Tucked away in a Chapel Hill office complex, the Trekky Records headquarters hums with the energy of young people pursuing a common goal. Co-owner Will Hackney hunches over a laptop, hashing out a tour schedule with The Never's Jonny Tunnell. Flyers and T-shirts adorn the walls and fan out over the floor, and a corkboard displays Trekky's press clippings. A storeroom full of records houses a weathered piano acquired from an asylum, a gift from Pox World's Zeno Gill. Employees and volunteers toil over computers and printers. It's exactly how one expects an indie record label run by 20-somethings to look.
But Hackney and his partner, Martin Anderson--both slightly shaggy, affable indie-rock kids--aren't 20-somethings. Hackney, a rising sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill, is 19. His mother works in this office. And Anderson, 17, is just about to start college at UNC-Greensboro. Not only is this up-and-coming local label run by teen-agers, they've been at it since 2001, when they were in their early tweens.
Like all grassroots phenomena, Trekky Records was born of exigency and conviction. Hackney and Anderson became friends in middle school, while playing in what Hackney calls "very middle school" bands. Unlike many young people who hope to escape to New York at the first opportunity, both were deeply interested in the local community. Looking to geographically cohesive, artist-friendly labels like Merge and Saddle Creek for inspiration, and with hopes of restoring Chapel Hill's faded indie glory, Hackney and Anderson conceptualized Trekky Records as an outlet for their own bands and those of their friends.
"We'd do Trekky shows so people weren't just floating around," recalls Anderson, "and then I'd try to encourage people to record, putting up any money that Will and I had."
By high school, Hackney and Anderson were playing together in the still-active Alvarez Painting, and Trekky's humble foundations were laid. Trekky released a three-song, self-recorded EP by Westfalia in February of 2002.
"Initially, we thought being a label was just putting up a little money and slapping your name on the back of a CD," Anderson says, chuckling.
"We don't even know how many copies we did because it was so haphazard," Hackney says. "When we needed more, we made more. We put it on consignment locally, and did mail order online. I wouldn't call it a big success, but we sold a pretty good amount considering we didn't have any advertising, promotion or distribution."
At this point, Trekky was still "more of a name, an idea, and a group of people than an actual label," says Hackney. The Trekky "offices" were spread out through parents' homes, dorm rooms, and car trunks. The process of becoming a real label was gradual: As Trekky bands gained buzz and the roster filled out, Hackney and Anderson suddenly had a small budget to invest in things like screenprinted posters and studio time.
The pair has always been ambitious, but they both remember a turning point when they realized their ambition might not be unfounded. "The catalyst for us becoming a real business was when the first Mortar and Pestle record was being put together," says Hackney of the Greensboro-based Mortar and Pestle, an assortment of former Westfalia and Straight No Chaser members. "When we realized how good it was and how much it would take to do it justice, we said, 'Let's do it. Let's book shows, and get people to hear this record because it deserves it.' Ever since, it's been like a real business."
Now, five years after its inception, Trekky is a fully functional label with real offices, a paid staff of five, and a revolving cast of volunteers who work on everything from typing one-sheets to packaging mail orders. "Now we can pretty much, at least on a limited scale, do everything for our bands that any major independent label can do," Hackney explains. "We hire a company to do radio promotion and publicity. We have a distribution deal with Red Eye that gets our records into national stores. We do booking and promotion and extra press ourselves. We make a little bit of profit on each project and pour all of that into the next release."
Trekky now sports an eclectic and incestuous roster of 12 bands, five of which are active. There's Alvarez Painting and Mortar and Pestle. There's the Greensboro-based Endless Mic, a hip-hop duo including Stuart Bell, who's also played in Trekky indie rock bands Participation Award and The Beauregards. There's the art-pop combo The Never, whose Ari Picker also records solo as Lost in the Trees, and whose two Tunnell brothers comprise two-thirds of Trekky mainstays Vibrant Green. And there's the moody, complex instrumental rock of Choose Your Own Adventure.
These diverse acts are unified not by sonic aesthetics, but by friendship. "We will probably never add a band that isn't made up of people in the collective," says Hackney. "Martin and I just think it's a better way to run a business, because you're working with people you can trust and who care about each other. I also think music fans respond well to that because they know we're releasing something we really care about. We wouldn't take on complete strangers, but the Trekky mafia is pretty spread out. There are 40 or 50 people in the collective whose music is eligible to be released."
In July, Trekky released its most ambitious project to date: The Never's Antarctica, a sumptuous concept album including a 50-page, full-color storybook. "At first, it was that feeling of 'OK, where do you start?'" marvels Anderson, remembering when The Never approached them with the project after terminating its relationship with Charlotte's MoRisen Records.
"We sat down to figure out if we could do it," says Hackney, "and we maybe kind of naively decided we could. The book definitely wasn't something Trekky was set up to do." Instead, they contacted Chapel Hill Press and began negotiating: Just as they did with the label, Hackney and Anderson learned by doing. The book is now in record stores nationwide.
The next Trekky release will be a Christmas-themed album including all members of The Never, Vibrant Green, Mortar and Pestle and Auxiliary House. The Trekky mafia convened for three days at The Never's practice space and worked up indie-orchestral covers of 12 Christmas classics like "Baby, it's Cold Outside" and "Let it Snow," then recorded the album with Jerry Kee. The CD release party at the Cat's Cradle on December 18 will feature local luminaries like The Mountain Goats and The Strugglers performing their own Yuletide favorites, culminating in a performance of selections from the Christmas album by a 17-piece Trekky ensemble.
While the Trekky mafia's youth is still a point of interest--theoretically, Anderson, could still be denied entrance to a show by a band whose record he released--by now, it's far outstripped by their accomplishments. The label's ambitious regionalism marks it as the heir apparent to Merge, and it isn't hard to imagine it following the same local-to-international development arc.
But Hackney and Anderson agree that it wouldn't be Trekky if it weren't in Chapel Hill. "Back in the day, I had visions of Trekky being a jumping-off point for people to move on to bigger things. But people that listen to the music and play in the bands just really like the label, and we're bound together as a community," says Anderson. "At this point, we want to do it in Chapel Hill for as long as we can."