City Paper is not for tourists
Not playing in Washington hasn’t stopped pageninetynine from carrying D.C. punk rock across state lines—or from rankling the locals.
“A lot of people want us so badly to be these ugly, bad people,” pageninetynine guitarist Mike Taylor says, “and we just aren’t.” Taylor, 24, and his singing sibling Chris, 23, are scarfing down french fries and ice water at the Hard Times Cafe in Arlington just prior to a two-month European tour. “We’re really normal people,” Mike adds.
Never mind that most normal folks haven’t been ejected from one of Kentucky’s nicer hotels—let alone the state of California. In fact, the brothers have gotten into more than the normal share of trouble during their almost four years leading the Sterling, Va.-based chaotic-punk band.
“We got kicked out of Executive West Hotel in Louisville,” Chris says, “because [our drummer] was running around the halls naked.” The octet was also escorted out of Oakland: While the band members slept after a show, local police officers searched their van and discovered some weed and a one-hitter. So they woke up the group and told pageninetynine to hit the road. “They followed us out to the highway and told us we had to get out of the city or we’d be arrested,” Mike says. “We had to get out of the state, too.”
Of course, not all pageninetynine tour stories end in banishment: “Once we ended up on Santana’s tour bus,” Mike recalls. “We just rolled up into a gas station and there were a bunch of huge buses, and one guy noticed that we were totally a band because we had stickers all over our trailer and a bunk.” In the grand spirit of rock inclusivity, Santana’s driver invited the band members onboard the empty bus. “He gave us free water and peanut butter,” Mike says. They even talked the driver into taking them to McDonald’s, he adds: “We all walked in there and got free stuff because they thought we were Slipknot!”
Though the Taylors & Co. eschew the creepy clown masks and corporate metal of Slipknot, pageninetynine does share the incognito Iowa outfit’s belief that more is more when it comes to personnel. The band sports three guitarists, two bassists, two singers, and a drummer. “It started off as six,” Mike says. “We added a guitar player for no reason.” And then second bassist Brandon Evans was invited into the tribe—partly because he has a van.
Despite the band’s massive membership, the Taylor brothers have taken on a majority of the songwriting duties. Chris writes many of the lyrics, while Mike focuses on the music. “I had tons of songs and then everybody liked them, so eventually I just wrote most of the songs,” Mike says. “I don’t want to sound like a band Nazi: I don’t write other people’s bass lines or drum lines. Just mostly guitar riffs.”
With three ax-slingers plugged in and cranked up, pageninetynine’s sound could easily end up a wanky mess of competing voices. In practice, though, it’s remarkably focused and direct. The important thing is the delivery, according to Mike, who calls the group’s approach “a big old redemption thing for us.” Rather than using its myriad players for counterpoint or harmony, the band exploits its size for sheer muscle. “In Love With an Apparition,” the lead-off track from the recent mini-LP Document #8, is a prime example, with all three guitarists punching out distorted chords as one.
The Taylor boys call it “ugly punk rock by kids who need it.” But their music also taps into the metallic edge of grindcore and the jangly melodies of folk-rock. Strangely, this unusual fusion comes together without much planning. Over the course of 11 records—all called Document—the band, Mike says, has “really rushed to get into the studio to have records ready by the time we go out for tour. We’ve been writing songs in the studio just for records to be out so we’d make enough money to go to Europe or make enough money to pay off our van.”
Pageninetynine’s eclecticism has allowed it to play with a broad array of rock bands while on tour. “We’ve definitely played, like, emo shows and street-punk shows and crusty-punk shows,” Mike says. “We did a fest, and Shellac headlined it.” But the group has probably gone over best on the grindcore circuit, touring with locals Pig Destroyer and Enemy Soil. “The grindcore scene was the best scene we’ve ever been a part of,” Mike says. “They’re all happy.”
Despite the ease with which it fits into disparate bills, pageninetynine has never felt all that welcome within the District. “We only really play shows when we’re invited,” Mike says. “We never go out of our way to try to play D.C.” Chris adds, “When we play local, we usually play at the Ottobar [in Baltimore].”
And it’s not as if Washington has exactly put out the welcome mat: A recent invitation to play in D.C. was followed by charges of sexism, due to a song on Document #8 titled “Your Face Is a Rape Scene.” “We were supposed to play a Q and Not U show, which was a benefit for Ladyfest,” Mike says. “And I guess they had a big ol’ meeting and everybody brought up these issues.” After pageninetynine received an e-mail from Ladyfest organizers expressing their concerns, the band opted out of the show.
Apparently still smarting from the incident, Mike surveys the other Hard Times Cafe customers and lowers his voice. “I actually titled every song on Document #8,” he explains, even though his brother wrote all of the lyrics. “I wanted to use something to describe how this person made me feel—this individual that’s being written about. I wanted to use something really strong, really negative.” He pauses and adds, “I’ve had friends who were raped. I’ve had girlfriends who were raped. I’m not making fun of rape.”
“I think the biggest problem for most people is that there’s no explanation for it whatsoever,” Chris says. “There’s no explanation for it in the lyrics, and if you see us live we don’t go, ‘This song is blah blah blah and this is what it means.’”
“I’ve loved so many bands that have done that,” Mike adds. “[But] I just know that our collective group isn’t the type that’s gonna lay it on ya.”
And ultimately, the Taylors aren’t going to waste much time worrying over what people think about their band: “I don’t think we’ve ever sacrificed to try to be a big band or fit in or anything like that,” Mike says, “and I truly don’t care if we offend anybody.” CP