Doin’-It-Yourself in a Dirty D.C. Basement
Evan Mills | 5/12/16 4:27pm
| Updated 5/15/16 7:58pm
American Word Magazine
For many of us millennials, the term “do it yourself,” or DIY, evokes childhood memories of a parent out back fixing the old wooden railing on the deck steps, or sitting cross-legged on the floor watching Tim Allen in “Home Improvement” while eating a chocolate pudding Snack Pack. But for many DMV natives, the term DIY means something else.
Back in the ‘80s when the 9:30 Club was downtown, U Street looked like a set from “Mad Max: Fury Road” and even the mayor smoked crack, D.C. was the epicenter of what became known as Hardcore Punk. Bands like Minor Threat, Fugazi and Bad Brains thrashed their way through small venues, synagogue basements, the St. John’s High School Gym and, of course, the legendary 9:30 Club. These bands drew upon the intense energy of youthful spontaneity and recklessness, and their crowds often engaged in the ritualistic moshing and crowd surfing.
What made those bands so noteworthy is that they often channeled that energy into alternative and progressive activism, and drew crowds to countless rallies and protests throughout the District. They were bands with a message. They had an in-your-face attitude toward many topics such as combating racism, drug abuse and economic inequality.
But because these bands rejected the creative and expressive limitations inherent in “selling out” to the corporate music industry, they kept their labels independent. Their scene was mostly local and heavily loyal, and their show bookings were done on the fly. Thus, the beginning of what is now known as the DIY music scene here in the nation’s capital.
Dozens of political sex scandals later, we find ourselves in a new world and certainly a new D.C. The 9:30 Club may now be up on V Street next to a Whole Foods, but the DIY music scene is still alive and kickin’. American University graduate student Jen Meller is drawing on the creative inspiration of the new wave. Her thesis project is a film called “Venus” and is scheduled for release in June 2016. “Venus” is fictional but heavily inspired by D.C.-based Blight Records, whose roster includes the bands Stronger Sex, Br’er, Pree, CrushnPain, Tolva, Dais and Bruisey Petes.
These bands, like their musical ancestors, play DIY shows in private basements, basements disguised as venues, venues in basements and even living rooms and venues above ground. And they’re killing it with their blend of musical genres, from melodic songwriting to alt-pop to dissonant and chaotic noise music.
These new bands also emphasize disrupting social norms and have intense dedication to progressive expression. The band Stronger Sex blends contrasting gender identities and challenges mainstream concepts of normalcy in their music. Alternative sexuality oozes from the band’s performances, while their lyrics tackle gender politics in a more serious way.
Stronger Sex is led by frontman Johnny Fantastic. It would be too easy to call him eccentric, because in a sense that would be missing the point entirely. Yes, he prances around the stage and twirls like a renegade ballerina. Yes, he wears flower dresses. Yes, he wears makeup. But so what? Even though it seems that people these days would rather dig in their ideological heels and punch each other in the face at political rallies, it’s refreshing to see a band come out and say, “hey, we do our own thing. If you don’t like it, eh. We’re still having fun.” By doing this, Stronger Sex doesn’t accept the judgment of society but instead casts the ball back in the court of the mainstream and challenges it to accept that which is undeniably different and unique.
Meller started out as a simple fan. Then, in 2015 she enlisted Austin Gallas of CrushnPain, Erik Sleight of Tolva and Johnny Fantastic of Stronger Sex to write the soundtrack for a short film she created called “The Fall.” After that, the bands turned to her to create their stage design. Meller became heavily involved in the DIY music scene through these bands and incorporated her experiences into her upcoming film. In her words, “‘Venus’ is a film that deals heavily with sexuality. Many of the female characters struggle with how to manifest their gender identity in relation to expected gender roles.”
Meller’s film and the bands of Blight Records all have unique perspectives and blend of influences, but they are united in their dedication to create something unique and honest. Gender politics might be a major factor for many of these bands and their members, and certainly for Meller, but it does not define them. And according the label owner Ben Schurr, that in itself is the message they are all trying to communicate.