The long-rumored and long-awaited documentary about legendary Chicago music store and record label Wax Trax! is coming to fruition, with two test screenings of “Industrial Accident: The Story of Wax Trax Records” scheduled for Saturday at the Vic Theatre and showings at festivals likely later this year.
First opened as a record store in Denver by partners Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher, the two sold their store and moved to Chicago in 1978, opening a new store under the same name at 2449 North Lincoln Avenue that would become, as Joe Shanahan once described it —“the marketplace for the disinfranchised” — a punk, new wave and industrial music haven.
Eventually, Nash and Flesher released a few limited edition records — the motivation being to get the music heard more than making money. Soon though, Nash and Flesher would be running a full-fledged record label in addition to their store, both being renowned by music fans around the world.
To be sure, Wax Trax! was epicenter of the industrial-music explosion in the mid- and late-’80s, with a staggering number of artists—including Ministry, Front 242, KMFDM, Revolting Cocks, Pigface, My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult—getting their start or otherwise working with the label during its heyday. It also heavily influenced Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and has been said that as important as Chess Records was to blues and soul music, Chicago’s Wax Trax! imprint was just as significant to the punk rock, new wave and industrial genres.
Nash and Flesher, described by most as great guys, were not the best businessmen. By 1992, the label filed for bankruptcy and was bought by TVT Records, with Nash and Flesher retaining creative control. Things changed in 1995 when Nash passed away (resulting in his family closing the store). By 2001, TVT would file its own bankruptcy and in 2010, Flesher passed away. A year later, Nash’s family helped to organize a “Retrospectacle,” a 33 & 1/3 Wax Trax! Records Anniversary Concert with proceeds going to a non-profit LGBT community center. It was at the Retrospectacle that Nash’s daughter Julia, a nurse, got the idea to do a documentary, along with her designer and illustrator husband Mark Skillicorn.
In 2013, with the help of Skillicorn, Julia Nash would start to put together the documentary. However, the couple ran into many issues and had to eventually start over on the film — a fact that is largely unknown. During the process, Julia Nash would also acquire the rights to the label, bringing it back to where it belongs.
The Chicago Ambassador’s Bob Chiarito recently chatted with Nash and Skillicorn about the saga of the documentary, the label, the store and their plans going forward.
CA) People have been waiting a long time for this documentary. As far back as 2013, USA Today announced that there would be a documentary. When did you start it and what have been the main hurdles?
SKILLICORN) I think that’s a whole documentary in itself. We actually started it as an offshoot to the retrospectacle event in 2011. When we were doing the packaging we were going to put together a a bonus thing but it kind of overshadowed the retrospectacle so we ended up focusing on it after the event. We got a crew in place and the USA Today article you’re talking about — there was a trailer that was released by people who were working with us which we immediately had to pull because none of it was licensed. So that got the word going.
NASH) It was great publicity in that sense but not when you get a call from Warner/Chappell.
SKILLICORN) So it got everyone excited. That was the first time that we saw actual ground swelling support, beyond what we expected. We thought we were going to make a nice little story but within 24 hours it became international news and really took on a life of its own.
CA) Who called you, Julia?
SKILLICORN) Warner/Chappell Music. They own the publishing rights to a few of the songs that were used in the leaked trailer. So there was basically a documentary made during that time but we ran into some major problems with the crew that we were using and we ended up starting over. In 2015 there was a Kickstarter campaign and we doubled our goal so that was great but things went bad with a lot of our footage. A lot of it was held in legal limbo and at that point we decided that we had to remake the film.
NASH) In January of 2016 we shot the whole movie all over again. So, it’s been a fucking nightmare. [Laughter]
CA) It’s surprising to me to hear that considering that you own the label.
SKILLICORN) Are you talking about the music or the footage?
CA) I guess you don’t own the footage, is that the deal?
SKILLICORN) We actually do own the footage, it’s the music that what we don’t own. It goes back to Jim and Dannie, a lot of those bands like Front 242 were brought in from other labels and had established their independence in Europe and Wax Trax! never owned those titles. For those familiar with the history of the label, Wax Trax! went bankrupt and was bought by TVT Records, which also eventually went bankrupt, so there’s a lot of changing of hands of ownership. KMFDM is a great example. They basically had to buy their own catalog back from TVT.
CA) You half-jokingly said it’s been a nightmare. Knowing what you know now, would you have undertaken this project?
NASH) No! [laughter]
CA) That’s funny.
NASH) It’s not funny at all.
SKILLICORN) She’s being a little facetious. [Laughter]
NASH) If everything was in hindsight, a lot of shit would never happen. It’s definitely been an experience of good, bad, ugly, beautiful, sad.
CA) Do either of you have any documentary film background?
NASH) Hell no.
SKILLICORN) I think that was part of the problem in the beginning. The first time we didn’t know anything and kind of trusting in many ways and it kind of backfired on us in many ways.
CA) That’s one of the things that I always heard about your dad, Julia. Everyone says he was a great guy but perhaps not the best businessman. In his book “Concrete, Bulletproof, Invisible + Fried: My Life As A Revolting Cock”, Chris Connelly describes how “some of Wax Trax!’s artists treated the label and its eponymous record store as personal ATMs, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that Wax Trax! went bankrupt in the early ’90s.” Would you say that is an accurate description?
NASH) Pretty much, yes. He became a lot more savvy but the impetus for the label was love and passion and wanting people to hear the music. That was first and foremost, not a ledger pad keeping track of income and expenses. Yes, everyone used the story as an ATM and the label used it as an ATM. It used it as a bank.
CA) The store began in Denver but then was sold and reopened by your dad and Flesher in Chicago at 2449 N. Lincoln. What made them come to Chicago?
NASH) They were in love with the city, the architecture, the arts. They loved what was happening here, it was exciting. There was a lot more going on here than in Denver, that’s for sure.
CA) Did they grow up in Denver?
NASH) No, Dannie grew up in Arkansas and my dad grew up in Kansas.
CA) How did they end up in Denver?
SKILLICORN) They were in the Bible-belt and Denver was much more progressive. They were traveling a lot — going to New York to see Bowie and traveling a lot. I think they outgrew Denver.
CA) When they started recording and releasing stuff it started kind of slow. Their goal wasn’t to become a record label business, right?
NASH) No, definitely not.
CA) Do you think they envisioned being the epicenter of the industrial music explosion back in the 1980s?
SKILLICORN) The irony is that Jim and Dannie absolutely hated the term industrial because for them, think about it — it was way more punk rock with technology than what industrial became. I think they went into it with a lot more of an artistic sensibility of doing something different and by 1990 it started to get boxed into a certain sound. You see it with some of the records, things like Sister Machine Gun, but not to disparage any specific band, you can see that it starts to fit a certain formula versus the early stuff which was super creative. You talk about Thrill Kill Kult and Front 242 who were totally different, but they were part of this interesting, creative family. Later, you look at the TVT years and that world turned into a really mediocre genre.
CA) How different was Wax Trax! after TVT took over in 1992?
NASH) It was totally different. The life went out of it essentially. And not just when that transaction happened — it really happened after my dad died [in 1995]. He was really the one that called all the shots. He and Dannie certainly did everything together but once TVT came into the picture it was a totally different vibe.
CA) TVT discontinued the label in 2001. What made you purchase it in 2014?
NASH) [To Skillicorn] Oh God, you can take this one. [To the reporter] It was all Mark’s idea. [Laughter]
SKILLICORN) We didn’t really buy it, I’m not sure that is the right term. The store and the label were two completely separate entities. Even the people who were close to it didn’t really understand that the store was its own corporation just as the label was its own corporation. So when the label got bought by TVT, the store remained independent. The store never went through bankruptcy or was sold. Julia closed the doors after her dad died out of respect, not because of any bankruptcy. So at the time of the retrospectacle after Dannie died, there was a certain interest so we reignited the store part of it [with a pop-up store inside of the Metro]. TVT had gone through its own bankruptcy and the label had been basically been dismantled.
NASH) It was just floating out there.
SKILLICORN) Not even floating. Things like the official trademarks or anything that was anchored to the label had disappeared, so we were able to bring back and fill out all the legal paperwork.
NASH) That was primarily the impetus, to make sure it didn’t just disappear. But when interest started growing we decided to do a bit more.
CA) So it was basically to have control of the legacy more than anything?
NASH) Exactly, and to protect it.
SKILLICORN) And like the single we put out for Front 242 last year — it was a moment that never saw the light of day and we were like ‘let’s put that out.’ It was something that made sense. It’s not going out and finding new bands, that was Jim and Dannie.
CA) You put out the the single by Front 242 and a 12-inch by Cocksure. Any plans to release more?
SKILLICORN) We have some stuff that we’ve been talking about but it has to make sense. There’s a really long-lost ambient record that Paul Barker and Bill Rieflin and Roland Barker put out. It’s really old, like from 1986. So we have that and we might reissue some other stuff but again, it has to make sense.
CA) And you’re not looking for any new bands, right?
SKILLICORN) No, not at this time.
CA) To get back to when I asked about being the epicenter of the industrial music revolution — Is that why you named the film “Industrial Accident” ?
NASH) They didn’t like the term industrial at all, so that was something. We had talked about different titles during the first go-round and our former employees came up with it and we loved it. So when we remade the movie we kept that title.
SKILLICORN) I think it’s a double-meaning. There were some good accidents that happened and some bad accidents. A lot of it was this serendipity that they just went full throttle ahead, they just kept going and whatever happened happened. It just made sense.
CA) For the film you’ve interviewed the majority of musicians who recorded on Wax Trax! and Chicago music legends Steve Albini and Joe Shanahan. Was there anyone you wanted to include but couldn’t coordinate with?
SKILLICORN) I think everyone was super accommodating. It’s a real testament to Jim and Dannie, but people were really excited to be involved with this.
CA) You’ve talked about the retrospectacle that took place in 2011. The story I’ve heard is that Ministry’s Al Jourgensen and KMFDM’s Sascha Konietzko supported it but were not invited. Both were interviewed for the documentary. Was there extra emphasis in getting them since they weren’t part of the 2011 event?
NASH) First of all they were both asked, just like they were asked to be in the movie. I’m happy they are in the movie. The fact that they didn’t go to the retrospectacle — if the two of them came, probably all the others wouldn’t have, so there’s that.
SKILLICORN) That statement has a little more to it. Wax Trax! had a lot of collaborations but it’s real interesting because when you get all these people together who are really creative but there is also a lot of friction. So there’s a lot of different personalities involved.
CA) You really couldn’t have a Wax Trax! documentary without them though — two of the biggest recording artists to record on Wax Trax!, would you agree?
NASH) Yes, for sure. Definitely having Al was huge for us. He was around from the very beginning. He was like my big brother. Without him, it would have been silly.
CA) He’s in California now?
CA) So, Saturday you’re having a screening and looking for input from the audience?
NASH) Yes. We are having a final test screening and looking for feedback. Just trying to get some input before the final edit.
CA) When do you think you’ll have a final cut?
NASH) After we get the feedback, we’ll see whether we add or take out anything. Then, after that, it’s really just about entering festivals for the next year. It’s also a way for people to see this now, because it’s taken a lot longer than anyone thought. We have like 44 songs in the movie.
SKILLICORN) Getting the licensing for the songs is a job in itself. We made the previous movie in 2015 but this movie has basically been made in a year. That’s not a lot of time. We are pushing forward pretty quickly.
CA) Did anyone see the first one?
CA) If your dad and Dannie were still around maybe this movie wouldn’t be made, but at the same time was it a lot harder to make without them being around?
NASH) Yes, for sure because my dad was so fucking funny, his sense of humor was unreal. That would have been great to have.
To find out more about the screenings Saturday, click here.
Also, on Friday, there are two events at area bars to celebrate the film. Liar’s Club will host Jello Biafra’s Dance Party. For more information, click here.
Additionally, Late Bar will be having a Wax Trax! night. For more information on that, click here.