The Punk Scene in Springfield Takes Its DIY Culture Seriously (with Some Goofiness)
In rural Illinois lies a vibrant scene that is constantly finding new ways to stay fun.
Dumb Fest, photo by Veronica Mullen
Hidden within miles of corn and dirt, Springfield's vibrant punk scene resides in the heart of central Illinois and is anything but peace and quiet. The maize horizon grows into city streets and the culture grows louder the more you drive into the state's capital, but the hardcore punk kids still live by the same rural message: If you build it, they will come.
That celebrated do-it-yourself climate is never more on display than at Dumb Fest each year, an annual punk gathering that draws hundreds from around the country to the scene's primary neighborhood, Southtown. In that neighborhood, you can find The Black Sheep Café, which has been the rock at the base of Springfield's scene since it first started hosting shows in 2005, next door to legendary Skank Skates, which was previously the main spot for punk shows since the late 80s. It's also a legendary skating location that still sees skaters drop in while bands play on one of the ramps.
"I've been able to see many phases come and go," says Clare Frachey, one of Black Sheep's owners, who has gone to shows there since she was 14 years old. "[It's] special because we are sustaining something most towns, both big and small, don't get to see."
Now though, a generation of musicians born and bred at Black Sheep have started transforming their corner of Southtown with a budding block of new music-based businesses. The recently constructed Dumb Records and Southtown Sound recording studio now both circumvent the same small, gravel lot behind Black Sheep and Skank Skates, forming a DIY theme park of sorts that attracts bands touring through the scene each week—the alley entrance is now even marked with a gigantic green, carnival-like elephant statue. The recently launched businesses are the next breath of fresh air in the ongoing process of keeping the local community involved in the scene, with separate spaces dedicated to recording local music, distributing it, and putting it on display.
The musicians and show promoters in the area have often used creative means to keep their all-ages shows as fun and fresh as possible, marking one of the scene's most unique traits. Last month, the owners of Black Sheep rented a 16-foot by 16-foot bouncy house to blow up inside the venue during a show. "It's important to create those shows that we will never forget," says Brian Galecki, one of Black Sheep's current owners. "If we stuck to the same old show format for every single one of the thousand shows inside Black Sheep we have done, a lot of us involved would get burnt out pretty quick." In June, this year's Dumb Fest hosted shows in their record store, the studio, the skatepark, and even tunnels underneath streets throughout the city—the most memorable was a late-night set at a barn out in the farms surrounding Springfield. Kids flooded the inside of the barn, climbed the walls, and hung from its rafters as others clamored over each other below.
But the beauty of Springfield's scene, its community members point out, is its support system and its ability to remain an all-ages space for high schoolers to get involved with music.
"I never thought this kind of thing was so close to me," says BJ Pearce, co-owner of Southtown Sound and The Black Sheep Café, who went to his first Black Sheep show when he was 15. "I always thought shows like these only happened in the big cities, far away."
Black Sheep shows have become synonymous with herds of high schoolers, running around in a circle pit or back and forth against each other and the venue's walls. Despite the scene's noticeable success in getting local kids hooked on live punk music, the venue's owners say getting them to the venue is the hard part.
"Getting that new generation to come out is always a challenge," says Brian Galecki, another co-owner of The Black Sheep Café. "For us, to work towards hitting that next wave of young kids, we always have to be evolving and we have to constantly be mixing things up and trying new things."
Despite the financial challenges and the practical roadblocks of spreading the word, the Springfield scene still experiments with different ways to get more people involved. Late every summer, the all-ages show space hosts Black Sheep Fest, which highlights the most active and best local bands in the area, and they also throw annual band lotto shows, where people put their names in a hat and randomly get drafted to new bands. "Even with all of the challenges we face and the tremendous amount of our own time and money we have to put into this thing," Galecki says. "All of us realize that what we have going is extremely important to giving others a voice and outlet to create music and art and keeping a community alive in Springfield."
Easily one of the most successful bands to come out of Springfield over the past decade, each founding member of Looming grew up in the scene, playing in different bands before striking gold with their alternative power pop five-piece. As they began touring and gearing up for their first full-length album, Nailbiter, on No Sleep Records, drummer Brandon Carnes says, "It felt like the whole scene kind of surged and grew with us."
In recent years, the band has resided partly in Pittsburgh and Austin, but Carnes says the band still calls Springfield home. "It's definitely strange growing into the elder statespeople of the music scene," the drummer says. "I see a lot of parallels between the way I identified with PARK as the kind of flagship local band in the early 2000s and the way kids seem to latch onto us."
While Looming may be the scene's most celebrated homegrown band in recent memory, NIL8 is easily the longest active local band. Going at it since the late 80s, the four-piece band still makes live appearances in the Southtown area, having regularly played next door at Skank Skates throughout the 90s and early 2000s.
The fast-paced rock band has seen Springfield adapt through the years to keep its scene alive, while remaining a space to experiment with different sounds, like NIL8 did themselves. "We wrote our own music out of necessity," says frontman Jeff Williams. "We just wanted to skateboard and play raw songs."
Livin' Thing's goofy, over-the-top performance is a perfect attitudinal representation of the Springfield punk and hardcore scenes. Whether it's performing with an animatronic, keyboard-playing robot or the fact they're always donning matching cheerleader warmup jumpsuits, there's always a sense of humor sprinkled across the group's riff-ripping rock 'n' roll songs.
While skating-to-live punk rock sounds "all fun and games," Springfield has also been home to many socially and politically motivated groups. Bands like queercore four-piece Pryss bring an emotional side to the live hardcore release often shed from crowds at The Black Sheep.
"All bands involved in any kind of scene should be speaking out when they have the chance," says bassist Blue Parks. "Having a microphone in your hand brings a lot of power and could lead to a discussion being had by a room full of people." Pryss models what punk music is about, which is perfectly on display on their early 2016 release, I Fear No Man.
Springfield is known for its hardcore punk scene, which makes it really stand out when an indie rock-sounding band sprouts up and puts on as lively a performance as its mosh-pitting counterparts. Bottom Bracket's smooth, emo-driven songs focus more on the songwriting than the moshing and often garner perked attention, given the scene's abundance of hardcore punk shows.
"It definitely fills a void in the sense that we're one of the new house non-punk bands at Black Sheep specifically," frontman Mario Cannamela says, pointing out that all three members of Bottom Bracket—himself, BJ Pearce and Carter Bibb—all play in other punk bands within the scene.
An offshoot of southern Illinois pop punk band The Copyrights, Luke McNeill steps out from behind the kit in his Springfield group of the same genre, Hospital Job. McNeill's songwriting echoes back to the steady, octave-climbing early blink-182 influences while all the pop punk tropes remain: "Hey, hey, fuck high school / Drop out as soon as you want to / Leave town right after that / Don't come back until you're broke and bloody and tired," McNeill proclaims in an angsty protest in "Hey, Hey" off their 2016 record Never Get Cold. With an all-ages venue that typically caters to high school crowds, it's no wonder McNeill's brand of pop punk plays well in Springfield.
Originally sharing a founding member with Hospital Job, Attic Salt started the way many bands in the scene do: at a show. When frontwoman Alyssa Currie and drummer Fred Malcom met at an open mic and continued talking about starting a band until they did. Also, like many bands that have started in the past two years, the speedy indie band started by recording and playing shows at Southtown Sound studio.
Another act filled with veterans who grew up playing in the scene throughout the 90s and early 2000s, Attic Salt guitarist Andrew Harmon says that perspective gives him appreciation for what the scene has grown into today. "One thing that has been pretty consistent is that, for a town this size, there are a lot of musicians and bands who are, at least for periods of time, very active and supportive of the general scene," Harmon says. "That element has always been here in one way or another, different generations of kids picking up and then passing the torch."
Sean Neumann is on Twitter.