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We’re halfway done with our meal when Imperial China frontman Brian Porter says to his bandmate Matthew Johnson, “Patrick is giving away his drum kit.” He delivers the news in a matter-of-fact way, as if it’s a foregone conclusion, and Johnson is not exactly surprised. (Update: Gough denies the allegations.) Instead, he’s a little sad and also relieved: After seven years and 93 performances, Imperial China plays its last show tonight at Black Cat.
In an email, Porter told Washington City Paper why Imperial China came to an end. Their lives changed, mostly in the last year, he said. But I wanted to know more, so I met him and Johnson for brunch in Columbia Heights.
“Matt and I talked toward the end of last summer, I guess,” Brian tells me over the meal. “We just sort of noticed that we were not putting forth all that much effort. We released the second record, but didn’t tour on it. We had plans to, but we realized were half-assing it when we played. Not that anyone would notice it, but we would notice.” I didn’t detect any slacking at Imperial China’s most recent show, the February Sockets Records showcase that marked the end of the label as well as the last hurrah for fellow D.C. band Hume, but to them, the writing was on the wall.
Johnson is more detached when he describes the end of the band. “I wanted to put forth a real effort to be in a band that I cared about,” he says. “I didn’t want to be a musician, exactly, but put a respectable product out, for lack of a better term.” Aside from a handful of shows in the past year, Imperial China’s major product was last year’s full-length How We Connect. No half-assing there, either. From the album’s start, you can hear Patrick Gough’s propulsive percussion, Johnson’s elliptical guitar, and Porter’s chant-like singing, loud and vividly executed. But hearing it now, the LP sounds like Imperial China’s apotheosis. Porter tells me that right after the group got the master copy of How We Connect, Johnson said, “‘I don’t think I have another album in me.’”
When musicians also have full-time jobs, some just jam when they can. Porter and Johnson sound like they’d become wary of drifting into weekend-warrior territory. “You want to preserve the memory of what you’ve done,” Johnson says, “without diluting what you’ve done for yourself or other people.” Porter sees this preservation in more practical terms. “We had songs where we thought, ‘I never want to play that song again.’ We kept narrowing down our set list so we only had eight songs we were willing to play.” That presented a problem for live shows. “We’re trying to find the right balance for a set time,” says Porter. Patrick will play forever, with two encores. With me, I’ll play 25 minutes and I’ll be fucking psyched.”
All of this breaking-up stuff doesn’t mean Imperial China doesn’t have any surprises in store. “We’re releasing two songs,” Porter says happily. “We have a song we recorded but we never mixed and mastered. We play it love all the time. It’s called ‘Foreign Occupation’ and there are two guys on drums the whole time. It’s our most fun song to play. The other is just a random instrumental.” (The band dropped “Foreign Occupation” today. Listen to it below.) Porter still wants to pursue music, too—-he’s got some solo material in the works. “My solo stuff is not going to sound like Imperial China,” he says. “There is no distortion. It’s only samples and loops. There will be guitar, but it won’t sound like guitar.”
Compared to Porter, Johnson has more a more discreet relationship with being in a band and writing music. “I never wanted to be a musician; [Imperial China] is just something that we wanted to do,” he says. Neither of us is satisfied with that answer: Matt can’t articulate his vision for the band, and I don’t understand why he was in one if he didn’t want to be.
After we get the check and go our separate ways, Porter emails me a more concise reason for the end of Imperial China. “Basically, through the band, the three of us found a unified voice to express ourselves,” he writes. “We worked extremely hard to cultivate this voice, express ourselves through it, and work within its natural boundaries. After seven years, it feels like a very natural stopping point—-we’ve said all we came to say and we’re extremely proud of what the three of us were able to create together.”
It’s a drag that’s D.C.’s best indie-rock band is breaking up. But it’s easy to understand why it did.