Poppy Patica is the passion project of Peter Hartmann, a D.C. native who is now based in Oakland, CA. Black Cat Back Stage is the band’s new album, released on May 5 and named after the iconic D.C. venue, that is made of the perfect indie rock sound for your summer.
Hartmann describes Poppy Patica’s music as “poppyseed-themed odd rock.” He strives to create something that sounds familiar, yet still surprising, following the footsteps of rock music he grew up with. For Poppy Patica, experimentality plays a role in creating, as heard in Black Cat Back Stage, which utilizes many unique sound and production techniques.
“I like to imply a certain experimental quality without it being too overt or obvious in the production and the arrangement, as well as in the songwriting,” Hartmann says. “If you’re just listening without paying too much attention, it could just sound like a normal rock song. But then if you’re really focusing in, there’s stuff happening that’s like treats for people who want something a little bit more unusual.”
Poppy Patica is both a solo and group project, Hartmann explains: “It started as a solo project. I had a band in college called Peaks, and we were all moving to different places after school, and I just wanted to have a project to be working on so that I could play shows after I graduated.” He moved back to D.C. for a few years after graduating from Oberlin College in Ohio and had some friends join the band, with a few different lineups.
“Sometimes I’ll find friends on tour to join in and play in the band,” he says. “I kind of foresee it continuing to be that way – that I’ll play sets as Poppy Patica solo and also hopefully put a new band together out here in Oakland, California where I am now.”
Growing up, Hartmann saw his father play piano, sing, and write songs for fun. “He has a good ear; he knows how to figure out songs that he likes on the piano, and I think taught me some of that just through being around him. He had me sing Beatles harmonies with him when I was a little kid.” It was the age of bootleg albums from the internet and “being a kid in a candy store” when it came to helping his dad buy records to add to his extensive collection – “He made it possible for me to listen to pretty much anything.”
Hartmann also credits his Murch Elementary music teacher as further fueling his love for music while being a part of her choir. In sixth grade, he started guitar lessons at Middle C Music in Tenleytown. He also learned to play bass around that time after he was asked to join his classmates’ (at Alice Deal Middle) band. Hartmann then started his own band and played with the same band throughout high school.
He started writing his own songs around the seventh grade, not too long after he learned to play the guitar. “I just always idealized being in a band and thought it was so cool to be able to perform original music.” In Poppy Patica, Hartmann writes and sings, as well as plays rhythm and some lead guitar. Songwriting tends to come naturally to him, he says.
“I think it was playing guitar and just using my ear to be like, ‘All right, this sounds good,’ trusting my gut. I think I still have the same theory about it, which is to not think too much about where a song should go … Just let your ear guide you and let that gut feeling about what should happen next be the guiding force, then sometimes taking whatever thing that seems like the obvious next step and intentionally doing something different to surprise the listener.”
Black Cat Back Stage references the iconic D.C. live music venue: “The album is named after the smaller stage that used to be in the downstairs part of the Black Cat,” he says. “I mostly named it after that not because I had played there, but because it was a space that I went to a lot growing up to see music and just to hang out with friends.” Hartmann describes the new album as somewhat of a lament or mourning for this smaller space that was a pillar of the local music scene and a great venue for smaller touring bands.
“But the silver lining is that the Black Cat is still there and it’s still an amazing venue. I think I just wanted to memorialize the space by naming the album after it. It’s kind of a comment on how D.C. has changed, and I think that idea is hit from various different angles by different songs on the album.” Expanding, he says, “Whether it’s a broader frame … like talking about displacement, versus the more personal framework of just what it felt like to be walking down the street in D.C. when there’s so much change. And so much anger about the change and loss, and just trying to figure out where I fit into all of that.”
He says a lot of the album is about being perceived as an outsider when it came to the personal changes that the city was experiencing.
All the songs on this album were written before Hartmann moved to Oakland in March of 2020; the album was recorded in February. He wrote them between 2014 and 2019, describing the project as almost more of a compilation in a way, but “unified by the fact that it’s all the same band of people playing those songs.”
Hartmann says, “I was always drawn to California in general … Something about being on the Pacific Coast, it just looks so different from where I grew up, all the plants and rock formations and the way the landscape is.” He reflects on this next chapter of his life and how D.C. and Oakland compare: “I was feeling pretty jaded in D.C. watching the city change so much and remembering what it used to be like. It was just weighing on my mind like all the time and it wasn’t healthy, and while I do still feel like it’s important to fight for the culture of a city and fight for affordable housing and stop displacement and gentrification, I just wasn’t being productive about it in the way that I wanted to be in my own city … And the same thing is happening here in the Bay Area, San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley,” he describes.
In terms of the music scene, he feels like he is still getting his footing. “I do feel like more of the people that are moving here are doing something musical, artistic, or creative, whereas in D.C. those are not really reasons that people move.” He points out that this is not to discredit the expansive local arts scene. “There’s definitely a cool local arts scene in D.C.; there always has been, but it’s always kind of in spite of the place, not because of the place. That being said though, too, there’s a long tradition of music from D.C. that is because of the place, like go-go music coming out of D.C. being a majority Black city until 2011 and Howard University being there … Punk music came out of D.C. in spite/because of the federal government being there.”
In his experience, there are more experimental rock bands and D-I-Y spaces out in Oakland. “But overall, I think both cities used to have way more [music spaces] … like in people’s houses or warehouses. And there still are some, but just not as many.”
In the future, Poppy Patica hopes to release another EP of mostly acoustic songs sometime soon – “Songs that I wrote when I first got out here and I was living on a friend’s farm in a tent for a long time and just had an acoustic guitar,” Hartmann says. “I’m also working on another full length album with my friend Nate Mendelsohn who has a project called Market, and that is an album that we started recording last fall in New York.” This is his first time recording in a professional studio compared to some of his friends’ home studios. Expect exciting things soon!
Oh, and if you’re wondering what Poppy Patica means, here’s what Hartmann has to say: “I named it after a poppy seed pastry that I found in Ohio when I was there … Something about the sweet poppy seed flavor I just felt like captured the sound that I was going for.”
There’s a few layers to the meaning of the name, he says. A lot of musicians he listened to growing up unfortunately died from heroin, and “at a very young age I told myself, ‘Alright, never gonna touch that stuff.’ Then when I found these poppy seed pastries, I was like, ‘Oh, it comes from the same plant.’ I just thought it was kind of funny to be like, ‘No heroin for me, but poppy seed pastry,” he laughs.
Emma Page, a recent Journalism graduate of The George Washington University, possesses a passion for music journalism and storytelling in all its forms. Originally from Baltimore, MD, when she is not writing, she can be found at a local concert or making music of her own.
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