Why Do D.C. Bands Suck So Much? The Director’s Cut
For this week's Answers Issue, we took on some our readers' most pressing questions about life in the District.
When we put out the call for queries last October, we were immediately impressed (seriously!) by the intelligence of many of the submissions. At the same time—well, let's just say we got trolled pretty hard. In the end, I decided to take on one of the most troll-like submissions, "Why do D.C. bands suck so much now?," by putting it to some D.C. bands. Every few years, a debate seems to pop up about the quality of D.C.'s "scene," and the subtext has a lot to do with the post-hardcore and punk sounds that until about a decade ago largely defined the city's rock music to out-of-town listeners. Which, I have to imagine, can be pretty frustrating if you make music here. At the same time, I don't think bands have sublimated that debate about quality: There's a lot of great music being made in D.C.
I reached out to a bunch of local groups, but was only able to include truncated versions of some of their responses in the Answers Issue. Here's my unedited director's cut:
Q: Why do D.C. bands suck so much now?
A: Are we still sounding this refrain? Ever since Fugazi went on hiatus nearly a decade ago, young D.C. bands have had to answer for the city’s punk-rock legacy. Even Slate economics columnist Matthew Yglesias, in a recent, widely criticized blog post on D.C.’s lack of nebulously defined “hipness” relative to other cities, hammered the hardcore chord as a sign of faded cultural vitality. And so the easy answer to your question is: It’s a poorly premised question.
In fact, there are plenty of very good bands in D.C. More importantly, there are plenty of very good bands who’ve been hearing that their scene sucks for years. Here’s what they thought of your question.
Ryan Little, Tereu Tereu member and Washington City Paper contributor:
Yeah, man. It's like D.C. bands forgot they're supposed to keep trying to replicate a moment that peaked nearly 30 years ago. As if a broad spectrum of talent is a positive thing! Most of those assholes aren't even making much money off it–it's like they're just "making art for art's sake." Pathetic.
Wake me up when someone drops a dubstep remix of Minor Threat.
Ian Graham, Lenorable:
D.C. bands only suck to people who sit at home and talk about how much D.C. bands suck right now rather than contributing in some way to local music. Sure, there are some snoozers, and some that could use some more practice, but what scene doesn't have that? Quit complaining and make a change if you don't like the scene. Or quit complaining and don't change anything. Either way, quit complaining.
Ian Thompson, L&T&W, Cricket Cemetery Records:
WOW, REALLY? How was the snow patrol show last night? Nice boots and vest MAN. So sorry you missed any one of great dc bands that play live regularly in this city, because you were too busy cuddled up in a coffee shop using free internet to update yr "Things white girls say while drinking hot chocolate" blog. Fuck. Off.
Jess Dye, Lightfoot:
Why do D.C. residents suck at supporting the local music scene?
Of course I am biased, but I think D.C. bands are far from sucking. There's been a bit of a musical renaissance over the past few years with the emergence of house shows, location specific albums, D.C. music festivals, and more blogs focusing on the local scene.
But let's face it, D.C. is not the easiest city to grow as a musician. Practice spaces are nearly impossible to find (or being demolished like Gold Leaf), rent is so high you nearly have to have a 9-5 to survive, and there aren't many working gigs for musicians. Couple that with the fact the population of D.C. has a high turnover rate of interns and Hill staffers, it's difficult for local bands to grow their fan base with a city of people destined to leave soon. It's a bad combination of high cost of living and unenthused communities that have lead to this crisis. Being a band in D.C. is a challenge in itself, let alone trying to produce something awesome in this difficult atmosphere. But most of us are still striving to make good music and better our community. Hope is not lost.
So potential local fans, ask not what your local bands can do for you—ask what you can do for your local bands.
Come to our shows. Actually listen! Buy our CDs. Share our videos on YouTube. Host a living room show in your row house. Tell your friends about us on facebook. Give us some encouragement and support your community.
Jess Matthews, America Hearts
While the question expresses a forceful opinion, it also seeks validation from a specific point of view: experts of the zeitgeist, please validate my judgement and provide me with excuses to justify why I have not found the bands that I have (presumably) been looking for.
The questioner's concern for his own knowledge and competence combined with blunt dismissiveness illustrates a common caricature of the arts in D.C.: Artists devoted to their own self expression, play, and experience of life are pitted against a larger population focused on strategy, mastery, and every stick of furniture in their condo-a space that may have previously served as an artists studio.
But this portrait of the city as one of dueling temperaments is not only simplistic, but also misses part of what is great about music in D.C. right now. Today the city's good bands come in all genres: garage rock (Foul Swoops), electronic (Protect-U), art rock (Deleted Scenes), and—dare I say it—even pop (Olivia Mancini). It does not appeal to only one type of audience. There isn't one thing to simply get or not get.
Along with the diversity of sound, the showgoing environment has become more inclusive. New venues like U Street Music Hall, Artisphere, and Dynasty make it possible to combine seeing an interesting band with clubbing, living in Rosslyn, or eating Ethiopian food. You don't have to know someone who sets up house shows and hang out in the cumin-scented basement waiting for the band to show up because their van broke down.
Everybody wants to entertain and to be entertained, in the same way that we all covet that affordable downtown loft space. So I say, why not reply, "What kind of music do you like?"
Patrick Kigongo, Ra Ra Rasputin:
I’m almost 30. I’ve been in the Washington, D.C., area since I was 18. As an undergraduate at University of Maryland, I was fortunate enough to see the last Wilson Center show, as well as one of Fugazi’s final shows. I witnessed Q and Not U, Faraquet, Black Eyes and others introduce a young, wiry energy to the “post-hardcore” sound. And I was lucky enough to see Dead Meadow before they moved to Los Angeles. I also remember the painfully dull period between 2005 and 2008, when it felt as though nothing was happening. In short, I’ve seen a lot more than most of the folks who complain about the state of D.C. music.
So, why do D.C. bands suck so much now? This question typifies the Loser Larry/Debbie Downer outlook that seems to poison the minds of so many residents of the DMV. (You only have to listen to the rants of local sports fans and politicos to understand what I’m talking about). Quite frankly, I’m tired of hearing people whining about how much D.C. sucks. For the record, D.C. bands right now don’t suck. In fact, I’ll go as far as saying that the current crop of local bands is among the best I’ve seen since the early 2000s.
For better or for worse, Dischord is the first thing that most informed music fans think about when they hear the words “Washington, D.C.” Yes, Dischord and other labels (DeSoto, Teenbeat, and Slumberland) all made important contributions to our city’s rich musical history. But with Dischord putting out fewer records and focusing more on distribution, we’re not being defined and outshined by their brand. So what if D,C, isn’t how it was in 1980, 1995, or 2002? The past should serve as a reference point, not as a millstone around one’s neck. We should not be shackled by our history. The D.C. music scene is an unwritten book, a tabula rasa. We, as artists, must take advantage of this by nurturing wide varieties of music with a view to innovation.
Naysayers argue that the lack of an identifiable local sound makes D.C. “unmarketable.” I would argue otherwise. The lack of a D.C. “sound” means that we’re not pressured into making one type of music in order to get attention. Just look at the diversity amongst the tenants of the soon-to-be-demolished Gold Leaf Studios. You’ve got AM gold/desert rock (U.S. Royalty), a wild mix of free jazz and punk (Laughing Man), electronic rock (my band, Ra Ra Rasputin, as well as our roommates Miyazaki), long improvisational blues jams (Honey House). Outside Gold Leaf, even more variety. You’ve got folks who are still carrying the torch of harDCore (Coke Bust). You’ve got former hardcore kids taking electronic music to the next level (Future Times/Beautiful Swimmers/Protect-U). What about longtime DJs producing their own songs (Volta Bureau, Chris Burns, the Nouveau Riche guys)? Sockets Records has done a fine job of championing some really fine groups (Cornel West Theory, Big Gold Belt, and Hume). I haven’t even touched what’s going on in go-go, jazz, or hip-hop in the District right now. Whoever’s complaining about local bands sucking must be stuck in the Shins-lite indie rock era of 2006-2008 and probably attends one show a month.
Finally, people are writing good SONGS. After all, it’s not just about the creative process and the “scene.” It’s about THE MUSIC. Beautiful Swimmers’ “Big Coast” was a summer banger if I’ve ever heard one. What about Screen Vinyl Image’s driving “Cathode Ray?" How about Imperial China’s skittering “Bananamite?” Middling hipster-Sundance movie soundtrack music this is not. As someone who performs and attends a lot of shows, I can say with confidence that local groups are not only writing better structured songs but also conjuring up some very cool sounds.
I defend D.C.’s music scene because I genuinely believe we have something good to offer, not just because I’m invested in it. When I first moved here from New York, I knew that I liked the area, but I had no idea that I’d stick around for so long. I certainly have my criticisms about living and working here. Hell, I just as easily could’ve written several hundred (or thousand) words on what we’re dong wrong. But if there’s one thing Washingtonians could learn from New Yorkers, it’s that confidence and a bit of swagger can go a long way.