Since his arrival to the CU music scene in 2005, musician, booker, promoter and lover of all things music, Isaac Arms, has intertwined himself into the city that embraced him with open arms. As an honorary native of the streets of Champaign-Urbana, Arms is working hard each and every day to infuse CU’s music culture with the talent and passion that bewitched him years ago.
»buzz: How did you originally become involved with music?
»Isaac Arms: I got involved with it when I was a teenager. Music that you listen to, probably music that you’ve listened to as a teenager, even if it’s not your taste now, you’ll still feel it and it still had a part in the kind of person that you became. I work in education so I respect formative things in your life when you’re young. I had great teachers, I had great friends, and we listened to some great music in some ways. I think this town really cares about itself. It’s very open – there’s a lot of really great touring acts – but I think that’s almost what I assume about people. When I get bands through here I assume they’re cultural emissaries of their own scene. I just assume everybody has their own scene because that’s sort of what it takes to do music on the level [we do]. … We’re not pros here, there’s money involved. And we do it big. People here who love music, they love music – out loud, in the streets, in their life. Their family knows about it, their significant other knows about it, their job sure as hell knows about it…I’m here because of the scene, I’m here for the scene.
»buzz: When you’re looking for bands that fit the “scene,” is there a unique characteristic you want bands to have?
»IA: I don’t want to call it the MacGuffin, that’s not the proper metaphor, but there’s just a thing. I don’t know, the groove? I don’t want to call it the groove to give the rhythm section too much weight, although that is the move in indie music for the past five years. But really, I mean, I look for a bunch of things. There’s the whole internet stuff – how you present yourself. But that’s like interviewing someone for a job. Are they really going to be better at the job just because they know how to talk about themselves? That’s not always the case.
That’s why I’m releasing a record label. It’s not that I’m the “order of our time” or of our place or anything. It’s just…maybe if bands are able to focus more on the music and someone else is doing the talking, a booker won’t disregard them because they’re still running a Myspace page and it looks like shit. I respect musicians who don’t use the internet all that much. I know anybody would say, “Well you have to,” and that’s valid, but at the same time, all these bands are working so hard. They’re their own booker, they’re their own promoter, they’re their own manager, tour manager, tour booker, merchandiser. A lot of times they do their own art. It’s very DIY. And that’s an ethic that I love and respect. And there’s DIY labels popping up left and right here in this town. We’re opening up an all ages DIY venue. It’s very active; it’s very political; it’s very friendly; it’s very positive. And everybody seems to be going along with it. The haters, they’re not winning. And people doing work are seeing dividends and positive energy in the community. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but I think everybody looks at it now and is like, “this is something that’s going to be fun.” This is our life, and it’s going to sound good.
»buzz: Speaking of collaborative efforts, I was wondering if you could tell me about the CU Collective?
»IA: The CU Collective – it still exists. It was a brand. It influenced my thought on this label [Heirship Records], because the label I run will just literally be a label. It’s just a name on the stuff that’s already happening here. And that influenced my perception on what I think I was doing whenever I came here, basically for the music. It was a name given by a select few that were really getting off of their asses…and they were just trying to organize, you can call it, the punk movement here. It’s punk ethics. It’s punk-er music than, say, Rust Belt or Sunny Stubble. It was a group of kids helping each other promote; helping each other flyer; helping book shows; finding new spaces; trying to have a certain ethic about it – like no drugs and all ages. That’s a sign of a youth that really wants to take control of their own environment, and they want their own authority. And these aren’t young kids. I’m not that old. I don’t mean it like that. When you’re talking about a scene, you’re talking about shows…but everybody generally had forthright – strong personalities. They set up meetings. I think they had a treasury. They started funding. I think they did a pretty good job of communicating.
The purpose was to start an all ages venue, and that’s happening now. The CU Collective kind of dissolved, and certain people moved away, and certain house shows got shut down because even though their shows were in a way safer or more healthy because these were all ages shows, there was no authority involved. As in, you don’t have a permit and you don’t have a bouncer. So, the liability was weird. So, whenever these illegal, but yet really clean, good fun house shows shut down we felt like we took a hit. And people tried to start it up again in different ways. And it’ll always find its way. For instance, the website domain was kind of overdue. It’s no longer there. That’s sort of a sign. And it was a forum online. Just like openingbands.com was a forum. The way the blogs hit, and Twitter and Facebook, it seemed like people didn’t need forums as much. The only people I see consistently using forums are the people who have been committed to that forum for years and years and years…but it was a group of really motivated, passionate people … and we raised a certain amount of money and got the general goodwill in the attention of some media because they branded it. …I saw it. I saw it on the Internet; I saw it on my phone; I saw it in the record shop I work at; …I just saw it and I wanted to help just the same as anything else.
»buzz: Now you’re helping with a different project, Two Beers. Can you tell me about it?
»IA: I produce a show called Two Beers because their producer left and I wanted to help because it was a great idea. It’s been very fun. It’s also sort of about the community and getting people invigorated with all the sorts of entertainment we have because it’s hard sometimes to remember that I’m in entertainment. You put yourself through hell just to make people laugh and dance – it’s almost a crazy thing. …So we want this to be a great. When I came here I thought this was great. Now I think it’s just unbelievable. I consider myself from here. I’m an honorary townie. I come from a place bigger than this with no culture.
»buzz: And how did you know you wanted to come to CU?
»IA: I came here in 2005. I had personal reasons for coming. How I knew Champaign was from Braid, Hum, American Football, Castor. And then whenever it came to be that I was considering moving here, I looked at who was playing here. I saw Fireflies, with whom I’m friends now. The Beauty Shop, with whom I’m friends now. …I heard it and it was where I wanted to be. The soundtrack of this town just made me feel like I would get along with people. It’s a very strange tale; I hear their music and I come here, and I’ve ending up meeting them and we get on. It’s kind of neat. I saw that people were still working to do something – going on tour and releasing great records … maybe I’m just a psychopath and the only way for me to able to meet great people is to find out that they make great music first. I mean, sometimes those can be horrible people, but at least they’re fucking interesting.
»buzz: So you’ve been able to meet a lot of great artists here. What kind of impact does this have on your record label and what exactly is Heirship Records?
»IA: I’ve released stuff my bands have done as Heirship Records; I just haven’t been very organized. It was just literally a label to put because we were doing it ourselves. It’s a bit “cdbaby.com” to put “copyright Withershins” on the bottom of the Withershins record. I mean you could put it in somewhere, but I facilitated it. I did the work of a record label. So we got a neat little fantasy reference on there of an “heirship.” It’s me trying to channel that story that I just told you over the past thirty minutes into physical product, basically, in a functional website and a clear communication of what’s happening here.
I like a whole lot of bands in this town, and I can’t release every band in this town but I would think there are good bands in this town that don’t have the benefit of a record label. They’re all unsigned and some would take pride in that. I just would see myself as trying to put a more concerted effort into helping the bands here really working their dicks off to get to whatever label they want to. It would be like having a wingman, or having a babysitter when you’re tripping acid, or having a mentor when you’re in middle school – not to be pedantic. There are people writing great songs – some of my favorite songs in my life that I would want played at my funeral – written by people here. I know them, they know me, and it means a lot to just have my ears listen to the beautiful things these people have to say.
So, I’m honored to just be releasing Terminus Victor’s…I believe it’s their fourth record. They’ve been around since before I came here. I was super stoked to play my first show with them. I’m friends with them now; I’m blessed by that. That was one of those bands I heard. …I moved here, got to know them, found out they covered Slint for The Great Cover Up one year, and that’s Kentucky-proud, one of the best bands ever. …It’s a very public, very overt, very heavy aesthetic way of me saying, “My buddy over here has this show.” Part of it is to just help them focus because their music is already so good. I’ve just seen bands try so hard. They keep their head down and they’re not going for a prize. They’re just doing it because they want to do it, and do it well. There’s an immediate response from each song. There’s how you feel a show resonate. There’s how well a record does when it first comes out. There’s how you booked out after you get a new record and are basically re-branding yourself. And there’s the real affirmation of whenever you listen to your old music – either you think, “oh, what the hell was I doing?” and you know your growth or, ‘This is really good and I can’t believe I did that well whenever I didn’t know so much.” It’s a nice way to keep in touch with who you were as a person. It’s our kind of photo album – how we look back at our lives.
Maybe I’m projecting too much here. But it’s a record. I want to release as many records as possible because I want to record what this town sounds like right now. Like 2013, look through the yearbook, there will be Terminus Victor, Take Care, Hank. …Those certainly aren’t the only bands, and I don’t want to release every band in town, but I think I won’t ever release anyone not from Champaign because the whole purpose is to document what’s going on here. I’ve interned at Parasol, I know folks at Polyvinyl, I’m good friends with guys at Undertow. This town is so vibrant I want to shout it from the hills, man! Every day these people impress me and they embrace me. I’m a foreigner – I was an honorary band geek. I was never in band, but I always hung out with the band kids if that says anything about me. I went to school here, but I didn’t come here to go to school. I just try to do everything I can about helping this place become exactly who the audience wants it to be, the way the bands want it to be, and how the kids growing up here can be influenced by something as powerful as music. There’s so much talent here that I’m overwhelmed by it sometimes. I’m just here to kick the teeth in of anybody who says it’s never going to be as good as it was in the ’90s. Things are awesome now. If people spent half as much time complaining about how the old days were better, and spent more time going to a show, any show, and waiting for that moment to hit them where they see God and pure art and strong community. That’s the only reason I’m here.
»buzz: And do you think you’ve seen bands grow throughout the years?
»IA: There are those artists who don’t step their game up, and they don’t work hard enough. And you can see a mixture of bands working harder and bands getting it. They become themselves. They get in the pocket. Either it may be a song I notice, that I feel their chemistry, or it could be the way they carry themselves, or something somebody says that I really trust…like they were really in it and the crowd was there. I book a lot of shows and I go to a lot of shows even though I’m not running them. It’s kind of my job to pay attention. I’m not a coach or anything, but I’m here to help. There’s growth in terms of more bands are going on tour, bands are doing interesting merch, and it’s not just CDs and T-shirts. Bands are releasing vinyl, bands are coming out with beer koozies. They’re getting people excited. We just have an amazing network and infrastructure, and some really strong promoters and people who care about the music community and the community as a whole. I’m not talking about myself here. It’s keeping the faith. And yeah, if something sucks, the internet is over-saturated already. We don’t need shitty bands. But that doesn’t mean if a band is shitty, you have to discount them. You have to want them to get better, and they have to want themselves to get better. I can never tell a band that they’re shitty. I would like to, if there’s a kind way to say it. I don’t have the best taste in the world; Smashing Pumpkins is one of my favorite bands. I understand people’s gripes, but it’s an emotional connection. I understand the subjectivity of music.
»buzz: So, what kind of impact would you want to leave on the CU community?
»IA: The easy answer is everything I’m trying to do right now – I hope it works. That’s the impact. I would like to help support and encourage and be a part of a very considerate, intelligent, dynamic, passionate, creative community that has its own culture and wants to be a party of this country and this world and make friends with like-minded people that care about their families and their friends. It’s kind of the same thing as anybody that’s a passionate person. I just do music. I’m not a doctor. I’m not a carpenter. I’ve just always sort of resonated with that part of the brain. It’s how I understand people. It’s how I help people understand me. You people let me in and you let me take care of everything. I’m not in charge of everything, but I have far too much responsibility. So that’s my only criticism of Champaign. I guess I showed my cred at the door. I would hope that the right people got my instruments if I died, and that people would think that I was from here. Nirvana taught people that anybody could pick up a guitar and maybe have some beauty in it. Even though that’s not accurate, it’s generally a really good idea and it’s neat that people think that’s what they did. It would be neat if a person thought what I did was let people know you can make your world. I came from a place where I didn’t think this was possible, and I believed that. Being involved with music, I get to make music everyday. I’m addicted to a lot of things, but I can’t live without music. My parents told me “do what you love,” and then after that, I totally let my consciousness be formed by music, in all of its aspects: buying records, looking at them, learning the songs, playing my songs, writing my songs, performing, going to live performances of other people’s stuff. All of those things were just forming who I was and how I operated. Be careful – you might want to get a job and then fall in love with music. But for me, it was just too late. The world will always lie to you, but hang on to what makes your life and your world a beautiful place to live in. For me, that’s this place. For me, that’s this town. For me, that’s these musicians, the songs they write and the albums they release.