Sounds of the Underground: Inside DC’s hardcore punk scene

By Molly Guillermo

Punk is influential in DC. Once there was DC’s own Dischord Records and Minor Threat, and now we have Trump’s former lawyer Ty Cobb thrashing to Copstabber. DC’s punk scene is more alive than ever, even with Ivanka Trump claiming to have been punk because she cried over Kurt Cobain’s death. With or without Trump’s cronies fist pumping to songs like “Butt Drugs” or sporting flannels, there is an underground hardcore scene in DC that is very much alive, and it’s not nearly as laughable as the elite make it seem. Though the irony is lost on Ty and Ivanka, the gutter punks and DIY garage bands of the nation’s capital are having the last laugh.

Music trends will come and go, but from a counter-cultural perspective, punk will always exist as an attitude. The musical and sartorial expression of the fans and artists at DC’s Damaged City Festival was “We are not a part of the status quo”, which is another way of saying “This is what punk looks and sounds like, and fuck you if you don’t like it.” The studs, the worn leather, the ripped t-shirts–every aesthetic that designers like Raf Simons have preyed on and ripped off to sell for thousands of dollars every season–were present, except here the only labels worn said “Nazi Punks Fuck Off!”

The DIY effect of punk is powerful and ultimately inspires people to be the change they want to see in the world–if this mediocre band can get on stage and expose their guts, why can’t we all? The artists were pretty much saying, “This basement is your outlet. Rage!” And what isn’t there to rage about these days, or any days? As long as there is injustice, hypocrisy, or fraudulence in the world, there will be punks who will get on stage and scream, and punks who will push and shove and yell until their voices are heard.

The Damaged City Fest After Show was held in the basement of a dive bar in Columbia Heights called The Pinch, where young people thrashed, moshed, fist pumped, and threw themselves recklessly into the pit. Part of rejecting the status quo is having a flagrant disregard for authority, which is demonstrated by the fighting, yelling, and total turbulence in the audience. At one point, lead singer of the Texas band Sex Pills threw a beer onto our faces and screamed “Hell yeah, motherfuckers!” The lyrics were yelled so loudly and rapidly they were undecipherable, but that wasn’t the point. It was all about the ear-shattering guitar, the screaming, the pushing people out of your way, and the raising of all hell. We were blowing off steam, but it was all in good fun. At one point a girl with blue hair grabbed my hand and we exchanged a look that communicated, “I got your back,” before we were thrown to opposite sides of the pit.

The first band was Syringe, hailing from Baltimore, MD. “This is dedicated to my friend who just OD’ed,” the lead singer said. “We’re passing out Fentanyl test strips to everyone who needs one,” he said. Though touching, the fact their name was Syringe made it a little awkward for the audience to cheer in response. Yet the band had the clear percussive precision of a metal band and a woman and a male lead singer, which produced an interesting harmony of yells and shouts. “I never really liked The Slits,” a guy next to me said. “But she’s hardcore.”

The rowdiest and most intense set was Sex Pills, which had a larger cult following than the other DIY garage bands. The guitars showed no regard for traditional techniques and were willfully antagonistic, yet the distortion was bumped up enough to forgive any mistakes. The drums held it all together and were fast, fluid, and intense. In a punk bad, the guitars can lack all the precision and clarity they want—but the drummers have to be on their best behavior. Lacking a stage, the singers were able to stand right in front of the pit and fans stood as close as possible while the artists screamed with garage-y inflection into their faces. Their cloth covered mics acted as pop filters, and most likely acted as a guard from their spit, which was indeed flying everywhere. It was animalistic, nihilistic, downright wild. Washington pride was represented by the DC flag on the wall, which featured skulls instead of stars, and the mural of the White House engulfed in flames that read “Equality” above it. The image of kids fighting in front of these murals demonstrated the inherent political resistance of the counter-culture.

Frisk, a band from the UK, reminded us all of the heady days of British punk and its radio waves that reverberated from the Queen of England to the hounds of hell. Sid Vicious wannabes head banged to the music, and the guitars had slowed enough to appear to be playing an actual melody. Perhaps more interesting than the British musicians themselves was the fashion, which seemed to be both British inspired and American, with its bulky Johnny Rotten blazers and Black Flag patches.

For a genre of music that has existed since the 80s, there is technically no freshness or newness to the punk fashion of today. What makes their recycled tattoos and studded Cuban heels interesting is that they exist in the suit and tie culture of the politically charged and power obsessed nation’s capital. Punk and its fashion have traditionally represented political resistance, and it does now more than ever–especially in the Trump era. Now, youth-culture is fighting back as our country’s political pendulum swings right. Much like how Reagan inspired dozens of punk bands and songs in the 80s, Trump is inspiring the anger of an explosive underground scene only 3 miles from the White House.

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Molly Guillermo

Based in DC by way of San Francisco, Molly originally hails from southern California and has a background in English. She aims to explore music’s inextricable tie to pop culture and its evolving relationship with politics.

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