Restore to Factory Settings – An Evening with Wax Trax Records
This past Saturday was Record Store Day. I don’t own vinyl or a record player but the excitement of the day and the celebration of music and the frustration towards the music industry (specifically production, thanks for holding up however many albums RSD) is still a culturally relevant experience to me. I enjoy seeing people excited about exclusive releases and then being frustrated by the insane resale values. I smile when people find their grail in the stacks. It makes me happy to see people coming together. I am cheesy and I wear it openly.
Coming together is really the fulcrum of the Wax Trax experience at House of Vans in West Loop. The event itself was open to VIP ticket holders who happened to grab a copy of Wax Trax documentary Industrial Accident in special edition vinyl packages, media, and those who were brave enough RSVP and stand in line for hours for the free Cold Cave and Ministry show that closed the event out. But before we get to the end, we need to get look at the beginning.
House of Vans is a funny event space. It’s in a restored West Loop warehouse that doubles as an indoor skatepark but also transitions into a venue for events such as this. That said, it’s not much of a screening space for a documentary. The majority of the floor was filled with plastic fold out chairs and at the end of the room there was a medium size screen with a table in front of it for the Q&A to follow. It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t great. It’s not really important to get lost in the discomfort as it is to tune into the room and absorb the energy of those around you and get to their level. The floor seating was completely packed out within forty-five minutes of the doors being open to Wax Trax Records diehards. It’s nearly impossible to describe how much energy was overflowing from this room; there were people recalling their record store hangouts, talking about their favorite records, rocking vintage shirts from the era that they’d kept, and lots of smiles. I’d always known about Wax Trax but never really dove deep into their catalogue in a critical way so this experience of being around diehards was illuminating as an outsider. I love hearing true fan opinions and following their lead on what to check out and what to avoid.
As soon as the documentary started there were cheers as the credits started flashing across screen. For me, this was the pulp of the experience I was hoping to have. The history of Wax Trax is fascinating and filled with many twists and turns. Truthfully, it deserves its own piece that I will likely never write because I can’t imagine doing it justice. The big takeaways though — what you should know — are that Wax Trax was a pivotal point in not only Chicago subculture, but Denver subculture, queer subculture, industrial subculture, and record store culture. If you think that’s a lot of subculture to be a part of you’re right. Wax Trax was the origin point for a lot of these subcultures to really find their footing in the world with its owners Jim and Dannie laying the foundation and instigating bands and performers to push their art to its limit.
Their story is moving on a very base level — they were two young gay men who were an out couple in the 1970s who decided to start a record store in Denver and fill it with the music they loved and society’s misfits. Their record store grew in popularity largely because of its unique selection, the majority of which would go on to become the punk canon in the 80s, so did their desire to do something larger than what Denver could provide. The couple eventually moved to Chicago and that’s where the breadth of Wax Trax history began to unfold. They created a record store unlike any other the city had seen at the time; it was a store, a hangout, unpretentious tastemakers, members of bands as patrons, and it had a fierce punk attitude with a welcoming atmosphere. I kept thinking about how much I would have loved to inhabit the store in its prime the more their story unfolded. Without getting too deep into a plot summary I will say that the store and eventually the label do meet their end in the early 1990s, but the twists and turns are yours to learn by buying and watching the Industrial Accident documentary. It is incredible so don’t miss out.
The Q&A section was short-lived at best. The screening ending and the momentary gap between the two periods of the event caused a lot of movement in the room and led to a difficult listen and experience for anyone hoping to interact with the panelists. The panel included a few old store employees, Jim’s daughter, and Franke Nardiello from My Life with Thrill Kill Kult. This was a pretty trying experience — the movement of people in the room was so distracting and loud that it was nearly impossible to hear the questions from the audience or the emcee. I moved around the room to get a better angle but nothing really seemed to help, and after fifteen minutes, the Q&A quickly ended and the chairs we were all sitting in began to be collected by House of Vans staff. It was disappointing that this section wasn’t done the justice it deserved because the panelists would have been great resources to chat with as their moments in the documentary were all so wonderful and helped flesh out the Wax Trax experience.
The room filled out a little more as general admission were allowed in for the Cold Cave and Ministry sets to follow. Cold Cave played an unusually short set which really was no fault of theirs; the projector that typically would be fleshing out their performance with beautiful visuals was broken and blue screened by their second song which abruptly stopped their set until the technical difficulties were resolved.
Momentarily annoyed but handling it gracefully, Cold Cave picked up where they’d left off and transported the crowd into their dark noir world replete with the previously missing projections that floated across huge clouds of smoke that billowed out into the crowd. It was unfortunate that they had to play such a short set because of a technical issue that likely should have been resolved at the beginning or before the event. That said, great set by a charming band who maintained their energy in spite of an annoying pitfall.
Finally there was the experience that was Ministry — a truly fascinating band. It’s hard to describe Ministry in a way that feels comprehensive in one sentence. I could tell you that they’re an industrial band, which is true, but I could also tell you they are a heavy metal band, or a rock band, or some chaotic cultists who happened to be good at playing instruments and evoking this post-apocalyptic atmosphere in every song they play. Ministry exist in this interesting temporal space as both exactly what they appear to be but also as musicians capable of traveling backwards in time and channeling their older reincarnations for a current audience.
This set was predominantly older material played to honor their Wax Trax releases and it was insanely effective at boosting the energy of the crowd and satisfying their need for hits. Al Jourgensen carries a shamanic gravity on stage that sort of bleeds into this post-America, post-modern visual language that was entirely interesting and subversive to experience as a relative newbie to their material. I can’t say that I fully “got” Ministry but it really isn’t about me in this case, I wasn’t looking to be turned into a fan or provoked into disliking them, I wanted to see what their fans reacted like and how they worked the crowd. I was happy with the experience I had watching this band with so much history play to fans who shared that same history. The evening encapsulated the record store experience; you just want to be around your people with your music and guide newbies into and world they didn’t know they could ever be a part of.