All sorts of musicians have cut their teeth performing in unconventional DIY spaces: claustrophobic basements, dilapidated lofts, shuttered stores, old churches. Sometimes these artists are merely unknown, but in other cases they stay underground by choice—they prefer this community of volunteer-run spaces to the regular circuit of for-profit venues, with their occasionally gun-shy bookers and heavy reliance on alcohol sales.
Several acts nurtured by Chicago’s diverse and vibrant DIY scene are playing at the Pitchfork festival this year. “It’s not easy to just break into playing venues,” says Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, who has a set on Sunday. “Some people work their way into it, and DIY shows are just a whole ‘nother experience you can’t get from playing a venue show.”
Artists who rely on DIY spaces usually don’t have a manager or press agent. Sometimes they help run a show space themselves, or even live in it. Ogbonnaya lived in Humboldt Park’s Swerp Mansion, Julie Byrne (who plays Pitchfork on Friday) in Humboldt Park’s Ball Hall, and Bart and Liam Winters of Melkbelly (who also play Friday) in Wicker Park’s W.O.R. Loft. In fact that’s where Bart met his future wife and bandmate, Miranda Winters.
“DIY is no one circle or one scene,” says Jenny Marshall of the Curls, whose Friday set kicks off the entire festival. “When you bring up DIY, I immediately think of 30 or 40 different subgroups within Chicago.”
I talked with five people from four Pitchfork acts about their experiences in Chicago DIY: Ogbonnaya, Byrne, Winters, Marshall, and Marshall’s bandmate and husband, Mick Fansler.
Fri 7/20, 1:00-1:40 PM, Green Stage
Fri 7/20, 1:45-2:25 PM, Red Stage
Fri 7/20, 2:45-3:30 PM, Blue Stage
Sun 7/22, 1:00-1:40 PM, Green Stage
Julie Byrne My first year in Chicago, I lived in a show space called Ball Hall in west Humboldt Park. I lived with seven other people on the third story of a tall brick building. The loft that we shared used to function as a dance hall decades before.
Nnamdi Ogbonnaya My first experience was going to a show in northwest Indiana—I got to the house, and it was very gross and smelly. People had written all over the walls and were clearly demolishing it from the inside. . . . I think the next week I came to Chicago to see Maps & Atlases, and that ended up being at a house venue too, called People Project.
Miranda Winters (Melkbelly) Mister City, People Project, and W.O.R. Loft—those were spaces that I went to a lot of shows at and I played shows at. The only space I was part of running and living at was Roxaboxen in Pilsen—that was later on.
Nnamdi Ogbonnaya I saw that shit, and I was like, “I’m gonna do this at my house.” I was still living in the burbs. I asked my parents if I could start having shows on our screened porch.
Julie Byrne We’d host bands from Chicago and touring musicians from across the States. I’d help out by running the door or the makeshift bar. Eventually I began playing too, but that was the beginning for me.
Mick Fansler (the Curls) Six years ago I started going to open mikes. I quickly found out a lot of people that were running those open mikes were running DIY venues, and they’d invite me to play. The first time I started performing in front of people was through these DIY venues, so it’s given me a platform to start doing this and building confidence.
Jenny Marshall (the Curls) When I moved to Chicago, my musical experience was limited to playing with, like, big bands. It wasn’t until I was brought into the Curls with Mick that I started playing more DIY shows.
Miranda Winters When I started, I just wanted to play music and slowly realized, “Oh, there’s this community that has a voice and there’s power in that.”
Julie Byrne It was such a labor of love, and one that felt so unparalleled to me at the time. Everyone who organized, cooked for the bands, ran sound, or pitched in to clean up after the shows did so because they believed in what it meant. It was a real shit show some of the time, but at its best—I remember sitting with my roommates on one of the platforms that overlooked the stage as Mines played to a sea of people in what we considered our living room, struck with awe at what had been made possible.
Nnamdi Ogbonnaya Having a show where people are like, “Wow, this is the best experience of my life, and this was at a house.” That was important for me—to keep doing it no matter how small the venue is, or no matter where it’s at. There’s always gonna be someone that finds some importance in what you’re doing.
Mick Fansler Young Camelot—once we had the full band finally together—that was popping. Any time you played there, there would be at least a couple hundred people. It was a good place to grow.
Julie Byrne It offered me the opportunity to share my songs. I was in my early 20s and working in the service industry. The jobs I held were much more about how long I could stand, how long I could work, how flexible I could be, how early I could rise, or how late I could stay. That’s how I spent a lot of my time. But in the quieter days—when I was alone or lonely or pining or spent, I became familiar with the how light passed across the walls of my room, and usually after a phase of boredom I’d pivot toward writing. And when I wrote, I was healing myself in my own language. And when I performed those songs, I was in touch with what it felt like to be seen for who I was.
Miranda Winters There’s a little bit of nerves when you start making music in a way that’s not normal. When you’re able to play through ideas that are not necessarily normal and they’re well received, or it’s for a group of people that are really into it, it makes you feel better about your art, so you continue doing it.
Jenny Marshall Generally the audience is probably predominantly other musicians. We’ve made a lot of really influential connections and friendships through DIY spaces.
Julie Byrne Two of my roommates at the time ran tape labels, Solid Melts and Teen River—I had the joy of releasing on both. Those songs, which were recorded live and straight to tape in Ball Hall and other spaces, became my first record, which came out on Orindal in 2014.
Miranda Winters Playing loud or weird aggressive music, you get used to seeing the same faces.
Nnamdi Ogbonnaya When you’re having punk or hardcore shows, people forget that people live there and are like, “I’m gonna come to this punk show, get rowdy, and do all this stuff.” And if you try to enforce rules, sometimes people are, “Ahh, eff this!” But that’s a very small portion of people.
Mick Fansler With any scene, there will be the same group of four to ten bands that are playing the same space constantly. Sometimes you get caught up in that cycle, and I feel like you lose the potential for growing out of that community.
Miranda Winters There’s endless cons, but there’s endless pros too. I moved to Chicago maybe ten years ago, and it felt very white and male in DIY spaces. I think we’ve come along—it’s not all, like, cis males.
Nnamdi Ogbonnaya I don’t think I would want to do it again, unless I had a legit venue spot, ’cause a lot of things about it were stressful. But it’s really cool to have people travel and be able to have a place to stay, and making people food. It’s cool to have a spot for people to play. v