Band reunions, something that could cause tremendous excitement in the past, have become commonplace these days. Rage Against the Machine, Smashing Pumpkins, and Roxy Music are currently making the touring rounds, offering up whatever brand of musical nostalgia you might be longing for.
Yet one reunion deserving of attention has, so far, gone quietly under the radar: D.C.’s post-hardcore band Girls Against Boys are once again performing.
After riding the post-Nirvana Nevermind wave in the ’90s, the quartet dissolved in the early aughts, reuniting briefly a handful of times over the years. Now, in celebration of the 25th anniversary of their album House of GVSB, Girls Against Boys have reunited. This past summer, the foursome toured Europe and are currently on the road in the U.S., concluding their tour with a show at the Black Cat on Oct. 15.
Born out of the remnants of the D.C. band Soulside, the members of Girls Against Boys started out their careers like most local musicians: in a basement.
If you happened to live near the intersection of Quesada Street and Broad Branch Road NW in the mid-’80s, you probably witnessed the most unique, and uniquely D.C., battle of the bands taking place.
On one side, in the basement of guitarist Scott McCloud’s parents’ house, was post-hardcore band Soulside banging out riffs. Kitty-corner to the McCloud residence lived Fugazi vocalist-guitarist Guy Picciotto; here another post-hardcore band rehearsed themselves into legendary status. But of the two, Soulside won the battle of the volume knob.
“Soulside band practices were kind of legendary for the neighborhood because it was so loud,” recalls McCloud. “We could never hear Fugazi. I think they had soundproofing. The local kids would gather in the neighborhood just to hear people practicing.”
The basement rehearsals for the band paid off. McCloud, along with Soulside bassist Johnny Temple, drummer Alexis Fleisig, and vocalist Bobby Sullivan, eventually signed with Ian MacKaye’s (also of Fugazi) Dischord Records, recording with Don Zientara at Inner Ear Studios along the way.
Already working at Inner Ear was bassist-keyboardist Eli Janney, who started at the studio as an intern while attending George Washington University. Also a D.C. native, Janney was already in McCloud’s circle of friends—the two were introduced by McCloud’s high school girlfriend.
“We all graduated from D.C. public schools,” says Temple. “Eli was part of the scene, part of the community. Eli had both roadied for Soulside, but also, more importantly, he did our live sound. So in Soulside, at least half the time, Eli was there with us. He was almost like an extension of the band.”
After a European tour in 1989, the members of Soulside felt the band had run its course: “I think we were all pretty fed up with each other,” Fleisig tells City Paper. “We basically decided that we had done everything we needed to do with that band.”
Prior to Soulside disbanding, Janney, who was working on a side project with Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty, had already recruited McCloud to add some guitars and vocals to the work. Soon after, Fleisig and Temple were also enlisted, leading to the first Girls Against Boys EP. Nineties vs. Eighties was released in 1990, initially on Janney’s label Slate Records then through Dischord Records’ co-founder Jeff Nelson’s label Adult Swim.
Even with Soulside disbanded and GVSB gaining traction, McCloud had no intention of pursuing the project full-time. Instead, he enrolled in New York University’s film school.
“I felt like, ‘I’m done with music,’” says McCloud, “Which is funny. … I was only 22 or something. I had taken some time off school. So I thought, ‘Screw it, I don’t want to do music anymore. I’m gonna go to New York. I want to do film.’ But slowly I got sucked back into music while I was there in New York.”
Try as he might, McCloud couldn’t shake the feeling that Girls Against Boys had potential. Finally, he gave in and convinced Fleisig and Temple to move to New York. Janney was a harder sell.
“I was working at Don’s and I was sharing a house in Georgetown with my buddy,” says Janney. “I had a car and I had a Vespa. I had this very nice, comfortable life.” In 1991, he was eventually convinced to relocate with the rest of the project, but Janney experienced a rude awakening when he first arrived. “I found myself living in a warehouse that didn’t have a kitchen and barely had a bathroom,” recalls Janney. “I was pretty miserable. Plus, I didn’t know anybody in the studio scene. I didn’t have any work. That first year was definitely rough.”
But once GVSB eventually settled into a rehearsal space in a loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, their sound really took shape. Though keyboards were essential to some of their tracks, they didn’t want them featured on every song. Instead Janney and Temple would double up on bass.
“The band kind of coalesced there in this loft,” says McCloud. “That’s when … we started playing together in earnest.” The band picked up steam and suddenly things were happening—including a visit from Cory Rusk, the Chicago-based co-founder of the independent label Touch and Go Records.
“He came over to our loft. and listened to a few of the cassette boombox recordings,” recalls McCloud. “He listened to like four or five of just these really raw things and he said, ‘When do you guys think you can have a record together?’”
Signing with Touch and Go, GVSB released three albums on the label culminating in the release of House of GVSB in 1996. The acclaimed album landed on multiple best of the year lists, including Spin’s and British music magazine Kerrang!
GVSB’s career was going along swimmingly. The quartet practically checked off everything on the list of ’90s band requirements: Appearing on MTV’s 120 Minutes; spots performing at major festivals including Lollapalooza, the Reading Festival, and D.C.’s HFStival; songs featured on alternative movie soundtracks including Clerks and SubUrbia. Check, check, check.
Major labels, as they were wont to do, began circling the independent band, playing the game of who can throw the most money at them. GVSB took full advantage of the situation.
“Sony Music opened up an enormous closet of electronics and said, ‘Take what you want,’” says Temple. “We literally left with boxes of brand new DAT machines. All sorts of headphones. All sorts of electronics. Geffen flew us on a little junket trip to Las Vegas. Capital flew us on a little junket trip to the New Orleans Jazz Fest. It was like they were competing against each other to see who could treat us better, basically.”
Geffen won the battle. GVSB signed with the label and released Freak*on*ica in 1998. Then, seven months after the album dropped, GVSB’s career was put into limbo as Geffen was swept up in the merger between PolyGram and Universal when Seagram’s, who already owned Universal, purchased PolyGram from Philips, merging the two and creating a behemoth record company. (Writer’s note: I was working for PolyGram at the time.) Entire staffs for labels under both PolyGram and Universal were obliterated in an afternoon and artist rosters were slashed heavily. The artists who remained found themselves signed to one of four different music groups and working with personnel they had no previous experience with.
On the road with Garbage at the time of the merger, GVSB suddenly found themselves unable to reach anyone at Geffen.
“I just remember at one point, there wasn’t even anyone answering the phone,” says Janney. “You called the main line and it would just ring and I was like, ‘What the fuck is going on?’”
The merger left GVSB to figure out if they were still signed and dealing with new executives who were unfamiliar with the band and their music.
“What happens is you’re kind of stuck in limbo,” explains McCloud. “This totally kills you because you start to presuppose what people want. Practice becomes less fun. Practice is less about creating things and more about the predicament you’re in and this has disastrous effects.”
In addition to the record label turmoil, Janney notes that, at the time, “indie rock as a radio format was dying. Rap rock, Limp Bizkit and stuff, was suddenly exploding. We ended up on Interscope, and they just didn’t really know what to do with us.”
Released from their contract in 2002, GVSB released You Can’t Fight What You Can’t See on the independent label Jade Tree Records, but soon felt the band had run its course.
“We had been touring for 12 years, and I was just a little burnt personally,” says Janney.
Parting ways, the members continued on creatively in various forms. Temple, using the money he got from the band’s signing to Geffen, started the publishing company Akashic Books. McCloud, along with Temple, started the side project New Wet Kojak. Fleisig has been working in animation and design while drumming in bands including Bellini and Paramount Styles (which also includes McCloud). Janney has been the associate musical director of Late Night With Seth Meyers since February 2014.
But the pull of both GVSB and Soulside continued. GVSB briefly reunited in 2013 with the EP The Ghost List; Soulside plan to release a new album, A Brief Moment in the Sun, this November. And while the idea of new music from GVSB remains to be seen (or heard), McCloud is relishing this current reunion.
“It’s been great, honestly, for me,” says McCloud. “I mean, it sounds like an ad, but it’s really fun. So much of the stress of wanting to be liked and stuff is completely gone.”