Off the Books: Leor Galil

Jack Riedy speaks with the veteran Chicago music journalist about his lifelong interest in alt-weeklies and his new book, compiled with his best feature writing from the Chicago Reader.
By    July 16, 2020

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Chicago has one full-time music journalist to serve 2.7 million residents, and he doesn’t write for the august yet imploding Chicago Tribune, its rival the Sun-Times, nor glossy city guide Chicago Magazine. Instead, he’s staffed at the Chicago Reader, the legendary independent alt-weekly. Leor Galil has been an indispensable resource to music fans since he first started writing for the Reader in June 2010, illuminating and analyzing artists of every style imaginable during a vital decade of Chicago music history[Full disclosure: I regularly contribute to the Reader, with frequent guidance from Leor.] Galil’s first book, the first volume in the Best of Chicago Reader series, is out now, with all proceeds going towards supporting the publication in a time where the shutdown of live events has decimated its advertising revenues.

Chicago Pop Stars, Hardcore Heroes, and House Legends collects the best of Galil’s features for the paper, and it includes stories on some of Chicago’s most important musicians: Chance The Rapper as SXSW sensation before he dropped Acid Rap, Frankie Knuckles’ family and fans finding a permanent home for his vinyl collection, Saba and his group Pivot Gang channeling grief for their murdered friend into a jaw-dropping album and an arts non-profit. But Galil also visits a pre-dawn used vinyl show to learn how record stores restock, and he orders a personalized song from “emo hero” Bob Nanna as a gift to one of his friends, a die-hard fan of Nanna’s band Braid. As written by Galil, these stories are just as compelling without A-list names, a testament to his curiosity and care for his subjects. 

Galil is celebrating the book’s release with a virtual launch party on July 16 (today), featuring guest appearances from KAINA, Pivot Gang, American Football’s Mike Kinsella, and more. I spoke to him by phone about his history with alt-weeklies, the stories in his book, and the best music in Chicago right now. Jack Riedy

In the book, you mention first getting familiar with the Reader online. How did the paper come across your radar in that time?

Leor Galil: Part of it is having been obsessed with alt-weeklies since, God… I feel like I saw The Village Voice when I’d go on family trips to New York growing up, but it was the Washington City Paper that I developed the first real familiarity with. I grew up in Bethesda right on the line with D.C. I actually lived a block away from the National Institute of Health. That’s where I went sledding growing up, the hills there were unbeatable, and up until 9/11 all that was so easy to access. It was totally normal to just like, go to NIH. Walk through the campus and hop on the metro. And on the metro outside, they had the news stands for the Washington City Paper and it was free and I was like, “Oh, what is this?” And I can’t say that I like, really got the most out of it that I would later in life with alt-weeklies, but I appreciated the depth of it and there seemed to be this sense of joy in the work and in the presentation. They had this series in the back where it was just like, “Here’s a publicity photo for like, an unknown band, make up the name of the band, and we’ll send you stuff.” So I got Washington City Paper T-shirts, because I submitted to that often enough. But yeah, what I got out of it was a general appreciation for alt-weeklies. And so whenever I went somewhere new, I made sure to seek out the alt-weeklies, and I just felt a real kinship with the spirit of those papers. Once I went to college and could access the internet – I had dial-up at home until I went to college, which was in the fall of ’04 — the world opened up to me. There’s so many possible ways that I’d heard of the Reader. One of them was definitely from Jessica Hopper, whose personal blog at the time I read. She was starting to write for the Reader pretty regularly by the time, when I was in the middle of college. But it feels like so much of the work that the Reader had done that had a national imprint, linked into my world anyway.

Knowing that you started with a focus on the rock realm, hardcore and things like that, at what point did you start branching out to cover a wider range of music?

Leor Galil: I think I am lucky in that I pitched so much for the Reader and was able to convince the staff at the Reader that I was indispensable, that I basically had a solid foundation even before I was brought on staff. And in that regard, when you have a constant deadline, I was trying to constantly branch out and see what was out there that either I was already familiar with but hadn’t had the opportunity to really invest my time in researching, or that was brand new to me. Part of the work is reading other people’s work, and I’d seen like, I think it was a very brief news item on Resident Advisor about the return of Dance Mania, the Chicago ghetto house label that was not only the launchpad for ghetto house, but became a place that incubated juke and later footwork. Like the very beginnings of footwork are documented in Dance Mania. Even though it was a tighter deadline than I was used to, it was enough time for me to meet up with the guys that run Dance Mania and also call up other people and get a better sense of what made the label meaningful. Part of what I love about this job is that it does afford me the time to learn about things that I’m unfamiliar with. Otherwise this would be a thing that I do for a hobby, just go and seek out things that are completely unfamiliar with me, when I have an hour or two. Here it’s like, this is what I do all day, is get to learn about everything that’s happening in the city. The city being a thing that can focus me in and prevent me from unraveling and going in so many directions without, you know, writing anything. [laughs]

Now that you’re a staff writer, and you have the luxury of being able to focus on a lot of different things, what at this point makes your ears perk up for a feature like the ones that are in the book?

Leor Galil: When I pitch features to [Reader music editor] Philip Montoro, usually I have at least four to six story ideas, all of which I would love to do. And out of that, I get one to two assignments a month. More than 50% of the stories just don’t ever see the light of day, or don’t see the light of day the minute that I pitch them. And so the thing that I have to think about is alright, is this something that I want to invest more of my time in than any other stories that I’ve come up with? Or is this something that I can explore later and I can write like a show preview or album review? It’s a matter of figuring out what is most important to my time now and to the time of the readers.

Yeah, that’s a great segue. What was the criteria when you’re selecting your own work, for what’s book worthy, you know?

Leor Galil: I didn’t want to lean too hard into a specific style of music. I did want to show how broad my reach has been. I wrote about jazz infrequently, but I wanted to show that I did have some history writing about that, so I included an interview I did with Angel Bat Dawid last year, which I think also ties into some of the other stories in there in terms of her talking about her connection to Black music in Chicago, improvisational music in Chicago, Black creativity in Chicago. Part of it was being able to show like, all these different points in my history at the paper that weren’t necessarily the first things that came to mind, but are pieces that I’m proud of. The criteria is, is this a story that I can look back on and say, “I’ve loved this, this is a good representation of the work that I do”?

Having had such a tenure at one paper in one city, is there an overarching story of Chicago’s music scenes over the past decade?

Leor Galil: There isn’t necessarily one story, but I do think it’s fascinating the ways in which Chicago houses so many different creative communities that overlap in unexpected ways, and also feel like they are miles apart from any other creative scene. I think that speaks to, one, the segregation that has defined the city, but also speaks to the ways in which art in particular can be a bridge between distinctive historical communities in the city. There are figures in this book that appear in multiple chapters, either as a giant force in the background, that people often have to define themselves in comparison to, or as a linchpin of a specific community that people who’ve never spoken to each other have a direct relationship with. Chicago’s creative scene is a fascinating web that keeps finding new threads that keeps the whole thing together. And I think one of the things about living in the city in particular, is the way that there’s an appreciation for the openness with which people can experience those different aspects of its output and the different people involved. People here are just welcoming if you’re interested in it, which is awesome.

Yeah, I’m glad you mentioned the recurring figures. Obviously, the story on Pivot Gang is in the book, but Saba pops up three or four times in other stories, either as another up-and-comer, or some sort of figure in the background. Which I think is fascinating, especially given that this stuff happened in real time. The coverage is kind of crazy in retrospect.

Leor Galil: Thank you. With all these stories, I’m writing in the context of, this might be the only story of mine that you ever read. And I want to make sure that you understand the full gravity of a particular element of what I’m trying to tell you right now. So, Saba pops up in KAINA’s story, and I had hers closer to the beginning of the book. And she gets on Care For Me. She’s one of the few guest artists on there. And her appearance on there is a roadmap in her growth, both as an artist and as a public figure. That’s something that I used to tell people when I published the KAINA story, like she is somebody who is respected in this scene and is beloved because of her talents, to the degree that one of the best artists in the city tapped her for a song. And then later when you get the full gravity of Care For Me and the story of Pivot Gang and John Walt, it can illuminate what you’d read previously.

What’s unique about alt-weeklies’ music coverage compared to some of the more conventional newspapers or national outlets?

Leor Galil: Part of it is an alt-weekly is going to be invested in the city’s culture, that one, a lot of national publications just aren’t going to touch because it’s not big enough. And two, it does so with the depth that a daily newspaper often cannot. That has been a source of frustration for me personally as a reader, because I can see the talent that goes into publishing a national or local daily, but it’s frustrating that the depth and clarity that I see in an alt-weekly doesn’t always come across in some of those dailies. The combination of being invested in the community and really deep considerate coverage of the people in that community is so heartening and moving and legitimizing in a way that can really be a boon to not just writers, but readers as well. If you’re reading a national publication, you’re only seeing the names of superstar musicians. The message that says is that music, as a practice, is almost unattainable. And when you see somebody that’s in your neighborhood that looks like you, that you’re being told makes music or makes art or does something that matters, that can change the way that you see the world around you. That is the work that I’m most proud of doing, is talking about what’s happening in our backyard, regardless of whether or not that person has a name – often, because that person doesn’t have a name.

For someone who is outside of Chicago, what artists do you recommend at this point that you’re excited about in Chicago that maybe are not quite national yet?

Leor Galil: That is a big question. Retirement Party, which is an emo three-piece, just put out their second album, Runaway Dog, and it is to me a career-defining album for that band, and also, I think, one of the better emo albums in the underground scene right now, which is in a very strange place after having been a somewhat celebrated phenomenon in indie rock after years of being derided. This Retirement Party album is graceful and heavy and so moving and captivating in a way that surprised me, even having been somebody who liked and appreciated their music up to this point. Kevin Williams, the music editor at The Tribune, has been writing a lot of reviews, and in his reviews, he’s always like, this is a banner year for Chic ago acts. It does feel like every week there are three or four albums by local artists that are consistently amazing to me. I think if these acts were able to tour now, the emerging community of artists that are making defining albums for themselves right now would change some of the national conversation around Chicago’s music scene.

Ratboys were starting to get a ton of publicity right before the pandemic started. That was one of the last shows I went to, was their sold-out record release show at Lincoln Hall. And for a small indie rock band that was big. They were getting a lot of interest and exposure from avenues that don’t typically focus on their kind of country emo-ish style. The quote unquote indie rock scene in Chicago right now is producing a lot of records that feel invigorating, and feel like they’re bringing in a new era.

I think if NNAMDÏ were able to tour, he would be leveling up in popularity. He’s somebody who has worked in so many different styles of music, and has done such a great job of focusing his ability to combine every style of music that he’s played in. I mean, dude has drummed in hardcore bands, he’s from a post-rock band, he’s well versed in so many styles of music, and also has this really unusual and moving way of combining them, as he’s done on this new record. It has been great to see not only NPR interviewing him but for them to be open to him being like, “I don’t have an assigned style. I kind of float between different scenes.” His previous record, people were like, “He’s a rapper,” but didn’t really have a great sense of like, how to place him. And now I think his work is making it easier for people to be like, “OK, you tell me what you’re about.” As a journalist, it’s up to us to frame things, but I’ve often found that when local acts break nationally, they’re kind of wedged into a one-dimensional portrait that doesn’t really speak to what makes them distinctive and worth listening to in the first place.

I don’t want to diminish the work of any other journalists, especially after a week of just tremendous layoffs [in mid-May]. But I think media organizations have forced journalists to crank out content, the kind of stuff that doesn’t necessarily have anything to say, but has a URL that you can share. It makes it harder for everyone to really get a better focus on the subject. Be it a specific musician from a DIY background, or a popular one, the shortcuts to get people’s attention make it harder for everyone to really understand what makes an artist worth reading about, or worth listening to, and what makes a story worth reading about or worth listening to. There are a lot of great journalists who don’t have that problem and are actually great under that kind of constraint and pressure. I’m not one of them. [laughs] It’s great to have culture journalists embedded within a city who can tell you more about what makes an artist distinctive. That you’re not going to see if you are somebody who is churning out content, if you are somebody who is forced to churn out content, on a variety of different artists. That is just a really bad symptom of an industry that is dying right now. The people who are to blame are the ones who are like the avaricious owners of media organizations that don’t think of them as a public good and think of them as a way to skim money off the top and call it a day.

How much of your job at this point is evangelizing for, you know, the job itself? Do you feel like an evangelist of the need for journalism?

Leor Galil: I am so lucky to have to be in the position that I’m in and to have the job that I do have, that I want to make sure every word, every sentence is great. I want to make sure that I’m not wasting my time, that I’m not wasting readers’ times. Because when there are a variety of options out there that are trying to grab your attention, I want to make sure that you feel like your time is well spent and that you’re learning. So, I do feel like hopefully my best work represents why people should be investing in journalism in the first place, and why they should care about it, and why it’s important to continue to publish journalism and produce journalism. And hopefully, that’s something that you can see in my work when I’m not outright saying, “Hey, you need to support journalism.”

Hopefully I’m doing this less frequently, but I know in the past, I could be a real prick online about the work I’d see about musicians that I’ve covered or about the Chicago scene that I didn’t think was up to snuff. And that’s not great in a lot of ways, I hope I didn’t ruin anyone’s days or whatever. But I think in trying to evangelize, it’s hard to see bad work. Being a professional journalist is not an easy thing right now, when Trump has made us an enemy. I want to do the best because I think there’s so much on the line in general. And I know that some people within the journalism industry think of culture journalism as lesser than or frivolous but I know that it’s not. And I want every piece that I publish to show both people who are invested in these cultural communities that it matters and it says something that you might not find elsewhere, and to show people who think that this work is frothy and meaningless that it actually does say something important.

Interview edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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