They were five guys in their 20s, all from different Wisconsin towns, and all bitten by the rock 'n' roll bug. And by the time they met each other at a gig in Shawano on a spring night in 1997, they were all restless for change.
Jake Shut had been booking rock shows for five years at a Shawano country bar called the Blue Moon.
Isaac Shulze, who grew up in Madison, was venturing beyond his band Ladybeard to start a new project called Mad Trucker Gone Mad.
Darwin Sampson was leaving Fond du Lac in search of musically friendlier terrain. He and drummer Chad Ovshak, a native of Winneconne, were playing more frequently at Madison's O'Cayz Corral in a band called Uncle Eddie.
And Chris Langkamp, from Oconomowoc, was seeking new directions for the DIY label he'd started in 1994. He'd named the label Crustacean Records to align it with the name of his early-'90s band Crabshack. Langkamp was known as "Crusty" to his friends. He'd established the label to support Crabshack and to assemble compilation discs by a group of Milwaukee bands he gigged with.
Shut, Shulze, Sampson, Ovshak and Langkamp stood in the same room together for the first time on that Blue Moon night in 1997. The triple bill featured Uncle Eddie and Langkamp's Carl You Know Peggy. It also featured the debut performance of Mad Trucker Gone Mad.
"The connections made that night influenced the direction of Crustacean for the next decade," says Langkamp.
"That evening was one of the most fun experiences I've had," recalls Sampson. "I'd never met Chris or heard of Crustacean before. When Chris got onstage he was wearing this bright orange crab hat. His band completely cracked me up. I met Crusty after our set. He expressed interest in working with Uncle Eddie, and the rest of that story is history."
It's history because Crustacean has gone on to assemble one of the richest archives of Wisconsin rock over the past 10 years. The label's catalogue now includes more than 70 releases, mostly from bands originating in Madison, Milwaukee and the Fox River Valley.
During the past two years, the influence of the Madison-based label has grown considerably. Crustacean is extending its reach to regional and national bands. Sales are climbing. More bands are signing on, and only weeks ago, Crustacean shined as a featured label at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin.
But Crustacean is more than the sum of its sales, releases and signed bands. It's a story of a co-op that has its roots in a circle of friends, operating on a core principle: musicians helping other musicians succeed.
The Wisconsin musicians associated with Crustacean appear and reappear in various bands. The label's catalogue reads like a family tree.
Tim Benn, a drummer from Plover, played with Fuzzdolly on Crustacean's eighth release. Later, he drummed with Big, Big Furnace on Soundtrack to a Midwestern Winter (Crustacean 28).
"Crustacean is about a bunch of guys sitting around with bubble wrap and a case of beer, putting together promotional mailers for one of our bands," says Langkamp, 38, whose boyish smile and energy make him seem a decade younger.
Like Canada's Broken Social Scene, Crustacean is a musical collective. Langkamp uses a single word over and over again when describing the label's catalogue: "lineage."
The Crustacean lineage is divided into phases. The label's earliest releases are Milwaukee-focused, featuring artists like Ferguson Baker, Front of Truck and Mas Optica.
Next came the night in Shawano, which began Crustacean's second phase. This was dominated by the success of the Madison psychobilly band Mad Trucker Gone Mad. It accounted for four of the first 14 Crustacean releases. Sampson and Ovshak's Uncle Eddie became Crustacean #10.
The label set up shop in Madison in the late '90s, aligning itself with the place most Crustacean artists were calling home. And during those years, the label hardly ran like a business.
"The bands would tell me, 'Of course we want to work with you; we're friends; you can put your logo on our record,'" says Langkamp.
"There were no written contracts at that time," says Ovshak. "We were friends, and everything was done on a handshake agreement."
Langkamp logged long hours working for the bands. He arranged CD production, supported promotional efforts, kept sales records, and drove around the state delivering CDs to independent record stores like the Exclusive Company, Radio Kaos in Stevens Point, Atomic Records in Milwaukee and B-Side and MadCity Music in Madison.
In 2002, Langkamp opened a CD production business called Sooper Dooper. It continues to operate in Madison today, specializing in "high-quality, low-quantity packaging and CD production."
For the first time, Langkamp wasn't running the label's day-to-day operations. Those duties fell to Darwin Sampson, known today as the person who books shows for the Annex.
"I helped keep the label alive while Chris concentrated on the new business," Sampson says.
In 2005 Jake Shut, the same guy who booked the legendary Shawano show, took Crustacean into its latest phase.
Shut had moved to Madison in 1997 and began volunteering at community radio station WORT. By 2000, he was hosting his own show, Charlie Don't Surf. He joined the WORT board of directors in 2003.
"In February 2005, I was burnt out on radio-station politics and stepped down from the board a year early," says Shut. "I was looking for a new endeavor, so I emailed Chris, Darwin and Chad to see if they wanted someone else to work with them building Crustacean Records. I had always wanted to be part of a record label, and it made sense with my long-running relationship with the bands and the people who ran it."
Shut's influence has changed Crustacean in fundamental ways since 2005. He's focused on trying to generate sales nationally, not just locally.
"I brought some projects to the label by some touring bands I was friends with," says Shut. "I also wanted to change the sound and image a bit, making us a little more diverse and adding some acts with talented females, since the stable was essentially a sausage-fest when I joined up."
The result? Crustacean is reaching beyond Wisconsin to sign new bands. The label's biggest-selling band is currently Minneapolis' Awesome Snakes.
Ouija Radio is another Minneapolis band recently signed to Crustacean. They are fronted by a woman, Christy Hunt.
But Crustacean has hardly forgotten its Wisconsin roots. Shut has helped forge relationships with some of the most creative young bands in Madison, like Screamin' Cyn Cyn & the Pons, Droids Attack and the Gusto.
"One of the things I wanted when we decided on the new focus was to grandfather in all the existing bands," says Langkamp.
While broadening its borders, Crustacean has stayed true to its co-op values. Every few months, Langkamp has a meeting involving all the label's bands.
"I hand out the sales figures and the royalty checks," he says. "I'll give them a list that shows the sales and the promotional expenses of the label that we need to recoup. I try to make it very clear for them.
"But we don't just have meetings about the money. Whenever an issue comes up that's going to reflect on the direction or image of the label, I call a meeting. I want to hear what the artists have to say because this is their label and I want them to have a stake in it."
"Chris has made it a label run by musicians," says Shulze. "And you know he's doing it because it's fun."
The recent showcase at Austin's South by Southwest festival arose from the collective spirit.
"That came about because Charles Gehr, who's in Ouija Radio, knew people in Austin and helped establish the link," says Langkamp. "So it's still that idea of everyone helping out that's driving the label."
As Shut points out, running a record label in 2008 is not easy, whether you're a major or an indie.
"Selling records is a very challenging business and keeps getting harder all the time," he says. "We are constantly suffering from a labor crisis, as Chris and I are kept busy by our jobs that actually pay our bills." Shut, 35, is a cartographer for a local engineering firm.
Former MadCity Music owner Dave Benton says labels like Crustacean help build the foundation of local music.
"A solid indie label is integral to the success and visibility of a regional music scene," he says. "It legitimizes things when a number of different local artists are affiliated with one label."
Rick Tvedt, founder of the Madison Area Music Awards, notes the importance of Langkamp's managerial role.
"I've been reading a lot of music biographies lately, and there's a common thread. All the bands had managers or manager-types early on."
Without people like Langkamp, Tvedt says, "a music community has little chance to flourish."
Past, present and future
When I met Langkamp, Ovshak and Shulze at the Crustacean headquarters on South Park Street recently, they waxed nostalgic about the label's history.
Langkamp had assembled a collage of posters, showcasing gigs from the early years to the present. He opened a file cabinet and pulled out a folder labeled "Mad Trucker Gone Mad." It contained nearly every review and press clip the band generated.
But the business of the week was assuring that the Crustacean showcase at South by Southwest would go smoothly. Shut was preparing a detailed itinerary for the press. It began with the Crustacean band Ouija Radio being interviewed by National Public Radio.
Despite its rich history, the folks running Crustacean have their eye on the future.
"My ultimate dream is to sell tens of thousands of records a month so I could make Crustacean my full-time job, even if the pay is shitty," says Shut.
That may not be pie-in-the-sky anymore for a Madison label whose story began at a country bar in Shawano and whose last chapter was written at a national music festival in Austin.
"I can't really think of anything else I would rather do than work with artists who I hold in high esteem musically and as people," Shut says, "to sell great records and get myself and my talented friends some degree of fame and fortune in the rock 'n' roll underground."
The Crustacean sound
When I asked Crustacean Records founder Chris Langkamp to define the label's sound, he put it simply: "guitar-driven rock that's getting more diverse."
Madison hard-rock bands like the Skintones represent the traditional core of the Crustacean sound. But the last half-dozen label releases showcase a quirkier, more cosmopolitan direction.
The latest release is a 7-inch featuring two bands called "friends of the label" by Langkamp. Birthday Suits are a two-piece Minneapolis punk band fronted by a native of Tokyo. The flip side features Peelander-Z, a Japanese punk trio known for its comic stage antics.
Other recent Crustacean releases have come from the Gusto, a Madison band that brings a strong melodic influence to their brand of punk rock. Austin-based Corruption Is King prefer heavy electric guitar riffs and a noisy, muscular sound.
Madison's Screamin' Cyn Cyn & the Pons bring a gender-bending, theatrical stage presence to their high-personality power-pop. Eau Claire's Drunk Drivers describe their sound as "heavy guitar and drums with a rural vibe." And the Hazard County Girls are a trio of women from New Orleans who like to wear pink and thrash out thick heavy metal.
The Gusto are one of the three Madison bands who played at the Crustacean showcase at Austin's South by Southwest music festival.
"The show started out with not a whole lot of people at the club," recalls frontman Jake Boyardi. "Apparently this changed before the headliners, Peelander-Z, began their set. But I don't know much about this, as I was inclined to leave with our bass player, Grizz, and a couple of Texas lovelies."