On Thursday, November 15, British pop-punk outfit Johnny Foreigner took the stage at Subterranean in Chicago. Johnny Foreigner is an act signed on the Windy City’s newest record label, Swerp Records. Their music boasts a playful tone, and owner J Matthew Nix is ecstatic about their presence on his label – that’s just the kind of style he is going for. With a laundry list of artists who are passionate and energetic, Swerp is in demand.
“Every couple of days, I’ll get a message from an artist that is just a terrible, terrible fit for Swerp: a suicide-oriented screamo band, a Christian heavy metal band, a “rock star” from Hollywood with sex kitten lyrics and a $100k production budget,” Nix says. “I’m always so confused – did they look at our website? Did they listen to the other bands? Are we so good at looking professional that they’ve confused us with a “real” record label? And then I usually don’t respond to them, because they’re trying hard and I don’t want to be rude.”
In 2006, Swerp was born. It began in the south suburbs as several bands started to work together as a community, and the label officially manifested in October/November of 2011, only arriving online in May of 2012 with the launch of their website.
“Initially, Swerp was defined by the artists and community that we got our start in,” Nix says. “We spent our teens with a thriving music scene in the middle of the unremarkable suburbs. Those strong roots and years of awesome musical experimentation gave us the ability to migrate many of the bands into the city, and with great success. We’ve been able to keep 70-80 percent of our original artists as part of Swerp, either on the label or playing Mansion shows.”
The Swerp Mansion has launched the label into the forefront of Chicago’s DIY music scene, even though some may not be aware of its label affiliation. Since its inception, the Swerp space has hosted Hop Along, Joan of Arc, Birthmark, The Mexican Standoff launch show and Gnarfest. Sound familiar? That’s how Nix and his Swerp family have maintained a presence.
“Swerp Mansion is our headquarters, practice space, recording studio, laboratory, art gallery, DIY venue, and home, but at its core, it’s a loft on the West Side that happens to have a giant living room we have bands play in,” he said.
“We have monsters drawn on the walls, a bunch of halfway-decent amps, and neighbors who don’t complain about noise, so as far as I’m concerned, it’s the best apartment ever.”
Swerp has stayed fairly under the radar for the past few years, and Nix doesn’t dream too big. In effort to maintain Swerp’s low-key personality, he’s very realistic and leaves the future in the hands of fate. That’s not to say Nix isn’t working hard to make the label a Chicago mainstay, because he is, but he isn’t looking to make a few bucks and split.
“I think our biggest priority will be focused on growth – there’s still a ton of people who have not heard of Swerp, but who care about music as passionately as we do. Figuring out how to stop hemorrhaging money, unfortunately, will continue being a goal, so we’ll make cool shit that people will want to buy, then sell it to the aforementioned people at an affordable price.”
Nix has an attitude for success. He is in the business to make die-hard music fans happy, while ensuring musicians are doing what they love. He’s modest, optimistic, hopeful and realistic.
“Personally, I believe not every goal in music has to be about either getting famous or staying invisible. I really believe if we collectively focused our efforts on making things, supporting our friends, passionately caring about our projects, limiting our pride and consumption and apologizing for when we’re wrong, we could cause a real positive change in the world and the greater culture of music. That’s the kind of philosophy I believe in, and I’m trying very hard for Swerp to be a reflection of that.”