An Interview with Filmmakers Paul Bishow and James Schneider

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Punk the Capital! Chronicling the History Of D.C. Punk ! An interview with filmmakers Paul Bishow and James Schneider

What do you think are some of the great misconceptions of DC punk?

JS/PB: One of the things we cover in the film is the whole scene that preceded the Bad Brains in D.C. in the late 70s, that small but fairly cohesive group of people working together to build something. I’m not sure it can be called a misconception but definitely the pre-1980 DC punks deserve a lot more attention, historically speaking. The other thing is the Straight Edge movement. Drugs and alcohol just weren’t what the younger punks were looking for. The excitement and the establishment’s reaction to the music was enough. So the whole “boredom” thing just didn’t enter into the equation. The energy of the music and all the things going on around the scene made for constant activity. Drugs and alcohol just didn’t have a part in that new and intense DIY ethic. That was part of what harDCore was about beyond DC as well.

bbrainsmadDoes this documentary try to flesh out details or elements that books like Dance of Days could not, or did not?

JS/PB: First of all, Dance of Days was a major accomplishment in covering such a large time frame of DC punk, including the later DC punk period of the 80s and 90s that often gets less attention. Our film elaborates on the generational and cultural shift happening in DC circa 1979. We dive back into what happened before then, in the late 70s, and then after, with harDCore. We get to the heart of why DC Punk has such staying power, why harDCore had to happen, and why DC was such a fertile ground for this new scene. The answer to these questions come straight out of that transitional moment, and specifically the Madams Organ artists co-op. It’s something you can pick up on when all the pieces are assembled and when you see all the interconnections between the generations and how they perceived each other.

Bad Brains, Madams Organ, 1979

Bad Brains, Madams Organ, 1979, still from film

Looking back into DC punk origins, do you think bands like Slickee Boys, Tru Fax and the Insaniacs, and White Boy were just as vital as veteran punk bands in NYC, like J/Wayne County, Dictators, etc?

JS/PB: Definitely on a local level they were. These were bands you might see a couple times a month and that saw each other even more. They were as important in DC as those NYC bands you mentioned were to NYC. And DC has a tradition of hard working bands, whatever kind of music it is. Those early bands knew what was going on and had their antennas out. Those DC bands you mention were a huge influence on the younger generation, if not musically, at least in terms of proposing a model of how non-competitive and community-like a music scene should be. In our film we also go into how they also showed the younger generation the basics of DIY.

Much of DC punk has often been associated with Dischord, yet Pussy Galore, Half Japanese, and Peach of Immortality also sprouted. Why do you think harDCore gained such a strong presence in history and lore compared to other scenes?

PB: For me, I loved a lot of the non-Dischord bands like Half Japanese or the Velvet Monkeys, but also remember, not all Dischord bands sound or sounded alike, so I wouldn’t say there was just a “Dischord sound” either. Dischord definitely had a huge presence, to the point where bands even setting themselves up as anti-Dischord such as No Trend. But really that is just the dialectic of punk, all in good fun. DC harDCore took hold and spread widely largely because of Dischord’s well organized sense of mission, they really did want to change music from bottom to top.

I know the film has taken ten years: did any painful truths become evident — personas unmasked, limitations understood, places and people lost forever?

JS: Several people we interviewed have passed away since we started this film, and several DC Punk landmarks have been transformed into condos or Starbucks. So there have been some major changes in D.C.’s character but that really has helped us in how to think about D.C.’s identity in our film. So our doc has hugely benefited from the time it’s taken, including a lot of technical advances that will help with all the archival work. Also, some people are more willing to talk more than they did before, some less, but I would say overall that folks are now taking stronger positions and thinking more about about that history.

trufaxSome proceeds will benefit Positive Force, an iconic force within the conscience and outreach of DC punk. Do you think it helped re-ignite the ethos of local punk right as many critics saw it waning in mid-late 1980s?

PB: I do not think the conscience of punk waned.

JS: It definitely was part of the politicizing of DC punk, which was not a bad thing. I grew up going to those early Positive Force shows so my early exposure to any kind of political consciousness came from those events and the bands that were singing about issues. Then I could go see other local bands or out of town bands and get a totally different flavor, there were choices. It’s worth pointing out that even before Positive Force DC began, harDCore was on the outs and a lot of people in that scene were looking for a new direction. Positive Force became part of that evolution.

I know that punk in DC should be spoken in the present tense — bands still emerge. What ones today, do you feel, link to the spirit evident as in the mid-1970s?

JS/PB : There’s a resurgence of a harDCore scene happening in DC these days which is cool, but the links with the older scene are not always what they could be. That might be changing. In the meantime, the younger scene calls that 1980’s generation the “olds.”

Apart from the fan rituals (zines…) and band performances, what part of the DC punk legacy still deserves much attention — perhaps art and photography, like Jeff Nelson, Cynthia Connolly, and others?

Bad Brains, 9:30 Club, still from film

Bad Brains, 9:30 Club, still from film

PB: I think mainly what we know now is that the influence continues (though not always recognized) in terms of the directness of the ideas and presentation. The art of thinking for yourself. That’s the very basic ingredient of Do-It-Yourself.

JS: In terms of Dischord, there’s an aesthetic that has aged well, and those people you mention were a big part of that and hold a sizeable place in our film. I think it’s important to point out that this whole younger generation thought that something important was happening, which is why there were so many people documenting it. They were right.

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Late Spring 2014 News!

IMG_0048Thank you, readers, for continuing to make this blog relevant. Almost 100,000 views prove the appetite for punk folklore is deep and profound, whether we examine art, sexuality, or music.

I have updated the theme of the page to make the material more reader-friendly on mobile devices. I use this same format for my World War II blog about POW material culture, and the overall experience seems improved.

I continue to write for the Houston Press, including this brand new preview of the micro-group Dos, the spare, experimental, but melodic duo of Kira Roessler (Black Flag) and Mike Watt (Minutemen), both of whom appeared in my book Left of the Dial. Since it is concise, here it is below, rather than a mere link.

“Time-tested by stints in underground heroes Black Flag and the Minutemen, as well as the dynamism of marriage and divorce, the “world’s smallest supergroup” — the Mike Watt and Kira Roessler duo known as Dos — wears resilience like a second skin. The music feels probing yet mellow and exploratory, still landing squarely within the rubric of punk. Tunes like “Taking Away the Fire” and “Diogenes” feel akin to artful meanderers Sonic Youth, while recent instrumental “Number Eight” is playful, ambient and melodic. Never kowtowing to trends and styles, Watt and Roessler have become masters of unique, seminal, one-off music. No wonder Nameless Sound and Girls Rock Camp Houston have joined forces to bring them to town for workshops and gigs to inspire the next generation. “Dos is the entire package,” says firebrand musician and GRCH cofounder Anna Garza (who proudly sports a Black Flag tattoo), “a dream come true.”

againstme3For my review of the Gainesville punk legends Against Me!, who performed to an ecstatic, roiling crowd a few months back in Houston, click here:

Next, my interview with their new drummer Atom Willard, the explosive arms behind bands like Alkaline Trio and Rocket from the Crypt too, can be read  here.

Meanwhile, agitprop mid-1980s icons Vex, an obscure Texas punk band that melded the likes of Really Red (in fact, their drummer, Bob Weber, smacked the skins for this occasion) with the Fall, recently reunited for an intense record store gig that featured local luminaries in the audience, like members of the Hates and Mydolls. Read my overview of the band here.

Also, I was able to have an on-line conversation with skater-cum-artist Steve Olson, who revolutionized the sport in the late 1970s, became an uber-punk, and now is an intriguing conceptual maker of modern objects that blur borders between pop, Dada, street art, and fun fun fun. To read our interview, click here.

My work in Visual Vitriol examining the gender roles within the punk subculture was noted in the new essay “Every Song Ends” from Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction, Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2014.

Via the Internet, I am sitting on the dissertation committee for Marco Ferrarese, a PhD candidate in Social Sciences researching Malaysian punk and metal identity construction and traditions at Monash University Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur.

MavericksSound3My book, Mavericks of Sound, featuring a wide array of my archives from the last 20 years, including interviews with roots rock (Dave Alvin of the Blasters, John Doe of X, Merle Haggard …) and indie icons (Violent Femmes, Apples in Stereo, Swans…) is due out in September from Scarecrow Press. I just completed the first round of text edits, and the cover has been designed. Please look for it soon, and pre-order if you like, at sites like Amazon.

Grammy nominated singer-songwriter (three times!) and godfather of punk and well-chiseled pop Peter Case and I are completing the final text layout for our book of Beat Generation style poetic ruminations titled Subterranean Hum, which should go to print next month.

Recently, concerning my Midwest punk archive blog, I was interviewed by Adrienne Evens, a graduate student in the School of Library and Information Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison for “Action, Cooperation, and Independence: A Survey of Community Archives and History-Making Organizations in the Midwest” — her report debuting at the Midwest Archives Conference (MAC) in Kansas City, April 24-26.

Over a few months, I have provided historical material, background research, and even dialog editing to Deaf/Hard of Hearing performance artist and filmmaker Alison O’Daniel for her project The Tuba Thieves, which contains a film in homage to the infamous punk site Deaf Club of San Francisco — an oral history topic in my book Left of the Dial.

Cross your fingers, for I hope German fanzine Trust will publish portions of my own punk photography archive sometime soon, which includes UK Subs, Vibrators, Youth Brigade, Adolescents, MDC, and many more.

front cover onlyI will update portions of the this blog with new material during the next several months, including a new emphasis on punk sexualities and politics. I am still waiting to hear back from the journal Post and Post-Punk about my essay “Protest and Survive,” which examines the political aims and outreach, not mere rhetoric, of punk bands throughout history. You can read the abstract below.

Abstract: Punk rock has long been equated with ever-shifting and fluid concepts of dissent, disruption, and counter-cultural activities. As a result, since its first and second wave incarnations during the 1970s and 1980s, when bands in Britain from The Clash and Sex Pistols to Angelic Upstarts, U.K. Subs, and Crass offered alternative political convictions and subversive lifestyle choices, the media has often deemed punk a threat. Bands like Circle Jerks, Dead Kennedys, Bad Religion, and Millions of Dead Cops followed suit in America, pushing similar boundaries as the music mutated into “hardcore” — a harsher, stripped down, and more choleric variant of punk — that branched deep into suburban enclaves. Those antagonisms and ideals were, in turn, translated by another wave of bands, from Fugazi to Anti-Flag, whose commitment to community building were as pronounced as their taut, explosive tunes. My current on-line punk visual history efforts, including amassing and archiving over 350 politics-related gig flyers, focus on mapping, cataloging, and understanding the various activism and outreach inherent in punk. My text provides an overview of punk’s social, cultural, aesthetic, and political features; provides original interviews with members of MDC, Channel 3, Minutemen, TSOL, and more; highlights where punk money was gathered and spent as well as probes whether these actions promoted volunteerism, philanthropy, and community involvement; and paints a contextualized picture of how punk critiqued dominant culture not simply by offering rhetorical stances, symbolic strategies, and clever conceits but by channeling support and both impacting and making media that documents a wide array of humanitarian outreach, including gay and lesbian, environmental, and homeless advocacy as well as medical services and research.