Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

The guitars and amps are all packed up, Public Enemy is huffing away on the jukebox, and Kristin Thomson wants a kiss. Thomson’s band, Tsunami, has just finished a wobbly but successful set—its first show in almost two years—and the rest of the band has left in one giddy entourage. But Thomson sits in the Black Cat’s backroom bar with her husband, Bryan Dilworth, swapping gentle busses. Kiss. Peck. Tug on the sleeve. Vodka and cranberry juice. They sneak inside each other’s puffy jackets, as if they’re trying to be invisible.

“Punk means cuddle, dude!” Thomson exclaims midgrope, referring to an old Tsunami anthem. She’s not so much embarrassed as grateful. Punk doesn’t mean cuddle on this Thursday night in April—it means a lifestyle without much time for a personal life. Since getting married two years ago, the 29-year-old singer and guitarist can afford to spend only weekends with Dilworth, who books clubs and owns the Compulsiv label in Philadelphia. Thomson works four jobs: Along with co-running an indie record label, she works in the sales department at Dischord, does free-lance graphic design, and waitresses at an upscale diner. Tonight marks the first time she’s seen Dilworth in four days and one of the few times he has been able to make it down to D.C.

“I wish I didn’t have to wait tables,” she says. “Maybe I’ll win the lottery.”

Dilworth taps her on the shoulder. He has good news: “I won $4 today in the lottery.”

While many local bands, from Jawbox to Tuscadero, have entered the major-label sweepstakes with mixed results, Thomson and Tsunami singer and guitarist Jenny Toomey have remained committed independents. They still choose to put out records on their own label, Simple Machines. But it has cost them. In the last three years, they’ve been dogged by hard luck.

The two, who have published their own DIY primer, the Simple Machines Guide to Putting Out Records, Cassettes & Tapes, have seen college radio stations and magazines lose their bands among a glut of indie upstarts. The label no longer pays the rent on the Arlington house Toomey and Thomson share. They have watched as indie rock’s beloved 7-inch has gone from being an important stepping stone in a band’s career to a mere fetish item for completists. Simple Machines now makes only about $54 per 1,000 units sold. When Toomey and Thomson put out six singles in a row two years ago it almost put them out of business. And the number of records in a pressing has dropped from 3,000 to 1,000. Bands began having to cover their own recording costs. A week before her wedding, Thomson’s van was stolen. And as with the pair’s first release, they’ve turned to Ian MacKaye for a loan to record Tsunami’s upcoming album, A Brilliant Mistake.

“It’s, like, how can [the situation] get to be very good?” Thomson asks. “It takes so much time to keep it going. We spend 50 hours a week on it, and it’s 50 hours you can’t go and eke out a living….Seven years later, you’re still not getting paid for your time, are you? [The worries] are everyday. I call the bank every day and make sure our balance is OK.”

Toomey, a 29-year-old Georgetown graduate who now works at Kinko’s to pay the bills, also feels frustrated. “For me, I see a lot of people settling in life,” she explains. “I see my best friends, who are very talented musicians, committed to academic lifestyles, applying to law schools and making middle-ground choices, just because they feel like it’s time to do that. I don’t feel that. I’ve never felt that, although it drives me crazy that I work in the worst job in the world. I copy résumés for people that got worse grades than I did at Georgetown, who talk to me like I don’t speak English. It’s, like, ‘Did you check to see if the paper is in the tray?’ I feel like a failure a lot of times.”

At Simple Machines headquarters the day after the Black Cat show, bassist Andrew Webster and Toomey are lounging on an overstuffed couch, reading all the in-jokes in Matador’s newsletter, ¡Escandalo!. Thomson, whose husband left for Philly hours ago, is getting nervous. It’s nearing 3:30 p.m., and they were supposed to leave for James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., a half-hour ago.

Still wearing her maroon high-water cords from the previous night, Thomson paces the room. She runs the Machine this Friday afternoon. She gets maps for each car. She checks the mail. Before everyone leaves, her major concern is not whether college kids will remember the band or if anyone is going to care, but the phone bill. “Did you get the MCI bill?” she asks Toomey. “It’s upstairs,” Toomey responds, adding that they can worry about it after the show.

Toomey gives the mirror a quick look as they finally head out. She has decided to travel with Ida, a Simple Machines band that is visiting for the two shows, while Thomson picks up the rest of the group—new drummer Luther “Trip” Grey and bass/trombone player Rob Christiansen (ex-Eggs). She packs the boys’ equipment into her Dodge Caravan. She pumps the gas. She drives the speed limit all the way to the “Friendly City.”

Once they’re on campus, it seems as if they’ve entered a time warp back to previous tours, mixing it up with college kids, nerdy radio jockeys, and dorm furniture. The Friday-night show is part of the first annual Mid-Atlantic College Radio Conference (M.A.C.R.oC.K) and features Superchunk, Versus, and the Dismemberment Plan. It’s what Toomey and Superchunk’s singer Mac McCaughan jokingly refer to either as a senior tour or a “Class of ’92” reunion show. The freshmen in attendance were 11 when Superchunk recorded its first album.

The bands hang out backstage in what looks like a dorm lounge—mismatched chairs, beige walls, pizza—to drink (you can’t take alcohol outside the room) and avoid the college kids. It’s all too familiar, too intimate, and a little boring. Toomey picks up a wrinkled pair of boxers she finds in the corner.

“Whose underwear are these?” she asks.

“Mac’s,” Webster offers.

She sniffs the crotch. “Ohhh, they smell

like Mac’s.”

The conversation leads from underwear to major-label dirty laundry. Ida’s Dan Littleton, who also plays with Toomey in her side-project Liquorice, nudges the members of Versus about being on Caroline, a Virgin Records subsidiary. It’s a notion that’s not so shocking anymore, just part of indie life. “It’s as cool as it can be,” explains Versus guitarist James Baluyut. “It’s kind of good that they don’t have any good bands, so they kind of treat us like a priority.”

For Webster, this show represents his own priorities coming to order. He’s leaving Tsunami after tonight. He’s sitting outside PC Dukes Dining Hall, a sign reading “$5.52 per hour, flexible shifts available” hanging above his head. Amid nearby shouts of “Bitch!” and “Dude!,” Webster says he can’t leave his job as a documentary film production assistant for the band. “I think people just reach a plateau,” he explains. “You definitely have to make a decision and say, ‘Why am I doing this?’ We needed to make certain lifestyle decisions—to move on, to find money or find a way to do it. After a while it gets kind of old. For me, I don’t have musical ambition. [For] someone like Jenny, it makes sense.”

When Toomey and Co. take the stage at about 10 p.m., they sound as though they fit. Unlike on the previous night, the band sounds together and confident. Toomey stretches her vocals from fitful screams to whispered scales. The guitars even approach Sonic Youth territory. The band’s lyrics touch indie rock’s shortcomings (“The Match”) and corporate rock’s big tease (“Old Grey Mare”). But only about 150 kids manage to watch. And most of them treat the band as just another opening act.

By the last song, the soaring “Genius of Crack,” Toomey and Webster get noticeably upset—but not with the audience. The moment is touching, because the song was originally written for Webster and indirectly addresses the breakup of his and Toomey’s four-year affair. At the end of the show, the two are crying and holding each other. “If you didn’t feel sad after you’ve been with something for seven years, you must be an idiot,” Webster says.

By Saturday afternoon, the rest of the bands have gone, and Toomey and Thomson are back where they started—together and alone. As they walk around Harrisonburg, the town looks provincial enough to scare them—scrawny punk boys and white chicks driving jeeps. The main drag gives way to a Waffle House, a Wilco station, and a maternity store called With Child. When the wind is just right, it offers proof that Harrisonburg is the largest chicken processor in the nation. The music scene is not much better—a few indie-rock shows per semester, a “punk house,” and a college radio station whose most loyal listeners are inmates at the nearby prison.

But Toomey and Thomson stick around town because they believe any scene is worth investigating. And they have to stay; they are the conference’s keynote speakers. They come to Grafton Stovall Theatre without a speech—just a lot of hard-won knowledge.

The 40 or so people in the audience certainly don’t get the usual pep talk or abridged version of the Simple Machines Guide. Thomson and Toomey deliver a dose of reality. They talk about cynical journalists and cynical college-radio DJs. They discuss the numbing ordeal of a record stiffing. They tell how the indie-rock networks—from the clubs to the mom-and-pop stores—are disappearing or ignoring them.

“It’s going to suck—it’s going to suck so much, even if you are successful,” Toomey warns. But she adds that the rewards “are so lasting. You see it with Superchunk,” a band that has seen fewer hard times for itself and its label, Merge. Unfortunately, the radio junkies don’t get it. They stick to asking obscure questions about distribution and market research. They already act like corporate pros. What if a magazine offers to do a story only if you place an ad? “We don’t have money for advertising,” Thomson says, making the question moot. “We’re just out of cash.”

After questions dry up and the nervous applause ends, the lights go down for a screening of the Seattle-scene flick Hype!, and the two head out to the town center for thrift-store hunting and some rest. They finally sit empty-handed in a pagoda next to the old courthouse. A wrecking ball swings behind them, tearing down an old building. Toomey admits that although indie rock has changed during Tsunami’s hiatus, it still provides the same opportunities. It’s still a kick to run your own label, to put out music that you like, and to beat expectations that you are too old, too bitchy, too smart for this stuff. “We have the ability to do huge things,” she says.

Simple Machines and Tsunami are no longer pop producers but buffers between the real world and the world Toomey and Thomson want. Lately Toomey has been typing up her résumé, and she wonders how her achievements—the 79 records her label has released, the dozens of songs she’s written—will stack up. “[The résumé] makes it seem like doing the Working Holiday Festival—like I did it because I can put it on my résumé, not because it was fun,” she explains. “Making copies, I never felt I was good at it—you’re made to feel like you’ll never be good at it.”

It’s partly the prospect of real-world typing pools that makes Thomson and Toomey restless enough to keep at the Machine. As Thomson gets ready to drive back to Philly, Toomey decides to stay and catch Elliot Smith’s show. “I don’t think punk was ever transcendent,” Toomey explains. “You just have to hope to be a part of the sparks.”CP