My writing in 2015
This isn’t everything I wrote in 2015. I’m missing all the Gossip Wolf columns I’ve put together with J.R., all the emo shows I’ve opined about in the Reader’s concert-preview section, and my first Pitchfork review. I’m missing a feature I loved writing this year, which hasn’t been published yet. When I think back on my work from 2015 this is what’s come to mind:
In terms of things I once deemed “too impossible to even consider compiling on a ‘career goals’ list” a lengthy piece on Jawbreaker ranked high. For a punk band that made heartfelt, human music — a group that imparted more emotion on a worn-out boat than more bands can do with people — Jawbreaker always felt untouchable to me. But when the fifth issue of the Pitchfork Review dropped at the end of March it contained my 19,000-word oral history of Jawbreaker’s third album. I can’t thank Jessica enough for trusting me with this piece. It’s an experience I relished not just because I spoke with so many people who had an intimate view of the creation of 24 Hour, but because it allowed me to see the members of Jawbreaker as people.
Now the thing I couldn’t conceive of before is in a beautiful magazine that’s built like a book, and my copy rests comfortably on my bookshelf. I used the money I earned from the piece to purchase a new laptop, replacing the one I’d steadily run into the ground for more than six years — had that thing gone bust before I’m not sure how I would’ve been able to continue working. Shortly after I got my laptop in the spring I slapped on a Jawbreaker sticker.
“Chicago’s underground rock scene remembers inspirational superfan Ray Ellingsen”; “Huge heart, 8 Inch Betsy: Remembering Meghan Galbraith”; “Remembering DJ Timbuck2, a guiding force in Chicago hip-hop”
Attempting to summarize a year’s worth of listening in a list doesn’t compare with the challenge of writing about an entire lifespan. This year I wrote about the lives of three Chicagoans whose hearts made their respective scenes pulse — even after their deaths. My desire to keep writing, keep digging, and keep working on a story long after my deadline ends was hard to shake with these pieces. Mostly I wish I’d had the opportunity to sit down and talk with the inspirational individuals I wrote about, and I wish the circumstances that gave me the chance to write about them were different.
As Theaster Gates’s Rebuild Foundation put the finishing touches on the Stony Island Arts Bank I walked up to the South Shore building’s third floor and gawked at rows of 12-inch records belonging to the Godfather of House Music, Frankie Knuckles. A few months earlier I spoke with members of early house DJ collective the Chosen Few while digging into the history of how an informal family BBQ grew into one of the largest summer music festivals in Chicago. I spent much of the Fourth of July dancing in a field surrounded by ecstatic house heads at the Chosen Few Picnic this year, and thought I left before the fest screened a special message from President Obama I didn’t have to stick around to know what makes this event so special — or why people gravitate towards house music.
Chicago police shot and killed two black citizens in West Garfield Park the day after Christmas, and it’s only the latest wound befalling a body that’s falling apart from taking one too many hits. I often wonder what I can do in my capacity as a music journalist — and as a human — to face these injustices. I wonder what art, a lifeforce for me and so many others, can do. Ebert said “movies are like a machine that generates empathy,” a concept I extend to music. Songs allow me to not only better hear the world around me, they allow me to feel it. What I’ve felt listening to Mick Jenkins and Ty Money is invaluable.
In November CriticWire contributor Sam Adams wrote the pre-release criticism of Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq reached peak pointlessness after the Chicago Tribune published E.R. physician Amy Ho’s hot take after the movie’s trailer came out. It felt like that peak lasted for months, starting long before anyone in Chicago knew what the film was about. Chi-Raq wasn’t worth the acidic response. The one emotion the movie really managed to elicit from me was discomfort, largely because I was sent to see the film at its world premiere. I occupied one of five seats in the front row the film’s cast used as an entryway into the Chicago Theatre; before the screening started I anxiously watched my seat from the aisle, hoping John Cusack wouldn’t knock over my bulky winter coat.
At Brandeis I gobbled up indie-rock alongside pockets of friends, and those that gorged on the music of Casiotone for the Painfully Alone spoke about main man Owen Ashworth with an unrivaled awe. I didn’t listen to Casiotone much back then, but Ashworth’s music nevertheless was part of the fabric of that particular time. I later fell for Ashworth’s second act, Advance Base, when he released 2012’s A Shut-In’s Prayer. Still, I didn’t anticipate how much I’d gravitate towards the second Advance Base album, Nephew in the Wild, but I poured that into my profile on Ashworth and Advance Base. “Kitty Winn,” a serene, lovely song about family life, didn’t leave my daily rotation for weeks: I turned 30 in November, and the more I think about the future songs like this help me look forward.
On Valentine’s Day I watched Columbine High School massacre survivor Richard Castaldo discuss the day that left him in a wheelchair. Castaldo was one of the marquee guests at Mad Mobster, a weekend-long true crime and horror convention, which organizers claimed was the first of its kind in the U.S. My interest in fringe culture brought me face to face with Gunnar Hansen, who played Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (and who passed away in November). I starred at Swastika-covered artwork by Charles Manson in a room filled with paintings by convicted killers. The fact that this happened continues to perplex me.
I’d known a couple guys from doom band Bongripper from years of running into them at grimy basement and loft spaces. At some point in the years I’ve spent running around venues in town folks I’d see at above-ground spaces began talking about Bongripper with the kind of enthusiasm saved for faraway metal groups that have spent years honing their craft and rarely tour. Bongripper is that kind of band, though the fact that I regularly run into a couple of the guys who played in the band obscured some of those facts.
This article came out the same week as my Mad Mobster feature, and I was the first and only Reader staffer to have a feature on both covers before the B Side was killed off this summer. The week this issue dropped Kuma’s debuted a new burger of the month — fortuitously it was named after Bongripper, which provided me with the opportunity to gorge myself for work.
The title says it all. I consider myself not only fortunate enough to make a living writing about music but to be able to do so at a place that encourages me to write about unknown microlabels trying unusual things.
The minute I heard the dazzling opening of Shine Groove’s “Tea” I knew I’d run home and dig up everything I could about the label behind the 12-inch, Kimochi Sound. That I could do it for work further reminded me why I love my job.
I love working on the Reader’s People Issue because the format encourages conversations and relies entirely on the insights of the interviewees. This year I was lucky enough to sit down with two fantastic Chicagoans, Marea Stamper and Jamila Woods, and I could’ve kept talking to them for hours.
Pop-punk held a grip when I was in middle school and high school, though I was never fully invested in that scene. I was the guy who went to Warped Tour to see Atmosphere and I got a subscription to Alternative Press but was mostly interested in the magazine’s reviews of Iron & Wine and TV on the Radio. One of the few bits of pop-punk from the early aughts that makes the nostalgic parts of my heart flutter is the chorus for that one New Found Glory song because I remember screaming along to it on car rides with friends. I’m not inherently drawn to new bands playing the style of pop-punk from my youth, but I took a liking to Knuckle Puck pretty quick. Better late than never I suppose.
Some days I feel like I spend entirely too much time clicking through tags on Bandcamp, but each time I stumble upon some nugget of great music while testing the boundaries of my taste serves to remind me there are worse ways to spend my time. This A.V. Club “For Our Consideration” piece is as much about that obsession as it is about the site’s service as a home for strange, subversive sounds.
I usually want to write about more things than I have time and energy for, and I constantly struggle with figuring out how to best apply my time and what deserves more attention. I could’ve written far more about all the acts in this article — Flesh Panthers, J Fernandez, Lil Durk, The Singleman Affair, T.B. Arthur, and The Valenteens — and I enjoyed getting sucked in to all of their albums.
I waded further into house history beyond my two big features on Frankie Knuckles’s vinyl and the Chosen Few Picnic. I spoke with Virgo Four cofounder Merwyn Sanders about the cult hit he released as Merle; I chatted with Steve Poindexter about his lengthy career as LA Club Resource prepared to drop a previously unreleased ghetto house EP he recorded decades ago; I dove into the history of 3YB House Fest, which celebrates the southeast side’s musical legacy; I attempted to learn more about the house track Aphex Twin recently remixed; and I reviewed the Chicago Cultural Center’s ambitious but flawed house exhibit.
The hip-hop beat
I’ve written a weekly online hip-hop column for the Reader the past few years, which has given me a lot of time to immerse myself in the local scene. I wrote lengthy profiles on up-and-comers such as Thelonious Martin and Frank Leone, and got stuck on music from newcomers Smino and Kweku Collins. I spoke with Mic Terror about the Treated Crew and Teklife collaborative EP. I wrote at length about full-lengths from G Herbo, Morimoto, Lupe Fiasco, and Perfecto (aka Serengeti and Workaholics’ Anders Holm). I took a peek the instructional-dance rap song racing up the Billboard Hot 100 that’s not made by Silento. I caught up with Sharkula. I examined Vic Mensa’s “U Mad” video. I dove into Chief Keef’s burning “Faneto” and explored his hologram problems. I listened to Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment’s Surf through my phone’s terrible speakers while walking through Chicago, and waxed lyrical about Chance the Rapper’s Colbert appearance. I couldn’t make it through the year without writing about Kanye, or trying to wrap my head around Kendrick Lamar’s latest album, or finding shreds of something to hold onto in Drake’s “Hotline Bling.” I had fun figuring out my favorite Chicago places mentioned in local hip-hop songs and my favorite overlooked releases. And that was only a fraction of the year.
Odds and ends
Profiled TALsounds. Spoke with members of doom band Indian about breaking up. Went to the soft re-opening of jazz hub Hungry Brain. Went to the Riviera Theatre stagehands’ rally at Jam Productions headquarters, which they held in response to claims they were illegally fired. Dug into the O’My’s van accident. Spoke with a beloved Smart Bar bouncer about the tribute 12-inch he inspired. Spoke with folk-rocker Primo Mendoza about his wistful music and health problems. Watched all three Decline of Western Civilization movies. Talked to the rocker who affixes paintings of faces to tree stumps. Saw Impala Sound Champions put the final touches on their massive sound system. Talked with Chicago Singles Club organizers about scene building. Spent a weekend listening to Jeremih.
Sometimes stories just fall in your, um, lap.