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Smashed Plastic co-founder Andy Weber’s journey from radio DJ to record pressing plant owner

The founding of Smashed Plastic can in-part be traced back to the early ‘80s when a young Andy Weber gathered around his TV set to watch The Who’s closing date of their 1982 tour. That’s when he quickly recognized the power music had to bring people together. 

Nearly four decades later, Weber co-founded Smashed Plastic with partners John Lombardo, Steve Polutnik and Matt Bradford. Located inside of a creative compound-of-sorts near Logan Square, three large pressing machines line one room of the plant and emit the warm smell of hot plastic — similar to the scent that a Mold-A-Rama makes at zoos across the country. Several thirty-two gallon trash bins filled with vinyl scraps from the pressing process sit next to boxes filled with small colored pellets that will be melted down and made into records. A packaging room filled with boxes of record sleeves, completed LPs and a shrink wrap contraption is situated on the other side of the space, sandwiching a makeshift office and lounge room in between. 

The pressing plant celebrated its five year anniversary earlier this year and has pressed two records that will be a part of this year’s annual Record Store Day event across the U.S. 

“It’s so funny that you go to the [Empty] Bottle, or a place like that, for so many years and see these bands and you’re like, ‘Oh my God these are the coolest guys in the world,’ then you start working with them,” said Weber, sitting at a table in the plant’s office area adorned with vibrant wall art, an old marquee and shelves upon shelves of records.

Weber, a tall Gen X-er with a resting friendly smirk, grew up in Downers Grove and worked at his high school radio station. The job expanded his musical tastes outside of the early ‘80s pop that defined the era. Later, he discovered metal and rock. 

He studied broadcast journalism at the University of Nebraska and worked in the sales side of the commercial broadcasting industry after graduation. Back in Chicago, he started a family and became a part-time realtor, raised his kids and hosted his own show for CHIRP radio for more than a decade. Working in radio exposed Weber to an array of music that instilled in him a desire to search for new sounds and “dig” for unique music.  

“Hearing a bunch of notes thrown together and going, ‘Wow, I never, I have never heard anything like this,’ or ‘It sounds similar to other things I like, but it’s different and new and fresh,’ I like that,” he said. “I think there’s just a segment of the population that has a certain thirst for music and wants to be surprised by it.”

Throughout all of the facets of his career, music remained at the core of his interests. He was, and continues to be, deeply invested in the local Chicago music scene, which is what sparked the idea for starting a record pressing plant. 

By way of his time at CHIRP, which is a community radio station based in the North Center area of Chicago, and interaction with local musicians, he heard from local artists that getting their music pressed on vinyl and available to sell at shows was a challenge. The gap between local bands making and releasing music, and being able to get physical copies of it produced prompted the idea for Smashed Plastic.  

Over the years, Smashed Plastic has worked with artists including Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth and Chance The Rapper. Connecting directly with musicians — especially the ones he’s been a fan of for years — makes the work all the more exciting. 

“If I could go back in time, my 25-year-old [self] would probably be like, ‘Dude, we’re killing it, that’s the greatest job in the world,’” he said. 

In April, nearly all local record stores nationwide welcomed customers with a collection of limited edition titles released as a part of the annual Record Store Day — which celebrates independently-owned stores across the U.S. Smashed Plastic contributed two titles: Wilco’s “The Whole Love Expanded” boxset and My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult’s “Kooler Than Jesus,” both Chicago-based bands. Even for a national event such as Record Store Day, Weber said that keeping things local remains at the core of his own mission for his work. 

“First and foremost, I’m a fan of the local scene,” he said. “Why would you want to listen to music that’s coming out of Nashville or L.A. or whatever is being force-fed to you from this mainstream world, when you have this beautiful conglomeration of subculture here of all different kinds of walks and genres and everything? It’s right at your doorstep and you can go see it for $12.”

Danielle Sines, frontwoman of local Chicago band Impulsive Hearts, first met Weber at CHIRP radio where she hosts a show of her own. She recently had her band’s latest album, “Fit 4 The Apocalypse,” pressed at Smashed Plastic. Sines’ band previously had records pressed with a label based in the U.K., but said that working with Weber and his team at Smashed Plastic made for a completely different experience. 

“He’s really thinking about Chicago and trying to do good business and give back to the community,” she said. “I knew that I was in good hands, and we got our records way faster than we were quoted [for].”

Steve Polutnik, one of the plant’s co-founders, met Weber a decade ago when their kids attended school together. From there, the two formed a friendship that later led to Weber proposing the idea of Smashed Plastic to Polutnik. The pair were among the first — and largely the only — people to operate and run the pressing floor for about the first two years of the business.

“Businesses come and go and things can happen, but for us to be able to have that friendship that we’ve had for 10-plus years, I think is important,” Polutnik said. “You’re able to say, ‘Hey, look at what me and my friends did.’” 

As Smashed Plastic has grown over the last several years, Weber said that his own appreciation and understanding of music has evolved too. It’s energizing, he said, just like when working at his high school radio station broadened his tastes.

“That’s why this occupation has been amazing, because of the exposure I’ve had to a number of different genres,” he said. “I love how my music tastes have changed dramatically over the years, and I anticipate it’ll change more as it goes on.”

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