FOCUS // On Some Serious Swerp: Remembering the Music of Swerp Records

Nestled within the rich annals of the Chicago alternative music scene, Swerp Records existed for only two years, from 2012 to 2014. Founded by J. Matthew Nix and Jonathan Mondragon, the label boasted an eclectic roster of bands from south-suburban Chicago and beyond that together present an important snapshot of a regional scene. Swerp was a modest DIY operation. Its hyper-local focus celebrated an esteemed musical pedigree while fostering a new generation of groundbreaking musicians. What started in a “punk loft” aptly named The Swerp Mansion didn’t end up evolving into much more. But the label and the bands on it made their presence felt, and their influence continues to resonate today.

swerppAfter Maps & Atlases and Piglet briefly blazed trails in the mid 2000s before shifting styles and breaking up (respectively), the Chicago math rock scene was left with the smoldering embers of their feverish stylings. Swerp sought to pick up where these bands left off, and even gave Maps & Atlases a “thank you” on their website. By the time Swerp came around, the scene’s sonic lineage was deep when considering the aforementioned bands, in addition to all those entangled in the Kinsella family tree. Swerp Records’ roster encapsulated all of that music and expanded upon it with youthful exuberance and invigorated creativity. Freudian Slip, for example, brought to mind a Cap’n Jazz or Algernon Cadwallader, especially considering the hoarse, wailing vocals characteristic of all three groups. & Slide, their final release as a band, strikes the perfect balance between subtle instrumental acrobatics and straightforward sadness, the lyrics dealing with denial and bracing for the inevitable aftershocks of heartbreak. It’s everything a Midwest emo record should be, topped off with that precious glimmer of teenage nostalgia. 

Perhaps none of the Swerp bands were as dazzling as the Para-Medics, a three-piece outfit that played blistering instrumental numbers filled with maniacal tapping and stop-and-go drum kit fits. Patsy Cline Gun Squid, their only Swerp release, crams as much chaos as possible into its modest 5-song length. Drawing comparisons to an album like Lava Land, its complexity and vigor are nothing short of impressive, and it’s laced with riffs that will never leave your head. Take, for example, the beautifully tapped riff in “Dukakis” at around the 1:45 mark, which serves as a shining example of emotionally rich instrumental chops.

There are a number of words that could be used to try to describe the overarching genre(s) that Swerp represented. Those absolutely did not include one in particular—“twinklecore.” What started as a line in a Chicago Reader show preview for Swerp band My Dad was taken as a serious “allegation” by the label. They even went so far as to issue a press release denouncing such a narrow-minded classification of bands in the emo revival movement. It was a half-joking gesture, but it did hold some weight in the sense that it aimed to defend a unique band on a diverse label from the ignominious mark of a cringey sub-genre. The lighthearted tone of the label is evident in all remnants of communication it had with its fans, from social media posts down to the name itself: 

Honestly I just like to make up words and funny sounds,” says Nnamdi Ogbonnaya of the name. Nnamdi played for many of the bands on the label and was involved in its operations. “People think it’s creativity but it’s really just me having a very immature sense of humor.” 

Swerp’s involvement in bolstering the burgeoning emo revival movement of the time was not simply confined to helping local hopefuls looking to get in on the action. Its efforts also weren’t just limited to the typical duties of a record label. The Swerp Mansion regularly hosted shows, some of which featured notable acts such as Joan of ArcTWIABP, and Glocca Morra. Swerp even extended its reach overseas; Johnny Foreigner, a band from Birmingham, UK, were perhaps the most dialed-in and eccentric of those on the its roster. It’s worth mentioning however, that they already had a myriad of albums and EP’s before releasing Vs. Everything on Swerp. The band were some of the first purveyors of math rock in the UK, and Swerp helped spread their unique take on the genre by offering them their first record deal stateside. With flittering song structures boosted by explosive rock energy, they traverse many different genres, from glittery indie pop to supercharged punk. The instrumentation is as much of a driving force as their male/female lead vocal dynamic, which often mirrors the rhythm guitar and gives the songs a distinctly poppy feel.

Swerp Records represents an important moment in time for several subsets of alternative sounds. In retrospect, it can be seen as a star-studded graduating class, with many of the musicians on its roster having gone on to form bigger projects. Perhaps the most prolific musician on the label, Nnamdi Ogbonnaya got his hands dirty in The Para-Medics, AlbatrossWater House, and Nervous Passenger, and his own “Sooper-Dooper Secret Side Project.” The beloved multi-genre multi-instrumentalist now plays drums in Monobody, raps in his solo project, and runs Sooper Records, a label with a wide variety of acts that has essentially expanded upon the Swerp blueprint (and those aren’t even all the projects he’s involved in). Indie-folk duo Ratboys got their start on Swerp and haven’t looked back. They’ve since released two albums, three EP’s, and recently supported PUP on a nationwide tour. My Dad was the solo project of Dave Collis, characterized by churning, instrumentally- driven music generously coated with feedback and reverb. Collis has since been involved in a number of musical endeavors, most notably the critically-acclaimed post-hardcore outfit Slow Mass, which also features touring members of Into It. Over It. The continued linkages amongst Swerp alumni and other local and regional mainstays are innumerable. Taking that into consideration, it becomes difficult to exclude Swerp from a cross-sectional examination of the Chicago alternative music scene, more specifically its experimental side. 

Given the musical variety and level of talent within this small label’s catalog, Swerp Records was an impressive operation. But more importantly, it was created in the spirit of camaraderie and community. “A community grew around these bands, not only for their musical skill, but for the company of like-minded people who cared about these shared experiences,” states Nix. More than just a group of bands, it was a group of friends who happened to be in bands that happened to be quite good. And while everyone has since gone their separate ways, the music lives on, and it’ll be on some serious Swerp forever.