Like most important stories, this one begins with a cassette deck, an amateur archivist and hundreds of screaming teenagers.
Since 2013, Dave Hofer, the former product buyer at Reckless Records, has become a sought-after digital archivist specializing in out-of-print punk rock. What began as a project focusing on DuPage County, Hofer’s old home, has fanned out across the Chicago area. Hofer has personally digitized and posted 383 releases, and his YouTube channel has over 250 videos of fantastically rare footage.
This spiky repository has turned Hofer into a punk rock Alan Lomax. Bandcamp Daily, the music website’s editorial section, called Hofer’s sprawling project, “a feast for the eyes and ears: not just a portal to the past, but a wondrous survey of all the kooks pumping out music… during the late nineties.” Leor Galil, staff writer for the Chicago Reader, put it more simply: Hofer is “the great digital archivist of Chicago’s punk past.”
I accidentally discovered Hofer’s collection last April. Within seconds, I stumbled upon music from my own band, the Apathetics. I hadn’t heard our songs in over twenty years—and never digitally.
The Apathetics entered my adolescence in 1997. At the time, I played guitar in a blessedly short-lived skatepunk band even worse than our name: “the Stinkers.” A half-broken VHS cassette, rediscovered this summer, captured my single Stinkers show. The Apathetics, unimpressed attendees, scrutinize my musicianship and mock me. Soon after, I was asked to join their band.
Forever touring between three Illinois counties in a white minivan, the Apathetics were megastars to this middle-schooler. Frankly, I’m still not sure why they recruited me as their permanent bassist. Apart from a significant age difference—I was in eighth grade; my bandmates were all grizzled high-schoolers—I didn’t play the bass. But I owned one, and that was good enough.
To get this out of the way: you’re not reading a nostalgia piece. I adored my gifted, mercurial bandmates, but they showed little interest in their newly recruited Apathetic. At best, I was tolerated. At worst, when tape labels came courting, these young careerists credited another bassist on songs I recorded.
While the Apathetics lacked camaraderie, we still made biting, catchy, occasionally anthemic music together. More than two decades later, though, our very local success has been reduced to a couple of flyers, footage of us headlining a markedly empty Fireside Bowl and an archived concert listing from April 1998. The latter is a charming little remnant: Davy Jones at the Rosemont Theatre; George Jones at House of Blues; Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé at the Star Plaza Theater; Huey Lewis and the News at Ravinia Festival; the Apathetics at a pool hall called “Family Billiards.”
Between 2014 and 2017, Dave Hofer unknowingly preserved three Apathetics songs while restoring compilation albums from his personal collection. I wrote to Hofer in late April, curious if he owned other Apathetics recordings. He didn’t, but we quickly became e-pals on a jubilant, if exasperating, quest to uncover all things Apathetic.
While Hofer reached out to owners of long-defunct punk labels, I attempted to reconnect with my ex-bandmates. The Apathetics mysteriously fired me in the fall of 1998. Shunned from the brotherhood, I’d had no contact with them until 2019. I never even bumped into an Apathetic on the train. Instead, I vividly recall seeing punkers in our shirts and patches. An anecdote now; a panic attack then.
The first person I tracked down was the band’s drummer and de facto manager. The chain-smoking ruffian, who perpetually wore military camo pants and a pink studded bracelet and went by the name “Greg Ogre,” is now a realtor posting vigorously about the wonders of mosaic-tiled spa tubs and napping nooks. He didn’t respond to my emails.
Moving on, I worried our lead guitarist and secondary songwriter, Ryan Ramtin, would be harder to locate. I had heard rumors that Ramtin—known Apathetically as “lil Mel”—was living dangerously “out west.” In reality, I found him working for a digital marketing company in suburban Chicago. While Ramtin seemed lightly curious about our preservation, he didn’t save anything from the band he co-founded.
Next, with Dave Hofer’s assistance, I found the band’s primary songwriter and lead vocalist, Rick Leech. (Real name.) If the Apathetics were unignorable, it was because of this preternaturally accomplished visual artist and songwriter. Leech wrote slinky pop tunes with sophisticated chord progressions and hid them in one-minute hardcore punk—craftsmanship I didn’t fully realize until an archivist reintroduced me to my band.
During my tenure, this virtuosic seventeen-year-old said maybe thirty words to me. So, I was surprised when Rick Leech replied to my email. Now a poster illustrator in Los Angeles, Leech admitted he saved only a few photos. All the rest is gone.
I concluded my search with Brian Korey, the bassist who replaced me. Before going full-time as a member, Korey had been an Apathetics fan. Perhaps because of this, he was able to dig out two personal cassettes. These weren’t the master recordings—those are lost to history—but mixtapes that, luckily, included Apathetics songs.
Korey, now a regional chef, also mentioned he saved an Apathetics T-shirt. Adorably un-punk, his mother stitched this shirt into a quilt, and it’s somewhere in storage.
This is about as good a definition of “posterity” as I can find.
Between April and May, various Apathetics recordings were sent to the Field Museum, Hofer’s workplace at the time. The Field isn’t officially affiliated with his archive, but Hofer used its resources until last August. “I think they’re—at best—passively interested in the project,” he tells me.
Hofer accepts materials without a deed of gift or other legal agreements. After digitization, he simply mails everything back to the bands and labels. Since the public can choose to pay for these re-releases, any revenue goes directly to Hofer. His collection has received over 124,000 listens, but it averages around $255 a year. Like his donors, Hofer is hardly profiting from punk rock.
Anyway, time or teen carelessness had gotten to the Apathetics tapes. Audio degradation and strange gaps—”errant pause-button depressions,” according to Hofer—were scattered about Brian Korey’s personal cassettes. And the only official release Hofer could obtain, a split album released in 1998 by A.P. Records, sounded uncomfortably close to Alvin and the Chipmunks. “I would dub [tapes] on my home stereo,” Ryan Durkin, the label’s owner, explained, “and the later AP tapes suffered from an overworked cassette deck.” As a result, extremely fast music got sped up even further.
I wondered if the Apathetics, a band with no legacy to reckon with, should perhaps not be publicly displayed sounding like “Chipmunk Punk.” However, I was up against Dave Hofer’s unbudgeable belief that bad recordings are part of his collection’s appeal. To the stringent archivist, we were what we recorded. With the rest of the Apathetics indifferent to preservation, I was essentially given a choice: either accept the band as Alvin, Simon and Theodore, or get pulled from his collection and return to oblivion. Reader, I relented.
Excluding duplicates, Hofer digitized fifteen Apathetics songs and improved three I had converted myself. He assembled these songs into four separate releases, and uploaded them in June.
Most of this music is unlistenable. But some tunes have endured surprisingly well. The lyrics are inaudible, sure, and Rick Leech sings like a Muppet, but a handful of late-nineties Apathetics recordings sound as fabulously squalid as SoCal hardcore punk from twenty years earlier.
To better showcase the durable stuff, I created a YouTube channel, Apathetics Archives, separately from Hofer’s collection. This isn’t our greatest hits; we were too young to realize that songwriters should record their earworms. The A.A. channel is, instead, a taut introduction to the Apathetics. It’s also a plea to the public to help find more of us.
So far, the band’s most intriguing artifacts—say, a photo of Mike Dirnt holding up an Apathetics patch at a Green Day concert—haven’t been located. But this is a new archive, and there’s always another box in the basement of a childhood home.
Despite disagreements about how to present largely forgotten music, I’m thankful for Dave Hofer’s archival work. If anything, it helped to clear up the mystery surrounding my Apathetics dismissal. Since I was fired without any real explanation (or none that I remember), I’ve sometimes wondered what I had done so hideously wrong to the boys I admired. An answer arrived twenty-one years later. According to Brian Korey, the bassist who replaced me, it was simple: he had a car.
I gave up on punk bands in 1998, a high-school freshman. The Apathetics would stagger on for another year or so, drastically changing their sound from melodic hardcore punk to sludgy, insipid emo. As I listened to their later songs for the first time this past spring, I thought the Apathetics sounded bored and teenage-y and derivative—everything the band implacably had gone against in my era.
This isn’t a complaint from the bitter ex-bassist. It’s all there in the murky archives.
Dave Hofer told me that as a result of his collection, forgotten bands have reunited. I hope this never happens with the Apathetics. For one thing, we are about as punk as a pair of novelty Circle Jerks socks. Also, beyond the bassists, the Apathetic men have sniffed at their high-school stuff. Charming, in a way, considering that was their attitude as high-schoolers.
Still, with an extinct creature somewhat revived, I’m left with a nagging curiosity: what would today’s adolescent punks think of the ancient Apathetics?
RIP Tom is a high-school band whose members come from Morton Grove, Lincolnwood, Park Ridge and Chicago. My girlfriend saw them live at an under-populated Evanston street fair in 2018. Just as it was for me two decades ago, ferocious teen punk in the staid North Shore offered my girlfriend a moment of transcendence.
In May, I emailed RIP Tom nine Apathetics songs—a mixture of studio and live recordings—and requested their evaluation. “It’s an easy gig,” I wrote to Antoinette, RIP Tom’s singer and guitarist. “Just listen to the music, maybe share it among any bands you’re friendly with, and send back your honest judgment.” A couple weeks later, a reply arrived.
“The consensus between my bandmates is that the Apathetics go pretty hard and achieve the gritty punk attitude in their music better than many of the young-adult punk bands that we are familiar with today. The attitude we find in the stage presence is something all of us try to emulate, some better than others. If they were around today you’d find us in the pit at shows. Wished this kind of thing was still around more.”
I wasn’t anticipating a positive review. Kvelling a bit, my instinct was to call up Rick Apathetic and Greg Ogre and lil Mel. A beautiful blurb from RIP Tom—a band produced by Steve Albini, no less—would have secretly meant everything to them. But then I remembered it’s 2019, and my fellow Apathetics are indifferent or unreachable strangers in their late thirties.
So, I thanked Antoinette for her band’s help and asked about their upcoming shows. After that, I indulged in a selfish thought: this old-timer would return to a basement or backyard or pool hall or bowling alley—or wherever punkers play out these days—and from the pit of this show, catch RIP Tom covering (RIP) Apathetics.
The thought ended when I remembered, for all our digital preservation, we didn’t bother to save the lyrics.
David Safran is a Chicago-based writer, musician, and producer. NPR Chicago called Safran “a rising musician” and New York Times bestselling author, Larry “Ratso” Sloman, described his songs as “impeccable.” In 2016, the Atlantic named Safran’s song, “Adult Things” as its Track of the Day and listed it among the magazine’s “Best Songs Based on Art and Literature.” Safran has lent his music to many brands and organizations—from Adidas to Amnesty International—and his shows have been chosen as noteworthy events by PBS Chicago, The Chicago Reader, NME, Brooklyn Vegan and have been named NBC’s Pick and Time Out Chicago’s Critics’ Pick twice. Additionally, Safran has performed or collaborated with many notable artists such as Academy Award winner Jorge Drexler; internationally acclaimed French songwriter Keren Ann; Grammy Award-nominated composer Susan Voelz and guitar icon Marc Ribot. Safran is currently producing an upcoming project with UCP, a premium content studio, under the NBCUniversal umbrella.