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Photo: Kara Donnelly

DC’s Bacchae on the Expansiveness of Punk

I think it’s time this asshole knew // I do not exist for you

These two lines from Bacchae’s song “Read” perfectly capture the DC punk band’s ethos. Whether it’s calling out toxic masculinity on this track from their 2018 self-titled EP or wrestling with not meeting societal expectations of adult success on their new single “Everything Ugly” – both recorded on Philly-based Get Better Records – they’re direct, they’re fierce and they’re not taking any shit.

I quickly learn this over a heaping plate of nachos with Bacchae (pronounced “Bock-Eye”) at Wicked Bloom, post-practice at neighboring 7DrumCity, and just around the corner from where three of the four musicians live together. I also learn that they’re insightful and quirky and full of self-deprecating charm (the best kind, really), and take the messages behind their music quite seriously.

Eileen O’Grady (drums) tells me about a work trip where she traveled solo and not once but twice was trapped into conversation with middle-aged men while just trying to read her book in peace. The second encounter escalated to the point that she had to literally duck behind a barrier and hide from the guy because he came back to the bar looking for her. She sent Katie McD (vocals, keyboard) a lengthy email about the experience and suggested they write a song about it. McD was game.

“Read” resonated with Rena Hagins (bass, vocals) too; she’s introduced the song to audiences on several occasions as being about “dusty ass motherf–kers who won’t leave us alone.”

“I feel like ‘I do not exist for you’ fully encompassed everything we were feeling,” the bassist says. “We’re sitting out here just living our lives trying to simply exist and you think this requires you to be in our space and talk to us, but we’re not welcoming that.”

But the band’s candor doesn’t stop there. We dig into the inspiration behind the May release “Everything Ugly,” speaking openly about how it feels like you can’t win no matter what when it comes to checking off the obligatory boxes of where we should be in life by a certain age.

“I feel like people more and more live outside of established life paths but still feel pressure to adhere to them,” Andrew Breiner (guitar) posits. “Whatever the options, you’re kind of expected to do all of them. You should have the family and the career and also be a bohemian that’s unmarried and living free – all incompatible things that you’re expected to do but all at once. That’s impossible.”

O’Grady views the new track as universal, speaking to different levels of the collective feeling of being lost in a sea of how you’re not measuring up – relationships, home ownership, stable job, you name it.

“I feel like the song can mean many different things to many people, but the thing that ties it all together is not being able to live up to this expectation of what adult success and stability should look like,” she says.

Hagins gets visibly choked up when we wax philosophical about the song’s meaning, speaking in earnest about how much she loves the relatability of the lyrics and McD’s distinctive pipes on the track. McD, who writes the bulk of Bacchae’s songs, says she drew from the complaints of our generation as she penned the track about being depressed and feeling isolated.

“I think we feel [societal pressures] more so as women,” she says. “We’re pulled in all these different directions and we can never be good enough in every single arena or even just good enough in one arena. I feel like you don’t have to do that when you play punk rock.”

Bacchae embraces the label of punk, but McD is quick to clarify that the genre isn’t confined by a set of musical rules.

“[Punk] doesn’t have to sound a certain way because it’s more tied to ideology and attitude than to a certain sound.”

O’Grady responds in kind, noting that punk is expansive.

“There’s a lot of room within punk to be whoever you want to be, and I think that’s part of what punk is.”

Even the band’s name is directly connected to the core meaning of what it means to them to be punk. Breiner points out that Bacchae were the followers of Bacchus, the Greek god of wine and agriculture, and known for making a ruckus in their worship, “which is very fitting for a punk band.” O’Grady gets a little more academic, citing Anne Carson’s queer, feminist translation of Euriphides’ Greek tragedy Bakkhai that embraces playing with gender and “ripping some guy’s head off.”

When you narrow the scope of punk to its sonic components, Hagins says there’s such a range of different styles that can be listed under that umbrella.

“Although we might not traditionally fit with somebody’s thought and vision and aesthetic of what punk is, it still works.”

Though the band has some shared influences (Screaming Females and Pixies chief among them), they pride themselves on having an eclectic sonic palette and drawing from different styles.

“I think that’s what defines us,” O’Grady says.

Breiner is quick to respond with, “Yeah, it’s our best thing, I think.”

Though Bacchae’s toured outside of the District since forming in 2016, the bandmates have strong roots in the nation’s capital. Not only do three of the four hail from MoCo, they all emphasize how supported they feel by the DC music community.

“We’re lucky to be a DC band for sure,” Hagins says. “I went to a lot of punk and hardcore shows growing up and I’ve seen a shift in terms of the diversity onstage. There’s a lot more women, queer people, nonbinary people – just a variety of different people on the stage instead of just white males that typically take up the space in those scenes. It’s a lot more enjoyable because you don’t feel as othered in DC. There’s a lot more people you can connect to that are there in the crowd and also playing music and just representing who you are.” 

The bandmates mention that part of their association with the local punk scene directly correlates with how many hardcore shows they’ve been asked to play, so they’ve “ended up feeling like that’s our group of people,” according to Breiner.

He mentions that the punks are the ones often putting on the house shows, which help keep the DIY music scene alive in the District. But as the noise complaints continue to roll in and accessible, affordable shows held in music lovers’ homes seem to be on the decline, the musicians advocate for DC’s other options: smaller venues like Black Cat (they’re still mourning the closing of the backstage, as am I) and Comet Ping Pong (the host of their next local show on July 8) and scrappy creative spaces like Rhizome and Dwell.

They’re also energized by the talent of their peers, rattling off a long list of local artists they are smitten with including Ex Hex, Bat Fangs, Mock Identity, Bad Moves, Homosuperior and most mid-2000s bands on DC-based punk label Dischord Records.

But the gravitational pull to the District seems to extend beyond Bacchae to the band’s day jobs, ranging from digital healthcare and professional writing to strategic research for a labor union. Oh, and McD’s gig as a part-time beekeeper. While playing music full-time might be the dream, they each seem connected to their professions in meaningful ways.

Beyond the daily grind, they can be found exploring some combination of the National Arboretum, Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens, and Hirshhorn, indulging in authentic Vietnamese nosh at Falls Church’s Eden Center, or hanging out with their cats (three felines total are connected to the band). And the four friends don’t seem to get sick of each other either; they catch shows and meals together regularly.

 “There’s a whole conspiracy theory that we’re the same person,” Hagins says.

“A lot of people in our music community scene have commented on the fact that we travel in a pack,” O’Grady says, before ending her thought with earnest laughter. “We just like to hang out. It’s not weird.”

Catch Bacchae at Comet Ping Pong on Monday, July 8 at 9 p.m. with Potty Mouth and Colleen Green; tickets are $12. And stay tuned for their new album this fall, as they’re set to record on Get Better Records in September. Learn more about the band at www.bacchae.bandcamp.com and follow them on social media at @bacchaeband.

Comet Ping Pong: 5037 Connecticut Ave. NW, DC; 202-364-0404; www.cometpingpong.com