Practice Imperfect When real estate gets pricey, D.C. indie rockers get creative

Illustration by Brooke Hatfield

Around 8 o’clock on a warm night not too long ago, in a practice space they set up inside a Columbia Heights group home, local post-punkers Hume tune their guitars and turn on their amplifiers. Like any decent rock band, they’ve got to practice their tunes to put on a good show. It’s still a reasonable hour, and they’re doing their best to contain their sound, but within minutes, sirens blare from outside and no less than three police cars surround the place. Like so many local rehearsal spots, the increasingly comfortable neighborhood the space occupies is simply not interested in dealing with the inevitable noise.

The national housing market may be feeble, but here in the District, real estate is holding strong. It may be a legitimate boon for the city’s overall quality of life, but it’s also an enormous burden for local artists. Cheap row houses that bands used to be able to convert into rehearsal spaces have been gutted and sold, or they rent for more than an average musician can afford; even for groups that can still find space, the new neighbors rarely put up with drums and guitars. “Practice space in D.C. is a fucking grind,” says longtime D.C. musician (and Washington City Paper contributor) Justin Moyer (El Guapo, Edie Sedgwick, SPRCSS). Looking back on the past 10 years, he explains, “Artists greatly benefited from D.C. dysfunction, low rent, and the inner city as ‘undesirable.’ Now that a row house costs $500,000, we are fucked.”

Naturally, one response to the shift is to romanticize the good old days. Guitarist Collin Crowe of the band Buildings thinks there’s a fundamental philosophical rift between D.C. residents of the past and ones presently moving into the city. “There is a huge cultural difference between me and a lot of people living in D.C.,” he says. “It seems it’s more and more popular for middle-class and upper-class people to move into cities yet still want to retain their suburban ideals, such as adequate parking for cars, quiet streets, suitable places to raise kids, Ruby Tuesdays and I.H.O.P., etc. It’s a shame. What first brought me from the Virginia suburbs to D.C. was my enthusiasm for the local music and culture that only the city could offer for me. It was a huge escape from suburban mediocrity. There is no shared enthusiasm about that from the new ruling class of people that now take over a lot of suburbs in D.C. that I thought were once safe for musical expression.”

But Crowe and other D.C. bands still manage to play around town. They just have to spend an inordinate amount of time figuring out the basic logistics of how to do it. Rehearsing in the District isn’t impossible, it’s just more complicated. Here’s a look at five ways bands have negotiated the new urban space:

 

1. Find Friends

For a time, Imperial China spent time every week practicing in Mount Pleasant; the band’s frontman, Brian Porter, lived in a house there with all of the band’s gear until he was forced out. “My landlord sold the property, so we had to find something else,” Porter says. “We practiced there for about three years before we had to move.” Since then, Imperial China has been playing music at a very generous friend’s house in Falls Church, while drummer Patrick Gough works on soundproofing his new home in Alexandria as a more long-term solution.

Deleted Scenes had a similar experience. Dan Scheuerman explains, “Some years ago, we practiced in a Mount Pleasant row house, but the neighbors changed and the cops started coming.” Patrick Kigongo (Ra Ra Rasputin) echoes Scheuerman’s concerns. “The biggest challenge of rehearsing in a residential neighborhood is having neighbors,” Kigongo says. “If you’re feeling inspired on a random night at some God-forsaken hour, you can’t just go and plug in. We’ve been very fortunate to have some very kind and musician-friendly folks living next door, but we always make sure to clear practices and recording sessions because we don’t want to lose a good thing.”

 

2. Get Quiet

Local musician Gabriel Fry has simply had to take it down a notch. “My wife and I bought a little townhouse in Alexandria about three and a half years ago, and all of my bands have practiced there for at least a few months while we sort out if we can find a better spot,” he says. “We’ve put a lot of effort into dealing with volume and sound-proofing, and have done our best to accommodate the requests of neighbors. We’ve traded out the big Pearl kit for a little Gretsch jazz, the 60-watt Fender Deville for a 4-watt Vox AC4, the 100-lb GK 4x10 bass cab for a 10-inch PA speaker, etc. Everything has been miniaturized.” Fry’s various projects, including Roma Condor, The Alphabetical Order, and We Were Pirates, have all had to follow one house rule: “If you can’t hear an acoustic guitar or un-amplified vocals, you’re playing too loud.”

 

3. Leave Town

Crowe, of Buildings, doesn’t want to rock quietly. “I can’t help it,” he says. “I don’t want Buildings to be a folk project, I need to play loudly in order to enjoy writing music and performing music. I don’t feel like I’m doing anything that horrible.” At one point, Buildings used the same space as Hume to rehearse, but noise complaints kept bringing the law to the door. “Recently a police inspector came to [the space],” Crowe says. “He asked to come in, and I showed him around. He asked me a lot of questions regarding what we do. I explained every detail about band practices and the occasional parties with live music we threw, which were always over by 10 p.m. He agreed we’re not doing anything illegal... I have grown increasingly tired of feeling like a criminal and having the cops called on me constantly when all I’m doing is playing music.” Because of the constant complaints, the band has been practicing elsewhere, often driving to Maryland, which is particularly difficult, as Crowe doesn’t own a car.

 

4. Spend Money

Norm Veenstra, a real estate developer, founding member of the band Tone, and former manager of the 9:30 Club, has seen this issue from several sides. During the past decade, he says, “there has been more traction and use of previously underutilized property... properties get sold and get improved now as people find out they have value, and because initiatives are also put in by the city itself.” In the ’90s, there were significantly more dormant and underused spaces—there were fewer neighbors to complain, and there were cheaper basements to rent out. Economic growth naturally changed that. “For the overall life in the city, it’s a good thing,” says Veenstra. Of course, for bands living in the city, “it’s made a hard thing harder, because now it’s more expensive.”

After years of finding alternative solutions—going so far as loading gear in and out of the 9:30 Club on Saturday mornings to rehearse with his band before the venue opened—Tone eventually locked down a lease on a commercial space a few years ago and shares the spot with a few other bands. While they went the fully legal route, even getting an appropriate license to play music there, the cost was more than Veenstra wanted to admit. He declined to give specific numbers but made clear that most bands would not be able to afford the monthly fee.

For years, Veenstra also sublet a spot in Brookland to various D.C. mainstays. At different points, Moyer, John Davis, Chad Clark, and Chris Richards used the space for their respective projects. The warehouse space was recently acquired, somewhat ironically, by ArtSpace, a non-profit that provides living and working spaces primarily for theatrical and visual artists. It’s actually a valuable project, but it essentially left the previous tenants out in the cold.

Though he lost his Brookland space, Moyer hasn’t given up. “Rather than wander practice-space less through my early 30s, I recently said ‘Fuck it’ and hired a contractor and spent about $10,000 building a studio in my house,” he says. “It is very small and, compared to the space I sublet in Northeast for $116 per month, totally inadequate. However, unless I want to spend my nights commuting 30-45 minutes to the far suburbs to fuck around with ProTools, it’s my only option.”

While Davis is still looking for a permanent spot, he’s found other ways to temporarily deal with the situation. “I wrote the new Title Tracks record at the music school I work at—just getting in there after hours to be able to make demos with drums and loud guitars and such,” Davis says.

 

5. Adapt

For some, the lack of a space actually shapes the sound of the songs. “I’m confident that without the lack of real estate for this, Insect Factory and Authorization would never have happened,” says musician Jeff Barsky. After moving back to D.C. from Boston, Barsky abandoned a batch of tunes he was working on because there was no space to practice them. “I started playing through my headphones/pedals/four-track and Insect Factory was born. I’ve never had opportunities to play at volume unless it’s at a show. Similarly, with Authorization, Dan [Caldas, bassist] couldn’t find a place to play drums, which is what he planned on doing, so he switched to bass and we mixed all of our sounds down through a practice amp.”

Veenstra still holds out hope. While D.C. lacks the industrial spaces of other towns, as a musician and a developer, he’s still on the hunt for an adequate building to convert to a rehearsal space. A good practice studio that’s open late and charges reasonable rates has long been a need for the musicians in town, and Veenstra says, “I’m always looking.”

VIDEO: Imperial China @ The Red & The Black

Our Readers Say

It's a tough issue. With my friends, we have gone fully electronic. We use electronic drums to practice, and run through a mixer using headphones. This works pretty well. The drums are the main issue-- and electronic drums have evolved to the point where they are usable.
Good Article. This is a big problem with Washington, DC and has seriously hurt our music scene. It's hard to be a musician in a place where rent alone can consume 50% of your income easily.
very surprised you didnt mention anything about goldleaf in chinatown in this story, probably the biggest and best practice space in dc. do some research.
did you not read the section entitled "4. Spend Money"? i think tone and moyer's experiences sufficiently covered the concept of paying through the nose for legit practice space. article didn't really need a third example there. and AFAIK there is a long waiting list for studio space at gold leaf anyway.
also @Vespa, this article clearly did a lot of research into a lot of under-exposed DC bands.

As a once-and-future collaborator of quiet-practicer and eminent songwriter Gabe Fry, I'm really happily surprised to see his name in the City Paper. Gabe's been making relevant, interesting music for over a decade. Since his days fronting the Hopeful Monsters and (later) the Casual Occupation he's written most of the best songs in my collection. His drumming with The Lost Atoms and with Second String and the B Team got people dancing every time.

While I think Gold Leaf is indeed a cool spot to party, and D.C.'s newest folk sensation, Aaron Thompson, recorded a great album there last year, this was not a list of every possible place to practice in town.

Instead it was a great article about how gentrification destroys popular access to participation in the very culture that rich, suburban people often move to the city to be closer to. Big props to Mr. Little for uncovering this story and for thoroughly demonstrating the phenomenon by researching the experiences of about ten great local bands.

If he didn't research something outside of the article, such as a list of the best practice spaces in town, that shows he was focused on his main point. As a sometime journalist, I can tell you how important that is to get anything published.
I used to book rehearsal time at Perfect Sound (in Hyattsville) and Studio 202 (above the car wash on NY Ave). There's also Barco Rebar that has (had?) more of a monthly-pay model rather than individual sessions.

Nowadays we just play more quietly, using small, muffled drums and brushes/rods. You can get a band down to "loud stereo" volume for rehearsal; it makes it all the more satisfying when you crank it up in a live setting.

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