Existing in a musical vacuum wasn’t detrimental to The Suspects and its mounting 20-year legacy.
The D.C. band—poised to have its debut full-length album reissued through the cooperative effort of Richmond, Virginia’s Grave Mistake Records and Philadelphia’s Six Feet Under, and perform live for the first time in more than a decade—didn’t stand in opposition to the ’90s scene that existed around it. Contrasted with Dischord Record’s proto-emo acts and the bounty of indie stuff that was kicking around the time, The Suspects just fumed punk-ish simplicity.
“Street punk started to get kind of big by ’94 or ’95,” says bassist Chris Condayan. “The only way we started to find out about stuff was when people would attend our shows. So, someone set up a show with us and The Casualties, and they never made it. That was one of the first times we heard of these other street-punk bands—Blanks 77, The Pist, Violent Society. We kind of connected with those bands. But we played for two or three years without knowing that that stuff even existed.”
After a 1995 photo of drummer Kent Stacks perched on a toilet ran in MAXIMUM ROCKNROLL, a tastemaking Bay-area punk zine, some unexpected attention cropped up, serving to ingratiate The Suspects to a swath of the punk scene well-beyond the District.
“I would say we got kind of lucky. We pretty much blew up in the D.C. area, Philly, and New York. And somehow we caught the ear of Stormy Shepherd,” Condayan says about Leave Home Booking’s honcho, who counts some top-tier punk acts from the ’90s on her roster. “She put us on a bill with Rancid and flew out to see us. She hooked us up with the West Coast stuff, so when we went out there, we’d play bigger venues with Pennywise or The Swingin’ Utters.”
Condayan maintains that at home, though, there weren’t many bands treading similar territory. Nationally, Warped Tour was hitting its stride, pulling in everything from Epitaph-styled pop-punk to Suicidal Tendencies, while Dropkick Murphys were on its way to writing stadium anthems. Even acts Condayan ticks off from other East Coast destinations didn’t seem to marshal The Suspects’ sort of melodicism matched with virulent vocals and his rolling bass. Maybe San Francisco’s Workin’ Stiffs came close, but The Suspects didn’t hook up with a proper imprint to get its work out like that California band. It just ran Torque Records.
“I was a part of Positive Force and the people who supported us, a lot of them lived there. It was a time when they weren’t as ultra-P.C. as they are now,” Condayan says about founding the imprint along with David Curtis and Brendan Hoar at the activist collective. “The debates within the Positive Force house were a bit scary at times. But I thought it was cool, because we all didn’t agree on everything.”
While the band didn’t present itself as the harbinger of a new sensibility, Condayan appreciated the ensemble’s ability to appeal to various folks cordoned off in their own insular subcultures.
“We played a lot of straight-edge shows, which was bizarre for us,” Condayan says. “What was cool about our audience was that it wasn’t just kids from one scene. We were bringing people in from the punk scene, the skinhead scene, the metal scene, the hardcore scene. That was kind of different, too.”
After a self-titled 7-inch, the band put together 1995’s Voice of America, the two being spliced together for August’s reissue. A sing-along chorus and a surprisingly R&B-derived bassline would have made “Swords of the Fallen” a favorite with skinners. It swings easy, as does album-opener “Exit.” There’s no lack of musicianship, just no preening.
Guitar solos aren’t in ready supply on Voice either, but crop up at auspicious moments. What the approach does is enable The Suspects rhythm section to churn with clarity while a melody’s grafted atop everything else. It’s a minimalist tact that lets “Blitz” and “Riot” take The Suspects as close as it would get to hardcore without losing any of its ’70s U.K.-style.
One of the kids who connected with the band’s approach was Grave Mistake’s Alex DiMattesa, who took a chance on picking up Voice of America when he was a teenager in the ’90s. He’d maybe read a review of the album, but that’s about it.
“Doing Grave Mistake, I still have an active connection to the D.C. punk scene,” the Maryland native says. “I’m championing the past. It’s something that you should always do—and I have a sentimental attachment to local bands.”
New Dawn in the 21st Century followed in 1996, as Brian Gayton continued to contribute ostentatiously howled vocals and guitarist Bryan Harbin was joined by Scott Hutchins. A split with Violent Society was the band’s last release in ’98. And soon, drummer Stacks would exit.
“People grow up and change,” Stacks, who’s likely better known as Scream’s first drummer, says about his departure. “Nothing lasts forever, basically.”
Like Stacks’ time with that hardcore ensemble, The Suspects began fielding offers to hit the road. And even if the financial remuneration would have made it a realistic undertaking, being away from home wasn’t necessarily the best arrangement for the drummer’s domesticity.
“At one point, I think we were in Detroit, and it dawned on Brian Gayton after hearing stories from the Swingin’ Utters… They were playing the big shows we always wanted to play and finally we’re doing it, too,” Condayan says about being on tour. “They were like, ‘I’m sending my wife maybe $100 a week.’ How much commitment you need to kind of break through and make a living off it is really kind of crazy.”
The band kicked around until the early days of the new millennium. And while some newer D.C. bands, like Blockhead, cover The Suspects’ tunes, it seems as if the city’s legacy is going to remain more closely tied to hardcore’s aggression than street punk’s boozy blue-coller-isms.
“The fun part of this—we’ve actually been practicing since January or February and just hanging out,” Condayan says. “The idea of doing a reunion show came up later. So, it’s been organic in that sense. We actually wrote a new song that we’re playing. It might be cool to put out a 7-inch but I have no desire to play shows on a regular basis.”
The Suspects play with Blockhead and Free Children of Earth at 8 p.m. tonight at Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW. $15. blackcatdc.com.