Annie Saunders, veterinarian and founder of Punk House Chicago | Chicagoans of Note | Chicago Reader

Annie Saunders, veterinarian and founder of Punk House Chicago 

“The focus is not as much on the bands as it is on communal life and the weird things you get up to when you’re making minimum wage and you’re bored.”

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PHOTO COURTESY ANNIE SAUNDERS

  • Photo courtesy Annie Saunders

Annie Saunders, 46, grew up in the Chicago area, and as a teenager she moved into a punk house and began putting on shows. These days, she works as a veterinarian in Wisconsin and sings and plays bass in Chicago-based punk and power-pop band Time Thieves. Inspired by the Instagram page @punkhouseoakland, Saunders launched @punkhousechicago last month to document the city's punk houses past and present. She's accepting photo submissions at punkhousechicago@gmail.com.


As told to Jamie Ludwig

I grew up in Bensenville, just outside of Chicago, and when I was about 14 I was introduced to punk rock. It started mostly with well-known bands like the Misfits and the Sex Pistols, but when I was 15 I went to a local DIY show and my whole world exploded. I spent a lot of time as a teenager at McGregor's, the Fireside Bowl, and tons of house shows.

After I graduated high school, I moved into a house called the Haven House in Elmhurst, where my friends and I started putting on shows. Los Crudos played there; the Mushuganas played there. Maximum Rocknroll used to put out this yearly magazine called Book Your Own Fuckin' Life. If you put on shows, you could send in your information, so we started getting bands from as far away as Georgia and Canada too.

I moved to Chicago in '97, and a year later my friends and I moved into this space over a bar in Rogers Park. That turned into the Community Shower Loft, and it was even more expansive as far as the bands coming through—there was even a band from Italy that stayed with us.

  • Saunders (second from left) and friend Emily Udell (third from right) behind Community Shower Loft with Italian band This Side Up

The whole concept of a punk house, at least to me, is that you could live with your friends for cheap while you learn how to navigate the world. It creates a tight-knit community that might be lacking elsewhere. That's what's reflected on Punk House Chicago. The focus is not as much on the bands as it is on communal life and the weird things you get up to when you're making minimum wage and you're bored.

I'm still friends with the friends I made when I was 15. We're all still playing music, and it's just amazing. I also learned a lot from the people that came through, which helped shape my values and ethics and teach me a lot of new ideas, politically and socially. I don't think I'd be the person I am today if I hadn't lived in those two houses.

It sounds cliche to say "Punk made me a better person," but it did. Our place was so small and intimate that we were able to provide a really safe space. We didn't tolerate sexual harassment, and because kids as young as 14 and 15 would come out, we had to make sure they were safe and not threatened by anything.

Punk also instilled me with a mad respect for animals. At 22 or 23 I was going to UIC for labor history (specifically Chicago labor history from the 1880s). The school made a really horrible administrative error that caused me to have to drop out for a semester. I quickly found a job at a doggy day care, and I fell in love with it. Then a job opened at Higgins Animal Clinic, where they trained me on the spot to be a vet assistant. I took off running and never really looked back. I now live in Wisconsin, where I work as a shelter veterinarian at a Humane Society. I feel like it's an extension of my punk rock sensibilities to care for animals. It's also given me a lot of empathy.

I've played in Time Thieves for exactly three years this month. Before Wisconsin, I spent two years in Washington, but I'd save up any expendable income to come back to Chicago every six months or so to record or play shows for a weekend.

  • Time Thieves recorded most of this album in late 2019 and released it last summer.

Before the pandemic hit, my whole social structure was built around the music scene and the friends I've made through music. Having that taken away so suddenly was a struggle. One day I stumbled across Punk House Oakland, which is run by Elizabeth Whitney. I lived in the Bay Area for about a decade, and I noticed a lot of familiar faces on the page. The more she posted, the more it sprouted these great memories. I realized I had this whole shoebox of pictures sitting around, so I wrote her and asked if she'd be OK if I started a page for Chicago. She got really excited and gave it her blessing.

It's still early, but I'm starting to get photo submissions from other people, and that's really my goal. It's not about reliving the old days; it's about celebrating how amazing Chicago is, and how close-knit and intertwined the DIY scene is from the north side to the south side. That's a really important thing, especially when we're all feeling so isolated.

Had the pandemic not happened, I probably wouldn't have launched this. It's a way to connect while we can't be together in person, and it's been nothing but positive so far. Even if someone hasn't been directly involved in a punk rock house, they can see the human connections—even if the people have spiky green hair and studded jackets.

It's about the sense of community and what we're bonded by, which for most of us was local punk music. Though it's called Punk House Chicago, it isn't limited to just the houses that we lived in. I've got a few pictures from the Mutiny and the Fireside and other small venues too. To me, they're just as important as photos of people dressing up in their living room on a Monday for no reason.

  • Saunders (center) and friends Mike Allen and Jason Ewing jumping on Allen's bed at Haven House in 1995

Most of the photos so far are from the mid-90s through the early 00s, but that's just one tiny slice of a much larger deep dish pizza. There were plenty of punk houses in the early 80s. And there are plenty now. There's no time limit on these photos—punk is punk. If people feel inclined to share, I'm honored to be involved. If anybody wants their photo down, there's no questions asked or explanation necessary.

Even though I don't physically live in Chicago right now, I still feel as much a part of the community as I did as a teenager. I hope that someday soon we can play live music with our friends again, but I don't see the page ending in the near future. Along with Punk House Chicago, there's now Punk House Philly, Punk House Reno, and pages from all these other cities. I feel like we owe it all to Elizabeth, and it's been exciting to watch it grow—it's like one big punk house.  v

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