Joe Goodkin, founder of Chicago-based Quell records, is your regular renaissance guy. In addition to holding down jobs as a paralegal and guitar teacher, he plays in bands, runs a record label and travels to local high schools performing his original folk opera based on Homer’s Odyssey.
Last winter, his band Burn Rome Burn was on hiatus. Goodkin had written a bunch of new material, planning to hit the studio acoustic-style until he teamed up with Jay Marino, co-owner of I.V. Lab Studios in Uptown.
The project took off when they brought in Darren Garvey on drums and keyboards and Jay picked up the bass and mandolin. After what he describes as some crazy fast, guerilla recording, the group had a record that was ready to go.
“I was completely stunned at what I heard coming out of the speakers. What had started as a side project for myself had turned into the best piece of work I'd been a part of, and something I very much wanted people to hear,” Goodkin says.
The record, Look Alive, started to take shape in an attic on the northwest side of the city; the result is very Chicago. “My favorite moment is in the song ‘Again and Again.’ It's live, recorded in one take—the first take, actually. If you listen closely, you can hear the Blue Line train go by in the background, like a ghost, during the second verse.” He distributed about 200 copies, calling the project Paper Arrows. "I liked the idea that these songs, and songs in general, are like arrows that you write and then fire into the air, hoping that they hit the intended targets,” he says of the band’s name.
Goodkin worked with his agent to get it out to record labels and music licensing houses. Despite positive feedback across the board, getting Paper Arrows to market was frustrating. The band had never played a show or sold a record. “The responses we got all went like this: ‘This is really good, but we don't work with bands that aren't already established.’ After a couple months of that, I decided to establish it myself,” Goodkin says.
Last April, way before Radiohead took the same viral marketing approach, he released an email only single. “It was really cool and wound up four or five generations away from my initial email, reaching people in the UK, Russia and Italy. Immediately, my mailing list was bumped up and we got coverage in the Red Eye. For a band just starting out, that was a great way to get our music to people fast and painlessly,” he says.
On the heels of that initial success, Goodkin decided to release the entire CD in a somewhat more traditional way. He formalized a business plan, borrowed against his life insurance policy and Quell Records was born. Look Alive was released in March 2008, complete with a release party at Schuba’s where attendees received a free copy of the CD.
Getting there was a learning process for Goodkin, who had done many things involved with releasing a record in the past, but had never done them all at once. “I was amazed at how many little details there were. When you’re trying to put together a record, set up a business, and book a show, you have to learn to prioritize,” he says. “What surprised me is that the thing you love the most—playing music—is minimized.”
Energized by the release, the band has booked studio time for June and July. “If Look Alive is a quieter record about Chicago winters and loss, then the second record seems like it will be more about recovery and hope,” says Goodkin.
Keep an eye out, Paper Arrows plans to play some shows this summer.