With the release of the self-titled album by Bottle Tree last week, the International Anthem Recording Company continues to build its reputation as one of the South Side’s most adventurous record labels. Founder Scottie McNiece, along with his partners David Allen and Joe Darling, have built a catalog of outsider music that stands up to the best that has ever come from Chicago. Although the Bridgeport-based label has developed a reputation for releasing great avant-garde jazz, their sound is less predictable, dabbling in funk, electronic, noise, and singer/songwriter music. Renowned artists on the label’s roster include post-rock, free jazz guitarist Jeff Parker (of Tortoise fame), the Nick Mazzarella Trio, and hip-hop-inspired drummer Makaya McCraven. As every example of success, such achievement first started as an idea—an idea that suddenly came to Scottie McNiece.
Hailing from Northwest Indiana, McNiece took a long and twisted path toward running a label. A lifelong musician, McNiece began playing piano during his elementary school days but eventually moved on to drums, which he played in his high school band. After a couple of aborted attempts at higher education, McNiece discovered his true calling in the music industry. He played drums in bands all throughout Indiana but was based primarily in Bloomington. Eventually he made it to Chicago on the premise of pursuing music while getting a teaching degree (another failed attempt). Along the way, McNiece worked in various restaurants and bars to make ends meet. It was in one of these bars that his life changed.
“I was working at this bar and the owner knew that I was a musician so he asked me to help him with music programming,” McNiece explained. “Slowly but surely that became my full-time job for him. But at one point this musician, Ian Springer, came and said, ‘you guys should have some live jazz in this bar.’ And I was like, I’m down with that.”
That chance meeting led to the creation of a jazz night at Curio (a basement space underneath Gilt Bar in River North, now called the Library) based in the avant-garde, free jazz that is unique to Chicago. The acts that played those nights were encouraged to play original music tailored to the host location. Eventually, McNiece called up his old friend David Allen, a recording engineer living at the time in southern Illinois, to record some of these acts. That was the beginning of International Anthem Recording Company. In December 2014, the label released “Alternative Moon Cycles,” an auspicious start—its bubbling synth lines and daring textures both intrigue and challenge the listener. The gentle acoustic guitars, along with the album’s subtle vocals, create a level of intimacy you might typically expect only from a lifelong partner.
The name International Anthem Recording Company came from an improvised music project with Becky Levi entitled “International Anthem.”
“It was an idea I had at the time that really stuck with me, and I knew I wanted to name something really important that,” McNiece said. “I liked the idea of unity and diversity in the name of it.”
So what kind of record label is International Anthem?
“We want to put a big flag up to where everybody can come together around unity,” McNiece said. “We work with some pretty obscure music but we don’t want to be one of those alienating, cooler-than-you, you-don’t-get-it type of labels in which a lot of labels love that. We like boundary-breaking, cutting-edge music but we want to make it more appealing.”
That appeal is present at every level—picking up a release from International Anthem, one will soon discover the quality of the product. For example, the 2015 release, “Ultraviolet,” by the Nick Mazzarella Trio, exemplifies the pride International Anthem takes in its vinyl and its ornate, detailed packaging: a vibrantly colored tropical forest contrasts with a tasteful sans serif font designed by Damon Locks. From the sash around the outside bearing the label’s Buckminster Fuller-influenced logo, the liner notes, to the weight of the vinyl, it is undeniable that a lot of thought has been put into each product. Luckily, the artists themselves receive the same level of attention, in McNiece’s opinion.
“I think one of the things that’s been unique about our label compared to a lot of other labels… is that we are involved from the ground up,” McNiece said. “We meet an artist, and we are inspired by them. They have an idea, they want to achieve something but they need support. They need money to pay people to play their music, they need a venue to work out their ideas, and they need somebody to record them. A lot of labels don’t do that. In general, we try to be involved through composition, through recording and presentation. For a couple of artists we booked and managed tours for them.”
Now that International Anthem has established itself as a player on the jazz and avant-garde scene, McNiece has an eye toward the label’s future.
“We’re gonna keep producing records the way we like to by working with the artists from concept, composition, to touring, presentation, to promotion. Eventually having a centralized venue space is really important to us. A place we can grow a community around,” McNiece said, growing contemplative.
By creating a venue on the South Side, International Anthem would both play upon the history of the jazz scene that originated here with Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, while at the same time build a connection to the larger scene that is based out of North Side venues such as the Hungry Brain, Constellation, and the Hideout. It would also cater to a large jazz fan base that enthusiastically turns out for events like the Hyde Park Jazz Festival.
“Audiences are more engaged, diverse, and the vibe is just better on the South Side,” McNiece said.
International Anthem’s mission is an ambitious one, and will center on building up an even bigger roster of colorful, experimental artists. One conclusion is clear—if they are able to stay the course and nurture a community for Chicago jazz of all kinds on the South Side, the whole city stands to benefit.
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