Barely a year ago, Jeff Draco was interning at the 9:30 Club. But on Feb. 9, he is sharing the bill with the Crystal Casino Band. He will have a much different view of the venue from its stage, and the musician can’t stop pinching himself.
“To be coming back playing is quite special. I’m beyond excited,” Draco said.
You can have all the talent in the world, but without a network—and more than a little bit of luck—this gig might not have come his way. Draco got to know the members of Crystal Casino Band through running together in the D.C. music scene, but when they called to offer him the opening slot for their show at the 9:30 Club, he at first assumed it was bad news.
“We’ve played with them once or twice before and they’re all great guys,” Draco said. “It’s a dream come true to play the 9:30 Club.”
Draco’s trajectory has been extraordinary. When covid hit in 2020, he was a sophomore at the University of Maryland in College Park. Forced to relocate to his parents’ home, Draco set up an ersatz studio in their basement. From those early sessions came “Dreamgirl,” a poppy love song with more than a bit of the New Wave feel of which the songwriter is so fond.
“I was really experimenting with different kinds of music…dabbling more with some electronic stuff,” he said, adding he was refining his production technique at the same time as writing.
However, Draco admits to long periods of songwriters block during those uncertain pandemic times. To help stoke the fires, he often hiked in the rural woods near his parents’ home, which he called a blessing in disguise.
“I think that helped in terms of getting that musical inspiration back,” he said of his walkabouts. “The rest of the time I would work on music. I still have demos from that period of time that may see the light of day at some point—or they might just go into the vault.”
His latest is “Letters,” a raw tone poem of longing and hurt. Draco said the song emerged from the ashes of something else he had been writing, but even after refining the song, it wasn’t anywhere near where he felt comfortable releasing it. However, producer Blake Ruby, a friend of Draco’s, felt that hidden within that blueprint was a killer tune.
Draco calls “Letters” his most personal and vulnerable work to date, particularly as it takes a more narrative approach to the subject of the narrator’s romantic longing.
“I’ve definitely had those feelings of ‘This is kind of scary putting this much in it and putting it out there into the world.’ It’s something that’s always in the back of the brain,” Draco said, adding that the muse all but directed his pen. “The delivery of the song was also atypical. [I was] a lot more nitpicky and more focused because I think this song is very close to me—and is very special.”
His backup band consists of musicians Draco knew in and around College Park. Many were in and out of the same bands as Draco during the university days, and some of the acts even merged into the band he now leads.
“When I was just starting out, I was getting whoever I knew and was available,” he said of his journeyman days in between college classes.
However, he has fronted the same ensemble for some time, which has kept his sound consistent. Furthermore, his band members have also had tremendous input into his songwriting.
“I think there’s a part in every writing or creative process, where, if it’s left up to me, I’d be like, ‘I’ve heard this song a million times’” and there’s nowhere for it to go, Draco believes. “With the writing process with the guys, it’s become more collaborative.”
Draco officially moved into D.C. on New Year’s Day, allowing he and his bandmates to better invest themselves in the capital’s musical scene and be closer to the city’s stages.
“There’s so many other bands happening now in the D.C. scene,” Draco said. “I feel there’s been, not a boom, but…with covid and everything, it did feel like there was a lull in everything going on. Some bands that were bands before are no longer bands, and there are even bands coming back and playing their first shows since covid.
“It’s a really exciting time to be here. I’m more excited to really be in the heart of it and put down some deeper roots within the scene.”
Draco describes his sound as a blend of indie rock and indie pop, with elements of synth pop and that New Wave sound he so admires. He relates that some have even labeled his sound as “beach rock.”
“I love the Cure, the English Beat, Haircut 100,” he said. “So many of the New Wave bands definitely have played more influence over the past few years.”
Over the years to come, Draco hopes to lock in his fanbase in the D.C. area and become a full-time touring act. In the meantime, he and his band will perform “Letters” publicly for the first time at the 9:30 Club. Other gigs will follow, and he’s hopeful of sometime soon becoming a permanent fixture within the D.C. music firmament.
“I think it’s a new step in what I feel is the right direction musically for me,” he said. “I’m excited for people to hear [‘Letters’], and I hope they love it.”
A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, ScreenComment.com and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with his wife, Victoria.
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