Arts Desk

Catching Up With No Kill No Beep Beep, Day 9: Black Eyes

On Oct. 24, 2000, Dischord Records released No Kill No Beep Beep, the classic debut by Q and Not U. The cover is an arresting, whimsical snapshot of the punk-rock community that spawned the record—the band asked its friends and peers, most of them under 25 at the time, to pose for a portrait that would show D.C. wasn’t just a town of old punks. In this week’s Washington City Paper, Q and Not U’s members reflect on their rookie achievement. On Arts Desk, we’re catching up with some of the community Q and Not U immortalized.

Left To Right: Jacob Long, Hugh McElroy, Daniel Martin-McCormick, Dan Caldas

From the start, the musicians who would later form Black Eyes were involved with the boys in Q and Not U. Back in 2000, most of the Black Eyes crew played in a go-go-inspired punk band that shared the stage with Q and Not U now and then. "I was in a band called No-Gos with everyone from [Black Eyes] except Daniel [Martin-McCormick], and we were sharing a practice space with Q in the Resin Records house," recalls bassist Hugh McElroy.

At the time, Martin-McCormick says, "I was living at my parent's house in Northwest D.C. I was 16, and that was the summer in between my junior and senior years of high school. I grew up there, but I was happy to stay after high school precisely because of the scene and infrastructure. It baffles me now thinking about how easy it was to start playing shows. I submitted my first demo to Fort Reno when I was 15 and immediately had a show about a month and a half later. The year after that was kind of a whirlwind of hanging out, meeting bands and everybody at shows. The scene was exceptionally supportive and fun and being in a band was a piece of cake."

McElroy was still home at the time as well. "I was living in my parents' basement between living in a group house with Jacob Long and Caroline Hostetler (also on the cover) and living in college accommodations at St. Cross College, Oxford. I was as old as my nose and a little bit older than my teeth." McElroy met the musicians who would later be his Dischord labelmates in 1997. "I met them through the Resin Records dudes," he says. "I think I met them first at that Annapolis basement show. Better Automatic played, and I know Matt Borlik's old band The Challenger Commission played that show, and I think Harris [Klahr]'s The Glenmont Soundsystem played that show. I can't remember if Chris [Richards]' old band Tilden Shirtwaist Fire played that show, but I think he was there... That was before he was in The Elusive with John [Davis], I think... Treiops Treyfid, which was Treiops from Pitchblende, also played that night."

The photo shoot was a pleasant representation of the house show attendees of the time. "Pretty much everybody knew each other," said Martin-McCormick. "With the exception of a few people who couldn't make it out, that was pretty much everyone you saw at every show from '99-'01." The top of his skull is all that appears in the photo, but McElroy postures this may be his own fault. "I don't remember much, except that I violated the primary color theme of the shoot by wearing black. There was a lyrical reason I wasn't supposed to do this, but in violation of the spirit of the occasion, I decided I wasn't comfortable being garish; this is perhaps why only my forehead appears on the cover."

After the record was released, it was actually hard for some of the most loyal show-goers to handle. "It's funny," says Long. "I don't know if I should say this, but I was kind of disappointed with this record when it came out. I had seen Q play shows for a while at this point (and played shows with them in a few bands), and I loved these songs live, but I always felt something was lost in the translation to recording." Martin-McCormick echoes the sentiment. "At first I was a little disappointed in the album because Q and Not U had been such a huge deal for me," he says. "Of course, any band that makes a name for itself playing crazy house shows is going to have a rough time translating that energy in the studio. As I got a little more distance from it, though, I came to enjoy the album more and more... You can feel the time and place (nobody dresses the way we dressed on the cover anymore, there are so many fewer rock bands without synthesizers, there's no reverb on the vocals etc etc) and that's a truly beautiful thing." As he looks at the front, Martin-McCormick says, "I don't think [the cover] came out like they intended, but it's pretty perfect. You can tell that none of us were very cool, you know? Everybody just hung out and were kinda nerds but also very enthusiastic and jazzed about music. And Q felt very much like our band."

McElroy met Mike Kanin (later of Black Eyes) in '96. He was playing in a riot grrrl band called A.K.A. Harlot #1 (with author Sarah Marcus, among others), and Kanin was booking Fort Reno with Carleton Ingram. Years later, while McElroy was at a vegan potluck at Katy Otto's place, Kanin called him up and asked him to join him in the No-Gos. He agreed. Eventually, McElroy headed off to Oxford for some higher education, but not long after No Kill came out, Black Eyes started to coalesce. "I was in England from 2000 to 2001," says McElroy. "I got home and Jacob, Daniel, and Mike Kanin were in Trooper. Paul Jickling was also in it, and I think Amanda MacKaye and Sean McGuinness of Pissed Jeans also played in it briefly. When I got back I roadied with them for a while—I had a van, and they needed one to go on tour." After those tours ended, McElroy ended up with the other members of Black Eyes playing music at Martin-McCormick's house and their noise-heavy sound began to take shape.

"We played shows with [Q and Not U] early on, and we were all super tight. When we made our first record, they took the single on tour with them. In 2003, Black Eyes went on tour for seven and a half weeks, and we were with Q for six and a half of those weeks." As a teenager, getting to be so deeply a part of the punk scene was an enormous deal to Martin-McCormick. "I felt like I was a part of the biggest thing in the world," he says. "I had no idea about the internet or about what was happening in New York or anywhere else. I mean, I knew about other music, like Kraftwerk and Fela and stuff, but I had no concept of what the national scene was like. It seemed so full and complete, this amazing band right in front of us and everybody was into it, going wild and having a great time."

The Black Eyes/Q and Not U shows were rife with odd anecdotes. "When we were all in Providence, RI in 2003 with El Guapo," says McElroy. "We stayed at the space we played at, and all three bands had an extended jam with the people who lived there. People where just switching instruments. It was in the morning, people had had some coffee, they were in different rooms, and it started an idea that never happened, where were going to have a 3-way split collaboration. It was a really cool coffee-fueled jam." Caldas recalls: "We did a lot of fun percussion jams/collaborations at the end of [Q and Not U]'s sets. Some of these would end with us leaving the stage and kind of drum line style marching into other rooms or outside on to the street."

"In '03 Chris got really into wearing uncomfortable clothes live so that he would be pushed to play harder," says Martin-McCormick. "But they also became costumes, big ugly sweaters with rips and stuff, and then a tie." Caldas adds: "Chris wore a brown sweater that looked like a toddler had cut arbitrary pieces out of it with scissors."

McElroy remembers, "At an early show in Norfolk at this weird-ass arty-bar space that No-Gos played with them (and I think Engine Down) they had so much energy that I remember them seriously flying across the stage. I can't remember if it was because they were psyched or pissed off. I think Harris walked up a wall. Chris broke his guitar and we had to trade guitars for the rest of their tour and we took his broken guitar back to D.C. "

The entire punk experience left them all changed. McElroy says: "This may sound hokey, but it gave me a place where I felt comfortable being my weird, queer, anarchist, classics-geek, bass-playing self and the comfort to carry that self into the world outside of punk rock." Says Martin-McCormick: "Punk was the ultimate confirmation for me: that you could be the person you were and run with that; do your own thing, make your own music, and there was a space for you in the world." He continues: "Before I found punk, it seemed like all the people doing weird cool stuff were as distant as could be, and that the best I could do was to squeeze the stuff I loved in between the cracks of what would ultimately become a rather dull life. Punk, and especially the scene in D.C. at the time, gave me so much hope and relief and excitement. I still feel that quite a bit and still think about a lot of conversations I had or shows I saw at that time." Looking back on that now, especially considering his age at the time, he realizes: "A lot of my life has been trying to make good on the promises of youth."

Now the scene has changed, and the city is different, but the former members of Black Eyes aren't without hope for the District. "D.C. feels way less exciting musically to me, but I think a lot of that is my age," Caldas says. "There is a big difference between being 19 and everything feeling fresh and exciting versus being 30 and having experienced a lot more, as well as having different interests and focuses in your life. There is music I like in D.C., however. Title Tracks, Insect Factory, Protect-U, and America Hearts are making great music."

Long admits: "I know very little about D.C. at this point. I don't want to be one of those 'things were better in my day' people—I mean, things were great for a number of years when I lived there but a lot of that had to do with having a huge group of awesome friends that was always around/hung/went to shows/etc. and it was great. I'm sure for some people that might still be there. It just happens that I, along with most of my friends from that time, have moved on. That said, I know there are some great friends from back then really doing some great things in D.C. and really building there own scene, it just happens to be different music-wise."

"It seems (from San Francisco) like most of the people from that era have moved or settled a bit," says Martin-McCormick. "Between '03-'05, a ton of people (myself included) skipped town, mostly for NYC but also Chicago and the West Coast. The upside to such a small, supportive scene was that it was easy to feel included and play a lot of shows and hang out without tons of pretension. The downside was that if you wanted to expand your musical palette, you were kinda stuck with the same small pool of musicians. So at a certain point, it made sense to leave. I know the Future Times crew is doing a lot there, and that's awesome. But it seems like the 'D.C. sound' that got so much attention in the late '90s kinda went the way of the dodo along with so much punk-based music some time in the last decade. Some old D.C. heads are doing really well with their music, though, and that's such a nice thing to see."

Now Caldas (whose band Authorization will be releasing an album soon) is living in New York, after living in D.C. for 12 years. "I'm currently working in television as an assistant video editor and trying to play music whenever I can. I recently did some music for a friend of mine's experimental film called 'Crusher,'" he says. Martin-McCormick (who now plays in Mi Ami and Sex Worker) and Long are both in San Francisco at the moment. "I left town because I wanted a change of scenery and to try some new stuff. I had an opportunity to study classical guitar in San Francisco and thought it might be cool, but I also wanted to see if all the ideas and energy I had picked up in D.C. would hold elsewhere. So far, life has been exceptionally good," says Martin-McCormick. McElroy is still living in D.C., playing in Cephalopods, and running Ruffian Records (which has lately partnered with Sockets Records on a number of releases). McElroy notes: "It's nice to look back, as long as it doesn't take our eyes off all the beautiful things people are making and doing now. It's way too easy to be nostalgic instead of engaged."

In case you missed it, here's the rest of the series.

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