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Sounds Like a Plan 

Exit Stencil shows the world Cleveland doesn't suck, one indie band at a time.

Brandon Stevens (left) and Ryan Weitzel are making - Exit Stencil Recordings a home base for Cleveland - artists. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Brandon Stevens (left) and Ryan Weitzel are making Exit Stencil Recordings a home base for Cleveland artists.

Ryan Weitzel has big ideas and a small dilemma. Sitting in the near West Side home base of Exit Stencil Recordings, the label he runs with founder Brandon Stevens, Weitzel is talking about his plans for a collective of Cleveland artists and musicians to help bolster the local scene. All it needs is a name.

"We thought about 'Mistake Inc.,'" he says with a laugh.

"No, see, that's just branding Cleveland in a bad way, like everyone else always does," Stevens counters. "Cleveland's taken too many hits on the chin lately. It's time for the positive spin."

Enter Exit Stencil. Though the label has existed for roughly two years, the addition of Weitzel last spring took it from a part-time hobby for Stevens to a business that's starting to get noticed: Its bands -- including explosive agitprop punks This Moment in Black History; sardonic, sub-blues trio the New Lou Reeds; svelte rockers Coffinberry; and brusque, feedback-infatuated Roué -- have earned wide-reaching raves, from indie 'zines like Rockpile to Julian Cope's website. It's an emerging label for a town whose bands desperately need one. Not bad for an enterprise whose momentum sprang from a men's-room encounter.

"I was moving back from Minnesota in February," recalls Stevens, a wiry, well-spoken Ohio State grad student. "I hadn't talked to Ryan for years, and I ran into him at a rest area in Indiana at like three in the morning. I'm walking into the bathroom, like totally out of it because we'd been driving for 11 hours, and I heard, 'Hey, Brandon!' I turn around, and Ryan's there. It was really bizarre."

The two had known each other in the late '90s, when Stevens played with Cleveland indie rockers 30 Lincoln, with whom Weitzel was friends. A skilled engineer, Weitzel was recruited by Stevens to record bands and help with the day-to-day label operations, and with that, Exit Stencil's ambitions quickly grew. In early December, they're launching an art studio on the main level of the Exit Stencil compound, a small, red-brick structure on Detroit Avenue across the street from the former all-night eatery the Big Egg. The basement, decorated with a pastiche of amp cables and bar stools, is being fashioned into a recording studio and rehearsal space. Weitzel and Stevens are hoping it becomes a haven for local artists and musicians.

"This is our hometown, and we want to create a scene here that fosters the music," explains Weitzel, whose tousled hair and dark features give him a vague resemblance to Jack White. "We want to have this Cleveland base to support Cleveland music. I think the ultimate goal is to have a family of artists in the city that can support themselves through their art -- not to be living the high life or anything -- but the bills are paid, and we're able to create as a community."

To that end, Exit Stencil is also launching a monthly label night on Sundays at the Parkview, beginning November 14 with the New Lou Reeds.

"The whole premise is that artists from the label are given the chance to host a night as they see fit," Weitzel explains. "They can run it how they want -- there's a certain freedom involved in it. If they want to put on a little play or show a little video, they can kind of do what they want -- spin records, host in a way that they can kind of entertain outside of just playing for people. It's kind of a more personal thing."

Stevens and Weitzel plan to enlist local groups to tour with Exit Stencil acts and, hopefully, hook them up with labels best suited for their sounds. They've also encouraged similarly enterprising Cleveland scenemakers, such as Elephant Stone Records and the Davenport Collective, to pool their resources, hit the road together, and develop a sense of community.

"The plan was never to be a Cleveland label, as far as putting records out only in the Cleveland area," Stevens says. "The plan was always to be a label based out of Cleveland that put Cleveland bands out to everyone else. There's so much good stuff going on in this city, but for whatever reason, it's always kind of been overlooked nationally. It's kind of unfortunate.

"There is such a great pool of musicians and artists in Cleveland. Someone needs to try and get that out there."

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