INTERVIEW BY DAVE HIMELFIELD
World renowned for it’s fierce anti-corporate stance and strict adherence to punk ideals Washington DC’s Dischord records has been one of the few labels to succeed entirely on its own terms away from the fear and despotism of the mainstream music industry. As well as that Dischord has produced some of the most important guitar music of the 80s and 90s. Q and Not U, one of their flagship bands carry on that tradition. MM met up with them on their recent tour.
I meet with guitarists and vocalists Chris Richards and Harris Klahr on the wrong side of the Star and Garter. Perhaps there isn’t a correct side for this purpose. On one side the usual prostitutes go about their daily trade with what appear to be pimps and junk dealers sauntering in and out of the action. Where as we sit there appears to be a deal going down a few yards away. We stay near the main road and I try my hardest to look as though I’m minding my own business. Despite my warnings, Chris and Harris seem unfazed. As veterans of the underground punk circuit they’re doubtlessly used to playing places like this. Chris compulsively plays catch with a tennis ball like he’s itching to do something though what that is anyone’s guess.
I ask the standard question about what music first got Chris and Harris inspired and the replies are typically eclectic. Take a listen to any of their records and you’ll a whole current of non-rock genres babbling away under more characteristic DC hardcore sounds. Chris blames his music corruption on a lot of the usual stuff that his parents played like The Rolling Stones and Talking Heads and then more strangely smooth-lovin’ R & B such as Bobby Brown and Keith Sweat. I laugh but Chris is still straight-faced. Then as many a person that reached puberty in the early 90s grunge was also for him a rite of passage.
On the purpose of music – ever a vague question if there was one – Chris and Harris are manifestly divided.
Chris considers that, “music is a social entity that…belongs to the people who listen to it more so than the people who make it” and that, “if no one hears what you’re making then it doesn’t even really exist.” Harris disagrees viewing music as “a personal ritual”. He argues, “99% of the music I have made in my lifetime no one will ever hear. To think of it as only being for others discounts what makes me happiest about music. It’s something that belongs to me.”
Dischord was dwindling somewhat toward the end of the 90s with great anticipate building as to what would come next. Q and Not U together with the now defunct Faraquet were one of the first to kick start a new generation; rooted in the label’s past but also creating something new and zesty. On the subject of evolution and originality while Harris doesn’t consider it “the most important thing” he appreciates it. Like many of the romantics among us he doesn’t believe that “everything great has already been done”. He ties that ethos down to “a lack of imagination” specifically that relating to “faith in humanity…that people can do something new.”
In another newspaper Q and Not U claimed capital cities were the places where the best music came from. Seeming a bit of an audacious, sweeping statement I challenge Chris about this and he momentarily bats it away with “people take shit literally”. Soon I realise this is a little humour to soften something of an assured controversial opinion. His reasons however don’t seem so far-fetched.
“I think it’s interesting to hear music that comes from where there’s a power structure. You can say that too about New York or LA. They’re culture capitals. The film capital is Los Angeles. The culture capital can be New York.”
Chris admits that the atmosphere in DC and indeed at Dischord is “on the mellow” but it’s far from a fallow period as Chris exemplifies. “We have a record coming out this fall. Our friends El Guapo have a record coming out this year.” Harris adds The Evens and Beauty Pill to the list.
“Now it’s a quiet time in the city. But it’s almost a hopeful time. My friends have just started practicing and I feel that by the end of this year some will be coming out with good music.” Harris points to how new doors have opened. “It seems like there’s more places to play now than there has been in years. There used to be one club and maybe you could play in someone’s basement but now there’s a number of spaces that have opened their doors and it’s usually a good excuse for people to start bands.”
Dischord has always been known for its anti-corporate ethics and its altruistic commitment to upcoming bands. Chris accounts this to a lack of boundaries in the USA underground. “The UK music scene from what we gather is lot more professional. It way more intertwined with the music industry and the media. I feel in the underground in America people don’t give a fuck. It’s almost like a culture shock coming over here”.
It seems as if us Brits get a raw deal on that and not just on cigs, booze, cars and just about any kind of pleasurable commodity.
Underground scenes have often come under fire for having an golf club type of mentality most notably Olympia’s K Record’s (Beat Happening, Bikini Kill etc) in Kurt Cobain’s journals. I ask if there’s any evidence of that in DC. Chris seems rather shocked. Harris is also keen to put that to sleep.
“That thing about being elitist is a myth. I don’t know that many K people but I can almost state for a fact that it probably isn’t elitist. I know that DC has that, ‘Oh. It’s so elitist! Ian MacKay, Chris Richards and Dan Higgs (are) all standing in the corner’. It’s not true! Everyone’s doing their thing and people fall into cliques because that’s what people do. I know when we were starting no one did anything but offer us help, playing support for people, hanging out and giving us advice.”
“We try and do that to.” Chris adds, “If there’s any advice we can give to bands coming up or whether helping them out, booking their tour or just general suggestions, we’re thrilled to do that because DC has always been so supportive. I think cliques are always perceived from the outside. I think that anyone who plays music probably wants to share it.”
There has been quiet an upsurge in the mainstream of bands influenced by the Dischord set. It would be hard to imagine the likes of Funeral for a Friend et al. existing if it wasn’t for bands like Fugazi, Rites of Spring and Jawbox to name but a few. I ask if this is a surprise to Q and Not U. Surprise isn’t quiet the word for Chris, “I don’t hear bands that sound like us yet. But I speak because I’m too close to it.” His tone then turns to disappointment at bands that have failed to take Q and Not U’s message and develop their own sounds.
“You go overseas you expect to hear something a lot different and it is a little disappointing to hear bands mimicking more American sounds. You could tell that people were really tuned into what was going on and trying to replicate that which feels like a big let down because we hoping for something natural informing what they’re doing.”
Just as a large proportion of underground acts from the 80s went onto pave the way for the 90s mainstream, it seems now that bands from the 90s hardcore/emo underground such as The Get Up Kids, Sunny Day Real Estate etc. have made a mark on the 00s mainstream. Chris shows further concern that things are reverting back to the bad old days.
“I feel that border between the mainstream and underground in America right now is very porous. Selling out doesn’t even seem like a reality anymore. It’s very bizarre that a lot of underground bands have got media attention. It doesn’t seem like the principles that people were really holding fast to in the 90s are being played out in this decade. It might be because the American punk scene got lazy. I think that punk in the 90s and the whole underground in the 90s and late 80s it was birthed on the fact that the mainstream was this disgusting place where musicians were abused and it was not friendly to artists and people were not free to do what they wanted to. So people had to create a counter culture. And now I feel that that counter culture has got so smug and self-satisfied that I feel like independent venues they’re not so interested in having this nurturing environment as much as having their stamp on the scene or having this little bit of territory and it’s lame. I think that it’s making it seem not like not a problem for bands to sign to a major label or have ambitions to play in bigger clubs or whatever.”
I ask if Q and Not U would commit the ultimate faux-pas and accept a deal from a bigger, less ethical label if it meant they could get your sound out to more people. Chris is calculated rather than automatic in his reply.
“There are so many factors. I don’t think we’re ever going to leave Dischord because that label in synonymous with being free. I can’t imagine working in a better situation than that. I still would like to find a way to get our music to as many people who would enjoy it without compromising it.”
We move onto the myth that Dischord and some of its acts are quite undeservedly associated with being overly serious and bereft of humour. Harris is understandably wants to clear that.
“I think that anyone on the label (Dischord) is up for a party. 100% of the perceptions are based on something Ian McKaye said twenty years ago when he was eighteen years old.”
Discussing what music the band is currently digesting on tour Chris and Harris’ choices are typically eclectic and they talk about each artist with equal passion. Harris mentions Bowie and Ethiopian cabaret music. Chris talks about Baltimore house music and compares his old staple of Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine to a favourite sandwich he’s just rediscovered.
I ask what useful things Q and Not U would be doing were they not making music. Such an integral part of their lives that Chris counters sardonically, “It’s like breathing. People ask ‘What are you going to do when you stop playing music?’ and it’s like, ‘What are you going to do when you stop drinking water every day?’”
Taking in so many sounds Chris describes their new record ‘Power’ (available in October) as “not a guitar rock record in any sense of the word.” Q and Not U keep evolving as he points out that “the sound would change anyway regardless from record to record. It doesn’t sound anything like the first two records at all.”
Q and Not U seem forever on the road. Tours invariably loose huge amounts of money and for a comparatively small band it can be the real acid test. For Q and Not U, keeping expenses close to the ground means that they can overcome this.
Harris comments, “It’s not like we’re staying in posh hotels ever night and travelling on a tour bus. We’re in a van with another band and staying at people’s houses and someone cooks us dinner. A lot of people could learn from us on how to run a tour as functionally as possible.”
We finally discuss what bands we wish were still around and Chris mentions a dream of his.
“A pantheon of musicians that I hold very dear are all in a room and we’re all going to sit at this big table and have a big discussion. Brian Eno and Hendrix and they’re all waiting for me when I die I feel that we’re going to have a nice little meal and jam or something.”
Q AND NOT U OFFICIAL WEBSITE:
words: Dave Himelfield
pictures: (c) q and not u website
(c)(p) june04 - musicdash / manchestermusic.co.uk 2004