The band that D.C. Hardcore chose to forget
by Brian F. Cousins
The Washington D.C. scene is best known for the Dischord label bands and the social and political philosophy that surrounded the label. Now it's fair to say that it has become legendary with the D.C. scene now regarded as having a similar stature as that of the London, New York or L.A. variances. This is largely due a clear and defined aesthetic and political stance that evolved out of the Nations Capital's "disaffected youth's" response to Reaganomics and the social turmoil of the period. This D.C. sound and style is most widely represented by Ian MacKaye's bands Minor Threat and Fugazi. However, there was so much more music and art in the city at the time, much of which is over-looked or forgotten today.
9353 is certainly one of the D.C. bands that had a very different attitude and agenda than their straightedge contemporaries and much of this great band's music remains unheard and unappreciated by those not fortunate enough to have witnessed them live in their '80's heyday. PSF spoke to Dan Joseph, drummer with 80's post-punk D.C. band 9353 about the band's years surrounded by the hardcore, straightedge scene.
Joseph puts their importance and popularity in perspective, "We were the main band in that scene at that period. ('83 to '86), we had rock star status wherever we went, we were also really fucked up."
9353 were evidently never part of the straightedge sound or philosophy. Although clearly influenced by contemporary bands like PIL, Killing Joke and the Cure, their most direct andecent is Pere Ubu. Musically more complex and evolving at a faster pace than many of their D.C. peers, 9353 were musically adventurous and diverse with vocalist Bruce Hellington (nee Merkle) building on David Thomas's brooding, surrealist, nightmare vision of the world.
In its first, 80's iteration, 9353 released two sterling albums, To whom it may Consume in '84 and We are absolutely sure there is no God in '85. Both albums were reissued in '93 by Adult Swim on CD with a considerable amount of previously unreleased material, greatly adding to the band's '80's catalogue.
Before taking about the band's history, Joseph gave his thoughts on the scene that produced 9353. "The real progenitors of the D.C Punk scene were the Bad Brains and they were never affiliated with Dischord in any way that I know of. And the Bad Brains are the seminal band of D.C. punk, I think."
"So, I was around it a ton and was friends with people in the Dischord scene and with the guys in the Rites of Spring in particular. It was a real grassroots D.I.Y scene in every respect. Certainly the punk bands did play at the 9:30 Club, there were bills with them and there were all ages bills. But the 9:30 Club wasn't a punk rock head-quarters, it was a much broader scene, there were just all kinds of bands. My experience of the punk scene was going to shows in community centers and just funky spaces that people would rent or lease temporarily, the Wilson Center was one in Mount Pleasant, off a main street, of 16th street."
"Probably my favorite band of the mid-'80's Dischord was Beefeater. Beefeater was a fabulous band, definitely punk, very intense, very political, anarchist. Also multi-genre, incorporating a lot of funk, they're as far as I'm concerned one of the vastly underrated bands of American punk in general but certainly of the D.C. scene."
Joseph speaks of the Dischord community as such: "It was a real family, it was very political and the straightedge was an aspect of this larger political orientation. A progressive, left-wing, anti-corporate, vegetarian, ideology that I certainly identified with to a large extent. There was an organization, really an activist organization that wasn't ostensively musical but it did a lot of collaborating with Dischord and the wider punk scene and that was a group called Positive Force. So they were often involved in some of these community center shows, having talks in between sets and distributing flyers, so it was a major collective activist community." And as Joseph emphatically states, "it was the Reagan years."
In many ways, regardless of Joseph personal convictions, 9353 were generally regarded in D.C. was the antithesis of the straightedge Dischord culture. The three other members of the band were considerably more enamored with more conventional notions of rock 'n' roll. "9353 were widely know to consist of drug addicts... In general, that was the vibe of the band, well justified for much of the time that I was in the band."
Joseph grew up outside D.C. but moved with his family to the city in time to join 9353 at the tender age of 16. Jason Carmer, (guitar/synth) attended the same high school and asked Joseph to add drums to a demo the band was recording at famed Inner Ear studios. "Jason, Bruce and Vance (Bockis- bass), began the band as a trio. I actually saw them a few times prior to joining them. And I was the 4th member and I was the only drummer throughout this 1.0 period. (Joseph later remembered that there was a replacement drummer while he briefly attended college before rejoining the band).
Bruce (Hellington- vocals/manager) was the defining force in the band. "I felt like Bruce was a mentor to me, a real ally and he encouraged me more than anyone else in my life at that time. It was Bruce that figured out that I could play and that I was pretty good and I though that we had a very good relationship. When I joined the band, we were still practicing at Vance's mother's house, where Vance lived."
In an article by Damon Locks published in The Population on 4/3/2009, Hellington is quoted as follows:"Washington has this really annoying style. It took me years to examine it all. There's a lot of fear and weird ideas here. The majority of people we've rubbed elbows within the music scene, they are the offspring of government, media or military. So you have the punk rock scene functioning as some horribly gone wrong political student event, where there is all this hierarchy and all of this snobbery, all of this unnecessary rudeness and just mean spirited private school completion crap. I loved Bad Brains. They were the only band in D.C. that we looked up to and learned anything from."And from the same article:"The music was otherworldly. The stories in song are performed like a demented radio play with different voices to match different characters. In 9353's music there is a specific feeling of alienation captured that is simultaneously connected and disconnected to the experience of growing up just outside the Nation's Capital."Initially asked to join the band the replace a Roland TR 606 drum machine, Joseph grounded the band and perhaps gave them more structure and definition than before. "Always the music was made first, without exception. Bruce would always listen and when it was all settled, that was when he would put his lyrics. A good number of them were just spontaneous rehearsals... a good number of the songs just happened one night and at the end of the rehearsal we had a new song."
On the recording process, he adds, "we made the dumb mistakes that young inexperienced people make, instead of using our own equipment, we would use this new cool stuff, so it wasn't really our sound (in the studio)."
There were numerous sessions at Inner Ear and one Joseph considers to have been the most successful. "One really good group of songs that were done at Inner Ear, that were all mixed and mastered, someone actually stole the masters so that the only thing that we had remaining from that (session) was cassette dubs. There were also sessions at Startech with engineer Chris Vine, and others made in rehearsal spaces with Andre Pretorius producing that Joseph rates highly.
However the two albums, regardless of any of Joseph's misgiving are real deal, mid-80's post-punk and still sound vibrant and exhilarating today.
There was plenty of radio play on WHFS (the Baltimore/DC radio network) and "our records were getting played a lot on college radio stations around the country," Joseph asserts. But the band the problems building on that: "we were not really together enough to tour much. We did very little out of town playing, we went to Richmond and to Baltimore, one-off things. It's worth noting that 9353 also played at CBGBs and City Gardens during an aborted tour of the northeast, our only attempted tour." However the band did play a full week residency at D.C. Space, which gives an idea of just how popular they were in the city.
It was during this residency that a Geffen records A&R rep came to hear the band play live. "There were times when we had opportunities like that and we didn't do well, buckled under the pressure. We didn't exactly welcome him, we weren't the smuzzy type." Joseph sums up the band from a career POV, "we were extremely successful in a narrow way that we were -biggest underground punk band in the city for sure- but making that jump to a more formal success, it just didn't seem that we could do it."
In fact, a conventional rock approach was always an underling factor within the band. So much so that, Jason Carmer has gone on to a successful career as a music producer with his own recording studio in California. Vance Bockis had an equally familiar story but unfortunately with a much more tragic ending. In an appreciation by Annys Shin in the Washington Post in Sept. 2012, she explains that he died at aged 50 after "beating a 27 year heroin addiction only to succumb to a blood clot after routine surgery". He was such a fixture in D.C. music world that Dave Grohl even wrote a song about him- "GLC" (good-looking corpse).
Again, from the same Washington Post article:"He was a combination of a lot of your punk heroes at the time" and made any band that he was in "totally exciting to see," said Fugazi bassist Joe Lally. "He was confrontational. He would talk to the audience. He would dive into the audience. He would attack the walls." Bockis had several brushes with fame, only to sabotage himself with drug addiction. "If life were fair," he said in a recent documentary about himself, "I would be dead or I would be prison." He had been clean and sober for the past six years making his loss even more tragic for friends and family."One aspect of the band that Joseph feels is crucial to an understanding of the band is the flyers and art work that Hellington designed and posted all over D.C. during the band's '80's tenure. "They were brilliant, beautiful. (Bruce) was leading the effort to poster the whole city with wheat paste. We put them in very prominent places, on these light poles... Everybody in Washington D.C. at that time knew what 9353 was because of them." It is hard to describe to anyone not familiar with pre-internet/smartphone world just how vital information and graphics in any form was in developing a band's audience and reputation. Zines, record sleeves and flyers were the way to signal a band's intent and attitude. It was a way to bond with an audience between shows and stay vital.
After the early '90's reissue of their albums, Hellington reformed 9353 several times but with only tentative input from the other original members. Joseph considers these later versions of the band to be 9353 in name only.
Sadly much of the band's brilliant 80's recording remain difficult and expensive to find with both vinyl and CD's selling on Discogs for $50 and up.
Some studio and live recording are shared on YouTube but a music video and complete live show videos from the 9:30 Club (the club had a policy of videotaping all shows there) are currently unavailable. And some of the original flyer artwork has surfaced but Joseph believes that the quality of the work demands a better representation and appreciation.
As with so many other talented bands and musicians, external forces can play such a crucial role in determining a band's fate. In another city, 9353 might have flourished, another A&R person might have signed the band to a major label, in the world of "what if''s," the story could have had a very different trajectory.
Joseph remembers that actually happened. "I have a recording of our last rehearsal and it includes maybe four new songs, pre-lyrics. Bruce had not yet developed lyrics and right around that time we had lost the rehearsal space (late '86). ...And that was the catalysis for the band members to throw up their hands... It just ran out of gas".
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