Interviews

Interview: Jessica Hopper Shares Her Chicago in Night Moves

It’s 2004 through 2008. We’re taken through Chicago through Jessica Hopper’s eyes, to a show, to a nighttime tour of the city by bike, to a warehouse party. We’re given a vantage point that freezes this Chicago in time and memorializes it for years and years to come. That’s the power of Hopper’s writing in her memoir Night Moves. Here, she chronicles a Chicago of the past, when our neighborhood views weren’t marred by highrise apartment buildings, and phones didn’t add to the effervescent glow of a band on stage. I chatted with Hopper about making your way in Chicago, finding your voice, being an observer, and looking back on things you’ll always love.

I’ll start at the top with the title. It’s titled Night Moves with intro lyrics by Bob Seger. What does this association have for you, and why did you choose this?

For a while it was just called “The Chicago Book” for a year; it was a little obvious. [Laughs] … In some ways, the book was less about a specific place and time. I didn’t want to be so specific that it felt like other people couldn’t get into it, where people are like, “Well I’ve never lived in Chicago, why do I need a Chicago book? Why is anything about this interesting to me?” But the line in Night Moves that I have is at the front of the book, and I really think about the space in time of the book of being in between, the getting-your-shit-together space in between your 20s and your 30s. And really the twilight of that part of your 20s, of thinking, oh, I’m not invincible, but just having the stakes of things be so much lower than as you get to be an adult, and in my case have kids and all of that, and I think that line really reflects that last, I don’t want to say, space of innocence, but just a particularly carefree space.

I’ve lived in Chicago my whole life, pretty much, so a lot of these stories had a different meaning for me, but I was just talking to a friend yesterday, and both of us are late 20s. We were talking about how it’s kind of a rite of passage to be at a point in this city where you feel like you’re lost, and you’re going through this quarter-life crisis almost, and you feel like you have no idea what you’re doing, and you just keep doing it anyway. But when I read your memoir, it seemed to me like you had no fear with everything you were doing. How did you make it through that time with such tenacity? You seemed so sure of everything.

I really think some of that is how I am. I think some of that is honestly just my nature, and I think another part of that is that I went to Montessori school mostly until I was in about 8th grade, and so much of that really teaches you that you learn by doing. It just made it so I was less afraid of doing and really view failure as, well, that’s how you learn. That’s how you figure things out. That’s how you figure out what works and what doesn’t. And so maybe a certain level of fearlessness came from that, but I think some of the rest was a sense of, well, what did I have to lose?

I think I always had in some ways a finite sense of time, of not wanting to waste time and wanting to make up for time that I had wasted in the city … It was a period of time when I really wanted to chew life up, you know what I mean? And there was a period of time right before the book picks up and starts that I had decided to stop doing PR and throw myself into writing full-time. And right when that happened, I was super anxious and freaking out and going through a breakup and was super depressed, really in a super bleak place in a lot of ways. … And realizing there were these little moments of knowing no matter what, I was gonna be fine. And some of that was months of anxiety of going, oh my god, can I make a living writing about music? Can I just quit this business that I had built for 10 years? And I had been writing on the side this whole time, I had been writing since I was a teenager. … I spent a decade investing in other people’s art and promoting their art and their dream and their albums and their books and their movies and their magazines, their benefits, everything. And I wanted to invest in that way in myself, in a really tangible way.

So that’s basically 2004. That’s the point where I was like, alright, I’m gonna jump off into this. And I was very fortunate in that it felt like as I was jumping, the ground rose to meet my feet. I did my first big piece for The Chicago Reader, and they were like, “Oh we’ve just been waiting for you over here to stop doing PR so you could just write.” … 2004 was a different space, and I was very much living $60 check to $100 check to $200 check if I was lucky back then, but I was very much gratified by that, and the low stakes of my life allowed for a lot of space to write and learn and give myself an education as a writer and be a human sponge. I didn’t go to college. I just knew how to do the things that I did. I guess that what fear I had, not that it got erased, I think I understood it didn’t serve me very well, that it would keep me in place and it would bring me to dark places. I just had to do it. I just had to do all the things I wanted to do.

You could have been a successful writer anywhere you lived; what was it about Chicago that really helped you become the writer you wanted to be as you took this jumping-off point, and do you always feel like you were a Chicagoan?

I don’t feel like I could have been a successful writer anywhere else. I look at my friends, or people who are ostensibly my peers in New York in that time. They had a kind of hustle and ambition and a level of connection that I’m not sure I ever would have had a New York tenacity. I’d occasionally been someone who lived in LA, so I think I could have hacked it there, but I think being a Chicagoan very much, well, being Midwestern, being very resolutely Midwestern my whole life for the most part … I think I’m fundamentally a Midwestern writer, and not just because I am a Midwestern person.

There were certainly times where I worked more than 20 hours a week, but my whole thing was to try not to work more than that, so I could spend the rest of my time studying. Discovering the city. Hanging out with my friends. Making little fanzines. Working on blogs. Sometimes, just spending days at the library with a reading list. And you know, I couldn’t have done that in New York. I couldn’t have become the writer I am in New York, because my rent would have been, back then, 1,200 bucks a month, 900 bucks a month, and I don’t know, I can only speculate on the ghost career I could have had if I was trying to write for The New York Times magazine at 28 and not writing show previews for the Reader, which to this day is the most hardcore editing I’d ever had in my life. It taught me to be a better thinker, and these were sometimes 70-word show previews. … I’m absolutely positive I couldn’t have done any of this stuff in the same way and indulged my curiosity had I not been outside a certain level of media bubble of the beau monde journalism world of New York.

Photo by David Sampson courtesy of University of Texas Press.

One thing in your memoir that really struck me was that I kind of got sad because you described a music scene that I missed, that I’m never going to experience in Chicago, where it seemed like everyone was much more present. Now I go to shows, and everyone has their phone out the entire time, and they’re texting. For you, what was the best part of shows at this time, and how do you think technology has changed us for the worse?

[Technology] has made so many different things accessible to us, but I feel like now there are certain things that are sometimes part of the show-going experience. I mean, when I go see Hide, part of my feeling of evangelical fan-fervor means, I’m putting this on Instagram. I want people to know how awesome this band is. So it never actually reflects anything, and it’s also to say, I’m here, I’m doing a cool thing. [Laughs] How we did that before was a little different, and some of it is evidenced here in the book. I would go home and write on my blog that only mostly my friends and people that knew me read, or I would put it in a fanzine, or I would write about it for my friend’s fanzine, or I would write about it for myself. It was just different.

The audience for these things, for that world, was definitely a lot more cloistered. But the other thing, too, is that that cloister can be really gross sometimes. Even in the book, there are certainly people being like, somebody in the book complained, we put this information on Myspace, and randos on Myspace showed up, or people from the suburbs, or people from Indiana, or people who couldn’t have otherwise found out about your party, your show, your whatever, your roller skating jam, were suddenly there. And I definitely made some of my closest friends that way. And I always think it’s better that things are more inclusive than exclusive.

But the main difference I noticed, or two things, have been really brought on by technology. One is that reduced attention span, that people are tuned out. And I’m not saying everybody, but it’s just something that you see more of. And I think the other thing is people being okay with their music experience being much more mediated by outside entities, whether that is a streaming service or whether that is all manner of apps, that sort of thing, whereas I think some of the days that are the early days of the book, it was still very much a space where if you wanted a thing, 80 percent of the time, you had to build it yourself. There was just not as much structure and infrastructure and certainly not any reliance on various subscription services to entertain us or get the word out there about our band or that sort of thing. But all these things have their definite pros and cons, I’m not trying to be like, “In my day!” because I think that’s really boring, and I think that’s also really simplistic. I think all of these things really complicate our scenes for better or for worse.

One of the biggest themes I found through the book is how much of an observer you are. In all of your stories about going to parties or going to bars, you’re really observant and you see things that other people might have missed. What were your biggest takeaways from the Chicago nightlife scene during that time, from what you were able to see?

I’ve always been a noticer. I remember my sister complaining when we were younger and just being like, “You notice everything. You’re the only person who noticed my haircut.” … What I remember about that time, I remember it feeling like a time when things were in flux, and it felt like how things were changing was accelerating in that people were more interested…there was a period of, being in the Midwest, people were always driven by a kind of cool that maybe you heard about on the East Coast, and maybe it was sometimes a style thing, like you would see a band or a picture of a band that were dressed a certain way, or had a sort of ethic or style about them that you might try to mimic.

For years of living in Chicago, for people in Chicago, there often was less of that tangible sort of second city syndrome, that somehow Chicago wasn’t good enough. There was a lot of faith in what was happening in the Midwest. It was really cool, it was only possible here, and it wasn’t like anything else, particularly when I first moved here in 1996. [In] 1997, that winter, there was an incredible amount of activity and cool new bands and weird things coming out of the Fireside, and Thrill Jockey, and Touch and Go, and all different sorts of different labels, and there was so much really vibrantly happening at that moment that it seemed silly to look outside to New York and people who were quote on quote “trying to make it” rather than say, foster a community or have a particular kind of moment.

And I just remember a little bit before 2004, it definitely became this point of everybody being really curious about what was happening in New York, and I think it was 1000% enabled by technology and really wanting to be a coastal cool, and I remember feeling like that flattened things a little bit. Like, why are we trying to have disco punk bands? This is not a thing we’re inventing here. … It happened everywhere, the sort of flattening of things, and in my mind, I would always tie it to The Strokes. [Laughs] Certain things I remember about that time are some of the last moments of seeing Chicago as an insulated cloister, and now it definitely feels like a more porous space for outside ideas and influence. That was also aI time where I feel like you started to see people leave for New York, and leave for LA, because they wanted a certain kind of career or acknowledgment or kind of fame that wasn’t possible here.

I also noticed through your observer nature that biking was a sort of meditative source for you. How do you think seeing Chicago by bike informed your experience of the city more than people who aren’t taking the time to really notice everything around them to that degree?  

Well, it forces you to participate! A car is like a little shuttle. It’s like being in a little insulated peapod through the city, and while you might still hear songs outside other people’s windows, you can view everything, and you can have GCI turned up, or you could have Vocalo turned up, or you could have LUW blaring out your windows, you could be having a very Chicago experience very much inside the car, too. But one of the things about being on a bike is that you have to encounter other people, or sometimes you have an opportunity to not encounter other people.

Some of my most vivid memories in the book are being on a bike by myself. But I think one of the great things about it is you can be like, what’s this? And just stop. Or you can be like, “Hey, what’s up?” And just stop. You really have to be in it, and you can’t roll up your windows when you drive past the hot trash down an alley in the middle of the summer, or downtown at night on a weekend night, past that grody bar stench at 3am when people are brushing bleach mixer out of the bar, and it just smells like booze and barf and Axe body spray, or that really harsh industrial Pine-Sol that sometimes bars use, you know? So there’s a very specific smell that is a testimony to what has happened in this space and place that you might pick up as you go by on a bike sometime after weekend bars closed, as opposed to when you’re just going by in your car, and the windows are up, and your A/C is on. I think that my experience of Chicago was greatly informed and very generously endowed by the sensory experience of being able to lock up my bike and go climb over a fence someplace.

Like being able to actually explore it, rather than ignoring things, or having the ability to ignore things you might not necessarily want to consume.

Yeah, or being like, oh that looks cool, or having to encounter people that you didn’t choose to encounter. The people that live out in the city, or the people that are living under the train bridge, right next door to the spaces that I’m biking through or hanging out. Or having different actions or transactions with people in the city. I basically lived on my bike and my skateboard as much as possible during that time, in part because I saw how much of the city gave itself to me from that point of view.

The map of Chicago, in the beginning of the book, just illuminates how much it has changed, and how it wasn’t as gastropub on every corner, highrises everywhere. If you could choose, which part of old Chicago are you homesick for, that you wish you could just go to right now, this was your place, sort of thing?

I think one of the places that’s still there is one of the ones for when I want a certain kind of Chicago feeling. I go to Myopic. I don’t spend nearly as much time there; I live outside the city now, but when I want that feeling, a space that’s largely unchanged that is endowed with a very particular part of Chicago culture, I go to Myopic. There are other spaces and places that still exist within the book, and when I miss a thing, when I miss the feeling of that, I really just go and drive around where one of my first apartments was in Chicago, along the industrial corridor which is at the far edge of the map. … There’s still a giant recycling dump over there, and it totally reeks, and there are more desolate spaces and places. It doesn’t feel like it’s going to be that way for much longer.

That was a really important time for me; I started falling in love with Chicago living in this warehouse that literally, the Metra and the “L” and industrial train line ran right next to it. It was really cheap, but from there, because of that train line and that land bridge that went down into the city from there, I had a really incredible, unobstructed view of the city skyline from there, through one of the two windows that opened. That area is still very much in my heart, and fortunately it’s still sort of unchanged.

The specific stuff that I miss is Leo’s, which closed only a few years into me being here. It’s a pretty old Chicago reference. I very much miss their sandwiches. In terms of the thing that I wish was still exactly a thing was the Fireside, which I really miss. I was at the Fireside every week, no less than three times a week, for years. It’s where I met so many of my friends and saw so many bands that were important to me, and hung out and hatched all manner of dumb ideas that were brought into fruition, or dumb bands I made with my friends.

My favorite quote in this book was, “To love this city, I attest, you must also hate it dispassionately.” Chicago obviously is a beautiful city, but I think everyone who lives here identifies with that so very much, and everyone’s been kind of hardened by a rough experience here, whether it’s the winter or something else. What about Chicago has broken you and what has redeemed it for you, and was there ever an experience that tested you here when you almost couldn’t be here?

I got priced out of a neighborhood where I had lived for 20 years, and that’s part of the reason I live in the suburbs now. That made me a certain kind of upset, but also it’s something that I knew from 10 years before, it was an inevitability. I think that’s it, but I just can’t imagine living anywhere else. The things that, to me, are the most exhausting things, the most disheartening things, are bearing witness to how wide and ever-widening the chasm is between people in the city who are well-off and people who are living in poverty. And really, the ways that that is brought into really stark relief by so many of Rahm Emanuel’s policies, but the historic inequity and divide and particularly how it relates to Chicago Public Schools, and the policing of particular neighborhoods, and particularly people of color in Chicago, and how that basically cleaved the city apart. And that people who live in the city can have such different lives and such different levels of access to things that are fundamental human rights, and a peace of life within the city by virtue of where they live.

And to me, from Laquan McDonald down to an unelected school board, [those] are the things that make me angry and outrage me. You get used very quickly to living in the city that’s kind of  dirty, kind of a fixer-upper, and there are times where some of that is less than charming. City corruption, less than charming. So those are the things, and really the thing that I think about most is how, by virtue of where I live and my children’s whiteness and my middle classness, is that they have such a different experience in the city than so many other children who deserve that just the same.

Night Moves is published by University of Texas Press. Jessica Hopper will be embarking on a book tour, with select events in Chicago. See her tomorrow, September 20, at Women & Children First bookstore at 7:30pm for her book release; at the Empty Bottle on October 29; or on November 4 at the Chicago Humanities Festival with José Olivarez.

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