D.C. HARDCORE 101 WITH
THE WASHINGTON POST'S CHRIS RICHARDS
By Ryma Chikhoune
Photos by Lexie Moreland
Musicians have long been significant music critics. Back in 2001, Chris Richards, 34, was getting his start at the Washington Post, sorting mail and answering phones in the newsroom. By night, he was playing shows in Washington, D.C.’s post-punk band Q and Not U. “The Post had already hired a bunch of punk musicians in need of part-time work, when their bands weren't on tour,” he says. “[It was] alongside Kathi Wilcox from Bikini Kill, Allison Wolfe from Bratmobile, Bob Massey from Tsunami, Michael Cotterman from Kid Dynamite…” Richards, who was born in D.C. and grew up in Annapolis, Md., had moved back to the District in the late '90s to attend George Washington University on a partial scholarship to study art, and in the summer of 1998, amid D.C.’s punk scene, Q and Not U was formed (Richards sang, played guitar and later, bass and keyboards). “…Our aesthetic appetite started growing really quickly once we got started,” he says. “[Ambitions for the band] changed dramatically over the course of seven years, but at first, we just wanted to be a vital part of the music scene that had raised us.” After the band broke up in 2005, Richards began writing music reviews for the Post. Three years later, he was in New York working as editor of The Fader, but soon found himself returning to our nation's capital, back at the Washington Post, this time as the paper’s full-time pop music critic – "pop," in this case, refers to covering everything but classical. I caught up with Richards, who continues to play shows as one half of Paint Branch (his newest musical endeavor with ex-Q and Not U member John Davis), to get some harDCore 101.
What was your introduction to hardcore?
It was my first day of high school in Annapolis, Maryland, and there was a new girl on my bus. She'd moved from Massachusetts, but she might as well have teleported from another planet. I found Annapolis to be psychically stifling, and this young woman had a bold sense of style and a Jansport full of cassette tapes. She told me about Sonic Youth, Minor Threat, Bikini Kill, Black Flag, and all of the music that would quickly and completely change my life. Once I figured out that Fugazi lived 45 minutes down the road, I became fascinated with anything related to Dischord Records.
Can you describe your first show?
It was Jawbox at the old 9:30 Club down on F Street. There was all kinds of shoving and stage diving, which I later learned was a total freak occurrence in the post-harDCore world. Mosh pits were passé.
What D.C. venues do you associate with the scene?
The 9:30 Club and the Black Cat are the enduring mainstays, even though there aren't too many punk shows at either anymore. But I've always been amazed by punk, hardcore, independent, outsider music's ability to spring up in unexpected places across this city. I've seen shows in hardware stores, Salvadorian restaurants, church basements, community center classrooms, and countless group house living rooms. There's a survivalist nature to it that endures.
To you, what bands and cities pioneered the genre in the U.S.?
I was a baby in my parents' arms at the time, but Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles seemed to be the twin poles of American hardcore in the early '80s. I have friends who like to say that Minor Threat and Black Flag were hardcore's Beatles and Stones, respectively. I like that idea.
Is there a specific hardcore sound that has come from D.C.?
A lot of ink has been spilled over the "angular D.C. punk sound" of the early '90s, but I think this scene was more clearly defined by its shared values. It was a scene defined by its progressive activism. Through organizations like Positive Force, countless D.C. punk shows have been thrown to benefit community organizations that assist D.C. residents in need. And because everyone's been rallying around that collective set of values, I think the musicians here have felt more freedom to explore.
What place do you think D.C. holds in the history of hardcore?
It's hard to answer that directly, but I think it's fair to say that Fugazi, Bad Brains, Bikini Kill, Nation of Ulysses, and probably more than a few others from this city are among the most exciting rock-and-roll bands that ever walked this earth.
Is the genre still alive in D.C.? What bands come to mind?
In one sense, I think it's been reincarnated through the gobs of great dance music that are spilling out of D.C. right now. Moombahton continues to be a big deal here. And all the guys on the Future Times label are making really powerful left-field house music. While none of those DJs or producers are making new punk rock, they all grew up during the punk scene, and I think you can hear the spirit of harDCore in what they're doing. That's a beautiful thing.
And then you also have great new punk groups like Priests and Foul Swoops, who are still playing sloppy, ferocious rock-and-roll in gritty basements. So the conversation is continuing in that sense, too.