Bela Koe-Krompecher is still in the driver's seat as the indispensable local label celebrates its 25th birthday.
"All meaningful things come from some sort of pain," said Bela Koe-Krompecher.
Seated in a Clintonville coffee shop, he's prone to long digressions that usually end in one of two ways. If it's an explanation, he asks, "Does that make sense?" If it's an anecdote, the story inevitably culminates in a hilariously awkward situation or an off-color joke, followed by Koe-Krompecher's contagious, red-faced, bug-eyed, scrunched-nose, doubled-over laugh.
After a digression, he returns to the main thread, saying, "So anyway…" That conversation connector comes up so often, it's no wonder 25 years ago it became the namesake of Anyway Records, the local label he founded with friend Jerry Wick of Columbus punk-rock act Gaunt. The label is the meaningful thing he's talking about, and the pain he's referring to is a breakup - or, rather, a series of breakups that began with the dissolution of his relationship to Jenny Mae Leffel, his sweetheart from Springfield Northeastern High School in western Ohio.
It was an intense relationship. For a time, the two spent every afternoon together. They lost their virginity to each other. When Leffel came to Columbus to attend Ohio State, Koe-Krompecher followed, briefly attending Otterbein before dropping out. Soon they started going to shows at campus dive bars on High Street and getting involved with the local music scene.
"We started playing rock 'n' roll softball on Sunday evenings, and Bela started coming out with his dogs … but he wouldn't really play. He would just drink and shout at people," said Dan Spurgeon, singer and guitarist of Greenhorn (and later Bush League All-Stars). "At Greenhorn shows, he'd always be in the front row, shouting along."
Koe-Krompecher began working at several record stores, and around 1990 he joined the staff at Used Kids, a record shop that was quickly becoming the epicenter of the scene. Then Leffel, who played in Vibralux and performed solo as Jenny Mae, dumped him. It was devastating. Koe-Krompecher lost all his confidence.
More failed relationships followed in quick succession, and Koe-Krompecher spiraled into depression. He was suicidal. But, at just the right time, he found inspiration in Columbus music. Used Kids owner Dan Dow had started OKra Records and was putting out music by some of Koe-Krompecher's favorite bands (the Schramms, Ass Ponys), and Craig Regala had launched Datapanik Records, releasing 7-inch singles by now-legendary Columbus bands New Bomb Turks and Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments (featuring fellow Used Kids clerk Ron House).
Meanwhile, Koe-Krompecher's friend Wick helped nurse him back to stability, dragging him to North Campus staple the Blue Danube by day and local shows by night. "We'd go to the Dube every day and eat wet fries - fries with gravy - and drink coffee, then go to Stache's or Dick's Den or Bernie's," Koe-Krompecher said. "That's what we did for months."
Gaunt had already released a split single on Datapanik with the New Bomb Turks in 1991, and after watching Regala do it, Wick and Koe-Krompecher decided they could, too. So in 1992, the pair launched Anyway Records by pressing 500 copies of Gaunt's "Jim Motherfucker" 7-inch single. Koe-Krompecher wasn't sure if anyone would buy it or pay attention, so he asked Regala if he could use the Datapanik logo to give the 45 some cachet as a co-release. It worked. All 500 copies sold, so Anyway took the same co-release approach on the next two singles by Appalachian Death Ride and Greenhorn. (The Anyway sparkly star logo also came from an early Datapanik New Bomb Turks 7-inch.)
"Bela started up when he realized it was easy to do from watching a bumbling drunk - me - do Datapanik," said Regala, who didn't stay in the local label game for long. "I funded my initial efforts by selling acid in gay bars. As I learned the ramifications of this, it was a good time to curtail both activities."
Picking up where Datapanik left off, Anyway released more singles by Columbus bands like Monster Truck Five, Belreve, Log, Moviola and rising Dayton star Guided By Voices.
Wick had big dreams for the label. He wanted Anyway to start a record-of-the-month club and to release full-length albums, which were much more expensive to press than singles. Koe-Krompecher, meanwhile, had "zero plans" for the label. He had high hopes for the bands, but he was content to release music his friends made, and his goal was to eventually land the bands on bigger labels with bigger budgets - labels that didn't have to rely on roommates who worked at Kinko's to photocopy covers for free.
Even so, Anyway began to gain a national audience, no doubt thanks to the many connections with distributors and labels Koe-Krompecher made through Used Kids. ("The record store guys were the gatekeepers," Spurgeon said. "They made a lot of stuff happen that probably people don't even realize.") Plus, he began booking national touring acts at Stache's (the precursor to Little Brother's, both long gone now) and other venues.
"The bands I brought in, I would have my friends play with them. Gaunt, Turks, Moviola and Jenny Mae played with whoever you asked them to," said Koe-Krompecher, who eventually made up with Leffel and relentlessly championed her music. "So bands would come, and the whole scene would show them a good time. [Those bands] were going to New York and Chicago and telling [other bands] what a great town Columbus was."
While Koe-Krompecher claims to have no business acumen, others in the industry say that while Anyway always operated on a shoestring budget, Koe-Krompecher is smarter than he purports to be. "Putting a Jenny Mae song ('Red Chair') on the back of a Guided By Voices song ('If We Wait') was shrewd. [GBV] was getting huge in the indie-rock scene," said Vicky Wheeler, who co-ran the promotions company Autotonic and worked on various Anyway releases.
"When I was writing the Singles column for Spin in the '90s, I got a lot of 45s that were terrible or boring or just not very good, but it was always a pleasure to get something from Anyway," said music journalist Charles Aaron. "The record that hooked me on Anyway was the Guided By Voices/Jenny Mae split 45. I was already a GBV fan, but I loved Jenny Mae and ended up writing about her almost as much as them."
It wasn't just Spin. Over at CMJ, writer Dawn Sutter Madell fell in love with Anyway. "It was its own scene in the '90s," she said. "I reviewed so many [Anyway bands]. It wasn't like we had unlimited space, but so many of those bands were really important and doing great things. A lot of scenes are based on a sound. I don't feel like that was the case with Anyway. It wasn't a style; it was a place."
While mainstream press took notice, smaller, independent music zines were similarly fawning.
"In college, I became kind of obsessed with Ohio from afar - largely because of the scene that had built up there, which I would eventually learn was largely due to the enthusiasm and support of this guy Bela who I'd met at ComFest who was always at the front of the stage with two or three beers in his hand," said Liz Clayton, who released five issues of her Wind-Up zine in the mid-to-late '90s (the summer 1996 "Butter Cow" issue was all Ohio-themed). "He was so enthusiastic. … There's no doubt to me that it was his passion and near-annoying perseverance that provided so much of that early glue to the Columbus scene."
Jerry Wick, though, disagreed with Koe-Krompecher's direction, so he dropped his involvement. Plus, Gaunt was busy touring and recording, eventually releasing albums on big-name indies like Thrill Jockey and Amphetamine Reptile before making its major label debut on Warner Bros. in 1998.
"[Wick] wanted to do just rock stuff. I did an Appalachian Death Ride record, and he didn't like them," Koe-Krompecher said. "He was like, 'All you wanna put out is pop music,' and I was like, 'Yeah, basically.'"
Building on the national buzz, including a much-circulated Entertainment Weekly feature centered on Columbus, Anyway inked a pressing and distribution (P&D) deal with Gary Held's Revolver USAdistribution company in 1995. The deal didn't bring in any cash, but it meant that Revolver would handle all the production and manufacturing costs, which enabled Anyway to release the full-length albums it previously didn't have the budget to press on vinyl.
"Held said, 'Whatever you wanna put out, go for it. I trust you,'" said Koe-Krompecher, who chose as the first LP Jenny Mae's There's a Bar Around the Corner… Assholes. "It got really good press. That freaked people out because nobody really liked her that much. She wasn't punk. She was this crazy, funny lady who intimidated some people."
Appalachian Death Ride's self-titled album and Moviola's The Year You Were Born followed, both of which sold moderately well and generated interest from bigger labels. But shortly thereafter ADR's Chris Biester moved to Seattle, and then Moviola's members didn't want to tour, so they opted not to sign with EMI.
Around 1997, things were looking good for Jenny Mae as anticipation built for her follow-up album. She played tour dates with the Palace Brothers, Neko Case and Cat Power. But she had a way of sabotaging her career at every turn. One such act of self-sabotage is forever seared into Koe-Krompecher's brain. Leffel was playing a showcase in New York for Davitt Sigerson, then-president of EMI, and other reps from the major label.
Jenny Mae's performance went pretty well, although Leffel and Koe-Krompecher were both hammered while Sigerson, seated and stoic with a manicured beard and cigar, was sober. "Jenny walked up and said, 'Hey, what'd you think of the show?'" Koe-Krompecher said. "And he said, 'I thought it was pretty good.'"
An EMI staffer gave the thumbs-up sign to Koe-Krompecher, who began slowly backing away, cautiously optimistic. Leffel lingered. "She's like, 'Hey, you want a drink? I get 'em for free!' He's like, 'Ah, no. We'll talk later.' Then she reaches over and grabs his fat," said Koe-Krompecher, pointing to his belly and shaking with laughter, barely able to speak, "and says, 'Ah, lighten up buddy! Have a drink!'"
"I was drunk, but I knew the gravity of the situation," he continued after collecting himself. "It was like, 'You just fucked our whole life. We were right there.' I remember when I talked to [Sigerson] the next week he said, 'I never wanna see that woman again.'"
Anyway eventually released Jenny Mae's well-received follow-up, Don't Wait Up for Me, in 1998, but by 1999 the P&D deal with Revolver went kaput. None of the releases sold well enough to make the arrangement work. But even though the original P&D deal ended, Revolver continued to provide distribution for Anyway releases.
At the end of the '90s, Koe-Krompecher was deflated and drinking more than ever. He wasn't booking as many shows, and he felt like giving the label up. Bands he'd put his life into were falling apart. Leffel abruptly moved to Miami while making her third record and began a dark descent into addiction and mental-health issues that took her in and out of hospitals and left her homeless for a time when she returned to Columbus. The third Jenny Mae record never happened.
Then in January of 2001, Jerry Wick was struck by a car and killed while riding his bike. Later that same year, Used Kids burned to the ground in an electrical fire. It was all too much. In December of 2001, Koe-Krompecher moved to Florida, content to let Anyway die just like everything else.
In 2003, Joe Peppercorn's band the Whiles was playing a gig at Andyman's Treehouse (now the Tree Bar), which was not unusual. The Whiles was practically the house band at the Treehouse for a time. But that night Peppercorn was nervous. By the glow of Christmas lights illuminating the tiny room with the huge tree growing through the ceiling, he saw Bela Koe-Krompecher walk in.
"I knew who he was because I'd been buying records from him since high school," Peppercorn said. "He was a local music legend to me. A lot of the music I loved was because of his recommendation, and then he came to see us, so it was this bizarre circle of things. It's like, well, I hope you like us, because we're influenced by a lot of the stuff you're recommending."
Koe-Krompecher didn't just like the Whiles. He was blown away, and the band rekindled his interest in the label, which had been mostly dormant while Koe-Krompecher got sober in Florida before returning to Columbus in 2003.
"I don't think he said he'd put out a record right away," Peppercorn said. "I think he just said he really liked our show, and that he wanted to help us. … You got the impression that he not only genuinely cared about music, but he also genuinely cared about people."
In 2004 the Whiles released the excellent Colors of the Year on Anyway, and again a buzz began. Prominent managers and booking agents came calling. The band was featured in Rolling Stone and had a song placed on a movie soundtrack. The Whiles played shows with Andrew Bird, My Morning Jacket and the National. But when lead singer Zack Prout left the band, the Whiles imploded.
This time, though, Koe-Krompecher didn't let the disappointment crush him. He'd gained perspective. Plus, he was busy. He had a kid and was going back to school, eventually earning a bachelor's from Capital University in 2009 and a master's in social work from Case Western Reserve University in 2011. (He's now a father of two.)
Peppercorn said Koe-Krompecher's support in the aftermath of the Whiles' initial implosion was invaluable, and it helped him regroup and make the band's second album, Sleepers Wake, in 2007 (and later a third, Somber Honey, in 2012). Peppercorn relied on him for honest feedback on his songs.
"Ten years ago I didn't need someone to say, 'Oh, Joe. This is amazing.' But I also didn't need to be berated and told I needed to go get a job at a bank immediately," Peppercorn said. "Bela was this great voice who said, 'You and I know this isn't amazing, but that's OK, and that doesn't mean you shouldn't make more music. It doesn't reflect on you as an artist.'"
In the coming years, bands like the Kyle Sowashes, Ghost Shirt, Connections, WV White and St. Lenox further cemented the second wave of Anyway as a defining part of the Columbus music scene. This year alone has already seen Anyway releases from Connections and Mary Lynn, plus another on the way from St. Lenox. Just like the early days, there's not a particular sound that typifies the label. The only through line in Anyway's roster is Koe-Krompecher's taste.
"Bela has a good ear for finding artists that are doing things that people outside of Columbus will find compelling. Sometimes that means investing time and effort in odd and awkward projects that don't fit traditional conceptions of marketability," said Andrew Choi, who records laptop pop as St. Lenox. "It's no secret that St. Lenox is a sort of odd project to have on the Anyway label. … I think it's a testament to Bela's vision, and it makes Anyway much more than just another genre-specific local indie label."
Some things remain the same. Anyway is still a break-even proposition at best, and bands still do much of the grunt work on their own. "The label is a community now more than ever," said Koe-Krompecher, who's the clinical director at the YMCA of Columbus and a lecturer at Ohio State. Just like Ted Hattemer of Moviola was essential in getting Anyway-related tasks done in the early days, now Kyle Sowash, Philip Kim of Connections and others help keep Anyway's gears turning. That, and a lot of coffee.
"He's cultivated this reputation as being this slacker guy - a stereotypical Gen X-er - but at the same time, he works really hard," Peppercorn said. "He knows the game very well. When he's focused, you would think you're sitting with someone at a high-stakes firm."
For Koe-Krompecher, Anyway is much less about the business of music and more about encouraging bands that are making music he loves. "Thinking about someone who had worked in a record store most of his life, for him to say, 'Hey, that's a good song' - that means something," said Greenhorn's Spurgeon. "That kind of encouragement is a difference maker in someone who just puts the guitar away forever or who might continue to make music for the rest of their life."
A quarter century on, bands from Anyway's past and present will gather this weekend, Sept. 1-3, for three shows. Jenny Mae is scheduled to play her first set in years on Thursday at Spacebar, followed by the Whiles. John Darnielle, a longtime friend of Koe-Krompecher and supporter of Anyway, will bring his band the Mountain Goats to play Ace of Cups on Friday alongside bands as disparate as St. Lenox and the Cheater Slicks. And on Saturday at Ace of Cups, Moviola will play songs from The Year You Were Born.
At these celebratory shows, you'll still find Koe-Krompecher at the front of the stage, but without the multiple bottles of beer. And he'll likely still be dancing and wriggling his body in an enraptured, completely un-self-conscious way. After 25 years, the unfiltered love of music continues to pour out of him.