Arts Desk

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.

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Comments

  1. #1

    Jess Dye, Lightfoot:

    Of course I am biased [since this is one of several metropolitan areas I claim to be based in], but I think D.C. bands are far from sucking.

    Patrick Kigongo, Ra Ra Rasputin:

    I haven’t even touched what’s going on in go-go, jazz, or hip-hop in the District right now [because I don't know a fucking thing about them!]

  2. #2

    Swagger ain't gonna help your shitty bands.

  3. #3

    DC's culture suffers from high rent, rapid development, an amorphous population, and is overshadowed by the political climate. The cards are highly stacked against anyone trying to make it as an artist or musician here, and if you're asking normal people to come out and support the scene (or asking why it sucks) it's usually too late. Most of the successful musicians in DC move away, and it's why promoters from disparate genres are forced to work together to make shows happen.

    Obviously this is not a feature, but I do wonder why more genres in the city's music are not covered. Even with Patrick's comment going into more detail, this doesn't give a good spread of the types of music one can find in DC. The lack of coverage adds to the problem.

  4. #4

    I've lived in DC for 20 years. I'm in my mid 40s. I agree, I don't really think "scenes" should matter as much as bands. It should be all about the music. But with that said, most of the bands you pointed out are pretty bad. I mean I could go down the list and point out how tired and unoriginal the music is among the bands you just shot out. Part of the reason NYC produces so many good bands is that many of the bands there thrive off experimentation and originality. It is also why the DC music golden years were so amazing. There was a real sense of originality in the music and art scenes. As a music fan, who goes to alot of shows in DC, I can't count how many times I walk away from seeing a band disappointed. I went to a local DC showcase at 930 in November and can honestly say I only saw 1-2 bands (out of 9-10) that were any good at all. The rest were just playing very tired music poorly. At some point one of you music types have to admit you just suck at writing good music. I'm just keeping it real.

  5. #5

    Let's unleash hell!

  6. #6

    The local media is to blame as well. It's always the same 5 fucking bands being promoted by City Paper, Dcist, and BYT. They also give glowing reviews to clearly shitty bands. The local music media has been such a joke for so long. They do no service to local music by mostly covering synthy, pop, unimaginative, crappy music.

  7. #7

    I feel bad for people stuck in the past and whining because Fugazi aren't around and missing out on the fun and great folks in this city. Yes, it is difficult for bands to maintain practice spaces and there are problems, but whining about it isn't fixing anything. The beautiful thing about this city, and area that is better than in, say, NYC is the accessibility and friendliness and support. No, you're not likely to "make it" in DC, but that's a self-selecting criteria that results in it just being a lot of great people doing cool, creative stuff because they want to, not because they want to be cool or famous or whatever. It breeds sincerity and sincerity is always preferable to bullshit. Also, people, let's stop talking about NYC. It's a different city with different advantages and disadvantages. A lot of shit about it really sucks too. Focus on DC, our great stuff (and problems), and how we can improve what we have. That's what matters and is what we can do.

  8. #8

    There are a lot of great punk and hardcore bands going on in DC right now...COPSTABBER, Police & Thieves, Nervous Impulse, Supreme Commander, Coke Bust (who did get mentioned at least, Daycare Swindlers (now that they are finally back again), Deities of a New Age and more...these were just off the top. And the more raw underground DIY punk/hardcore scene is thriving too. The reason the scene disappoints is more about the scenesters than the bands.

  9. #9

    "I could go down the list and point out how tired and unoriginal the music is among the bands you just shot out."

    What's your band called, Walt?

  10. #10

    people need to shut the fuck up about haydays of the past, dc is a new and different city now and as much as old people don't like change it is coming

    bravo on writing a bs article just to stir up people and go back to the 90s and listen to your cds or whatever

  11. #11

    Who cares what people think? Rock 'n roll is supposed to be disliked. Who needs a "scene" anyway, Isn't that the definition of "hip"? Isn't this what we are all against?

  12. #12

    Walt should move to new york and experiment with originally telling people his opinion there. They won't care either.

  13. #13

    Thank you Windian for providing us w/some Real Talk. As per you haters, y'all complain too much. Go back to drinking IPAs and complaining about the football team from that loser state you call home.

  14. #14

    I think the quality of music is pretty low in the 'big picture'...well...at least at a national level, so I don't see why D.C.--especially D.C.-- would be exempt. I will say that a lot (not ALL--probably most) of the bands that are popular in D.C., THAT is who SUCKS (enter "don't be a hater" comments). People like what they like, but D.C. listeners just have bad taste, but a small quantity of better options DO exist. I definitely agree that even for bands that ARE good, the support in this city is pretty shitty and weak. Anyway, shitty band or not, if you like playin' music and it makes you feel good inside of your heart, keep on keepin' on D.C. You'll probably ALWAYS produce mediocre to decent bands (like the majority of the ones cited above), but you keep your head up while composing those solid bronze tracks that shine like gold in the district.

  15. #15

    I subscribe to a number of city's on-line music rags. The east coast tends to be drenched in negativity. Is that an attempt to spur people into action? Or is it just that negativity has spread its disease so deep in the culture of the region that being hurtful toward each other is just accepted as the norm? I am of the belief that music is wonderful. Bands are cool. Every region has something to offer. DC must have some genuine people playing music, it's statistically impossible for them all to be vacuous pits of self-serving a-holes. Maybe the author has seen too much of the ugly side of the biz, or witnessed too many shows and become helplessly cynical, or been burnt by some other musicians who are a-holes. I hope the love for music returns to him.

  16. #16

    I appreciate this article, despite that it's based on a sweeping generalization. I like the debate about why DC's music scene is the way it is. As a full-time working musician (teaching, mostly - and making a GOOD living because the economy is strong and DC parents and adults value music education), I have to say I've really enjoyed being a musician here and have found a lot of support and fans. I am also proud to say that my band is being hired to sing backup on a regular basis for both local and national artists and we recently returned from a three week, 15 date Ireland and UK tour where we proudly repped DC. Both of us (we're a duo) are classically trained and grew up singing in a DC church choir. We grew up going to Fort Reno and all ages shows at the Black Cat. We don't suck.

  17. #17

    Walt---You are exactly why people are saying all this negative shit about DC music. You are all negativity! Seriously, instead of whining keep supporting local music. I've lived in NYC and DC and I can tell you its the same shit. There are good and bad bands. DC has awesome bands! End of story!

  18. #18

    Ramtin wins!

  19. #19

    Two thoughts: 1) It seems like the person who would ask the question, "why do DC bands suck so much?" is probably someone who needs national media to tell him or her what is good music. The way people respond to music is funny: the average listener, when presented with good music live and in person, will respond positively and appreciate it. But he/she won't necessarily go home and rave about it. But if they read a media outlet they trust praising the music and calling it brilliant, then they will feel they have permission to rave about it. The person who says "DC bands suck" probably just doesn't have the time or energy or musical ears to sort through and determine for him or herself what is good and bad music. So it's easier to just go see "approved of" national acts at the 9:30 Club and complain that the local scene sucks.

    2) At the same time, the person who says "DC bands suck" has probably heard some mediocre bands in DC. I know I have. (And some of them have received glowing reviews from DC blogs). I think there might be a genre bias among some of the smaller venues in DC where up-and-comers would get their start. Like "if it's electro-expiremental, then it must be brilliant." But if it's folk/pop/traditional/mainstream, then it belongs in the suburbs. If I'm correct on sensing that bias, then smaller local venues are selecting bands based on genre more than on how GOOD they are, and the average listener who wanders in is going to hear music that feels foreign and esoteric to them...and it might feel that way b/c it is actually just poor music.

    That said, I don't think the DC scene is a bad place to be. I've been playing shows here for the past 4 years, and though I've had some frustrations, I've received a lot of love and support from fans. AND, I have met and played with a number of fantastic musicians in the area. I'm not complaining. DC has been good to me, and I am proud to call myself a DC-based musician.

  20. #20

    the real question is "why does the city paper keep writing articles about fugazi and bands from the golden era of DC hardcore?"

  21. #21

    I'm going to try and structure this comment so it doesn't come off as a poorly thought out rant.

    I will agree that most DC bands that I have come across are not very good. I will also admit that I cannot speak for all DC bands because I have not seen all of them (there are many bands that either don't play many shows or I am simply not aware of). I have become frustrated with the general trends in the area that I have noticed, though, because they seem to be mostly copycat acts. The two larger trends I have seen as of late (aside from DJ's, purely electronic outfits and jazz) are the indy/pop/synth Pitchfork worshippers and younger Deathcore bands. Most are able to get regular shows simply because they all hang out together and get in with promoters who know they can pull crowds of oblivious DC-new-comers who are trying to 'check out the music scene,' or, in the case of the Deathcore bands, trend-following high school kids who will grow out of that music in a few years at the laterst.

    Apart from the lack of interesting music, another problem is that more original bands find it more difficult to get shows, as the fans of the more generic watered down music do not (and I wouldn't expect them to) appreciate new or strange music.

    I will go ahead and say that I have a GREAT amount of respect for anyone who takes the time to learn to play instruments, compose music, rehearse, record and play live. Playing music takes up all of your time and money, without much in return other than personal satisfaction and development. I find it difficult to stand side to side with people who just crap on DC music without having ever written a song. This is also the problem I have with critics who write for Pitchfork, some of whom you can tell have never picked up a guitar.

    To agree with the old-timer, most of the bands cited above are rather bland. They will probably end up enjoying a moderate amount of success if they keep at it, but I doubt anything substantial lies in their future unless they are able to find some sort of independent and fresh sound that is original and GENUINE. Being genuine is very important, and I believe it truly comes through in your music if you are.

    Anyways, I hope to come across better bands in the future. I am not one who only listens to bands that are perfect in every aspect. I listen to many bands who may only have one or two aspects that I find are interesting. Unfortunately, most of the bands around here haven't been able to provide that for me.

  22. #22

    There are lots of great hardcore bands in DC right now. Musically, they're having a golden age.

    Unfortunately, I don't like going to shows. The problem isn't the music, it's the crowd. Motherfuckers wanna stand around, listen to bands go hard as fuck, and they just wanna stand there and golf clap in between songs. If you mosh, they get mad. I can't tell if they're there to actually hear music or to show off their awesome infest patches and look cool as fuck.

    Like a bunch of hardcore robots who are trained to only know the lyrics to one song per band. They don't get excited about anything unless that one song comes up. And I never know what song it is. Do they have write down names of songs, congregate at PY meetings and tell them what songs to go off to? Or maybe it's just like that one song a band had on myspace or something?

    Either way, I will never attend another show in DC. For the last 10 years, I've been going to Baltimore for shows, even though I lived closer Richmond and DC. I move back out this way, decide to go to some shows of local bands I liked, and had an awful time.

    I don't belong at DC shows, I have never felt welcome at them. Even though I'm in this area again, and even though I will continue to purchase and support DC bands by way of ordering shit on the internet, but I won't be going to the shows. And I'm sure there are many people who will be happy to never see my face again.

    I got no love for a scene of people who have a band rocking their fucking face off, only to have their audience stand as stationary as BB King. You non-moshing motherfuckers.

  23. #23

    Why do DC bands suck so much? Because they take no chances, they rarely challenge the status quo of the conventional underground, and they reward mediocrity.

    Also, a note to the punk community:
    NO MORE PUNK/HC COVER BANDS!!! This must stop.

  24. #24

    lotta great bands in dc... only problems i ever see is people not being willing to support bands that aren't in their immediate circle of friends. Lotta false schisms goin on.. short-sighted, and it weakens everyone. Aside from that everything seems a-ok to me.

  25. #25

    if i've learned anything from lightfoot it's that disgusting amounts of (undeserved) self promotion and ego gets you everywhere! everywhere except actual talent and grace and meaningful art.

    also, hume, cigarette, shark week is fun, birdlips... people are making really lovely and fun music but who really cares. grow up. most bands in the world are terrible, deal with it and start listening to the shit your parents and grandparents were listening to.

  26. #26

    p.s. maybe these "shitty" bands would be more fun if they handed out candy or bought you a beer occasionally. knowwhaddimsayin? also, DC is all about FRIENDSHIP. friends supporting friends and going to their shows. i like that.

  27. #27

    I think that DC used to be great for music because it was a Country Music capital back in the 1940s and 50s. Patsy Cline got her start there! You had Jimmy Dean and his show and all the greats would come and play in DC. DC needs to revive its Country and Western appealing roots . For after all, when you get down to it, D.C. is really a good 'ol Southern Country town. We need more Country bands in DC. Thats for certain!

  28. #28

    "every few years a debate seems to pop about about the quality of DC bands?" Just where and between whom does this debate take place? In the City Paper break room over coffee after you've wrapped another Dischord blowjob?

  29. #29

    @bill: Yeah, I can see how that came off as a straw-man argument.

    I was referring to Fan Death's 2010 "D.C. bands suck" comment, and the resulting outcry: http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/artsdesk/music/2010/01/27/fan-death-records-to-d-c-bands-stop-sucking/

    Also in 2010, things said by former members of Q and Not U in AV Club DC, which prompted responses from the Post, Sockets Records, and from me (and lots of robust comment sections):
    http://voices.washingtonpost.com/goingoutgurus/2010/02/in_defense_of_the_dc_rock_scen.html
    http://socketsrecords.blogspot.com/2010/02/lets-grow.html
    http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/artsdesk/music/2010/01/06/arts-roundup-new-years-resolutions-for-scenesters-edition/

    Then, at the end of last year, the Yglesias-on-DC-hipness imbroglio, which generated at least a day's worth of (mostly unproductive) debate on Twitter, plus this response from Ryan Little:
    http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/artsdesk/general/2011/12/30/why-slate-is-wrong-about-d-c/

    Meanwhile, debate in the City Paper break room has mostly centered on the virtues of our new coffee maker.

  30. #30

    One major problem with the scene is the lack of good places to see local bands. Almost all of the local music venues charge a minimum of $8-$10 to see a local show, which is enough to keep someone from walking off the street and going to check out new bands. Your friends will pay that maybe once or twice, but after that there is no real way to promote live shows. How many times has anyone on here paid to see a show at places like The Velvet Lounge, DC9, or R&R Hotel unless they personally knew someone in the band?

    If there were more DIY spaces around, people might have more to say about the local scene. Places like Paperhaus are popping up, but I think they need to have more places available to go see good local bands for the scene to grow. Right now I think there are some really good bands that just aren't being noticed yet.

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