Hey, this is Nathan Johnson. I play in The Yolks and am the head honcho of Randy Records. My day job is teaching mathematics at a public high school in Chicago.
Before the idea of Randy records came about, you’ve always been involved with music. Let’s take it back to the beginning, when did you first start getting involved with music?
I played bass in a band for my junior high’s talent show. We did “Bombtrack” by Rage Against The Machine and it was awesome. I remember a year or two earlier another band played a song by Green River, and it was the first time I ever heard an amplified bass, and I remember just feeling it in my chest, and being really blown away. When I went to college at, I DJed at the UC Berkeley radio station KALX, and they had a huge record library, so I was able to listen to and learn a lot about music there. I moved back to Chicago partly to start a band with my brother Spencer, and we started The Yolks in 2006. It was really the first band I was ever in, and I’ve been in it ever since.
From being in The Yolks and being a part of the Chicago scene, how did Randy records eventually come about?
I actually almost started a record label when I was in junior high. It was called “Bland Records” and I would go on message boards on Prodigy and ask people to send me demos. I was about to put out a 7″, but I decided to spend the money I saved elsewhere at the last minute. So I guess it’s always been something I’ve always been interested in. The Yolks self-released our first 7″ because we had no idea there were other people playing rock n roll and other record labels that put out rock n roll records. Plus we wouldn’t have wanted to wait – we wanted to put the record out right away. We pressed 300 and thought we’d have them for years to come, but we sold them all in a matter of months. Another label rereleased that 7″, and it sold out again. I wanted to do the third pressing myself, but by that time I had figured out that there were current rock n roll bands, and I was buying new 7″s and LPs, and was really stoked on modern rock n roll. I figured I already did really well with the first Yolks 7″, so why not start a label? I asked Max Kakacek, who at that time was playing in Smith Westerns, and currently plays in Whitney, if I could release a 7″ of some of the bedroom recordings he had posted on Myspace under the name “Teenage Lovers.” I also asked Bad Sports, Eric and the Happy Thoughts, Bradford Trojan and Day Creeper if they wanted to put out a song on a compilation 7″ I called “New Kids on the Block.” Everyone said yes, and Randy Records was born.
Over the years, how have you seen the scene here in Chicago change?
At the very beginning it was a smaller rock n roll scene, I think. Over the next 20 years, the scene really grew. There were way more bands, and way more people interested in going to a rock n roll show. It’s gotten to the point where there will be 2 or 3 or more shows going on and they’re all full of people and rocking. It’s pretty cool. More recently I think that the bands in Logan Square have become less punk, which is too bad in my opinion. And for the last 20 years, starting in Wicker Park, young 20-somethings have just been moving farther and farther northwest along Milwaukee Avenue, which meant the rock n roll scene was pretty cohesive. Nowadays hip 20-year-olds are more likely to live in the southside in neighborhoods like Pilsen, Bridgeport, and Little Village, mixing together with the hardcore scene that’s been there, and there’s a really interesting and cool punk scene centered down there. The two parallel scenes aren’t totally aware of each other, but I’m trying to book some of those bands here and bring some of that punk energy back into the north side.
A few years back you talked about how the internet has made things disposable. Do you still feel that way?
It’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s great that every band can make a Bandcamp or a Soundcloud and put it out there into the world. But this also means that the marketplace is flooded, and so it’s hard to stand out, even if your music is great. What I really have been lamenting lately is that there is almost nowhere to send promo copies of new records to. Getting press for a rock n roll record is really hard nowadays – most of the blogs that did reviews are done, and there are very few new ones to take their place.
Favorite show you’ve ever played?
The Yolks played in Lafayette, Indiana with The Okmoniks once, and this guy Scooter liked us so much they asked us to come back the next weekend and play at his apartment above the skateboard/head shop. We played and it was mayhem – beer spilling everywhere, people dancing and falling all over themselves. It was beautiful.
Your favorite project released on Randy Records?
That’s like asking a mother who their favorite child is. But I think the Cut Worms 7″ I put out recently is just incredible, and I am partial to the first Yolks 7″ as well.
Favorite thing about Chicago’s music scene?
People go to shows, people dance, and everyone is really friendly. There is also very little pettiness or shit talking or competition between bands. We are all friends and we all are rooting for each other.
Your favorite project of 2017?
I put out four great records in 2017 – LPs by Today’sHits and Skip Church, and 7″s by American Breakfast and Charlie Reed. They are all just incredible, but I probably sit down and put on the Charlie Reed record the most. It’s bedroom recordings by my friend Luke Trimble with whom I used to play in a great band Uh Bones. It’s very interesting, somber, folk with a slight psych tinge to it that is just great. He was living in the apartment above mine, so I heard the whole thing being recorded.
Favorite Chicago band?
Lately, I really like Glyders, Vacuum, and Bruised. And at least some of the guys from CCTV have moved to Chicago from Hammond, IN, and I hear they are going to start playing shows again, and they’re about the best band around, in my opinion, so I’ll add them to the list.