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Happy Birthday, Shrimper

Be it Fabian or Pat Boone serving as a clean cut kid’s introduction to the real rock & roll music of Little Richard & Charlie Feathers, or ‘The Boss’ inadvertently turning young kids onto the fury of Suicide & Albert Ayler, it doesn’t really matter as long as the road winds though the same valleys & vistas and offers an exit to the less-trampled venues.
Dennis Callaci, The Village Idiot (1999)


We at Crypto were elated/amazed when we hit the ten-year mark as an indie alt-jazz concern, but we must pause to give props to the abovequoted Mr. Callaci, who since 1990 has headed the mystically resilient lo-fi mail-order label Shrimper Records.

Callaci founded Shrimper (unrelated to the slang term for "toe-sucking," as well as another fetish so disgusting that decorum forbids mentioning it here) with his wife Catherine Guffey in the sleepy bedroom-community of Upland, California. Shrimper is a truly indie operation, from its home office (Jazz-Age, red-brick bungalow behind white picket fence) and recording "techniques" (Shrimper helped make tape hiss hip), mom 'n' pop distribution (starting with $3 cassette tapes dubbed one-by-one and mailed from a P.O. Box in San Berdoo), slackerish promotional attitude (press kit: Ralph's grocery sack stuffed with cassettes, CDs and vinyl--often with a handwritten note in Callaci's apologetic scrawl). Although the Shrimper came to encompass acts from Boston and The Netherlands, Shrimper’s specialty was freakish folk, mellow hip hop, noisy experimentation and bash-pop from the tract-home anomie of SoCal's "Inland Empire." No doubt this aesthetic influenced L.A. junkyard-music hermits like Beck and Ariel Pink.

Dennis Callaci punches out Matt Damon

Of course, Callaci, who sort of resembles actor Thomas G. Waites (the guy who played "Fox" in The Warriors), is a musician. He records solo (under the moniker Paste) and and with his bespectacled librarian brother Allen in a trio called Refigerator, who despite the titles of albums like Glitter Jazz, actually aped Bruce Springsteen way before the Killers or the Arcade Fire. In fact, it was Nebraska, Da Boss's four-tracked 1982 solo collection of ghostly folk songs, that influenced Callaci’s stripped-down, anonymous-American aesthetic. (Refrigerator often covered “State Trooper” at their live shows.) Shrimper evolved out of Callaci's practice of dubbing cassettes of local bands like Nothing Painted Blue (a power-pop outfit led L.A. writer/scenester Franklin Bruno) and punksters WCKR SPGT for his friends. He was already hosting his own cable access show (anyone remember Nubalicious Cabaret? anyone?) putting out a 'zine called Crump to spotlight local I.E. bands who, in Callaci's words, "lived in the shadow of L.A."

Shrimper was also way ahead of the music-snob elite’s rediscovery of those ticky-tacky little audio cassettes. Apparently, the Inland Empire had/has a robust cassette culture -- so much so that someone's actually written a book about it. Shrimper quickly became, in one admirer's words, "cassette label of all cassette labels " Callaci had (and apparently, still has) a day job at Rhino Records in Claremont and became fascinated by the mass-marketed super-budget super-cheesy cassette quickie compilations that piled up in the store's bargain bins."I still like the cassette form better than CD or vinyl," Callaci told a writer in 1999. "It has a throwaway feel--not like a CD, which feels like it's etched in stone." One of Shrimper's first raggedy $3 tape compilations was titled, fittingly, "Pawnshop Reverb."


The early Shrimper comps confirmed at least one thing: there was an Inland Empire "scene" and it was a potent promoridal soup. Callaci introduced the unintroduced to such memorable-yet-mysterious bands as Ah Bus, Amps For Christ, Bugskull, Buzzsaw, Diskothi-q, The Extra Glens, Fishstick, Furniture Huschle, Goosewind, Herman Dune, Shoeface and Soul Junk. Shrimper eventually started making CDs and vinyl LPs and expanded its roster with some enviable indie-rock names, often in purposefully faceless guises: Dump (actually James McNew of Yo La Tengo), Sentridoh (actually Lou Barlow of Dinosaur, Jr. and Sebadoh) and the Folk Implosion (Barlow with Shrimper artist John Davis) being the most famous examples. But Shrimper also introduced into the atmosphere some strikingly original originals who later got poached by bigger hunters: The Mountain Goats (actually punk-folk busker John Darnielle), who moved on to the worshipped U.K. label 4AD; Creeper Lagoon, who went on to sign with Ideal, the label of Claremont-bred vets the Dust Brothers; hip-hoppers Sukpatch, who graduated to the Beastie Boys' Grand Royal label.


Quite predictably, Callaci has gained a rep of being a cranky outsider with a penchant for tweaking the hipster pretensions of That City To the West. He had a radio show on Clarmeont College's KSPC titled Morning Becomes Defective, a jibe at KCRW's former Morning Becomes Eclectic host Chris Douridas. (There's a memorable story about Callaci at a concert responding to a stage mention of the word "ugly" by yelling out "Not as ugly as Chris Douridas!" Turns out, the mortified blonde DJ was standing right next to him.) When Callaci takes Refrigerator out on the road, they have the temerity to bypass Los Angeles. When L.A. lo-fi darling Beck approached Callaci to record post-"Loser" material that eventually became One Foot in the Grave, Callaci turned him down because he didn't like the guy's music that much. The nerve!! Then again, he turned down the initial recordings of Lou Barlow and John Davis’ Folk Implosion. Yet, Callaci seems willfully to admit his own mistakes -- in fact, "mistakes" are woven right into the label's very fibers.


On April 10, Shrimper will celebrate its 20th anniversary in typically cheeky fashion with the 36-track >Smooth Sounds: Various Artists Play the Future Hits of Wckr Spgt. The title says it all: Shrimper stars like Amps for Christ, Jad Fair, Mountain Goats and Sentridoh will cover brand new songs from one of their longest running artists. (Note: not to be confused with the band Wyckyd Sceptyre and its notorious lo-fi sex tape.) Shrimper's 1993 meta-comp Abridged Perversion: A Shrimper Compilation if Shrimper Compilations is also worth seeking out for a good back-in-the-day overview of the label's roster.


"Music is always better when the powers that be are out of touch," the 29-year-old Callaci told New Times LA ten years ago. "And with the internet, the major labels are going to lose control." Boy, was he right. Toesuckers, holla!

We're hunkering down for the April 13 release of the new Nels Cline Singers double CD Initiate.
Starting in a few days, the Beast will celebrate this momentous occasion in typically overblown fashion: a 4-part series entitled "The Nels Cline Singers: A Oral History." Stay tuned!

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