Perfect Sound Forever


Interview by Scott Bass
(August 2016)

Doug Birdzell AKA Dug E. Bird has been a fixture on the Washington D.C. underground music scene for decades, bringing his unique bass playing and distinctive approach to a seemingly-endless parade of interesting and influential groups that have ranged in style from punk to hardcore to jazz to experimental and just about everything in between. In this chat over coffee in his hometown of Silver Spring, MD, he shares details of his deeply transformative musical journey... not just around the world but also within himself.

PSF: Let me start by asking what are your earliest memories of being called to music?

Dug: Well, 7th grade was my first year in public school and that was a weird transition. My 6th grade class had 6 people in it and my 7th grade class at public school had 30 kids.

PSF: We're talking about late '60's here?

Dug: Yeah, yeah, it was like '68 - '69, over the fall of '68 was that school year. And so there were a lot of things kind of weirding me... There were just more kids and the public school, after being kind of sheltered before that, and then other things like here's the sort of obligatory rant about my parents I guess for the punk interview. My mom sent me to school the first day of public school, 2nd grade in the same clothes I would have worn to private school, like a buttoned down shirt and a tie.

I mean she may have actually been doing me a service if you take the long view. So a couple of months in, I make friends with a couple of kids and there's this one kid Bruce, I'd go over to his house once in a while and we'd listen to his dad's records... one of them was Johnny Cash "A Boy Named Sue" and that's my first memory of music I heard outside my home. Like my parents were into opera and classical and music like that. I don't like opera so much, some classical I get into, but hearing something so radically different for the first time really affected me... Johnny Cash, the rhythm, and his voice, you could hear the words really well so I heard the story that he was telling in the song and it got me on a number of levels.

Bruce's dad played guitar, he was a country musician and Bruce was learning from his dad and we wanted to make a bass out of one of his dad's old guitars so I could play too. It was like this typical insane kids project but we thought "we can do this!" Of course the physics of it was all wrong, you see it's a just a six string, hollow body guitar and we want to put bass strings on it so we pick two machine heads on either side, drill them out so they can hold thicker strings, then we put bass strings on there and crank it up to try to actually tune it, more or less, so it's like an octave below the guitar where you want it to be. Of course it's not possible, the machine heads are too small, they're for guitar strings so they kept pulling out of tune. But we didn't know that and we didn't care, we just wanted a bass! (laughs)

PSF: So did you end up playing that sortabass?

Dug: Well, no. It wasn't really playable. I did end up playing, started playing piano a couple of years later and didn't think about bass very much for a while. In 4th grade, we had a thing on Fridays where kids could bring in their own records, so kids would bring in Jackson 5 singles and then that was another moment of "Wow, there's really good music in the world" that I wouldn't come into contact with very often. Every so often I'd come into contact with some awesome music like Johnny Cash or Jackson 5 and then a little later The Beatles. I had older cousins and we'd go to visit them so I started listening to all the Beatles from Sgt. Pepper on and that really affected me too. So there was this kind of thing developing of this connection through the years, there was a life outside my house, something exciting. I had this idea of something going on that's not connected with my house where I don't feel so good a lot of the time and that outside there, there's creativity, there's humor, there's this really good, positive energy. I would just keep bumping into this, just kept like coming back to it you know? And then going into middle school; at that time I wanted to play drums but they needed a bass player in the orchestra, they already had drummers in the band so the music teacher told me "we need a bass player. If you want to perform in concerts, go for the bass." So I went for that.

PSF: Seems like a really common reason that people pick up the bass is because someone said "hey, I need a bass player."

Dug: Yeah.

PSF: And you learned to play?

Dug: It was a stand-up and I was 12 or 13 so even when I fully retracted the peg on the bottom of the bass, I was still a head shorter than the instrument so it looked kind of funny when I was on stage but it was a trip, I really enjoyed doing it. In middle school and high school they always have a jazz band/club type thing after school; so I started doing that too.

PSF: So at what point do you go from stand-up bass to electric bass?

Dug: That was in 9th grade, that's when I started playing bass in the stage band.

PSF: Okay.

Dug: And got a Sears bass for my 14th birthday and that's when... and then my dad sees me or hears me playing the thing right after I get it, comes into my room and I don't know if I said something to like sort of trigger but he declared, "no son of mine is ever going to play bass in a nightclub."

PSF: He wasn't a fan?

Dug: Not at all. I don't know what he was thinking. Apparently he was really bothered by something, afraid of something that would make him say that... but it actually kind of helped in a way because I was like "yeah, I'm on the right track here."

PSF: It just encouraged you.

Dug: Definitely. Here and there I tried to find the people to play with outside of school but nothing really clicked until 12th grade. An old friend of mine from Boy Scouts moved away to Paris, he moved back to Arlington and then we started a band called Gloomy Orion and the Dog which was like a weird kind of No Wave meets Frank Zappa in a way.

PSF: And what year would this be?

Dug: '79.

PSF: Are you tuned into the Washington D.C. alternative music scene at this point?

Dug: Well I was aware of one slice of it which was maybe more the new wave kind of tip and actually... I didn't really go see live music until after 12th grade. I grew up in Arlington right? And for a little while there were shows at the Wilson theatre on Wilson boulevard and that was pretty awesome because I saw Destroy all Monsters. Do you know them?

PSF: Oh, great band, yeah. Ron Asheton, right?

Dug: Yeah, totally, totally. Mike Davis was in the group too and I don't think I was ready for the long guitar solos in that sometimes I would get in a certain mind-set about music, like it's got to be really like short and have no long guitar solos in it. Sometimes people look of like... Well I would look for this sort of 'either or' kind of perspective, like if it's punk it can't be metal and it can't even remind me of metal which is too bad because, you know, I can like listen to some of their recordings now and Ron Asheton is like all over it, just awesome guitar playing solos, whatever and I love it. So sometimes just like a pre-set notion about something can kind of limit what I get out of it listening to music because then I'm not really listening, I'm just listening in my own little world... but Niagara was really fucking great, kind of mesmerising actually.

PSF: The singer?

Dug: Yeah, it was... she was a trip (laughs), all I can remember. I was 17 and so I was like "Wow!"

PSF: You'd consider them an influential band for you?

Dug: Oh yeah.

PSF: So Gloomy Orion, you ever do a demo? I'm assuming there's no records since I've never heard of the...

Dug: There was a cassette.

PSF: Oh, you released a cassette demo?

Dug: Yeah, it was just like a homebrew thing. It's in my basement somewhere, probably has mold growing on the sides of the tape.

PSF: How long did that last?

Dug: That was just from like probably April of '79 until August when we all went away to college, so it was very short.

PSF: Where did you head off to for school?

Dug: To Philadelphia, not too far away... sometimes when I was back I'd meet up with Aaron and we would go to shows. I saw Teen Idles, Minor Threat, Bad Brains, all '79 to '81, when I was home from school. I saw a bunch of shows including Bad Brains at Madam's Organ in March of 1980 or thereabouts, during spring break. Madam's Organ was just a beat-up old house and it was awesome. I went upstairs to use the bathroom and there's all of Bad Brains and Dave Byers standing there looking completely badass, wearing zoot suits and everything, and I was like "holy fucking shit," these are like some hard, no-nonsense dudes and I don't know if I can bother using the bathroom. I felt I can't walk by these dudes; it's just too intense.

PSF: There's no shortage of stories of people that they influenced...

Dug: Dave Byers' band The Enzymes played and that was already blowing my shit away and then Bad Brains are on stage, all in suits and everything and I remember Darryl... to me then the guy looked nine feet tall. So they're up there and I don't see a singer anywhere. It turned out he was kind of like in the crowd but crouched down on the floor or something and as far as a I could tell, I was standing right about at the stage, didn't see him anywhere and then he jumped from behind me and over all of the people at the edge of the stage. And then he was on stage, just one of these insane gymnastic things that he could do. They played their set and I was fucking sold; that was what I wanted to do. I mean not to imitate that sound but that kind of energy, that kind of strength, that just like unlimited self-expression, just an explosion of energy and then when I started listening to the songs of a little bit more like "PMA" and "Attitude."

PSF: They had a whole philosophy going there.

Dug: Yeah, I mean Attitude. Especially that song, and some other stuff on that cassette, "I and I," "Sailing On," those songs were really influential to me when I first heard that cassette when I was 18/19. I was going through a tough emotional period with school and could feel my future weighing down on me. It wasn't like you know, music or bands cured me, but it was a lifeline, it gave me something to hang on to, helped me to remember my own existence. At school, I played in different bands, we would just cover some tunes and then I would write some tunes and my mission there I guess was to just to piss off a lot of people at my school. There weren't a lot of punks there, it was a pretty small school and I seemed to like picking provocative band names like White Guilt and at least for that environment, it was provocative. It was fun, but those bands weren't exactly what I wanted to do; playing where half the set was like covers of songs I liked but I wanted to just be doing original stuff but I still liked the energy of playing live and figured I would work my way toward something like by the time I got out of school. Things kind of started falling into place by like '80 or '81 to where I figured "Well, I'm just going to finish school, get a job and have a band." And just keep kind of pushing the band as I go, as far I can.

PSF: Underground Soldier, was that the first band that you appeared on that had a vinyl '84 on the Bouncing Babies comp...

Dug: Right, we also recorded the album in '84. That came out the following year.

PSF: What's the origin of the band?

Dug: I already had a friend from school who was going to sing, and I went into Georgetown and put out a flyer just looking for guitar and drums. I really didn't know like how else to do it so I just made a flyer. Eric and Dan called me... and so that's how we did it for a little while and then we had a change-up like early in '83...

PSF: And that was Helen Danicki?

Dug: That was Helen, yeah.

PSF: Okay. This is just a random observation; first time I heard the song on Bouncing Babies, "Sunday Slaughter," it kind of sounded British to me. Did you ever hear that?

Dug: No, I never heard that before.

PSF: I feel like you could stick that song on... what's the famous British comp with like Vice Alert and Red Squad? Punk and Disorderly? It reminds me a lot of Red Alert and Vice Squad and bands like that but it's just a random question.

Dug: That's funny; it might be kind of coincidental but I wrote that around the time I took this class in school called European fascism and I was really fascinated in a perverse way by Skinheads and National Front and stuff like that and how is it that we have this in the world? Music should be about finding freedom and inner strength. With fascist movements and some skinhead music, that's really politicized, it seems to be about more control. Who we have to keep control over, who we have to like push out of our country or whatever. For that class, I had a pretty cool teacher who was open to let us come up with our own weird ideas to research, and I wanted to write about like Oi! music and right-wing movements.

PSF: Unusual that Underground Soldier's first release was a full-length album instead of an EP....

Dug: Well, I had written a bunch of songs in college...

PSF: So these songs were ready to go before you got the band together?

Dug: Yeah.

PSF: And Underground Soldier lasts for what, about two years?

Dug: Yeah, '84. I was starting to play with Tomas and Ray Tony in late '83, we were like trying to get a funk/metal/punk band together.

PSF: How did you meet Tomas?

Dug: Right after I graduated college in '83, I moved home for a couple of months and quickly got my own place, it was still in Arlington and just like five or six blocks from Dischord House. I didn't realize it, how close I was to the Dischord House but it just worked out that way and Tomas was living there. I don't know how; maybe I saw him at a show or something, that must have been it but we started talking, about wanting to get something together, some kind of band. We decided to jam together, I can remember the first time he came to my house, him and Ray Tony, he walks in my house and says "Oh I smell poo-poo!" And then he looks at his shoes and then he says "Oh, I stepped in dog doo, sorry." (laughs) First time he comes over.

PSF: Nice. What a start. It's hard for me to say why I like those Beefeater records so much -- they fit right into the Dischord catalog but there's so many different types of musical references -- "Trash Funk" is a great title for a song because it kind of lets you know where the band is coming from... but it's not just Funk, right? I mean, "Plays for Lovers" is a nod to Miles Davis...

Dug: Right, right. Well that was a cool thing about meeting up with Tomas because I was trying to branch out musically, I had a lot to learn and between Tomas and Fred, I was learning it. Miles Davis, Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Sonny Stitt, Lucky Thompson and that was like Tomas's side of it, was mostly the Jazz except for Larry Graham and Graham Central Station. And then Fred turned me on to all of this awesome '70's Funk. Like Mother's Finest, what a fucking incredible band! Stuff that maybe I would have gotten to eventually but it was really, really an awesome time of my life musically and creatively to just like have like all of this new input, just like being thrown into the pool of new, awesome music.

PSF: And it's influencing your playing in the sense that you weren't really popping and slapping in Underground Soldier, you're changing your style of playing a bit at this point...

Dug: Yeah, that's part of what we were going for in Beefeater was vunk/punk and you know, it was something that you heard talk of often enough I suppose. Chili Peppers already had an album out and there was often you know, when people say "funk/punk" At that time, they're talking about like Rick James or Prince.

PSF: Right or the Big Boys.

Dug: True, true, them too.

See Part II of the Dug E. Bird interview

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