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Guitarist Shelby Cinca is standing in front of the Crestar Bank adjacent to Club Soda on Connecticut Avenue, nervously inspecting Mancake dancer Danny Perez’s crotch. It’s a crotch that tonight is dressed up in tiny leopard-print briefs. Cinca, aka Reno, joins this show-and-tell by opening a sack to reveal his own set of Fruit of the Looms. His shit-eating grin gives way to giddy, mischievous laughter. At 5-foot-8 and 130 pounds, with sharp cheekbones and oversize horn-rims, he looks like an anorexic insect; he isn’t so much suffering for his art as dressing up for it. “We’ll wear them over the pants, like superheroes,” he instructs, serious-like. “We don’t want to shut the place down.”

But they come close. Onstage, the members of Mancake wear their tighty-whiteys over black pants while singer Jason Hamacher wears nothing but two pairs of briefs; one pair of size 50s serves as a shirt, with his head poking out the fly. Hamacher, aka Ponan (“part pony, part Conan”), is not afraid to show off his chest hair and small gut on this recent Thursday night. “Come on, you sex machine,” some punk boy yells. When Mancake rips into its opening song, a fake cowpunk number, Perez struts through the crowd in a cowboy hat, Lone Ranger mask, and the leopard briefs. The song collapses midway, along with Hamacher, Cinca, and Perez, who begin wrestling each other WWF-style. By the time the three get to their feet, the club’s owner wants his mike back. He asks Perez and Hamacher to put pants on. “I don’t have a license for that,” he says.

“Everything’s OK,” the singer explains a few chords later to the jeering crowd. A few guys have just decked Cinca, knocking the guitarist into his amp. The rack slips and nearly tumbles onto him. Some chairs are broken in the silly brawl and the owner looks upset. He scowls at Hamacher. “You can’t get too punk,” the singer warns from above the rubble.

For the past four years, Hamacher has been exploring the limits of good taste and just what constitutes “too punk.” Along with Cinca, he has established a platoon of side projects and one main project, the self-described “spazzcore” band Frodus. Through their umbrella organization, Frodus International Conglomerate, from their parents’ houses in Springfield and Fairfax the two have managed to put Northern Virginia on the musical map.

The group, recently signed to Seattle’s Tooth and Nail Records, is currently preparing a new album. This time, Cinca wants it to be a takeoff on 1984 (Orwell’s, not Van Halen’s). He says the concept will be that some secret CEO controls the band. Maybe he wants the project to be a parody of the major-label takeover of Seattle. Maybe he’s thinking about computer domination. It’s not GWAR, but it could be close. After Frodus’ half-dozen 7-inches, two albums, and a slew of cassettes and compilation tracks, Cinca and Hamacher, both 21, are still trying to figure out the balance required to keep their characters from overwhelming their instruments.

On Sunday night, the conglomerate ends up in Arlington at an International House of Pancakes. Although Mancake’s members advertise themselves as “Part Man…Part Pancake,” they hardly acknowledge the irony. They come in quietly and scour the menu. They are subdued, hungry, and tired. Discussion quickly turns to pancake semantics. “I think [IHOP] should come up with something more clever than ‘pancake,’” says Frodus bassist Nathan Burke.

“‘Golden-brown griddle cakes,’” Hamacher offers. “‘Flapjacks’ is kinda hoss. But ‘golden-brown griddle cakes’…”

It’s the subtle differences that guide Frodus and its offspring. Since it treats music as its own Fantasy Island, the conglomerate can be hard to figure out. Cinca plays under various monikers for Frodus, the Jerks (“Seb Joik”), Mancake (“Reno”), and the Travelers of Tyme (“Professor Yaya”); he also has a solo project known as Loki and the Improbable Solution. In addition to Frodus (for which he plays drums), the Jerks (he’s called “the T” for his T-shaped chest hair), Mancake (“Ponan”), and the Travelers of Tyme (“Ponan” again), Hamacher works with Battery, Gutbath, and Agoraphobic Nosebleed. Each group has its own genre to distort. While Mancake plays on the seriousness of hardcore bands, the Jerks milk garage rock, and the Travelers play fake psychedelia, complete with electric sitar.

Depending on your tastes, this genre-hopping can come across as mere karaoke or the makings of a good laugh. The conglomerate is constantly trying to define what Cinca describes as the line between “clever and stupid.”

“Mancake is stupid on purpose,” offers Hamacher. “There’s this band Resin. The singer sings this song wearing a mouse mask riding an exercise bike. That’s stupid.”

Cinca thinks that’s clever. “You know what clever is?” he asks. “This band Cash Money, where the drummer fries bacon during the show while playing. That’s clever.”

They argue about the distinction, but they agree that when Cinca wore a bucket on his head, played guitar, and ran around among the pews of St. Aloysius Catholic Church, that was stupid. They also admit that the underwear gag crossed the line—but only because they got caught. Ironically, it is their willingness to cross the line that has endeared them to the local music scene. (Cinca and Co. do, however, take Frodus seriously enough to use their real names.)

Just as early hardcore—from Minor Threat to Rites of Spring—sprang from the era of Reaganomics, Cinca and Hamacher seem inspired by the age of Newt and the Republican Revolution. But instead of erupting with righteous indignation, they choose to lampoon the themes of the times—most notably Republican fear and paranoia. The ads on right-wing AM talk radio—”Get cancer out of your bathroom”; screw the USDA, it only costs $309 to “buy food for a year”—these could be Frodus songs.

The band’s first major release, the Molotov Cocktail Party cassette, contained songs like “Sasquatch” and “Space Monkey,” and devoted two tracks to the Peter Weller cult film Buckaroo Banzai. Fortunately, Frodus graduated to a more sophisticated level of paranoid parody. On the band’s most recent album, 1996’s f-letter, Frodus touches on themes of downsizing and suburban torment. It’s all done in a cinematic, over-the-top way, as if the guys served up their grinding feedback-bass sandwiches in space suits and lived halfway between Blade Runner’s towering, bleak dystopia and Blue Velvet’s creepy underworld. They are trapped working on an assembly line on “Factory Six,” sing in pseudo-Japanese on “Cha-Chi,” and see Springfield as a computer-controlled hell on “Swing Set.”

Just as Beck made his hiphop goofing artistically viable, Frodus the band and the conglomerate are doing the same with their plays on D.C. hardcore. In the process, they have been able to make the music accessible to a new generation of Northern Virginians.

“They bring kids in that don’t have a place in the other scene,” explains Mancake drummer Eric Astor, aka Astro, who also runs the Art Monk Construction label, as well as the record manufacturing company Furnace. “A lot of these kids don’t know about the old-people scene. They’re not rebelling against them; they don’t know the history. They’re doing it for the fun. It’s an experience different from high school.”

“Feel my pants,” Kevin Longendyke commands Cinca. Longendyke wants the singer to notice his outfit—black leather jacket, T-shirt, and furry cat pants complete with long, black tail. The 15-year-old bassist for garage-rockers the Wildcats has clearly taken notes on Cinca; he could be a younger version of the singer. Standing outside Fairfax’s Record Convergence on a Wednesday night after a Jerks in-store show, the two trade fashion tips and verbal licks. Cinca flashes his Freemason belt buckle. Longendyke displays his tail. “We’re not messing around,” the bassist snorts.

Cinca is floored. But he has an idea—the two bands should stage a fight at a future show and then put out a split 7-inch. “We’re just playing it up to get the hype,” he says. “Right, Wildcats?”

Standing by the store’s entrance, Cinca teases and taunts other kids from the Fairfax scene. The show may be over, but everyone lingers, exchanging ideas and career updates. Cinca encourages Michelle Mennona, 15, to practice her bass guitar. He urges Julie Sherman, 16, to continue with her two bands, including the curiously titled Eastside Killas. And he congratulates Erin, a dancer with Princessed, on recently opening up for Joan Jett at Jaxx. As he works the crowd, it becomes clear that the conglomerate is not all about conspiracy theories and goofs, but forming and maintaining a burgeoning Fairfax scene.

Sherman says that unlike most D.C. hardcore bands she sees, Frodus makes her feel safe. She doesn’t have to worry about gangsta attitudes and punks bringing switchblades. “Shelby brings back your childhood,” she says. “He makes you remember The A-Team and My Little Pony.”

Mennona agrees. “Shelby doesn’t have a mean streak,” she says.

Cinca and Hamacher are able to make that link and keep their bands and egos untangled because of their strong friendship. After the show, the two, along with Burke, take a break at 7-Eleven. Sitting down underneath the “No Loitering” sign, Cinca and Hamacher discuss growing up together over Slurpees, Gatorade, and a Mrs. Fields ice cream sandwich. The dynamic between them is something that Cinca says he needs. Hamacher is the more outgoing of the pair; he looks every inch the son of a Southern Baptist minister, right down to the tattoo of Jesus on the cross on his arm. Cinca is more introspective, perhaps hiding behind those big glasses and big scream.

“I dealt with a lot of self-esteem problems in high school,” Cinca explains. “Jason helped me out by being who he is. I don’t think I could have helped myself get out of it, but Jason was pretty blunt. I needed somebody to yell at me—you know what I mean. You grow up too sensitive, and I kind of caught myself in a cycle—being too hard on myself. I would never think I was good enough.”

Hamacher feels just as strong a pull. When Cinca was recently thinking of moving to Seattle, Hamacher was devastated. “That really freaked me out, because I always counted on him and he wasn’t there all of a sudden,” he recalls. “I thought we were in this together, and my life commitments depended on him and he wasn’t doing it. I didn’t know what to expect.”

But Cinca didn’t leave, and now it’s obvious that they are stuck with each other. Despite the hour, the band members want to practice. They unlock the Convergence, where Burke and Cinca also work, and tune up their equipment. The night before, they practiced until 3 a.m. It’s clear they don’t treat this band as merely a joke.

The room is completely dark, except for a string of electric Chinese lamps on the ceiling and fluorescent green lights dangling from the back door. The three grind out what will be the first song on the upcoming album. They play it 13 times. They keep messing up the opening counts and keep stopping midway to figure it all out. It’s almost 2 a.m., but Cinca insists on one more take. “That was it,” he says to Hamacher, who looks as if he’s falling asleep on his snare. “Let’s do it again.”CP