When Russell Harrison, bassist of Chicago hardcore band C.H.E.W., first replies to my interview request, he signs the e-mail “c/o Courageous Horned-toads Escape Wasps.” Harrison and his bandmates have suggested several other possibilities for their acronym over the years: Cocaine Heroin Ecstasy Weed, Crying Heavily Every Week, Cold Hands Elicit Worry, Chill Hard Every Weekend. By the time you finish this story, they’ll probably have come up with a few more. But C.H.E.W. doesn’t stand for anything in particular—it’s just that “Chew” was taken.
Harrison, guitarist Ben Rudolph, drummer Jonathan “Jono” Giralt, and vocalist Doris Jeane began playing nasty D-beat as Chew in 2015, and within a year (according to an interview they did with Maximum Rocknroll) they heard from an Atlanta psych band also called Chew asking them to change their name. The Chicago group didn’t see any potential for confusion and refused. In short order, they received a cease-and-desist notice. (Sarah Wilson, drummer for the Atlanta Chew, confirms via e-mail that her band took that step: “Our name is trademarked.”) The Chicago Chew became C.H.E.W., but it didn’t matter too much—at that point all they’d put out was a seven-song demo, so they weren’t exactly at risk of losing a large but punctuation-illiterate audience.
In September 2018, after two more releases (both splits with other hardcore bands), C.H.E.W. released their debut full-length album, Feeding Frenzy. (“Full-length” is a relative term, and in hardcore it can mean 16 tracks that total 31 minutes.) Bandcamp Daily published a glowing profile of C.H.E.W. that described Feeding Frenzy as a “perfect hardcore LP,” and the AV Club named it one of the best punk albums of 2018. It came out domestically through Iron Lung, the venerable independent label run by the hardcore band of the same name. At the time, says Iron Lung drummer and vocalist Jensen Ward, the label was going through a fallow period, and he’d started to worry that it was drifting apart from its audience. “Sales were slow—people weren’t really going for the things that I was really excited about,” Ward says. “I was like, ‘I don’t really understand—maybe I’ve lost touch with the kids, who knows.’ Things weren’t selling as well as I wanted them to, or at least hoped that they would. And then their record came and sold like crazy.”
Ward pressed 500 copies of Feeding Frenzy and quickly sold the label’s share. C.H.E.W. got about 150 themselves, but few of them can be found unsold in the wild—Reckless has a couple left. UK punk label Drunken Sailor pressed a European version of Feeding Frenzy and still has it in stock online, though you’ll have to deal with international shipping fees. Iron Lung is working on a cassette edition, which should be done before May—that is, in time for C.H.E.W.’s two-week tour opening for Boston indie-rock stalwarts Pile.
It’s less plausible now to talk about an American hardcore “scene” than it was in the 80s, in part because the Internet has connected diffuse communities and made responsible generalizations difficult. But that doesn’t prevent bands like C.H.E.W. from making an impression. “They’re proof that U.S. punk and hardcore is still very vital, and very important, and it’s still possible to make urgent music that means something to people,” Ward says. “They offer hope for people who need some. They also offer a place for people to work out their issues and listen to some angry music if they need to, or just see it and have a good time pushing their friends around.”
Wake, Like Rats, C.H.E.W., Carnivores at Grace
Tue 4/2, 6:30 PM, Subterranean downstairs, 2011 W. North, $10. 17+
Three-fourths of C.H.E.W.—Harrison, Rudolph, and Giralt—met in Orlando, Florida. In 2013, Harrison moved to Chicago with indie-rock band Great Deceivers. “I started playing in that band—writing some songs and playing shows—and a month or two into it, ‘Hey, do you wanna move to Chicago, by the way? ‘Cause we’re all gonna go do that,'” Harrison says. “I said, ‘Sure.’ And that’s why I went.” Rudolph has since joined Harrison in Great Deceivers, and they released their third full-length in January.
When Harrison left Florida, Rudolph and Giralt were playing in a skramz outfit called Knife Hits, and Giralt had taken up an itinerant lifestyle. “I had not been living in Florida for a while, and was kind of bouncing around places—the Bay Area, northern California, and Philadelphia. I went back to Orlando for a short period of time,” he says. “There was another large cluster of friends who were from Orlando who’d migrated here. Everybody who grew up in central Florida around that time all have separation anxiety and all like to stay close to each other. I like Chicago, I’ve been here a couple of times, so I figured I’d give this place a shot.”
Giralt persuaded Rudolph to move to Chicago during a polar vortex in early 2014, though they expected the weather to have eased up by the time they arrived. “We were at my parents’ garage, trying to get the motorcycle into the back of the van, like, ‘Yeah, the snow’s probably gonna be melted—the storm hit, like, two or three days ago. We should be fine,'” Giralt says. “And we were clearly very, very wrong.”
The temperature in Nashville, Tennessee, fell to 13 below the day they passed through. “I didn’t know what black ice was until we started driving on it,” Rudolph says.
Giralt landed a job at a dog day care, where he met Jeane. She’d grown up in suburban Bensenville, southwest of O’Hare; she and her friends had visited Logan Square as teenagers for punk shows at DIY venue La Casa Maldita. When she met Giralt, she had almost no experience in bands. “I played bass for a show, once, a long time ago,” she says. “It was always something that seemed cool, but it was really scary.”
In spring 2015, Rudolph, Harrison, and Giralt began working on a new project. “We wanted to start this band—we’ve said it before—and play like an anarcho band playing west-coast hardcore,” Rudolph says. About five or six bands inspire all four members of C.H.E.W., he claims, though in our conversation the only two they can agree on are London anarcho weirdos Rudimentary Peni and Bay Area hardcore iconoclasts the Dead Kennedys.
Jeane says Giralt decided she’d be a good fit for this new group. “It was like, ‘Do you wanna join my band? You seem like you could use an outlet,'” she says. “I was very crazy. I was losing my shit. I think I was always coming to work, ‘Oh my God, this happened!’ He was like, ‘Have you ever tried channeling this?'”
When Giralt asked Jeane to try out, C.H.E.W. had already made rehearsal recordings without a vocalist. She was about to check herself into a mental institution for depression and anxiety, but she got the recordings just before she went in.
“I spent my time trying to write lyrics in there, which is very helpful, thank you,” Jeane says. “And then I tried out when I got out.” She didn’t know Harrison and Rudolph well, but she’d come to the audition prepared to deal with her nerves. “I had whiskey,” she says.
“You had brought the little fifth of Jameson with you,” Giralt says. “And just polished it off.”
Jeane bonded with the rest of the band quickly, but C.H.E.W. didn’t rush into their first show—it wasn’t until September 2015, after plenty of practice, that they debuted at a Humboldt Park DIY space. “We played everything in our sleep at that point,” Rudolph says.
Their first live set included the seven crusty, bite-size songs they’d later release as a self-titled demo in March 2016. Rudolph broke a string a few songs in and had to borrow a guitar. Harrison couldn’t hear any of Jeane’s vocals, even though he’d planted himself next to a PA speaker. Jeane isn’t even sure if she could hear herself. “I remember being scared at the first show and just looking at my feet,” she says. “I don’t remember much after that.”
The gig might’ve felt like a mess to the band, but it won over plenty of the people who saw it. Soon C.H.E.W. were getting invitations to play underground spaces from some of the scene’s key bookers, among them Ralph Rivera, who fronts radical hardcore band the Bug and runs Not Normal Tapes. “We got asked to play a lot of shows,” Rudolph says.
“And we just said yes to anything, whenever anyone asked us,” Harrison adds.
C.H.E.W. perform at Dumb Fest 5 in Springfield, Illinois, in June 2017.
For about a year, C.H.E.W. played two or three local shows a month. In June 2016 they hit the road for the first time. “A three-week west-coast tour was our first tour,” Rudolph says.
“But we went to Miami first, and then we went west,” Jeane adds.
“We played in Miami and Portland on that tour,” Harrison says.
C.H.E.W. were tight and fierce when I first saw them, downstairs at Subterranean in July 2016. They tore through their songs so fast that their nervy demo recordings felt almost relaxed by comparison. Jeane growled and wailed, her stage fright seemingly completely gone—if anything, the stage should’ve been afraid of her.
The two split seven-inches C.H.E.W. released in 2017 included one called Strange New Universe with Philadelphia hardcore group Penetrode. It was released by Los Angeles label Neck Chop Records, which had reissued the C.H.E.W. demo on vinyl early that year. When the band began working with Neck Chop, their music achieved greater reach—and it wound up in Ward’s ear. “I found it really refreshing, ’cause it sounds like real music—there was no gimmick to it or anything,” he says. “It was kind of just really well-made, tightly crafted punk songs, which I’ve always liked.”
C.H.E.W. had yet to reach out to Ward or Iron Lung when they began working on Feeding Frenzy last winter. On a whim, they sent the label an unsolicited e-mail with early versions of two cuts off the album, “Patience” and “Positive Affirmations.”
“We get a lot of e-mails every day, from bands, like, ‘Hey, huge fans of the label, we love Total Control,’ whatever the popular thing is that month,” Ward says. “The cold e-mail is tough—of all the e-mails that we’ve gotten over the years, I’d say maybe four or five were ones that we actually said yes to doing.”
C.H.E.W. heard back from Ward, says Giralt, the day after they messaged him.
They’d started writing Feeding Frenzy in February 2017 and finished it the week before recording the final version in March 2018. Jeane wrote the lyrics for the title track while sitting with Rudolph at the dining-room table of DIY house Margaritaville. “That house has been a pretty pivotal place for this band,” Rudolph says. He and Giralt used to live there, and Jeane lives there now. The space can only continue to book shows because of C.H.E.W.—Rudolph supplied the PA speakers, and Harrison provided the rest of the rig.
Throughout Feeding Frenzy, C.H.E.W. rip through their material with such impatient energy that the brief silences between songs sometimes collapse entirely—the blackened sludge of “Positive Affirmations” spills into the switchblade riffs that open “Patience.” The record closes with “Belly Up,” a comically long dirge whose gnarly seesawing guitar incites a small army of horns to go rogue. It’s all got the sweaty aggression of the best hardcore, but it’s also slightly out of sync with the genre.
Giralt says this quirky aesthetic has to do with the style of collaboration he’s developed with Rudolph and Harrison. “We think we’re writing something that is relatively square, and it turns out it’s fuckin’ not,” he says. “The three of us never count anything the same, so, three different diverging paths that all end at the same goal is probably what makes the songs sound the way that they do.”
Growing up in a city with a smaller scene also appears to have left a mark on C.H.E.W. “There was one point for Orlando punk, everyone was kind of listening to all this crazy shit, and everyone just wanted to write the most wacky shit possible but have it still be as mean as possible,” Rudolph says. “It was never square—songs were never formulaic.”
C.H.E.W. earned their opening spot on the Pile tour because of Feeding Frenzy—the Boston band’s front man, Rick Maguire, had befriended the Orlando contingent before they moved to Chicago, and the album sealed the deal. “There’s riffs for days,” he says. And he wasn’t concerned that C.H.E.W.’s bizarre hardcore wouldn’t appeal to the same crowd as Pile’s relatively straightforward rock. “Something that was kind of eye-opening for us is we were lucky enough to be asked to go on tour with Converge, and we didn’t make much sense opening for them, but some of their audience liked us. I think it’s better to play with bands that aren’t like you. Hopefully the people that are coming out are fans of music and not a specific sound.”
Ward and Iron Lung would definitely consider themselves fans of music. “We put out a lot of different-sounding stuff,” he says. “One month it’s gonna be, like, a free-jazz record, and another month it’s gonna be a grindcore record, and the next month it’ll be a hardcore record, or even just like a mellow-ass postpunk record or something, you know?” And what C.H.E.W. does seems designed to appeal to curious listeners—the kind who like some unpredictable left turns thrown into their favorite genres.
“They tick all the boxes as far as what I like in a band,” Ward continues. “They play well live. The records look cool. Obviously the songs are really sick—they record them well. And they know what they’re doing, which I think is the thing that’s most impressive to me. They’re very organized, they know exactly what they want, and they just go for it. There doesn’t seem to be anything holding them back.” v