By Jen Golbeck
Kojo Nnamdi Show
October 30th, 2014
It’s a chapter of D.C.’s cultural history that’s the subject of on onslaught of new documentary projects: the punk movement that took root in our area during the 1980s and 1990s. But this new wave of nostalgia has provoked tough questions too: is it overkill? Where did the creative and activist energy that fueled the art go? We ponder the past and the future of punk music in the Washington area.
• Tina Plottel Librarian, George Washington University
• Katie Alice Greer Singer, Priests
• Mark Andersen Co-founder, Positive Force D.C.; Co-author “Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capitol” (Akashic); and Director, We Are Family Group
• Ally Schweitzer Editor, WAMU 88.5’s Bandwidth
Nation of Ulysses
A live performance of the band playing a Positive Force show in 1991.
Priests Perform “Doctor”
punks Priests perform “Doctor” from their new EP, “Bodies and Control
and Money and Power,” live at the Wilderness Bureau for WAMU 88.5’s
Foo Fighters “Feast And The Famine”
The song is about and was recorded in Washington, D.C.
Sonic Highways: Ian MacKaye & Bad Brains Extended Interview
MS. JEN GOLBECK From WAMU 88.5 at American University in
Washington, welcome to “The Kojo Nnamdi Show,” connecting your
neighborhood with the world. I’m Jen Golbeck from the University of
Maryland, sitting in for Kojo. It’s almost as if the feedback from the
amplifiers is still ringing out loud and clear. The punk movement that
took root in the Washington region decades ago is one of the most
celebrated pieces of D.C.’s recent musical history. Just look at the
tidal wave of new documentary films and archive projects dedicated to
all things D.C.-punk, and you’ll get a sense for just how many people
the music and the movement touched.
• 12:07:21 MS. JEN GOLBECK But today, we’re contemplating what’s fueling this new wave of nostalgia and where the creative and activist spirit behind all the music still exists now, in a D.C. that’s very different from the one where punk planted its roots so many years ago and gave us songs like this.
• 12:08:03 MS. JEN GOLBECK We have a full studio of guests to talk about this with us today. First, we have Ally Schweitzer. She’s the editor of WAMU 88.5’s digital music project, Bandwidth. Good to have you here.
• 12:08:13 MS. ALLY SCHWEITZER Hi, Jen.
• 12:08:14 GOLBECK We have Mark Andersen. He’s the co-founder of the activist group, Positive Force D.C. He’s also the founder of the organization, We Are Family, which provides services to seniors in the Washington region. He’s the author of several books and the co-author of “Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capitol.” Thanks for joining us, Mark.
• 12:08:32 MR. MARK ANDERSEN Great to be here.
• 12:08:33 GOLBECK We have Katie Alice Greer. She’s the singer in the band, Priests. Good to have you.
• 12:08:37 MS. KATIE ALICE GREER Hi, Jen. Thanks for having me.
• 12:08:39 GOLBECK And Tina Plottel. She’s a librarian at the George Washington University’s Gelman Library. She’s one of the organizers of the new D.C. vernacular music archive, which is housed at G.W. Thanks for joining us.
• 12:08:50 MS. TINA PLOTTEL Thanks for inviting me.
• 12:08:51 GOLBECK You can also join the conversation. If you want to talk about punk in D.C., give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. Or drop us an email to [email protected] Mark, let’s start with you. You’re one of the threads that connects all of these different projects — the person who organized concerts that so many of the bands people loved played here. You co-wrote the book “Dance of Days.” So let’s start with you. What explains the outpouring of nostalgia for this part of the area’s history? And as someone who lived it, what do you think is essential about recognizing it and understanding it?
• 12:09:28 ANDERSEN Well, the first thing I would say is I hope it is more than nostalgia, because nostalgia is kind of a totally anti-punk thing.
• 12:09:34 GOLBECK (laugh)
• 12:09:35 ANDERSEN Punk is about now and nostalgia is about looking back, wishing you were there. And, you know, I — it’s very human. But as a historian and as an activist, I don’t relate to nostalgia. I relate to what that spirit was and is and how it’s relevant to right now. And that’s really what matters to me. And the answer, why are all these things happening? Why now? I can’t really say, why now? But I can say why because the history of the D.C. punk scene is an extraordinary one. It represents something that is past simple commerce or even simple art. It is a mating of art and politics, at least at its best. It’s a meeting of art and politics that aspires to, you know, the highest possibilities of both.
• 12:10:23 ANDERSEN And so to examine our past to learn about what people did and what they believed and then to apply that to right now, to what we might believe and what we might do, seems to be actually very punk.
• 12:10:38 GOLBECK Ally, it seems that there’s certainly an audience for this, not just here but in far-flung corners of the globe. What kind of traffic do you get when you post things related to, say, Fugazi, on Bandwidth?
• 12:10:50 SCHWEITZER (laugh) Mike Martinez, one of the producers of the show, has obviously been talking to you about this. Because…
• 12:10:55 GOLBECK He has.
• 12:10:55 SCHWEITZER …I have told him numerous times about the spike in eyeballs that I get on content that we run on WAMU’s Bandwidth anytime we write about Ian MacKaye, you know, one of the founders of Dischord Records, who was in Fugazi. Anytime we write about, you know, Henry Rollins or people who were involved in the scene — Mark Andersen, too. You know, these are subjects that are clearly really relevant to a lot of people today still, all over the world. And it doesn’t necessarily have, though, much to do — and I agree with Mark — it doesn’t necessarily have much to do with nostalgia, per se. But the ideology that came out of the scene has been really foundational in the way that people continue to approach their music making.
• 12:11:33 SCHWEITZER So the idea that Ian MacKaye and members of his scene at the time came up with, where it’s, do-it-yourself. You know, it’s not about commercialism. These are ideas that a lot of people still look to. They go back to that well when they’re making new music. So it’s relevant to a lot of people to this day. And Ian MacKaye was on “The Kojo Show” in 2012. And we got tweets to him from outside the country. So he’s clearly having an influence.
• 12:11:56 GOLBECK Oh, he’s huge. You can also join the conversation. We’d love to hear from you. Were you part of the punk movement that took off in the D.C. area in the ’80s and ’90s? And what do you think explains the recent nostalgia for it, if that’s a term that we can use, even though it’s not very punk? Give us a call, 1-800-433-8850. Or send us a tweet to @kojoshow. Tina, you’ve helped launch an archive at G.W. that focuses on punk, go-go, bluegrass and folk. How would you compare the wave of efforts to document and archive punk across the board to other kinds of music that took root here in the D.C. region?
• 12:12:32 PLOTTEL Yeah, well, this is actually one of the first archives that’s going to put all of this together. There’s other archives — the jazz archive, and there’s other things at the Smithsonian and Library of Congress. But I think what we’re really interested in is the stories that also go along with the music and getting oral histories. There’s an oral history project that’s part of the archives that is based off of the Kansas House that used to be in Arlington that was a punk house for about 15 years. And those are the kinds of things that we’re interested in, so that other people’s stories — Ian’s story is really great. It’s very foundational. It’s important. But there’s other stories that are also part of the scene that need to be heard.
• 12:13:14 GOLBECK And you mentioned the Kansas House project that you worked on. So you collected oral history as part of that project. Can you talk about which stories from that effort you think were most important to include in the archive you’re working on now?
• 12:13:25 PLOTTEL Yeah, I — well, all of the stories are going to be in the archive. And I should say, Ian was an — interviewed for it as well. But he didn’t talk about the general stuff that he would talk about. He talked about it from a personal perspective, so when the House was a thrift store. He talked about going there and buying Christmas presents. But the stories were all really interesting because they intersected about performance, but they also intersected about experience — what it was like to see Arlington go from this really sort of sleepy, almost of the inter — one of the people I interviewed, Mark Nelson, kind of called it a beach property with no Boardwalk…
• 12:14:06 PLOTTEL …and sort of this sleepy area to what it is now, which is, on top of the House there is now a high-density condo. So the development was interesting to see over that time. And that’s where people sort of intersected that with the music that was there and sort of the community that was built around that space.
• 12:14:22 GOLBECK Mark, there’s a film coming out soon about Positive Force, the activist organization that put together so many of the shows that introduced people to this kind of music during the past few decades. For those who are coming to this subject for the first time, can you explain what Positive Force is and was?
• 12:14:38 ANDERSEN Well, what Positive Force is, is fairly simple, but potentially pretty challenging — which is, taking the rhetoric of punk — and punks tend to be loudmouths, I’m certainly one of those, you know, and so we say big things. But it’s really important to do big things and to really life the life, if you will. That’s a D.C.-punk anthem from Revolution Summer time. So honestly, what Positive Force was and is, is folks who were moved by that music and the ideals — the ideas there, and who want to live it out. And we help each other to do that by kind of standing together. One of the ethics or ideas that was really important to us at the very beginning was a line from a Chumbawamba song, which says, “Isolation is the biggest barrier to change.”
• 12:15:32 ANDERSEN And so, I think that’s what we try to do. We try to bring people together in the flesh and blood as well as on the Internet to understand their own power and the power that we have together. Because that’s really the way we have to change things. But it starts personally. It starts with oneself. And so that’s really — I hope that gives you some sense of Positive Force. To actually be concrete, that means we organize benefit concerts to help raise money for groups we think are important, to educate the folks who come to those concerts about issues in the world, and hopefully get them activated, to get them volunteering, to get them to protests and other events that we organize.
• 12:16:09 ANDERSEN You know, we have a book discussion group. We do service work, including with the Outreach and Advocacy Group. We are a family that serves seniors, so you’ve kind of got this crazy punk-senior crossover, you know, where literally you have folks with tri-hawks, like, you know, that’s the more ambitious version of the mohawk…
• 12:16:26 GOLBECK (laugh) Not just the Mohawk.
• 12:16:28 ANDERSEN …yeah, the tri-hawk, coming out to deliver groceries to African-American seniors. And it sounds wacky, but why not do it? It’s something that the city needs. The city is so divided and there’s such painful history. Here’s a chance for us to kind of recognize ourselves — each other, as brothers and sisters and one family. So that’s really what Positive Force does. It’s trying to get folks to do more than talk, to do something to make the world a better place.
• 12:16:56 GOLBECK And this link between activism and music — it’s something that’s always been there. In the “Sonic Highways” documentary, Dave Grohl says his first show was the drummer for the band Scream, was a Positive Force show. And he said, after the show, he went and joined a drum protest in front of the South African Embassy.
• 12:17:13 ANDERSEN Well, and that’s the kind of thing we like to do, because — and we haven’t been able to do it all the time. Sometimes our shows are shows and people don’t go out and, you know, do actions afterwards. But that’s one of our highest aspirations. And I think the power of it can be seen in the fact that Dave remembers that and remembers it fondly. That, you know, in the Positive Force documentary, “More Than a Witness,” that Robin Bell did that’s going to be premiering here in a couple of weeks, November 14 and 15 at St. Stephens, he credits that with so much of what he went on to do, you know? That was his first show with Scream. It gave him a sense of the possibility of music and art and his own possibilities.
• 12:17:56 ANDERSEN And he’s someone who has actually really gracefully carried a lot of that D.C. spirit on to a stage that is really foreign to most of his old Revolution Summer comrades. But he carries it with a lot of grace, a lot of dignity. And quite frankly, he’s an inspiration.
• 12:18:11 GOLBECK Let’s take a listen to what a Positive Force show may have sounded like. Here’s the band, The Nation of Ulysses, playing at Sacred Heart Church in D.C. in 1991.
• 12:18:52 GOLBECK Katie, you’re part of a band that’s carrying the flag for D.C. punk music in a lot of ways now. You told the Washington City Paper that you love Fugazi, but you’re also tired of talking about Fugazi.
• 12:19:03 GREER (laugh)
• 12:19:03 GOLBECK Can you talk to us about that?
• 12:19:05 GREER Sure. I think it’s a sentiment most fans of this kind of music feel in some capacity. And I mentioned in that quote that I think the band even feels the same way. It’s like, how can these things matter and carry on into 2014 and not just be like a time and a place that’s totally isolated from what’s happening right now? Because there’s a lot of music happening here right now. It sounds all different kinds of ways. And it’s a lot of people trying to make music that matters to them and that will matter to other people. And I think a lot of that stuff is overlooked sometimes in the nostalgia for a different age.
• 12:19:54 GREER And it’s also easier to conceptualize of things that happened 20 years ago, because we have the scope of time framing it. So it’s easier to understand. But that can be a little bit conservative when you’re not taking the risk to understand, like, things that are happening right now around you.
• 12:20:12 GOLBECK Let’s take a call from Cynthia in Arlington, Va. Cynthia, you’re on the air. Go ahead.
• 12:20:17 CYNTHIA Hi. My name’s Cynthia Connolly and I moved here in 1981.
• 12:20:22 GOLBECK (laugh) Cynthia, it sounds like many people in the studio know you.
• 12:20:26 ANDERSEN Hoorah for Cynthia.
• 12:20:27 CYNTHIA Hi, Mark. Anyway, I published a book called “Band in D.C.” and I worked at Dischord Records for I don’t know how many years, I guess 20 years maybe on and off. And also booked a club called D.C. Space from ’86 to ’91. And you had the question — posed the question earlier as to why there’s a nostalgic resurgence. And this is something I thought about for awhile because, I mean, we are looking at the resurgence now. But as you guys probably all know, this was all in the making for a long time, all of these projects that we’re seeing coming to fruition all at once.
• 12:21:06 CYNTHIA But I’ve always thought that the — what happened in the early ’80s and why I was so — kind of wanted to publish the “Band in D.C.” book right after it happened, so to speak, was because I wanted to really capture the stories from the people who were involved with it, but try to catch the memories before the memories went away.
• 12:21:27 CYNTHIA And in the long run with the advent of the internet, a lot of our culture gets usurped by others. And the music scene in D.C. was something that was really generated by this passion to find something. And so many of the people involved with it were really trying to find something for themselves and really connected with what the message was. And it was different because we were actually all active — we were actually all involved in it. We were all there in the room. We were all speaking to each other in the physical form as opposed to the virtual form.
• 12:22:07 CYNTHIA And I think that as we all get older we realize the importance of that. And I think that’s one of the reasons why there’s this, as you say, nostalgic resurgence. But what I think it is actually is sort of all of a sudden realizing that these aspects need to be documented and not forgotten. And so it’s all coming together at the same time by coincidence, is how I see it. With the two or three films then, you know, also to me I feel more random the Dave Grohl documentary series.
• 12:22:41 CYNTHIA But I think that all of this is part of this — it’s almost one of the last, I see, movements in music before the internet that I think has a huge impact still to this day musically, well, pop music or musically, you know, in D.C., nationwide and internationally.
• 12:23:05 GOLBECK Well, Cynthia, that’s a lot of really interesting points. Let me get the feedback from our panel here.
• 12:23:10 SCHWEITZER Let me say something about specifically when I went to the Smithsonian and talked with Henry Rawlins a couple weeks back, he mentioned that when he — you know, he has always been a big collector and archivist of punk, right. And the big reason that he started to get into that at a very young age is that at the time when D.C. punk was just beginning to try to bubble up and he was a part of it, he felt very distinctly that the media wanted it gone, that people didn’t want it to exist, that it wasn’t going to be documented by the mainstream. So they had to come up with their own ways of archiving this stuff.
• 12:23:38 CYNTHIA That’s a good point.
• 12:23:39 SCHWEITZER And he felt very much like when the media did cover D.C. punk it was aggressively anti-punk, it was very suspicious. It was about this is a violent community. This is a community that basically should be shut out and made silent.
• 12:23:53 CYNTHIA Right.
• 12:23:54 SCHWEITZER So he made a very concerted effort and he — of course Ian MacKaye made a very concerted effort to hang on to as much as they could.
• 12:24:00 GOLBECK And Tina, what are your thoughts on this?
• 12:24:01 PLOTTEL Yeah, I want to respond to what Cynthia said about capturing the moment before the memories are gone. And I think that’s really important. And it’s not necessarily nostalgia as it is sort of marking maybe a moment or a signpost of some sort and really, really important. And I think that’s kind of the idea of capturing all of the stories and kind of looking at photographs of shows or looking at the video of the Nation of Ulysses concert and sort of asking people what their response was to that, if people were there at the time and how they felt about what was going on. I think that’s really important.
• 12:24:41 GOLBECK Thanks for your call, Cynthia. You can also give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. We’re going to take a quick break and we’ll continue our conversation then. Stay tuned.
• 12:26:40 GOLBECK Welcome back. I’m Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland sitting in with (sic) Kojo Nnamdi. We’re talking with Ally Schweitzer, Mark Andersen, Katie Alice Greer and Tina Plottel about the D.C. punk scene. A couple notes for our listeners. The documentary Positive Force More Than a Witness will be previewed tonight at Mount Pleasant Library, and will have an official premier at St. Stephens Church in Washington, D.C. the weekend of November 14 and 15th. And also the D.C. installment of the Foo Fighters series Sonic Highways is currently playing on HBO.
• 12:27:11 GOLBECK Katie, we were talking during the break about something that came up with Cynthia’s call about the media perception of punk. And I thought I’d ask you to talk a little bit more about that.
• 12:27:20 GREER Well, it was really interesting to hear what Ally was saying Henry Rawlins had said about punk at the time being something that the media wanted to shut out, not talk about, distort as this dangerous thing and silent. Because I think at this point there’s a very consumable — punk has become a very consumable market and product. It’s been totally absorbed by the mainstream in a lot of ways. It’s not dangerous. It’s not unappealing to people. It seems really cool to be a rebel.
• 12:27:50 GREER So I think that plays into sort of this resurgence in punk nostalgia. And on top of that, when you’re talking about things that happened 20, 25 years ago they don’t have the sting or the danger that they did at the time because…
• 12:28:09 SCHWEITZER They’re totally fussy and warm.
• 12:28:10 GREER They’re dead things that have already happened. I’m not saying that they haven’t given life to things that are happening right now. They certainly have. But like the danger in the immediacy is gone.
• 12:28:23 ANDERSEN Well, I mean, I would just jump in because as kind of the senior citizen in the room, (laugh) I do remember when to look punk meant you could get your ass kicked walking down the street.
• 12:28:37 GREER Right.
• 12:28:38 ANDERSEN And now you walk around and all these fancy hairstyles, all this, you know, shake fashion, it’s pulling so much of pieces of punk rock in there, clearly something has shifted. I will say though that what punk was aiming at past the outside stuff is still as dangerous as ever. I mean, are we actually going to build a world where everybody really matters or are there going to be throwaway people? I mean, that’s the story of Washington, D.C. You know, this capitol of the free world where, you know, much of the original population was kept in subjugation, I mean, initially as slaves and then through legal segregation.
• 12:29:18 ANDERSEN And now, you know, the gap between the rich and the poor in the city is growing immensely. Now of course that makes it hard for punk rock bands to, you know, have practice spaces in Mount Pleasant or in Columbia Heights or Adams Morgan or, you know, the former haunts of people like myself, you know.
• 12:29:34 GREER Totally.
• 12:29:35 ANDERSEN But more importantly, it’s making it impossible for the people who historically lived here, the black majority which has just turned into a minority just slightly over the last few years, to be able to live here. Now these are folks who lived here during segregation, during riots, during drug wars where the blood ran in the streets. You know, that to me seems dangerous. That to me seems relevant. That seems to me to be what punk should and must be speaking to.
• 12:30:00 GOLBECK And what’s a punk activist though now — because you’ve been around and you’ve seen sort of maybe what could be called a peak in punk activism, right, in the ’80s and ’90s when punks were very active in, you know, rallying in the streets and so forth. I’m a nuvo (sp?) punk rocker. You know, I’m much younger, 29 years old. I haven’t really — I wasn’t around for a lot of that stuff. I don’t see that kind of stuff happening in D.C. anymore. Where do punks think they fit in, because of course they’re all being kicked out of D.C. because of gentrification but where do they fit into the larger conversation about people who are on the very edge who were kicked out longer ago?
• 12:30:34 ANDERSEN Yeah well…
• 12:30:34 GOLBECK Where do they think they come in now?
• 12:30:37 ANDERSEN Well, I think that’s an important conversation. It’s the conversation that Positive Force and its ally We Are Family is trying to have. Because those of us — for example, why did I first come to Columbia Heights? To go to shows at places like the Wilson Center or All Souls Church or Sanctuary Theater at St. Stephens. And that was part of how that neighborhood started mattering to me. And now there’s a lot of us who live in those neighborhoods who are raising our kids there.
• 12:31:02 ANDERSEN And there is something for us, the older punks, as well as the newer punks who still come to the shows there. For us there’s a responsibility to engage because that community was there because people had persisted and made it a place that could welcome even the wacky looking ugly sounding punk rocker. So I think that’s a conversation we need to have. I don’t have an easy answer for folks. All I know is that we have to connect across these boundaries, you know, raise class, gender, sexual orientation, age, you know, in culture, even language. We have to get together.
• 12:31:35 ANDERSEN And that’s really the center of my work. And you can see it both in Dave’s documentary, you can see it in Robin’s documentary about Positive Force. You know, this effort to draw folks together across the boundaries, because in the end punk, if you look at its root meaning, it’s referred over history from back in Shakespeare’s time until now to the folks who are on the margins, the people who are considered to be absolutely worthless.
• 12:32:00 ANDERSEN And if there is a highest aspiration for a punk politics, if you will, it would be to bring together those throwaway people, the ones that the world thinks are disposable, and for us to build our lives around that fundamentally different perspective. And that’s — and the one thing I would say — and I know I said a lot so I’ll shut up (laugh) I swear…
• 12:32:21 GOLBECK You’re saying good stuff.
• 12:32:23 ANDERSEN …but punk is not just about music. It is about life. And so whether you’re in a band now or not in a band now, it doesn’t really matter. You can take that spirit, that creative questioning, you can do a PMA spirit and transform your life —
• 12:32:39 GREER …positive mental attitude for anybody that doesn’t know what that…
• 12:32:40 ANDERSEN Oh yeah, sorry, positive mental attitude. And that’s what we’re trying to encourage folks, including the folks who are — you know, I’m 55 years old so I’m kind of, like I said, one of the elderly in the punk scene. (laugh) But, you know, whether you’re 55 or 15 there is a relevance to this. And that’s what we’re trying to — you know, speaking for my friends in Positive Force, my comrades in Positive Force and We Are Family, that’s what we’re trying to do. Let’s bring people together. Let’s create a community, a city and a world where there’s a place for everyone where everybody really matters and no one’s being forgotten or thrown away. You know, that’s relevant across all boundaries.
• 12:33:21 SCHWEITZER I think what you just said kind of explains why this is not nostalgic, right. Because what we’re trying to do is assign meaning and help other people assign meaning for themselves of what punk is and how they can become involved and help the situation and help people who may feel marginalized and sort of become involved in the scene. That’s to me why it’s not about nostalgia because it’s still a moment that’s happening, and helping people understand what that means.
• 12:33:48 GREER I don’t even always like using the word punk right now because punk is such a product in a lot of conversations at this point. But if you are a person who is creating things, who is trying to engage with these ideas and make things, you are probably aware in some capacity that being an artist or a young person generates a lot of interest in your neighborhood, is kind of like the initial spark that starts the machine of gentrification a lot of times. But as an artist you also need the same kind of resources that spur gentrification forward.
• 12:34:29 GREER So it’s kind of like the hugely frustrating crux of being a creative person at this point is like how do you stay engaged with these ideas? How do you make art that resists these kind of oppressive forces that we’re talking about? And — but still, how do you have the resources to move forward? Like, Mark, I think you were saying, like most, you know — not that this is the gravest problem that Washington, D.C. is facing right now, but we don’t have the money for practice spaces within D.C. proper at this point.
• 12:35:05 GREER I worked 45 hours last week and like — and I’m not saying that is, like, oh, I know plenty of people do that but, like, I can’t do my band and do my other job that has nothing to do with my band. And I don’t know if that was always the state of things for artists.
• 12:35:23 SCHWEITZER Right. Yeah, exactly.
• 12:35:23 GREER I think the standard of living is much higher now and…
• 12:35:25 SCHWEITZER And you had houses, like, in Arlington that you have documented, Tina, and that Mark lived in, and that, you know, where this — where you could, you know, get by paying maybe $100 a month to live in a group house. That is no longer, you know, a reality.
• 12:35:36 PLOTTEL A group house with a basement ideally, right.
• 12:35:40 GOLBECK So let me pull us back around here because we’ve hit a bunch of issues that we’re going to expand more in the conversation. But I’d like to pick up on this idea that D.C. was a place that had a movement that, in fact, wasn’t just D.C. centric but that drew a lot of people to it. We’re going to listen to a clip here from the band Bikini Kill which came from Washington State to Washington, D.C. during the Riot Girl movement, which was really women trying to get involved in this. And we have a clip of Bikini Girl (sic) playing at a Positive Force show in Washington.
• 12:36:36 GOLBECK Tina, in an article about the Candace House Project a few years ago, you say you don’t necessarily see the culture as having passed. And I think that’s the consensus in the room. We’ve had this conversation about it. So do you think that some people may be guilty of looking for past movements too much, that they see it as something that, you know, they were into in their 20’s. And now they’re raising their kids and they see it as something that’s gone?
• 12:36:59 PLOTTEL I think that is probably true. I think the thing — and not to keep using the N word nostalgia, (laugh) but I think it’s a really personal thing for people to have come up in a scene. And then when you age out of a scene, whatever that means, I guess when you have a job that you have to go to more than band practice, could be one of the ways to think about that. But who you are kind of loses that identity. And it’s a really uncomfortable feeling, I think. And so I think maybe sometimes that’s true but it’s hard — I think it’s an intensely personal moment.
• 12:37:39 GOLBECK We have a couple callers waiting. You can also join us. How do you think the cost of living in D.C., which is an issue we just brought up, how is that affecting the city’s ability to produce great art of any kind including rock music? Give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. But right now let’s go to Danny in Silver Spring, Md. Danny, you’re on the air. Go ahead.
• 12:38:01 DANNY Hey Mark, Dan Ingram here, how you doing?
• 12:38:04 ANDERSEN (laugh) Great to hear from you, brother.
• 12:38:05 GOLBECK It’s a familiar set of callers today.
• 12:38:09 DANNY I have a question. Historically there is always sort of a symbiotic relationship between the D.C. punk scene and Positive Force. How do you see that moving forward with, you know, that original punk scene being considerably older now, myself being one of them? Do you see the involvement still from that older generation or is there a constant infusion of youth? And is that an essential part of making sure that Positive Force continues to do good work?
• 12:38:39 ANDERSEN Well, I think you’ve touched on something really important there, Danny. The first thing is that absolutely I see, like, kind of the — folks like you and I, the older generation still engaged on these issues. We’re engaged in different ways than we were, but that’s all right, you know. It’s also not that moment. It’s not the ’80s anymore. So we should be engaged in different ways. But I think the ideals really have stuck with a lot of folks.
• 12:39:05 ANDERSEN Now in terms of Positive Force, absolutely it depends on both of those things. Part of what drew me to work with other members of Positive Force and with seniors down near the (unintelligible) complex to create We Are Family was this sense that punk couldn’t just be about our little scene or even just about music. It had to grow just like we had to grow. And so there’s a value from the older generation.
• 12:39:34 ANDERSEN There’s also a value from the folks who are coming into the room for the first time because they’re bringing those questions again. Because, you know, we answer the questions over and over again. And sometimes we learn something new. And it’s good to have them there. It’s good to have them bring new energy, new ideas, create new bands, new fan scenes, new websites, whatever. And of course Positive Force absolutely depends on that music scene.
• 12:40:03 ANDERSEN We could not have done half of what or even a quarter of what we’ve done without bands like Fugazi, Nation of Ulysses, Bikini Kill, Beefeater, Scream, you name it, supporting us over this time. The D.C. scene — and part of why the Positive Force scene or the Positive Force story matters and it continues is because D.C. is a special place. And we are so blessed to be here within that community.
• 12:40:31 SCHWEITZER But one thing — let me ask you, though, because one thing we talked about the other day, Mark, was the new generation, like Katie’s generation of bands, what — are they doing these Positive Force shows? I mean, you had a band like Fugazi, who drew thousands of people to Positive Force shows over the years. There hasn’t been another Fugazi. Fugazi hasn’t played in 12 years.
• 12:40:47 ANDERSEN There’ll probably never be another Fugazi.
• 12:40:48 SCHWEITZER And there probably never will be — a band that did a lot of work for Positive Force over the years. There hasn’t been band that has been on that level and has been able to step up and say I’m going to start, you know, carrying on the torch of doing these positive force shows. So do you think that the new generation of bands is connected to Positive Force like the last generation’s bands?
• 12:41:08 GOLBECK And, Mark, before you answer, I’ll just say we’re coming up on a break. So I’d like a quick answer to this one. And we’ll…
• 12:41:13 ANDERSEN A quick answer from Mark Andersen? Okay. I’ll try to be very quick. Yes. I see new bands coming up and doing that. Katie’s band, Priest, is a tremendous example. There are other bands like Coke Bust, Max Levine Ensemble, Ian, of course, is still out there with Amy Farina and The Evens. I mean they’re still making stuff happen. Absolutely we see that. They’re not Fugazi and they shouldn’t be. They should be who they are. And when they want their art to mean more than just simple entertainment, Positive Force is right there to work together to make something revolutionary I hope.
• 12:41:48 GREER I would say I don’t feel as connected to that as I would like to be, but I know we can talk about that after the break.
• 12:41:53 GOLBECK We’ll pick up with that after the break. You’re listening to “The Kojo Nnamdi Show.” I’m the very punk Jen Golbeck, sitting in for Kojo. We’ll continue our conversation about the D.C.’s punk scene in a moment. Stay with us.
• 12:44:05 GOLBECK Welcome back. I’m Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. We’re talking with Ally Schweitzer, Mark Andersen, Katie Alice Greer and Tina Plottel about the D.C. punk scene. If you’d like to join us give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. Katie, your band put out a new album this year and got a lot of credit for carrying both the sound and the spirit of punk in this area. Let’s listen to one of those songs.
• 12:45:01 GOLBECK How would you say songs like the one we just heard are shaped or informed by what came before you and your bandmates in the area?
• 12:45:09 GREER It’s kind of hard to separate because it’s, you know, it’s almost like being in water and trying to explain that when you’ve just been around it. But we want to make music that matters to us, that matters to our friends, that matters to and speaks to other people on a level that’s deeper than just something that’s like easily consumable, I guess. So — and I keep going back to, Mark, something that you said earlier. You were — I think you were quoting a Chumbawamba song — but just about isolation.
• 12:45:47 GREER And it’s like we don’t want to be just speaking to an echo chamber of people just nodding along with us and saying, like, I agree. We want to, like, reach more people and figure out how to, like, totally transform the way that we’re making art and ideas in this country, but it is hard to do that with resources available, I think.
• 12:46:09 GOLBECK It’s my understanding that you had a particular beef with a gig your band played that was sponsored by Doc Martin. And you settled it by acting like Chipotle sponsored the show. So…
• 12:46:19 GREER Well, yeah, we just — we made a joke last year. It was one of the more industry, I guess, gigs that we’ve done. But, yeah, there was a sponsor. We had never really played a show that was sponsored in that capacity. We got free shoes and I think they wanted Doc Martins, like, as advertisement to play behind us while we performed — which we had them turn off. But the advertisement said, like, what do you stand for?
• 12:46:45 GREER Which was just like so nauseating…
• 12:46:47 SCHWEITZER Hilarious.
• 12:46:47 GREER …to me, that, like, this idea, again, you see it again and again. This idea of being a rebel, of speaking out is like turned into a style of clothing that you can wear and is like totally stripped of any sort of meaning or danger. And so, yeah, we just, like, we thought it would be funny to be like, thank you so much for sponsoring this. Like, here’s some burritos. We were just — I don’t know. We were just having fun with it.
• 12:47:15 GREER Because we want to use our band as a platform to, like, ask questions and to have conversations. Because so much art, so many ideas are stripped of that, just the ability to, like, ask people to think with you and talk with you. Because we’re all involved in this machine that just asks us to make something shiny and pretty so that we can get more resources and survive.
• 12:47:40 SCHWEITZER And get put on all the cool blogs. And…
• 12:47:42 GREER Right. And it’s not even just like it’s a vanity thing. I understand why people want to be on, like, the modern equivalent of MTV. We all, like, you are paid for things like that. And, like, I want to be involved in activism in this community. And I want to be involved in, like, maintaining this community and building it and keeping it strong. But there aren’t always resources involved in that. And it just costs a lot of money to do anything right now.
• 12:48:12 SCHWEITZER A friend of mine at The Atlantic, Kriston Capps wrote a really funny — it was mostly tongue-in-cheek, I think, because I just know that that’s the way that Kriston approaches a lot of his work, but he wrote a piece that basically posited that gentrification is the new Reagan in punk lyrics. And, you know, because in the ’80s every punk band had a song about how much they hate Reagan. Right?
• 12:48:30 SCHWEITZER So now the — there’s a minor, minor trend of a slight theme in D.C. music where, you know, gentrification is being talked about in a similar way. And, you know, of course Chain and The Gang they have this song called “Devitalize.” And it’s — everything Ian Svenonius does is a little bit, you know, is a little tongue-in-cheek. But the song is basically, I want to devitalize the city. You know, I want to tear down all the cool bars, you know. And so I’m wondering, is that going to be a thing in D.C. musicians’ lyrics?
• 12:48:59 SCHWEITZER Is it, you know, could we say — I know Mark thinks it’s all very silly — but could we say that this is a subject that we should all be embracing a lot more in the music community?
• 12:49:08 ANDERSEN Well, what I would say is I don’t think it’s silly and I think, you know, Ian Svenonius, and that song in particular, brings a smile to my face and a fighting spirit into my heart. So right on to the mighty (unintelligible). But I — what I think is silly is if we just stay — stop at that level of, you know, there’s no it’s hard to find practice space or it’s hard to find affordable group house living. It is. It’s very true. It is a sad reality that we must fight.
• 12:49:39 ANDERSEN However, the next step is really crucial, it seems to me. Which is it is that reality for many, many other people. And we need to make common cause with those people. We need to stand up with them. In the City Paper today it happens just by accident that I have an article talking about the tragedy, the on-going tragedy of New Communities in the city. Which is this program which was supposed to be such a huge step forward for protecting and advancing affordable housing.
• 12:50:10 ANDERSEN And it’s turned into just another — a trail of broken promises. And, you know, that’s what we need to do and that’s what We Are Family tries to do. It tries to get our punk rock brethren and sistren connected to the long-term low-income residents of the neighborhood, you know, and to the immigrant communities and all of these folks who are also in danger of being pushed out in the face of a corporate consumerist, conformist, mono culture.
• 12:50:41 ANDERSEN And, you know, I don’t oppose that just simply on an esthetic level. Although, I do. I think it’s ugly and cheap and devitalizing in the real sense. But I oppose it because it crushes people. And the people become fuel for this money God, for this capitalist machine. And that’s what we have to fight. And we cannot win unless we fight it together. And so for me punk is a starting point. And it is a new journey, a new adventure every day. So not silly at all. Gentrification is something we should be wrestling with.
• 12:51:21 GOLBECK And we have a caller, actually, on this topic, who I’d like to bring in. We have a call from G. L. Jaguar, in Washington, D.C. You’re on the air. Go ahead, please.
• 12:51:29 GREER Hey, pal.
• 12:51:30 G.L. JAGUAR Hey, panel. Hey, bandmate. How’s it going?
• 12:51:32 GOLBECK More familiar callers.
• 12:51:33 GREER This is the guitarist from my band. Hey, how’s it going?
• 12:51:38 JAGUAR All right. So I guess my question for the panel is, you know, like, I grew up in D.C. I’ve seen all the changes happen through the years. And it is increasingly harder for anyone to live here. And I remember through the past, it was — there’s a lot easier of a connection to have to activism just because it was easier to live here, it was easier — there was a lot more of a common enemy. But now it’s kind of hard to pinpoint what exactly is like the main thing, other than, like, oh, yeah, you know, it’s really expensive to live here.
• 12:52:14 JAGUAR And I was wondering if — what the panel thinks about how the music that is coming out now is reflect in — reflects the time that we live in, just, you know, people are being forced out, you know. Is the music, like, more kind of ignoring that fact? Or is it…
• 12:52:33 GREER Mike and I…
• 12:52:34 JAGUAR …you know, are people not addressing the issues? You know, like what…
• 12:52:36 GREER Mike and I were talking about this yesterday in preparation for the show, how when he — Mike, one of the producers for the show — he was saying he actually, you know, grew up around here, went to a private school. How there were often like go-go’s at the schools, like school dances at the time. And I don’t think that really happens anymore. I think one way that we’re seeing this is like you’re pushing out a lot of different voices and different styles of music.
• 12:53:03 GREER Like, this isn’t the case I every punk scene, but D.C. punk has a history of definitely different kinds of privileges, be that like a very male dominated scene, maybe a wealthier scene in some ways. And when we don’t see the connection that Mark is talking about, of people realizing that their struggles are the same and reaching out to other people who don’t have the same privileges that they do, we see a lot of voices, I think, pushed out. And we see more of the mono culture, as, again, Mark, as you said. That’s a great word. We hear more of the same, instead of more diversity.
• 12:53:43 GOLBECK And let me pick up on this issue of the city and its history and how it’s changed because last week the Foo Fighters released a song they recorded in D.C., as part of their Sonic Highways project. It’s called “The Feast and the Famine.” And it’s written about the city itself. Let’s take a listen.
• 12:54:36 GOLBECK Mark, it’s my understanding that this song particularly resonates with you. Can you talk about that a bit?
• 12:54:42 ANDERSEN Well, absolutely. I think it captures both the reality of Washington, D.C., when, you know, this punk scene that, you know, has had this global impact erupted. If anything the poignancy is even though that Dave’s references are too many of the themes and ideas of punk rock past, they are extraordinarily relevant to right now. “The Feast and the Famine” is what is happening right now. You know, this city, according to the Wall Street Journal is the single-most expensive place to live.
• 12:55:13 ANDERSEN And it is, by many — this metropolitan area is, by many standards, the most affluent one. But there’s extraordinary poverty here as well. There’s a huge gap and a growing gap between the rich and the poor. And so what I think is beautiful about Dave’s song is that he evokes the past, but points essentially to use it as fuel for the struggle right now, which is a very human struggle. And, you know, so, yeah, it speaks to me profoundly because it speaks the truth about Washington, D.C. One thing I just want to mention, too, because I was…
• 12:55:46 GOLBECK Quickly, because we’re coming (unintelligible) time.
• 12:55:47 ANDERSEN Very quickly. You’ll notice the reference to 14th and U. I was there when they premiered this in front of an audience at The Black Cat. And there was a cheer that went out to the crowd, because it’s like they’re name-checking my home town. Yes, that’s true. And it was just a block and a half away, but what Dave was trying to do is bring us to the history. 14th and U is not only a corner where there’s lots of clubs that white kids go to now.
• 12:56:09 ANDERSEN It is the corner of African-American history, the black Broadway, the place where the riots started in 1968. This is the history that we need to know. And that is part of what makes this song so powerful right now.
• 12:56:22 SCHWEITZER And new people who move here don’t have any idea about that. They just see it as like party central.
• 12:56:26 GOLBECK Tina, can I get your thoughts on this?
• 12:56:28 PLOTTEL Yeah, one of — something that Katie’s bandmate made me think of is a song by the band The Aquarium, that’s basically called “Can’t Afford to Live Here.” And I think it came out in 2007, maybe. And Jason Hutto from The Aquarium is a very good friend of mine. And we kind of used joke about how he should sell it somebody running for office. And they could play it and, like, everyone would resonate with it because everyone would get it.
• 12:56:51 PLOTTEL They’re like, yeah, none of us can afford to live here. And I think that sometimes plays into sort of the — maybe the lack of participation. Because everyone is trying to just work so hard. And everyone loves D.C. Right? Maybe not everyone. But everyone in this room loves D.C. And it’s hard to sort of maintain that love and maintain sort of your own well-being. And then start thinking about the activism that punk brings up. It’s been — it’s a difficult proposition. And just his comments, how he kept saying you can’t afford to live here, and I keep hearing Jason in my head sort of singing that song.
• 12:57:24 GREER And that was in 2007. I feel like things have so accelerated…
• 12:57:26 PLOTTEL Seven years ago.
• 12:57:27 GREER …since 2007, like, wow.
• 12:57:30 GOLBECK I wonder if selling your song to a politician actually counts as punk.
• 12:57:35 PLOTTEL It’s probably the complete opposite.
• 12:57:35 SCHWEITZER Definitely not.
• 12:57:37 GOLBECK Well, we have run out of time. This is a fascinating conversation that’s hit obviously on a lot more issues than just the music itself. I’d like to thank our guests, Ally Schweitzer is editor of WAMU 88.5’s digital music project Bandwidth. Thanks for joining us.
• 12:57:50 SCHWEITZER Thank you.
• 12:57:51 GOLBECK Mark Andersen is co-founder of the activist group Positive Force D.C. He’s co-author of “Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital.” Thanks for joining us, Mark.
• 12:57:59 ANDERSEN Great to be here.
• 12:58:00 GOLBECK Katie Alice Greer, I loved your music. She’s a singer for the band Priest.
• 12:58:04 GREER Thank you so much for having me.
• 12:58:05 GOLBECK And Tina Plottel is a librarian at George Washington University’s Gelman Library and organizer of the new D.C. vernacular music archive housed at G.W. Thanks for joining us.
• 12:58:14 PLOTTEL Thank you so much. This was super fun.
• 12:58:16 GOLBECK I’m Jen Golbeck, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. Thanks for listening.