTIONS, who lives there. We just put out his stuff. Vinyl’s like a biz, there’s a lot more money involved in that. So those are things I have dates for, I’m doing a Toupee 7-inch, I’m doing a Vehicle Blues 7-inch, I’m doing a Hex full-length. Other than that, its super hard for me to see past that.
AD: In your bio it says “An on-going project in Chicago to surface volumes of music at confusing rates.” Would you say you’re initially trying to disrupt the current status quo or or do you find that’s just how you work best?
GS: When we were releasing so many tapes at once, people were getting angry about it. They think there this specific way to do it. It’s like, look dude, I’m not trying to be a noise label, and I’m not trying to be an ambient label. I’m just doing what I want to do. Tapes are about your fucking friends. That’s what its about. The way Teen River runs does have a lot to do with the pace of my life, but I’m super connected to Chicago music community, so I think its also telling of what’s going on in the community. The variables are those two variables. Whenever something comes out it’s based on my life and what’s coming out in the community. It’s about documenting that whole community. There’s so much music, scenes that are only about one style of music bored me to death. It’s not fun; it’s not fresh, things have to be fresh, they need to be surprising. People always want to have a release show and have the same bill. Like lets find some other shit that is cool and nobody knows about.