By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
"At the record store, I had known distributors, and through the Concert and Dance Committee, I had known a lot of local bands," he says. "The thought dawned on me that maybe I could put these two things together."
After borrowing $500 from a friend and another $500 from his brother, Schlissel put it together with a grand of his own and pressed 1,000 CDs for a Lincoln band called Such Sweet Thunder. Within three months, the album, called Redneck, had paid itself off. Within three more, every copy was sold.
"I thought to myself, 'There's something to this. Maybe I can keep doing it.'"
For video of the comics mentioned in this story and more, see Matt Snyders' REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK.
Schlissel's first indie label, dubbed "-ismist Records," was born. During the next seven years, -ismist would churn out some 70 records, mostly from local bands with names like Fifty Tons of Black Terror. During an excursion to Des Moines in 1996, Schlissel scoped two nights' worth of shows at a venue called the Safari Club. There he met a young Des Moines musician who insisted Schlissel take his band's self-released CD and consider it for distribution.
As he drove home along I-80, a lonely stretch of concrete splitting the barren western Iowa blandscape, Schlissel popped in the CD and gave it a listen.
"My label really didn't have a distinct sound, but I liked what I heard," he says. "So I got in touch with them and we struck up a deal for distribution."
The album was called Mate.Feed.Kill.Repeat, by a band named Slipknot. Within two years, the group was cashing in on the late-'90s nu metal craze, and soon signed on to major label Roadrunner Records, a subsidiary of Warner Music Group.
"After they got signed, they just weren't interested in dealing with small fries that had helped them," says Schlissel. "So that relationship broke up during 1998."
The Slipknot fallout marked the beginning of the end for Schlissel's foray in the music biz—no more indie rock, no more Fifty Tons of Black Terror. Soon, a different kind of Black would change the label's direction.
• • • • •
DURING HIS TIME heading -ismist, Schlissel was still a working stiff in Lincoln doing tech support, pulling down less than 20 grand a year. In August of 1998—just two days before his planned trip with his fiancée to the Twin Cities to visit her friends—he was laid off. The couple decided to make the move northward. By Thanksgiving, Schlissel had landed another tech support job at AdaptTech, a software company in Hudson, Wisconsin.
On a March evening, as Schlissel made the 30-mile drive home, a radio DJ grabbed his ear:
"From Comedy Central's The Daily Show, Lewis Black will be performing at Minneapolis's Acme Comedy Club for one weekend only!"
Once he got back to his apartment, Schlissel, still new to town, called up the club to get directions. Armed with a notepad and stack of -ismist records, he made his way to the venerable North Loop comedy club. Once there, he handed the portfolio, along with a handwritten note to Black, to an usher.
After the show was over, Schlissel walked toward the exit, convinced he had no chance of meeting Black face-to-face. But the curmudgeonly satirist was still at the bar, glass of scotch twinkling in hand.
"I went up to him and asked him if he got the stuff," says Schlissel. "He didn't know who I was or anything, and said no. I quickly pitched him on the idea and he said, 'Yeah, why not?' Comedy Central had just passed on working with him at the time, Warner Bros. had just passed on working with him at the time. He was keen to do it and I was just there."
Schlissel left the club feeling chipper. He had a big-name act (informally) committed to release an album on his comedy label. Having gotten Black's manager's phone number from Acme owner Louis Lee, Schlissel touched base with Black every two weeks for the next eight months.
John Machnik, a recording engineer in Madison, Wisconsin, was a friend of Schlissel's and owned a studio. A week before Thanksgiving of 1999, Black was scheduled to perform at Laugh Lines Comedy Club in Madison. The stars were aligned. It was time.
The result was Lewis Black's well-received CD debut, The White Album (the LP parodies the Beatles' album of the same name right down to the cover's font style), a smorgasbord of observational riffage. His vintage has-the-whole-world-gone-crazy?! rage was in full throat. But this was during the halcyon pre-9/11 days, so the targets were fairly innocuous: sun block, IHOP, the Heaven's Gate cult. The Monica Lewinsky fiasco and ensuing impeachment proceedings were what passed for government corruption during those heady days, and Black took the opportunity to blast President Clinton's semantic sidestepping.
"Oral sex has to be adultery, or I spent a lot of money in therapy for nothing!" he cries. "If curling is an Olympic sport, then oral sex is adultery."
To date, the album has sold more than 37,000 copies, an impressive number for an indie label (especially considering that Schlissel is the label's only full-time employee). There were other benefits to the comedy production racket.