Chicago music scene is rocking again, and it’s getting national attention

In August 1993, Billboard published a cover story declaring Chicago the “Cutting Edge’s New Capital.” At the time, all eyes were on the city’s growing rock scene, positioning it to be the next to break out after Seattle’s grunge revolution.

Artists like the Smashing Pumpkins, Veruca Salt, Urge Overkill, Liz Phair, Material Issue, Fig Dish, Triple Fast Action and Local H led A&R label reps to basically set up a basecamp in Wicker Park. The bands were booking major tours, becoming the darlings of rock radio and the faces of MTV.

Now, 30 years later, could it be happening all over again?

While rock may sound different in 2024, the feeling is back. If you tune into WKQX (101.1 FM) or WXRT (93.1 FM) today, you’re likely to hear new Chicago acts like Brigitte Calls Me Baby, Friko, Sincere Engineer and Dehd taking the airwaves in regular rotations alongside national movers and shakers. Respected tastemaker labels have also been signing them in a feeding frenzy. Friko and Brigitte Calls Me Baby are the latest to join ATO Records (just behind another local talent, Neal Francis) and Lifeguard and Horsegirl are now part of the roster at Matador Records. Not to mention Dehd on Fat Possum and Beach Bunny on Mom + Pop (and countless others climbing the ranks).

Emily Kempf with Dehd performs at the T-Mobile stage, during Lollapalooza at Grant Park in 2023. The band is among the latest wave of local artists putting a new spotlight on Chicago’s music scene.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The uprising is also evident in this summer’s festival lineups. Friko and Brigitte are both playing Lollapalooza, Lifeguard has a spot at Pitchfork and Sincere Engineer is playing Riot Fest. Some acts will also grace stages at Newport Folk Festival, Summerfest and even as far as Japan’s Fuji Rock this year. And all of it has Chicago industry insiders — and beyond — excited.

“That’s what it was like back in the day with the Pumpkins, Liz Phair, Material Issue — when Chicago exploded onto the national scene,” says Metro founder and owner Joe Shanahan, a key player in the ‘90s rock movement here. He not only sees the similarities — young, artsy twentysomethings working in tandem to build a scene — but also the potential. As Shanahan adds, “I hope this [becomes] the same.”

“[The scene] is absolutely having a boom,” confirms Molly Mobley, lead talent buyer at Empty Bottle since 2019. The club has long been ground zero for many emerging Chicago artists to cut their teeth, and Mobley has had a front row seat to see it all unfold. She theorizes that the growing national pull of Chicago’s scene is coming from “labels hungry to find new bands and help foster this new generation of music. … And, if we have the eye on us, it’s not hard to find a lot of bands here who are really talented.”

Joe Shanahan, owner of Metro, stands near the Metro Store in this 2022 file photo.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

One person who has had that tunnel vision is Matador president Patrick Amory.

“The particular Chicago youth scene … is definitely having a moment,” he says. Though he and the New York-based label’s other executives live on the East Coast, Amory says they all “have a deep affection for [Chicago] and its music going back decades” (the label is also home to Liz Phair).

Through their scouting, Matador quickly signed the young fuzz post-punk act Lifeguard (“they’re one of the greatest live bands on the planet” right now, Amory staunchly declares) and also vied for indie rocker Horsegirl after being impressed by its “complex song structures, mysterious lyrics and vocal harmonies.” To his point, Lifeguard will soon embark on their first-ever European tour, while Horsegirl is still riding high off the acclaim of its 2022 debut, “Versions of Modern Performance” that features members of Sonic Youth and has been gushed over by the likes of The New York Times.

The same ascent has been seen with Brigitte Calls Me Baby, one of the biggest standouts in the new rock league whose retro-meets-modern swagger sounds like The Smiths, Roy Orbison, Elvis and Interpol mingling together. Before forming the band, frontman Wes Leavins (a Texas native) was cast in a “Million Dollar Quartet” run and worked with Baz Luhrmann on the “Elvis” biopic thanks to his dead-ringer vocal style. The quintet made their national TV debut on “CBS Saturday Morning” in February, have enjoyed international press in rock bibles like NME, and logged tour dates with the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

But back in 2023, Brigitte Calls Me Baby (named for Leavins’ teenage pen pal connection with actress Brigitte Bardot) was booked for one of Empty Bottle’s long-standing Free Mondays, the series that features free shows by Chicago bands every week. One of the people at that showcase was Chicago native Tom Schmall, director of marketing and promotion at ATO Records and Red Light Management. A SXSW showcase that month inked the deal and ATO soon signed the band.

Tom Schmall, Red Light Management/ATO Records.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Schmall says the New York-based label, started in 2000 by Dave Matthews and his manager Coran Capshaw, has widened its mindset in recent years, after seeing signees Alabama Shakes take off, believing that there was merit in “looking at [artists] that aren’t the most commercial but have potential to be” and setting their eyes on the Chicago buzz acts. While Friko released its ATO debut, “Where we go from here” to a maelstrom of press in February (see our previous conversation with them here), Brigitte will release its own album, “The Future Is Our Way Out,” on Aug. 2, during Lollapalooza weekend. Ahead of that, it has two sold-out shows at Lincoln Hall June 21 and 22.

There’s no denying radio has been a huge part of their rise. In November 2023, Brigitte’s lauded EP, “This House Is Made of Corners” garnered them a Top 10 radio hit with the crooner track, “Impressively Average.”

Two of the local stations that have been playing that song regularly have been XRT and Q101. In March, the latter was at Brigitte Calls Me Baby’s first sell-out show at Schubas, posting on social media, “The Chicago music scene is alive and well.” The band was added to the station’s regular daily rotation, which was a bit of a change of the guard. But, says Program Director James Kurdziel, a Minnesota transplant who credits longtime DJs like Lauren O’Neil and Brian Phillips for bringing the band to his attention, “They’re objectively good. … Chicago right now has so many bands that fit Q101, and we thought, rather than just play them on Sunday night when we support as much local music as we can, let’s play them for real.” He’s also booked several bands to play Q101’s annual Piqniq summer fest (this year at Taste of Randolph June 14-16).

Friko features Drummer Bailey Minzenberger (left) and singer-guitarist Niko Kapetan.

Pooneh Ghana

Long-time XRT evening DJ Ryan Arnold, who has hosted and produced new music and local music programs for the station over the last 11 years, says it’s long been “in the DNA, the fabric of [XRT] … to embrace local music,” though he believes the reason many of the bands are now elevating beyond the city is not just because the music is good, but you can chalk of it up to Chicago’s innate work ethic.

“There’s something to be said about people from Chicago. We work. … And for these bands, these aren’t hobbies. You’re never going to outwork someone from Chicago with the determination like some of these young bands have.”

Amory sees it, too: “They’re playing locally every week, promoting all-ages shows in unusual venues or private parties in people’s living rooms and attics; they’re publishing print fanzines; they’re releasing cassettes; and designing artwork.”

“[The Chicago scene] is absolutely having a boom. … And, if we have the eye on us, it’s not hard to find a lot of bands here who are really talented.”

— Molly Mobley, lead talent buyer at Empty Bottle

Lifeguard, who formed in 2019, says the pandemic pause was paramount in bringing back that DIY aesthetic, long rooted in the Chicago arts.

“It felt like there was a need for young people to start pushing their art and Chicago succeeded in a lot of ways because of the culture … and supportive environment. It allowed us to push ourselves more,” says guitarist/vocalist Kai Slater.

The lockdown also made Chicago artists settle in, rather than leave for the coasts, says Lifeguard’s bassist/vocalist Asher Case, whose father is Chicago musician Brian Case (The Ponys, 90 Day Men, Facs). “That’s the nice thing, it’s not like people are trying to leave once they’ve found their thing,” says Asher. “I think more people are moving here actually.”

And some of those people who are staying in the city are a highly influential pack who are spreading the gospel of these new acts far and wide. Shanahan first heard about Friko from local musician Matt Walker, the venerable drummer who’s been a part of the Smashing Pumpkins, Morrissey and Garbage. Shanahan then booked the band for Gman Tavern, and a sold-out record release show in February followed. Kurdziel also notes seeing Rise Against come out to support fellow local punk rockers Sincere Engineer at a recent show.

“That’s the scene again,” Kurdziel says. “With the digital world, the first thing that died w

ere scenes. And it seems like now it’s coming back.”

Molly Mobley is lead talent buyer of the Empty Bottle at 1035 N. Western Ave. in Ukrainian Village. Peg is the bar cat.

Peyton Reich/Sun-Times

Of course, another huge contributor to the scene’s strength is the investment of the “deeply independent venue-owned” spirit of the city, says Mobley.

“There’s so many spaces for people to really grow as musicians and have the space to spread their wings without feeling like they’re being clipped by competition,” she says. Plus, the difference of having in-house buyers and promoters, prominent in Chicago, is that “we are real people, we see our friends doing real things and we couldn’t be prouder and want to put a spotlight on them more.”

It’s this kind of infrastructure and support that has been key to the rise of Chicago’s rock scene we’re seeing now, says Schmall.

“There seems to be an ecosystem once again. You have the clubs that are extremely active … Agencies have offices here now like Wasserman and Rival Artists (which used to be part of Paradigm), even Ten Atoms Management,” he shares, also a prime example as a local rep for ATO.

“This wasn’t the case before. A lot of times these bands had to go outside to find it or do it on their own. It just feels like all the gaps are starting to fill in.”

For many of these reasons, says Leavins, “Chicago has been the most important place in my life and I don’t know that I could’ve made [Brigitte Calls Me Baby] happen anywhere else.” Hailing from a smaller town in Texas, he didn’t know too many musicians. But he did connect with several in Chicago over social media and soon realized, “There’s something happening and I want to be a part of it.” He adds, “As much as I love L.A. and New York, there’s a lot of boxing in there. Like, okay here’s this trend, and now that we’ve signed you, try following it. But, I think in Chicago, we’re the ones starting trends now.”

SUMMER CALENDAR

Lifeguard:
July 20 – Pitchfork Music FestivalJuly 21 – Empty BottleBrigitte Calls Me Baby:
June 21-22 – Lincoln HallAugust 3 – LollapaloozaFriko:
June 14 – Q101 Piqniq @ Taste of RandolphJuly 9 – SPACEAugust 3 – LollapaloozaAugust 4 – Lincoln HallSincere Engineer:
June 15 – Q101 Piqniq @ Taste of RandolphSeptember 20 – Riot Fest

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