Q&A With Bob Bucko Jr
10.6.15 by Scott Scholz

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When folks riff on the midwest as flyover country, with flat, straight roads and seemingly unending fields of corn, I can’t help but fall into defensive mode. Only in my head, of course—we Midwesterners avoid confrontation. But the truth is that our scenes are tight, and everybody puts in their share of work to keep things moving. That work often comes through in the music, both figuratively in terms of deep roots and attention to detail, and literally by way of wild, varied collaborations.

Among the Great Plains states, Iowa has been home to especially remarkable music, shows and labels in recent years, and Dubuque’s Bob Bucko Jr has contributed abundantly in all of those areas. This has been an especially busy year for BBJr releases, including his 3rd LP on Captcha Records, a retrospective compilation disc on Iowa’s Nova Labs, new tapes on Tymbal, Warm Gospel, and Analog Masters, and great collabs like Sex Funeral, Boyle/Bucko, and Venereal Crush. An uncompromising musician, label head of the deliriously diverse Personal Archives, and critic/advocate for music across the region, BBJr still finds time for regular tours that spread the Hawkeye love. I caught up with Bob on the final leg of his fall tour a couple of weeks ago for an update on his own work and his take on the Iowa cassette scene.

How’s your latest tour going?

Tour has been going well. Every night has at least one aspect that makes it memorable, validates the entire foolish enterprise. Some nights have boasted full rooms, others remarkably sympathetic small audiences. Sometimes I sell a bunch of merch, sometimes the payout is just enough to cover gas to the next town. Sometimes neither of those things happen. But there is something inherently uplifting about the kindness of strangers, the hospitality I’ve received everywhere I’ve gone.

The musicians I’ve played with have been great. I’ve had the fortune to play with old friends, as well as be exposed to some phenomenal new (to me) artists. I am lucky in a way to straddle the fence between multiple genres and scenes – it allows me to experience a lot of different approaches to underground/DIY aesthetics, and provides a diverse sample of bands across the country. No two shows, or days, are ever remotely the same.

This is my 4th solo tour, and 6th overall, in the past two years, and I never tire of nor cease to be amazed by the small, tight circuit of creative people I get to call friends. It may sound a bit hokey, a bit idealistic – and it is – but it is also a truth that gets me through the mundanities of my daily life back home.

You’ve released a lot of your own work through your cassette label Personal Archives—what’s the early history of the label coming together?

The name Personal Archives is a bad joke. Some time early in the trajectory of making my private home recordings public, someone asked me what label I was on. I laughed and said, “Personal Archives.” At the time, the thought of being associated with a label, whether it was in the traditional indie model I grew up on – Touch & Go, Amphetamine Reptile, etc. – or a person with a printer and a logo, seemed beyond my reach. I guess you could say I lacked imagination, since that’s all it takes.

I think an important thing that reminded me, to paraphrase d. Boon, that our endeavors are what we make them to be, was working with Randy Carter’s label, Dubuque Strange Music Society. In our sleepy town of 60,000, Randy was regularly hosting house shows in a very residential neighborhood, featuring all sorts of freak sounds. He was releasing CD-rs and tapes in super-limited runs with unique, handmade art. This seems old hat now, and was the norm to me in the mid ‘90s, but it was affirming to know this most grass roots way of networking and collaborating with other creative people across the country (and world) was alive and viable.

Randy released some of my earliest solo stuff as a 3” CD-r and cassette. Not too long after, I put out the first Personal Archives release, sometime in 2011. The first 3 releases were scattershot, snapshots of different aspects of my home recording.

The name obviously suggests that Personal Archives started as a place to document your own work, but you’re way beyond the vanity label gig now. When/how did you start to focus on albums by other artists in the PA discography? Was it a gradual process or more of a conscious thing?

In the spring of 2012, following a (literally) crippling injury, I concentrated on the label as it stands today. Early releases featured my involvement in some way, either as solo releases, splits, or groups I was affiliated with. Over time, while I continue to release my own work, the label has come to focus on other artists, people I support professionally and personally. The idea is to provide a platform, however small, to highlight and validate sounds that may have otherwise been overlooked. Early on, there was a focus on Iowa artists. This soon expanded to regional, and then national and international, musicians. Basically, as my peer group grew, I had more friends in different places I wanted to support.

In addition to cassettes, you’ve done some CDr and lathe-cut releases—is there any kind of process for choosing formats? And what are some of your favorite albums on Personal Archives?

There isn’t a singular unifying aesthetic to the label other than supporting friends who make music I love. Though there is a strong representation by noise acts – itself a genre term open to varied interpretation – I have put out all kinds of stuff, from pop and folk to punk and psych. Also, though cassettes are the main format I utilize, I am not a purist. I’ve put out a few 7” lathes – I’m very proud of the Ixnay EP (a single-sided hand-screened record) and the Curt Oren single (with hand-painted covers by Curt and his pals). Some other personal Personal Archives favorites include Mahler Haze’s Counterfactual CD-r, the second Bean Snack tape, Nora Petran’s Vice President, and the sprawling new Wilmoth Axel 2xC60. The Floating Cave C54 holds a special place in my memories – it was my first collaboration with Drew Bissell (Venereal Crush/ex-Aseethe), and the first time I played guitar after severing the tendons in my left hand. I’m also proud of the Bongo Crimes compilation, which was the 50th PA release, because it highlights the unified randomness of the label – everything from harsh noise to free improv to my buddy rattling stream-of-consciousness rhymes to Commodore 64 themes. I am humbled to have had any hand in so much great music.

Your own work has been featured through a number of other cassette labels over the years…give us a quick pathway through your discography for folks who might be interested in lending their ears to your musical journey.

Though Personal Archives initially existed as a repository for my solo recordings, I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of great labels over the years. The first tape, Self Esteem Hand Jive, was released through Randy Carter’s DSMS label in 2010, I think. I did a split with Devin Dart in 2012 on his now-dormant Felt Cat imprint (Devin is now putting out stuff as Skymongrel Recordings). That same year, Captcha Records released How To Fuck All Your Coworkers In One Sitting. Captcha put out my first LP the year prior, and, following some positive press, How to Fuck… was released on vinyl, in a truncated version, in 2013. This summer, Tymbal Tapes released If You Have a Door, Leave It Open. I’ve also worked with some cool new Iowa labels, like 5CM Recordings, Warm Gospel, and Nova Labs.

You’ve been a significant figure in the Iowa scene for a long time, a “noise veteran,” as someone just called you on this tour. It seems like the Iowa scene is full of exciting music these days, but it’s also unusually unified, with lots of labels working together, community and statewide compilations and festivals like Zeitgeist, that sort of thing. Tell us about some of the cool projects happening in Iowa right now that you’re involved with, or that deserve some attention.

There’s a lot happening in Iowa right now, beneath the surface, as well as in the semi-mainstream. Labels like Maximum Ames are going the traditional route of promotion and whatnot, but doing it well. Sump Pump Records, which focuses on vinyl, brings a ‘90s indie/punk aesthetic to things, which really appeals to me. Mortville Noise continues to operate well beneath Iowa’s radar, while at the same time attracting rabid fans around the world.

Obviously what’s most interesting to me right now are the slew of cassette labels that have sprung up over the past five years: Warm Gospel, The Centipede Farm, 5CM, Workerbee Records, Breaching Static, and a bunch of others that escape my memory at the moment, as well as Jay Schleidt’s long-running Lation collective. Each sort of have their niche, but are not bogged down in anything doctrinaire. There is a lot of mutual admiration and support.

I suppose what’s unique in our ‘scene’ is that it doesn’t have the hallmarks of a scene – there is a lot of humility and interdependence. I guess you could chalk it up to ‘midwest nice’ or whatever, but I think a big component of our mutualism lies in not taking any of this for granted – not too long ago, there did not exist the opportunities there are now. We all know what it’s like to grow up devoid of culture. In our networking, we’ve discovered we are not alone in being the weirdo that records strange sounds in his/her bedroom, that these expressions are valid, and to be celebrated. There’s no room for attitudes and egos.

There are some obvious antecedents to this in Iowa, most notably Shawn Reed’s Night People label, which operated out of Iowa City throughout the early oughts. For the most part, though, the present situation with experimental/noise/whatever music in Iowa traces to 2011 or so. Trent Reis (JUXWL), Trey Reis (Warm Gospel Tapes, Skyscraper, Kamrar), Chuck Hoffman (The Centipede Farm and a million projects) strike me as some prime early movers in all this – between them, and a solid handful of others, I’m sure, the groundwork was laid for the Zeitgeist fests (the fifth of which is happening in Des Moines on October 24) and the All Iowa Noise Insurgency (AINI), which has alternately been everything from a facebook page to a zine to a double cassette compilation.

Most of the labels and artists involved with the AINI are based in and around Des Moines and Ames, which are smack in the center of the state. There are also pockets of great stuff happening in smaller towns as well – the house shows in Muscatine are crazy, Fairfield (home of the Maharishi University) has a surprising amount of cool bands for its size, and the college towns of Iowa City and Cedar Falls are always solid.

How about in your part of Iowa? Dubuque is a pretty long haul away from Iowa City and Des Moines, but it seems like you’re keeping things interesting out there, too.

Dubuque is a bit more off the beaten path. We are situated on the Mississippi River, bordering Wisconsin and Illinois. We’re an hour from the nearest interstate, so it’s easy for us to get lost in the shuffle. Often I feel like we’re somewhat forgotten when it comes to coverage of Iowa music. In most respects, though, I enjoy being off the grid, as it were.

Despite our relative anonymity, there is a lot going on under the surface here. Again, there is no ‘scene’ here, but there is a solid group of like-minded people doing a variety of creative things, working against the flow. I work for an arts nonprofit, the Dubuque Area Arts Collective, that pushes against the milquetoast establishment in the city, and, more importantly, promotes and mentors young artists and musicians.

An offshoot of the DAAC is Ruix. Ruix has existed in some form since 2011, when it began as a print zine. It’s gone through several permutations over the years, and I feel like we’ve finally arrived at the aesthetic we were initially aiming for. We recently published our seventh issue, with another on the way this winter.

Most importantly, Ruix operates as a collective – a core group of us share the responsibilities and burdens of doing this magnificently futile thing. Besides the zine, we have a podcast, in which we interview musicians and artists with ties to the area, as well as a weekly blog. We host regular shows in the basement of our art gallery – they are basically house shows with a good PA, a real DIY vibe. The Ruix name is also attached to several recordings featuring members of the collective, including Venereal Crush, a five-piece drone/free improv group I play with.

What’s next on the horizon for new BBJr projects and Personal Archives?

As this fall tour wraps up, I am starting to book the next run. Venereal Crush is going to go out for a week or so in January, and Sex Funeral, a duo with Des Moines drummer Matthew Crowe and myself, is planning on going out for a bit in March. I’ll most likely do another solo tour in May – looking to go south and see some friends in New Orleans. I’m considering bringing a road partner this time around – I’ve logged around 17,000 miles the past two years, doing all the driving, and everything else, by myself. I really enjoy being able to get in my head on the long drives, to see the country in a leisurely way. It’s strangely reassuring to know that I’m responsible for everything that happens, good or bad, at least within the miniscule locus of control one actually possesses in such endeavors.

I’m also continuing to record new stuff, and have an album in the can I’m hoping someone will pick up on in the coming year. My new LP on Captcha Records just came out, and I hope to get that into some people’s ears. As for Personal Archives, I have some upcoming releases from Mahler Haze, Different Planets, and Dead Man’s Lifestyle on deck. The label is about 80 releases in, and though I’m not putting stuff out at the frantic pace I was a couple years ago, I’d like to think I’m supplanting that with a bit more quality control in terms of sound quality and packaging.

I’d imagine PA will go on for as long as my friends and myself are making sounds. My little tag for the label is, “it’s in your head, between your ears.” I will always be fascinated by the creative process. It’s true alchemy – we create things out of thin air where nothing stood before. What’s not to dig in that?