A carefully edited flyer for the Infestational Credit: Courtesy Not Normal Tapes

“For me hardcore has always been more of an adjective than a noun. Doing something to the utmost extreme.”

Maybe Ralph Rivera would’ve said the same thing in 2012, when he was 23 years old and the Reader profiled his fledgling label Not Normal Tapes, whose catalog at the time amounted to barely 15 releases. But he’s saying it now, and today it carries much more weight. He’s earned that rhetoric by rapidly expanding the label—it now sells vinyl as well as cassettes, it has a robust Bandcamp page, and it’s recently topped 50 releases—and by cooking up an ambitious festival for this weekend.

Negative Scanner will play the Infestational showcase at ChiTown Futbol on Saturday.Credit: Rob Karlic Photography

Not Normal’s first annual Infestational festival expands on the idea of the fifth-anniversary shows the label organized in 2014. This midwest-heavy hardcore spectacular runs Friday through Sunday, with 29 bands spread across four venues. Only two of those venues are legit, in keeping with the DIY aesthetic Rivera has long championed—many of the bands on his label regularly attend and play shows in the circuit of basements and storefronts to which the fest’s two underground spaces belong.

Rivera has also booked the Infestational to discourage people from showing up late and deliberately skipping lesser-known acts. “Having been to Dumb Fest in Springfield and Everything Is Not OK in Oklahoma City, those fests schedule a mix in which you have to watch all of the bands,” he says. “Before that, I got a little negative about how fests operated—stacking the big names atop the cooler ones.”
The Infestational show at ChiTown Futbol on Saturday—by far the fest’s biggest event, with a 15-band bill—includes local postpunk heroes Negative Scanner, Rivera’s noise-gnarled freak band the Bug, snarling and snarky Minneapolis punks Uranium Club, and the sludgy OKC hell mass American Hate, with plenty of relatively obscure upstarts in between. Rivera is quick to admit that he went overboard booking the fest, but he’s happy to accommodate stragglers. (“At first it was just eight bands, then 15—and there’s still people asking.”) Though Not Normal has its roots in northwest Indiana, it’s become a much more important incubator for the hardcore-punk community in Chicago than the unassuming Rivera would probably ever let on.

Whether Rivera boasts about his label or not, it’s developed significant reach and influence, evident in its catalog of progressive underground-hardcore releases—including the demo from trans trailblazers G.L.O.S.S. and a Minutemen-influenced funk-punk LP from Seattle band Big Crux. Joining that catalog soon will be a behemoth two-tape compilation that features 90 minutes of music from 45 bands and a pair of zines, each with its own centerfold.
Rivera wants the comp to reflect the politics of hardcore and what being a part of that community entails. Contributors include the organizers of Milwaukee’s Freespace—a venue Rivera describes as “based in hardcore DIY ethics but facilitating hip-hop shows more than hardcore”—and the developers of a community garden in Greensboro, North Carolina. He connected with many of the second wave of contributors while touring with the Bug. Rivera, who also writes a frequent column for Maximum Rocknroll, had hoped finish the comp in time to release it at the fest, but when does that kind of shit ever work out, right?

“I see the comp as the culmination of seven years of working this label, and what I’ve learned since I got into punk,” he explains. “I’m into comic books, and every few years there will be a soft reset where the whole universe goes through an upheaval. X-Men will have a new number one. Spiderman will have a new number one.
“When I started working on the comp two years ago, it was going to be the last release I ever did. I was burnt out,” he says. “But after going at it for six months, I knew I wasn’t going to stop. Then I started envisioning it as the soft reboot of the label. The end of the first era.”

Rivera, who turns 28 on the last day of the Infestational, feels likes he’s gotten over the hump of being a hanger-on in hardcore—the kind of poser who’s sick and done with the scene but is still at every show. If the fact that he runs a tape label basically solo out of an apartment bedroom—cutting, stuffing, doing the layouts, digging through the bottomless pit of e-mails—isn’t evidence enough that he’s committed to the cause, then nobody can get over that hump.

Now Rivera can look back on his 20s and the bands he’s been in—Raw Nerve, Cold Shoulder, Poison Planet—and gain perspective that will benefit Not Normal. Even better, he still perks up when he gets to talking about upcoming Not Normal releases. “I’m doing the layout for this local band Tigress, which a few years ago wouldn’t have been in my wheelhouse,” he says. “It’s definitely rooted in late-80s New York hardcore. Madball when they were a scarier band.”
“I just want to know the people in the band I’m putting out and know that they’re good people. Everything I’ve ever done has had a political/sociopolitical angle, but I don’t necessarily look for that. You should care about what you’re making. Why do I want to spend $1,500 or $2,000 on a record if you don’t care? That’s not fun.”

The Bug, featuring Not Normal founder Ralph Rivera, will also play the ChiTown Futbol concert.Credit: Courtesy Not Normal Tapes

Rivera explains that his band the Bug are “radically left” and pretty transparent in their Nation of Ulysses-like meta-revolutionary approach—the track “Go Back to Bed,” for example, rails about the displacement of Chicagoans in violent neighborhoods following the closing of 50 schools in 2013—but Not Normal Tapes, now heading into its ninth year, includes all sub-subgenres and weirdo mutations of punk, whether or not they’re explicitly political. Scan the label’s Bandcamp page—or the pages of the couple dozen bands playing the Infestational—and you’ll get the gist.
“A lot of it is rooted in ‘Who needs it the most? Would this exist if I didn’t put it out?'” Rivera explains. His decision-making process with the label has a lot to do with where he feels he’d be most useful. “Big Zit, if I didn’t do that record, someone else would have—but I was there seeing that band from their first show, knowing this is where it’s at.”

“From my perspective, all of the bands on Not Normal are on the same level,” Rivera says. “I’m not trying to make a unified sound. I just want bands who want to make something great, and make something that they’re proud of, and make something—I don’t want to sound too hippie here—that makes them whole.”

The first annual Infestational runs Friday 11/9 through Sunday 11/11. Saturday’s all-ages show at ChiTown Futbol (2255 S. Throop) begins at 3 PM, and admission is on a sliding scale from $15 to $25. Sunday’s all-ages show at Bric-a-Brac (3156 W. Diversey) begins at noon, and admission is $5-$7. The details for the other shows are for you to discover.

As for the Not Normal compilation, let’s pray for spring.