"You know, when 'Cold Life' sold 3,000 copies, we said, 'We're Warner Bros. We're there!'" Jim Nash said in 1991 of Chicago band Ministry's debut single 10 years earlier. "That was when two people ran Wax Trax! out of the back of a record store."
That record store was located at 2449 N. Lincoln (see the site on the new Chicago Rocks tour), and the two people running it throughout the '80s -- and the pioneering record label of the same name -- were Nash and his partner, in business and in life, Dannie Flesher. The label didn't quite reach a Warner Bros.-size impact, but its dance-rock sound and eventual influence are recognizable, quantifiable and quite possibly more important to its fans by virtue of it remaining more of a cult phenomenon. This weekend, anyway, that's worthy of celebration.
For three nights at Metro, denizens of the ever-evolving Wax Trax! bands will coalesce for special performances, including the "electronic body music" of Front 242, My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, members of the Revolting Cocks (including Luc Van Acker, Paul Barker and Chris Connelly), members of KMFDM (including En Esch and Mona Mur), Rights of the Accused and more.
WAX TRAX! RECORDS RETROSPECTACLE: 33-1/3 YEAR ANNIVERSARY
at Metro, 3730 N. Clark
♦ 8 p.m. April 15 -- Featuring Front 242; En Esch, Guenter Schulz, Raymond Watts and Mona Mur performing selections of KMFDM; Rights of the Accused
♦ Sold out
♦ 8 p.m. April 16 -- Featuring My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult; Luc Van Acker, Paul Barker and Chris Connelly performing selections of the Revolting Cocks; the Blue Ribbon Glee Club
♦ Sold out
♦ 8 p.m. April 17 -- Featuring Front 242; Luc Van Acker, Paul Barker and Chris Connelly performing selections of the Revolting Cocks; En Esch, Guenter Schulz, Raymond Watts and Mona Mur performing selections of KMFDM
♦ Tickets, $40, (800) 514-ETIX, metrochicago.com
Wax Trax! bands shared members liberally, blending the label's overall sound, which reluctantly adopted the classification of "industrial" music based on its sometimes clangy electronic sounds and samples. Julia Nash -- daughter of Jim (who died in 1995 of complications related to AIDS, as did Flesher last year), organizer of the Retrospectacle and keeper of the Wax Trax! flame -- credits two players with crafting the label's real style.
"The bands were quite incestuous," Julia Nash told the Sun-Times. "You had Cabaret Voltaire collaborating with Ministry, collaborating with Skinny Puppy and so on. ... Though [Ministry leader Al Jourgensen's] involvement without a doubt should be underscored ... Paul Barker and Bill Rieflin are a huge piece of the history. Even though they don't claim much of the glory, their rhythm section was the driving force that bridged the rock and dance elements before there ever was a genre called 'industrial.' To this day, I feel many of Paul's bass lines are some of the best ever written. Whether you're listening to Acid Horse, Revolting Cocks or Pailhead, layering different artists on top of Paul and Bill's foundation created projects totally unique but with the same feel throughout."
The nexus of Ministry and its many spinoffs (the Revolting Cocks, Pailhead, Pigface, 1000 Homo DJs, Lard and more) defined not only industrial music but contributed to the blossoming of many dark subgenres throughout the '90s, from the coarse electronica of Prodigy and Nine Inch Nails to the black rock of Marilyn Manson and Slipknot. The often overlooked humor inherent to many bands within the Wax Trax! family also can be connected to acts like the Supersuckers, the Rev. Horton Heat and Mojo Nixon.
"Jim had breadth and idiosyncrasy and unpredictableness, and Wax Trax! reflected that," Steven Gottlieb, chief of TVT Records (which bought out Wax Trax! in 1992), said upon Nash's death in '95. "It thrived on a kind of 'nurtured chaos.' People do the label a disservice when they say it was just about industrial music. Jim let artists go in a lot of different directions, and they adored him for that."
How does some of the Wax Trax! music hold up today?
"To be honest, some of it doesn't, and I'm not naming names here," said Julia Nash, adding a laugh. "There is a definite nostalgia to it, but really the label and label artists were pioneers. They were the first to be doing this type of music, and they are responsible for much of what has come after. I think a lot of younger fans go out of their way to trace back to the roots of a genre the same way I wanted to find out who influenced my own heroes when I was younger."
If we trace that impact forward, who do we arrive at today?
"I love that there is a new wave of electronic music going on right now with bands like the Pre-Sets and Yacht," she said. "It's not quite as 'dancy' as a lot of the Wax Trax! bands, but it definitely sounds like they are experimenting with great results."
And since bands like Ministry often drew samples and sounds from a wide variety of music's history, the Wax Trax! legacy lives on sometimes in unexpected ways.
"Just yesterday I called a facility to rent equipment for the event," Nash said, "and the person asked what the event was and said, 'Wow! Wax Trax! and your dad are responsible for my entire Elvis and Beach Boys collection on 45.'"
Proceeds from the Retrospectacle shows benefit the Center on Halsted, Chicago's acclaimed community center for the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered community.