The e-mail went out on a Sunday: “Wear red, yellow, and blue, and bring a change of clothes because we’ll also need to have you set your clothes on the floor.”
It was an afternoon in August 2000, and soon, 31 brightly dressed co-conspirators assembled at a parking lot on the George Washington University campus, just far enough away from the scene of their planned caper to avoid arousing suspicion. They probably looked like a punk-rock Easter parade.
Earlier in the day, Chris Richards had let his Q and Not U bandmates into GW’s art department in Smith Hall, where he worked. He was a rising senior at the time. The band moved tables and chairs out of a seminar room and lined walls with crepe paper and balloons. “We were just waiting for some custodian to bust us,” he says.
At 4 p.m., Richards called for the pastelle mob, and the photographer Shawn Brackbill, who would shoot for Q and Not U throughout its career, began his work. “We didn’t want it to get too rowdy, so there were certain people we couldn’t tell,” says Richards. “But it went like clockwork. It felt great, and it had an air of misbehavior to it.” Almost everyone in the picture was under 25.
And so the band, prepping the cover of its debut full-length on Dischord Records, did what the local label had always done: It documented a scene.
The friends the band tapped to pose on the cover weren’t just showgoers, but a network of young, active D.C. punks. “[Chris] felt like everyone was saying that D.C. was just a lot of older people, but we were the new generation, and we had new bands that we were playing with,” says John Davis, the band’s drummer. “The point of the cover is that, with only a few exceptions, everyone was 25 and under. It was like the new D.C. ‘These are people here now, these are people in bands now, these are our roommates, our friends, our coworkers.’”
People in the picture formed bands like Black Eyes, No Lie Relaxer, and Del Cielo; others started labels like Exotic Fever and Resin Records. Many are still creative and active, though they’re now spread around the country—less than a third of them still reside in D.C. Some have kids. One, Mike Maran, died of a brain tumor several years ago.
Those years were a precarious time for American underground music, to hear the band tell it: Many of the bands that defined indie rock in the ’90s—Q and Not U’s heroes—were winding down or making big-budget course corrections, and the genre was still several years away from the boom it’s still enjoying. The band—Richards, Davis, Matt Borlik, and Harris Klahr—had formed in 1998 out of the ashes of several others. “It seemed like music was in a very weird place,” Klahr recalls. “It felt like the end of indie rock. To a bunch of kids playing basement shows, Pavement may as well have been Jethro Tull at that point…We were seeing the end of the first wave, of the golden era of indie rock. That all seemed very confusing, and whatever we did or were trying to do was a direct response to that.”
The four crafted a sound that drew from their love of punk and post-hardcore acts from D.C. and elsewhere (like Trenchmouth, whose drummer was Fred Armisen, now of Saturday Night Live fame). That meant dissonant guitars and fierce polyrhythms, vocals that alternated between singing and shouting, and off-kilter but catchy melodies. They weren’t interested in the genre’s historical austerity and aggression. “We were trying to make it more fun, more party music, and not so serious,” says Davis. He gives partial credit to the funk and R&B he discovered on 99.5 FM, back when it was still Jammin’ Oldies. “No one ever danced at shows, so we wanted to do something that got people excited.”
The ethos caught on at basement shows and parties around town, where the kids started to, well, dance. “There was a really fertile community of young people that wanted to put on shows for us,” Richards says. “I remember in the summer of ’99, it felt like the real coming-out party for the band. We did four or five house shows over the course of a week, and we made a poster for it so it felt like a tour, and that’s when I started to feel like people started to come to our shows that weren’t just our friends.”
The commotion didn’t elude Dischord co-owner Ian MacKaye, who quickly took an interest. “I started hearing about them, and I think I missed maybe their first two or three shows,” he says. “What was incredible about them was that they had their own musical language, which I thought was really interesting, and the people that were coming to see them were a really tight crew. There was something happening, and Dischord was historically about documenting what was happening.”
The label had been operating for nearly 20 years at that point, and Q and Not U’s involved, steadily growing coterie helped convince MacKaye to keep it going. “The way music is in this culture, there’s an emphasis on entertainment,” he says. “That’s not the way I look at it—that’s not fucking punk to me. The band and the audience make the show. I’ve seen great bands play to dead audiences, and when you play like that to a vacuum it might as well be a practice.”
That concept was not lost on the band, which found itself entrenched in a deeply supportive scene. Richards moved into the now-defunct Kansas House in Arlington, which regularly hosted shows and housed artists, while other friends of the band began setting up benefits through Positive Force and working on their own musical projects. Borlik, a former Washington City Paper staffer, says: “Some people really find themselves while playing football or doing drama in high school. I hated high school, and I hated college. I moved to Silver Spring, and that’s when I found myself. I felt very involved. It wasn’t until I was 22 that I found myself at home and that I was a part of a nurturing, awesome community.”
Through shows and pickup softball games, the band gradually developed a rapport with MacKaye, who had previously worked with Davis on other projects. Eventually they approached him about working together. “We all grew up on the Dischord stuff, and we desperately wanted to be a part of it,” says Richards. “Ian had been producing bands for a while, and we really loved what he did with that second Slant 6 record and that second Nation of Ulysses record—they had a raw quality to them.” After first agreeing to work on a single, MacKaye eventually took Q and Not U into Inner Ear Studios in the summer of 2000 to work on what would become its debut, No Kill No Beep Beep.
It was a short session, only about 10 days, but it also was the culmination of two years of intense playing and rehearsing. Theirs was a tight, complex sound: finger-tapped guitars, obtuse lyrical images, Davis’ signature pummeling beats. Klahr is still proud of the result: “I’m surprised at the number of ideas we were able to generate and pull off with conviction,” he says. At the time, we thrived on whatever’s the weirdest idea is the best one, whatever one makes you recoil, that’s the one you have to do…Trying to marry the guitar styles of Derek Bailey and Greg Ginn seemed crazy at the time.”
More than anything, the band wanted to capture the experience of rocking out at a house show. There was very little studio experimentation, which led to a fiery and focused record that Davis now partly regrets. “I don’t think it’s an adventurous record at all. I think it’s a conservative record,” he says. “It’s like one dynamic all the way through: two blazing guitars.”
To Richards, the songs were about the back-and-forth with the audience. “We were very conscious of how the songs would be presented live,” he says. The band added interactive parts: Riot Grrrl-style cheerleader chants, hand claps, jingling keys (“I think I actually got the idea from a Frederick Keys baseball game,” Richards says).
Those key-janglers and hand-clappers formed a scene that, to be sure, no longer exists, but the photo marked the beginning of a several-years-long creative period for young post-punk bands in D.C. These days, Dischord releases only one or two records a year, and is mostly in the business of reissuing its back catalog. Davis mines his deep knowledge of guitar rock for his band Title Tracks. Klahr plays bass for the popular New York disco-punk band The Rapture, and recently started a DIY label to release his home recordings. Borlik and Richards are journalists: Borlik, who left Q and Not U in 2001, blogs about music for NPR in Philadelphia. Richards is the pop critic of The Washington Post, which panned No Kill No Beep Beep when it came out.
To MacKaye, the album is a reminder that musical innovation comes in waves. “What Q and Not U captured for me was this: They inherited this thing, and they said this is our fucking take on it.”
Don’t forget to check out the rest of the series.