Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Beyond Dischord: DIY Punk, Pop and Ska from DC - The Bowlcuts

Being from Washington, D.C., I often get asked by people what the scene is really like down there. Obviously, institutions like Dischord, Fugazi, Fort Reno and dc space draw huge interest and the assumption is that D.C. is literally teeming with angular punk bands who release a record or two and then break up.

The reality of this is far less glamorous. Though a few bands, such as Black Eyes and Q And Not U, put out quality records and played fairly often while I was in high school, it was nevertheless difficult to not think that Dischord's halcyon days had passed them by. Even so, a new generation of kid's were picking up guitars and forming bands, though for the most part no one in the older, more politically radical Dischord scene seemed to notice (though Hugh McElroy from Black Eyes was always a friendly face in the crowd.).

For these kids, some as young as 14, ska became a rallying point and DC Ska was its online base of operations (the DC Ska that exists now seems to be a reboot of the old one, and as such doesn't have the same content, which is a shame). A ton of bands, such as the Nothing Squad (who's break up was the stuff of many ridiculous message board flame wars), the Nackles, the Konami Code, thrillHOUSE, Plan Nine USA, Brent's Life Sucks, Ready Steady Go, the Gamma Rays, Die Cheerleader Die, the Alphabet Bombers, etc, etc. Later, most of these bands would go on to form the nucleus for a far too self-serious Screamo/Hardcore scene in DC, with bands like Rue the Day, the Bear and the Butterfly, Mass Movement of the Moth, and others rising from the ashes.

For the next few weeks, I'm going to be digging through my box of crudely made CD-R releases and posting some of the best examples of these bands for any one who wants it. If anyone from the bands I post has a problem with this, please let me know and I'll pull the mediafire links.

This episode - The Bowlcuts (and yes, I was at the advertised show)

The Bowlcuts were sort of an anomaly when compared to their contemporaries in other bands. Most kids either came from the MD suburbs and went to public school or were from DC and went to either Georgetown Day, Wilson, or Field. The Bowlcuts (with the exception of their original drummer, Tommy Long) went to the incredibly well-to-do (and super snooty) St. Albans School and Landon School for Boys. If you cut them, they would bleed blue. They were also not nearly as politically engaged as other bands were, instead sticking to what they knew best: being a teenager and being lovesick. With a minimum of cajoling, they'd even play your prom (God, why, why can I not find any photos of Visi Prom 2003?).

Though the Bowlcuts played pop-punk, it would be a disservice to say that they followed in the harsh-sugary path of So-Cal bands like Pennywise, NOFX, blink-182, and Bad Religion. Rather, the Bowlcuts sound was more informed by girl-groups, the Dictators, the Ramones, the Misfits, Screaching Weasel, and the Queers, as well as mid-70s UK pub rock. That a couple of 16 year-olds were able to distill these influences into their sound and not sound at all like 16 year-olds is still impressive several years after their dissolution.

I saw the Bowlcuts probably ten times, and they never failed to disappoint. They were known for their impossibly skinny jeans and their predilection for standing with their legs spread as far apart as humanly possible. Owen Baker, rather than sing in a nasal whine as so many do in this style, sang in a deep voice with shades of Weezer's River Cuomo and Glenn Danzig. Their first record, Step Out is pretty impressive for a a debut, and features a couple gems like the rollicking, sub-minute "Natalie R." (would love it if someone else posted some footage) to the pure pop of "Judy, Judy." Though there is still some apprehension throughout the record (Tommy Rossi's vocals are kind of all over the place), it's never the less a pretty strong debut.

The Bowlcuts - Step Out! (Self-Released, 2002)

Their second record, I Don't Wanna Talk About It takes the strengths of the their debut and runs with it. The guitar playing is much, much tighter this time around and the vocals from both Tommy and Owen are much more confident. Also, I'm not sure if he appears on the record but at this point they began to play with Nick Popovici (who also plays with The Max Levine Ensemble and apparently ska stalwarts the Pietasters) and is a much, much stronger hitter than Tommy Long. Songs like "Harlequin," "Tiger Lily," and "Walking After You" are all great, great pop songs with strong hooks, while "I Don't Wanna Go Home" and "I Don't Wanna Try" resurrect the bratty bop of the Ramones (that's Bepstein and Spoonboy of TMLE in the video. Can you tell how incestuous this whole scene was?).

The Bowlcuts - I Don't Wanna Talk About It (Self Released, 2002)

The Bowlcuts went on to release (I think) one more EP called "Welcome to Eadsville." It further polished their sound but I never liked it as much as the first two because Owen made the decision to start singing in a really uncomfortable sounding high voice. I think there's also a demo CD of later stuff they did with keyboards that my ex-girlfriend has. As far as I know (and what Facebook tells me), Owen is living in DC after having finished school in Boston, Tommy Rossi is also back in DC after some time in Boston, while their bass player Jonathan was, last I heard, at Columbia.

I definitely have some photos of the band kicking around, I'll work on scanning and uploading them so we can all have a good laugh.


VJ said...

Save for a random facebook message from Thomas Rossi a few years back, the last I heard of the Bowlcuts was they had regrouped with Jonathan Feuer of The Nackles and renamed themselves The Noelles. I don't know how long that lasted, or if they ever recorded anything of note. According to facebook, Feuer is in Israel, fighting in the IDF.

VJ said...

Oops, make that studying at the IDC. I've been reading too much CNN.

Eli said...

Man, what a wild throwback...This post is a nostalgia overload. Who are you, and how do you know so much about all these bands? This is Eli (singer/guitarist from the Nothing Squad, and later Sequenceerase), so all this stuff is really a kick to read about. Thanks for the great post (and the albums, which I'd long since lost).

Nick said...

Hey Eli,

I used to live in DC before I moved to Boston for school in 2004. I don't know if we've ever been formally introduced, but I saw both the Nothing Squad and SequenceErase on countless occasions and posted on DCSka quite a bit (under the lamentably bad handle "dischordork").

Anyway, the whole series is basically a chance for me to re-listen to some stuff that I haven't listened to in a really long time and share it with whoever might be interested.

VJ said...

Hi Nick. I remember your handle, but can't put a face to it. In any case, ditto on what Eli said; I'm in awe of your encyclopedic knowledge of that microcosmic scene (you even got the camel-capitalization of SequenceErase right when Eli didn't) and look forward to importing old albums into my music library as you post them.

This is the singer/drummer from SequenceErase, by the by. Feel free to ping me as you write these if you're missing facts or albums - I think I've retained an alarming number of both as well.

TJ Byrom said...

Hi! Those links seem to be dead. I'm trying to find the bowlcuts albums, do you still have these by chance?! These guys are awesome!

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jonathanbasile said...

here's the last demo:

jonathanbasile said...

Here's all the music:

(Tommy Long played drums on Step Out, I Don't Wanna Talk About it, and Welcome to Eadsville)

Quinne said...

Thanks for the info, and to Jonathan for posting all the albums! Found this page cause I came across a well-worn Bowlcuts tee at a Queens NY thrift shop today for 50 cents. The back's printed to look like a jersey with a backwards 9 and the "name" 'no friends loserface'. I thought, I bet I'd like this band. Decided to Google them & found I was totally right.