DENNIS CALLACI: An artist’s life continues to expand

by Mick Rhodes |

In our noisy digital ecosystem of focus-grouped, corporate-curated “outsider” culture, with Instagram “influencers” trolling for clicks, and relentless, integrated, multi-platform advertising coming at us through the tiny computers we carry in our hands, it’s comforting to know that Dennis Callaci exists.

Mr. Callaci, singer, songwriter, musician and author, is the founder of independent giant Shrimper Records, whose hundreds of releases since its 1990 inception have influenced untold thousands of artists over the ensuing 30 years.

Shrimper’s roster of some 81 recording artists represents something extremely difficult to come by in the music industry: a pure and uncommodified body of work unfettered by mainstream constraints.

A handful of Shrimper artists are fairly well known, such as The Mountain Goats, The Folk Implosion, and local heroes/indie legends Wckr Spgt, but it’s also home to scores of artists operating decidedly well south of conventional corporate pablum. 

Mr. Callaci is also himself a Shrimper artist and influential musician and songwriter. His latest release, “Arches and Pathways,” is a part-improvisational collaboration with John Davis, formerly of aforementioned The Folk Implosion, who saw top-40 mainstream success with “Natural One,” in 1995.

Some may recognize Mr. Callaci from his former day job as general manager at Rhino Records, where he had worked since 1988 before leaving the beloved Village record store earlier this year.

The 18-year-Claremont resident also co-founded still-active indie underground giants Refrigerator in 1990 with his brother Allen Callaci (who is also a multi-hyphenate: a singer, songwriter, musician, author, college professor and librarian).

“Arches and Pathways,” set to be released both physically and digitally November 20, is a bookend to Mr. Davis and Mr. Callaci’s 1995 collaboration, “Room for Space,” which came out at the height of The Folk Implosion’s lone mainstream splash. 

Since then, Mr. Callaci, 51, has raised a family (he is married to Catherine Guffey, and they have two sons, 25 and 15), grown his label, released several solo and Refrigerator records, and written a book, 100 Cassettes (Pelekinesis, 2020).

Mr. Davis continued to work with Folk Implosion until 2000. Since then he earned a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature from Brown University and a master’s degree in elementary education from Lesley University. He works full-time in public education in Durham, North Carolina Public Schools and in political organizing. He returned to music with the 2013 release, “Spare Parts,” on Shrimper.

Those unfamiliar with improvisational, avant-garde music may find some of the melodies in “Arches and Pathways” somewhat difficult to lock into. But they’re in there, and the journey is well worth the reward.

Fans of David Bowie’s posthumous masterpiece “Blackstar,” the Velvet Underground’s dark, metallic wail, the spare, eerie soundscapes of David Lynch films, or the aggressive beauty of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds will no doubt find an entry point.

The record was recorded over three days last summer at Mr. Callaci’s Claremont home studio. The music was improvised, but much of the lyrical content was written prior to recording.

“We just went into it blind and the first day we got three songs and we were really happy with it,” Mr. Callaci said. “It was truly just a wonderful, creative three-day stretch.”

He cites the 1960s Japanese film, “Woman in the Dunes” as a major influence on the record.

“A lot of [film] scores were very influential,” he said. “Certainly cues were taken from experimental scores from the ‘50s and ‘60s that we both dug. Just so many filmmakers, Italian stuff, the all the intermarriage of music and film in so many of what are formative films in my life. Even those sharp edits in Godard films where the music is here and then it’s sliced off; Dialogue: what … happened? All those odd edits and interplays.”

A deluxe edition of “Arches and Pathways,” limited to 100 copies, will be issued on orange/yellow vinyl, with each individual copy including unique hand signed poems by Mr. Davis and Mr. Callaci. A download card will include access to all 200 poems as well as instrumental stems. The initial first non-deluxe vinyl pressing will be a run of 300. The record, which was engineered by Steve Folta and mixed by Scott Solter (St. Vincent, The Mountain Goats), will also be streaming at all the usual spots.

An East Coast tour to promote the record was planned, but Covid put the kibosh on that.

“It could still be in the cards,” Mr. Callaci said. “I’m feeling good after last night [Mr. Callaci was reached October 23, the morning after the final presidential debate]. We’re going to have a good November the third and get that bum out, and maybe we can get this thing under control a little bit.”

In the meantime, Mr. Callaci has another new venture on which to focus his seemingly boundless creative energy. He’s teamed up with longtime friend and Pelekinesis Books publisher Mark Givens (himself also a musician, songwriter and founding guitarist of Wckr Spgt) to form a new imprint, Bamboo Dart Press. The publishing house’s debut release, a “novella in flash,” The Loss Detector, by Meg Pokrass, came out October 15.

   He and Mr. Givens “have been talking for decades about different projects, and when Covid hit we were both just [into] the idea of doing something very quick, punk rock, physical and in the realm of the written word, was something that we were going back and forth on. With this book imprint, Bamboo Dart Press, we’re turning these books pretty quick. The first one came out last week and we’ve got 15 or so lined up over the next year.”

Mr. Callaci has spent his entire adult life as an artist. He’s purposefully avoided anything that felt insincere, sometimes foregoing significant financial gain to remain true to his ethos. It’s been a rewarding journey, and it’s nowhere near over.

“It’s just the idea that in this instance, and in all these instances in my life, I’ve been so lucky to fall in love with the music by people who I then fell in love with, and I put out their records or  something happens,” he said. “There’s a deep friendship with John and I, and I think that’s part of the language of that record too. There’s a lot of intimacy and that chemical reaction. So hopefully, yeah, I’d love to do something else because with him. He’s an incredibly creative musician and writer.”

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