If you’ve ever found it difficult to explain to an out-of-town visitor how to navigate a traffic circle, try accounting for the fact that one of D.C.’s most beloved musical institutions has a reputation—deserved or not—for being humorless and judgmental. That was the challenge facing Leena Jayaswal and Kylos Brannon when they accepted the Goethe-Institut’s challenge to make a 15-minute film for German television about something that distinguishes D.C. from, say, Indianapolis.
Prodded by Bill Gilcher, director of media projects for the institute, Jayaswal, an Ohio native who grew up listening to Fugazi and other D.C. punk bands, decided to profile the iconic local record label Dischord, whose co-founder, Ian MacKaye, is still asked to prove he isn’t a prude more than 20 years after writing songs that extolled the virtues of a life free of alcohol, drugs, and sex for his seminal punk band Minor Threat. The film, An Impression: Dischord Records, finds MacKaye in rare form, such as when he tells Jayaswal and Brannon that the label’s early motto, “Putting D.C. on the Map,” was a bit of a lark: “Obviously, it was tongue-in-cheek,” he says, grinning, “because what city in the Western world isn’t on the map if Washington isn’t?”
Well, he’ll always have his day job. Jayaswal’s is teaching at American University (Brannon is her former student), and she says it was intimidating to try to profile a label so close to D.C.’s, and her own, heart. But MacKaye’s surprisingly disarming demeanor came to the rescue. “He told us, ‘This is what you do. Just do it,’” Jayaswal recalls. “We were having so much fun, and we didn’t want to be preachy,” she says.
Ah, the dreaded P-word. Though the film does detail Dischord’s characteristic activism and earnestness, it also makes a case that the label’s moralizing rep is unwarranted. Ryan Nelson, Dischord’s “mail order guru,” points out that the actual word “discord” has no H, which “fucked me up a lot in high school.” Fellow employee (and veteran of the Dischord band Severin) Alec Bourgeois muses about the possibility of better punk coming out of the George W. Bush years than the Clinton era. And Beauty Pill founder Chad Clark deadpans that being on the label is like wearing “a badge of sincerity.”
A recent sneak preview of An Impression at the Warehouse Next Door drew 120 people. The admission fee, five bucks, echoed the long-standing ticket-price policy of the MacKaye-led Fugazi, as did the door’s beneficiary: Positive Force, a local activist group that has long been on the receiving end of many Dischord bands’ goodwill, and whose founder, Mark Andersen, provided the filmmakers with concert footage.
Jayaswal’s next project for the institute is a short documentary about Adolph Cluss, a German-born architect who designed Eastern Market, leaving an arguably quieter, but no less durable, mark on the city than MacKaye & Co. “While Cluss is a great guy,” she says, “he didn’t inspire the same passion.” —David Dunlap Jr.