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Horsegirl and the dream of a teen rock scene

by staff

In July 2019, Chicago indie-rock trio Horsegirl played the eighth annual Square Roots Festival. At the time, live shows were the only way to hear the group’s taut but disarming dream pop, with its windswept-lakefront sound—and they’d only performed a few of them. They hadn’t released any music, not even to stream, and unsurprisingly they’d received no press coverage at all. On the second day of the fest, Horsegirl took the stage in Maurer Hall as part of an afternoon block showcasing regulars from Old Town School of Folk Music’s monthly teen open mike. 

The Square Roots poster didn’t name any of the teenage musicians at Maurer Hall that day, but “Best of Teen Open Mic” might’ve been the most significant event of the festival. Horsegirl have since attracted flocks of dyed-in-the-wool indie-rock fanatics. Sixteen months after Square Roots, in November 2020, Chicago Tribune music critic Britt Julious wrote the first major profile of the band. By the end of that year, they were getting national exposure. And in April 2021, Horsegirl signed to venerable indie label Matador Records.

That Square Roots set was significant to the members of Horsegirl too. Singer-guitarists Nora Cheng and Penelope Lowenstein and drummer Gigi Reece love decades-old underground rock that other kids their age consider obsolete: the Cleaners From Venus, Sonic Youth, the Clean (and basically all the Clean’s labelmates on New Zealand indie imprint Flying Nun). At Square Roots, Horsegirl first met Chicago four-piece Dwaal Troupe, whose imaginative, wide-screen rock recalls the whimsical psychedelia of the Elephant 6 collective at its mid-90s peak. “It was the first time we’d ever seen kids our age doing something that was similar to the stuff we’d all bonded over watching videos from the past,” Nora says. 

The admiration was mutual. “They were serious,” says Dwaal Troupe multi-instrumentalist Kai Slater. “We came in with banjos and really shitty guitars. And they came in with serious, like, Strats. I was like, ‘Wow, they know what they’re doing. This sounds like Sonic Youth.’” 

For the Square Roots set, Horsegirl filled out their sound by recruiting their friend Asher Case on bass. For a few months Asher had been jamming with Penelope’s younger brother, Isaac, in a noisy project they’d name Lifeguard, and Horsegirl invited Isaac to sit in on drums for a song too. After the set, this extended Horsegirl crew chatted briefly with Dwaal Troupe about the indie bands they all like, then parted ways. Penelope realized they’d missed an opportunity only after she and her friends had left Maurer Hall. 

“We were like, ‘Oh, we should have gotten those guys’ numbers,’” she says. “‘What are we going to do? We just lost them forever.’ And then from a distance, Asher was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s Dwaal Troupe,’ and called them over. We were like, ‘OK, we need to get your number.’”

A few weeks later, Asher and Isaac brought Kai into Lifeguard, making the group a trio. A new Chicago indie-rock scene, small but mighty, began to take shape, full of musicians who aren’t old enough to drink. (Friko front man Niko Kapetan, who helped engineer Horsegirl’s breakout 2020 single, “Ballroom Dance Scene,” is an exception at 22.) Within a year or so, this loose group of friends began referring to themselves as “Hallogallo kids.” In early 2021, Kai published the first issue of a zine documenting what they were all doing. He called it Hallogallo too.

This little scene has managed to flourish despite the pandemic, which has rearranged many of the musicians’ creative and interpersonal lives. In fact, a later addition to the scene’s roster of bands arguably owes its existence to 2020’s period of social distancing: Charlie Johnston of Dwaal Troupe, who teamed up with her friend and neighbor Will Huffman in the shaggy, folky duo Post Office Winter, started collaborating with him that fall in part because their bubbles overlapped and they had access to a garage where they could practice with the door open. 

The Hallogallo community has been a boon to Huffman too. “I personally would not have been pursuing the same things in music that I’m currently pursuing if not for meeting them,” he says. “It just felt out of reach.” 

The larger world has also taken notice of the Hallogallo scene. Lifeguard have issued two seven-inches through Chunklet Industries, the Georgia indie label that grew out of Chunklet, Henry Owings‘s irreverent music and culture magazine. And the weekend of July 8, two Hallogallo bands will play at top-tier Chicago street festivals—Friko at West Fest, Dwaal Troupe at Square Roots (this time by name).

Horsegirl’s first full-length album is also their first album for venerable indie label Matador.

The biggest band to break out of the scene has been Horsegirl. In July 2021, they sold out a show at Schubas; two months later, they kicked off Saturday’s Green Stage lineup at the Pitchfork Music Festival. On Sunday, June 5, Horsegirl will headline Thalia Hall to celebrate their first full-length album, Versions of Modern Performance. It’ll be Penelope’s second milestone in 12 hours, since she’s graduating from Jones College Prep earlier that day. 

Horsegirl, Lifeguard, Friko, Post Office Winter
Sun 6/5, 6 PM, Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport, $20-$35, all ages

Horsegirl want to bring their friends along for the ride too. Lifeguard played that Schubas show last year, and they’ll join Friko and Post Office Winter as support on Horsegirl’s record-release show. When I ask Horsegirl what they wanted to say with Versions of Modern Performance, Gigi recalls how the band bonded with Dwaal Troupe. “We wanted to express all these feelings of, like, that excitement we felt when we found out Kai liked all the same music as us,” Gigi says. “We wanted to express the feeling of, like—that young people can make cool things.”

Horsegirl formed in spring 2019. Nora, Penelope, and Gigi became friends in part by going to DIY shows together. In November 2018, Nora invited Penelope and Gigi to a warehouse gig headlined by six-piece fusion group Corn on My Dinner Plate; Penelope and Nora got a ride from Penelope’s mom. “All these people were older than us—we didn’t know anybody,” Gigi says. “We thought that was really cool. All three of us were like, ‘We want to continue to pursue going to these things.’ The way that it made all three of us feel at the same time was awesome.”

Nora, Penelope, and Gigi were a band, in a way, even before they became Horsegirl. “We were in this crazy, intense friendship, where we thought that the exact same stuff was so cool—we were sending each other old videos, reading Kim Gordon‘s book religiously, and becoming obsessed with all this music,” Penelope says. “We hadn’t really met other kids who are now in our scene—like all the Hallogallo people—and we sort of felt alone in that vision.” 

As a musical project, Horsegirl started as just Penelope and Nora. “I’ve had moments where I listen to really early voice memos of me and Nora just messing around,” Penelope says. “It’s crazy because I realized we had a vision from the start of, like, what we thought was super cool, and what we wanted to do with our voices together. It sounds so much like the songs we’ve written recently.” 

They had a less clear idea of how far they’d take Horsegirl. “When you start as a high school band, you never have the expectation that you would ever be serious,” Penelope says.

“When you read that Chicago Tribune article, that was before we realized this was something that we could keep doing,” Nora says. “It’s kind of like, ‘Inevitably, it’s doomed.’”

Nora, Penelope, and Gigi all had musical backgrounds years long by the time they started their band together. Penelope learned guitar at the Old Town School of Folk Music; both she and Nora went to Girls Rock! Chicago camps, but they never crossed paths. All three Horsegirl members, when they were between 12 and 15 years old, got interested in the School of Rock. “It’s kind of how we met so many of our friends in high school,” Gigi says. 

Many Hallogallo kids participated in one of those three programs too. Charlie Johnston, who’s a junior in high school now, attended the Old Town School’s summer camp at age eight. “I was assigned ukulele and I was like, ‘I literally could not care less about whatever this is,’” she says. “And then I totally loved it, and continued it.” 

Charlie stuck with the Old Town School’s summer programming, graduating to the teen program when she turned 11. She met the three other future members of Dwaal Troupe through the program: Kai Slater when she was 12, then Francis Brazas and Desi Kaercher the following year. “We were all, like, weirder and more quirky for our age,” Charlie says. “We gravitated towards each other. We didn’t go to the same school, but we saw each other through Old Town.”

“Lucky Dog,” released in 2021 on the album of the same name, was one of the first songs Dwaal Troupe wrote as a full band.

In April 2019, not long after Kai turned 14, he and Francis started recording sketches of songs on a four-track in the garage attic of Francis’s Homewood house. “We were like, ‘We want to do more than just random things we’re hitting, like, with sticks and guitars,’” Kai says. They brought in Charlie and Desi to form Dwaal Troupe, and Kai and Charlie would often rent a practice space at the Old Town School to write and record. Dwaal Troupe played live only two or three times before the fateful Square Roots gig that summer.

Kai remembers that show as where Asher invited him to join Lifeguard. “They’re like, ‘Me and Isaac have been riffing some things, and we need a singer-guitarist,’” Kai says. “I was like, ‘Oh, yeah.’ Because they were on fire. That summer is very important. Very big stuff happened.”

Lifeguard: Asher Case, Kai Slater, and Isaac Lowenstein Credit: Carlos Lowenstein

Asher Case and Isaac Lowenstein met through the School of Rock in 2019. Asher befriended the members of Horsegirl the same way, but Isaac was closer to Asher’s age—Nora, Penelope, and Gigi are a few years older. “I was happy that me and Isaac were of similar ages and could actually talk and hang out,” Asher says. “When we met, we were talking about Tortoise a lot. We were really into TNT and Standards. It was interesting to meet someone who was also into Tortoise when I was 11.” 

As Penelope got involved in what became Horsegirl that spring, Isaac saw what his sister had and wanted something similar for himself. “I remember being pretty jealous of Penelope now having this outlet to make her own music,” he says. “I was like, ‘Wow, I really want to do that.’ When I met Asher, it felt like I could get that—and Penelope definitely wanted to support me through that.”

Asher and Isaac jammed together for a couple months. “We wrote two songs, and we didn’t play any shows,” Asher says. “It was very low-stakes, and we were just hanging out. It was fun—we’d watch movies and play music.” 

“Pinkwater” is one of the Lifeguard songs Asher and Isaac began writing as a duo.

There was only so much Asher and Isaac could do as a bass-and-drums duo. Once Kai began playing with them in August, Lifeguard became a more serious concern. They wrote enough songs for their debut EP, In Silence, which they recorded at Electrical Audio with veteran engineer Jeremy Lemos in February 2020 and released before the end of the month. Isaac, Asher, and Kai, riding that momentum, decided to spend a weekend in March writing and recording a ten-minute song, “Tin Man,” which features guest vocals from Penelope. They put it out just as Illinois began implementing its first COVID-19 shutdown.

By the time the pandemic hit, Kai had developed a strange band-life balance. In fall 2019, he started his freshman year of high school in Ann Arbor, where his father lives. After school, he’d beaver away on demos he’d later bring to Dwaal Troupe; every weekend, he’d take a Greyhound bus to Chicago to practice with Lifeguard. “I don’t know how I did that,” Kai says. “How did I manage that?”

Being separated from his friends during the week was hard for Kai even before COVID-19. The pandemic added new complications. “I dropped out of high school when it was, like, virtual,” he says. “I was like, ‘This is not beneficial to either my mental health or my mental progress.’ I guess it wasn’t clear if I was going to go back or not. But I was like, ‘Fuck this, I cannot do this.’”

The members of Horsegirl found a silver lining in the challenges of remote schooling. Nora, Penelope, and Gigi all attended different high schools, but they could be in the same room when they sat in virtual classes on their computers. 

“My mom’s office is where we would be, because nobody was there,” Gigi says. “We would sit in this little back room in her office . . . ”

“And order Korean fried chicken,” Penelope adds.

It was cold and uncomfortable, they say, but being in a bubble with their best friends made up for a lot.

Charlie Johnston didn’t see her bandmates in Dwaal Troupe for at least a month after the start of Chicago’s pandemic lockdown. But she could hang out with Will Huffman, who lived about a block away. At first they maintained the recommended six-foot distance, but then they found a solution that was close enough to being outdoors to work for them. “We’d hang out in her garage with the door open so it was ventilated,” Will says. 

The debut album by Post Office Winter

Charlie and Will would often share music they liked—both are big fans of lo-fi Rochester indie rocker Kitchen. In fall 2020, they wrote their first song together. “It doesn’t need to be an official thing to write a song with someone,” Charlie says. “But then we really liked the idea of, like, putting a name to the project.” 

“Honestly, if COVID didn’t happen, I don’t really know if Post Office Winter would be a thing,” Will says.

The members of Post Office Winter dwarfed by an arrangement of Greco-Roman stone columns
Post Office Winter: Charlie Johnston and Will Huffman Credit: Courtesy the artist

Niko Kapetan grew up in Evanston and started playing in bands as a middle school student—mostly he’d do cover songs at block parties. He began writing and recording his own material in high school and put together a throwback pop combo called Thee Marquees. “I felt like it was starting to become, like, ‘Music is something that I definitely want to do when I get out of high school,’” Niko says. 

Not all of his bandmates in Thee Marquees were on the same page. After Niko graduated in spring 2018, the group only stayed together for about another year—long enough to finish a demo collection called Burnout Beautiful, which Niko released in July 2019. By that point, he’d enrolled in Columbia College’s music program and then dropped out. (He now works in a warehouse for Music Direct.) To satisfy his drive to make music, Niko poured his energy into a new project called Friko, where he’s joined by bassist Luke Stamos (formerly of Thee Marquees) and drummer Bailey Minzenberger. 

Friko’s most recent release came out in March 2022.

Before the pandemic hit, Friko booked a handful of shows at DIY spaces and a November 2019 Martyrs’ gig. The members of Horsegirl happened to attend the latter, and they invited Friko to play a Shuga Records in-store with them in January 2020. There, Niko heard Horsegirl perform “Ballroom Dance Scene” and offered to record the song in his parents’ basement in Evanston. The band took him up on it, though by then COVID had arrived—they all wore masks while working with Niko and his co-engineer, Jack Lickerman.

Horsegirl introduced Niko to the other Hallogallo bands too. “When we hung out, it just made sense, musically,” Niko says. “I hadn’t really met anybody in Evanston—other than the people who I played with—that shared the same interest, like that realm of musical taste or passion to make music in the same way.”

The members of Friko cluster together, holding sprays of red roses
Friko: Luke Stamos, Bailey Minzenberger, and Niko Kapetan Credit: Nando Espinosa Herrera

“Ballroom Dance Scene” came out in November 2020 as the title track of Horsegirl’s three-song debut EP. Among its instant fans was Eli Schmitt, who’d moved to Chicago from Indianapolis earlier that fall to attend DePaul. Eli hosts a Radio DePaul show called Mother Night Radio Hour, and shortly after that Horsegirl EP dropped, Eli played “Ballroom Dance Scene” in a set dedicated to emerging local acts. In spring 2021 he met Nora, Gigi, and Penelope at an art show and invited them to an informal vinyl-listening session at his apartment. 

Eli calls those sessions Record Club, and since the first one in May 2021, they’ve become regular events. He also books DIY shows and makes flyers for them; he publishes a zine called Unresolved; and he hosts a video series called New Now, recording live sets by local bands in his apartment. Earlier this year he started learning drums so he could play live with Post Office Winter. 

Dwaal Troupe perform on New Now in December 2021.

Record Club might be the most important thing Eli does for the scene he loves, though. It’s given his friends a place where they can build community.

“I know we met a lot of people through that,” Asher says. “Eli would foster those relationships in his home, which is so beautiful and nice of him to do. As Record Club started happening more, and as it started becoming a thing that you didn’t have to ask your friends if they were going—that’s when the scene started.”

As early as summer 2019, Kai Slater started thinking of a way to celebrate this community. At one point he envisioned a festival to showcase its emerging bands and spin-offs (including Sublime Jupiter Snake Duo, his electronic project with Desi Kaercher of Dwaal Troupe), because he thought organizing a fest would be more manageable than making a zine. “I didn’t realize that the whole point of zines is that, you know, anyone can make a zine,” he says.

The first issue of Kai’s Hallogallo zine arrived as the scene built momentum in early 2021. “By the time I did the first issue, it was like, ‘We have music out, and we want to spread the message,’” he says. “It felt like there was a real material purpose—material not in, like, materialistic gains, but in the sense that it was an actual, feasible thing to spread the message about. Like, here, everyone in the world could find this and access it.”

“I think that’s when people started connecting to the idea of, like, Hallogallo is us, and it’s a zine,” Isaac says. “It’s not exclusive, and it’s not a club. It’s just a way that we can see what everyone’s making.”

This past March, Kickstand Productions assistant talent buyer Bridget Stiebris booked her first show at Beat Kitchen—the venue offered her Wednesday, April 6, and she had her eye on Dwaal Troupe and the larger Hallogallo scene. “The other thing I wanted to do, and still want to do the more I book, is that I want to make these spaces a little more than just a place to have a local show,” Bridget says. “Making something an event, or a fest, or something involving zines, for instance—the idea of making something more of a place to make a community event rather than ‘Oh, here’s another three bands’ has always been interesting to me.” 

Chunklet Industries released this Lifeguard single in March 2022.

Bridget reached out to Kai, and together they turned their dream into Hallogallo Fest. Lifeguard, Dwaal Troupe, and Post Office Winter performed, and teen zinesters and artists sold their wares by the entrance to the Beat Kitchen live room. Kai rolled out the fifth issue of Hallogallo, which includes lengthy interviews with Circuit des Yeux mastermind Haley Fohr and Kleenex Girl Wonder bandleader Graham Smith. He’ll have the sixth issue, which features a conversation with Mac DeMarco, ready to sell at Horsegirl’s record-release show—where he’ll be joined by at least a dozen other zinesters.

“For the Thalia show, we wanted the zine-selling aspect,” Gigi says. “But on this huge scale of, like, every kid ever can just be selling their zine at our show. We are so happy to have that and get the word out for them.”

Crucial to the thriving Hallogallo scene is the support of the parents involved. Charlie’s parents, for example, rearranged their garage so she could have a ventilated practice space for Dwaal Troupe and Post Office Winter. Several Hallogallo parents also make music in some capacity, and they often seem almost as excited as their kids about the teen scene growing up around them. 

Will’s father, Eric, has composed music for video games and for Lookingglass Theatre Company. Penelope and Isaac’s dad, Carlos Lowenstein, has a home studio where he makes experimental modular-synth recordings as Sun Picture. He’s released solo cassettes through Chicago label Trouble in Mind, as has Asher’s dad, Brian Case, who also fronts postpunk group Facs. In March, Facs headlined Metro and brought along Lifeguard as one of their opening bands. 

“I know that this is not normal—that in most places you don’t have a band of 18-year-olds getting signed to Matador Records and doing all this cool stuff, and that your parents are punk idols,” Eli says. “That makes me all the more fortunate and all the more hungry to do the things that I do, ’cause I know how lucky I am to have found this.”

The members of Horsegirl know how special their scene is too—and Nora and Gigi may be feeling that especially keenly because they moved away for college last fall. (They’re both in New York, attending NYU and the New School, respectively.) They both travel back to Chicago whenever they can, and on a return trip in April they shot a video for “Dirtbag Transformation (Still Dirty).” Horsegirl recruited Dwaal Troupe, Lifeguard, Friko, and Post Office Winter to play along to the song in the auditorium of Penelope’s old elementary school, Near North Montessori. 

Horsegirl - "Dirtbag Transformation (Still Dirty)" (Official Music Video)
The video for “Dirtbag Transformation (Still Dirty)” by Horsegirl

On Versions of Modern Performance, Horsegirl don’t make obvious nods to their hometown, but as the “Dirtbag Transformation” video demonstrates, their hearts are still here. You don’t have to look far to see how much Chicago—and their scene specifically—means to them.

“Everything we do, is, like, ‘We are kids from Chicago,’” Gigi says.

Penelope agrees. “We don’t feel like we could have formed this band if we were living somewhere else.”

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