Chicago’s SXE Community Part 1: How We Got Here

Jay Williams, 21, pulls a jumbo Sharpie out of his backpack while he waits for a show to begin at Galaxie 2.0, the city’s newest north side straight edge venue. Williams draws two bold lines on each hand to form dark X’s before passing the pen to his girlfriend, Hailey Rose, so she can follow suit. The couple explains to me that, regardless if they’re seeing a show in Chicago, in Rose’s home state of Georgia or anywhere in between, this is a habitual ritual for them and many of their friends that claim straight edge.

Tonight’s show is Galaxie 2.0’s inaugural event. The lineup features five bands: Coronary, Decline, and x one foot in the grave x from Chicago; Dare from Fullerton, California; and Ingrown from Boise, Idaho. With the exception of Coronary, every band playing proudly boasts their identity as a straight edge hardcore band. Sharpied X’s adorn the backs of the two out-of-town band members’ hands, and both groups are wearing clothing that explicitly labels them as people who claim straight edge. More than a handful of people in the room have X Swatches proudly displayed on their wrists, and even non-straight edge fans are wearing merch from straight edge bands.

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Jay Williams grabs the mic from Angel Garcia of Dare // By Brian Santostefano

Individuals that claim straight edge (sxe) do not drink alcohol, take drugs, smoke cigarettes or use other intoxicating substances. Sometimes, bands comprised of entirely straight edge members brand themselves as a straight edge band.

“There’s a base set of rules: no alcohol, no cigs or drugs, being sexually responsible. People add on veganism to that. People are totally abstinent,” says Williams, who has claimed “edge” for over three years.

In Chicago, there’s a great variety in the type of bands straight edge musicians form and join, and an even greater diversity in the type of people who claim straight edge. There is not an abundance of straight edge venues, which usually prohibit drinking and drug use both in and around the venue. There is only a handful of sxe hardcore bands located in the city, and I have yet to attend a show at a non-straight edge venue where the amount of sxe fans outnumbered the non-sxe ones.

Despite the lack of exclusively sxe spaces (or perhaps because of them) Chicago seems to harbor an incredibly small, yet tight-knit straight edge community. When I asked Williams to describe the magnitude of Chicago’s sxe scene to me, he looked around at the 20-or-so people at Galaxie 2.0 and laughed. “This is basically it,” he said.

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Chicago straight edge band Decline performs at La Bodega, a non-sxe venue // By Brian Santostefano

In addition to talking with Williams and Rose, only a handful of the interviews I conducted were held at the Galaxie 2.0 show. The rest of my conversations with members of Chicago’s straight edge community either took place virtually through text messages or emails, or before a show on April 26 at ChiTown Futbol in Pilsen; a non-sxe venue. This show’s lineup featured La Armada, Racetraitor, Through N Through, Decline and 2Minute Minor. Of these five bands, Decline was the only straight edge groups on the bill. While not exclusively a straight edge band, four of 2Minute Minor’s six members claim edge.

Because I am not a person who claims straight edge, I wanted to talk with as many Chicago sxers as I could to gain a better understanding of their choice to claim edge. After I interviewed a diverse assortment of the city’s sxe scene in terms of age and race, it became apparent that there were three main “pathways” that lead individual sxers to discover that the straight edge life was the right fit for them.

One common story told by local sxers was that past issues with abusing drugs and alcohol not only lead them to a life of sobriety, but to claim straight edge for life. Another common path was that some of the values of sxe, such as not drinking, remaining drug-free and practicing safe and monogamous sex, were instilled in sxers at a young age. This latter path had two opposing causes: either a sxe person imitated a positive role model in their life, or they observed a negative influence when they were young and reacted against the negative behavior.

Ruben Garza Jr., 27, is the vocalist for Little Village hardcore band Through N Through and has claimed sxe for three years now. Garza Jr. went through periods of extreme substance use before discovering that the sober life allowed him to be the best version of himself. His path to sobriety, and his path to straight edge, is one he admits may have never occurred if he had not used alcohol and illicit substances so heavily.

Ruben Garza Jr. performs with Through N Through // By Ricardo Perez

“My father used to be an alcoholic, and at the age of 60 they told him he had cirrhosis and if he kept drinking he was going to end up dying in six months. I was still drinking. It took me three years to figure it out that I wanted to stop drinking,” said Garza Jr. “I didn’t want to get to the point where someone told me, ‘you keep drinking and you’re going to die.’ On both sides of my family I’ve seen the worst out of people when they’re drunk. I started becoming a worse person when I was drunk.”

Like Garza Jr., Shariq Ibrahim, 43, guitarist of straight edge hardcore band Decline, expressed that being drug-free allows him to reject his addictive personality and live his best life.

“For me, being straight edge is a personal choice. I know that I have been lucky enough to have realized that my personality does not allow for me to do things casually. And I’m also lucky enough to realize that a drug-free life style is one where I can be my best,” said Ibrahim, who was been straight edge for 23 years.

For other sxe individuals, being straight edge was a logical choice because it aligned with the values they had held their entire life. This path was common in many people I talked with and seemed to stem from two opposing factors: either the individual had a positive mentor, such as parent or family friend, who emphasized the values of sobriety to them at an early age, or the individual had a negative influence in their lives, such as an alcoholic parent or sibling that struggled with substance abuse, that pushed them towards sobriety instead of imitating the negative behavior.

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Decline performs at La Bodega in January 2018. Jay Williams, left, pictured with an X on his hand // By Brian Santostefano

Joey Anthony, 20, first aligned himself with straight edge values because his father, who also abstains from drugs and alcohol, was a positive role model to him as a young man.

“Ever since my dad was in the picture, he taught me how to abstain from substances and taught me not to be promiscuous,” said Anthony. “Being sober, in general, gives me a better sense of who I am. I’m happy when I’m not on [drugs or alcohol]. I don’t need something to relieve pain or make me socially accepted.”

Anthony was one of the few sxers I spoke with who decided to claim edge because of a positive influence in his young adult life. More common was the phenomenon of sxers who rebelled against the negative influences of a family member or other negative influence. One of these people is Nick Ayala, 20, who has always avoided drugs and alcohol, but has only claimed sxe for about five years now. Ayala’s convictions about living a substance-free life began when he was just 10 years old, and were caused by observing drunk behavior in family friends.

“I noticed at a young age that [drunk behavior] started to annoy me. It’s obnoxious and loud. As a kid, I thought, ‘if this annoys me, I don’t ever want to do that’,” said Ayala, the guitarist/vocalist of Bad Blood. “As I got older, I’d see how my friends would cope with certain things and use alcohol or drugs or any sort of mind-altering substances as a way to attempt to drown [problems] out. But that’s not how it works; those problems are still going to be there. Being straight edge and not smoking or drinking is what kept me focused and allowed me to deal with life.”

During our conversation, Ayala distinctly remembered a specific incident when the drunken behavior of his mother’s friends interrupted him as he was trying to play video games. However, not all straight edge individuals have a defining moment where they realized they rejected substance use.

Nick Ayala performs with Bad Blood, a non-sxe band, at Damien’s Den, a non-sxe venue // By Yasmine Esparza

“Everyone assumes that I used to drink or that I have some crazy story about why I claimed straight edge, but there’s not; there’s no crazy story. [Substance use] just didn’t appeal to me,” said Louie Flores, 26, the bassist of Habitats. However, it is worth mentioning that one of the main reasons drinking and drug use did not appeal to Flores is because he grew up despising the drunken behavior of his father.

Flores lived the sxe lifestyle for years before he considered branding himself as straight edge. In fact, it wasn’t until a friend brought up the topic of sxe bands that Flores became familiar with the term “straight edge.”

“I grew up not caring about drinking or smoking. That sticked [sic] with me through most of my life. In high school, I was about 16 and found out about straight edge. One of my friends who was in the metalcore scene brought it up to me, and it was like, ‘oh yeah, that’s what I am!’ I started watching documentaries about it and got more into straight edge music,” said Flores, who has claimed straight edge for 10 years.

While the majority of people I talked to about straight edge are sxe musicians, such as Garza Jr., Ibrahim, Ayala and Flores, a significant number of people were not. However, the unifying thread that connected both groups was an intense connection to hardcore music.

“If you separate sxe from hardcore, then it’s just sobriety; it’s definitely just sobriety,” said Garza Jr. “People who are sober don’t wear their heart on their sleeve the way that people who claim sxe [do].”

The next installment of Chicago SXE will highlight the intersection between the city’s hardcore scene and its straight edge members. Until then, check out this playlist featuring Chicago bands with sxe musicians.

Ruben Garza Jr. is the vocalist of Through N Through and has claimed edge for three years.

Decline is a Chicago based straight edge hardcore band that includes guitarist Shariq Ibrahim.

Nick Ayala, guitarist/vocalist of Bad Blood, has claimed straight edge for five years.

Ayala also drums for Deaf Ear.

Drummer Joe Ott is the only sxe member of Death of Self.

Louie Flores is the bassist of Habitats and has claimed edge for 10 years.

2Minute Minor, a hardcore band with four sxe members, just released their first full length album, Blood On Our Front Stoop.

Nathan Evans is the former bassist of Decline and now plays in Midwest SXE band New Heart.

Elias Snyder, keyboardist/guitarist of indie rock group Ex Okays, claims edge.


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