Chattanooga independent label re-issues and releases sublime silliness
The Chattanooga homegrown record label Corner Room Recordings (cornerroomrecordings.com) emerged in the mid-’90s in the heyday of indie rock, when underground musicians were imbued with a D.I.Y. spirit and searched for musical thrills outside Top 40 radio.
Founded by brothers Brandon and Eric Buckner, the label released cassettes and CD-Rs from Chattanooga artists who, early on, probably never imagined they’d open for bands such as Of Montreal or collaborate with future notables like Sufjan Stevens. Recently, the label has resurrected itself in the digital realm to unleash several reissues and unreleased recordings.
Wookieback (wookieback.bandcamp.com) formed in 1997 out of the friendship of Matthew Vollmer and John Ringhofer. Pals since they were ten years old, the two eventually joined with Brandon Buckner on drums to flesh out their obsession with sci-fi movies (yes, the band’s name is a “Star Wars” reference) and cartoons, with catchy pop hooks, clever and silly wordplay and an unabashed desire to be entertaining as concisely as possible, with a typical song being around one minute long.
The first recording session involved Ringhofer’s storybook cassette of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe; Ringhofer and Vollmer would listen to a few seconds of the story narration or sound effects, stop the tape, write a new song based on what was just heard and then record that song on that very tape, right over the story.
“If writing songs based on He-Man sounds silly and infantile, believe me, it was,” wrote Vollmer in the article “The Legend of Wookieback: a Feat of Space Exploration” published in Barrelhouse Online. “It also turned out—like most of Ringhofer’s ideas—to be insanely, even sublimely fun.”
Wookieback released three cassettes, Proposed Moon Suit (1997), Robots Be One Crazy Weasel (1998) and Let Me Tell You About This Machine (1999). They were filled with songs about “E.T.”, the Wonder Twins and Flash Gordon, and although the quirkiness and humor is a significant part of Wookieback, it transcends “joke band” status with seemingly instinctual pop sensibilities, alternating between succinct goofy-yet-charming bursts with breezy pop numbers like “Jettisoned/Jedi’s Son.” The group performed just a handful of shows, mostly at Lamar’s on MLK Blvd., opening for bands including Of Montreal, The Music Tapes and Danielson Famile (sic).
Today, Vollmer is a writer and professor of English at Virginia Tech, and Buckner is a co-founder of the artisanal chocolate purveyor The Hot Chocolatier here in Chattanooga. After Wookieback’s three-year existence, Ringhofer moved to Berkeley, California to continue his one-man band Half-handed Cloud, touring internationally and collaborating with the likes of Sufjan Stevens (notably on the What’s the Remedy? EP) and Daniel Smith of Danielson; Half-handed Cloud has a home on the Asthmatic Kitty label, having just released its latest album Flying Scroll Flight Control this summer.
One particularly satisfying release on Corner Room Recordings was by the studio-party group The Season’s Glreekins (seasonsglreekins.bandcamp.com), which recorded a Christmas-themed 10-song tape in December 1998, given away as gifts. Each song is less than two minutes long yet packs a lot of goodness, and few full-length albums have as many twists and turns as this EP, like random horn fanfares, electronic glitchiness or smile-inducing horse-trot clip-clops on the Christmas cowboy track “The Fourth Wise(snow)man?” It features Ringhofer, the Buckner brothers, Tommy Cass and Jim Tate.
Recorded on a 4-track recorder, it’s utterly gleeful and unrepentantly silly, with tracks such as the polka number “Only Toys Are Worth the Wait,” “Transformer Manger” (“sometimes a feeding trough, sometimes a crib”) and “Gas Station Stocking Stuffer” (“I bought all your gifts at a Texaco”).
The trio Title One (titleone.bandcamp.com), featuring the Buckners and Jim Tate (who today can be see at Chattanooga Roller Girls roller derby events as a non-skating official), goes into different territory than the label’s nuttier offerings, sounding more professional and relaxed and bearing similarities to Chicago acts like The Sea and Cake and Tortoise.
Title One’s unreleased 2004 album Unimplemented Trap finally received its release this month digitally. Its strengths are subtle harmonies and a calm—yet not lazy—pace, with the vocals resembling Slint singer Brian McMahan in quiet mode. However, the restless, offbeat aesthetic of the label rears its head with occasional flourishes, like the horn additions on “The Air You Breathe.”
Sometimes, when people can’t quite capture the excitement of a past situation in words, they will say, “You had to be there.” On the other hand, with these unearthed releases on Corner Room Recordings, the music is as fresh as ever and offers more than nostalgia—particularly for those, including this writer, who weren’t in Chattanooga in the ’90s—capturing the irrepressible pleasure of youthful creation, with 20-somethings making music to humor themselves and spread their infectious joy.