As you hopefully already know, Chicago has been blessed with one the most active and exciting independent music scenes in the world. John Yingling, the man behind Gonzo Chicago, has taken it upon himself to document our vibrant scene, filming nearly 500 performances over the last four years. Recently, John decided to kick it up a notch, taking to indie fund raising site IndieGoGo, in an effort to raise to funds to replace and upgrade broken and outdated equipment, which will help him better capture the scene he (and we) love so much. We recently got to ask John a few questions, to find out a bit more about who he is, and what he does.
TVD: So, what made you pick up the camera and start filming bands?
JY: I grew up in Appleton, Wisconsin, and started going to punk-rock shows 30 minutes away in Green Bay at a venue called Concert Cafe. When I was 16, my brother took me to see my first show (the Blue Meanies) and I’ve been in love with shows and live music ever since. Green Bay had a huge DIY scene back then. It was there I met Andy Junk, who’s been a good friend for over 10 years. He was in a band called The Fragments at the time. Andy invited me over for a show. I think it was The Fragments and Catholic Boys. Being so young, I didn’t know what a “basement show” was.
My mind was blown. A lot of those guys live in Milwaukee now, and are still in bands together, like Holy Shit!. I’ve always had a passion for photography and film, so I decided to combine two of my favorite things. I moved to Chicago, and it was just too spectacular to not try to grab something good from every happening around me. I like to try and capture the moments that make these shows and this scene so special. When you can see the sheer joy on people’s faces. I’d try to check out a band and I just could not find a single video or song of some of these bands, anywhere. How dare they not have instant, rapid accessibility! I just want to help people hear what these people, bands, and communities are pouring 100% of their hearts and souls into.
TVD: You’ve filmed literally hundreds of performances over the years, any that particularly stand out in your mind, good or bad?
JY: Endless amounts stick out immediately. Chinese Stars in a pitch-black art gallery in Pilsen. The cops came and left right before they played. Crazy paintings were hung sideways and strewn everywhere with this ominous glow from the lights they set up. Everyone was twisted, tired and you could literally feel the energy from them explode in the room. Jeremy Enigk playing solo at Abbey Pub + Bottom Lounge. People were actually giggling uncontrollably, because of Jeremy, up there alone, his voice, and a guitar. Pure musical energy, like The Walkmen at Schubas a year or two ago. I honestly thought my face was going to be stuck in a permanent shit-eating grin. Clues. Lightning Bolt at “Bitchpork”. Handsome Furs blowing everyone away with 75% unheard material at “Tommorow Never Knows” 2011. Nobody knew what to expect, and they just bust out these shimmering, new-wave, brainiac-meets-bowie synth-punk on everyone! Ridiculously great live band, nice people, with the best chemistry on stage.
TVD: Do you find most bands receptive to being filmed?
JY: Aside from venues themselves (which if the band says no filming, they have to abide) I honestly have not had a single issue. Johnny Whitney told me to come to a house show they were playing the next night, and said “if I wanted to do something different, maybe I should learn an old song for you and play it somewhere cool”. Jaguar Love peeled the paint off of this tiny house, and then he played a 6 minute long version of Georgia against this wall that looked like the cover of Figure 8.
Many bands are more than welcoming to the concept. I sent Alexei Perry of Handsome Furs a shot-in-the-dark e-mail pleading my case, and she basically agreed to almost anything I wanted to do. I did my first real interview with them and it ended up being 14 pages long, because they just love to talk about things that they’re passionate about. Obits let me record them recently, and put it up even though they were playing 50% new songs. If you’re genuine in wanting to help a scene that sometimes NEEDS help (and they all do), people will be into what you want to do. It’s that simple.
Granted, I don’t have giant monster cameras or anything, but…most bands have been really open to it. Maybe it’s just my demeanor. If you just ask, most bands appreciate it, and will even thank you for asking in the first place. If it’s good quality, it does nothing but help everyone involved. The bands get good footage for fans to get stoked on before shows. The venue gets cross-promo. It’s a win-win, especially these days. Everyone is insatiably media-hungry.
TVD: Is there anyone you’d really like to shoot, but haven’t been able to?
JY: Going to this many shows, I don’t have any idea how this happened, but I still have never even SEEN Arcade Fire live. I am a tireless show-goer, but I get exhausted about just thinking about going to one of their shows now. Standing around for hours to even try to get close enough to see their mouths move. I wish they would come and play my house. Maybe I should have tried for that before they won their Grammy.
I’ve shot a ton of the bands I want to shoot. Chicago is such a central hub, everyone comes, sometimes multiple times a year. I’m so glad Jeff Mangum is back. We needed him. I missed him play Engine at the E6 show at Empty Bottle, and I’m STILL bitter about it! I’d love to film him play. There’s a lot of bands that I’ve got great footage of, that I would like to film in high quality. The Walkmen. The Clues set I shot at Schubas ended up super crappy, which is a shame. I hope they come back. I would love to sit down with Jeremy Enigk or Clues in a small environment. The only time I’ve seen Radiohead, the venue told me “ABSOLUTELY NO CAMERAS IN ANY WAY.”, and when I got there, every single person had one…
TVD: What are some of your favorite places to see a show in Chicago?
JY: Schubas. Hideout. Lincoln Hall. Beat Kitchen / Subterranean. Empty Bottle. The Vic. Metro. The Mortville / Treasure Town warehouse. Ball Hall. The Mopery was a DIY warehouse that I think really inspired brought the community together through some of the dirtiest, craziest shows. There are endless spectacular places to see shows, and many of them are free. All of the wonderful small street fests that bring huge, headlining bands, and let you in for $5, such as Do Division, Wicker Park Fest, Ribfest, and the new-comers Green Music Fest and Metronome. The free Pritzker Pavillion shows are always great.
TVD: Are some venues more photogenic then others?
JY: Schubas and Hideout have a spectacular glow to them. Lincoln Hall is gorgeous, and is probably one of the best newer things Chicago has going for it. Empty Bottle has it’s own dirty charm that can’t be replicated. There are some beautiful older venues like The Vic and Metro. Even though I’m less into punk rock these days, I like the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles meets Hackers” gang hideout vibe that Reggie’s has going for it. Subterranean is really fun to film at because of the building it’s in. It feels like an old brothel, with a giant hole in the ceiling.
TVD: You’ve got a fundraising campaign going on at IndieGoGo right now to raise money for some new video equipment, what are your big plans for the future of Gonzo Chicago?
JY: Aside from filming and shooting bands of donor’s choice at local venues in the summer, as promised by the campaign, I’m going to work on releasing a full-set show of that Handsome Furs show I shot in January. Mostly new stuff, which is why it’s not out. Early July. For the future, I’d like to continue doing what I’ve been doing, and grow my craft. Team up with some great Chicago people, and just have fun while doing good work. Our community has shown so much love for this project. Keith Herzik drew me into Gossip Wolf! I love that. Hopefully it pushes some lesser-known, super-talented people’s stuff into a bigger spotlight. Get better at photography and film. Shoot people’s events. Help Victor Spatafora make and push his wonderful movies. Make music videos. I’m doing one for a great Chicago band called Magic Milk right when this wraps up. I’ve been talking with some great people in the last year or so, like Rebekah at Betta Promotions, about some big plans they have coming up. The “live streaming show” thing is getting easier, so I’m going to be doing some of that…
I met with a couple people last week that have some huge ambitions. The end goal is just to provide good work, for good people, and let the rest fall into place. I’d like to jump into some light PR and promo work in the musical world. Nathan Christ, the director of Echotone, just moved to Chicago, and wants to get something going. I have deep roots here now, so I’d like to help him with that. Try not to ape Vincent Moon…