Interview with Shane Merrill (Chicago Hardcore)

The birthplace of punk and hardcore in the United States is undoubtedly New York City. Big cities are full of energetic, angry, and socially conscious youths who crave a form of expression. Chicago, Illinois, USA is no exception to that, and has been steeped in punk and hardcore for the last few decades. No scene can ever exist as just “a scene” though. It takes hard work and dedication from people who are just as deep in it as everyone else. For Chicago Hardcore, its longevity can be attributed (in no small part) to a local promoter named Shane Merrill.

He has been booking hardcore bands, both major acts and locals, since the late 90’s. Shane has been so involved in hardcore that he’s been able to turn his passion into his full time career, booking shows under the name Empire Productions. We were given the opportunity to sit down with Shane and talk to him about the life and history of hardcore in the Second City!

Can you give us a brief history of Chicago Hardcore? How did you first get involved in it and what were some of the first shows you ever attended? 

The history of Chicago Hardcore definitely goes way back before when I was around. I can speak into the scene from the time I became a regular contributor to it, which would be late 1996. Basically, I got involved through some friends that were into it. I was much more into metal.  Metal was my first love. But my friends played me Damnation AD, Earth Crisis, Strife.. all bands that had a strong metallic influence. I was interested enough to go to a show and I became very into it. I believe my first shows were Earth Crisis at Fireside Bowl in 11/96, Turmoil/Damnation AD in Milwaukee at Rave Bar around the same time. First hardcore band I ever saw live was Madball at Milwaukee metal fest 1996, summer of 1996. That was the first time hardcore ever really interested me.

What drove you to start booking on your own, rather than just attending shows or being in a band?

For whatever reason I’ve always gotten enjoyment from organizing. I began to realize that within a small and close-knit community like the hardcore scene, I could simply rent a space and bring bands in that I loved. This grew to a passion that was large enough to attempt to make it my profession and that is where I am now. I booked my first show on May 10, 1997 and I have been booking regularly ever since.

That’s amazing that you’ve been able to make it your full time profession! It shows the passion you’ve got for the scene. Through the years, what has the life of Chicago hardcore been like; the ups, downs and in-betweens?

I think this is a very subjective question and it’s going to be a completely different answer to each person you ask, because hardcore means something totally different to everyone. The idea of hardcore to me is friends, family, and unity more than anything else. When I was younger, I looked at hardcore as a community that had the aggression of metal but with more of a social conscience. That isn’t the case anymore, and I am not even sure it was back then. And that’s ok.  Metal bands sing about social issues just as much as hardcore bands do. There are also bands that sing about having a good time. I think there’s a time and place for all of it. But to answer your question, Chicago hardcore is a lot like other hardcore scenes I would assume – good things happening but there are always hang-ups. Violence, exclusive attitudes, bad musicians… these things plague the hardcore scene just as much if not more as other scenes.

I think Chicago hardcore as of right now is probably bigger than it has ever been in my 18 years of being a regular member of the community. However, there is a much higher changeover rate. I think that comes with the mainstream acceptance of hardcore on a much higher level than it was 10 or 15 years ago. And really that’s ok because it’s not for everyone. Give it a try, and my attitude has always been that if it isn’t for you, so be it. I think many people forget that and take personal offense when someone stops coming to shows. That’s bullshit. Shouldn’t be that way. Worry about yourself.

Who are some Chicago bands that helped to shape the scene?

This is not necessarily a list of bands that I love or hate. But as far as which bands have had the greatest scene shaping impact in my opinion, immediately coming to mind in the time I have been involved: Race Traitor, Extinction, The Killing Tree, Warhound, Weekend Nachos, The Few and The Proud, Harms Way. And I guess I have to say The Killer too, even though I feel weird saying that with my involvement in the band. But we did shape the scene for better or worse.

Speaking of The Killer, which you played guitar for, what can you tell us about the scene from the perspective of being in a band? Before you started booking heavily did you guys have to rely on other promoters?

I started booking hardcore shows before I started playing them. But I always tried to rely on other promoters anyway. I’m not a fan of putting my own band on shows, but I did do it occasionally, probably more when I was younger. Then it was a thing where The Killer might play a show to help a band out as for whatever reason we drew well in Chicago. I definitely think being in a band people treat you differently. Human nature perhaps but still lame. Then again, I talk to people all the time that have been going to shows and had no idea I was even in The Killer. They’ll ask me how long I’ve been in the band. My response is:  I started the band (laughs). So I guess it’s possible to also fly under the radar if you’re not trying hard to draw attention to yourself, which I’ve never felt the need to do.

So, The Killer came up through Chicago hardcore a while back, and now your new band, Young and Dead, is doing the same thing. How does it feel being in a new band and coming up through a scene that’s changed and evolved since ages ago?

It feels great to be doing something new and fresh, and doing vocals again because I have a lot to say and it’s a great outlet. As I said before, I don’t like to make a spectacle of myself, but when there are things going on in the world that affect you, shouting for a metal/hardcore band is the best place to let it all out, in my opinion. It’s been a very organic growth process for us and it feels great to have people get into the band because they like it, not because we have people that used to play in other bands.

That’s great to hear, and people should definitely keep up to date with Young and Dead. Moving on, not only have you thrown countless shows, but you’ve also been at the helm of hardcore fests in Chicago; starting with The Heist and then morphing it into The Rumble. What was it like putting together an entire fest full of amazing hardcore bands, and still booking normal shows throughout the year? Did you do it all yourself, or was there help with putting it together? Are there future fests in the works?

Fests are tough, especially in hardcore where bands are more prone to dropping shows last minute. When I did my first multi-day fest in the winter of 1997, we did it as a labor of love and I always enjoyed putting them together. At this point everyone is doing one, and they’re all watered down. The excitement of a fest to me was putting a bunch of great bands together from all over and having some cool things to showcase that hadn’t been seen or heard in a while. With all the fests out now, it’s not possible anymore.

Everything has been done, and done recently. Add to this [the] fact that bands want to be paid extreme amounts of money to play fests and it makes it really hard to make one work. There are no plans to do a hardcore fest again but I will always leave the door open if the right situation presents itself. I’m 36 now with a mortgage so I can’t lose money willingly on hardcore like I used to be able to do. If I ever win the lottery, I’ll gladly start doing it again. Responsibilities suck.

These days you are booking under the moniker of Empire Productions. Is this promotion company just you, or is it whole group of people? How did it get started?

Empire Productions is my LLC that I started in 2010 when I started to inch towards the ability to book shows full time and somehow find a way to live off of it. It wasn’t easy but I decided that it was a passion I could not see myself without. As of august 2012, Empire became my full time venture. I am the sole owner and employee at this point, although I do have part time employees that help and I hope to grow to be able to afford to bring them on full time eventually.

Does Empire Productions have anything exciting coming up for Chicago in 2015 that you’re at will to share?

SHOWS, SHOWS, AND MORE SHOWS!  As of now I am excited about June of 2015 which includes shows with Cruel Hand, Obliterations, Cancer Bats, Crowbar, Goatwhore/Ringworm, Darkest Hour, and Dead to Fall. All my shows are always listed at www.facebook.com/empireshows/events  once they become official.

Thanks for your time Shane and for all you’ve done for Chicago! To finish off can you tell us how you feel about the current state of Chicago hardcore, and what you see for its future?

Hardcore needs several people to put in the work so that everyone can enjoy the results of that work. There are more than a few young and [committed] people in Chicago at this point so with that being said, I think the scene is in very good hands!

The last words are yours, anything else you’d like to add?

Don’t be so quick to pick David Lee Roth over Sammy Hagar. The decision should not be taken lightly. Thanks for the interview!

Chris Colucci