Tom Loftus has finally found his people — and this weekend, he will be throwing a party to celebrate them. Loftus, the founder of Modern Radio Record Label, is hosting a two-day mini-festival for the 16th anniversary of his label, filled with a dynamic cross-section of the Twin Cities music scene’s past, present, and future.
The musicians and friends that make up these groups – STNNNG, Vampire Hands, Hollow Boys, Fury Things, the Chambermaids, B.O.Y.F., Oaks, and a rare reunion of the early-2000s post-punk group Sicbay – were the types of people that Loftus was desperate to find during his upbringing in Coon Rapids in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
“In high school, I hadn’t really found my tribe at the time,” Loftus explains wistfully. “I didn’t really connect with anybody in a way that I did with music. I didn’t have anybody that gave me good guidance – I didn’t have the cool older brother, or the friend who had a good collection. I was very limited in my scope – it was either MTV or the radio.”
After graduating from high school in 1995, Loftus became more immersed in the music scene following an early Foo Fighters/Shudder to Think show at First Avenue that convinced him that his passion for music would take him somewhere special. He immersed himself in the college radio station at St. John’s and devoured all of the new and old music he could find.
“That was the moment where I just went, ‘Yes!’ I got up to my college radio station and said, ‘I’m interested in finding out more about this world,’” Loftus recalls. “This Shudder to Think band – what that hell was that?! That was awesome. I need to have more of that in my life. I just started going down a rabbit hole that 20 years later I haven’t wanted to leave.”
Loftus eventually became the program director then music director of the station, and his life in music was well on its way. After attending a bunch of all-ages punk shows at St. Cloud’s Java Joint and making countless trips down to the Twin Cities, Loftus started booking shows for the fledgling bands of his friends and other acts that caught his ear.
“I got lucky that I went up to St. Cloud and there was a place like the Java Joint,” says Loftus affectionately. “There were all these cool bands, like the Make-Up, and the Makers, and all the AmRep bands, and Dillinger Four. It was an opportunity to see a weird bunch of bands, and you’d just see anything that you could because what the f–k else are you going to do in St. Cloud?”
When he moved to the Twin Cities following college, he was determined to help document this burgeoning underground rock scene whatever way that he could. He worked at the then-new punk record store in Minneapolis, Extreme Noise, and made friends and contacts around town that would help advise him as he devised an ambitious plan to start a record label.
“Seeing all these bands at the Foxfire – Misfires, the Hidden Chord, Killsadie – I wanted to put out all of this stuff,” Loftus recalls confidently. “I’m not just going to put out one thing, I’m going to put out a whole bunch of things and see where it goes.”
So, in the summer of 1999, Modern Radio Record Label was born, and quickly put out the Misfires’ Dead End Expressway LP, a 7-inch from the Hidden Chord, and a split from Killsadie and Brand New Unit. Over the next few years, seminal releases from the Plastic Constellations, Motion City Soundtrack, Mirah, and Signal to Trust quickly put the label on the indie music map, and Modern Radio was off and running – but not without some early growing pains and industry lessons learned along the way.
“I pressed too many copies of some records, initially,” Loftus admits with a laugh. “It’s only so much more to press 1,000 copies of an LP, so let’s just do that. Then it’s like, ‘Oh s–t, the band broke up,’ and I’ve got 880 copies of a record by a band that doesn’t exist anymore.”
To help alleviate those missteps and foster the label’s growth, Loftus brought on his high school friend Pete Mielech in 2005. The two of them formed an innovative, forward-thinking partnership that helped take the label to the next level.
“We challenge each other to do really good work because we want to document something that is meaningful, and cool, and interesting,” Loftus says of their working relationship. “It’s a part of the conversation that was started a long time ago in music, where people challenged the status quo, whether it was Roxy Music, or bands on Rough Trade, or Mute Records – they were advancing the conversation in musical places that was challenging and sometimes not well received. There was something about it that was exciting because they weren’t leaving music as this thing in the past. It was advancing the conversation.”
While Modern Radio certainly helped foster the local rock scene, the label has always been expertly curated by Loftus and Mielech’s discerning tastes. In its 16 years of operation, the label has only put out 67 releases. Some of that is due to time and financial constraints of running a record label while also working “real” jobs, but that relatively small output is mostly due to the guys putting out records that they are truly inspired by from artists that they believe in.
“For us, we need to feel good about what the bands are doing musically, and philosophically, and how they present themselves,” Loftus explains. “It needs to be something that we feel really proud of, and we can stand behind and put our stamp on.”
Of late, Modern Radio has affixed its name to some of the most compelling, exciting releases from the local music scene, by bands like STNNNG, Hollow Boys, Oaks, and Fury Things, all of whom will be playing the label’s Sweet 16 Party at the 7th Street Entry and Turf Club, this Friday and Saturday, respectively. The shows not only represent a respectful nod to the old guard from the Twin Cities, but are a fresh tip of the cap to a new generation that continues to push music forward in the area.
It’s the rare reunion of Sicbay that tops the impressive two-night bill, with the band reforming to celebrate the initial vinyl release of their rousing 2001 debut album, The Firelit S’Coughs. Loftus and everyone in the band is excited to not only have the group perform again, but also to give some well-deserved attention to a landmark record that fell through the cracks a bit.
Ultimately, the mini-festival is a celebration of Modern Radio itself. An indie record label surviving for 16 years is an accomplishment worth throwing a party for — and Tom Loftuss’ unquenchable love of music is a major reason that Modern Radio has thrived for all of these years.
“Music has always been a magical and important thing in my life,” Loftus says. “Even when I was listening to stuff that I look back on as being insignificant and silly – there was something about music that always grabbed my attention. And it still does.”
Erik Thompson is the clubs editor at City Pages, and a freelance music writer in the Twin Cities.
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