A Long-winded Retelling of the Story of Union Rock Yards

To paraphrase the patron saint of the PRF, Mr. Albini: “Basements are what drive the music scene in Chicago.” This sprawling city has music happening in subterranean nooks and crannies on every block: Practice spaces, home recording studios, DIY performance spaces, and sometimes, as was the case of Union Rock Yards, all three.

The history of the space at North and Fairfield is spotty and sometimes sordid. From what we were able to ascertain, it had originally been built as a well-sized banquet hall at the turn of the 20th century. At some point in the subsequent decades the hall was split up, with the main floor becoming commercial spaces, the top floor becoming a loft apartment, and the basement…well, the basement knew many purposes.

Come on in

*Front* Door Photo by Thomas Banks

I truly wish I had a deeper knowledge of the history of what transpired down there. There were names etched in the mortar in the “dungeon” rooms dated in the mid ’70’s. The conduit on the ceiling told of a dozen or more rewiring projects over the years. There was a giant sealed steel door in our practice space that faced underneath the street. Art work and artifacts we discovered in the dank corners left us confused and delighted to the possibilities of their origins.

We do know that in the late 90’s, the spot became a collective known as the Hotel Kafka. The Kafka played host to a bevy of shows and parties at a time when Humboldt Park was truly something of the wild west(side). After the crew with Hotel Kafka moved out, the next tenant brought in a pile of dry wall and subdivided the basement into a dozen or so rooms, creating a serviceable squatter’s motel. By this time a Payless Shoe Store and seasonal tax preparer Jackson Hewitt moved in on the main floor.

The building maintained that position until early 2006 when a musician and carpenter named Lane moved in. He kicked all the squatters out and cleared out most of the miniature rooms, leaving a couple of closets and two large practice spaces. His band Minority One took over one of the rooms, and he put out an advertisement seeking a tenant for the other. That ad was answered by one of the city’s best bands, the thunderous trio (two bass, drums and two vocals) known as Bear Claw.

Bear Claw was right at home in the basement at North and Fairfield. Their mathy, noisy, low-end heavy sound reverberated wonderfully through the basement during hours when the shoe store above was closed (and sometimes, much to the chagrin of the Payless owners, even when they weren’t.) The drummer Scott set up the analog recording equipment he had been acquiring over the previous few years in a small adjacent room, and the Bear Claw practice space began to double as the studios for Continuous Signal Recording.

In the fall of that year, things truly began to take shape in the space, at least as far as this website is concerned. The city’s beloved indie label Touch & Go was celebrating their 25th anniversary as part of the Hideout‘s 10th annual block party. The wet dream of a lineup spanned across all generations of Touch & Go/Quaterstick’s impressive catalogue: Big Black, Shellac, Scratch Acid, Pinback, Shipping News, Killdozer, Calexico, Uzeda, Seam, the list went on and on.


LKN - 9/8/06 : Photo by Graham Hick

Bear Claw, recognizing the massive overlap between their fan-base and aficionados of Touch & Go recordings, cleared things with Lane to host a late-night after-party show the first night of the festival. The line-up would stretch across the country: The midwest would be represented by Bear Claw, Indiana’s Push-Pull, and Milwaukee’s IfIHadAHiFi, all three of whom would perform sets at PRF BBQ 2009. Florida’s LKN performed, featuring Kevin Burkett on bass, best known as the genius behind the Electrical Guitar Company instruments played by so many PRF bands. Triclops came in from California to round out the bill and prove the West Coast knew something about rumbling noise as well.

The party a smash success, with over a hundred festival-goers finding their way to cram the West side space on the Indian summer night. By the time Bear Claw finished a lengthy set at 3:30 in the morning, us few remaining hearty souls basked in the DIY perfection of the beer-soaked basement. Everybody agreed that the show couldn’t be the last down there. It certainly wouldn’t be, but it would be a couple years before that energy was realized once again.

In the spring of 2008 Todd, Rich from Bear Claw’s roommate, landlord, and bandmate (in the nascent Mayor For Life), was preparing to get married. It was time for Rich to move out. Fate had chosen to cooperate, as Lane was preparing to move to California, and a new tenant was needed to preside over the top floor and basement at the building at North and Fairfield. The arrangement was a no-brainer, Rich moved into the loft apartment above his practice space. He offered to kick out the hippie band now occupying the other space, so my bands Wind or Ghost and Cmn ineed yr hlp could move from our Wright on Carrol spot to share the basement with Bear Claw and Mayor for Life.

As excited as we were to have the entire building to ourselves, the real chatter immediately focused on when we would see shows like the now-legendary Touch & Go after-party once again take place in the basement. Over the summer, Rich approached me about working with him to make that dream a reality. Flattered and giddy with excitement, I enthusiastically accepted the invitation. We targeted the middle of the fall, after Todd’s wedding and two years after that first show. Payless helped the cause, apparently deciding 1284 Chicago locations was enough and shuttering their shop on the main floor.

Union Rock Yards

Stage Photo by Scott Picco

Preparing the basement for regular performances was a monumental task and took most of that summer to get into order. We bought a truckload of wood, which we used to build a larger stage than the portable drum riser used during the after-party. We drove outside of city limits to acquire cheap black spray paint and spent several light-headed late night hours covering the 11 x 17′ stage. Under a similar cover of darkness, we hauled loads of discarded drywall and other random rubbish up the street to an unsupervised construction dumpster. Rich made some adjustments to the conduit, and we conjured together track lighting for the stage. I sprayed bleach on the walls, and we scraped mounds of mold off that had accumulated from years of water seepage. We painted, vacuumed, swept and mopped. While the end result wasn’t pretty, by autumn we were finally confident that we could feel comfortable hosting a crowd of music fans. As we were both bass players, we *cleverly* dubbed the space “The Bassment”, blissfully unaware of a hip-hop club operating under that exact pun just a mile and a half east of us.

On Saturday, October 11th, 2008, we pulled back the curtains on the first Bassment show, kicking things off with the world debut of the still-instrumental Mayor For Life. Kentucky’s wonderful Knife the Symphony filled the middle slot, as would become the tradition for out-of-towners, and the instrumental chaos of White Devil closed the show. Slightly more than 30 people were in attendance, which held as our median crowd in the 50 or so shows that followed. Moving the performance area to the east side of the room wound up being a stroke of genius, the channels created by the rafters parallel to the stage wound up killing the mud while the natural boominess of the basement still allowed the sound to fill the room. Yet outside, barely a whisper of sound could be heard of the three very loud bands, thanks to the tomb-like nature of the building’s underground.

Our PA equipment was borrowed that night from Scott and Lane, we had a considerable amount of help in operations, we tried to sell pop (we were always so hyper cautious) in futility as our BYOB policy more than satisfied our patrons, and our stage backdrop was noticeably devoid of our signature 4-star Chicago flags. All of that would change quickly in the months that followed. By the second show, we had been made aware of the other “Bassment”, in my obsession with Chicago history at the time “Union Rock Yards” sprung quickly to mind. We agreed it suited us much better.


Phero - 11/22/08 : Photo by Chantal Kommanivanh

We loved our creepy little DIY and it’s a good thing, because if we didn’t shows wouldn’t have lasted much longer than a month. The work was endless. With two bands each, jobs, school and girlfriends, what free time we had left over (and some we didn’t) went into work for URY. During the week, Rich would research the perfect PA equipment for our needs, and try to hunt down deals on various pieces on Craigslist. Meanwhile, I utilized a digital camcorder I had purchased the week of our first show to maintain a video-blog with previews and recaps of each week’s show. The basement was constantly flooding, and the quirks of an ancient, oft-abused building always had us on our toes (reference the “brick incident” in my BBQ 2009 post). All the while, we both were in constant communication with bands trying to line up high quality shows with stylistic consistency across the bill. Sometimes we fell short, but usually we were pretty successful in that task.

We would eventually take on Fridays and even the occasional Sunday, but as a rule Saturday was show day. I would wrap practice with Cmn ineed yr hlp at about 5pm, then turn on the PA and run my iPod, a URY playlist I had made in the early goings (Rich would play this throughout the shows as well, unless it accidentally got turned off, in which case Swervedriver would almost certainly be playing by the end of the night.) I would hang out, waiting for early arriving bands, until Rich came downstairs and I went off to pick up Little Caesars for the performers, and eventually propane for our space heater. While I was gone, Rich would prepare the stage for the night, running cables and cords, wrestling with our often finicky soundboard, and making sure the PA was cranking at his very precise specifications.


CZAR - 3/21/09 : Photo by Cary Elza

At 9pm, a little later on Fridays, 8pm on Sundays, the show would start. Each band was allotted a pretty standard 45 minutes, with 15 minute changeovers. Rich would run sound and help bands load on and off the stage. I stood upstairs at the door, collecting donations and making sure back alley hob-nobbing was kept to a minimum. At the end of the night, we would count the money, giving a dollar to every band from every five donated, with a minimum of $50 going to out-of-towners. What was left for us went towards purchasing our dream PA, the majority of which Rich eventually hunted down in Madison, which we rented a car to pick up one winter Saturday morning.

With Rich and Bear Claw involved in URY, we had a good relationship with the PRF from “go”, and representative bands were commonly parts of shows in the early-goings. But as we got to the depths of winter, the collection of minds at both the PRF and URY began to recognize a strong symbiotic relationship forming between the two groups. This alliance truly discovered fruition as the calendar turned over to 2009. The first show that year was PRF bands Builder/Destroyer and The Chrome Robes, along with Minneapolis’s excellent All The Way Rider on January 3rd. Scott from The Chrome Robes enjoyed the space so much he approached us about setting another bill with some other PRF bands a couple weeks later. So it was set that our first fully PRF bill would be January 16th, with .22, The Columbines, and My Canadian Girlfriend.

For the unfamiliar, it’s important to note here that the URY basement was not heated. Rich’s apartment and the practice spaces were made vaguely tolerable with electric space heaters. Which frequently blew fuses. So using them during shows for the 2000+ square foot basement, with the strained circuitry already powering the stage, was completely out of the question. We had purchased an indoor propane space heater, a quality piece of hardware, but one grossly overmatched by the volume of the basement.

So when I woke up that Friday morning to the radio reporting closings of schools and businesses on account of the record -40 degree windchill, I assumed we would be hearing from the bands inquiring about postponement of the show. As the afternoon came around and no emails had come in, I gave Rich a call:

“So who’s cancelled?”

“No one.”

“Seriously? Well, just us and the bands then tonight?”

“I guess so.”

“That’s cool.”

The Columbines

The Columbines - 1/16/09 : Photo by Stephanie Sliwa

Still a little skeptical that we would even have a performance that night, I rolled over to URY after work to get the space heater firing as early as possible. It didn’t do much. As darkness set on, one by one, the bands began to show up. Then to my complete shock, soon after doors opened, people began to show up as well. By the time My Canadian Girlfriend had gotten to the middle of an excellent set, we were at our median count in the 30’s. There weren’t many stragglers, but those hearty bundled souls were there for the entirety, and for a bit afterwards.

At that point I realized as much as anybody, the PRF folks clearly were kindred spirits. From that point forward, PRF lineups seemed more the rule than the exception, and that was fine by us. Of course, this culminated in us hosting the first PRF BBQ, but that’s another story for another blog.

After the BBQ, it was time for us to shut down operations for a bit. Even as the quality of our bookings improved steadily, we were discovering that few people wanted to spend the beautiful evenings of the Chicago summer in our dank basement. Further, we had taken turns fighting burnout for months. It had worked out for awhile, as one of us was usually ready to pick up the slack when the other one wasn’t enjoying the labor involved. But by the time the BBQ had ended, as much as we loved it, we needed rest.

The PRF stepped up to help us improve accommodations. It was suggested that Michael Dahlquist‘s pool table be moved into our spot, and the PRF raised 500 dollars in no time flat to make it happen. Ryan of Sick Room Records and Transmontane kicked in a pinball machine. Scott from The Chrome Robes, an amazing chair. As fall approached, the new year of shows promised to take things to another level.


*Lounge* Photo by Thomas Banks

Unfortunately, it was not to be. We caught wind that the old Payless storefront was going to play host to a new liquor store. We knew the type of characters that hung around the liquor store down the street, and it was going to make security on the alley far more difficult for shows moving forward. Making matters worse, some large chunks of plaster had collapsed from the ceiling in Rich’s loft. No one was hurt, but the writing was on the wall: it was time for us to leave.

We tried in vein to find another spot to set up our operation. Rich and I scoured Craigslist for weeks to find a place that we could pay for by making our practice space, while having the accommodations to continue to host shows. But it just wasn’t in the cards. After getting myself a $100 ticket taking pictures of a spot under the Red Line in Lakeview, it became apparent to me that we were done.

On October 18th, we hosted what would be our final show. It was a beauty, with two of the finest bands this city has to offer, Bottomless Pit and Bear Claw, and a furious, hilarious representative from Seattle, The Bismarck.  Almost all the familiar faces were out, and I can’t think of a better way to wash down the bitter pill of leaving URY behind.

Two weeks later, we undertook the massive task of hauling our gear out of URY to our new practice spot in Jefferson Park. And that was that. Rich still pulls out the old PA for a lot of the PRF BBQ events, and Faiz flattered us by featuring us as part of his Nomadic Studio installment at DePaul. A couple times I’ve gone on alert to possible new places to set up shop, but to this point all have been false alarms.

Mayor For Life

Mayor For Life - 4/25/09 : Photo by Vicky

Maybe someday we’ll get the cards to line-up right for us to get rollin’ again, I certainly haven’t given up that hope. But even if it doesn’t, I wouldn’t trade that crazy as hell year for anything. I can never give enough thanks to my friend and partner Rich Fessler for allowing me to help him make URY the reality it was, and of course all the wonderful people that emerged to help us along the way.

That stupid liquor store never did open and the building at North and Fairfield hasn’t stopped putting on shows since we pulled up anchor. And that warms my heart, that space wouldn’t feel right any other way. Something of a vegan hippie commune moved in the day we moved out. Nice kids, but clearly a different world from us. I recently heard that some punk rock folks have since moved in. I hope so. Things should be loud down there. The basement craves it.

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