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For a rock outfit, Billy Brett and Terry Turtle are an odd couple. Never mind that Turtle, 54, has three decades on Brett, 20, or that their band, Buck Gooter, plays punk with a theremin and a drum machine. It’s a shared lack of ambition—a borderline lethargy they mastered, perhaps, at the vegan-friendly co-op diner in Harrisonburg, Va., where they both work—that distinguishes them from the activist or careerist acts that crowd the indie-rock scene.
“We don’t have any obligation to anyone,” says Turtle, “to record or not to record.”
Today, however, they’ve decided to record. After all, it’s not costing them a nickel. Turtle and Brett are inside Arlington’s Inner Ear Studios to reap the fruits of the D.C. Free Recording Project, a brainchild of studio founder Don Zientara, Dischord Records’ Ian MacKaye, and Ruffian Records’ Hugh McElroy. The trio hopes to root out youngish, localish bands with the promise of five free hours of studio time—just the capital necessary for a bona fide MySpace page.
“At some point, Don just came to me and said, ‘I was thinking about this thing; I have an idea. I’d give time for cheap, Hugh would work for cheap, Dischord would help out,’” says MacKaye, whose label is partly funding the project. “The first Bikini Kill record was the same sort of thing, a free session. Don’s a very generous guy.”
“We thought it would be a cool way to hear stuff we might not get to hear,” says McElroy, who engineers the recordings. McElroy says he’s particularly excited to record Polynation, a band of mostly high schoolers from Springfield, Va., but that his group has yet to decide on the rest of the lineup. “We may do 10 or 12 sessions total through the summer. I suspect we’ll keep recording through the fall,” he says. “But I’m a high-school teacher, so that’s going to get tricky.”
Project criteria, as publicized on the Ruffian Records Web site, are few: To qualify, a band can’t have recorded professionally, it must play original music, and half its members must be younger than 18. But the important thing is “real enthusiasm for playing,” says McElroy. “Enthusiasm, it just has to be fundamentally there.”
It’s questionable whether Buck Gooter meets that key criterion; they certainly fail on the age limit. But then the project is a little irregular itself. “I’m not doing it to say, ‘Hey, look at what a bunch of great fucking guys we are,’” MacKaye says. “It’s more like the Diggers,” the late-’60s San Francisco guerrilla-theater group that operated a bread line. “It’s just free because it’s free.”
Buck Gooter eventually chooses to make an 11-song “live” album, forgoing polished singles for a full-length recording intended for direct release. Then they pack up their bags and head out of Inner Ear with their no-strings-attached LP.
Well, there is one string.
“All Hugh asked is that we put [the project’s] Web site on the package and that he recorded it,” says Brett. “‘This album was recorded in the time it takes to listen to it by Hugh’—we’re putting something like that on there.” —Kriston Capps