- CLUNK: How an electrician-turned-music-promoter shaped the Fayetteville scene at the turn of the century, one cut-and-paste flyer at a time.
In late October 2016, a seemingly unremarkable black-and-white Xeroxed flyer from way back in the fall of 2001 popped up in the Fayetteville Facebook nebula, with a subscript noting that it was an update sheet for forthcoming shows at Clunk Music Hall, an all-ages venue that operated in Fayetteville from 1998 to 2002. Unremarkable, that is, until you notice what those upcoming shows were: Modest Mouse and !!! (tickets were $13), Unwound, The Tight Bros and C-Average, Smog and Neil Michael Hagerty, The White Stripes, The Faint, The Fleshies, Har Mar Superstar, Ted Leo & The Pharmacists and The Dismemberment Plan, Les Savy Fav, American Analog Set, Mars Volta with The Anniversary.
Comments on the post were mostly along the lines of "That such-and-such show was so good!" and "OMG! Can't believe all those bands played here!" Both are understandable reactions. They were great shows. To have bands of that caliber playing within a few weeks of each other in a smallish Southern college town that's close to several larger markets was pretty unbelievable. And while that spate of shows was atypical in its concentration of soon-to-be hugely popular acts, it wasn't unheard of. In that same span of years, the same promoter brought At the Drive In, The Make Up, Bratmobile, Melt Banana, Delta 72, Murder City Devils, Black Heart Procession, The Shins, Trail of Dead, Death Cab for Cutie, Enon and many more. Chris Selby was the guy who made most of those shows happen. Besides booking shows at the music hall and a handful of other spaces, he also sold records and CDs of the sort you weren't going to find at Sam Goody — or even Hastings, which had a surprisingly good selection back in the early and mid-'90s. (Obligatory acknowledgement: Yes, there were and continue to be great all-ages shows, venues and record stores in Fayetteville, before and after Selby's arrival. But this story is about Clunk.)
For many Northwest Arkansas natives of a certain vintage, Selby had a big role in shaping musical tastes, as well as the town's all-ages live music scene. It seems hard to imagine here in 2017 — in this insane world where we walk around carrying glass and aluminum boxes that put all the world's information at our fingertips — but for the longest time, if you wanted to find out about new music, or just about anything else outside of your own cranium, you had to leave the house. When I was 17, I'd drive from Berryville once or twice a week to Fayetteville, where Selby sold records and zines out of his uncle's newsstand. I'd spend 100 percent of my earnings from Taco Bell (no relation) on punk rock LPs and 7-inches and copies of Maximumrocknroll. Those records and zines were the gateway to a wider world of underground music and politics, and they absolutely altered the course of my life. I'm sure the same could be said by many other people. That business — initially just a few pieces of vinyl and newsprint propped up on a magazine display — would morph over the years into a live music venue and several iterations of a record shop, one that was consistently ahead of the curve until it closed for good in 2005.
Another relic of that bygone era is that one person's tireless promotion could gin up enough interest that 200 people would show up to see a band that typically played to 40 or 50 people in much bigger cities. Case in point: Back in the summer and fall of 1999, if you walked into Clunk Records, odds were good he would've played you Les Savy Fav's anthemic post-punk single "Our Coastal Hymn." I must've heard that song 500 times, and I'm not alone. So, when the band came to play its first show in Fayetteville later that year, it was to a packed house with a couple hundred people singing along. The band seemed genuinely shocked at that reception in such an obscure place, one where they'd never played before. I'd bet they've still got a bigger following in Fayetteville than in many other similar-sized college towns. I saw Les Savy Fav several more times in the years after that, including a sold-out show at the Bowery Ballroom in New York in 2002. But that first Clunk show was electric, the band was taut, on-edge, wide-eyed. It's still among the best live shows I've ever seen, and it happened at a squat cinderblock building that was previously a gym, tucked behind a Chinese restaurant and a strip club.
At some point, the name of Selby's businesses became his nickname, and so we all call him Clunk now. He calls himself Clunk. After ending his valiant-if-not-exactly-super-lucrative run as a record store owner and show promoter, he was an electrician. He's made a couple of political campaigns, one for the office of Fake Mayor of Fayetteville and most recently a gutsy campaign for Vice President of the United States (he was not elected). For the last few years his main gig has been delivering food from restaurants directly to people's homes and offices under the banner of C.H.E.W. (Clunk's Hungry Express Wagon). He drives a pink scooter with a big cooler strapped on the back and wears a sparkly gold helmet. He's a hilarious mainstay on social media. He also makes and sells bracelets called — what else? — Clunklets. They're made of leather straps and square letter beads separated by stars, and they sport messages that read like Dadaist marketing slogans written by Andrew Dice Clay if he were from Bull Shoals and had taken too much acid in high school: "FLAVOR*BLASTED*THINKING," "BIG*DANG*DICKS," "BABY*GOT*SUMMONED," "ELKINS*AFTER*DARK," and my personal fave: "DEPRESSED*AND*LOVING*IT."
On the night before November's electoral disaster, I went over to Clunk's house to catch up. We shot the breeze about old times and watched election coverage on CNN, the bizarreness and vulgarity of the whole affair providing a disorienting counterpoint to our talk of old times and how much everything has changed: How different the town looks now. The proliferation of food trucks and boxy luxury student apartment housing. The Great Texan Influx of the 2010s that spawned jokes about changing the UA's name to the University of Texas at Fayetteville. For better or worse, Fayetteville is not the sleepy, low-rent, charmingly grubby college town it was 15 to 20 years ago.
There are still good shows and record shops in Fayetteville, of course. Block Street Records is well-stocked for seasoned crate-diggers and newbies alike. LaLaLand and Backspace host DIY all-ages shows, and folks like Samantha Sigmon and Roger Barrett are carrying the torch, booking the next generation of up-and-coming indie rock acts. Honestly, though, it's never been quite the same as it was from 1998-2003 or so in terms of shows. Perhaps I'm falling into the trap of "It-Was-All-Better-Back-in-My-Day" thinking that so many of us have rightfully rolled our eyes at. Some of the younger, more active folks certainly would say so. Still, I think those years Clunk was booking shows constituted the type of lightning-in-a-bottle time period that is hard to recreate. People still press Selby from time to time, trying to get him to toss his hat back into the live music promotion ring. Don't hold your breath — economic realities come into play at a certain point, and you can't expect people to keep up those kinds of profit-agnostic endeavors forever.
"That poster?" he said of the aforementioned jam-packed flyer. "When it all came down to it, I bet I didn't even break even on all that. I'd bet I lost money, even when you add it all up." And that was Selby's financial reality: Even though the Modest Mouse show killed, the Unwound concert the very next night was sparsely attended, and there was still a sizable guarantee to pay. Multiply that formula a few times over and the venue eventually became unsustainable. In late 2002, Selby closed the music hall and moved into a 100-square-foot record store we affectionately called The Fish Bowl. By 2005, downloads had altered the calculus for record store owners, and Selby and his then-business partner Charlie Porter decided to close the doors.
I think a lot of us didn't realize how good we had it back then. We took it for granted that there would always be someone like Selby, willing to lose money over and over to bring in the bands they loved and believed in. And who knows? Maybe things will change and it will be even better in the future, and someone will figure out the formula for consistently bringing great live bands to Fayetteville and making it work financially. Perhaps that person is plotting right now, someone with the right combination of an ear for great music and a willingness to put it all on the line. You never know.