Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A People's History of Q and Not U

Q: Who was biggest musical influence during the last seven years?
A: Q and Not U

Everything about them was incredible. Their sound, their style, their equipment, everything.
Considering that they were such a tremendous part of my musical upbringing, it's hard to believe that two years have passed since they disbanded.
I didn't attend Q and Not U's last two shows in DC, but I do miss them. Since their demise, DC has become rather bland. Even worse, an increasing number of national acts are scheduling their mid-Atlantic gigs in cities like Baltimore and Richmond. But I'm not here to complain about the habits of regional booking agents, I'm here to remember the good times I had listening to an amazing group.
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(Photo by Matt Alcock for Zumonline)

December 3rd 2000 WMUC Studios, University of Maryland, College Park, MD.
(with Penfold)

Up to this point, most of my show experience was in the blah suburban punk/ska/emo scene of suburban New York . I came to the show and found a world that I'd never seen before. Pavement chic had yet to be co-opted by the mainstream, so everyone looked novel and interesting. Everyone else was dressed in dark straight leg pants, vintage dress shirts or comically undersized t-shirts. The haircuts were homemade; the attitudes were detached, yet cool. But fashion aside, I had no idea what I was in store for upon entering the live room at the school radio station.
Celebrating the release of their debut album, No Kill, No Beep Beep , the quartet's energy shocked me in the way that a great band is supposed to. Sure, they indulged in a couple of indie clich├ęs, like awkward political banter and performing by the light emitted from a badly tuned television. But who cared?!! The room was just throbbing with good vibes. By the end of that show, I decided that it was time for a serious musical about face. Everything I had learned up to that point had to go.

October 30th 2001 Wilson Center. Washington DC
(With Virginia Black Lung, Page 99, Del Cielo, Teddy Duchamp's Army, Crispus Attucks, Strike Anywhere and Tim)

The closing of the Wilson Center was one of many signs that change was coming to the Mt. Pleasant/Columbia Heights. Today the area is awash with hipsters, young families and real estate agents. But as recently as six years ago it was a mostly Black and Hispanic enclave that was still reeling from the 1991 race riots. Hanging around the Wilson Center was often a frightening affair, even for the most hardened locals. But all fears aside, the people came out in droves to attend the last hurrah for the church basement made famous by Bad Brains and Fugazi.
Q and Not U were scheduled to play second to last; a pretty outlandish decision on the part of the organizers if you ask me. The lads were energetic and political enough to play for the rabidly socialist-chic harDCore crowd. But they were nowhere nearly as violent,hard-headed and macho as most of the other bands. Then again, it would've been a little obvious (and boring) to slot them back to back with College Park's indie pop representatives for the evening, Del Cielo.

April 12 2002 SIS Lounge, American University, Washington DC
(With Nazca Lines, Black Eyes and Orthrealm)

By this time, bassist Matt Borlick had exited the scene. Surprisingly, the band's flexibility flourished when they decided to continue as a trio. Adopting the "total football" approach to their unique brand of post-punk, frontmen Harris Klahr and Chris Richards swapped guitar, bass and keyboards duties. Drummer John Davis complimented and anchored his bandmates in a clever and melodic fashion.
The opening groups set the stage nicely for what was to be an exciting adventure in cerebral music. It should be noted that around this time, DC was safely inoculated against the virus that was "New York Rock Revival." Not a single group on the bill performed using the standard Guitar, Guitar, Bass, Drums lineup. Take for example, the instrumental duo Orthrealm. Their avant-jazz meets thrash metal sound was both intimidating and breathtaking at the same time. They played at an ear splitting volume that tested the limits of even the most hardened metal fans (of which there were several).
By the time Q and Not U began setting up, I wasn't sure if I could handle any more excitement. The group's new found love of the melodica, synth bass and hand percussion had a few people in the crowd stare at them quizzically. Nonetheless, I noticed the crowd shuffle and groove with each note of new material. Much like what was probably happening up in Brooklyn, we were rediscovering the power of dance.
In a thrilling nerd moment, I actually got to talk to the band after the show. I found them cordial, friendly and down to talk serious about their equipment. But that's very much a DC thing. I've since learned that it's not surprising to see one of your teenage heroes standing next to you at a record store or riding on a train during the morning commute.

Sept 6th 2002 Black Cat, Washington DC
(With Scene Creamers and Aloha)

I don't remember much about the evening except purchasing a t-shirt and an advance copy of Different Damage. I also remember walking away from Aloha's set feeling a little bit woozy and thinking about how cool vibraphones sound.
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(Photo by Mike Brennan. University of Delaware February 15th 2003)

Oct 26th 2002 Black Cat, Washington DC
(With Ink and The Mercury Program)

This performance at the Black Cat stands out in my mind for two reasons. Firstly, it was the only time I've ever heard "No Damage Nocturne" played live and secondly, it was the first time I met my friend Caitlin.
Caitlin was studying English at George Washington University. Somehow, we got to chatting between sets and eventually exchanged contact information while waiting for the Metro at the end of the night. What began as a casual encounter evolved into a warm and quirky friendship. Over the years we've keep in contact and regularly meet up to laugh about our troubles.
I saw her two weeks ago when my band played a show at Niagara in the East Village. A day or two later, she sent me a text message:

"Your band made me smile for the first time since Q and Not U broke up."

Needless to say, great bands make for great friends.

July 11th 2003 The Knitting Factory. New York, NY
(with Aloha and Palomar)

The first time I'd seen Q and not U outside of the DC area. It was a bit strange, because for the longest time I felt as though none of my friends knew or cared about them. Little did I know that their relentless touring was winning them rabid fans around the country. So it was pretty amazing to come into the city with some of my friends from Rockland County and see them get wild to a band that I'd been hyping for what seemed like ages.
I seem to recall accidentally licking a large sweaty girl's arm while singing along to the last song. Yuck.

May 14th 2004 Black Cat Washington, DC
You could tell that the boys were beginning to grow weary of life on the road. Nonetheless they had enough enthusiasm and stamina to preview new material for the hometown crowd. The stage was cluttered with all sorts of new toys. I had always been envious of their equipment; particularly Harris' fireglo Rickenbacker 330. But I had to fight from drooling over their newly acquired toys, which included a Yamaha DX7 and several vintage analog delay pedals.
The keyboards and hand percussion, which had been used sparingly on Different Damage, were now being used as primary instruments. The result was busy yet danceable music that could not possibly be lumped in with anything that was happening 200 miles north. The band put on a terrific show, but you really had to wonder how much further they could take it.

July 16th 2005 Siren Fest. Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY
(with Spoon, Mates of State, Brendan Benson, VHS or Beta, Dungen, Q and Not U, The Dears)

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(Photo by Rafe Baron)
In retrospect, I regret not going to see Q and Not U's final shows at the Black Cat, because Siren Fest is more of a happening than a concert. Besides, the sound is usually so atrocious that you don't even feel like you're attending a concert.
Even more tragic was the fact that my mind was in another place for the majority of that day. I had spent the better part of the summer going back and forth between NY and DC. All the shuttling back and forth was beginning taking its toll on me. I watched Q and Not U perform but I wasn't all there. I wonder how the band felt knowing that their final performances in New York and DC were only a few months away. Were they anxious? Were they relieved? Like I said before, if I really wanted to know, it wouldn't be a problem to ask.


Matt Borlick: Works for the Washington City Paper
John Davis: Plays guitar and sings for breezy pop group Georgie James. They will be releasing an album on Saddle Creek Records this fall.
Harris Klahr: Now resides in Brooklyn, NY and will be releasing an album under the name President this fall.
Chris Richards: Released the album Ris Paul Ric and is currently part of the funk-pop trio Bullets (formerly Rubber Bullets). He is also one of the hosts of Crowd Control, a dance party hosted on the first Thursday of each month at DC9.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

How the Hipster DJ is killing (Yes, I said it) underground music

"It's always been the same format. It's the casual amateur DJ night. It's become such a feature of the landscape, that it has almost replaced bands."
Ian Svenonius

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In an earlier essay I briefly lamented the rising influence of amateur DJs nights. After a recent trip to NYC with my band Ra Ra Rasputin, I've realized that that this is an even bigger problem than I thought.

I have a sort of love/hate relationship with the hipsters. I adore the fact trendy kids in New York, LA and London helped put straight leg jeans back on the shelves and took Limp Bizkit off the radio. But I abhor the bourgeois and blatantly commercial narcissism that has come to define the attitudes of so many young people in these circles, particularly in New York. Even more frightening is the fact that New York's status as a cultural capital, makes these attitudes incredibly appealing to all those seeking to emulate the looks and lexicon of "cool New York kids."

"Why do you pay them any mind? Why do you even care?"

Because I believe that the amateur DJ night is a step in the wrong direction for youth culture, particularly in New York City. I really take offense when people make snide comments like "DJ-ing is easy" or "You, like, don't even have to do anything, all you have to do is get some CDs or a computer and just play anything." So what if my opinions are a bit conservative; I am a firm believer in the idea that a DJ is an individual who can scratch, beatmatch and throw in a few surprises. This is why I prefer people who spin hip-hop, reggae or house. These individuals have to provide a continuous flow of music when they're behind the decks. Not just anybody can do it. It takes practice, dedication and a very good ear for detail.
Unsurprisingly, the arrival of the amateur has not democratized DJ-ing, it has bastardized the art form. These young men and women bring nothing new to the table. They are human jukeboxes whose sole purpose is to fuel the self-congratulatory nature of these useless nightlife events.

In cities up and down the East Coast, I keep reading about venues devoting fewer and fewer nights for bands and more nights for dance parties. It seems as though the hipsters throwing these parties are thoroughly uninterested in contributing to the artistic legacy of their generation. It could be argued that the punk/DIY ethics that created Anglo-American indie music have been tossed out the window. The after-party has become more important than the show! It's cooler to be photographed in front of the wall at Don Hill's on a Saturday night than to actually play in a group!

Therefore, it doesn't make much sense when you notice that people claim to yearn for the look and the feel of Lower Manhattan circa 1978-1982. People can't seem to find the time to pick up a paintbrush, a pen or a guitar. Today's hipsters are leaving nothing for tomorrow because they are too busy living for today. And in doing so, they have failed to set themselves apart from the khaki pants wearing crowd that they routinely bash.

So is there no hope left? Am I doomed to see my birthplace become as vapid Hollywood? Is DC next?
I'm a firm believer in the idea that new challenges create new opportunities. People have been hosting guerrilla gigs all over Brooklyn and Queens. There are still a number of small bars and clubs which still have the equipment and the dedication to promoting live music several times a week. Down here in DC, the hardcore punks and college kids are still putting on house shows. And all of these are positive developments. If people aren't constantly reminded that they are capable of creating music and performing it live, we are in danger of returning to the days when people thought that bands just fell out of the sky.

As for the hipsters? I'm all for fashion and looks. But when having the right look and being at the right places takes precedent over creativity, that's where I start asking questions. Why not create something that is both challenging and cool, rather than running around every night trying to be ironic and detached from a society whose values you've shamelessly co-opted?

Next week: How Q and Not U changed my life.