This ambitious documentary is about the story of Wax Trax! Records, the famed record store turned recording label that launched Industrial music icons Ministry, Front 242, My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, and many more. Directed by Julia Nash, this film follows Jim Nash & Dannie Flesher on a trip through the 1980’s underground as their revolutionary Chicago record shop transforms into the pioneering label; and also serves as a rise-and-fall tale with lasting influences on the musical landscape.
Recently screened at the East End Film Festival, the Seattle International Film Festival, and the Chicago Underground Film Festival, as a huge vinyl collector myself, I first stumbled upon Wax Trax when the third time I went to Chicago back in the early 1990s, and it reminded me another classic vinyl emporium in Ann Arbor that was known as Schoolkids Records, which also tried to expand by starting their own label, only ended up bankrupt and closing shop because of that move.
So why does Julia feel Wax Trax! was so successful with their own label?
“ The Wax Trax! store was definitely something special for collectors,” she reflects. “My dad and Dannie’s goal was to create a place filled with things you couldn’t find anywhere else. A lot of collectors and artists made the pilgrimage to 2449 N. Lincoln Ave over the years. I don’t know the specifics of Schoolkids so it is hard to speculate what the lynch pin of destruction was, but I do have a few general thoughts about ebb and flow of independent labels that were popping up throughout the 1980s.”
“A lot of indies at that time were dependent on showcasing local or regional artists that would shed light on a scene or movement,” she continues. “The most successful examples from that time might be labels like Dischord, SST, Twin Tone who initially used the success of the local scene or talent pool to expand outside the immediate area and into a larger vision or mission. Unfortunately, a majority of independent labels paint themselves into a corner so when the talent moves on or dries up in the area, the label becomes unsustainable and the options are pretty limited.”
“Other independent labels have grown organically out of previous projects. Labels such as Touch & Go, Sub-Pop, Rough Trade had either retail stores or magazines in which they could see and hear new talent from all over the country/world. They had access and gave a wider platform to new artists. These magazines or record stores were all acting as taste makers on a smaller level and I guess it makes sense that the expansion was easier for them due to testing out what was working through their existing outlets.”
“Wax Trax! may have fallen into a hybrid category. I cannot stress enough how important the record store was to the growth of the label. Fostering community here in Chicago around music and art was super important to my Dad & Dannie and from the beginning the store became a social hub and creative meeting place for artists.”
“Their very first release was modeled after that “let’s support the scene” approach,” ruminates Julia. “Strike Under was a local band that could be sold out of the record store on Lincoln Ave. with relatively little risk. But it was the second totally accidental release in which licensing a 7-inch from Divine, laid out the blue print for producing artists outside of the region. When their third release by local artist Al Jorgensen blew up in Europe, it gave my dad & Dannie the seed money to chase other artists outside their immediate orbit.”
“The fourth release licensed an import 12-inch that originally sold incredibly well in the store by Belgian artists Front 242. Those first four releases really solidified the model for everything Wax Trax! did later, including never having artists sign contracts.”
“On the down side for independents, I will add, one of the biggest challenges that I saw my dad and Dannie struggle with when the label gained momentum was the cash flow issue. Generally speaking, paying artists an advance, manufacturing products and paying for promotion and marketing before ever making a dime (as well as waiting to get paid 3 months from distributors when sales were made) is an incredibly difficult balancing act. It may work on a smaller and more manageable level, but transcending up into a larger entity can put an incredible strain on a small label.”
“For better or worse, the Wax Trax! store became the default “bank” when money was needed quickly. Typically it often wasn’t repaid since the store bookkeeping was super loose and sloppy back then. That definitely caused a lot of stress to the retail side of Wax Trax! later on.”
The genesis of this project went through a number of incarnations, according to Julia. “The first idea was intended as a supplemental bonus disk for the 2011 Retrospectacle; a three-day charity concert DVD. We thought it would be nice to explain to fans why exactly the Retrospectacle took place and what the significance of Wax Trax! meant for those who may not know. However, once we realized that this was a much more dense and important story than just an “add-on”, the documentary became the main focus of our energy.”
“There were a few moving targets that we felt were important to hit,” she continues. “Parsing out the record store, the label as a whole, the individual artists on the roster, early punk, early electronic, and pivotal LGBT issues were important to detail. Each component has its own dense history and it was our task to present it in digestible segments that we hoped would still pull the story through the larger timeline. In addition, we were very conscious of keeping the film just over 90 minutes without watering the story down. Always keep the people wanting more as they say.”
“We were also very careful not to be overly nostalgic or create a film where we compare 1980s underground music culture from the “glory days” with the internet age of today. In the end, we wanted the take-away for this story to be about the passion of two men and how things can go very good as well as very bad when you follow that passion. We wanted to also explain more about who these two men were and how they created something wonderful that became so important to a lot of people.”
Similar to the subject matter itself, the genesis of this documentary also had a challenging evolution. “What most people don’t know is that this is our second Wax Trax! movie,” Julia explains. “We started the first film in 2012 and in true Wax Trax! form, we hired a couple key people to work for us without putting proper contracts in place. In 2015, these people decided to hold our footage hostage for more money and claimed the movie was now theirs. After hitting a dead end with them, we said screw it, and in January of 2016 my husband and I started to film an entirely new movie by going back around the world and re-interviewing the artists again.”
“When the people sitting on our original film realized that we didn’t need the original footage anymore, they sued me in federal court to stop the new filming. The whole ordeal was pretty bizarre and a sad situation from someone we had hired and trusted. When it was all over, the case wound up overwhelmingly in our favor. I don’t think it ended up quite the way they were expecting.
We finished the current documentary from start to finish, primarily in 10 months during 2016.
So, I guess filming, editing the entire film inside a year while simultaneously being sued to try to shut it down was probably the most challenging component in pulling this together.”
Who are some of the influences that have inspired or informed Julia’s work; and what does she feel distinguishes this new film and makes it a unique experience for audiences?
“My dad and Dannie would drag my brother and me to see stuff like John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, The Buzzcocks, Louis Sullivan architecture, 1920s constructivism, etc. when we were just little kids. All that came into play as inspiration as we pulled the film together. Some of that came through with the animation or soundtrack, some of it was just there as a subliminal roadmap.”
“Regarding what makes this unique…this film was written and shot from such an inside and personal family perspective. It was important to stay away from an academic study that could have been done by any music historian/documentarian and focus on tapping into my father and his partner’s humor and creativity that I grew up with and made Wax Trax! what it was.”
“We were really hoping to appeal to two different audience members,” she concludes. “For the viewer who goes into this film with no idea what Wax Trax! Records was, we would love for them to walk away with the understanding that this unconventional love story about music, community and the relationship between two men had a profound effect on pop-culture as a whole.”
“Secondly, we get messaged constantly from people who still credit Wax Trax! as a lifeline when they were going through their own struggles or defining their identity outside the mainstream. We wanted to speak to them directly and say thank you. Wax Trax! wouldn’t have existed the same way without them and it was important to show proper respect to the extended family of fans that this music created.”
Industrial Accident: Story of Wax Trax! Records will show at 4:00 PM on Saturday, September 29th at the Historical Museum of Bay County.
16th November, 2023