By Todd Miller
In 1989, George H. W. Bush was inaugurated, the Exxon Valdez spilled eleven million gallons of oil into the Prince William Sound and, here in Chicago, Marc Ruvolo and Gar Brandt founded Johann’s Face Records, a record label that through its twenty years would release eighty-eight records for bands such as Alkaline Trio, The Smoking Popes, Apocalypse Hoboken, Ruvolo’s own No Empathy and many, many more.
The label is modeled after Dischord Records, Ian MacKaye’s record label that is based in Washington D.C. Dischord was initially founded by MacKaye in 1980 to release a record for The Teen Idles, a band that MacKaye was a member of, and similarly, Johann’s Face’s original purpose was to release records for Ruvolo’s bands, No Empathy and Chia Pet.
Johann’s Face also took after Dischord’s ways of doing business, working on handshakes rather than contracts. These elements are what made Johann’s Face what it is today, a label that is not interested in hearing submitted demos from random bands, but instead in releasing records for friends’ acts. “Our aesthetic for Johann’s Face is really about friends,” says Ruvolo. “We’ve always had to be really friends with the bands and hang out with them and get to know them before we actually put anything out for them.”
In what Ruvulo considers the label’s “heyday,” in the mid nineties, there were twelve bands on the label. Now, there are five, but Ruvulo seems content with that. He feels that the punk scene, at least the circle that he’s involved with, is the strongest it’s ever been. “In the nineties, everyone still believed that they were on their way to becoming rock stars, and now, the bands don’t really believe that as much. People are doing it just for fun now, and they don’t have those delusions of grandeur that a lot people had.”
Not being overly concerned with the financial side of the label has allowed Ruvulo to do what he loves for the past twenty years. “I love putting out records,” he says. “The business end of it sucks, but I really just like making that cultural artifact and sending it out into the world. It’s like a little child. It’s just great to see when people treasure it, when they love it as much as you do.” With no overhead, running the label out of his apartment with some help from friends, Ruvolo is happy just to be able to break even, and make a little money here and there, which he does with some releases-and doesn’t with others. “It’s mainly an expensive hobby right now,” he says.
On April 4, Ruvolo is having a twentieth-anniversary show at Abbey Pub. For the show, Ruvolo’s No Empathy will be making its first appearance in thirteen years. Though the reunion isn’t currently scheduled to continue past the anniversary show, the band has been hard at work, rehearsing for the last five months. “When we initially talked about it, we decided that unless we wanted to do it right and make it sound good, we weren’t going to do it at all.” Over the thirteen years that the band was active, five full-length records were released, giving Ruvolo and company a large catalog to choose from for the performance. The band will be playing a total of twenty-five songs at the show.
Sharing the stage with No Empathy is Not Rebecca, a band that released two records on Johann’s Face and who hasn’t performed together in nine years, and two bands that are currently on the label’s roster, The Sass Dragons and Bread and Bottle.
The label is currently at release number eighty-eight, a vinyl-only (with a digital-download drop-card included) compilation, “Half-Assed Chicago,” that features previously unreleased tracks from The Arrivals, as well as a track from all of the bands on the label and tracks from other local bands, sixteen in total. The compilation will be released on colored vinyl and limited to 500 copies.
“[Vinyl] is definitely the way we’re headed,” says Ruvolo. “We still going to do CDs, but we’re doing less of them than we used to. A CD seems like it’s just not worth as much as it used to be. The people who buy vinyl are willing to go out of their way to find it and buy it, whereas people who buy CDs just want it as a delivery system for their iPod.”
Ruvolo is confident that there are many more years to come from Johann’s Face Records. “I can’t see myself stopping,” he says of the label’s future. “We’re just going to continue to release stuff. We’re heading towards the one-hundreth release, and we’ll have to figure out something special for that.”
April 4 at Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace, (773)478-4408, at 9pm. $10-$12.
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