I Think We’re Not in Kansas House Anymore
Over the last 15 years, Kansas House, a tiny four-bedroom home in Arlington, has seen members of bands that recorded for almost every D.C. record label—Dischord, Teenbeat, Slowdime, Simple Machines—crash on its floors, perform in its living room, or be thoroughly revolted by its rat-infested basement.
Kansas House is not a club. Shows happen there once or twice a month. But the experience of seeing a show at Kansas House is different. At the Black Cat, for instance, you buy a ticket and see a band. But anyone who's crammed into Kansas House's tiny living room to watch Black Eyes, Q and Not U, or Trans Am could be forgiven for feeling like they were part of a movement.
You can still feel that way, at least for a few more months. On Dec. 1, Kansas House's epic run will finally come to an end. The building is in the process of being sold to an Arlington development firm. Eventually, the house will be demolished to make way for mixed-use development.
Really, though, it's a miracle Kansas House lasted this long. Whether because of angry neighbors, freaked-out landlords, or the complicated lives of their residents, punk houses tend to have a short shelf life. Kansas House, however, has been blessed with a particularly favorable set of circumstances–easy Metro access, relative isolation from other houses, and a landlord who was, to say the least, not very nosy.
Throughout the ’80s the Kansas House property was occupied by a thrift store. Ian MacKaye, then living at the nearby Dischord house, shopped there from time to time. “That was my secret Christmas spot,” he says. Among his purchases: a 100 percent accurately sculpted rubber cabbage.
In the mid-'90s, Margarita Metaxatos acquired the property and started renting it as a residence. This was during the heyday of Arlington’s indie-rock renaissance—when labels like Teenbeat, Dischord, Slowdime, and Simple Machines were in full stride. It didn’t take long for enterprising rockers to see the property’s potential.
Derek Morton, then playing in Ex-Atari Kid, was among the first musicians to move in. “It was between ’96 and ’97,” he recalls. “When we moved in it was a bunch of college kids. We were probably the first band.”
At the time, Morton didn’t use the house to host performances. Instead he and his housemates used it as a practice space and a home base for his fledgling record label, Rocker! Supernova. “It wasn’t a band house in the sense that bands played every weekend,” he says. The house frequently put up bands that were on their way through town and needed a place to crash. Word got around. “I remember getting this phone call from Gerard Cosloy [co-owner of Matador Records], he was looking for a place for one of his bands to crash,” says Morton. “But I had never given him my number, I have no idea how he got it.”
As with any group house, roommates flowed in and out pretty casually, but there were a few staples that stuck around. Bob Massey, of the groups Telegraph Melts and Gena Rowlands Band, put in five years, living at Kansas House from ’96-’01.
“We consistently had shows there for that whole five year period,” recalls Massey, who now lives in Los Angeles. “We started out us just throwing shows for our friend’s bands. Then people started calling—Most Secret Method, Dismemberment Plan, they came along pretty soon.”
The list of bands that performed at Kansas House during that first five or six years is a who's-who of post-punk and indie-rock. The Faint played there. So did the Rapture, Japanther, and Golden.
“I was at a Locust show at the house; I might have even set it up” says Frodus drummer Jason Hamacher, who lived in at Kansas House during the fall of ’00. “It was totally nuts. I had a fur collar that I had bought in West Virginia and a sword. At one point I was shirtless with a collar and a sword running around the living room.”
“There was another show–that band
Sloar Floor, from Florida. It wasn’t packed. I took my friend Nate to the show and they were just so heavy. Every person in the band played with a full stack, in that tiny room. Nate said he felt semi-nauseous."
Despite the noise, run-ins with the cops were few. For years the house's only neighbors were a halal meat market and a gas station. Across the street was another house (since demolished) occupied by members of the ska band the Pietasters. Nausea-inducing heavy rock from Florida was not an issue.
Kansas House lacked in the accouterments of a professional concert venue. There was no backstage. There was no stage! Hell, there was only one bathroom. Bands that played there often had to supply their own PAs and usually their own refreshments. What Kansas House did offer was flexibility. It was the perfect place to hold off-beat events that would have wilted in a bar or club environment.
In the early '00s Massey ran a series of performances called “Punk Not Rock,” which asked local musicians to develop site-specific musical compositions to perform at the space. “Some people were straight up, others really imaginative,” remembers MacKaye, who attended several of the performances. “Vin Novara did a performance on bowls with varying amounts of water. There was another guy who came in and claimed to be a classical whistler.” A few people got a little more ambitious. “Alberto Gaitán, he had some music going on in the living room, but it was synced to a car with one of those pimped-out stereo systems," recalls Massey. "It was thudding in time while the car was outside going around the block.”
There were non-musical happenings as well. “Hugh McElroy [bassist/singer of Black Eyes], had these kids from Rhode Island, they had this thing called a party tour," says Jason Barnett, who lived in the house from '01-'08. "They were going to different cities and bringing a party with them. We bought a keg and they brought big balls, blow-up animals, and different costumes. And they cleaned up afterward—that was the best part."
At this point the house has been in action for so long that Collin Crowe, one of the currant tenants, can recall going to shows there when he was a teenager. "I was like 17 or 18. Nate from Frodus had this solo thing that played [Out-circuit]," says Crowe. "It’s totally weird that I live here now. It used to be this cool mysterious awesome house for me. If I was 17 and talking to my past self, he would be like 'That's awesome.' But really, it’s kind of whatever."
Fifteen years of band practices, animal-costume parties, keggers, and hardcore shows has taken its toll on the property. If the wrecking ball weren't on the way, Kansas House might just implode from exhaustion. "It's an old house," says Barnett. "If you went into the basement during a show, you could see the floorboards moving." Not to mention that the area itself has changed into a sprawling yuppie paradise. "Dudes who would be bar-hopping from Ballston and Clarendon, would crash in" during shows, says Barnett, "Yuppie-type dudes who would come over for the keg." At this point, Kansas House has become a bit of a stranger in a strange land.
"It sucks that houses like this vanish, bands can’t practice," says Crowe, who hopes to start another punk house in the District, noting another one in Northeast that's "insane. There’s a schoolbus in the yard, a couple people live there. All bike co-oppy."
"I’m sure this is tragic, says MacKaye. "But it’s not the building that's important, it's always the people."