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Less talk, more rock
Shredding solos on pizza-shaped guitars, a parodied abortion of Snooki’s baby, crowd surfing wheelchairs and bloody mosh pits: Riot Fest, held Sept. 14-16 in Humboldt Park, proved punk rock is still very much alive and well in Chicago’s music community.The Windy City is home to some of America’s punk roots. And in contrast to other genres’ constant redefinition, each new generation of Chicago punk continues to pay tribute to those roots.
Riot Fest has followed this trend because this year the festival booked bigger names, expanded outdoors for the first time and brought in its largest numbers—60,000 fans and 47 bands on four stages.
The festival started in 2005 as a way to celebrate Chicago’s punk music. It was an excuse to reunite local punk luminaries, like Naked Raygun and The Blue Meanies. Since its growth from humble roots in a variety of local venues like Cobra Lounge, 235 N. Ashland Ave., and Double Door, 1572 N.
Milwaukee Ave., Riot Fest included more well-known artists like Elvis Costello and Iggy Pop at this year’s festival.
Riot Fest, as opposed to other punk-driven festivals like Warped Tour, is unique because it places a greater emphasis on the many growing subgenres that appeal to different punk tastes—pop punk, skacore, hardcore punk, metal and more.
Matthew Nix, founder of Chicago -based independent label Swerp Records, explained that Chicago punk is different from punk on the East or West coast because it praises a combination of influence and attitude.
“[The punk music here] is able to share ideas and convey ideas with a lot of different styles that you don’t see in other cities,” Nix said. “It’s a Midwestern thing. It really is very much focused on the music, as opposed to style or posturing or a look.”
Swerp Records is heavily involved in the transition of Chicago’s punk scene and has helped define the scene today. Nix explained that DIY punk is currently the most prevalent subgenre, and Swerp Records is spearheading it.
Nix started Swerp Records in September 2011, and it officially launched as a label in May. Swerp currently hosts eight active artists, including The Para-Medics, Water House, Freudian Slip, Ratboys, Nervous Passenger, jt royster, Nnamdi’s Sooper-Dooper Secret Side Project and My Dad.
In similar DIY fashion, Nix said Swerp programmed its own website, T-shirts are hand pressed at his apartment and most recording sessions are done in bedrooms. Nix also operates Swerp Mansion, an event that hosts six to eight punk house shows each month for DIY punk artists from across the country. Even though all donations received at the door go straight to the performing bands, Nix said Swerp Mansion has been one of the label’s biggest successes. It also happens in Nix’s living room.
“We opened up our house to host shows, and as a result, we’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of people come through the mansion,” Nix said. “They walk out saying that this is one of the best musical experiences of their lives, and this wouldn’t be possible if one of our bands were to play a show at the Metro or at Congress [Theater] … it creates an entirely different feel and aesthetic to [the shows].”
Nix said this difference is largely due to audience members following the Golden Rule: no drinking or drugs allowed. Nix feels a responsibility to the community to keep everyone safe, and nothing opens more risk and danger than a massive crowd of people under the influence, he said. He also said it’s important to focus on the main reason everyone is there—to experience the music.
Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, an artist signed to Swerp Records and resident of the mansion, said this transitional period has much to do with house show venues shutting down because of noise complaints, ultimately subduing it.
“I’d say it’s a lot more tame than it used to be,” Ogbonnaya said. “Shows I used to go to, people would be drinking, smoking, breaking bottles and getting into fights all the time. It’s less angry, for the most part. There are still places you can go if you wanna bleed by the end of the night.”
Ogbonnaya has been involved in the DIY scene since his senior year of high school in 2009 when he began hosting house shows at his parents’ house. He is currently a drummer and bassist for eight Chicago DIY bands, including The Para-Medics, Itto, Nervous Passenger and Water House.
“You meet very interesting people,” Ogbonnaya said. “I think the most interesting people are the ones [who] are heavily involved in music. It’s cool to have bands from all over play and crash at your house. You make lots of friends. I think that’s my favorite part of it.”
Rick Linus, a Chicago concert promoter, disc jockey and booking agent for Cobra Lounge, said the Chicago punk scene is based on the creation and production of its art and nothing more.
“I don’t see a lot of the band dudes from here [with the] main purpose of being in a band to be a rockstar,” Linus said. “I think the men and women [who] start bands here genuinely do it because this city has a very strong emphasis on nurturing the arts. Whether you’re an iron worker or a cop or a teacher, it goes the same as if you’re a musician or an artist.”
Linus said of all musical genres, his true passion lies with metal and punk music. He said he first identified with it as a kid in the 1980s, even though his first exposure to the genre was through pop culture’s negative depiction of punk rockers as “criminals.” Although punk will always be stereotyped negatively, Linus explained that what makes the stereotype so heavily ironic is how much of a loving, supportive community punk music has always created.
“Music—especially punk, hardcore and metal—is a great place for outsiders to feel accepted and empowered,” Linus said. “[The punk rockstars of the ‘80s] were a bunch of weird looking people, and I was a weird looking kid. [I] still am. So punk was almost like this island of misfit toys where the oddballs can take refuge and be comfortable.”
Though it is constantly changing, he said punk music continues to draw from these musical roots.
“[They’re making music] because they have a fire in them that’s aching to get out for whatever reason, and they just need an instrument to do so,” Linus said. “For me, that’s the true spirit of punk. Making music and art because it betters the community.”
Beginning with artists such as The Ramones, Black Flag, and The Clash, punk has continued to expand, Linus said.
“Punk has taken on so many shapes over the decades,” Linus said. “It continues to evolve and to pay tribute to the past. In all honesty, punk has been around since the dawn of time. It just got a name in the ‘70s. If the human spirit will ever rest, then it’s dead. But we all know that that’ll never happen.”