Smile Politely

Undertow Exerts Pull on National Scene from Champaign Location

Lurking in a converted basement of an unassuming house in old town Champaign is the motor that drives some of the best-respected bands in indie rock. Bob Andrews, who runs the local office of Undertow Music Collective, keeps things running smoothly for such artists as Centro-Matic, David Bazan, Jesse Harris and Bottle Rockets. Bottle Rockets will be playing at the Highdive on Saturday, August 15 16 (check out Smile Politely’s preview on Thursday).
Pictured are (left-to-right) Adam Klavohn and Bob Andrews.

Andrews is the complete antithesis of a smarmy music-industry insider. He’s not trying to project any kind of rock-and-roll image, as his photo on Undertow’s website with his infant child will attest. During the interview, the Nashville native was completely at ease in a t-shirt and shorts, and he steered far clear of name-dropping and hipster condescension. Andrews has been a Champaign resident since moving here from Chicago “three or four years ago” when his wife got a job at the University of Illinois.

Undertow is a loose collaboration that also has offices in St. Louis, Los Angeles, Boston, Portland, Ore., and London. It’s a unique business structure that is designed to allow the artists to have more creative freedom. “We kind of cooked it up a long time ago,” said Andrews, of the company’s formation in 1996. “I don’t know of any other management companies that do things this way.” According to Undertow’s website, “We work closely with a select roster of artists we love, respect, and call our friends. Our goal is to create a friendly and productive environment for these people to make music while keeping their integrity and artistic vision intact.” Each office operates independently, managing different artists and sometimes functioning as a record label as well. Andrews said, “We all have separate finances and run our things independent of each other. But we also help each other as much as possible.”

Undertow’s Champaign office is a two-man show; Andrews is joined by his right-hand man, Adam Klavohn, who handles the company’s mail-order business and will eventually transition into managing bands as well.

A constant struggle for Andrews is helping the musicians he manages get big enough to make a living, but not so big that things get more complicated and impersonal. “I manage a band’s audience, too, so that makes more of a connection,” he notes. “If you go to some big artist’s website, there’s no contact info for anybody that works for her. I hope it never gets to a level where that’s the case with any of my bands.”

Both Andrews and Klavohn expressed a deep appreciation for personal connections with musicians that they appreciate and a disdain for a bigger-is-better attitude toward music. “I prefer seeing music in a smaller venue, like the Highdive or Canopy Club,” Andrews commented. “If it gets any bigger than that, the band is really removed from the audience. Centro-matic has been playing two nights in the same place, rather than one in a bigger place. When you start playing bigger venues, all of a sudden the tickets are $30.”

Centro-MaticI, The Kite

Klavohn added, “I saw Menomena in Chicago, and a 16 dollar ticket was $32 after all the fees. When you get bigger, there are more people grabbing for more money.” Even though it’s difficult to have an artist burst onto the national scene, there is still the possibility of a pleasant surprise, like when Harris won a songwriting Grammy in 2003 for Norah Jones’ hit single, “Don’t Know Why.”

Jesse HarrisHow Could It Take So Long

Artist management can be a difficult thing to grasp, so Andrews walked me through his role. “It’s different for every band,” he said. “Every band has different needs. It’s like being a head football coach; I coordinate activities between the booking agent, the label, etc. We decide that we’re going to tour ‘X’ number of days, make a plan for that, make a marketing plan, a tour plan. I’m the middle man; I’m in the middle of everything. That way the band can make one phone call and figure out what’s going on.” His role can also vary greatly from group to group and year to year. For instance, he’s editing a DVD of the making of David Bazan’s new album. Sometimes, a band’s activity level can fluctuate a lot. “Bottle Rockets are a good example,” he said. “They had 150 shows last year and 15 this year. It’s completely different managing them this year.”

David BazanCold Beer and Cigarettes (acoustic)

Andrews got his start as a tour manager in the early 90s for alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo, whose reputation for hard partying was debunked by Andrews. “On the last Uncle Tupelo tour, it was their first tour with a bus,” he reminisced. “Tour bus drivers are one step up from truckers, and they usually want backstage passes. After the first week, the driver gave the pass back to me. He said they were the lamest band he’d been around.” The Tupelo gig resulted in him backing into his first artist management job managing the Bottle Rockets. “Tony Margherita was managing Uncle Tupelo, and I inherited the Bottle Rockets by accident,” he continued. “I started managing them by default. I wasn’t officially their manager, and I wasn’t qualified.” Which eventually led to the Bottle Rockets finding other management, and then returning to Andrews ten years later. “In the meantime, I got some on the job training and figured it out,” he said. I asked the Bottle Rockets’ lead singer and guitarist, Brian Henneman, for any embarrassing stories that he could share about Andrews from his early days, but he demurred. “Absolutely not,” Henneman said. “There are children looking at the internet every single day.”

Undertow is busy enough with their current roster of artists that they employ an extremely off-putting submissions notice on their website. In part, it reads, “Please do not send CDs or press kits. Your package will probably sit in a big pile for weeks before we eventually throw it away.” Despite that clear message, Andrews says, they still get plenty of submissions. “We get a lot of emails that start, ‘I know you don’t take submissions, but…’” he said. “They think they’re the exception. The thing these bands don’t know is, when we get an over-the-top pitch email from some band, it gets sent out to all our friends because it’s funny.” Andrews added, “I can only do a good job of managing three or four or five bands if they’re busy. It’s hard to even think about taking on new bands.”

Andrews has carved out an excellent niche for himself and the artists he manages, while proving that you don’t need to live in the center of the rock universe to effectively manage artists. Here’s to hoping that he remains a part of the C-U scene for years to come.

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