An oral history of Chicago's metal scene, part 3: the ’90s

An oral history of Chicago's metal scene, part 3: the ’90s

Several American locales come to mind as hotbeds for the myriad subgenres 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 three: the ’90s

Chris Connelly: When I first arrived in 1987, metal music was probably the farthest from anyone’s mind. More likely, it was the influence of bands like Minor Threat and Naked Raygun that made [Ministry/Revolting Cocks mastermind] Al Jourgensen pick up an electric guitar again. As far as I know, he played guitar in rock bands in the ’70s. Prior to this, though, guitars were rather taboo in the ’80s, especially in the U.K. where I am from. The WaxTrax! scene was far more slanted towards synth-based dance music at that time. Bands like Front 242 and The Young Gods were far more likely to sample a guitar than play one.

Sanford Parker (Chicago-based producer/engineer; keyboardist, Nachtmystium; keyboardist-guitarist, Twilight; bassist-vocalist, Minsk; vocalist-guitarist, Buried At Sea): I was just listening to NPR. They did an interview with Chris Connelly and Paul Barker from Ministry talking about the whole Wax Trax! movement. To me, if you could place a sound in Chicago, that would be that sound. Early ’80s through the early ’90s, the heavy industrial stuff kind of got a foothold in this city, and it influenced several other areas and several other scenes, but the core foundation was all based around Wax Trax! and Chicago during that time. So if I was to define the “Chicago sound,” it would be the ’80s/’90s industrial scene. 

CC: At the time I did not consider myself in any way part of the metal scene. That seemed to be somewhere in the ’burbs, although we were friends with metal bands like Rights Of The Accused. In hindsight, my onstage posturing and wailing, which I considered ironic up against the music I was singing to, was probably more Dio than Depeche Mode!

Scott Carroll: Ministry and all of that stuff, but I mean that went right over my head. I mean, I listened to a little bit, and it was fun to listen to for a summer, and then you realize, “Eh, fuck this. Where’s that Carcass demo I had?” [Laughs.]

Mike Perun: I didn’t even know Ministry were from Chicago until after they left.

Bruce Lamont: The industrial scene in Chicago was enormous. Also, too, there’s a huge—bigger in the mid-to-late ’90s than now—jazz improvisational scene that was really popular via more of the European style of, like, noisier free-jazz kind of stuff. That had definitely a direct influence on me personally. Like I said, that’s all Chicago-based. For some us, you just couldn’t get away from that kind of thing. It somehow subconsciously works its way into your creative processes and becomes part of whatever you’re creating.

SP: I moved here in October of ’98. Started playing in bands ... I did a lot of noise stuff early on. I used to do a noise band called Decomposing Baby. Did that for a while, then I joined a band called Behold! The Living Corpse. It was kinda thrashy, kinda punk. I did that ’til like 2003, and then formed a band called Buried At Sea. They started in 2001, did that ’til 2004. Then I started playing in Minsk. I started playing in Nachtmystium in 2005 or 2006. The metal scene in Chicago was pretty nonexistent when I moved here. I remember having a very hard time booking gigs. Empty Bottle wouldn’t even touch a metal band. Fireside would do metal shows from time to time, but it was definitely more punk, hardcore, and emo. The Metro and the Double Door were just way too big. So there wasn’t much of a metal scene at all. When I formed Buried At Sea, we were playing in these little, shitty dive bars to nobody. Pelican and us used to play that all the time, and we’d play to an empty club every night, and then you go to Empty Bottle and there’s some emo or indie-rock band playing, and it’s sold out. That’s totally different now, but when I first moved here, there was no scene.

Jon Necromancer: The ’90s was pretty brutal. Well, who was doing shows in the late ’90s? There was Smiler Coogan’s. Thirsty Whale shut down around ’97 or ’98. Thirsty Whale was like the House Of Blues of underground shit. In the late ’80s, it was a poser capital, but when Morbid Angel and Dissection came, they came to Thirsty Whale. A lot of good shows came through there. Coroner played there, and Quiet Riot. They shut down, and this place called Smiler Coogan’s—that’s where all the underground shows were. There were still shows on the underground, but they were deep underground, and they were in this rat-hole bar on the West Side of Chicago. They had quarter beer nights on Tuesdays, and the jukebox was all Iron Maiden. If you’re a Bruce Dickinson fan, you were a poser. There was always a midget running around. For what? Some dude in a wheelchair. It was a crazy, weird scene.

Shaun Glass: We were still doing tons of shows. For Broken Hope to put on a huge death metal festival at the Riviera was a huge feat. That was a huge day. In the mid-’90s, there was a club in Schaumburg called Jackhammer’s that me and Rodney Pawlak [band manager for Macabre and Saint Vitus] were working to bring. I think the metal scene in the ’90s was still really good. Six Feet Under and Deicide and Broken Hope all played at the Thirsty Whale. I don’t consider the PBR scene to have been blossoming yet. Maybe the Empty Bottle was the hipster hangout at the time. 

SC: There’s always a place to play if you wanna play. If you’ve got the will and the drive, you can play anywhere. It’s a huge city. It might not always be the best shows, but you can do it. We’re not the most active band, but at any given time, at any given weekend, there’ll be a show going on. 

MP: We had never had a problem. There used to be a place ... The closest we ever had to, like, an actual scene in a real sense was like the Fotch’s kind of scene. That was up around Peterson and Kedzie. It was run by a cop. Free video games, pool, and foosball. He’d also just let you bring your own beer in a cup. And it was just death metal bands, local and out of state. That place lasted for about five years. We only played there once, but we saw so many good shows there.

SC: I saw Repulsion and Deceased there. There were like eight people there.

MP: Yeah, I was at that show. I think Obituary played there once, too. Fotch’s was around from, I’d say, ’89 to ’93. Goofy fuckin’ place.

Rodney Pawlak (manager, Macabre; manager, Saint Vitus; owner, Chicago Metal Factory; Metal Night DJ at The Exit): The guy that booked that [place] tried expanding with these boat cruises. You could actually go on a boat. I remember one was Obituary, Macabre, Snoopy’s Tape Worm ... It was really fun. You got to go mosh on a little boat. It wasn’t a huge boat, but it wasn’t tiny. It wasn’t what you’d think of for a metal show.

SC: We played the Thirsty Whale, which was always more of a glam club. But they started branching out and having death metal and stuff. When thrash became too big, they didn’t have a choice. 

JN: There were shows, but you wouldn’t get, like, a Bottom Lounge show. There was a scene, but it was deeper underground. The Metro wasn’t doing it. Double Door wasn’t doing it. Empty Bottle, once in a while, would have shows. They used to have the Jägermeister machine. It was like a tap, and me and Rick [Scythe] from Usurper used to meet up there with Mike and Scott from Cianide. It would be on a Sunday, at like 1 in the afternoon. We all had these dark pint glasses of Guinness, and one guy would distract the bartender while the other reached over the bar and poured like a pint of Jagermeister. The bartender would come by and say, “Do you guys want another drink?” “No, no. It’s cool, man. I’m just nursing this one.” And it was early, you know? We were smashed by 4 in the afternoon! [Laughs.] But there was still metal in the ’90s, it just wasn’t downtown. You had to drive 15-20 minutes from downtown to get to it.

RP: Where we have clubs now, this used to be considered “underground.” There used to be all of these housing projects here until like two years ago. They’re gone. These are luxury condos and stuff. The danger element of going to a show isn’t there very much anymore. When I was a kid, you’d go to the record store to get music, but you’d also go to buy the fanzines that were telling you what was going on in the world and the flyers that told you what the shows were.  We didn’t have the Internet and all of that. Now, it’s so easy. You go to my CMF site. It was a lot harder to find these things, and then dealing with where they actually were. I mean, I grew up in Glenview, and some of those neighborhoods I was going to for shows were crazy, considering where I lived. It’s so different now. It’s good there’s not a danger element.

Tomorrow, part four: a scene resurgent