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Lightmare are a band that thrives in the undefined space. As far as genre and expectations go, they’re not afraid of rocking the boat. “We don’t have to check boxes,” saxophonist Matt “Matty K” Kirkland tells City Paper. “There’s yourself, there’s your heart, there’s your beliefs, and there’s no compromise.” On their second album, Dirt, released in October, the D.C. group embrace this “no compromise” mentality and honed their craft, both as individuals and as a band. The record highlights each member’s talent as well as the power of their collective voice.
The six band members are loose, funny, and eloquent even over Zoom, their energy palpable. Mike “Beck” Beckage and Vitamin Dee play a flourishing guitar and chameleonic keyboards. Kirkland plays an in-your-face, ever-present saxophone. Powerhouse Shady Rose fronts the group with lead vocals and gripping, poignant lyrics. Bringing crackling bass and drums, Frankie Hellfire and Yousef Karim are the newest additions; they joined the band in 2019.
The original members came together by chance five years ago with Hat Band, a lightning-strike event that placed musicians together randomly via lottery to raise funds for Girls Rock! DC. After the gig, Dee, Kirkland, and Rose decided to make it a real band, Beckage joined soon after. On their bouncing revolt of a debut, 2018’s Dream Glitch, Lightmare worked to settle into their new skin, attempting to mix their diverse styles and influences into something people could really get down with. Since then, they have blossomed, their voices coalescing in more confident ways on Dirt. On this album, Kirkland says, “We got to trust people, starting to play to who we are.”
Dee agrees, the way the band wrote together felt different this time around. “I feel less like I have to sound like someone else or something else. I can do what serves the music,” says Dee. The result is a cohesive album with fiery vocals and harmonies, propulsions of chugging bass, and far more liberal group improvisation. There’s even a big-band style breakdown in “All Cats Are Beautiful,” in which featured brass multi-instrumentalist Alice Mayne-Ashworth ascends with winding, jazz-influenced solos. Lightmare are firing on all cylinders. They defied the sophomore slump, driven by a thematic rootedness, and a fearless embrace of necessary confrontation, both musically and lyrically.
Rebellion and resistance are key to the group’s collective power. “We are all people who understand deeply that this is not the world as we would will it,” says Beckage. “We are dreaming together. … Making music together and putting the words to the music is a process of dreaming up the world we want to live in and making it tangible in some way.”
This is soul-punk. As Beckage explains, it’s the band’s world that “expands with us.” It is a fluid genre of voice, heart, and, especially gut, of marching through the streets, then whispering soft, simmering charms directly to oppressors. Each member’s hunger to channel this energy of rebellion and resistance while making something bigger, rawer, is the current heart of Lightmare.
Dirt is filled with unceasing urgency, propelled by the self-liberation found in the rhythm and lyrics, and stirred with a “shared sense of discontent and outrage,” says Rose. “When it comes to making music together, we somehow understand each other better than when we talk.”
The common cause for systemic change unites them. Rose’s lyrics on this album are beautiful and revelatory, often tying the political to the intimate on tracks such as “Fatestring” and “Catching Fire.”
“All of our songs are political in some way… in the sense that every act of self-liberation is political,” they say. The instruments accent Rose’s writings with a raucous and deft musicality. But Lightmare are at their best on fluid breakdowns, tracks such as “Chanson de Peur” and “ACAB,” where no instrument is overly present, and everything blends into a wordless, Modest Mouse-style voltage.
The group are deeply connected, unafraid to take risks and get lost together. “There are a lot of different minds in this group,” says Hellfire. “Things can turn one way or another and there’s no specific road map of where it goes. We have this golden opportunity to go wherever we want to go.”
Perhaps this confidence comes from the band members’ relationships beyond Lightmare. A couple bandmates work with Girls Rock!, the organization that supports girls and nonbinary youth in local music programs. Individually, the members participate in community activism and organizing (some recall being hit by rubber bullets and tear gas at recent protests). “We couldn’t be a band and be honest with each other if we weren’t expressing our discontent with what’s going on around us,” says Karim.
Lightmare are currently planning an East Coast tour (and hoping it doesn’t get derailed by the latest pandemic surge). And there is always new music to look forward to. Kirkland says album three will be radically different and even more explosive. At this point, the power grid for the group seems limitless.
Lightmare will play with Spud Cannon at 10 p.m. on Feb. 18 at Comet Ping Pong.
Editor’s note: A previous version identified Kirkland as the band’s bassist, not saxophonist.