“Your Blues is a reflection the singular nature of music itself – on that unaccountable magic that lifts the notes off the page and transforms them into the raw energy of experienced sound.” – ES
The drummer always seems to be the first one on stage. Climb in behind the kit, get the seat and the drums into position, make sure it all feels right, sweep round the snare, hi-hat, toms, cymbals … then, a big fat hit on the bass drum. It’s like a call to arms, a deep-tone boom that threads itself around the heartbeat, an embrace and an invitation.
Michael Schmelling’s Your Blues opens with the visual echo of a drum hit – a closeup shot of the port hole in the head of a bass drum, doubling the ragged outline of a broken vinyl record on the book’s cover. It’s an invitation into a vivid, affectionate look at a brief moment in Chicago’s musical history. But Your Blues is more than a document of a particular time and place. It’s also a reflection the singular nature of music itself – on that unaccountable magic that lifts the notes off the page and transforms them into the raw energy of experienced sound, and on the communities that gather around that energy.
Your Blues is end point of a project that began in 2013 with a commission from curator Karen Irvine at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography. The brief, as Schmelling recalls, was open-ended: “It should be about music, but other than that, there was no structure.” All that he knew, initially, was that he didn’t want to focus on a single genre, or on any of the clichés that surrounded the Chicago blues scene. “When you think of the blues, you could see the most interesting, mysterious part of American music, with Robert Johnson meeting the devil at the crossroads, selling your soul kind of blues … it’s so rich, and mysterious, and pure in a way. But the flip side of that is like a bad Eric Clapton cover – your dad in his garage playing blues licks.”
Instead, Schmelling decided to document Chicago’s underground music community. “I’m always looking for the stuff that isn’t necessarily represented. It wouldn’t be that interesting to go and shoot a bunch of portraits of well-known musicians from Chicago.” With a handful of exceptions, all of the events that Schmelling photographed were held at small clubs and house parties, during a brief, but incredibly vibrant period. “I didn’t realise that was such a big part of the scene when I was there. Chicago is a much cheaper place to live than other cities in the US, so it makes for a much more fluid houseparty scene. … I got lucky – you could go to three or four shows like that in a night, on a good weekend in the summer, there was just a lot happening.”
The commission was also a chance to rediscover his hometown, and to reintroduce himself to its music scene. Schmelling is a Chicago native, but hadn’t lived there since the age of 17. “My folks live in the suburbs there. I’m back every now and then, but for one reason or another, I didn’t go back that much to shoot, ever, so I hadn’t been back for a substantial amount of time, like 20 years. … I knew that Chicago is home to all these great record labels, it has a very visible musical presence, but I didn’t know what I was going to find when I went there, what was going on at a grassroots level.”
What he found was a passionate DIY culture grounded in tradition and driven by invention; where punk, emo, jazz, and blues met up and crossed over with house, rap and hardcore. If you’re a fan of indie music, you’ll spot a handful of familiar faces in the book. Chicago native Kanye West makes an appearance, in a shot taken on a New York street corner in 2004, and in an iphone photograph taken at a gig on West’s Yeezus tour. For the most part, though, Schmelling was drawn to the sort of ad hoc spaces where fans gather to hear bands and artists who may never have anything more than a cult presence. “I like the scrappiness of those spaces, and I like that kind of word-of-mouth thing, people just show up, walk in or out.” Outsiders are awkwardly conspicuous at events like these, and Schmelling couldn’t have captured the vitality of the scene in the way he did if he wasn’t a fan as well. “I’m not just a photographer shooting anything, I’m there with these people because I love music. … Most of time I didn’t know people there. But a lot of these were tiny spaces, and you’re getting pushed around, and moving around with everybody, and you have to just be part of it.”
Schmelling channelled that energy into the design and editing of the book itself. Your Blues is structured like a song. It kicks off with a drum hit, then lays down a steady rhythm of bold, minimal images in single and double page spreads – portraits, details, and the odd interior. About 40 pages in, the single images give way to grids of photographs, building to a kind of climax, before everything slowly calms down again. “There were times where I felt you could get more like a verse-chorus-verse kind of feel to it, but I do like that it’s kind of quiet-loud-quiet,” Schmelling remarks. Like so much of his work, Your Blues is about visualising things that don’t necessarily lend themselves to representation. “I did want it to feel somewhat romantic, I wanted some of the mystery, the romance of music, the emo side of music. Emo was a big thread in midwestern music too, and I wanted to get as much of that in there as I could from some of the sequencing and editing.”
If the mystery and romance of music are expressed in the slow, contemplative sequences that begin and end the book, the middle section is all about that euphoric sense of being in the moment at a really good gig. Shot on film using a point and shoot camera, the photographs in this section look and feel very different from the quieter, more minimal images at either end. Working out the relationship between the two was one of the biggest design challenges that Schmelling faced. The work in the central section is loosely based on compositions of cropped images that had been included as posters when the project was first shown as a solo exhibition in 2014. “I made the posters all really quickly towards the end of printing the show. They were pretty intuitive, I think it was just a weekend where I made a bunch of these together, and kept refining them. I would just start with one image and build around it.” Some of the posters were themed around a particular colour, others were grouped by subject. “That’s how they originated, but they weren’t really working on the page like that. I really struggled with that, because I liked them as objects on the wall, but in the book, they just felt like a design decision.”
“You can look at it as music photography, of course, but it’s really about the creative act.” – MS
In the end, Schmelling settled on a simple grid format. “I felt like I was serving the images better if I just made them more straightforward, getting to this idea that this is a simple photograph of what this looks like, what it feels like.” And it’s in the grids that the analogy to a song structure stands out most clearly. Like a riff or phrase that pops up again and again, the grid draws out affinities between individual photographs – repeated gestures and subjects; odd, standout moments where a rogue image pops up in the middle of an otherwise consistent colour palette. “With a grid, those connections from spread to spread help to bring everything together, so it’s not as though each one’s living individually. You see the overlaps a bit more clearly.”
Of all the projects Schmelling has done, Your Blues is the most closely linked to his upbringing and his identity. “When I was a senior in high school, as soon as I could drive, I started going into the city to take pictures, and I used to go photograph at an old open-air market called Maxwell Street. It’s gone now. I was either going into Chicago to go to clubs, and see bands, or to take pictures, so there’s a sense of those two big parts of my identity that are still a big part of my life, starting in that period.” Perhaps inevitably, Your Blues contains an element of nostalgia. “I’ve always loved Chicago. Every time you go back there, you get this immediate flood of memories, streets you’ve been on, friends from high school you remember, familiar faces, things like that, and being at my parents’ house – there was the thought that if I was 16 or 17, I’d probably be at some of these shows. … Every now and then I would run into somebody from high school outside a bar, and you’d see how old they look. That feeling of seeing somebody your age, that you haven’t seen in years, where you realise ‘I must look old to them too’. … You can see the through line of your youth, to this point where you are.”
In fact, Schmelling’s younger self makes a subtle appearance in the book – a couple of photographs he took in high school are included in the edit, and the title is borrowed from an album by his favourite band: Destroyer’s Your Blues, released in 2004. “I wanted to use his title as a way of inserting my own fandom into the mix a little bit,” he explains. “There is still music I grew up with that feels as though it’s spoken to me in some way … there’s part of me that still wants to make the mix tapes I made in high school, that kind of original excitement about music, and the way you hold on to bands, the way that you feel ‘this is my music.’ I listen to a lot of stuff, but there are one or two bands in my life that have been important to me, and Destroyer’s one of them. I’m a fan!”
The scene that Schmelling documented in Your Blues doesn’t exist any more. Not long after he finished shooting the project, a tightening of regulations in artist’s spaces across the country led to the closure of many small clubs and underground venues. “I’ve been talking to people since the book has come out, people that are in these photos and some of the bands I photographed, and they were saying ‘Oh, this is already another era’.”
Whether it’s imposed by external forces or driven from within, the imperative for constant reinvention is what keeps the underground music scene alive, drawing in new faces and new sounds, leaving others behind. Your Blues closes with an essay by writer and musician Tim Kinsella. It’s a moving reflection on Kinsella’s own life in music, and on that point when you realise that you’re no longer part of the community in the way you imagined you’d always be. “Tim had a band in the early 90s called Cap’n Jazz. A lot of people credit them as being the first emo band. He has that sensibility, and he’s able to articulate a lot of those thoughts. Those are my favourite parts, where he’s like ‘give it up to these kids, they have the energy to close the bars.’ I share his point of view on that feeling of getting older, and watching scenes come and go.” Kinsella writes about the ‘complex ecstasy’ stirred up by live music: the involuntary rapture that still pulls you onto the dance floor, and the bittersweet awareness of being a witness to your own past – recognising yourself as that person at the other end of the continuum, remembering what 40 must have looked like when you were the 17-year-old fan pushing your way to the front of the stage.
Your Blues is also a reflection on creativity itself, and on the way that it renews and reshapes itself with the passing of time. “I think it was important to have a musician’s voice in there. … It’s like this lifer perspective of somebody who’s been in a band, these moments where he’s felt most real in his life. You can look at it as music photography, of course, but it’s really about the creative act.” And listening to music – really listening, getting caught up and carried away in it – is as much about creativity as playing an instrument. Your favourite song might not move you in the same way it did when you were 17, but that doesn’t stop you finding new meanings every time you listen to it. Schmelling thought about this often while he was putting Your Blues together. “What is it about a book or a song that makes you go back and do the repeated listening, or do the repeated viewing? Of course there’s the story or the melody or the pictures themselves that can stand on their own, but what makes you want to go back to things over and over again?” There’s no easy answer to questions like these, and that’s probably the way it should be. But Your Blues shares the obscure attraction of a really good song – one that moves you a bit differently each time you encounter it, that grows deeper and more compelling the more familiar it becomes.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Eugenie Shinkle. Images @ Michael Schmelling.)