Remembering Chicago music champion Christen Thomas | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Remembering Chicago music champion Christen Thomas 

She booked shows for a decade with the Empty Bottle and Metro teams, but that work was just the beginning of the love, joy, and support she showered on the local scene.

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Christen Thomas at Parson's Community Block and Lawn Party in June 2017. Her friend Alison Green took this photo, and she's holding Green's dog Lil Mama. - ALISON GREEN
  • Christen Thomas at Parson's Community Block and Lawn Party in June 2017. Her friend Alison Green took this photo, and she's holding Green's dog Lil Mama.
  • Alison Green

Christen Thomas's boisterous laugh could charm everyone in the room—and because she worked in the music industry, she was in a lot of crowded rooms. She made too many friends to count, not just in Chicago but around the world. Within a few months of moving here in 2007 from New York City, where she'd worked for Cornerstone Promotions and Vice Records, she landed a gig in media relations at the Empty Bottle. A few years later she transitioned into the role of talent buyer, and in 2016 she took a similar job with the team at Metro. For a decade, Thomas helped shape Chicago's nightlife, booking top-tier touring acts and local talent at the Bottle and bringing eclectic live music, RuPaul's Drag Race watch parties, and much more to GMan Tavern.

Thomas worked in a field dominated by men, and she tirelessly advocated for marginalized voices in the arts—she knew firsthand what it felt like to be the only woman in the room. She also made herself at home in the boys' club of rock 'n' roll, and played in three bands during her years in Chicago: Circles, Storm Clouds, and Richard Vain, which had begun as the solo project of former Ponys front man Jered Gummere. This past November, Thomas traveled to Austin with Richard Vain to perform at the Levitation festival. That set would be her last. She died of cardiac arrest on Monday, April 6, at age 38.

Thomas grew up in Groveland, Massachusetts, a suburb roughly 35 minutes north of Boston. She learned to play piano because her parents had one in the house—even though neither of them could play, they'd bought it at a yard sale before Thomas was born, hoping their kids would make music. Thomas, the first of their two children, turned out to excel at it. She also studied flute, and after a family trip to the UK, she fell in love with pennywhistles. "It became her mission to collect pennywhistles in every key," says her younger sister, Cathy Shenoy.

Shenoy remembers that when Thomas took music classes in high school, her teacher noticed her knack for picking up new instruments. "Her band director, he was like, 'Oh, I want to do this song that has French horn,'" she says. "'Christen, can you learn French horn?' She would come home from school with a French horn and be like, 'I'm gonna learn to play this.'" Thomas went on to teach herself oboe, and after she left Groveland in 1999 to attend Adelphi University on Long Island, she gave cello a shot too.

At Adelphi, Thomas double-majored in English and music—she aspired to become a conductor of Broadway musicals. "There weren't very many female conductors working on Broadway, and it was her goal to break into that," Shenoy says. Before she graduated in 2003, Thomas got a taste of that dream career—she apprenticed as a conductor for The Lion King on Broadway. But by then she'd already found another path, while studying abroad in London her junior year. "Her friends she made over there, they went to a lot of live shows—that's where she got more into punk and rock," Shenoy says. "That's when things start to shift more for her, like, 'OK, well, I know all this stuff about music, and I've also got this degree in English. Maybe I can work writing about music.'"

Shortly after graduation, Thomas got a job with Cornerstone, an entertainment promotion company that shares ownership with tastemaking music publication the Fader. She worked in the marketing department, where she met Danny Wirtz, who's now vice chairman of the Breakthru Beverage Group in Chicago; with her passion for new music, she quickly ingratiated herself into the small group of marketers who worked with up-and-coming bands. "I always kind of thought that if she worked at a bank, she probably would still be at shows every night," Wirtz says. "It just happened to be that she was able to make a living off of this world too." Many of her former Cornerstone colleagues have long since moved into other fields, but Thomas would continue to work in music for the rest of her life.

In fall 2005, Thomas started at Vice Records, where she helped sign Atlanta garage hotshots the Black Lips. As Vice courted the band in 2006, the label booked a handful of shows for them in New York City and flew in Chicago-based garage rockers the Tyrades to open. The two bands were friends, but after Tyrades guitarist Jim "Hollywood" McCann met Thomas, he spent much of the rest of the trip hanging out with her. "She's super easy to become friends with—it just seemed like she wanted the best for everyone," McCann says. "You can sense that almost immediately after meeting her." McCann soon got into the habit of calling Thomas's office after late-night bartending shifts at Delilah's and leaving silly phone messages in mixed-up Spanish and Italian. She always called back the next day, laughing.

In summer 2006, Vice curated the second and last Intonation Festival, which had split off from the Pitchfork festival that year. The Tyrades' set at Intonation would be their last show, and Thomas flew out for it. "I think the Chicago community really spoke to her in a meaningful way," Shenoy says.

When Thomas left Vice in late 2007, she felt Chicago calling. "In the middle of shooting the shit on the phone, she was like, 'Maybe I'll just move to Chicago,'" McCann says. "I was like, 'Oh, you 100 percent need to do that right now.' She's like, 'Really?' I'm like, 'Yeah, it'll be great.'" And he was right.

After Thomas settled in Chicago, she briefly worked as a publicist for Pitchfork TV (which launched in April 2008) before being hired by the Empty Bottle. As Wirtz points out, she'd already been part of three outlets that shaped the era's musical zeitgeist: Vice, Pitchfork, and by extension the Fader. "I don't think she was defined by those places," he says. "She contributed to those places, but Christen Thomas was Christen Thomas."

Christen Thomas with her husband, Jeff Rice (second from left), and Johalla Projects founder Anna Cerniglia (foreground) at the northern Michigan wedding of their friends Aimee Quinkert and Brent Michalak in September 2018 - ALISON GREEN
  • Christen Thomas with her husband, Jeff Rice (second from left), and Johalla Projects founder Anna Cerniglia (foreground) at the northern Michigan wedding of their friends Aimee Quinkert and Brent Michalak in September 2018
  • Alison Green

In early April 2008, Daylight Robbery drummer Jeff Rice met Thomas at a Headache City show at Cobra Lounge, and afterward they went to the Burlington with a couple friends from the gig. Thomas and Rice spent the night and the entire next day together. "We never were not an item after that," Rice says. "We kept it casual for about a week." By the end of the year, Rice had moved in with Thomas; they married in October 2013.

Shortly after Rice and Thomas started dating, she ran into Pete Toalson at a friend's backyard barbecue. At the time, he was the Bottle's program coordinator. "We met, she talked a little bit about her background—she had been working at Vice in New York and was freelance writing," Toalson says. "At the time, I was looking for some copywriting PR support, so we talked it out a little bit." Thomas formally interviewed at the Bottle within a couple weeks, and she got the job right away.

Toalson and Thomas worked together closely for about five years. "She quickly became an asset that I couldn't fathom being without," Toalson says. "She started helping me doing some of the programming. We both wrote a lot for the website. She would help out anywhere, in any capacity, with anyone on the entire team."

Thomas also became tight with the Bottle's floor staff. "She knew that the people actually working on the ground were the ones who made the events happen and who made them enjoyable for the people who go to the Bottle," Rice says. "It's the folks who actually check your IDs at the door, pick up the drinks, make sure the bands go on at reasonable times, and that everybody's safe and taken care of. Those are the important people." Thomas even helped her future bandmate Jered Gummere get a job behind the bar.

Thomas also found ways to act on her love for music, and for Chicago's scene specifically, outside the Bottle. She'd often write band bios and press releases for local musicians—she helped Adam Lukas of Pink Frost through two of the band's album cycles. He and Thomas became friends, and she became a fixture at Handlebar, where he was working. Every Friday for a decade, Thomas and Rice would convene at Handlebar, usually sitting at the bar; sometimes they'd join Metro talent buyer Joe Carsello and his wife, Casey, who maintained a similar weekly ritual. "It kind of became a weird, like, booking-agent-slash-Friday-night Handlebar thing. It was awesome," Lukas says. "Just picking out the jams and having fun doing shots."

Christen Thomas at the Hard Rock Hotel bar during a 2017 Lollapalooza afterparty, where the lineup included the Black Lips, the Ponys, and the Life and Times - ALISON GREEN
  • Christen Thomas at the Hard Rock Hotel bar during a 2017 Lollapalooza afterparty, where the lineup included the Black Lips, the Ponys, and the Life and Times
  • Alison Green

Of course, Thomas also kept going to lots of shows around the city, often seeking out local acts—and not just musicians. Jane Beachy, who founded inclusive, queer-friendly weekly performance series Salonathon in 2011, says she met Thomas at a drag show that Salonathon curated for Illinois Humanities (though she's not sure if they'd already run into each other at the Bottle). Thomas helped out with Salonathon as it grew, and Beachy came to admire her for her down-to-earth spirit and personable approach to her work. "She wanted to know how you were just as much as she wanted to know if you wanted to work on a particular project," Beachy says. "That made working with her, and being around her, and being friends with her just very easy."

Beachy also managed gay synth-pop group Baathhaus, then still called Daan. When they opened for Diamond Rings at the Bottle in the early 2010s, they won Thomas over, and after she formally transitioned into Toalson's role as the Bottle's talent buyer in 2011, she'd sometimes tap them to open for touring acts. She gave lots of locals a leg up that way: Lukas says she booked Pink Frost to open shows for A Place to Bury Strangers and Wild Nothing, and she constantly brought in acts that had members working at Handlebar, among them Radar Eyes and the Runnies. She was fond of garage group Outer Minds, thrash deviants Oozing Wound, and psych misfits Rabble Rabble (whose bassist, Matt Ciarleglio, was a Bottle staffer). Thomas loved rock 'n' roll, especially garage rock, but she knew she couldn't do her job well by coloring inside those lines—she also liked to bring in New Orleans bounce queen Big Freedia.

Brent Heyl started at the Bottle in 2012, working in tandem with Thomas as a booker. They frequently took work trips to South by Southwest and CMJ, and at the office they spent hours together dealing with the bureaucratic grind of a business where frustrating last-minute cancellations and crises are the norm. "In working with her, the thing that I appreciated the most is she would help remind me of why I got into it in the first place, and what the point of us being here is," Heyl says. "She was a really big supporter of LGBT rights and community. Her approach to activism and groups was really encouraging."

At the Bottle, Thomas advocated for queer-friendly programming such as Glitter Creeps, an LGBTQ+ monthly curated by Donnie and Madison Moore of Absolutely Not. And after she started at the GMan in early 2016, she turned her activism up a notch. She became a moderator for the Chicago chapter of Shout Your Abortion, and she helped connect local venues with grassroots organization Good Night Out, which trains staff to respond to and prevent sexual harassment. Her sudden departure from the Bottle—Rice suspects it was related to friction with male managers—was one of a series of developments that encouraged her to think differently about how to advocate for women in music. As she wrote in an essay for the 2016 book Feminist Advice From the City of Broad Shoulders, "I didn't need to be and I couldn't continue being the only girl in the room. There's more than enough room up here for us."

But even before she wrote those words, Thomas had been leading by example and inspiring women in Chicago's arts communities. Johalla Projects founder Anna Cerniglia says that seeing Thomas work in a field dominated by men helped motivate her in her role as a creative programmer. "Christen was first and foremost a really great feminist and advocator for women, through the Bottle, the Metro, through her social media," she says. "She constantly supported female-driven projects, no matter what."

Christen Thomas at SXSW in 2011, photographed by her friend Jim McCann, who was there to play with his band Football. "After I took the picture I told Carbomb, 'Your hair looks fabulous,' mostly to get a laugh from her," says McCann. "About a week after we returned to Chicago she texted me, 'Can you send me my photo with the fabulous hair?'" - JIM MCCANN
  • Christen Thomas at SXSW in 2011, photographed by her friend Jim McCann, who was there to play with his band Football. "After I took the picture I told Carbomb, 'Your hair looks fabulous,' mostly to get a laugh from her," says McCann. "About a week after we returned to Chicago she texted me, 'Can you send me my photo with the fabulous hair?'"
  • Jim McCann

Shortly after Thomas moved to Chicago, McCann was bartending a slow Wednesday night at Delilah's when an obnoxious patron walked in and, without ending his phone call, leaned over the bar to deliver a one-word order: "Carbomb." When McCann told Thomas the story, he joked that he'd start calling one of his friends "Carbomb."

"She goes, 'Ooooh,' which was a thing she does," McCann says. "She's like, 'I want to be Carbomb!'" The nickname caught on as easily as Thomas made friends. By 2010, a friend of Thomas and McCann's from Austin performing as Butcher Bear (his real name is Ben Webster) had released a synth-pop EP called Carbomb. Thomas inspired the title track.

"She had a way of making you feel twice as funny or cool as you actually were," says Sean Tillmann, better known as Har Mar Superstar. Because he's based in Minnesota, he saw Thomas less frequently than her Chicago crowd did—they'd hang out when he'd play the Bottle on tour, and she'd usually gather their mutual friends to see him. In November 2019, Thomas and Rice watched as Tillmann served as the officiant at the wedding of two of their friends. "I flew in after having no sleep, straight off of tour, and was very nervous about this large role," he says. "Something about Carbomb being there, just being like, 'You're gonna do great, don't even think about it,' set me so much ease that I nailed it. I don't think I would have been that relaxed if I didn't have her spirit there."

Thomas had a knack for energizing her friends in their creative pursuits. "One of the things that was really powerful for me was, when I was working for the Reader and trying to figure out if I was a real photographer or not, Christen was always unquestionably like, 'Oh yeah, you're killing it,'" says photographer Alison Green. "That's really powerful coming from her, because she's not a bullshitter. She's extremely kind, but part of that kindness is a truly authentic connection—she'll love you despite your flaws."

Though she could be relied on to stick up for underdogs and support the people she loved, in her own bands Thomas shied away from the spotlight. "I think Christen was just so immersed in her role as a music promoter, and also had severe anxiety—being onstage playing keyboards was hugely stressful," Rice says. "But once she got past that, she was very good at it."

In the early 2010s, guitarist Srini Radhakrishna asked Thomas to join his garage-pop group Circles, which gigged around town and toured the west coast. A couple years later, she started playing with her friends Justin "Lugs" Wettstein and James Deia, who'd been jamming as an outlet for their shared love of punk and posthardcore. "The loose construction of that band was like, 'Let's just bring friends in, and it can take whatever shape it will,'" Deia says. Rice had recommended Thomas to Wettstein.

"It felt really good, and it was hitting some touchstones for her as well—we bonded over the Anniversary," Deia says. "It went from being a one-off collaborative thing to she felt very much at home." Thomas soon joined the band, which developed a stable five-piece lineup and took the name Storm Clouds.

"It was really ridiculously easy to be in a band with her, the same as it was to be around her," Wettstein says. "She was a master of relating to people—like, gauging people, figuring them out, and figuring out how she was going to relate to them and build a relationship. So being in a band was no different."

Christen Thomas at Riot Fest 2017 with Metro social media director Brett Crawford (left) and Bloodiest guitarist Tony Lazzara, who's also head engineer at the Burlington and co-owns Versus Guitars and Audio - ALISON GREEN
  • Christen Thomas at Riot Fest 2017 with Metro social media director Brett Crawford (left) and Bloodiest guitarist Tony Lazzara, who's also head engineer at the Burlington and co-owns Versus Guitars and Audio
  • Alison Green

Wettstein and Thomas would continue to play together in Richard Vain, led by Jered Gummere—one of Thomas's favorite musicians and by then a close friend as well. "I'd been working on songs for a while at home, got bored, and ended up talking to Christen—I was like, 'I want to add friends, I'm lonely,'" Gummere says. "We practiced and that was it." The group had great chemistry, even when they had trouble finding the time to rehearse. Gummere says Thomas was the group's rock.

In late 2018, Richard Vain dropped an album called Night Jammer. "She was super proud of it," Rice says. "She listened to the mixes over and over again. That was probably the most fulfilling thing for her musically."

In 2015, Rice and Thomas took their first of three trips to Talkeetna, an inland Alaskan town a couple hours north of Anchorage with a population under 1,000—it may have inspired the fictional Cicely, the setting of 1990s CBS series Northern Exposure. They'd go hiking during the day and spend their evenings at the Fairview Inn. They made their visits outside the usual tourist season, so they mostly ran into townies with blue-collar jobs. "She loved going to a place where it was only industry people," Rice says. "That entire state is like the first floor of the Empty Bottle."

Thomas pursued a sprawling variety of interests and obsessions. She loved drag, and after joining the staff at Metro she became a regular at Smart Bar's Queen! series. She read voraciously, sometimes finishing a book every day; she'd often visit Wettstein at the restaurant where he works, sit at the bar, read a book for a few hours, and chat with him when he had some downtime. When her great-aunt Jan died in late 2015 and her family discovered a cache of letters from a friend dating back to the 1940s, Thomas transcribed every one and tracked down the sender's family in Vermont. She had a soft spot for Neil Diamond, and managed to convert Rice too. When Diamond played the United Center a few years ago, Wirtz got Thomas and Rice tickets (the Wirtz Corporation is part owner of the arena). "I talked to Jeff a little about this—for her and Jeff, it was like one of those top-ten moments as a couple," Wirtz says.

Christen Thomas at Riot Fest 2016. As much as she did for Chicago's music scene, she wasn't always comfortable as the center of attention. - ALISON GREEN
  • Christen Thomas at Riot Fest 2016. As much as she did for Chicago's music scene, she wasn't always comfortable as the center of attention.
  • Alison Green

A couple years ago, Thomas began nannying, mostly for friends. Her easy sociability wasn't confined to people her own age—Green says she could charm old men instantly, and children adored her. Thomas and Rice didn't plan on having children of their own, but she loved spending time with her friends' kids, Wirtz's among them. "It wasn't babysitting—she always said, 'I want to hang out with your kids,'" Wirtz says. "I couldn't think of a better role model—and just an awesome person—to spend time with our two daughters."

Thomas got especially close to Gummere and Melissa Elias's seven-year-old daughter, Eloise. "She's pretty much like family to us," Gummere says. Thomas relished her role as "cool aunt," and she'd recently bought Whitney and Warpaint records for Eloise. "Starting her out right with a good record collection," Gummere says.

Thomas's enthusiasm could turn just about anyone on to something new. Shenoy remembers that when Thomas was in high school, the two of them went with their mom to see the White Stripes in Providence—and their mom got hooked.

A couple days before Thomas died, when she was hospitalized with a dire prognosis, her mother was talking on the phone with Shenoy and brought up the White Stripes. "She was like, 'I keep thinking of that Jack White song, "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself,"'" Shenoy says. "I thought, 'The fact that my mother is calling on the power of Jack White right now, as we're grieving and being sad, just speaks volumes to how powerful Christen's love of music was.'"  v

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