There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
“I haven’t decided whether I like this mural,” admits Charles Bennington as he removes a flurry of staple-gunned posters that have obscured the painting on the front wall of WGNS’s new building. Still, Bennington notes, he’s already used the guy-with-a-lightning-bolt-on-his-shirt mural several times to pinpoint the building to prospective visitors, and he and partner Geoff Turner have only recently established themselves in the structure, a longtime woodworking studio recently abandoned when its proprietor left to run a Zen Buddhist monastery.
Just two doors down from the Black Cat, WGNS (short for “gots no station”) is the latest addition to the alternative-rock strip developing along 14th Street NW between Thomas Circle and U Street. Symbolically, at least, it’s a long way from the studio’s first incarnation, in the basement of a North Arlington bungalow. “It started out as the Senator Flux group house,” says Turner of the residence, much as the studio began as a place for Flux to record. The first equipment was subsidized, reluctantly, by Emergo, the band’s label, but it soon became a general-use studio, as Flux splintered and members of Antimony and Jawbox became residents of the house.
Ultimately, the population was reduced to just Turner, Bennington, and the studio. Problems with the landlord’s indifference toward maintenance and repair culminated last winter during sessions by Candy Machine, a Baltimore band that got snowed in at the house. The pipes froze, the plumbing didn’t work, and sensitive recording equipment had to be removed from the waterlogged basement over a lawn that Turner says resembled a frozen lake. Fortunately, clerks at the local minimart were sufficiently supportive of what they called “the all-night music party” to let the house’s residents use their bathroom.
The 14th Street studio is not plush, but by comparison it would seem quite an improvement. The new WGNS is a much larger space, with easy access for equipment and a lively sound. “We’re into having a concrete floor. It gives it an aggressive sound,” says Bennington. “My band’s been practicing here. It’s a great room.”
“It’s helpful to be down the street from the Black Cat,” adds Turner. “It’s great to go over and watch a live band for 20 minutes in the middle of a mixing session.”
Turner mans the studio full-time, but he and Bennington no longer live over the store, an arrangement they prefer. (They can, however, see the building from the front window of their home.) Bennington works part-time for a Ralph Nader group, and both still play with bands—Bennington with Rollercoaster, Turner with Please, which he describes as “a recording project that’s gone beyond the studio.”
The studio “has always paid its own rent,” notes Bennington, despite the popularity of Inner Ear and, more recently, Baltimore’s Oz, where Jawbox and Shudder to Think recorded their major-label debuts. Oz has “probably about $200,000 more of equipment than ours,” says Turner. “They have a $120,000 [mixing] board; we have a $20,000 board. It appeals more to major labels.”
Still, some well-known acts have found their way to WGNS. The Dambuilders were in recently, as were Holy Rollers. Caroline, which just signed local singer/ songwriter Lida Husik, has decided to release an album consisting mostly of demos that were recorded at WGNS in its Arlington days, and Garden Variety, a New York hardcore band, is planning to record an album at the new studio.
“A couple of our checks say “Sony’ on them now,” says Turner. “It’s like, “whaaaa?’ ”
Bennington, an admirer of the few indie labels that still haven’t been co-opted by the majors, is unenthusiastic about attracting the biz’s grander players. “I don’t really care,” he says. “Big labels don’t pay on time.”
“It’s such a drag dealing with anything from like Mammoth on up,” concurs Turner, who notes that fledgling bands pay promptly. “It’s like a restaurant—you wouldn’t think of leaving without paying your bill.”
WGNS itself is a label of sorts, and has recently released the WGNS Gots No Station Compilation Volume Two, which features 11 songs by local acts. Included are such prominent bands as Jawbox, Edsel, Eggs, Pitchblende, Tsunami, Severin, and 9353, as well as Las Mordidas, Norman Mayer Group, Sweetie, and Helium (actually just Helium singer Mary Timony) with Joan (Wasser). Turner bills the collection as “eight months of music around here, eight months of music in our house.”
“We were pretty excited about the music being made here,” explains Turner, who says that one motivation for the compilation was “to get the bands to listen to each other.”
“Geoff and I felt more in touch with local bands than anybody else,” adds Bennington. “We’ve heard them all.”
The duo was so sure of its in-touchness that it played acoustic versions of all 11 songs at a coming-out party for the disc at Go! Compact Discs, with some members of the bands who recorded the originals in the audience. “I like all the songs on the record,” says Turner. “It was fun playing them through acoustically, ’cause they’re good tuneful songs.”
Whether or not the still-active outfits on the compilation graduate to fancier, more expensive studios, WGNS expects to be around for demos, new bands, and musicians who, Turner says, “want to do something more adventurous.”
“I like the neighborhood,” he concludes. “I could see hunkering down here for a while.”
WGNS Gots No Station Compilation Volume Two is available from P.O. Box 57451, Washington, DC 20037.