By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Major-label rock stars are a fearless breed. What other profession actually encouragesyou to lead a tabloid-worthy lifestyle characterized by binge drinking, risky hairstyles, and primordial vocal outbursts? (Sorry, "contestant on The Bachelor" does not count as a profession.) And what other career path forces you to do demeaning things for money once your employer suddenly drops you? (Tiffany, your record label doesn't understand you--but Playboy is there to feel your pain! Or your boobs.)
Okay, granted, these are pretty ridiculous questions. But sometimes the music industry can be pretty ridiculous itself. And thinking about all the things local musicians have done to squeeze their sound into the narrow ears of major labels, you start to appreciate independent artists who take risks that are more creative than just driving drunk while Pink chugs 40s and flips off Rolling Stone camera people from the back seat. Especially when, like Polara frontman Ed Ackerson, they've walked away from Interscope. "Part of [being an artist] is that you have to fuck up," Ackerson explains during an interview in his Uptown home, which doubles as the recording studio Flowers. "You have to do stuff that other people think sucks."
Which doesn't mean that Ackerson is anticipating his own creative downfall. In fact, the bespectacled pop singer and guitarist seems chock full of ideas as he sits contemplatively in the greenhouse just outside the studio, smoking cigarettes and watching the snow melt on the roof. Ackerson just wants a little room to experiment. He recently joined Astronaut Wife's Christian Erickson, Polara's Jennifer Jurgens, and a few other folks to launch Susstones, a record label/multimedia collective that creates video clips, animation, and MP3s.
The Web site they've fostered as the showcase for this work (www.susstones.com) includes everything from the concept band Sideways--featuring 1960s-spy-themed animation (think Gorillaz) designed by Erickson with songs written by Ackerson, Erickson, and Mike Drake--to music from local electronica-influenced artists like Basement Apartment, Robert Skoro, and Astronaut Wife. There are also new tracks from Polara's latest, Jetpack Blues, whose release will be celebrated Friday, May 10 with a show at the Entry. And, most important, the online space enthusiastically encourages cross-pollination: Jurgens is free to present her video clips, Ackerson is free to try his hand at producing, and, everyone is free, if they want, to fuck up as many times and in as many ways as they please.
Plus, Ackerson can do all of that without worrying that one day some industry insider will pressure him into recording a duet with Gwen Stefani. (Too late for you, Moby, Eve, and, uh, Brian Setzer!) Such are the pleasures of indiedom, a realm familiar from his days with former band 27 Various and one that he has recently returned to. The year after the 1995 release of Polara's debut LP, the group signed with Interscope, and consequently spent the next year and a half in what Ackerson calls "demo hell"--writing countless songs in order to match the label's quotient of radio-friendly singles.
"You get on that weird treadmill where you send stuff out to L.A. and then they're like, 'Yeah, it's really good! Now, what else you got?' You do that enough times and it just becomes dumb," he sighs. When Interscope merged with Geffen A&M Records, Polara parted ways with the label amicably. In 2000 Ackerson signed to Palm Pictures, another deal that collapsed. In both cases, he was lucky enough to walk away with complete artistic control of his unreleased albums. (Although he'd look just as sporty as Prince did with the word SLAVE penned across his cheek, Ackerson insists there's no ill will between him and the labels.)
Allowing artists to have full ownership of their songs is something that's especially important to Ackerson. "The whole way that the traditional record-company structure has evolved--or mutated or collapsed, however you choose to look at it--has made everything completely anti-creative, anti-spontaneous, anti-community, really anti-anything that people as artists want to do," he says. "You're hired on to do music and you're expected to do music. Record companies will discourage you from doing anything else. God forbid if you're a painter... they'll steer you away from that. They just want to sell records."