A History of Bitchpork, Underground Chicago’s Answer to Pitchfork

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Photo: Jennah Beilgard

By Daniel Margolis

Saturday, July 18, 2009. I’m creeping through an alley on Chicago’s southwest side, trying to find a show in a warehouse space. I see a guy standing near a back entrance to a building and call out to him, “Hey is this Bitchpork?” He says, “No you’re way off. That’s over in Union Park.” I say, “No not Pitchfork. Bitchpork.” He looks at me like I’m insane.

From 2009 to 2012, Bitchpork existed as an alternative to the Pitchfork Music Festival—scheduled the same weekend four years in a row. It cost way less to get in, was generally held in abandoned factories that felt like ovens inside in July, and boasted performances by dozens of bands and performers. Pitchfork began in 2006 as a festival designed to showcase the semi-obscure music the affiliated website champions. Bitchpork, meanwhile, brought what used to be called indie rock back to its roots: Bands that travel in vans performing in squalor in front of hundreds of college kids all using one toilet for hours on end.

The festival’s axis could be found within CAVE, a mostly instrumental, psychedelic quartet from Missouri by way of Chicago; its sometimes-singer and keyboardist Rotten Milk having organized the entire thing and its leader and multi-instrumentalist Cooper Crain doing sound and managing the proceedings throughout the festival’s four-year run.

According to Crain, the seeds of Bitchpork were sown in informal shows scheduled the same weekend as Pitchfork in 2007 and ’08. “We had always hosted some sort of one night big show with no name, just because friends kept coming into town during Pitchfork who weren’t playing Pitchfork,” he said. “They were like, ‘We’re going to be in Chicago in six weeks but we can’t get a show because of Pitchfork.’”

Without giving it too much thought, I decided I was going to make it into a festival that went the whole weekend. If I knew it was going to turn into an annual thing that tons of people were going to travel around the country to go to, I might have given it a different stupid name.

Rotten Milk described how it grew from there. “Without giving it too much thought, I decided I was going to make it into a festival that went the whole weekend,” he said. “If I knew it was going to turn into an annual thing that tons of people were going to travel around the country to go to, I might have given it a different stupid name.”

Crain is careful to state that, despite the name, Bitchpork was not anti-Pitchfork. “It was more just a dumb thing to be like ‘We’re doing something too!’” he said. “It really doesn’t have anything to do with Pitchfork; just the name stuck and we did it more years after that.”

As the festival ran for four years, the division of duties between Cooper and Rotten began to blend. “It started out with Cooper in charge of the sound side of things and me in charge of the curatorial things,” Rotten Milk said. “But as time went on over the course of the four years, Cooper took more of a curatorial role as well.”

Crain also evolved the sound of the festival itself, going from borrowed sound systems to rented equipment. The two also drew in volunteers—many coming from the spaces hosting the festival—and hired some help as well, including some of their band mates. “[Cave drummer] Rex [McMurry] and [Warhammer 48k guitarist] Steven Haslag were really good at doing the door because they wouldn’t let anybody in for free,” Crain said.

Door admission to Bitchpork ranged from $10 to $15 per night, apparently a hefty price to some. McMurry described this as his only difficulty in working the door. “There were so many bands that the shows were expensive,” he said. “Some people would turn up and have no real idea what was going on and not really care to support—I guess support would be the word I would choose.”

As you’d expect, much of the festival was planned months in advance via informal meetings, e-mails, and notebooks passed back and forth. “I’d say by year three we were getting it arranged by March or April,” Crain said. The only detail Cooper and Rotten never got around to addressing was the heat in the venues themselves. “It was always like, ‘Damnit, we forgot to get fans again, fuck,’” Crain said. “We didn’t ever get that down.”

Regardless, the festival always proceeded fairly smoothly; impressive considering the sheer amount of acts it presented. “Every year we stayed mostly on schedule except for one day on year two,” Crain said. “That was the year we had 65 bands, which was a little much.”

Rotten Milk admitted this could all be pretty nerve-wracking. “It’s definitely one of the more stressful things that I’ve done in my life,” he said. “I’d be a total mess leading up to it the last couple of days before it started, but then as soon as the first act would start, it’s like you’re at the top of the rollercoaster.”

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  • Brian

    What a bunch of hullabaloo! I swear this is the biggest fluff piece yet!

  • Gonzo Chicago

    We filmed every band but 2 from 2012. Jenna Caravello will be releasing it. Keep an eye out. Zzzz.