Several American locales come to mind as hotbeds for the myriad sub-genres of metal and extreme music in general. San Francisco spawned breakneck, punk-influenced thrash metal. New York City and Florida birthed their own putrid forms of death metal. New Orleans gave rise to a unique, sludgy sound as thick as its bayous.
Despite being located in one of the three largest cities in the U.S., Chicago’s metal scene, by comparison, has never gained as much of a reputation—at least not until recently. In light of the critical acclaim and national recognition modern Chicago acts like Nachtmystium and Yakuza have received, The A.V. Club compiled this oral history to serve as a crash course on the history of the Chicago metal scene.
Part two: location, location, location
Paul Speckmann: Most of the first death metal bands are from Chicago. It’s just that Florida had a breakthrough. Chicago stayed in the underground for a longer time. Florida gets the credit just because of Scott Burns and Morrisound, really. Bands like Master, Death Strike, Terminal Death, and Devastation were doing death metal before the Florida bands.
Albert Mudrian (editor, Decibel Magazine; author, Choosing Death: The Improbable History Of Death Metal & Grindcore): My guess is that the fact that Chicago is often unrecognized as a U.S. city with an important metal scene has something to do with it not being located on either coast of the U.S. For example, bands in Florida would travel up and down the East Coast and often perform in NYC—a huge media capital—on their route. Bands from the Bay Area would travel up and down the West Coast and hit L.A.—another huge media city. Indie metal bands in Chicago were often stuck there. This is all pre-Internet explosion, of course.
Blake Judd (vocals/guitar, Nachtmystium; guitar/vocals, Twilight; guitar, Von Venien: I think that the Floridians were just in the right place at the right time. Maybe Speckmann didn’t make himself seen to the people he needed to, or maybe there was some truth in the whole coastal thing, too, with where the labels were.
Stavros Giannopoulos (guitars/vocals, The Atlas Moth; guitars, Twilight): I think Mudrian is totally right, especially with the death metal scene. I mean, that was the mid-to-late ’80s, you know? There was no Internet. It’s kind of an interesting thought, though, to think that Chicago would have broke. I mean, Chicago has sort of broke a few times. If you think about it, I mean, as stupid as it may be to bring it up, Disturbed is a gigantic rock act. I fucking hate them, and it makes me sick to my stomach that that’s who I get to have from here to be breaking out. But even before that, though, the Smashing Pumpkins, who I love, broke through in a huge way. But I think the weird thing, though, is that there’s never really like anything super-solidified here. You know what I’m saying? It’s always like one thing and then a bunch of copycats.
Jon Necromancer: If anyone thinks Disturbed is a Chicago metal band, they’re not really an underground metal fan to begin with. It doesn’t bother me at all, though. I just know that’s one person to avoid. It’s like when you go to a Slayer show and it’s a bunch of guys in football jerseys. They’re not really Slayer fans.
BJ: Music was so different than it is now. It’s kind of hard to compare without the advantage of digital/social media that we have now. It’s easy to look into a band from another state because you can get online. You don’t even have to leave your house or go to a record store to find out about these bands. You can get online and hear their music, and then you can download their music. It’s all available at your fingertips, so I don’t think geography’s relevant at all anymore. It’s how you hustle yourself on the Internet, you know?
SG: Touring is hard no matter what. Even today, it’s hard. But think back then. With lack of resources, you couldn’t just hear a band and get in contact with them. I think particularly then, that’s 100 percent true. That has to be a factor. I think it’s still hurting us all now, you know? The fact is we all have records out at this point and we’re still struggling to get the fuck out of here because it’s a hassle to try to get out any place. We still do it. We put ourselves in financial straits a few times a year, but it’s what you have to do, I suppose.
Bruce Lamont: You’ve gotta travel a bit to get somewhere. For us, you’ve got St. Louis, Kansas City, Madison, and Minneapolis. But it’s not like New York or L.A. The drives on the West Coast are pretty insane to get to those major cities. I mean they’re all awesome, but still, it’s a far jump. New York is set up the best. You’ve got Boston, Baltimore, D.C., Richmond, and all of that so close, you know?
Chris Connelly (ex-keyboards/vocals, Ministry; ex-keyboards/vocals, Revolting Cocks): L.A., and NYC? These cities are full of parasites, so no. Leave us alone to get on with what we know without industry scum coming to town to suck us all off. I remember this happened when the Pumpkins broke and became huge. Suddenly, every band in town had on their Sunday best and danced whatever dance the majors wanted in order to get a contract, and where are they now? I am proud that I have managed to keep doing what I love without much outside interference. I know in Ministry, no one could really ever tell us what to do. If they said, “Okay, no more money,” we said, “Fine, we’ll do it ourselves.”
BJ: I always saw living in Chicago as an advantage as making it easy to get to the coast. If a band chooses to remain stagnant and stay in their area and not push outside of their immediate circle, that’s their choice. Nachtmystium always set our goals at nations, not in cities. We wanted to get known here, and we did. Then we wanted to go to Europe, and we didn’t just want to play in England, we wanted to play in Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, and everywhere in between. And we did. I’m not saying that it’s worked necessarily in the way that we’re some big band all over the world, but we pushed ourselves outside of our city. Therefore, we can get booked and guaranteed to play and get a financial guarantee just about anywhere in the world at this point in time where there’s a market for this kind of music. That’s just a result of working hard and trying to step outside and just having greater goals. To say that just because a band hasn’t done that doesn’t mean they’re failing or anything. That just happened to be my set of goals.
Will Lindsay (guitar/vocals, Indian; ex-bassist, Nachtmystium): The thing about Chicago, and part of the appeal that brought me here, is that Chicago just has more of an “I don’t give a fuck” vibe. When Indian went to New York in June, we’d be out at bars and people would come up and be like, “How’s it feel to live in the Second City?” and it’s like, “Fuck you!” Hardly anyone you run into out there is actually from the city. I can understand having pride in your city, though, you know? You’ve gotta have pride in where you live. I love Chicago, but I’m not gonna pretend that I’m like a native here, either. Sean and Ron are basically the lifers here in the band. But Chicago seems, and again it might be part of the whole geography, like there’s more of an individualist attitude here. I mean, somewhere like New York or especially L.A.—L.A.’s just atrocious, but everywhere on the West Coast—there’s a little bit more uniformity. I lived on the West Coast for 34 years. Those people are a little more apt to follow the leader out there. You get your odd thing like the whole Seattle scene in the ’90s, and then the sound blows up and everybody else is trying to do it, too.
BL: There’s no need for posturing in Chicago, because who wants to be the king of the molehill? This isn’t L.A. or New York. This is Chicago, you know? It’s not a huge scene or anything. At this point, no one’s out to be number one. There’s a freedom in that, as well, where you don’t feel like you have to adhere to some sort of “sound of the scene” or whatever. You just kind of do whatever you want because, you know, fuck the other guy. If they don’t like it, too bad, which is nice. The whole idea of any sort of competition in this is long gone. That was an issue, I think, maybe 10 or 12 years ago, for a variety of reasons. Maybe people were concerned about getting big record contracts. That whole concept is gone. There is no big record contract. There’s no fucking rock stardom or any of that kind of shit, so I think that lends people to feel a little more free to do what they want to do musically, or whatever they want to do to satisfy themselves or the people that come to see them. Whatever that may be. Which I think is extremely refreshing. It’s not very lucrative, but who fucking cares? That’s not what this is about, anyways.
Scott Carroll: In a way, it’s just a Midwest way of thinking. In a way, you just want people to be cool with you and just relax. It’s not so, “We gotta get out there! We gotta be big!” In L.A. and New York, everyone has an agenda. It’s like, “We’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do that.” In Chicago, everyone’s just kind of laidback and does whatever they do. There’s no mindset about conquering the world. There’s no place for that shit.