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In a cool, musty basement in a brown and slightly slipshod rowhouse on a quiet street between Dupont Circle and West End, there’s a white wall adorned with the black outline of a skull. This is the Babe City skull.
There’s also the remnants of a drum kit, a microphone stand, amps, and a PA system that, on most weekends, fills this concrete shotgun space with ringing sound. Up the stairs, dozens of flyers line the house’s every wall, each a reminder of some piece of the collective—some band, some show, some tape release party or tour kickoff. This is the living history of this place, Babe City.
A year into its existence, Babe City the brand is having a moment.
Its eponymous basement venue continues to draw outsized acts. Earlier this month, the neo-go-go purveyors of RDGLDGRN packed the basement so completely with sweaty humanity that the stench crept up through the house’s floorboards for the next two days. Since Jon Weiss and the rest of the crew moved in last August, blossoming indie stars Diet Cig, Quarterbacks, and Eskimeaux have all played the house’s graffiti-lined cement slab of a basement, where propped-up mattresses absorb sound.
Meanwhile, Babe City Records—the label formerly known as Chimes Records before rebranding in May—teems with activity. The label has dropped two albums in the past month, scheduled a slew of records for early 2016, and planned major East Coast tours for its cornerstone bands the Sea Life, Young Rapids, and Den-Mate.
While the District is undergoing a kind of independent label resurgence, with Sister Polygon, DZ Tapes, Blight Records, and others rising up in the long shadows of Dischord and Teen Beat, there aren’t many like Babe City. It’s a brand more than a label; a collective more than a company. Babe City blasts from every inch of this house: The art on the walls is Babe City; the office’s crescent moon of desks are Babe City; the laptops, the microphones, the pile of yellow T-shirts, and all of the negative space in between are part of a living, breathing musical movement that represents the molten core of D.C. indie rock in 2015.
But yeah, it’s also just a group house, where a bunch of dudes play records, drink beer, and hang the fuck out.
It’s past noon on a recent Friday, and Weiss has just come downstairs from his room at the house. Erik Strander mills around downstairs; for all Strander does at Babe City—enough to have his own desk in the office—he doesn’t actually live at the house. Peter Lillis does. He’s in the kitchen presiding over an orange plastic cafetière and a tub of fruit.
Weiss, Strander, and Lillis, along with Babe City resident Paymon Kossari and frequent couch crasher (and Witch Coast drummer) Kevin Sottek, make up the core of the Babe City collective, as it were. Each pursues a specific task. Lillis, a former Frontier Psychiatrist writer and editor, is building his own promotion and publicity practice; Babe City and its roster of bands are his primary clients. Kossari handles web design, while Weiss and Strander deal with general logistics—booking tours and shows, recording, production, and so on. Sottek is pursuing a career as a tattoo artist, and his distinctive designs (think traditional flash tattoos in a carnival hall of mirrors) color every product Babe City puts out, from its custom website font to the flyers and art covering the house’s walls. The label also has a few talents working from the sidelines: Local photographer Michael Andrade shoots the promotional photos and Jen Pape handles project management.
With his shock of coarse black hair and beard to match, Weiss lounges on an overstuffed green couch in the Babe City living room, Trader Joe’s tallboy in hand, and expounds on what it all means to the home’s residents and cohorts. “We’re kind of obsessed with this label,” he says. “We’re so excited to all be working on something, and all be part of something bigger than each one of us individually.”
Hosting house shows has been part of the gang’s plan since the beginning, when Weiss and Lillis went hunting for a place last summer; they scouted for a basement big enough for a band and decent crowd the way some house-hunters look for a gas stove or front porch. They called the house Babe City after an out-of-town friend coined the term to praise the aesthetic caliber of the residents of our nation’s capital. Once the group established the house, the label grew organically. The local fuzz-rockers of Young Rapids had recorded an album and were looking for a label; Babe City’s tenants offered to press it for them. Weiss’ bands the Sea Life and Witch Coast, both of which play music that fits somewhere on the washed-out garage-rock spectrum, became natural fits for the label.
Suddenly, the whole operation began feeding into itself—the venue, the label, the bands, the makeshift recording studio, the practice space. It all revolved around the house, the physical manifestation of Babe City. “The collaborative spirit helps physically, because we’re close,” Lillis says. “But also, the fact that we have the dedicated space to do it makes it easier to be really productive about it.”
By last winter, the Babe City tenants had transformed the home’s bright front room into dedicated office space that now houses four desks, including Lillis’ old-school wooden workspace covered in bumper stickers and Strander’s dual-screen computer command center. The group quickly began navigating the complex geometry of running a record label, planning recordings, and arranging tape and record pressings. They hired an outside PR firm to promote Young Rapids’ sophomore full-length record Pretty Ugly, which dropped in March, but quickly concluded they could do a better job for far less money. That month, the label had a coming-out party of sorts at the Rock & Roll Hotel, where Young Rapids played its album release show backed by a crew of current and future Babe City bands.
As the house and label began to take shape, the Babe City band roster grew. Silver Spring dream-pop act Go Cozy joined the label and released a bright, urgent split with the Sea Life. Perhaps the catchiest band on the Babe City roster, BRNDA, creates edgy, surf-tinged indie pop that prances on ground worn smooth and radio-friendly by the B-52s and the Talking Heads. On its first Babe City album, released last week, the band delivers head-bobbing pop with just enough punk sneer to fit into a lot of disparate record collections. It’s also a hell of a way to fill up venues and sell records.
Then there’s Den-Mate, the rock-electronica crossover project from singer Jules Hale. While the rest of the Babe City roster could fill up a show or tour bill in several equally suited permutations—and indeed they have—Den-Mate stretches the label’s musical profile into contours that don’t easily fit into the label’s existing portfolio of rock bands.
The label’s catalog is still skimpy; when they dropped a full-length tape from Staten Island post-punk outfit Bueno earlier this month, it marked Babe City’s fifth release. Four of those are tape-only albums—a format less expensive than vinyl. Weiss says that by early next year, Babe City will be far larger. He expects the label to have a test pressing of the new Go Cozy album in the next few weeks. Den-Mate and the Sea Life are both recording albums. Witch Coast will release its new tape before the end of the year. The label is also re-releasing a record from a Greek post-punk band called Life In Cage, which hasn’t been a thing for 30 years. Strander says he stumbled across the band and its self-titled full-length online, fell in love with it, and reached out to the band, which agreed to let Babe City reissue the record in time for its 30th anniversary.
Lillis talks about Babe City in both ambitious and realistic terms, often in the same breath. The most important thing now, he says, is for the label to be sustainable, but his future goals envision the label as a national—even international—force. As the garage-rock scene in D.C. gains newfound momentum on the backs of the Babe City bands and others, Lillis wants the label to deliver that music in every far-flung place it can.
If last spring’s showcase at Rock & Roll Hotel was a coming-out party, think of this weekend’s anniversary show at the 9:30 Club as something of a graduation. The roster is anchored by a typical lineup of Babe City artists—Young Rapids, the Sea Life, Den-Mate—but it will also involve the local punk heroes of the Max Levine Ensemble and experimental jangle troupe the El Mansouris. Welcome to the new Babe City, a label comfortable enough in its own skin to invite others in the scene to its big shindig.
Back at the house, Weiss and the guys trudge through the minutiae of running a label. That afternoon, three of the four members of Young Rapids—singer Dan Gleason and guitarists Alex Braden and Joe Bentley—huddle in the Babe City office complex, hashing out plans for tours both near and far. Weiss is handling the latter, which includes an eventual trip to Europe; he’s already making connections to try and get the band’s record distributed over there. (That way, the band won’t have to pay to ship them overseas or schlep boxes of records on the plane.)
Weiss is talking with a handful of different labels. One, Berlin-based City Slang Records, focuses on licensing and distributing bands on U.S. and Canadian labels. Its artist roster bursts with brand-name acts, Built To Spill, Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, Nada Surf, and Wye Oak among them. “I don’t want to expect anything from any of these,” Weiss says of the European labels. But stretching Babe City’s arms across the Atlantic is good practice for where the label eventually wants to be.
Weiss steps out for a cigarette, and Lillis, sitting on one of the office’s couches, tries to explain how much all of this, even the muck of tour booking, means to him, to everyone. “This is the closest I’ve had to a collective, where every piece is fulfilled,” he says. Lillis didn’t expect Babe City to launch so quickly. He and the rest of the crew exude this deep stoner vibe, seeming to possess extraordinary amounts of chill and nothing more.
But for the past year, they’ve worked prolifically in this quiet office. And surrounded by these records and tapes, these stickers and T-shirts, this whole house, their progress feels real.
Babe City’s one-year anniversary show is Aug. 22 at the 9:30 Club.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery