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. And New Orleans gave rise to a unique, sludge-metal 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 four: a scene resurgent
Sanford Parker: It kind of seemed like it picked back up around the mid-2000s. I think it kind of all started with Pelican getting some international attention. That band, being instrumental, has a unique crossover where they can appeal to the dudes that are really into heavy shit and the dudes that have no idea what a metal band is. So that kind of bridged the gap between the metal scene in Chicago and the indie rock scene in Chicago. I’d pretty much say that band brought what the Chicago scene is together. That’s when Empty Bottle started viewing metal as a legitimate form of music. As soon as that band started getting attention, it became a lot easier to book shows and get on better shows. It just kind of seemed like there were more bands starting to pop up from Chicago that were getting attention.
Jon Necromancer: That was kind of a changing of the guard, with Pelican and Yakuza. It went from bands like Usurper and Chasm and all of that, waving the old standard or the old flag. Yakuza was from, like, another planet. They were almost like Naked City and John Zorn, with that whole sax thing and the clean vocals. And Pelican is so heavy. I remember the first time I went to see Pelican, I thought it was gonna be like a die-hard, shitty, scumbag metalhead crowd. That was one of the first times I had seen what’s considered the “hipster” generation—a bunch of guys with backpacks and bicycles and horn-rimmed glasses. I was like, “What the hell is going on? Who are these guys? Is there a band playing after Pelican that you guys are sticking around to see? Don’t you guys have a test to take tomorrow or something?” It was crazy. They were playing Pitchfork and shit. I was way into Pelican when they first came out, and my older metal contemporaries were bustin’ my balls over it. I was in front row at a couple of their shows, much to my ball-busting later. [Laughs.] From what I understand, Pelican’s gone on to be more of an influence on other bands. I’ve never heard any band like Yakuza before or since. They’re almost like a metal/jazz crossover band.
Bruce Lamont: I was playing in a bunch of bands in the ’90s and kind of stopped doing that. I was really interested in this jazz-improvisational community that was going on here. So I was way deep into that, and I kind of got away from playing in rock bands. But then, around ’98 or so, I started hearing some bands, some metal stuff, that was really just, to me, had a fresh perspective on all of that, like Neurosis and Meshuggah. I thought that band was fucking amazing. I was like, “Wow, this is great. This band is taking metal in this wild direction.” Even that band Candiria, from New York: At the time, they had this album, [1999’s] The Process Of Self-Development, which I thought was really great. So those bands just kind of inspired me to seek out [more]. So anyways, I was looking for a band, and they were looking for a singer, and we just kind of met up. And we’ve all kind of known each other, but it was a Reader ad—that’s how we came about. I had no intention to bring the saxophone into the band. I was playing in other bands, more on the improvisational tip, and we were just messing around, and they seemed open to whatever. So they asked if I played another instrument, and I was like, “Yeah, I play guitar, bass” all that stuff, and I said, “and I play saxophone.” And they were like, “Yeah, let’s try this out and see what happens.” It took about a year or so to kind of find its place within the music. It’s not like a gimmick; it’s something I do play.
JN: Legend has it, once Bruce Lamont started working at Empty Bottle, they opened up to metal. Even before he worked there, they always had an eclectic bill. You might have a brilliant, old punk band one night, and then some jazz trio the next night, or a poetry dude—but it wasn’t the venue it is now. It was a totally different spot.
SP: I definitely think Yakuza’s a huge part of this scene. They’ve been doing it the longest (of any of the modern bands). They’ve always pushed the envelope the most. They don’t give a fuck what people think, and I’ve always respected them. As soon as a guy gets up with a saxophone in a metal band, people are gonna stand there like, “What the fuck is this?” But they never gave a shit, and I respect that a lot. They just do what they wanna do and say, “Fuck it.”
BL: Sanford’s the best. We’ve worked with a number of people over the years. He’s done the last two Yakuza records, actually. I’ve been working in the studio with him for the past six or seven years with Yakuza and other projects. He’s the best. He’s got the right temperament. He’s a really good guy. His opinions are valid, and he will give them. Some engineers are really hands-off. They just wanna come in and kind of get the sounds, and you go, “Well, what do you think?” and they go, “I dunno?” He’s awesome. Now he’s getting his “just desert” these days.
JN: Right now, Sanford may be the premier attraction to the Chicago sound. Ironically enough, he’s not from Chicago, and a lot of the bands he produces aren’t from Chicago, either. But Sanford is doing a very Chicago vibe, which is cool. Sanford, in a lot of ways, even though he’s not from the city, he has that common thread. That same common flaw in his DNA, you know what I mean? It just seems to work for Chicago. He has his own brain, his own mind, his own sound, his own vibe. He just does whatever the fuck he does. I’ve worked with Sanford twice, and both times, he shows up and does his thing. He’s not like, “Oh, it should be this way or that way.” He’s the most laid-back guy ever. He just has this silent, quiet way of making it sound really, really good. He’s got a really good ear and a really good tone. It’s cool that he’s in Chicago. It’s good to have him here.
SP: Chicago’s always had kind of a big experimental indie rock scene, as well. I think the combination between those two allows people to kind of have a more open mind about experimenting and not just sticking with one sound, kind of melding different scenes together and creating something unique. I think, honestly, the more jazz-experimental side of that scene has a greater influence on the metal bands nowadays than the death metal scene in the early ’90s or the punk scene in the early ’80s did.
BL: I think now, especially in the 2000s, the bands aren’t coming from that death metal background, so to speak. There’s other bands that are playing that are kind of on the fringe as far as what is definitively metal. Some of these guys will tell you that their love for Jesus Lizard is probably more there than, say, death metal. That band has been thrown around as some sort of influence, even though they’re not definitively metal in any way, shape, or form. They’re still heavy, you know? And they’re from here. I list them as an inspiration, as well. So I think that’s how the current scene has come about. It’s not even just metal, for that matter. It’s all these other things combined, you know?
Stavros Giannopoulos: I think right now, with the current metal scene, it’s doing pretty awesome, and I see new bands popping up all the time, and everyone’s kind of doing something weird and different, even to the point where I don’t get it. But I think being experimental is going to be something that’s always going to ring true in breaking a band out of a city. Indian’s been around forever, and they just got signed. Yakuza’s put out records on nearly every metal label under the sun at this point, and they’ve been around for a while. Even if you look at the evolution of those bands, they’ve come so far just in their own rights. It’s kind of funny when you read a review, and it’s like, “Oh, it’s the ‘Chicago sound,’’’ And you’re like, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” My band sounds nothing like Indian, and Indian sounds nothing like Yakuza. The “Chicago sound” seems to just be a loose generalization of a doom or a sludge genre, because that’s where we all derive from sort of, maybe. It’s weird. I don’t know.
Shaun Glass: I think there’s more variety today. Dirge Within, we’re one of the most national touring bands in the city. Born Of Osiris are from Chicago. On the underground, you’ve got Nachtmystium. There’s way more diversity and so many different styles and brands. It’s cool. It’s more predominant than in the mid-’90s.
Blake Judd: Stylistically, you can know what to expect from all of us, at least the people who’ve made a name for themselves, anyways. And there’s always up-and-coming newer bands. There’s a lot of this kind of “hybrid metal,” like Atlas Moth. Atlas Moth has so many influences that range far beyond the metal world that are very noticeable in their music, and that’s part of what I enjoy about it. It’s a little different.
Scott Carroll: We never had a big underground band make it from here. That’s going back to defining a sound and a scene. Nobody ever got to that until basically now, with Nachtmystium. Usurper almost got somewhere and did something, but then they just failed to deliver on “conquering the world.” I don’t know what happened. They were a cool band, as far as I’m concerned. Now, it’s Nachstmystium. They keep going off the fucking deep end further and further. I think Blake’s next album is gonna be purely straight black metal. I think he’s had enough. It’s like, “How far can he fucking go?” I mean, Blake’s awesome. He’s one of my favorite fuckin’ people, actually. But yeah … I never got into that experimental side, so I really don’t know. We’re pretty fuckin’, just, lunkheaded.
JN: Nachtmystium’s like the new Cradle Of Filth. It’s the revolving-door lineup. That’s how it is. In a way, I guess it works for Blake. Every album sounds different because there’s a different set of people writing it.
BJ: It wasn’t until the last three or four years that things were really focused, and I knew what kind of individuals I need in this band and what kind of things in their lives need to be a certain way in order for this to work. It’s taken a long time, and we’ve had a lot of members, just because I’m a hard guy to deal with. I understand that.
SP: I don’t see the kind of competition in the old death metal scene hurting the current scene, at least not anytime soon. That was one of the reasons I left Florida, was because there’s no “I’ve got your back” kind of attitude in Florida. It’s like every man for himself. You could never get a scene formed down there outside the death metal scene, and even still, those guys talk shit about each other all the time. But as far as the hardcore scene, there was never like “If you get me a show, I’ll get you a show,” and this and that. It was more like, “Ha, ha. We got on this show and you didn’t, so fuck off.” That was one thing that surprised me when I moved here. It wasn’t like that at all. Everybody was helping each other out, and it’s still like that today. You could have five bands that are built up on 10 members, which is also like what the whole New Orleans scene back in the late ’80s/early ’90s was, too. It’s like every band that came out of New Orleans had the same dudes in it. And, to go back to the Wax Trax! and industrial thing, that was the same way, as well. It was almost like a Motown or Stax type of vibe, where you have like an in-house rhythm section, and then you have a rotating lead singer, and then it would just be a different band. It’s not so much like that today, but it’s definitely got that vibe where Charlie [Fell], the bassist from Lord Mantis, plays drums in Nachtmystium with Drew [Markuszewski], who has his own black metal band, you know? The drummer in Lord Mantis plays drums in Indian. Bruce from Yakuza’s in a band with me. There’s definitely a lot of interchanging musicians.
JN: New Orleans has a reputation with any of those bands. They’re all lumped together. They’ve always changed members. And it is similar to Chicago. It’s like the six degrees of Kevin Bacon. You could do, like, three degrees of any band in the Chicago scene, and one or two degrees later it comes back to anybody. It’s very incestuous. We’ve all been jamming with each other for so long that that’s just how it is.
SG: I think there is a very good comparison between the two scenes. New Orleans does have a very similar vibe, and all of the bands down there are really weird. They’re kind of out there pushing a lot of extreme boundaries, too, with their stuff. It’s pretty cool, you know? Jimmy Bower plays in like every fucking band. It’s pretty killer down there. I can see the comparison, for sure.
Will Lindsay: Bruce Lamont has at least made guest appearances on everybody’s record here. And there’s the connection that Sanford has really developed with his studio. So many of us all go record there. People from everywhere record with him. Indian recorded with him. Nachtmystium recorded with him. Bloodiest recorded with him. And there’s all his own projects—Circle Of Animals, High Confessions, and whatnot.
BL: Yeah, there’s a lot of that going on. This is a very incestuous musical town, and a few of us are just outright whores. I’ll freely admit that. I think that’s healthy, as well, because you get a fresh perspective on creating with those people, and you might be able to bring that back to another project, and kind of look at it from a different angle or go about it differently than you would have if you just stay with the same people all the time. That’s always been my thought behind it. That’s why I’ve played in a number of bands in all the years I’ve been … collaborating, and all that stuff. We’re all friends, man. We just like to jam with each other. We just love music.
BJ: There aren’t a lot of people who are dedicated to music in general who are into extreme music anywhere, you know? I’m sure you run into that just about any place you go to. It all kind of depends on what’s happening with the individual band. Sanford is dead-on that here, motivated people find their way to each other. I certainly know that’s how I found my way to Sanford and Sanford found his way to me. And we found our way to Bruce Lamont and all of these other various people, with Stavros being the newer addition to this little wolf pack of people where being involved in music is everything to them. Someone like Sanford is really blessed, because he can not only be creative in some bands, but also can kind of dictate what happens with another band that comes to him to record.
JN: The cockiness and talking shit … that’s kind of what makes the Chicago scene really, kind of, what it is in a way. There’s so many other scenes, like the Florida scene, and the New York scene with the Cannibal Corpse sound-alikes and all that. They had maybe a moment of notoriety that lasted maybe four or five years tops, but that all fizzled out. All of these bands supported each other and they were all about the scene, and they worked together and all kind of sounded the same. And as trends happen, things fall off. Chicago’s never really been that way. We never really were very popular, but no one’s ever really liked each other or supported each other. A handful of people do, but all of the old guys are still around, and we don’t really like each other all that much. It’s always like this one-upmanship. Everybody thinks they’re in the best band in the city, whether they admit or not. I think I’m in the greatest band in the city. Scott and Mike think they’re in the greatest band in the city. You’re gonna talk to Blake tomorrow, and he’s gonna tell you how he’s the most brilliant man who ever moved from the suburbs into the city. That’s how it’s gonna be, and maybe that’s the secret to Chicago’s success, or lack of. It’s like a competition constantly.
BJ: Everybody’s just really “fuck you” here, which I like. I think that’s metal as shit. Even if we’re saying “fuck you” to each other, I like the overwhelming feeling that there’s not this “bro” spirit. Like, “Oh, man. We should all be together.” “No, this is metal, man. Fuck you.” It’s okay to be masculine in metal here. Cianide is a very manly band. Usurper, too. It’s like meathead shit. It’s what it should be. It’s not this pretentious, New-York-art-school-kid-living-in-Brooklyn, Liturgy shit. I can’t deal with that crap. I wanna be afraid that I’m gonna get my teeth broken by a guy in the metal band that I listen to, and I only find that in Chicago. That’s kind of what I like best about it here. Everybody still has an attitude, and everybody’s got a chip on their shoulder, and everybody wants to do their best. And that’s where the competitive nature comes from.
BL: The scene is healthier than it ever has been, and this has been going on for about the last six or seven years, I think. And every year it just gets even tighter. And it’s the music scene in general here. The crossover kind of stuff that’s happening is ridiculous. I’m talking about, you know, stylistically known as ‘indie’ bands or ‘alt-country’ bands all kind of … they all at least see each other and they mingle, you know what I mean? What can’t be good about that? Some people aren’t even into that. There’s metal bands that have been around for 25 years in this town that have no desire to change the way that they’ve been doing things, and that’s fine, too. Stick to your guns, stick to what you know, and that’s all that matters, as well. Some of us … I like a fresh, new perspective on things. Just creatively. My tastes are different. [Laughs.]