Review: Something Out of Nothing—New Book Shares the History and Images of Garage Rock Label Estrus Records

Chris Coyle and designer Scott Sugiuchi will attend a book release party at Quimby’s Bookstore (1854 W North Ave) on Saturday, October 21, beginning at 1 p.m. Another party takes place at Delilah’s (2771 N Lincoln Ave) Sunday, October 22, at 6 p.m. 

The ’90s weren’t all flannel and grunge. If the 20th century was an ocean, its final decade was a cluttered seashore, replete with the flotsam of a thousand pop culture shipwrecks. In turn, we of so-called Generation X were beachcombers. Where other generations built and bought, we thrifted and sifted through the vast pile of pop cultural detritus they left behind—collecting, gleaning, reworking, and crafting it all into something stranger and stronger. We were artists. We were visionaries. We were…well, we were broke, mostly, but we had our fun. 

Dave Crider had even more fun when he established his label, Estrus Records. Founded in 1989 in Bellingham, Washington, Crider planned to promote and sell music by his band The Mono Men. Under his eye, Estrus expanded, specializing in garage punk, trash rock, surf music, and other lo-fi ensembles. When it came to revisiting and recreating past pop culture into something newer, weirder, and harder-edged, Crider found like minds in bands like Man…or Astro-man?, The Mummies, the Phantom Surfers, Satan’s Pilgrims, The Makers,’s, Immortal Lee County Killers, The Trashwomen, Southern Culture on the Skids, and a number of other groups. For a small, independent Washington state label, it had a massive history worth recording. Crider and his long-time collaborator, artist and designer Art Chantry, asked writer Chris Coyle and designer Scott Sugiuchi to tackle the project in 2020. Their new book Estrus: Shovelin’ the Shit Since ’87 is the result.

Suigiuchi currently serves as art director for Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, but he’s been a designer for years, and played bass in various bands. Chris Coyle is a journalist, who once spent a year and some change working at Chicago’s very own WGN. Coyle had interviewed Crider about his other band the DT’s, years before, while Sugiuchi established a rapport with Art Chantry at and after a book signing.

The two learned they were in for one of those seemingly impossible projects that got bigger the more they worked on it. Nevertheless, they whipped it into shape, realizing the tale was less about a record label and more about a hipster way of life we’ll not see again.

“The great thing about the book is it captures a time period that I think is unique,” Coyle explains. “Estrus was so much more than what people typically think of a record label. In the book, you’ll see it was a community-building enterprise.”

Author Chris Coyle

Suigiuchi agrees and elucidates

“I think one of the goals of the book was, like Chris was saying, to capture that feeling that…” He pauses. ”it’s cliche to say it was magical, but it was. It occurred in this time without the Internet.”

Sugiuchi regales me and Coyle, who was in grade school for much of the Estrus’ history, with memories of Garage Shock, a yearly music festival of Estrus bands, held in Bellingham’s now-shuttered 3B Tavern and venues around the country. Sugiuchi recalls living in Orlando, Florida in 1995, and receiving a Garage Shock announcement in the mail. He and several friends decided to fly to Washington to see the show, with no guarantee of getting tickets.

“Luckily, you know, we got them for all the shows… And you’re standing in line with people all over the country who were taking that same gamble, and it was wild,” he continues, aglow. “You would meet anybody on that scene. And immediately you had that connection. You know, like, if somebody was into Estrus, you were just like, ‘Okay, you’re a cool person.’” 

Estrus shows were legendarily exciting, kinetic, and often bacchanalian affairs, with affordable admission, cheap drinks, and loud bands. But Estrus wasn’t just about fleets of drunk punks, ersatz spacemen, and Japanese rock ’n rollers. The Estrus aesthetic was a big part of the show. Chantry envisioned a visual history as well as a verbal one. 

Designer Scott Sugiuchi

Largely overseen and rendered by Chantry, Estrus worked with artists including Darren Merinuk, Coop, Frank Kozik, Chicago’s Alex Wald, and others, Estrus’ aesthetic sought inspiration in the dingier, darker, and more ludicrous corners of American media, marketing, and advertising. Crider and Chantry originally bonded over a love of horror comic books, lucha libre posters, tiki and cocktail culture, hot rod art, movie monsters, spook shows, toy package design, fetish and men’s magazines, and way more pop cultural dreck than can be listed here. The aforementioned motifs informed the design of Estrus album covers, gig posters, and swag: buttons, matchbooks, t-shirts, decals, temporary tattoos, swizzle sticks, and Man…or Astro-Man? “Astro Glasses” (think x-ray spex). Individual bands had their own merchandise and routines as well, whether it was Man…or Astro-man’s sci-fi space alien surf rockers shticks, the Makers traveling in a 1965 Pontiac Bonneville hearse, or the Mummies in full pharaonic bandage drag. Much of it was informed by the utter availability of so much cool stuff, whether physical objects like mechanic shirts, savvy suits, and obscure musical instruments found and cheaply purchased at thrift stores or garage sales, or a generations collective memories of 1950s, 60s, and 70s trash culture. An “open field of plunder,” as Sugiuchi puts it. It helped that those at the top were in on the gag.

“Dave and Art are just arch-smartasses,” says Sugiuchi. “They would put a record out and they would shove it full of tiny little references.”

“It wasn’t just mining the past, it was taking the past and putting in the personality of Dave Crider and Art Chantry.”

Coyle follows up:

“Donny Maker [of the Makers] brought up that same point about how a lot of garage bands were derivative or just imitating the 60s but a lot of these bands that flocked to Estrus or Sympathy [for the Record Industry], or even Crypt [Records], like, they were taking the 60s and making something else out of it. They were doing their own thing with it.”

The most impressive thing is that the only Internet available then was a network of fans, bands, and venues interconnected through zines, letters, postcards, and phone calls. That support system helped, especially on the darkest day in Estrus Records’ history: January 16, 1997, when their warehouse caught fire. Damages totaled at a quarter of a million. Estrus’ archives and mail order inventory, as well as Crider’s own record collection and the Mono Men’s equipment were wiped out.

“When we presented the fire chapter, Dave almost didn’t want to look at it, it’s still something he’s only recently been able to go into because it was such a shocking thing. And he’s forever grateful that nobody was hurt. But…devastating,” Coyle recalls. 

Chicago Fire Shock Poster by Alex Wald

“But, on the flip side of that, it goes to show what kind of bands and what kind of community he built, because of the outpouring of wanting to help Dave get back on his feet.” Shortly after the conflagration, multiple bands participated in “Fire Shock” events across the world, including one in Chicago at the Empty Bottle.

“This was again, more reoccurring themes of pre-Internet. There was no GoFundMe, no, you know, [way to] instantly make things better. The whole year of 1997 was basically rebuilding for the label.”

The theme of recycling arises again. Singed singles, posters, and other items were recovered and sold to raise funds. A literal rising from the ashes.

“There are [burned] posters hanging on people’s walls and stuff. You know, ‘this was in the Estrus fire!’ So, again, making something out of nothing.”

That network of dedicated fans also helped designer Sugiuchi access imagery, ephemera, and swag far beyond that in his own collection.

“They were happy to share set lists, they were happy to share posters, they were happy to share fliers. They’re happy to share,” he says. “Even the match books, people still had them in pristine shape, like 30 years later.” One unexpected source lived in Portugal, a fellow named Hugo Moutinho who runs the Estrus Museum on Instagram.

One hesitates to use a vulgar term like branding in regards to an institution as DIY and independent as Estrus, but reading through the book the combination of (musical) content and design and the loyalty it inspired is obvious. Ever-lasting Estrus fan Sugiuchi summarizes Estrus’ style and substance thusly with record store memories.

“You could be flipping through records and if you saw an artist or a sleeve and it was Estrus…you wouldn’t even even have to worry about picking it up, I’d come out of the record store with a stack of singles, knowing almost all of them were going to be great. And there was a period of time, as far as Estrus’ history where nothing was bad. You’d be like, “That’s a banger. That’s a banger. That’s a banger.” like all of them. And, you know, to this day, they still are.”

Estrus: Shovelin’ the Shit Since ’87 can be pre-ordered on the Korero Press website. Copies will be available for sale at the above events.

Dan Kelly
Dan Kelly

Dan Kelly has been a writer and editor for 30 years, contributing work to Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, The Baffler, Harvard Magazine, The University of Chicago Magazine, and others.