This week, I sat down with Justin Schwier of Underground Communique Records. Normally, I lightheartedly chat with bands about (their) music and the conversation renders information and opinions wrapped in a few laughs. But, this interview was much different. Justin is a literal human plethora of knowledge regarding all things Chicago punk. He was an absolute joy to talk to and his compassion for and interest in this city’s scene is extremely palpable. I walked away from our meeting feeling like I had learned a lot about the man behind the label as well as Chicago punk as a whole.
Can you give a little background of the label? How did it start and what were your intentions at the beginning?
Justin: The intentions were that there were a bunch of friends with great music and no one was doing anything about it. So I just decided that I would take it upon myself to put out these records. At the time, I had a little bit of disposable income. There were too many friends with bands that I thought were too good to not sign. No one was paying attention to them and no one was offering to put out records so I decided I’m going to do this. *laughs* I had another record label before this and that’s where it gets confusing. I had previously put out a Mexican Cheerleader record on my old label. And I decided to start a new label and I told them, “I want to do whatever your next record is” and they were like “Ok! Cool!”
When did this label officially start?
Justin: Oh, like around 2004 or so.
Were you or are you an avid record collector?
*laughs* Usually label people are.
Justin: Yeah. It’s a little obscene. People come over and it’s like the final reveal. And then there’s the record room.
A whole room?
Justin: Well, now, it’s the entire basement of our place. It’s both the label and my record collection combined.
What is the most important (to you, not monetarily) record that you have in your collection?
Justin: Oh man… *sigh* *long pause while he really thinks it through* I’ll go with… oh! My friend Jimmy got me a Pegboy test pressing of their Three Chord Monte EP for me for my birthday. Leading up to that, he was looking for a present for me and we were talking about records at a show. I made some comment about “I don’t give a fuck about having test pressings” and so he was like FUCK! When he gave me this present, I opened it and was like “Well THIS is different. This is a test pressing from before every label made 20 test pressings, myself included.” So it’s a rare test pressing of an obscure record. The fact that he sought that out and got it for me, I think that makes it top three, top five albums.
Do you still listen to it?
So you’re not a ‘don’t take it out of the sleeve’ guy?
Justin: No, no. I don’t have any records that are like that. They’re there to be listened to. On some level I wanted to be some sort of documentarian of Chicago bands. I want to have weird, valueless but rare Chicago bands that I just would just keep a good copy of or whatever. But I actually don’t have the regular version of that Pegboy record on vinyl so the test pressing is the only version I have. Because it was a gift, I kind of don’t want to bother trying to track another down.
The guys at Blue Island Beer Company recently named a beer after your label. How did that come about?
Justin: One of the guys that runs the company, Alan Cromwell, is an old friend from his – self-described – crappy pop punk band who played my radio show like 15 years ago. They wanted to do a Russian Imperial Ale and they were playing around with ideas of what would be a funny name. He was like “The label name is somewhat Russian sounding and this would be a fun tie in.” He ran the idea by me and I was like, “YEAH! That’s awesome!” I was 100% into this. I don’t drink so I have not had it. But I’ve heard that it’s very good. I have not yet found a recipe to make an ale bread or something out of it so I can taste it. I mean, it’s so cool. It’s a once in a lifetime thing. So they made the beer and we went down to their brewery for the launch. They are actually now aging some of the batch in whiskey barrels so there’s going to be a harder version of it. I think they’re going to release that this fall.
Is there a band or artist that is off the punk beaten path that any followers or fans of the label would be surprised that you love?
Justin: I grew up on a lot of classic rock stuff. I mean, I still listen to Yes a lot. Pink Floyd, Emerson, Lake & PALMER, that kind of stuff. There’s some weird pop bands I like – Garbage and Doomtree. I always think of Doomtree as this weird punk band, but they’re a hip hop band. There are five MCs and two producers and one of the producers used to be a drummer in an indie rock band from Minneapolis. One of the MCs used to be in hardcore bands. He was in Cadillac Blindside (Minneapolis punk) for a minute. He was in bands that sounded like At The Drive-In. They have their own record label where they put out their own records. For the most part, they’re this self-sustaining business. I just view them in my mind as a punk band but they’re hip hop.
Well, they seem to have a lot of DIY aspects.
Justin: Yeah, and what’s cool about them is that since there’s seven people and each one of them has their own solo career. Each one of them has put out a solo record and then they come together and put out Doomtree records. Doomtree is like a greater sum of their parts.
This is normally the part where I ask the band for a tour story. But I’m trying to rework this one for the label so, best or most memorable Chicago show and why?
Justin: There are so many. That’s a tough one. I do have tour stories though! I used to tour with The Bomb a lot. They would always… well, not really get into shenanigans, but I had a lot of babysitting to do because they’re just those guys. I would be in charge of getting Pezzati onstage, just finding him where ever he was stationed for the night. Then I’d be like, “Jeff, the other band just finished. We’ve got to set up and be onstage in fifteen minutes. “Okay.” Ten minutes later – “Jeff, five minutes”. “Okay.” Five minutes later – “Jeff, we need to be onstage now.” “Okay.” He’d close his laptop and head onstage.
One show, Jeff Dean cut his head open with his own guitar and I had to take him to the emergency room in a blizzard in Philadelphia. I had left before they finished their set. I went to stand by the merch table to sell some CDs and someone came up to me and was like, “I think that the guitar player cut his head open. You should check on him.” At the time, Jeff used to cut his finger a lot strumming. He used to have this spray pattern of blood on his guitar all the time. I thought he probably cut his finger and wiped his head or something. But there’s Jeff Dean, no shirt on but with his shirt bundled in a ball holding it to his head. And he’s like, “Dude, I need to go to the hospital. I cut my head… with my guitar.”
We got into a cab. A blizzard hit while we were at the show so the cab driver can’t see. The way that the snow was blowing, it was sticking to all the street signs. So, the cab driver is looking both ways down all streets, trying to figure it out. We finally get to the hospital and I text the band where we’re at and they headed over. It was just hilarious. There’s stuff like that.. since I’m the responsible one I end up being the witness to all the disasters, the documentarian and almost like a reminder. Like “Guys, let’s not have another Philadelphia.” I’m like the party pooper.
You’re Tour Dad!
Justin: I’m totally Tour Dad. Hm… as far a memorable shows? In like 2001 or so, when I was running the other label, there were like seven or eight labels that started a distribution company. We were called Red Line Distribution. We had a big release show. We got together a bunch of the bands that we were doing records for to play this big show.
At the time, Harmless Records had actually gotten the Bhopal Stiffs back together. He had compiled all their records for a discography. They were the band that lead up to Pegboy. So it was Larry and Steve Saylors – the original bass player – and three other guys. That show was just wild. Munition played. So did The Tie That Binds, a band from Texas. That show was amazing because the Bhopal Stiffs played.
Just by random happenstance this band Deminer, which was Matt Arluck from Sweet Cobra, had recorded recently with this other guitar player from Bhopal Stiffs that the band totally lost track of. They couldn’t find him. He wasn’t on the internet anywhere. He was just totally gone. And D Minor was like “Ron Lowe from Bhopal Stiffs just engineered our record!” And I mentioned it to Scott who ran Harmless Records and he was like, “Oh my god, you have to give me the phone number for someone in D Minor!” So I was able to be this little connection point to assist to get Ron to come play guitar. They played the show with all the band members. At point they played with three guitars which made it sound much bigger. That show was just one of those reunions where had Scott not done that, they would have never bothered to get back together. I mean, it had been since 1988 or ’89.
What’s upcoming for the label?
Justin: Well, I just finally got out the All Eyes West with Wade 10” which is a four song live in the studio recording that All Eyes West did with Wade Neal from Seaweed. Wade is an old friend of Jeff’s and he likes their band a lot. So two years ago he was like, “Hey, I go on tour with your guys as your second guitar player. The band didn’t rehearse and they just flew to the West Coast to meet up with him. Wade had already written his own guitar parts; he wrote them to sound like how the band would write them. They just played a show and Wade was ready and it sounded awesome. A few months later, the band was going down to Fest and he came with them again and played with them down to the Fest. On the way back, they stopped at Rubber Tracks Studio in Brooklyn. They have bands do kind of like John Peel Sessions, live in the studio recordings. So they went and did a four song set of the songs they thought Wade brought the most to. Later, Jeff pitched the idea to me and I figured it was yet another Jeff Dean band that I needed to put out a record for.
So, that just came out and a few months ago we did the latest Bollweevils 7”. It’s a two song single and it’s their first 7” in about 18 years. I also did another discography of Tomorrow’s Gone, another Jeff Dean band. There’s a couple things in the works that aren’t quite ironed out yet. Nothing immediately coming out, but there are some re-issues of some older things – The Ambition Mission discography which is members of Bullnettle, This is my Fist! and Canadian Rifle. I also did a Killing Tree record, which is Tim from Rise Against’s old band. I will probably re-issue that. And I’m in talks with a few current bands as well.