Matt Harmon has a lot on his plate. The 25-year-old DIY musician and concert organizer is the bassist in mathy screamo quintet Suffix and plays guitar and sings for a punk trio called Cloud Mouth, which is about to drop a new six-song 12-inch, That Ghost Is Always With Me (Ice Age), and on July 2 will embark on a monthlong tour of the eastern U.S. He and his younger brother John, who plays bass in Cloud Mouth, also run a newish Logan Square venue called Strangelight, which will host an ambitious indie record fair this Saturday, June 26, featuring more than 40 midwestern labels, crafters, and zine makers.
Harmon used to deliver sandwiches full-time for Uncle Sammy's in Lincoln Park, which cut into the weekend and evening hours when both Strangelight and his bands most needed him. But even though he recently took a promotion to day manager and now works a pretty standard week, there's still never enough time for everything.
"I want to do more, I think as does John," he says. "But at the same time, we're working really hard right now, maybe to the point of overdoing it."
Things have certainly picked up for Harmon lately. He and his brother are the only tenants at Strangelight, and ten of the dozen shows they've hosted since launching the space in September have been in the past four months.That may not seem like much compared to the schedules at many other house venues and DIY spaces, which book gigs pretty much every weekend, but Strangelight isn't a typical DIY space. After Algernon Cadwallader, a Cap'n Jazz-flavored emo band from Philadelphia, played a packed show there in February, bassist and singer Peter Helmis praised Strangelight on the group's blog: "This is definitely one of the most impressive and well organized house venues I've had the pleasure of visiting in my years of touring."
The Harmons host fewer shows in part because they consider it their responsibility to accommodate visiting bands in any way they can. Before the last one, on Sunday, June 20, they gave up their living space for five hours so that Hannah Rosner, bassist for headliners Lautrec, could film interviews for a documentary on the Chicago DIY scene. They've had as many as ten band members crash at the space at once, and they usually try to make their guests something to eat before they play. Matt has even gone ahead with a Strangelight show that he booked having forgotten he'd already agreed to play the same night with Suffix at another DIY space.
This generosity sometimes extends to bands that aren't even booked at Strangelight. When Indiana band the New Yorker played elsewhere in town, the Harmons let drummer Matt Dudzik stay at Strangelight—and then chipped in $80 apiece to cover the $160 fee when his van got towed overnight.
This kind of overcommitment burns out lots of DIY concert organizers, but Harmon sees it as a necessary part of being involved in the community. "We want to do this because it just seems to extend what we do with the band," he says. "Why wouldn't we want to throw shows for other people?"
Strangelight is especially well suited to the purpose. Occupying the storefront space that previously housed a moped shop, it's got bedrooms and a living space in what used to be the showroom, which John built out to augment the bathroom and kitchenette in the former office area. The occasional smaller, quieter show is held on the main floor, and the brothers use the store windows to display friends' artwork, but most of the music happens downstairs. John prepared the basement before the first Strangelight gig in November by cleaning, soundproofing, installing lights, and wrapping exposed pipes in padding, and the amount of usable space is impressive—comparable to that in a raw loft. In fact Strangelight landed the Algernon Cadwallader show after it became clear that the smaller DIY venue the band had been talking to wouldn't be able to handle the turnout.
Though Strangelight doesn't charge a cover, instead asking people to donate whatever they can—a policy that makes it hard to promise touring bands much money at all—it's hosted some high-quality shows. In April a Pennsylvania-based Hawaiian singer-songwriter named Koji played the Harmons' space the night after a show at Drasik Studios in Andersonville, and earlier this month veteran Japanese hardcore band Slang drew a crowd of almost 200.
Harmon takes pains to ensure that Strangelight stays drug- and alcohol-free. At a Victor! Fix the Sun show in March, I saw him confront an attendee who wanted to bring alcohol back to the space, and smoking inside has been banned ever since the brothers got complaints from adjoining storefronts after Algernon Cadwallader. "I hate Strangelight," I heard a skinny kid in a Dopamines T-shirt say at the Slang show. "I can't do any vices down here." Minutes into the first band's set, though, he was shirtless and dancing.
Planning for this weekend's Strangelight DIY Fair began after Ryan Durkin, who cofounded and helps run the local Hewhocorrupts Inc. label, played Strangelight with his band 97-Shiki in April. "It's hard to put it into words," he says, "but sometimes you go into a space you sort of know right away that there's a bad vibe there . . .I just felt a positive vibe from Strangelight."
The record labels participating in the fair include Thinker Thought, Let's Pretend, Calls and Correspondence, Residue, Underground Communique, and of course Hewhocorrupts, which between them have released music by the likes of the Screaming Females, Harpoon, Canadian Rifle, the Lesser Birds of Paradise, Daylight Robbery, Shot Baker, Al Scorch, and the Sass Dragons. Among the zines represented will be A Day in the Air, The Fury, and The Muse, the News, and the Noose. Drug Factory Press will be selling gig posters, and Teeny Robots will have drawings as well as handmade wallets, caps, and bicycle top-tube protectors. Many of the vendors will be selling at a discount—Hewhocorrupts is knocking 25 percent off list price—and half the proceeds from every table will go to a charity of the vendor's choice. Among those already designated are dog rescue One Tail at a Time, Teach for America, and West Town Bikes.
"My basement is pretty much all CDs," Durkin says. "I'd rather see those releases in someone's hands than in my basement. That's what it comes down to: if we could sell them for cheap and give some money to a charity, then all the better."
The record fair runs from 1-5 PM, and it's free to browse; details are at hewhocorruptsinc.com. It's probably for the best that Durkin's taking the reins—Harmon's a little frazzled about his impending tour. They're booking it themselves, and several gigs still aren't nailed down, plus their drummer, Zach Weinberg, just got home from a study-abroad program in Turkey ten days ago, leaving them barely any time to practice. He and John also have to decide very soon whether they'll be staying on at Strangelight, since their lease will be up before the tour is over.
"We have the option to be out of there come what would be the end of July," he says. "We do want to stay; it's just a matter of making some things happen."
They say their landlord has no trouble with the space being used as a venue. But he does charge them rent. "The space itself is so expensive to maintain, and even pay rent at," Harmon says. He's using every cent of his tax return to pay his half while Cloud Mouth is on the road, and he's made other sacrifices: "Man, I'd like to go to the record store once a week. I can't really," he says. "But everybody does that for what they want to do." For at least one day, though, the record store will come to him.
Because Strangelight gives 100 percent of the donations from shows to the bands, Harmon also pays for repairs to the space out of pocket. It's a money-losing proposition, but he prefers it to the alternative: "I'm certainly not interested in running a business," he says.