When Brett Cross and Todd Novak—who founded the raunchy rock 'n' roll zine Horizontal Action in 1997—put on the first Blackout in 2001, garage rock occupied a tiny niche in the underground music scene. By the festival's farewell installment in 2006—also the year Cross and Novak launched their zine's online replacement, Victim of Time, and the label HoZac Records—garage had exploded. The Blackout had grown into nearly a week's worth of shows and parties (both official and un-), and its reputation for quality music and quality debauchery extended around the globe. This weekend, with the help of their longtime partners at Empty Bottle Presents, the HoZac crew is bringing the Blackout back for three nights at the Velvet Perineum, a pop-up venue in Logan Square (2515 N. Milwaukee) with a capacity of 500 or so; most of the music is Friday and Saturday, and Thursday's preparty features an art show with contributions from Blackout regulars like Mickey front man Mark McKenzie and Ponys drummer Nathan Jerde.
Despite the Blackout's tendency to live up to its name, several people who've been intimately involved with it remember lots of stories, or at least think they do: contributing to this oral history are Cross, Novak, fellow festival organizer and drummer-about-town Matt Williams, photographer and Horizontal Action contributor Chris "Canderson" Anderson, and Clone Defects/Human Eye/Timmy's Organism front man Tim Lampinen.
Brett Cross: It was originally kind of a release party for the magazine we were doing at the time.
Todd Novak: We had four issues out by then. So we had just kind of come up from the photocopy format.
Matt Williams: We had been out to these festivals in Buffalo called the Rust Belt Revolts. We really liked the idea of what they did. It was really homespun and punk rock and really a blast.
Novak: Probably when we went to those fests is where we got the idea. We just decided that we'd like to try to put a fest together and just kind of do it the way that we thought it should be done.
In 2000, we tried to do the first Blackout. That was the Dirtbombs, the Hookers, the Whittingtons, and Guilty Pleasures. At that time, you know, the Dirtbombs weren't well-known, so the Empty Bottle ended up passing on it. At the Beat Kitchen, they didn't really know us too much, but [talent buyer] Derron [Swan] was really excited to try it. That was 2001. Beat Kitchen was the first two years and the third year was the big year at Subterranean.
Two thousand two is when it really got crazy. People started having parties more. All the Detroit people who started coming down, the Canadian people from Les Sexareenos. The guys in the Spits I think gave Canderson mushrooms, and that's why all of his photos from Saturday night are exposed. He kept opening his camera and exposing the film.
Chris "Canderson" Anderson: I was really tired already and probably a little drunk and they were like, 'Hey, do you want to do some mushrooms?' It was just a few caps and some powder and it was disgusting but I threw it in my mouth anyway. I had to shoot the rest of the show and it was a nightmare. But I managed to get some really good shots.
Novak: At that point too, the White Stripes, who came out of the same group of bands, started getting bigger. No one would want to admit it, but I'm sure it got someone's curiosity piqued.
Two thousand three at Subterranean, that was the best one.
Williams: That was really when everything got flying. The cops and fire marshals came. The owner wanted to turn on the lights on the Spits because he was worried about all of the crazy mosh pit and crowd surfing.
We budgeted in kegs for all of the bands and we made cups, and if you were in the band you got one. I don't remember how many kegs we went through. Those cups fell into a lot of the wrong hands, and I think quite a bit of the crowd got free beer that year.
Cross: I remember Jay Reatard complaining about the mike smelling like barf from the Black Lips.
Novak: Like they threw up all over the microphone and Jay and Alicja from the Lost Sounds had to follow them and sing into the vomit. They really hated it.
It was lawless. I don't know if you saw it, but the very first post on Victim of Time is Justin from Nobunny standing next to a Chicago cop car with his dick out.
Williams: I started here at the Bottle in '03. Todd and Brett had the idea to do the Blackout here and it fell through. So maybe they had some mixed feelings about coming here, but I think I talked them into it. Once it got here it became more of a monster. I can't remember what year, I think it was '05, we set the record for liquor sales here at the Bottle in the three-day period. I know we at least did for Pabst.
Novak: I think once it got to the Bottle it became known overseas and stuff. That was when it was probably, we estimated, 75 percent out-of-town people versus local people who came to the Blackout. People from New York and people from San Francisco would meet in Chicago for the Blackout. People developed friendships over it. People moved here.
Cross: People were born there. [Laughs]
Novak: People who were our friends who'd normally go couldn't get tickets. It became more of everyone else's thing than just our thing, I guess.
Cross: It definitely exceeded our reach before we got to the Bottle. It was kind of satisfying but it was kind of weird.
Williams: [Local label] Criminal IQ started putting on day shows so it would be a whole-day thing. It just all blended together into a four-day binge. I think there were people who'd sleep in their cars.
Novak: [The Bottle] definitely got a pretty big shock. Two thousand five was the year that Human Eye played, which was Timmy with the octopus.
Tim Lampinen: We had to play third on a Thursday and I had already been playing Chicago for a long time, so I guess I felt like that was kind of a shitty slot for the Blackout. They kind of asked us last minute, so they could only fit us on Thursday, and I was like, well, we'll do something crazy since we're playing early. So I went to the Eastern Market here in Detroit. They had frozen octopus in a block. I didn't know what I was fucking going to do with it, so I put it in a cooler. I squirted a bunch of lemon juice all over it to kill the germs in case it ended up in my mouth.
We played our set and then I pulled that thing out and people kind of didn't know what to think. I put it on my head and people started taking pictures. I threw it out into the crowd and people kind of scattered. There was kind of this empty space in the middle of the dance floor and the octopus just slid across the ground. Somebody threw it back onstage so I picked it up and put paint all over it. I ended up getting that weird octopus slime all over my mouth and it kind of went down my throat.
Anderson: I remember the smell. And Timmy throwing up as soon as he got off stage.
Lampinen: The next day at the Empty Bottle there was a whole list that the management made of rules for the Blackout. There were like ten rules and number one was "no octopus."
Williams: "No pickle juice" was one of them. I think King Louie, when he played with Kajun SS, either somebody bought him a bunch of pickles or he brought his own, and the brine got thrown all over the audience, which was pretty disgusting and smelled up the place. "The drunkest guy ever: don't be that dude" was a funny one.
Cross: As the Blackout grew it got wilder and wilder. At one point it just seemed like a huge party around a show.
Novak: Not to say that the people weren't into the music later on. Two thousand six was the year that it sold out in hours. But it did become kind of a spectacle.
Williams: I think we put people on time-outs instead of kicking them out just because of the sheer volume. We'd be kicking out half the crowd if that wasn't the case. Nothing insane ever happened. I think a guy lit a fire with some flyers at one point and he got ejected.
Novak: Two thousand five, that was a big shift musically. That was when we had bands like the Gris Gris play, and Human Eye, which are bands you can't really classify as garage at all. You had a lot of people who didn't like the strange psychedelic bands. We lost those purists who thought it would be like the Dirtbombs all of the time.
Cross: We stopped doing the magazine. Since we weren't doing the magazine anymore we were like, Why don't we stop doing the Blackout too?
Novak: It had started to become a headache. We were too stressed out about it. And it felt like it was slipping away from us. We really didn't want to do that last Blackout in 2006, but we figured we'd do one more just to launch Victim of Time.
Cross: It seemed like it had outgrown us.
Novak: Especially since our friends couldn't get in.
Cross: When we stopped it, it seemed like someone would take the reins and there would be another [garage] festival in Chicago.
Novak: We didn't want to bring it back. The Empty Bottle came up with that idea completely on their own. They basically asked us if we wanted to do it again and not worry about the other stuff. Another thing is that they brought up the big difference between then and now, which is now there are sponsorship opportunities. They'll sponsor events just to get you to drink their beer. Those companies are a lot more open to spending their promo dollars on this level now, which means we won't have to take it on the chin as much as we had before.
Cross: It's also so we can party all weekend. I remember in 2003 we had an afterparty at our apartment.
Novak: Mark McKenzie was on our back porch just screaming at an owl or something.
Cross: Honestly, man, it's called "the Blackout." I just don't remember.