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Encore: Tim Rakel offers variety and vinyl

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: There’s nothing quite like buying art directly from the source of creation. That’s true across all media, but music is probably the easiest to exchange cash for product, as directly and affordably as possible. Usually that purchase would take place after a gig, as musicians on the club level routinely mix-and-mingle with fans at merchandise tables, offering everything from vinyl to (believe or not) baby onesies.

Every now and again, though, you can find a musician-slash-label operative who’ll deliver straight to you, and that brings us to Tim Rakel.

A songwriter and radio host, Rakel recently offered a handful of releases for local fans. He did so with the launch of Extension Chord Records, a project he’s undertaking with Melinda Cooper, a member of his primary band, The Union Electric. Together, they figured that a multi-release debut was the way to go for the label. And with Record Store Day two weekends back, the two blanketed St. Louis indie record shops with not one or two, but five vinyl singles with tracks by six bands.

The work’s a combination of releases from Extension Chord and Rankoustider Records, an LA-based label with whom Rakel’s been working for a time. Let’s let Rakel explain the differences:

“Rankoutsider is a label based in LA, founded in 2006,” Rakel says. “It's run by Pat Todd, formerly of garage-rock band Lazy Cowgirls. They released ‘Ota Benga’ by The May Day Orchestra in 2010 and ‘Time is Gold’ by The Union Electric in 2012. Other Midwest bands on the label include Stace England and The Salt Kings from southern Illinois and Tijuana Hercules (former members of Skin Graft band Mount Shasta) from Chicago. May Day, UE and Tenement Ruth are on this label.”

Adding to the family, Rakel says that “Extension Chord Records was founded this year by myself and Melinda Cooper, both of The Union Electric, primarily as a common imprint for our various side projects outside The UE. Neither of us have titles except ‘co-founder,’ perhaps.”

And the two have side projects in abundance. Cooper has a new act called Town Cars, which has released a split seven-inch with another busy artist, Beth Bombara. Rakel also occasionally calls together The May Day Orchestra, a multi-member group that focuses on conceptual works featuring history; “Ota Benga,” for example, was centered the story of a pygmy who was on human display during the 1904 World’s Fair. The Chainsaw Gentlemen is Rakel’s newest project, a trio he shares with Alvan Caby and Chad Ross.

Rakel balances these multiple endeavours with two side jobs and stakes claim to a long-running show on KDHX, Monday morning’s “Mystery Train.” Rakel’s might be among the most-eclectic on the station, with music that highlights brand new bands coming to town this week, and acts that have been broken up for a half-century. His deep knowledge of different styles also keeps him in-demand as one of KDHX’s prolific subs, as he can pull off a set in a multitude of genres.

To add to the unusual, the label he has co-founded works, to date, only in vinyl.

He says that, “as far as the vinyl goes, it's a medium that not everyone is into but I think it's aesthetically pleasing and a nice way to listen to music.”

One speedy delivery later

Last week, Rakel handed off the five discs to me after a Union Electric rehearsal. He has his share of part-time gigs and I do, too, so we figured the best way to take care of business was to meet up at a house of hospitality, The Royale, where I post up on Thursday nights.

Handing me a stack of 45s, Rakel threw in the fourth installment of the “STL Loud” CD series, which includes a Union Electric track. Thankful for the lagniappe, I bought him a beer and handed over a check for $25, the most-pleasing, personal and hospitable purchase of my week.

Asked if there was something satisfying about making the direct connection with those interested in his work, Rakel says, “It's satisfying to be able to get recorded music to someone at a show. Live music is great for many reasons, too, but live sound has its downfalls. So, if someone is interested enough in the ideas presented by the live performance, I hope the recordings, along with the liner notes and artwork that goes with a record, will further their interaction with the music and their enjoyment of it.”

With this series of releases, Rakel and Cooper called upon a host of local support. From the album cover artists to the recording engineers, a ton of area talent is represented here and that comes largely due to the physical artifacts that come with the buy.

Rakel is sympathetic to acts that go out on the road with a merch booth full of T-shirts and those little pieces of plastic called download cards. But don’t expect that to be the way Extension Chord does business.

“I think downloads are perhaps handy to an artist if you have limited space in your touring suitcase or you run out of some tangible product,” Rakel figures. “But I've personally never bought a download. You can do that on the internet from home or work.”

Real records, though, those might be the most fun to purchase directly from the artist. Rakel has some memories on that front.

“I'm often inclined to buy directly from the artist when I see them working their own table,” he says. “It gives you that moment of conversation with them; and who else knows more about what they're selling? I've bought records directly from lots of artists: Jon Langford, Ian MacKaye, Mr. Gnome, Holly Golightly and The Handsome Family come to mind. One humorous encounter was with Robyn Hitchcock who signed the album, looked at it and said something like ‘this is nice, the vinyl, you probably know that.’”

And here's your change

Rakel’s sentiment is a familiar one.

I have boxes full of old cassette tapes, many directly passed off by the songwriter after a show. Say this about tapes: they’re maybe the most portable medium of all, with musicians back in the ‘90s almost guaranteed to have them stuffed in the pockets of their winter coats or green Army pants. I’ve fought zines, stickers, buttons and other ephemera. And, of course, T-shirts.

Perhaps my most threadbare nightshirt, threatening to tear to bits with every wear, was from Angel Interceptor, a group I saw in London. At the merch booth, I bought two copies of its single, each one hand-dappled with paint; and, yes, that shirt, which is hanging around 20 years later, an antique that’s far outlasted the British group that birthed it. Guess I really liked them that night.

Funny stories can come out of these exchanges, too.

A personal classic came via the songwriter Adam Franklin. Over the years, Franklin led the edgy, shoegaze-meets-metal giants Swervedriver, then a succession of other acts, including Toshack Highway and Magnetic Morning. In recent years, he’s played the mid-sized Firebird in midtown twice, setting up shop at the merch table during the opening bands. At his first gig, I stood and looked over the bounty, including works by all the bands mentioned above, plus releases under his own name. After a minute, or two, of sizing up what pieces I didn’t own, I handed him a five and a twenty, enough to cover the $24 that Franklin quoted.

He didn’t hand back any change.

For a moment, or two, I stood frozen. That dollar bill was suddenly something, the meaning of it was hanging in the air between us. Through some self-awareness mechanism finally kicking in, I figured it’d be rude to stand there any longer. I knew the man had given me hours-and-hours of musical goodness over the years. The dollar was almost (literally) the least I could give him for the enjoyment and the kicks.

Rakel’s appearance at The Royale last week came with a bit of curiosity, too. Walking up to the door, he said something along the lines “there are some clowns behind me,” and, sure enough, about a dozen, highly annoying clowns walked in. Head-to-toe clowns, bouncing between clubs, bars and restaurants all over town, on a city-wide mission to irritate people. As far as making an entrance, it was a pretty good one, being trailed by a gang of troublemakers in wigs, suspenders and red noses. It was in this environment, with that backdrop, that I bought his stuff.

Oh, you can also purchase Rakel’s records in the usual stores.

About this series

For the past two-decades-and-change, Thomas Crone has covered alternative music and culture in St. Louis for the St. Louis Beacon, Riverfront Times, Post-Dispatch and St. Louis magazine, along with a host of smaller, deceased titles like Jet Lag, 15 Minutes and his own zines Silver Tray and 52nd City. He's co-produced the music documentaries "Old Dog, New Trick" and "The Pride of St. Louis," along with several shorts. He's currently pre-producing the web series "Half Order Fried Rice," while teaching media writing at Webster University. And a lot of his memorabilia is available to the public at www.silvertrayonline.com/

The "Second Set" series highlights known and unknown stories of St. Louis musicians, deejays, promoters and gadflies. Each week's edition will showcase artists, albums and songs that collectively make up a fascinating Midwestern musical culture, one filled with both major successes and vexing could-have-beens. Combining personal recollections with interviews of the principals, these articles will put into context the people, recordings and venues that have informed St. Louis' recent rock'n'roll and pop music.

"Encores" follow in the spirit of the earlier series as Crone and The Beacon roll out an ebook that developed from Second Set. Read Second Set columns.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.