It’s a Saturday night in February, and more than 50 people have assembled on the claustrophobic second floor of U Street’s Velvet Lounge. At the front of the room is a tiny stage where a drum kit, a keyboard, and various other musical instruments sit unused. Twenty-five minutes after door time, latecomers continue to trickle in, slowly moving the room closer to capacity.
Almost no one notices when an unassuming, slightly balding man emerges from the crowd, walks onto the stage, and picks up the bass guitar. Next, a thin woman with brown hair and a dark, midriff-baring shirt sets up behind the microphone stand, and a broad-shouldered, sideburned 20-something gathers himself behind a deck of turntables to her right. The drum kit and keyboard remain empty; they belong to the headliner.
If a bassist, a vocalist, and a DJ seems like a strange lineup for a live band, the District Basement Collective wants you to know that it’s not an accident.
“There’s obvious benefits to having a live drummer and a live saxophonist or whatever,” says turntablist DJ Boom. “But at the same time, to me, one of the cool things about the DBC is that we’re a weird setup. It’s very atypical.”
Nonetheless, as the trio launches into a short, diverse set of dance songs, the crowd responds with a flurry of head-bobbing and hip-swinging that wouldn’t be out of place at a Chemical Brothers concert. Vocalist Alexandra Scott’s melodies fit comfortably on top of Boom’s scratching and sampling and Dex Dubious’ bass lines; the drums and other essentials are broadcast directly from a prerecorded minidisc. Sometimes, the band sounds like Portishead; sometimes, like the Avalanches. And sometimes, it sounds like nothing immediately familiar.
It’s a fairly remarkable achievement, given that less than a year ago it was a challenge for the young band to play live at all. That’s because back then, the DBC was less a proper group and more a bedroom project. The beats started rolling as far back as 1998, after Boom (aka 25-year-old Jeremy Beaver) did a brief stint as DJ for the local rap-electronica outfit Thrift Unit, of which Dubious (aka 32-year-old Andrew Kennedy) was a member. A year later, Beaver, in search of some live sounds for a break record he was working on and appreciative of his old bandmate’s hiphop-influenced bass-playing, called Kennedy over to his apartment recording studio.
“He threw down a bunch of really nice bass-line tracks,” Beaver remembers. “And [because Thrift Unit had since broken up], Drew had no project at the time; I had no project at the time. All of the sudden—I don’t know how it was established—we sat down and it was like, OK, we’re going to make an album. We never even said it, but all of the sudden we started investing a shitload of time.”
The pair came up with a six-track demo—four Boom-Dubious instrumentals and two songs that included a local singer Kennedy had waited tables with during a post-Thrift Unit day job. In the summer of 1999, the tape made its way to DCide Records co-founder Mark Thorp, who was impressed with the music but thought that the DBC needed a new lead singer. He recommended the Charlottesville, Va.-based Scott, 28, who at the time was writing and performing her own brand of indie-styled folk-rock compositions in local bars and clubs.
Beaver and Kennedy sent Scott an instrumental and asked her to write some vocals for it. She did, and soon after, she drove up from Charlottesville to work on the song at Beaver’s apartment. “We just started working, and we were really pleased with it,” Scott says from her current home in New Orleans. “I had wanted to co-write with people [before], but I had never actually found anyone I felt comfortable co-writing with. It was easy with them instantly.”
DCide Records signed the DBC that fall and released its debut album, Listen, in April 2001. The 14 songs—including “At Your Back,” the track the group finished the first day Scott visited from Charlottesville—are a mixture of sample-based dance-pop, dark alt-rock, and ambient lounge, among other styles. The varied sound is a reflection of not only what the band members were listening to at the time the album was recorded—including Bjork, Massive Attack, and Roni Size—but also the three musicians’ diverse backgrounds.
Scott was raised on bluegrass and pop and began writing songs when she was 12. In high school, she studied songwriting with acclaimed jazz trumpeter John D’earth, sometimes practicing with fellow D’earth student Dave Matthews. After graduation, she lived in New York City for a year but found the experience “dismal.” She returned to Charlottesville for what she thought would be a short stay, but the pastoral city she affectionately calls “the land of the lotus eaters” held its grip on her for nearly five years, during which she played music, bartended, and “sometimes lived rent-free in the country and waded the creek to get to my car.” She played with a variety of bands before releasing a solo record, Styrofoam, in 1999.
Kennedy, by contrast, didn’t begin his musical career until he was 20, when he bought a bass from JCPenney in the hope of joining a punk or hardcore band. The Alexandria native taught himself the instrument and performed with a handful of bands at Virginia Tech—where he was a computer-science major—eventually joining Thrift Unit. In the summer of 1996, the quintet, which lived together in a house in Blacksburg, decided that the D.C. area would offer more opportunities for exposure and transplanted operations to a house in Arlington.
Soon after, Kennedy met the similarly self-taught Beaver. Growing up in New York City, the turntablist-to-be had had jazz records drilled into his head by his father but eventually gotten into hiphop through high school friends. Soon he was landing DJ gigs around the city, and later at George Washington University, where he sharpened his skills with classmate and future Incubus DJ Chris Kilmore. Classes in computer music sparked Beaver’s interest in production, leading him to release a series of break records and amass a grandiose music collection.
“I have like 10 [or] 15 thousand records, and I think that helps our diversity on the album,” he explains. “A lot of these songs started out from some crazy shit off of some African record from 1924 or something like that.”
“Most bands use the same guitar sound the whole album,” Kennedy adds, “whereas song to song [on Listen], there’s tempo and tone variation—everything is different. We don’t really say, ‘OK, this works, let’s just try to do it similar to that.’ It’s actually too hard to do that.”
This lack of a formula has paid off for the DBC. The group won the electronica category at the Musician’s Atlas’ 2001 Independent Music Awards and has played at the CMJ Music Marathon in New York and the Winter Music Festival in Miami. It has also had “Enough,” a catchy guitar-based number with clever sampling and drill ‘n’ bass rhythms, remixed by several up-and-coming electronica artists, including Eric Kupper and Dubstar’s Steve Hillier. And its new album, which the band hopes to release sometime this year, is well under way.
Not that the DBC hasn’t had its share of struggles. The band members say they were “disappointed” by the publicity campaign for Listen, whose sales figures remain relatively low. “It’s very hard when an album comes out and you don’t have any press and your Web presence isn’t very big,” says Beaver. “You have this album in stores, [but] it doesn’t matter how good it is—you have to have people to know about it.” (The band is quick to defend DCide, however: “They literally haven’t said no to anything we’ve asked for, moneywise or supportwise,” Beaver says.) Scott’s move to New Orleans, where her husband teaches criminology at Loyola University, has also made things difficult, and then there was the dilemma of how to translate the group’s complex studio arrangements into live performance.
“The biggest mistake we made was trying to do as much live as we did on the CD,” Scott says of the band’s first concerts last fall, “because actually what works is to make it a lot simpler sonically and put in fewer tracks. There are subtleties that work really well on recorded music that, when you’re playing live, just end up muddying what the audience hears.”
The members of the DBC may have painful memories of their early gigs, but at the Velvet Lounge, they seem to enjoy themselves. Scott, in particular, dances nearly every moment she’s not singing. Kennedy and Beaver also shake and bob as much as they can—sometimes in improvised one-on-one dances with Scott—and all three wear face-stretching smiles for the majority of the set.
“I see a lot of live bands, and a lot of people just get up there and play their music, and there’s not much to it,” Kennedy says. “But, shit, if we’re going to bother to do all this, we might as well make it fun.”
“Because there’s a lot of effort involved in being a band,” Beaver adds, “you get nervous, and there’s all this emotional energy. Plus, you’re playing the shit that’s inside your head, and that’s like exposing people to something like your penis.”
He stops to consider the analogy. “That could be embarrassing, but at the same time”—he pauses for comedic effect—”it could be impressive, depending on who you are.” —Zack Phillips
The District Basement Collective performs with Lucero at 10 p.m. Thursday, April 18, at the Metro Cafe, 1522 14th St. NW. For more information, call (202) 588-9118.