A Giant Dog play an Ian’s Party show at Double Door in January 2017. Credit: Aaron Ehinger

Who in their right mind would try to book dozens of more or less unknown local rock bands for a multiday festival in a northwest suburb of Chicago in the dead of winter? If you answered “Ian,” then you’ve already realized I’m talking about Ian’s Party—whose first annual installment, in January 2008, took place at the Clearwater Theater in West Dundee (now the RocHaus) and the Gasthaus in Elgin (now defunct). You’re also partway correct. Ian is a real person (his full name is Ian Floetl), and among people who know Ian’s Party well, he’s referred to as “Original Ian.” But he’s hardly the only person who was involved at the beginning, and back then he played a minor role. He’s stuck around, though, as so many people have—Ian’s Party tends to inspire family feelings in its regulars—and now he’s doing much more.

The 11th Ian’s Party—the seventh in Chicago—runs Friday, January 5, through Sunday, January 7, on both floors of Subterranean and in Chop Shop’s back-room venue, 1st Ward. The party has become as much of a winter tradition as the better-known and much more widely promoted Tomorrow Never Knows festival, organized by Lincoln Hall and Schubas—even though it’s mostly run by volunteers. Because Ian’s Party books dozens of bands whose regular haunts are small venues with underpublicized show schedules and “ask a punk” DIY spaces, it’s particularly beloved by musicians who still have their day jobs (or would never dream of quitting them) and by fans who care about bands that everybody else considers obscure (or doesn’t consider at all). But those modest demographics have helped Ian’s Party thrive and grow over the years. Its biggest incarnation so far, for its tenth anniversary last year, took over several high-profile venues in the heart of Wicker Park: both floors of Double Door, both floors of Subterranean, and 1st Ward.

In recent years, Ian’s Party has also provided an important boost to some of the city’s best breakout acts—it hosted one of the earliest sets by Meat Wave, played a part in Melkbelly’s rapid rise, and booked Nnamdi Ogbonnaya shortly before he released the 2017 album Drool, which carried his name outside Chicago. The best-known veterans of Ian’s Party continue to come back to play it, and these days out-of-town artists popular enough to headline the Empty Bottle show up on the bill too. So far the 2017 schedule features 69 acts, among them Meat Wave, rapper-poet Mykele Deville, dreamy postpunks Dehd, Boston indie-rockers Bad History Month, and lagomorphic garage-­rock goofball Nobunny.

Ian’s Party with Meat Wave, Mykele Deville, Bad History Month, Dehd, Nobunny, and dozens more

Fri 1/5 through Sun 1/7, simultaneous shows upstairs and downstairs at Subterranean, 2011 W. North (7 PM Fri-Sat, 6:15 PM Sun), and at 1st Ward, 2033 W. North (5 PM Fri-Sat, no show Sun), $12 per day for admission to all three shows on Friday or Saturday, $10 for both on Sunday, $30 three-day pass, 17+

The party’s success hasn’t happened because it’s a well-oiled machine, however. “Ian’s Party is a clusterfuck,” says Meat Wave front man Chris Sutter. His old band Strawberry Pegasus opened the first Ian’s Party, and he’s played every one since. He’s also helped with booking and with shooting promotional videos, and in 2017 he recorded bands for an Ian’s Party benefit compilation. It takes a team to pull off Ian’s Party—though it’s a different team every time—but according to Sutter (and a couple dozen other people I interviewed), the buck stops with just one person: Jim Miller.

Miller has championed local music for ages, not just by booking shows but also by running the zine Idiot Ego and the label Cassette Deck Media. The label was still a going concern when he came up with the idea for Ian’s Party in 2007—he was inspired by a visit to the Fest, an annual punk festival hosted by a wide variety of venues in Gainesville, Florida. Miller refuses to take much credit for Ian’s Party, though (he calls himself “the least important person”), and he doesn’t think there’s any single individual at its heart. Even the name “Ian’s Party” is arbitrary: Miller wanted to avoid hackneyed festival nomenclature, and Ian Floetl won the honor in a game of rock paper scissors. “I sometimes think what would’ve happened if I’d shot rock instead of paper,” Floetl says. “It may have been called ‘Miller Time’ instead.”

As the unofficial mascot of Ian’s Party, Floetl has been caricatured on many a poster over the years, but as the event has grown, other friends have played the role of “Ian” in promo videos and flyers. This has made it tricky for the general public to figure out who Ian is, or what his party is about. Miller has fielded lots of questions: “Is it a benefit? Is it his birthday? Why?”

Miller and his ever-shifting team of organizers and volunteers have managed to build a festival that reflects the diversity of Chicago’s underground rock scene. “I think they’re doing a nice job at providing a nice broad stroke of some of the interesting things going on,” says HeWhoCorrupts front man Ryan Durkin. “It’s somewhat identical to what [MP Presents booker Brian] Peterson was doing at the Fireside.” Ian’s Party has also strengthened the bonds that hold that scene together, in some cases by giving the bands that play it a leg up. “Nobody really liked us around Chicago,” says Sass Dragons drummer Jimmy Adamson. “After we played Ian’s Party and started hanging out with all those bands, it opened the doors and we started getting good shows in Chicago.”

Because what people love about Ian’s Party has so much to do with community, for this oral history I wanted to talk to as many participants as I could. (Their bands or other affiliations appear in parentheses after their names.) I also asked everyone to try to recall moments that capture the party atmosphere that gives the festival its special appeal. Lots of people described their memories of Ian’s Party as a “blur,” but what their stories lack in verifiable detail they make up for in color.

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Kris Megyery (the Brokedowns) For me, the initial feeling—and the feeling I have almost every year—Jim [Miller] will lay out a series of ideas about [Ian’s Party], and they all seem so counterintuitive and silly. Like, “Well, you’re gonna fall flat on your face on this one.” And they always work. It’s like a wacky 80s comedy, how it all pulls together at the end.

Jim Miller (Ian’s Party cofounder) It was only supposed to be a couple days [in 2008], but as we started booking it, more and more bands wanted to be involved. We’d get to this point where there were so many great bands—instead of saying “No,” we just kept overbooking it, hoping we would figure it out. It became something where we needed bands to play on the floor, and then it became something where we needed to have a preshow.

Natali Wiseman (Heart Shaped Hate, Ian’s Party volunteer) The first one, it was a mess, but it was really fun. It was in West Dundee, at the Clearwater Theater.

Jimmy Adamson (Sass Dragons) HeWhoCorrupts were playing—they were one of my favorite bands. That was kind of a big deal for me, that we were gonna get to play this festival with them. I remember Ryan Durkin’s penis came out, and that was exciting.

Sass Dragons play an Ian’s Party show at Township in 2014.
Sass Dragons play an Ian’s Party show at Township in 2014.Credit: Patrick Houdek

Ryan Durkin (HeWhoCorrupts, 97-Shiki) I was playing festivals with bands that were more like HeWhoCorrupts. To be at Ian’s Party as a grindcore band amongst many bands that weren’t, it was refreshing.

Jimmy Adamson One thing that really sticks out was my dad and my cousins all came out to see it, and we got super fucked-up and played like shit. My dad was very disappointed in me.

Chris Sutter (Meat Wave, Truman & His Trophy) It must’ve been the first one. The band Johnny Bodacious & the Bad Attitudes, they were playing upstairs at the Gasthaus; I remember the floor felt like it was going to cave in because of the people bouncing.

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Tim Murphy (Canadian Rifle) One of the first years, when it was still in Elgin, Canadian Rifle played before this band called Chronic Seizure [and] a band called Chinese Telephones. I somehow got stuck in Elgin without a car, but wound up sleeping in a hotel room with everybody from Chronic Seizure and a bunch of people I’d never seen before. I don’t remember how I got there or how I got home. I remember waking up in this hotel room and being like, “I thought that was gonna be a disaster, but everything kinda worked out,” which is kind of what I’ve thought about every Ian’s Party.

Jimmy Adamson One of the times it was out in Elgin, me and my best friend, Jonathan Pool—who plays in Brickfight and Fuck You, Idiot—we ended up getting driven out to this girl’s parents’ house in the middle of nowhere and ended up in a hot tub naked together, washing each other’s hair. That was one of our earliest real bonding moments, and he’s still one of my best friends today.

Jim Miller We had this opportunity the second year to do four more stages and blow it out—it just fell into our laps, and we went with it.

Jimmy Adamson I believe it was at Gasthaus and Mad Maggie’s, which was like a Buffalo Wild Wings-looking place.

Jessica Bacon (Ian’s Party volunteer) The second or third Ian’s Party, we had this venue where the upstairs was being rehabbed—kind of just two big empty rooms and the ceiling. When you jumped on it, [it] felt like you were gonna fall through. Jim gave me $200 and was like, “We can’t just have these big empty rooms of nothingness up here while bands are playing. Do something about it.” I went to Kmart and bought a bunch of fabrics. Everyone called it the “unicorn starship room” because it was just this pink-purple hookah-lounge-looking thing, but it ended up being the place where everyone hung out that Ian’s Party.

Ian's Party posters by Frank Okay (2016), Natali Wiseman (2009 and 2012), and Nic Campa (2018)
Ian’s Party posters by Frank Okay (2016), Natali Wiseman (2009 and 2012), and Nic Campa (2018)

Jenn Leis (Ian’s Party volunteer) We were going between the Gasthaus and Mad Maggie’s—they were a block away from each other, and bands were almost booked back-to-back at both places. It was too cold, and I remember we stayed at Mad Maggie’s. A couple of us found this back staircase, and we went upstairs and there was a loft space. It was a couple days after New Year’s, and clearly some people were partying upstairs. They left booze—all this beer and vodka—so we were having mini parties between the bands upstairs.

Jared Olson (Elephant Gun) Every year, especially in the early days, Jim Miller would just walk around outside, smoking cigs, texting, rubbing his face—visibly stressed. One time I had to approach him in that state to inform him that the one band I’d booked that year forgot and weren’t gonna make it. His response was nearly murderous. But with my life—and my ass—firmly clutched in my hands, I made it through.

Frank Okay (Strawberry Pegasus, poster artist) I got dumped on the weekend of Ian’s Party one year. It was a really hard time—it was a three-and-a-half-year relationship. I remember being really bummed out. I was getting on the Metra, going up to Elgin from Chicago, like, “I don’t know how I’m gonna get into this.” Everything just fucking turned around. I watched the Brokedowns, and they played while the New Year started—they counted down and everything. It just destroyed every bad feeling I had.

The Brokedowns at a Double Door Ian’s Party show in 2016
The Brokedowns at a Double Door Ian’s Party show in 2016Credit: Sara Snowwhite

Jessica Bacon I did meet my husband at Ian’s Party—I think it was the third Ian’s Party. He was working the door with the boyfriend of a friend of mine.

JD Bacon (Ian’s Party volunteer) I introduced myself, and didn’t do much more than that at that time. Just as soon as they walked away, I remember turning to [my friend] Jay [Brinson] and being like, “Who was that?”

Jim Miller He was trying to get her number, and it was fun watching her just shoot him down—kinda be flippant and crack jokes at him. But that was exactly what was drawing him to her.

Jessica Bacon I guess I have Ian’s Party to blame for my marriage.

Frank Okay We started saying “Happy Ian’s Party” to each other every year. It was something akin to the holidays; it’s the first thing that you do in the New Year.

Sara Snowwhite (Ian’s Party volunteer) There was that terrible year at Penny Road Pub.

Jim Miller We were going to throw Ian’s Party in the ice rink of the abandoned Santa’s Village. On Christmas Eve, the owner said, “I was just reading about your festival. It’s a festival.” He said he wanted thousands more dollars for us to rent the room, and we couldn’t. . . . [After] months of our quote-unquote promoting for this thing, we had to tell everyone, “It’s not happening at Santa’s Village anymore—it’s happening at Penny Road Pub.”

Sara Snowwhite It was just one venue, and it was kind of rednecky. I also think I had to be sober driver because it was in the middle of nowhere, so someone had to drive all the idiots. Ian’s Party sober is . . . I don’t know. It’s not as much fun.

Chris Sutter It’s an awful little bar. They were charging for water.

Natali Wiseman Bier Slut played a really good set. They were running out of beer and Zack [Hjelmstad], the singer, was being a dick to everybody in the audience—that’s how Bier Slut works. He was knocking everybody’s beers out of their hands. Shortly thereafter, they ran out of beer.

Frank Okay One year Zack borrowed some dude’s $2,000 bass and just fucking broke it onstage.

Jim Miller When we moved [Ian’s Party] to Chicago, by moving it to venues like Township, Ultra Lounge, and Quenchers—they were smaller venues than we had used before, but they were also in Chicago.

Absolutely Not play an Ian's Party show at Double Door in 2017.
Absolutely Not play an Ian’s Party show at Double Door in 2017.Credit: Aaron Ehinger

Donnie Moore (Absolutely Not) Quenchers has that separation from the main room to the bar. I ran out of the stage room, because there was almost no one in there but there were at least 80 to 100 people in the other room and the Fire Heads band was playing. I ran across the room, and I just screamed at the top of my lungs, “This is fucking Ian’s Party, you should be listening to music instead of talking about your bullshit.” And 50 to 60 people followed me back into the room—it felt like some weird Jerry Maguire shit. I was just doing it ’cause I was half-drunk and trying to be an asshole, riling people up, and it completely worked somehow.

Jen Dot (Swimsuit Addition, Beastii) I mainly remember Ian’s Party as the event where we get pizza and Jim Miller is running around like a madman, not making any sense and texting 4,000 people at a time to keep every­thing up to speed.

Jim Miller I got burned-out with it. [MP Presents booker] Vito [Nusret] picked up the lead booking for a while, and he got burned-out with it. There was a year [2015] where it just wasn’t going to happen. A girlfriend of mine, Michelle [Loven], I was sitting with her, and I was like, “I’m really bummed about Ian’s Party being over, but I just don’t think anyone wants to do it this year.” She’s like, “Well, I’ll do it.” And just sitting there at her computer, she e-mailed a shitload of bands that she was friends with and that I was friends with.

Michelle Loven (Ian’s Party organizer, former employee of Township and Double Door) My second home was Township; to lose that [in late 2014], and to be able to see everyone again and be around the music that I was so used to [at Ian’s Party in January 2015], it was really a special time for me. To help us all be together was great. When we were hopping back and forth from Quenchers to Mutiny, I remember us all running across the street—running into people constantly, hugging people, high-fiving people in the middle of the street and making it really quick.

Jim Miller There were times where there was a line down the street to get into Quenchers, which I’d never seen before. And watching Meat Wave play at Mutiny was a trip because they’d already blown up.

Canadian Rifle at Ian's Party
Canadian Rifle at Ian’s PartyCredit: Sara Snowwhite

William Covert (Space Blood) I remember Rad Payoff headlined Ian’s Party at Quenchers that night in 2015, and you could barely move—it was so packed. During Rad Payoff’s set the band was constantly pelted with beer cans, and some guy climbed up on the piano that used to be next to the stage and jumped off into the crowd. Their whole set was just absolutely bonkers!

Jim Miller We had shows at Burlington—some were successful, and others I would stop into the show and there were 15 people, and that was hard to watch. That’s not a festival. A show happening at Burlington and a show happening at Quenchers, that is not a festival—that’s two shows happening.

Michelle Loven We had a little backlash when we first moved it to Wicker Park—people have a negative connotation about Wicker Park at this point. . . . But we wanted to keep the venue proximity, because we felt like that is the best part of Ian’s Party—keeping everything so close, because it’s still winter.

Jeff Wojtysiak (Cokegoat) I had to ask the rest of the band what they remembered—they also had minimal memory. We drank—too much, for those of us who are on the wrong side of 40. [Drummer] Jordan [Schultz] used pink tape to wrap his hands from a shoveling injury earlier that snowy day. Since he plays shirtless, Cokegoat did shots and made him a hot-pink tape shirt on his hairy torso. We played fast as fuck, loud as hell, and made it through the set. Afterwards I looked over and [keyboardist and vocalist] Rebekah [Brown] had torn off her shirt in a drunken rage.

Meg MacDuff (Montrose Man, Bleach Party) Two years ago, when it was in Wicker Park . . . it was such a rager, and I was bopping from venue to venue. I ran into my old bass player Lucy [Dekay], from Mystery Actions—I was like, “Hey, what’s up?” And she goes, “Oh my God, what happened to your face?” I go, “What?” She goes, “There’s blood all over your face.” I was like, “Holy shit.” She’s like, “Yeah, we’re gonna take you home.” So she and her drummer from Mystery Actions drove me home and tucked me into bed. I woke up with a huge fat lip—I had to play at Chop Shop with Bleach Party. I was like, “All right, I’m gonna take it easy tonight. Ian’s Party just completely put me through the wringer.”

Beat Drun Juel play downstairs at Subterranean at the 2017 Ian's Party.
Beat Drun Juel play downstairs at Subterranean at the 2017 Ian’s Party.Credit: Aaron Ehinger

Shannon Candy (Strawberry Jacuzzi) My favorite Ian’s Party moment happened two years ago during Beat Drun Juel‘s set downstairs at Double Door. Their shows always had so much intense energy to begin with, so naturally they were killing it on this particular night. But then [front woman] Donna [Polydoros] put down her guitar and grabbed a pair of hedge clippers. That poor guitar didn’t stand a chance. It was one of the coolest things I have ever seen, and I still have a picture of it on my phone two years later.

Chris Sutter Last year we did this three-day session—we were doing video and audio recordings of the bands, and we put them all up on Facebook. We did, like, 40 or 50 bands, and put them on a compilation.

P. Michael (Ono) Each band did a track for a cassette to be sold at the party, with proceeds going to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. It was great to record with [engineer] Chris [Lee], and it was a very friendly and organized crew that filmed each band session.

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Mykele Deville [Jim Miller] spoke with me about wanting the festival to be more inclusive to other genres and asked my advice on which local hip-hop acts I thought could use the platform. Right then I knew that the festival had an interest in the curation of the attitude, aesthetic, and persona of its artists, which made me feel at home and even comfortable enough to recommend others who were developing an alternative sound to hip-hop. At the festival, much to my relief, everyone was supportive of my style. I felt validated by a crowd that may have not been expecting what I was about to bring.

Lindsey Charles (Cell Phones) I remember I shot a video on Instagram of Swimsuit Addition—of Jen [Dot] bouncing around onstage. I could see people in the crowd that were my friends. Ashley Holman from So Pretty was in the audience. She immediately saw herself and was like, “Oh, that’s the exact moment that my wristband flew from my hand.”

So Pretty play Subterranean during last year's Ian's Party.
So Pretty play Subterranean during last year’s Ian’s Party.Credit: Aaron Ehinger

Jen Dot (Swimsuit Addition, Beastii) We [Swimsuit Addition] played our last show ever last year at SubT for Ian’s Party. It was the saddest thing on earth for me, but why I remember it and what I loved about it was our drummer, Mike [Martello], pulling Sarah [Chmielewski], who used to play drums for us, up onstage for the last song. It was super sloppy and crazy, and reminded me of why music is such a family affair.

Lindsey Charles SheWhoCorrupts was pretty crazy. It was HeWhoCorrupts dressed as women. They went all-out with the outfits—looked very good. The first song played, and all of the wigs flew off and all of the clothing started ripping. I pretty much only saw the lead singer’s penis the whole time.

Miranda Winters (Melkbelly, Swampers) One of my fondest memories is covering “Since U Been Gone” by Kelly Clarkson during the Swampers set. We played a single chord through the whole thing, which maybe would have irked an average crowd. But the Ian’s Party crowd jumped up and down and screamed along with the lyrics.

Donnie Moore When we were playing last year, after the first two songs, the audience started to get more comfortable being into it—dancing around a little more and being a little more energetic with us. I watched, over the first four songs, this pile of coats slowly forming on the edge of the stage, right in the middle where we were playing. It was this really awesome feeling of knowing with each song we were getting four or five more kids tearing off their coats, being like, “OK, fuck this, I’m gonna rage!”

JD Bacon Donald Trump had just gotten elected, and there’s all this uncertainty in the world—everyone’s up in arms and everyone is so divided. I just remember sitting back in the crowd at Double Door . . . and Ono’s coming on. There’s just all of these different people, across every background, ethnicity, and who knows what religion. I remember thinking to myself, “There’s still hope.”

Travis (Ono) They were stunned that a 70-year-old black man—wearing, during the course of the performance, headdresses, a formal gown, and two changes of full-length lingerie—dared to inject U.S. military sodomy accusations, national security frivolity, and well-documented but little-taught American history of struggles of people of color into a single “rock” performance!

Chris Sutter I saw Ono last year and it blew my mind—that was the first time I ever saw them. It almost brought a tear to my eye to see how much Ian’s Party has changed and grown and evolved.  v