He nails the guitar part in one take.
Gino Scarim looks surprised as he makes a series of clicks in a program called ProTools, editing the track he just recorded.
Behind him with guitar in hand stands Eric Grossmann, the guitar player of northwest-suburban mainstays The Brokedowns, who’s joking with his bandmates about being able to play the guitar part despite learning the song minutes before he recorded it.
Scarim listens to the playback on speakers above his head, and after some short deliberation with the bandmembers, decides it’s time to move on to the next track. What he’s doing isn’t making him a lot of money – but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
At 28, Scarim is responsible for two of the northwest suburbs’ longtime music businesses – record label Duckphone Records, which he’s run for almost a decade, and promotion company Decal Productions, which is responsible for booking local acts in local venues. In addition to this, he performs as a sound engineer at the Clearwater Theater in West Dundee, as well as at the Metro in Chicago, and he owns a recording studio, Red Door Studio in Fox River Grove.
Since Scarim’s operations are small, he admittedly doesn’t have much money to pack into promotion or touring for his bands, but there are some success stories. One of Decal’s early bookings was political punk band Against Me! in Elgin, in November 2003. The band went on to sign a major label deal and recorded their latest album with the producer of Nirvana’s Nevermind.
Scarim looks more like a defensive tackle and less like someone who works in the sound business. He’s got a shaved head and a trimmed beard, is heavyset and stands a little over six feet. Physically, he’s a bit imposing, but the fact that he’s wearing cargo shorts and a T-shirt with the Stay-Puft Marshmallow man kind of dispels the notion that he’d hurt anyone. His co-worker at Clearwater Theater. Co-worker D.J. DeNoon says, “He doesn’t drink, never had a cigarette, doesn’t do drugs and he tried to stop drinking pop.”
There’s no doubt Scarim loves music – that’s very clear when he talks about starting bands with his high school buddies. His musical tastes range “all over the charts,” and he says he likes hardcore bands like Converge, Dillenger Escape Plan and the Lawrence Arms. Taste doesn’t really factor in picking what bands to record. To him, what’s rewarding is providing a launching pad for those who are in the same position he was 10 years ago.
“I try to keep it real light, friendly – joke around. Productive and professional. There are so many added pressures in the studio. My studio is rather inexpensive, but the bands still get a higher quality recording,” he says. Scarim also says it helps if the bands have home recordings. That way he can get an idea of how the band sounds and see what direction he can help take the songs in.
There is no way to deny the influence of Scarim on this community. It’s not outside the realm of possibility to assume someone in his position could be difficult or out of touch. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. There’s no discernable trace of and that’s what endears him to the people he’s worked with and worked for.
Jamison Butcher, one of Scarim’s former interns at Clearwater Theater credits Scarim for “single-handedly” nurturing the music scene and without him “it would have died out a long time ago.” Scarim’s former bandmate and co-worker Mustafa Daka says, “He will do whatever he can to help people and has done a lot, and is so humble he won’t admit it. He’s made a lot of things possible for a lot of people, and keeps things fun for a lot of people.”
“It’s somewhat generational. We were working with younger kids doing shows – high school type kids, kids are getting into music earlier – and it happened to be a good thing at the time,” says Grossmann. “In high school for me, there were no shows around here. People in bands weren’t the norm, now it’s the inverse; there’s a ton of shows all the time.”
Scarim carefully explains that his promotion company, Decal Productions, provides him his necessary income. It’s the reason he can keep the label and recording studio going. The success of the company allowed him to move to different venues – and as a result, present more shows. Duckphone Records is something he enjoys doing, but isn’t necessarily crucial to his income.
Only one of Scarim’s businesses allows him the freedom to not have to hold any other supplemental jobs. The music scene in this corner of the northwestern suburbs went from nascent to populous in a short amount of time. Once it was hard to find shows in the area – now Scarim’s company Decal runs seven shows a week.
“It’s weird,” he says. “The more involved I get, the more I have to be. They all transfer into everything. I couldn’t do one without the other. They feed off each other.”
Back in 1999, the northwest suburbs started to populate itself with high-school-aged kids starting bands inspired by their favorite ska-core staples, the Voodoo Glow Skulls and Slapstick, which later spawned regionally-known acts such as Alkaline Trio and the Lawrence Arms. For the kids in this area, however, there was one big problem – nowhere to record, or play.
That’s when Scarim took matters into his own hands. He founded Duckphone Records in 1999 to record his friends’ bands so they’d have something to sell at their shows.
It wasn’t an instant process by any means. When Duckphone formed, Scarim was working for the Classic Cinemas chain of movie theaters, where he became the youngest general manager in the theater’s history at the age of 19. Two days after he graduated high school, he accepted a job at the theater that paid him $19,500 dollars a year. It was good money, he says, but quit a year later after he was offered a position at musical instrument store Sam Ash.
“I bought equipment slowly – used stuff for a good price. I … never had a ton of extra cash,” says Scarim. “[I started in] my parents’ basement. They gave me an entire basement to do my stuff.”
In his parent’s basement, Scarim started with a basic four-track tape recorder that he ran into an Analog recorder.
Daka, or “Moose” as he’s known to most, used to be Scarim’s co-worker at Sam Ash and was a bandmate in their onetime band Slim Jim Conspiracy. He was instrumental in the early days of Duckphone, as well as when Scarim set out to start booking shows.
Daka and Scarim would take items discarded from Sam Ash – soundproofing and cables – and built a closet with those materials. Even if some of the materials were half broken, they’d try to use them. According to Scarim, they’d “Frankenstein” microphones where they took working parts of some and put them together with parts of others. They fashioned the closet into a vocal booth using found materials. When finances allowed, he would upgrade the equipment in his studio. The patchwork studio setup lasted for several years, until Scarim moved equipment into the studio he’d purchased in January 2007.
Scarim and Daka at first teamed up to find shows for their band. “Me and Gino did a lot of calling around, because a lot of VFWs and Moose Lodges wouldn’t do shows. When we heard bands playing places, we’d call and try getting our band on there,” he says. “We ended up playing a lot of Battle of the Bands so we could play.”
Moose had started booking shows at the Warp Skate Park in Elgin, which originally overwhelmed Scarim. “I was like, I can’t do what Moose does, having bands calling him all the time,” he says incredulously. “But then I started doing it independently of him.” Not long after, Scarim got in contact with Grossmann, who, like Scarim, was struggling to find shows for his band.
The pair heard through mutual friends that they both had wanted to book shows, so Grossmann took the dive and called Scarim. They held meetings at Denny’s in Carpentersville, about the direction they wanted to go in. There, Decal Promotions was formed as a partnership between the two. In 2003, the fledgling company scored big early – they negotiated a deal with Clearwater Theater, a fairly new venue that hadn’t invited may local bands to play. Decal began hosting shows on Mondays and Tuesdays. “Things snowballed from there,” says Grossmann. The success of shows at Clearwater led to slots at Penny Road Pub in nearby Barrington and Just For Fun Roller Rink in McHenry.
About a year ago, Grossmann left Decal to focus on his day job as an IT recruiter and on his new family. Scarim then took over full time.
But he’s not without help.
DeNoon, a co-sound engineer at Clearwater says, “Gino … told me how to set up and run sound. Before [him] I had never done sound – and he needed people who knew how to do it, so he taught me to run it when he couldn’t be there.” Because of his experience at Clearwater, DeNoon now assists bands he’s worked with on shows at larger venues such as the Metro.
Several years ago, DeNoon hit a rough patch where he was unemployed and didn’t have a place to stay. Scarim’s parents took him in. “The job I have now I wouldn’t have if it wasn’t because of Gino,” he says. “I wouldn’t be at the place I’m at now with a place to live without Gino and his family.” He pauses. “Wow,” DeNoon says. “I don’t even think he knows about this.”
Eddie Tsikretsis – the former bass player of Me, Myself and Eyepatch, one of Duckphone’s earliest bands – is far removed from his days on Duckphone’s roster. Yet he agrees that Scarim’s approach remains the same.
“He’s dealing with kids with no musical ability and he’s pretty awesome at that. He championed us the whole time,” Tsikretsis says. “The motivating factor is that he wants to see bands doing something, even if it isn’t his thing.” Scarim recorded an entire album for Me, Myself and Eyepatch, but the band disbanded shortly thereafter. “Gino gets good involvement from kids who have burgeoning interest and he incubates them,” Tsikretsis continues.
Back at the studio, Grossmann struggles to lay down a guitar track for another song, despite his earlier successes. Scarim calmly offers encouragement and provides direction on where Grossmann can come back in on the track. Eventually, after several more takes, the tracking is completed. He takes a seat and listens intently as Scarim cues up the track on the computer screen. After the playback is done, Scarim turns to the guitar player and smiles.
“Good job, Grossmann.”
Then it’s back to work.