In the 12 months since last year's Memphis Flyer local music poll, the Makeshift Music logo has graced five disparate local indie releases: Blair Combest's Prettier Than Ugly, the Glass' Concorde, Brad Postlethwaite's Welcome to the Occupation, the Coach and Four's Unlimited Symmetry, and Makeshift #3, the third installment in the compilation series that has become the local label's signature. Three of these acts broke into the Top 10 of the Flyer's music poll for the first time -- the Glass at #4, the Coach and Four at #6, and Combest at #9. Postlethwaite's band, Snowglobe, Makeshift's flagship, finished at #5 despite not releasing an album in nearly two years. Has the past year been good to Makeshift, or has Makeshift been good to the past year?
A sprawling community of interconnected, largely twentysomething Midtown-based musicians and artists, Makeshift is referred to as a label because, right, it releases records. But it might be more accurate to call Makeshift an anti-label --not a business set up merely to make money but rather a collective of like-minded artists helping themselves by helping each other.
Makeshift was co-founded in 1999 by Postlethwaite and Josh Hicks, recent graduates of Houston and Christian Brothers high schools, respectively, and Aaron Rehling, still a student at Houston.
The concept for Makeshift began with The First Broadcast, a compilation CD designed to showcase the various musical outlets for Postlethwaite, Hicks, and Rehling. But even with that first release, the group made an effort to reach past their musical and social circles to include artists such as the Lost Sounds' Alicja Trout and Lucero's Roy Berry.
"Josh did a whole lot of work as far as getting people involved that were outside of our group of friends," Postlethwaite says. "And Aaron has always been instrumental in recruiting the heavier bands on the comps."
Makeshift #2, released late 2001, was a turning point that ushered in the label's prolific run of the past two years. The sequel was a more expansive outing both in terms of sound (including a selection from indie hip-hop collective --that word again --Memphix) and the inclusion of higher-profile local acts (Lost Sounds and Lucero in full along with singer-songwriter Cory Branan). One particular Young Avenue Deli benefit show for the compilation pulled a social coup within Memphis' cliquish indie scene: It put the Lost Sounds, Lucero, and Snowglobe fans in the same room.
Makeshift's activity, longevity, and diligence are qualities not always associated with Memphis' indie history. Since the widespread emergence of indie rock in the late-'80s/early-'90s, Memphis has arguably had but one true heyday. In the mid-'90s, with Shangri-La Records at its most active and with the rising stature of Easley-McCain Studios, Memphis seemed poised to align with other underground rock hotspots of the era. Then there was a lull. Bands started, bands broke up, and more bands broke up.
When anyone thinks of both "Memphis" and "music," there's a clear mental image that emerges. It's a crucial part of what makes Memphis Memphis. But there's a downside too: It sometimes seems that Memphis music can only be conceived in terms of the city's indigenous styles. Makeshift's presence during the past year places it in a position to change that. As Shangri-La Projects proprietor Sherman Willmott, who helped introduce the Grifters to indie-rock fans, puts it: "It's good to see the Young Turks picking up the Memphis music baton, especially since they are releasing such atypically non-Memphis Memphis music."
These communal, localized scenes are a fairly common indie-rock phenomenon. Early on, Makeshift drew inspiration from Elephant 6, a mid-'90s indie-rock collective (Apples in Stereo, Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor Control, etc.) whose members were spread out around the country (mainly Athens, Georgia, and Denver) but who worked together on each others' records. The Makeshift logo went on Snowglobe's Our Land Brains, but the album was released on another indie. This was common with Elephant 6 too. Labels like Merge, Flydaddy, and SpinArt would handle different bands' releases but Elephant 6 was still credited.
Postlethwaite lived in Athens for a while during Elephant 6's heyday and sees a comparison between the two groups. "The idea is similar in terms of having different artists cooperating," Postlethwaite says. "The fundamental thing that brings [Makeshift artists] together is the realization that we can do more together than seperately. If someone picks up a record with the Makeshift logo on it and likes it, then maybe they'll look for another. We all like each other's music, so there's a good chance other people will too."
But Makeshift has outgrown the Elephant 6 comparison in the past year. Where Elephant 6 bands were connected by a similar sound, Makeshift unites a more diverse slate of artists. To put Makeshift in a more contemporary context, you might compare them to Omaha's well-publicized Saddle Creek collective (Bright Eyes et al.). Though Saddle Creek is an official label, both it and Makeshift enlist the help of a large local gaggle of artists and friends, and both are located in mid-sized cities with relatively insular music scenes.
As an anthropology student who has even considered doing an ethnography on the Makeshift subculture, Postlethwaite is aware of the potential pitfalls of the Makeshift "movement."
"What constitutes someone being involved in Makeshift?" Postlethwaite asks aloud. "I wonder if some people find it elitist. I didn't want it to be like that. When I lived in Athens and was around Elephant 6, I got that feeling. Everyone was having a great time with each other, but it was hard for an outsider to break in [to that circle]."
But if the parameters of the Makeshift scene are a little hazy, there's no doubt that the heart of it resides with the four artists who made this year's poll:
The Glass' Concorde is a collection of mini-epics: Eight songs in 45 minutes that meld Brad Bailey's singer-songwriter skills with minimal-to-thick song structures. The Glass manages to evoke both dad and son Buckley (Tim and Jeff, respectively), which is a successful marriage new to these ears. They also deliver a charming live cover of the Replacements' "Unsatisfied." By moving to Memphis just three-and-a-half years ago, Bailey holds the distinction of being one of Makeshift's "proper album" artists who is relatively new to the Makeshift collective.
Combest, another high school friend of Postlethwaite's ("Brad and I were in a band called the Fatty Go Easies, which was totally immature, like They Might Be Giants without testicles," says Combest), has been in the fold for the duration. His Prettier Than Ugly is "rootsier" than its Makeshift contemporaries, so much so that listeners probably would hear it as an alt-country record, whatever "alt-country" means in the year 2004. The frequent Bob Dylan comparisons Combest receives are actually reasonable, and with Snowglobe doing their best Flying Burrito Brothers impression as Combest's backing band, there's a lot more personality on Prettier Than Ugly than on the standard Bloodshot Records/No Depression fare.
If the Brads aren't confusing you yet, enter the Coach and Four's Brad Stanfill, a longtime Makeshift collaborator. The Coach and Four's Unlimited Symmetry is so meticulously built without sounding crowded or too complex (it's a pop album too) that Memphis might be the most unlikely source most music fans would think of in a blind taste test. Like early Sea and Cake, before they started making dentist-waiting-room rock, or late-'80s/early-90s Sonic Youth, the Coach and Four have made a toothy and timely guitar record.
Stanfill got his Makeshift induction through the collective's most memorable nonmusical endeavor: "Brad [Postlethwaite] called me up about two years ago and said, 'Hey, I got a bucket of plaster and about a thousand of these ridiculous mule-donkey posters. Wanna go put some up?' I agreed.Later he explained to me that he and Josh were planning to put out a compilation CDof various Memphis musicians." After plastering Midtown with the mysterious image, it became the cover for Makeshift #2.
As a founder and the perpetual decision-maker, the unassuming Postlethwaite is Makeshift's ringleader. He would hate that tag, but no one has a better understanding of the unclear boundaries, challenges, and idealism that characterize Makeshift. "What might be the one defining characteristic of 'Makeshift bands' is that we all like each other's music. All of the core people involved seem to be fans of each other," says Postlethwaite.
And there are a lot of other players who play a role in the Makeshift universe. Sasha Barr, a local artist with an impressive national portfolio, including album covers and show prints for Pedro the Lion and the Bonnaroo compilations, serves as resident Makeshift artist.
"With a label like Makeshift, it gives inspiration to those who didn't think that they could make a solid record on their own and helps showcase the talent we have here in Memphis," Barr says. "If Makeshift continues and 'succeeds' in any way outside of the city, it becomes a perfect example of a group of people getting their shit together and setting out to pursue a dream with little to no start-up," explains Barr.
Snowglobe's other songwriting force is Tim Regan. Regan also serves as a journeyman musician on others' records (the Glass, Combest, etc.) and, along with ex-Pawtucket Kevin Cubbins (both are engineers associated with Easley), is a common presence behind the boards. Cubbins recorded the new Snowglobe album (set for release later this year) and recently accented them on pedal steel for a short tour. The new album was originally being looked at for release by Indianapolis indie Secretly Canadian, but some friendly red tape has put the album back on the home front. "We joke around about the fact that by the time we spend all of this money and do all of this gruntwork for the other records, it will be time for the Snowglobe CD to come out, and that's the one that will go big," says Bailey.
When asked if he views Makeshift as a label or a loose collective, Cubbins explains, "I think that if Makeshift were to organize and get tax ID numbers, it would risk destroying that framework of idealism and camaraderie. At the same time, I think they are wondering where to go from here. The only thing to do is to somehow face these challenges and come up with some way to push Makeshift to the next level."
Of the pieces that have to fall into place to make a CD or record, the one that requires the most work is the one that is most often taken for granted. Running a record label is laborious, thankless work. Pulling an all-nighter writing or practicing music is high glamour compared to seeing the sun come up after hours of stuffing and addressing envelopes, hand-making and filling sleeves, organizing contacts, and other tedious but necessary tasks. "Brad [Postlethwaite] does a lot of the dirty work that someone running a collective wouldn't normally do, like dealing with promotional companies and distributors," says Stanfill.
On the immediate horizon for Makeshift is the sophomore release by Snowglobe and a solo album from ex-Pawtucket Andy Grooms. Makeshift's increasing productivity has provoked a few logistical questions that put Postlethwaite at a crossroads. "The environment that Makeshift is in might lead it to become either a label or just a name, both due to individual artist's demands and needs combined with a lack of money," says Postlethwaite. "Part of the freedom is that we can do whatever we want with the name, but as the roster and recognition grow, there is a definite pressure to organize, and the thought of becoming a traditional label is there." As Makeshift is currently constituted, being part of the group doesn't preclude bands from working with other labels. Were Makeshift to become more formal, that might change.
"We started working [on this] six to eight months ago, trying to figure out how Makeshift could operate with more organization," says Combest. "We need to find someone who can put in 15 to 20 hours a week, who has the organizational skill that Brad [Postlethwaite] and I don't, who is not previously involved with Makeshift, and who isn't dating, like, a bass player in one of the bands or something."
The slippery catch-22 is that, possibly because of Makeshift's hazy boundaries, the group has been able to contribute greatly to Memphis' underground music scene. But that same informal structure might also hurt Makeshift's progress. Makeshift is based on handshake agreements and the hard work of people who have more on their plates than career music goals --school, work, and personal art or music that may be extraneous to Makeshift.
This is not to say that contractless labels can't thrive. Chicago's Touch and Go Records, for instance, grew to be an omnipresent and influential imprint based on handshake deals, but this ethic hurt them when the Butthole Surfers almost sued them out of existence over the band's back catalog. Makeshift is a nonprofit in that it generates no walking-around money for any of its participants. But it's not a nonprofit on paper --in fact, it doesn't exist on paper at all -- which could lead to some legal uncertainty down the road if the "label" continues to grow. "Not that there is any money, but sometimes I wonder what the taxman sees when he looks at Makeshift," says Postlethwaite.
"At the least, we will need to do some centralization within the coming year, that's for sure," says Postlethwaite. "But where some labels wouldn't want to be regarded as a stepping stone for artists, that is what I want Makeshift to be. I don't want to be the authoritative one barking orders or the one in the front of the photos. With any given project, it seems to get more and more complicated the more people you have involved with it, and even if I wasn't in this position, I know that another Makeshift person would be."
Additional reporting by Chris Herrington
Makeshift #3 is the most accurate pulse of the Midtown music thing right now. --Mark McKinney
Finally, something new and different for Memphis. Their cover of the Replacements' "Unsatisfied" is great. --Amanda Dugger
Combing equal parts Jeff Buckley and Crazy Horse to create rock-and-roll that should be heard. --Gary Crump
These guys take a different path from most of their Makeshift label counterparts. You can actually smile at their shows and not feel bad for it. Watch out for Phish kids, though.
In its very early days a pretentious mess, this band has matured into the city's most ambitious outfit, an art-rock band as concerned with songwriting as it is with chops and musical interludes. What may be more significant, however, is the fact that an entire scene of seriously talented musicians (Paul Taylor, Andy Grooms, the Glass, Blair Combest) has sprung up around the band, and this has resulted in a flurry of collaboration and creativity unrivaled in town since the heyday of Stax. --Mark Jordan
Yet another Makeshift Records band starting to garner attention. The Unlimited Symmetry album is amazing. --Matt Cole
This band entices you with astounding instrumental openings then layers in the vocals. The textures created in their songs will lure you into a rhythmic groove. I do not believe you can watch this band live and not move something, whether it's your toe or your head. --Janet Wilson
This guy is a great lyricist: witty, charismatic, and with just enough of the twisted dark stuff. His voice has a stark, timeless quality to it that I think could stand above today's wimpier lot of singer-songwriters. Look for big things from this guy. -- Kevin Cubbins
Over beers one night, two of the very best songwriters in the city dismissed Combest's Prettier Than Ugly (well-made and played, they admitted) as rehashed Dylan. Well, maybe so. Sure, there's the nasal vocal delivery, and a few songs aggressively "borrow" from the Dylan oeuvre. But really, what songwriter hasn't cut his teeth on the freewheelin' Dylan? Besides, Combest's winning melodies and the subtle backing of Snowglobe (those guys, again) elevate this effort to a higher level. --Mark Jordan
The Memphis in Makeshift Music Festival
Saturday, May 1st, starting at 3 p.m.
Corner of G.E. Patterson and Front
(across from the Blue Monkey)
Featuring: Snowglobe, The Coach and Four, The Glass,
Cory Branan, Dixie Dirt, Blair Combest, The Pirates,
The Secret Service, The Passport Again,
Amy and the Tramps, and The Joint Chiefs
and Brad Postlethwaite
The Hi-Tone CafÇ
Sunday, May 2nd