IN THE RELATIVELY SMALL WORLD OF people attuned to underground rock (small as compared to, say, aficionadom of WCW Wrestling), Drag City is a label you can trust. Resolutely low-profile, the Chicago-based outfit has carved out a kind of brand identity among those whose taste in music runs to the interesting, the obscurant, or simply, the good. With a catalog that includes records by Palace, Smog, Royal Trux, Silver Jews, Jim O'Rourke, and Gastr Del Sol (to name but a half-dozen among dozens), the label has maintained impressive standards in the access-oriented trenches of undie rock, upholding a tacit promise to its audience to release music which is, if not crucial, then always at least worth a listen.

And now, for those who may be wondering what the hell this has to do with a celebrity-themed Stranger Books Quarterly, Drag City has turned its attention to the business of publishing. To date only one book -- Neil Hagerty's Victory Chimp, an epoch-hopping, sci-fi, coming-of-age novel dealing with, among other themes, synesthesia and the three stages of man -- has been released. A collection of short stories by legendary guitar improviser John Fahey and a book of essays by avant-garde musician Alan Licht are forthcoming, as is a second title by Hagerty, who is half of Royal Trux. Since 1997 the label has been distributing The Minus Times, an outstanding literary magazine edited by Hunter Kennedy (who is not a member of any band). Contributors have included David Berman, Robert Bingham, and Jeff Johnson. Books and magazines seem like a natural extension of the Drag City oeuvre, given the label's literary sensibility and the fact that most of the authors named above are also DC recording artists.

Which begs the troublesome question: rockers-who-write or authors-who-also-play-music? Uh, read Fahey's "Antonioni" -- which relates in sharp, thrumming prose and hilarious detail the author's abortive experience working "with" the famed director -- or any David Berman poem, and it's not a question. Knee-jerk lit snobbery may be shelved until the next volume of poetry from J. Morrison or J. Kilcher is unearthed. The work is substantial, and like the records, worth the time. More to the point, then; to what extent will the press focus on books by musicians?

"Zero," says label boss Dan Koretzky, via e-mail.

Is the relationship significant, incidental?

"The only relationship that exists is the existing relationships between DC and those whose handwriting we can make out. So yes, the relationship would be significantly incidental."


Hunter Kennedy started The Minus Times in 1992, inspired by a similar project David Berman had undertaken, a single-page "newspaper" called The Civil Jar. Kennedy conceived MT as an ongoing series of "open letters" to his friends. Over the next few years he did 20 issues, leaving free copies around the few good book and record stores he could find in his newly adopted town of Austin, Texas. Fueled by Kennedy's fine writing, the zine gained a small-but-loyal following. In 1996 Koretzky approached Kennedy with the aim of lending a hand with distribution.

"Koretzky was smart enough to recognize that the audiences that buy his records are also very literate," Kennedy told me on the phone. "They're readers. And I think there's a definite crossover. I just think that Drag City can be savvy about readership the same way they're savvy about music. If you can deliver the unexpected to someone, you can keep 'em very happy, because unfortunately, in the U.S. today there's no surprises left. There's very few. If you can deliver something that's unusual, you've really accomplished something."

The Minus Times has blossomed into a 28-page literary journal, full of good poetry, short fiction, lists, drink recipes, mix tapes, illustrations, and interviews (usually the same five questions posed to people like Robert Frank, Barry Hannah, Dan Clowes, and Will Oldham). It's published twice-yearly and sold mainly in record stores, with regular runs of nearly 1,000 copies -- respectable considering that the magazine has never been advertised. It's a far cry from CondÉ Nast, but an exciting situation for Kennedy, a former New York Magazine contributor who cries no tears for the merger-mad, capital-P Publishing racket.

"I'm glad they're consolidating," he explained, "because it's leaving that much more room at the bottom and the middle for the smaller presses which are developing. The ones who are good at it, who kind of know what's going on, are going to be around in 20 years."


One of the hallmarks of Drag City's character -- if you'll allow that a record label has a character, over and above what it's trying to sell you -- is a sense of humor. Despite being ostensibly engaged in the business of serious independent music (though I'm always fascinated that critics who swoon over Palace and Smog, for example, so often miss the dark comedy inherent in their most extreme dourness; what part of "woe" don't you understand?), there's an elegant streak of funny running through their promotional language. It's liberated from both the vulgar stench of saturation advertising, where every word means "buy," and the tyranny of oppressive oversolemnity, where every word means "you're an idiot." Their irony, like their music, is elevated, and admirably not obvious; they don't take being serious too seriously, a trait which bodes well for a small press.

To wit, a few more questions for the boss:

When and how did the press idea come about? Why start publishing books?

DAN KORETZKY: The press idea started with that guy Guttenberg (not Steve!), literally centuries ago, no doubt to spread the word of God. The reason we got into the game too was to prove, yet again, that we're better than those European fucks.

How many copies are there in an initial printing?

Depends on the book. Victory Chimp is in its second printing of 1,500; Hawaii by James Michener just topped 1,000,000! And we heard that the Koran just went back into print. You never know what the demand is going to be like.

Who are the editors? Are there editors?

That's what we're always asking! Who are these fascistic editors? But seriously, there are editors, and just like opinions, they have assholes too! Then there is the DC literary crew: Damian Rogers (of Poetry) is our chief editor; Dr. David Grubbs, Ph.D. is our proofreader and assistant editor. For final run-throughs, we've followed in the footsteps of our hero, Alfred A. Knopf, and hired a trained chimpanzee on roller skates to "green light" books and magazines for ultimate release. Plus, this chimp "pressure-tests" them: Like good luggage, books should be durable. And our books should probably be fireproof!

Is it harder to sell books or records?

It's much harder to sell books, because people aren't very interested in reading. Think about it: It's a lot more fun to fuck to "Let's Get It On" by Marvin Gaye than to get it on while reading I, Marvin! Wait, I take that back.

Which brings us back to Celebrity. Much talk is made about the publishing industry's hyperdependence on celebrity; dwindling readership and the reliance on personality to sell what few books are still purchased by the populace are frequent subjects of concerned consumer business reportage. But that's a different world, little to do with the story of Drag City as nascent press, except perhaps as a corollary to describe the label's unrelationship with the greedy business of entertainment vending. That's not to say celebrity doesn't play a part: Drag City and its recording artists are indeed very famous to those who know about them, but those who don't will probably never even hear of them. It's a question of scale, a redefinition of success.

In the words of Hunter Kennedy, "They're tapping into a good audience."

Record Label Turns to Publishing