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Jos. A. Magnus & Co. Private Barrel // Photo: Bultema Group

Break Out The Brown Stuff: Bourbon Season Returns

Gin is the spirit of summer. Clear, light and reminiscent of an herb garden: it’s perfect for three-digit temperatures and Collins glasses overflowing with ice. But the second the mercury dips below 80? Forget it. The only thing you want is bourbon.

With autumn in the air, it’s time to break out the brown stuff. September is National Bourbon Heritage Month, and while sketching out the details of a road trip to central Kentucky might be tempting, there are plenty of distilleries in the area offering top-notch spirits crafted from local grains.

Today, Kentucky is making the vast majority of bourbon in America, but it isn’t the birthplace of American whiskey – this is the cradle of American spirits. Times were tough in the early days, and paramount among the colonists’ priorities was making some decent hooch. As early as 1620, colonists were writing home about the distilled corn spirits they were making in Virginia.

“Wee have found a waie to make soe good drink of Indian corne I have divers times refused to drinke good stronge English beare and chose to drinke that,” wrote George Thorpe, an early resident of Williamsburg who had either been drinking at the time he penned this correspondence or was taking full advantage of English’s not-yet-formalized spelling conventions.

By the late 1700s, even the Founding Fathers had gotten into the game. After his presidency, George Washington retired to Mount Vernon and by the time he died, the plantation was pumping out about 11,000 gallons each year of what we’d today probably call rye. Over the next century, production moved west and one by one, the DMV distilleries shuttered. By the time Prohibition was underway, there weren’t many distilleries left to close. But in 1934, bourbon came back to Virginia when A. Smith Bowman, a jack-of-all-trades from Louisiana, returned to his family’s ancestral home in Fairfax to start a granary.

“Our founder was actually in the industry prior to Prohibition,” says Brian Prewitt, A. Smith Bowman Distillery’s sixth master distiller. “He was running one of the biggest distilleries in America down in Algiers Point, Louisiana. It didn’t survive Prohibition and went under around 1916. He did a lot of things in between but wanted to get back to his roots and heritage in Virginia. I think he knew Prohibition was ending.”

Prewitt says one of the really interesting parts of his heritage as a distiller is that Kentucky used to be part of Virginia.

“If you look at it like that, it’s where American whiskey really started. Being that we’re the oldest distillery in Virginia, that was what we started with right off the bat – that history.”

The distillery has since moved to Fredericksburg, 50-plus miles outside of the District. If that’s a hair too far, look for Prewitt and his colleagues at Virginia ABC stores where they’re planning to do many tastings of their bourbon.

In the District proper, several distilleries are making bourbon these days including One Eight Distilling and Jos. A. Magnus & Co. Distillery. Though they’re shoulder-to-shoulder in Ivy City, they’re taking radically different approaches when approaching their heritages. One Eight takes its name from the section of the Constitution that provided for the establishment of DC, and is looking decisively toward the future of small-batch bourbon.

“We’re a grain-to-bottle distillery and all our suppliers are from within a hundred miles of One Eight,” says Cara Webster, One Eight’s events and marketing director. “Rye was the first chapter of American whiskey, so we started there.”

Today, the distillery makes a rye-forward bourbon to which lovers of Basil Hayden’s or Bulleit will surely fawn over. One Eight is offering two events for Bourbon Heritage Month. On September 8, open house-style event Tribe Vibes will offer mixology classes, distillery tours and West African-inspired hors d’oeuvres. The sixth annual Battle of the Barrel-Aged Beers on September 10 will showcase the District’s six breweries that make beers aged in liquor barrels: 3 Stars, Atlas, DC Brau, Hellbender, Port City and Right Proper. The latter is one of One Eight’s most popular events, so be sure to order tickets in advance.

Around the corner is Jos. A. Magnus & Co., a revitalized brand that launched in 2015. Though the distillery was originally in Cincinnati, bourbon bearing the Magnus name was sold in DC where the family decided to begin anew before Prohibition.

“The genesis of Jos. A. Magnus & Company’s re-establishment in 2015 was the discovery of a carefully preserved bottle passed down through generations,” says general manager Ali Anderson. “Magnus’ great-grandson, unaware of just how remarkable the bourbon was, wrapped the bottle in a T-shirt, tossed it in a bag and boarded a plane to Kentucky.”

That the TSA inspectors didn’t break the bottle and the seal only leaked a little is perhaps proof of divine intervention. The whiskey survived all the way to Louisville for industry veterans to taste. Working together, they teased out a contemporary version of the old recipe, which is made today in Ivy City. Don’t worry about the bottle that started it all, though: today it’s stored safely in a military-grade case in a temperature-controlled environment.

To celebrate their remarkable heritage, Jos. A. Magnus is teaming up with Virginia ABC for Spirit Bourbon Day on September 19. Around the Commonwealth, look for Magnus whiskies with special discounts. These sales are rare, so stock up.

Whichever of these origin stories appeals to you most, take advantage of the opportunity to learn a little more about the bourbon heritage of the area. Drinking a nice spicy nip of whiskey on a cold day is, of course, the greatest autumnal joy. But the real reward comes when you get to interject, “Well, actually” at bar trivia when someone tries to tell you bourbon can only be made in Kentucky.

Sip some bourbon at these local distilleries:

A. Smith Bowman Distillery:
1 Bowman Dr. Fredericksburg, VA; www.asmithbowman.com

Jos. A. Magnus & Co. Distillery: 2052 West Virginia Ave. NE, DC; www.josephmagnus.com
One Eight Distilling: 1135 Okie St. NE, DC; www.oneeightdistilling.com

Graphic: Julia Goldberg

DC Musicians Take Day Jobs To The Next Level

Musicians hold a mesmerizing and often mystical appeal. Onstage, in the club, even walking down the street – they are the rock gods, the jazz greats, the punk queens. They are also real people.

While you’re not thinking about that as you fist pump or sway awkwardly side-to-side at their shows, if they’re not winning Grammys, most of them also have day jobs. Sure, you get it. Your best friend’s boyfriend who plays bass is also a barista at the local café, and the drummer from that one band that you follow too closely on Facebook is the bike courier who delivered flowers to you that one time and you wanted to ask for his autograph but you thought it was weird.

But in DC, the meaning of “musician with a day job” is a little different. Here, I’ve run into people playing sick riffs on the weekend only to roll into the DOJ in suit and tie Monday morning. Or picking a banjo and kicking an ankle tambourine in-between interviewing people as a journalist for Science Magazine. Or, you know, mixing hip-hop records after getting home from the IT department at NASA.

All real people.

Take, for example, Steve Jabo. Have you been over to the National Museum of Natural History to check out the brand new dino hall yet? Well, we’ve got Jabo to thank for that. At NMNH, he’s a preparator of vertebrate fossils, which means he puts dinosaurs together.

He’s also been playing in bands since the seventh grade, and for the past 22 years with local rock cover band Consider the Source (a.k.a. The Woodford Reserve when playing without one member who is now based in Georgia). Jabo and his bandmates get together every Thursday to practice in his Arlington, Virginia basement where he has a full setup.

“It’s kind of just unspoken and we really take pride in the fact that everyone shows up,” he says. “There’s no drama. We’re good friends who really like music. Our number one priority is the music, and that makes everything more enjoyable.”

The band has played lots of classic local spots, including the late Bangkok Blues and Luna Park Grille. These days, they’re semi-regulars at Clare & Don’s in Falls Church where they play literally everything you could imagine – from Elvis Costello and Tom Petty to Patti Smith and Bowie.

“It’s hard to find new stuff [that is appealing to lots of people]. I like to do our own take on things and change it up.”

Wondering what the dinosaurs listen to? As far as music in the Paleo Lab at the museum, Jabo says he starts the day listening to “something mellow, like classical music or jazz.” Then, he works his way “up to something with a little more energy,” which can mean almost anything.

“My music collection is 12,000-plus tunes of everything from Gregorian chant…to hip-hop…to punk rock. I’ll usually just hit the ‘Shuffle All’ button and let it ride. If I’m doing something really delicate under the scope, I’ll put the earbuds in and listen to Miles Davis or Puccini arias to get in the zone.”

That said, Jabo generally subcribes to a “gotta keep ’em separated” mantra when it comes to his career and his passion for music. Alex Dent, on the other hand, tries to find as many ways as possible to merge the two. When not writing music and performing with his punk rock band Weird Babies, Dent is an enthomusicologist at George Washington University.

Dent uses linguistic theory to explore the influence of music in cultures. Prior to joining the world of academia, he had an “ah-hah” moment while working as an Outward Bound instructor with at-risk youth.

This thing happened where the kids started talking to me a lot about their music, and I became a lot better at working with them when I was listening to what they were listening to,” Dent says. “At that time, it was a lot of Public Enemy.”

When he realized music was the language he most wanted to understand, Dent traveled to South America for his dissertation on policing and the DVD pirating history of Brazilian punk rock. When he returned to the States, he started playing a lot of his own music under a small Chicago label – but was somewhat restricted in terms of his research work. These days, however, as a tenured professor with a couple of books under his belt, Dent is done with boundaries.

“The more I can integrate my academic work and teaching with my music, the happier I am,” he says.

Right now, that looks like collaboration with a composer to teach a class on sound, researching cell phone use in local teenage populations, studying the resurgence of punk in DC and, of course, playing with his band Weird Babies.

“Shows I like playing the most are benefit shows,” he says. “We recently did one for gun control at St. Stephen’s and for [DMV immigration services organization] Ayuda at Rhizome. I’m wondering what it would be like to create a kind of pedagogical instrument for helping students think about the relationships between arts and community activism and civic engagement.”

Taking musical pedagogy and activism to another level, Adele Gleixner – whose hauntingly beautiful voice stopped me dead in my tracks at a show last winter – is a board-certified music therapist at the John L. Gildner Regional Institute for Children and Adolescents.

“In high school, a friend asked me, ‘What do you want to study in college?’ and I replied, ‘All I know is I want to do something where I can help people,’” she says. “I didn’t hear the words ‘music therapy’ until the beginning of my community college enrollment, but as soon as I did, I never seriously considered any other career path.”

The artist works with adolescents and young adults ages 10-21 who experience various manifestations of emotional and/or behavioral issues caused by a broad scale of traumas, mental illnesses, autism spectrum disorders and other diagnoses.

“My two favorite parts about my work are communicating with my clients through music and sharing a musical space with them, and witnessing their growth and progress,” she says.

But the intense adversity many of her clients face is challenging.

“Music therapy is not always pretty. It does not always involve beautiful music-making – in fact, it may involve complete chaos.”

In terms of her own musicianship, like Dent, she has found DC to be a hotspot for musicians looking to share creative processes. She cites the DIY community as being especially supportive, opening up gig opportunities at spots like Boundary Stone, Songbyrd Record Cafe and Music House’s Vinyl Lounge, Dwell and FRESHFARM Markets, among others.

Catch folk-rock project Adele Gleixner & The Milkweeds at Velvet Lounge on August 28, and learn more about these unexpected musicians and their bands below.

Adele Gleixner: www.adelemarie.bandcamp.com
Consider the Source: www.fb.com/considerthesource
Weird Babies: www.weirdbabies.bandcamp.com

Iza Flo // Photo: Nick Moreland, courtesy of DC Music Rocks

The Epitome of Music Inclusivity: DC Music Rocks Festival

Brian Palmer had a small yet inventive idea that sparked a festival authentically highlighting the DC music scene.

He performed all across the nation’s capital with his band Fellowcraft, meeting many talented artists along the way. He later realized the potential of DC’s music scene and wanted to shed light on what others were overlooking, so he created radio show and podcast DC Music Rocks to highlight the local music community. Alongside this year’s festival coordinator Daniel Roberts, he crafted the idea to produce an event that would incorporate everything he’d witnessed on the road.

“We look at the DC scene and see the amazing amounts of diversity and great artistry, and no one really knows it’s there except for the small groups of people in each scene,” Roberts says. “But it’s not well-known outside of DC.”

This year’s DC Music Rocks Festival will be held at the 9:30 Club on August 17. Participating artists range from reggae to indie pop, showcasing the stylistic variation that epitomizes the local music scene. Not bound by expectations or competition, this festival creates a supportive, inclusive atmosphere. In keeping with the festival’s mission, Palmer and Roberts searched for artists across the DC area that would fit their vision – but this proved challenging due to the fact that most of the participants seemed to be white male guitarists.

“They are a dime a dozen, and I happen to be one of them,” Roberts says. 

Nonetheless, diversity was a huge element of success for the festival, which meant more culture, more women and more music. The festival features six artists that have manifested their careers by developing original sounds, including Sub-Radio and Iza Flow.

Made up of childhood friends, Sub-Radio brings their own flair to indie music. Lead vocalist Adam Bradley describes their sound as “indie pop with a dance atmosphere.” They don’t fit in the usual boundaries of chill, elastic pop; instead, they craft upbeat tempos and psychedelic twists.

Iza Flo, a mesh of different women, ages, backgrounds and cultures, is one of the few bands on the scene that exemplifies an energy the DC community craves. Diora Brown, the group’s MC, describes their sound as “a lot of soul with hip-hop elements [and] a unique nostalgia that reminds you of the 80s.” 

Though they only formed this April, Iza Flow developed an approach to music that is naturally authentic. With such a positive and early beginning, performing at this festival provides them with an accepting outlet to dive into their craft and career as a group.

Even though the festival’s platform is built on diversity, the goal is also to expose artists to a higher platform. Roberts, who has his own record label, discovered that there aren’t enough musical outlets in DC for artists to reach a broader audience. Navigating the steps to reach national recognition can pose an enormous challenge to local artists, and Roberts and his collaborators want to use this festival to create more opportunities.

The DC Music Rocks Festival also pushes the local music scene forward with the support of nonprofit The MusicianShip, which helps at-risk youth through music education. Sub-Radio is a huge advocate for music education, considering it is one of the vital points that led to the creation of the band.

“We love to advocate for music education whenever possible,” says guitarist and vocalist Matt Prodanovich. “Four or five of us took classical guitar lessons in high school, which was one of the big factors on how we met and formed our band.”

This is a festival built on the diversity of its artists and their stylistic expression. Don’t miss the authenticity and vibrancy of DC’s local music scene at the DC Music Rocks Festival on Saturday, August 17 at the 9:30 Club. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at www.dcmusicrocks.com.

9:30 Club: 815 V St. NW, DC; 202 265-0930; www.930.com

Correction: In a previous version of the story, the wrong photographer was credited. This mistake has been amended. 

Photo: Trent Johnson

Andrew Trueblood Brings Energy, Earnestness and Millennial Outlook to DC Office of Planning

There is an earnestness that exudes from Andrew Trueblood. The 36-year-old director of the DC Office of Planning (OP) – the first millennial tapped for that role by Mayor Muriel Bowser last November – has already made quite an impact on the city, garnering praise from his peers committed to preserving the cultural heartbeat of the District. With 15 years of city life and six of District government experience under his belt, he brings deep understanding of and affection for the nation’s capital to the table. Though his ultimate goal is to overcome the city’s growing housing gap and produce affordable housing across all wards, Director Trueblood is also an advocate for preserving the city’s authenticity through initiatives like those born from the first-ever DC Cultural Plan, released by Mayor Bowser in April. I sat down with him to dig into how being an “elder” millennial – his words, not mine – uniquely positions him to connect with the local community, how to tackle tougher issues impacting the city like gentrification, and his love of cycling, theatre and trying Michelin star restaurants.

On Tap: How would you describe your experience running the DC Office of Planning thus far? What have been the biggest challenges? Successes?
Andrew Trueblood: I’m excited to see Planning take the role that I think it ought to take given all of the challenges that we’re facing across the city. I’m excited to work closely not only with the Mayor but also be hand-in-hand with [other agencies]. Those connections have helped elevate our work and make sure that what we’re doing is aligning across the government but also achieving results that are important. We do have to think about all of these tradeoffs between growth and equity – between what we’re asking of residents and what we need to get things done. Because we can take that broader view, we can provide other agencies the needed information for them to make long-term decisions that are moving us in the right direction.

OT: So you get to be a little higher level and think big picture.
AT: Yeah. What we’re trying to do is both [high-level] work, which is incredibly important, but then tie it to tangible deliverables that residents can feel. Some of that is by thinking about how we engage residents, but it’s also about continuously engaging, releasing intermediate results and findings. [For example], we’ve released a map, which shows where affordable housing is and is not in the city. As we find things, we want to keep sharing them and keep the conversation going. The beauty of the way that media works today is we can have that kind of ongoing dialogue with the community.

OT: How does being director-level in District government as a millennial uniquely position you to support the city through the lens of younger professionals and city dwellers?
AT: My goal is to be able to hear from, understand and articulate the needs and values of every resident. That is the mandate and it requires a degree of empathy. The other thing that is different in the workplace now than before is iterating [and] being okay with trying things and maybe failing. That idea of quicker turnarounds, iterating and building is something I’ve always found to be a valuable way of getting things done, and I’m trying to bring that to this office.


Can’t Live Without
Outdoor activities with family and friends
My bike
The District, especially its amazing arts and culture
Coffee in the morning and nachos in the evening
Podcasts and audiobooks from DC Public Library


OT: How do you connect with the local community to make sure you’re keeping a pulse on what’s happening and stay relatable?
AT: What I’ve learned – actually more since I took this role than when I was [Chief of Staff at the Deputy Mayor’s Office] – is a lot of people appreciate that I am accessible and available, and will listen and try and make the mechanics of government move. I am trained as a planner, I have a degree, I’ve been in the city for 15 years. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that I know all the things. I think being authentic and honest when I engage with residents or stakeholders is really at the base of how I’m trying to do this. I’ve gone out to groups that have been very critical of the Office of Planning. My goal is to be honest with them about what we want to try to do [and] try to find places of commonality that we can work together in. Sometimes, honesty means saying hard things or saying when we disagree.

OT: How important is it to you to make those connections in the community and keep them, and how do you integrate that into your role and decision-making process in local government?
AT: One thing I learned early in my public service career is often times, it’s very easy to say something that will make someone happy now but will make that official a liar in the future. [If I] say something now to take the heat off today but then in the future, people might feel like I was not honest with them. It’s more important to be honest today than to potentially lose that trust. So building that trust across the different groups I think is really important, especially in Planning where we are balancing all of these competing interests.

OT: The District has changed so much in the past decade – we’re on the foodie map nationally, plays are coming here to make their pre-Broadway debuts, venues like The Anthem are opening. From the OP perspective, do you see anything problematic about how this impacts our economic landscape or do you view it as exciting and embrace the changes?
AT: It is problematically good. The health of a city is about its ability to have amenities and grow and serve its residents. I think having good restaurants, entertainment and arts and culture is all critical. Our schools have improved over the last 15 years. Our [health care] facilities are top-notch. Our libraries are amazing. We as a city need to grow in order to utilize the infrastructure we have. We can control structures, but we cannot control souls. We can [choose] not to build things, but that doesn’t mean that people who have wealth won’t want to live in the city. If you have the same number of structures and more people with wealth coming in, that exacerbates gentrification. We need to figure out how we grow as a city. We have the chance to be very thoughtful about what growth and development look like.

OT: Do you have concerns about DC becoming gentrified and up-and-coming neighborhoods losing their heartbeat, affordability and accessibility of the locals as younger, wealthier professionals move in? How can the city combat that through OP initiatives?
AT: I am very worried about housing costs and the ability for residents – especially low- and moderate-income residents, residents of color, longtime residents – to be able to keep their homes. Gentrification is a lot more challenging to discuss because it is multifaceted. We’re trying to produce 36,000 housing units by 2025 [and] we think 12,000 of those need to be subsidized. I worry that by focusing on a few neighborhoods, we lose sight that the forces happening are often broader. The discussion about gentrification could take us away from thinking [about] the programs and policies we need across the city.

OT: What initiatives are you supporting or leading to create affordable housing options for locals?
AT: The Mayor made the funding and programs around housing the cornerstone [of her first administration]. I think for [her] second term, [we’re] taking a step back and addressing some of these more systemic, structural questions. Why haven’t we been able to produce the housing across the income spectrum? How do we make sure our programs are aligned to produce the housing we need for the residents who need it most and what are those needs? We are working on a housing framework for equity and growth. We’re looking to see how we [can] address these housing needs in different parts of the city.

OT: Walk me through your involvement with the DC Cultural Plan. Why do you view it as important to the city?
AT: I think culture is […] what makes a city what it is. It’s part of its DNA. I think recognizing culture as its own important value and concept is what this plan seeks to do and then also to build on that. I think that, as a touchstone, is really important. I think it’s also fascinating that this came out about a week before a lot of the #DontMuteDC protests started happening. There’s a two-page opening about black culture, for example, as an important piece of the city’s authenticity. I think as a broad statement, [preserving authenticity] is what the Cultural Plan is about. It’s stating why we are vibrant and a unique place and not just any other city.

OT: What value do you think the plan’s funding recommendations bring to the city’s creative community?
AT: There are some very tangible recommendations put in place around different ways to think about funding. I don’t think it was ever meant to say we shouldn’t use grants. Grants are obviously an important piece of any support for the arts. There are untapped resources that we can tap if we create these new programs, and so there were different loan funds proposed. I’m hoping that it’ll continue to be an important guiding document and help guide how we think about culture in the city and cultural investments.

OT: Are there initiatives you’d like to pursue in the coming year that may not be on the public’s radar yet, but that you feel passionately about and would like to share?
AT: The thing I spend the most mental energy on is housing. It touches everybody. I’m trying to help have a two-way conversation. Everyone has their own housing story [so we are] thinking about how we use those stories and experiences to drive our analysis and to drive our policies. It’s clear that there’s a deep housing gap. We’re not producing the housing [that we need to] as a growing city. If in the next six months, we can do things to think about how to overcome that gap and bend the curve of housing and affordable housing production, I think that’s the biggest win we could have.

OT: What do you do for fun in DC when you aren’t working?
AT: It’s amazing to see the growth of the food scene. I have my food tracker. I track how many of the Michelin star restaurants that I’ve been to, and that’s fun. The biggest thing I do outside of the office is cycling. I love long rides and seeing the world, but I also love riding around the city – whether it’s on a Capital Bikeshare or my city bike. I love the theatre scene in DC. I’m a Woolly Mammoth subscriber. I love Fringe. I love that Fringe is growing and bringing a whole other crew of people and interest to theatre.

Stay in the loop with OP initiatives at www.planning.dc.gov and follow Director Trueblood on Twitter @atrueblood.

Photos: Trent Johnson

DC’s Mixed-Media Master Kelly Towles

“It’s like a cave in here. It’s quiet and dark, and I get to just go nuts. This is my world.”

Kelly Towles is giving a tour of his O Street lair. The mixed-media artist is completely at home, donning an all black outfit consisting of a POW! WOW! Shirt, black shorts and a backward cap, which makes him look like a retired skateboarder. His studio space is a candyland for artists; there are 3D printers carving away at black blocks of plastic, a brick wall mimicking DC alleyways carrying his takes on Japanese subway graffiti and a warehouse backroom with literally hundreds of spray paint canisters. In its corners you’ll find neatly shelved sculptures, hanging LED neon signs and unopened boxes of, presumably, art materials sitting on tables.

The homegrown DC creator spends six days a week here, bouncing from project to project, painting, sculpting, breaking, fixing, designing, thinking and, if there’s time, eating.

“There’s nobody that tells me what to do, besides my wife,” Towles says. “No one is saying make this or that. I come up with my own direction and my own drive, and it’s awesome, but it’s also very selfish. If I want to paint purple elephants for the rest of my life, that’s what I want to do, but I wouldn’t be able to do it without the support of my community.”

Towles references his relationship with the District multiple times over the course of an hour. This is not lip service. His murals decorate several corners of the city, for private and public entities. He’s the creative director for DC’s iteration of POW! WOW!, a two week mural fest every  May. If not for his relationship to the city where he initially dipped his toe in graffiti, he knows he wouldn’t have a studio of his own. He wouldn’t be traveling to Los Angeles for a gallery in November. He wouldn’t hop on a plane to Japan for inspiration. Hell, he might not even be an artist.

“I love DC. I really love the city. I love working here.”

Grafitti, Metal + Anime

Towles’ childhood years were spent in Australia, where he was surrounded by a desert landscape. Sitting on one of his black couches, he recounts influences from those early years: the slapstick silliness of Monty Python and anime characters like Astro Boy, but he was most captivated by metal music’s go-to illustrator Brian Schroeder, aka Pushead, known for his graphic depictions of cartoonish ghouls and iconic skulls.

“I think for me, the real intrigue where I remember art affecting my life was album covers,” Towles says. “His stuff really engaged me into that type of art. I was a weird kid anyways, it’s what I invested my time in. I was never doing sports or anything like that.”

In 1988, his family moved to DC. Fast forward a few years and you could find the teenage Towles spray painting buildings under the cover of darkness. Though he claims his first forays into street art were “terrible,” the concept of beautifying his new home with goofy characters via paint were unshakeable.

“[My career in art] happened organically,” Towles says. “When I was studying for my BFA at [the University of] Maryland, I’d always fall back to characters and spray paint, graffiti. I had a funny moment at my final show when a professor told me, ‘These are cute but they’ll never sell.’

That professor was wrong. After years of supplementing his art via bartending or graphic design gigs, so many people were pitching him projects and buying his work that eventually he had to make his craft his full time job, ie obsession.

“Working with Apple, NPR, the National Zoo, across the board, I’m having a ‘What the f–k? This is amazing’ feeling,” he says. “You have to kill yourself. You have to bust your ass. There’s no advice I can give other than bust your ass. Constantly work, because if you don’t, it shows. I have five shows coming up, and even if I didn’t, I’d make a show just so I’d have something to work toward.”

Experimentation + Implementation

Anyone can say “work hard” or “bust ass,” but these are so often overused catch phrases that don’t mean an iota without quantifiable evidence. However, when Towles throws these edicts around in his studio, it’s palpable. His work is tangible, physical and apparent. You can walk to several buildings in NoMa and literally peer up at giant pieces he’s had two hands in.

Before unboxing canvases, plugging tools or breaking down materials, he busts ass searching for a theme of inspiration. A through line that connects a series of sculptures or murals, an unmistakable fascination.

“It’s always a project on experimentation,” Towles says as he pulls out sculptures from a collection of boxes that were resting in a rolling crate. “Just attack. Come up with a narrative. A lot of young artists ask me how I do it, and I tell them to just pick one theme to build a show around. If you’re really into Golden Girls, go with that.”

A lot of artwork adorning walls on all sides in his studio are linked by his adoration for Japanese culture. Through a Crunchyroll subscription, visits to Singapore and China, and trips to Tokyo over the past four years, you can see the narrative Towles is fixated on. The sculptures he’s prepared for November’s Los Angeles show include Air Jordans made of ramen noodles, a take on Japanese manholes and a curry rice skull.

His spirited artwork has also garnered a reputation for him locally, allowing him to avoid solely relying on individual pieces to bring home the bacon. He’s been approached by bars, restaurants and corporate companies throughout the city, as clients are drawn to his unique thematics.

“I love it when people want my work,” Towles says. “It’s a hard line, there are commissions where people want me to do a luxury pattern, but what I’ll do is create a character to be enveloped by that pattern.”

The characters he’s referencing appear in a majority of murals, paintings and illustrations. Their appearance is what I can only describe as a cross between the Gorillaz cartoons fused with anime’s penchant for unbridled personification, each carrying features unique to Towles’ sensibilities as a creator.

“I try to keep my mind open about everything,” Towles says. “I know I’m not a photorealistic artist. I love playing to my strengths, which are sloppy, fast and positive.”

DC Embraces Street Art

“It was the wild, wild West,” Towles says, describing the city’s graffiti scene in the 90s. “I’m just happy to be a contributor. In the early 2000s, there were eight or nine galleries on 14th Street and you’d jump to like ten different shows. There’s always been an artsy community, but then the recession hit and it kind of dissipated a bit.”

Towles talks about DC’s scene with a gleam in his eye. It’s a point of pride for him to involve the city in any capacity when discussing art and the inspiration behind his works. The city has gone through ebbs and flows of triumph  and turmoil, but creatives will always inhabit the District.

“Public art and installations are on the rise, but to do those big giant pieces, you need investments,” Towles says. “It’s becoming more prevalent here because people have proven that it works. Think about the Beach exhibit at the Building Museum, it brought in droves of people.”

Early in his career, Towles collaborated with artist Jasper Wong, the founder of the first ever POW! WOW! in his native state of Hawaii. The 2011 festival built on public murals and installations proved a slam-dunk success, which allowed it to spread across the globe, from Tokyo to Taipei to DC, where Towles has pulled strings as creative director since 2014.

“It’s great because it’s accessible to everyone,” Towles says. “People know it’s there every year, people plan trips based around it. It blows my mind that people are willing to do that for murals.”

Planning for POW! WOW! is a year-round task, as securing spaces in NoMa and funding for each year’s diverse group of artists takes a tremendous amount of work. Like all concepts Towles attaches himself to, he busts his ass, grits his teeth and gets to work, all to contribute toward uplifting DC.

“Murals are visual messages, and nine times out of 10 if you put something shitty up there about death, doom and gloom, it’s not going to do it,” Towles says. “I want to do something that people will come back to. That’s a cool thing to make someone visually understand.”

To follow along with Towles creative exploits, visit www.kellytowles.com and follow him on social media @kellytowles. For more information about POW! WOW!, visit www.powwowworldwide.com.

Marlee Milton, Kelcie Glass and Nicole Garder // Photo: Trent Johnson

GIRLAAA Collective Provides Safe Space and Creative Platform for Black Women

The subtle nuances of pronunciation never cease to amaze me. I’m sitting across from Kelcie Glass, Nicole Garder and Marlee Milton as they take turns saying the colloquialism that inspired their collective’s name. “Girlaaa” is a common greeting in the District, one generally used to express excitement. But Glass quickly points out that it can also have a “Girl, chill” vibe with just the slightest variance in tone. 

And just like its name, GIRLAAA’s ethos follows suit. While chatting with one-third of the nine-piece group’s powerhouse of talented women at Eaton Hotel’s flagship restaurant American Son, it becomes quickly apparent to me that every action the collective takes is meant to champion women of color and their accomplishments – but also challenge them by digging into substantive content and getting real. 

Over the past year, GIRLAAA has expanded from throwing women-centric parties around the city to hosting 15 killer events including three activations at the Hirshhorn, creating a biweekly podcast recorded at Eaton and coworking space 202Creates, and growing their tightknit crew to include visual artists, DJs, producers, hosts, programmers and more. Each one-hour episode of the “1-800-GIRLAAA” podcast includes interviews with local luminaries and a DJ set highlighting edgy sounds from strong women. 

Glass, a marketing and outreach guru, Garder, an ethically sourced jewelry consultant and documentary filmmaker, and Milton, a full-time musician with an artist development side hustle, walked me through what the collective means to them, why supporting the area they grew up in is critical, and why smoking a joint with Rihanna would be lit.

On Tap: What was the evolution from events to the “1-800-GIRLAAA” podcast?
Nicole Garder: Dominique [Wells] was the creator of GIRLAAA, and she reached out to women in different creative spaces to come together. We started out as a party and then from that, we saw an even bigger need to give a platform to all women in creative spaces.
Kelcie Glass: Then the podcast was born from that. We were doing GIRLAAA activations. Eaton reached out to us before we even thought about doing a podcast and said, “Hey, we want GIRLAAA to do a podcast here.” Nicole had a lot of production [and] programming experience. I do too, and I can also host. Marlee can DJ and also host really well. We record in multiple spaces now, but it was born from being asked just based on the premise of the collective.

OT: What was your original goal in hosting the parties? Who did you want to bring together?
KG: It started as having a safe space for women, and we also wanted to highlight women of color who don’t always get a platform to show their talents. The party was cool but now we can do different interviews [and] live events with the podcast, [and have] real substantive conversations. Our most recent party was on the rooftop of Eaton for Women’s History Month, and that was crazy. 

OT: What percentage of your focus now is on the podcast versus hosting events?
NG: I would say we want to focus on both, with the emphasis on the podcast and doing live events. It’s really about engaging people online but also doing that in real life. 

OT: How do you pick the music for each episode?
Marlee Milton: Really, I just go with the vibe. I know our regular sets and parties are really centered around women in music and just that strong sound – like how Insecure has those really edgy, catchy, striking songs from women – that’s something I really try to hone in on. Just a good vibe, a good time. 

OT: What’s the creative process for picking your guests?
NG: It’s really figuring out what’s happening in our local community and then branching out toward the entertainment topics [affecting] women of color. That’s our target audience. We have different segments focusing on who is really inspiring us – women in power. It’s very important to use our platform to share with other people, and that’s also how we go about finding talent to [have] those deeper conversations.
KG: We hadn’t even started yet and [journalist and former Wizards cohost] Gia Peppers was like, “Yeah, I want to come on and do it.” We had Janea West [on the show]. She has this [DC-based] web series called Grown, which is really, really great. Nicole and I just went to Essence Fest where we popped up on Lena Waithe and AlunaGeorge. We’ll go where needed, especially if we have really great content. These women are huge right now. The concept is a good enough pitch for people to really engage with us.

OT: Any guests you’re dying to have on?
NG: People with big, expansive personalities and bringing those people to our local community, which is so important for me.
KG: I would say Tracee Ellis Ross [and] NAO. Obviously, Rihanna. I just want to smoke some weed with Rihanna and talk shit.
NG: Same. [laughs]
KG: I think she’d be down with the concept, too. That would be lit.
MM: I really want to speak to a lot of the independent women in the industry and a lot of the black pop and black punk artists [who are] women. I really want to get their perspective and process and experience.

OT: What about a local guest, maybe someone under the radar?
NG: I would love to have a conversation with April George of April + VISTA. I love the texture of her voice, but also she’s really focused on the issues that are happening in the DC space in terms of supporting creatives and what that really looks like.
KG: I’m leaning a little more political. I know some young women of color who are running for local office, but also national figures who are located here. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez follows us on Instagram because she saw our installation that included pieces of her by [visual artist, illustrator, animator and GIRLAAA member] Trap Bob. I would love to sit down with her and have a conversation. Also, I would like to bring the Mayor [on for a] women-centric conversation, but also just [to ask her] about what she thinks about the culture of DC right now and its trajectory and what we can do to build legislation around maintaining it. 


GIRLAAA MUST-HAVES
Great energy
Creative women in our circle
Tenacity
Bold personalities
Dedication to feminism
Love + appreciation for the native DMV culture


OT: What about event wish lists? What’s a space you think could really be a good platform or bring in the right people to highlight your mission?
KG: A lot of the spaces that we’ve been coming into have been to bring in this energy. They realize that they are lacking or have a void in terms of black women or creatives in their spaces. We are in talks with some major theaters right now. It’d be fun to do a podcast and then a party afterwards [at 9:30 Club].
NG: In the film sphere of things, definitely a screening, having those conversations with the directors.
NG: I would also love to do a women’s conference, specifically.
KG: A conference would be great. A women-centric one would be really cool – and regularly, annually. I would also want to venture into more of the political space. We’re potentially supporting a cannabis-centric event coming up in September that is about recreational cannabis, but also the business of that and how black and brown people get into those conversations. 

OT: What goals do you have for GIRLAAA – both the podcast and the scope of events – in the next year? Do you view it as more of a creative outlet or a transition to where you want to be full-time?
KG: We definitely want to travel more and connect with people in different cities. [And] more robust programming with larger artists. I think that’s feasible, it’s just the time and energy. [If we were] full-time, we could actually do more robust things and have these big artists come and do a whole weekend of events and things like that.
MM: I definitely see us being the go-to group for bringing our perspective and audience to events and programming in general. I really want to see a GIRLAAA festival. To me, all of us have come together for this mission and it’s full-time already even though we’re juggling so many things.
NG: That’s what I love most about the collective: if one person is there, we’re all there. 

OT: How did you come up with the name? What does it mean to each of you?
KG: Girlaaa is a slang in DC. Let Marlee say it.
MM: Girlaaa. It’s like, a greeting in a way.
KG: It can be a greeting. It’s basically like, “Girl, chill,” or “Girl, yes.” Either way, it depends on the context.
NG: It’s all about the tone.
KG: It depends on the context and the tone.

OT: What context and tone do you prefer?
MM: Excited, sisterly, hyping you up…
KG: I like the more questionable one. [All laugh] The GIRLAAA collective is definitely the hype energy one.

OT: What are some of your favorite things to do in DC when you’re not working or podcasting?
MM: Dance. I love to dance [at] U Street Music Hall, Eighteenth Street Lounge, Velvet Lounge, Cloak & Dagger, Sotto – so many places.
KG: I like to go to concerts [at] 9:30, Anthem, U Hall. I love concerts and music – very music-centric.
NG: I would say definitely concerts but also being one with nature. I spend a lot of time in Georgetown, so kayaking and paddleboarding.  

Listen to the “1-800-GIRLAAA” podcast at www.mixcloud.com/GIRLAAA. Learn more about GIRLAAA at www.domo.world/girlaaa and follow the collective on Instagram @girlaaa.world.

Photo: Trent Johnson

DC’s Honey Delivers Diverse Rock

Four years ago, three volunteers with Girls Rock! DC considered joining musical forces and forming a band. Karen Foote, Saman Saffron and Ebony Smith went on with their busy lives but reunited a year later at the organization’s afterparty to discuss the band. A mutual friend offered up a basement practice space, and the musicians who had long admired each other’s abilities from afar officially created Honey.

“It was kind of amazing,” says Foote, who plays guitar. “I think we were all on the dance floor at one point and the three of us were dancing and we were like, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s do this band thing.’”

Foote and her bandmates have been playing music in some capacity for most of their lives, but Girls Rock! DC brought their talents together. The music education organization “aims to create a supportive, inclusive and creative space for girls and non-binary and trans youth of varying racial, ethnic, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds, abilities, identities and experiences to develop their self-confidence, build community, rise up and rock out,” per their website. And for Honey, the experience led to the creation of new music.

The band draws from their varying backgrounds, experiences and personal tastes to create a brand of indie rock that’s powerful and relatable. Although the trio only has one EP, I’m Your Best Friend, Admit It, they cover everything from dealing with the eponymous “F–kboy” to romantic relationships. And the places from which they find inspiration are as wide-ranging as their lyrical subject matter.

“I feel like we all bring such different influences,” Foote says.

Vocalist and bassist Saffron echoes that sentiment, adding, “I think it’s funny sometimes, because we’re a pretty big span of ages and upbringings, but sometimes someone will start playing a song as a joke in band practice and we’re like, ‘Yeah. That’s awesome. Blink-182. When are we going to cover that?’”

Drummer Ebony Smith agrees.

“I think what really works well for us is that we just have different backgrounds and genres that we bring in and blend together. We can put them together and it just ends up being really cool. It’s something I really appreciate and enjoy.”

Outside of their time in Honey, the group’s daily work lives vary greatly. Foote is a videographer, Saffron works in nonprofit programming and Smith for an engineering firm. Busy schedules don’t keep them from their work in the band, though, and they emphasize the importance of taking time to nurture creative work outside of their professional lives.

“It can be challenging but rewarding to explore that creative outlet,” Smith says. “We all love music and we love what we do. But I think sometimes when people think about forming bands, they don’t think about the back end. It’s not just going out and playing music and partying and stuff like that. It takes a lot of work and a lot of communication. You have to think of everything that’s included in playing music with your friends.”

For Saffron, she’s found the right balance by treating band time as non-negotiable.

“Being like, ‘Well, [on] Tuesday night, this is what I’m doing,’” she says. “And also, voice memos are my best friend. With a couple of our songs, it’s been like, ‘Oh, I’m in the bathroom. I have a line idea. I’m just going to sing it right now into my phone. I’m going to put it away six months later. I need a bridge for this song that we’re working on. This will go well here.”’

Honey has had some memorable experiences throughout the time they’ve been together. Foote recalls playing the Black Cat’s anniversary show last year – a show she describes as one of the shortest they’ve played but one of the best, nonetheless. They also brushed elbows with the legendary Ted Leo while tuning in the back room as he was looking for a place to meditate.

“We were tuning [in the] dressing room and Ted Leo came in,” Saffron adds.

Foote continues, saying he was looking for a quiet space in the backstage area.

“He was like, ‘Hey, do you mind if I come in [and] sit here for a little bit?’ And we’re like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ But I think we were still too disruptive, so he left. And I had not yet been like, ‘Hi, I’m Karen.’”

Saffron laughs.

“We were like, ‘Wait, did we just strong-arm Ted Leo?’”

“But then we got to talk to him later and he was so nice,” Foote says. “That was my favorite.”

The band recalls the support they’ve received from their EP release show and the Girls Rock! DC community overall.

“Every experience that we’ve had has been someone who’s a few degrees of separation from Girls Rock! DC,” Saffron says. “Obviously, having been around for more than 10 years, it’s a big community.”

The band’s personal experiences speak to the necessity of the organization’s existence. The musicians lead by example, but hope the future looks different for up-and-coming musicians.

“It’s so rare that we play with a band that’s all girls, or trans folks or gender-expansive folks,” Saffron continues. “So often we’d show up and we’re like, ‘Hello, lineup of all dudes. Hello, lineup of predominantly white folks. Nice to see you.’ I don’t want young people to feel like they have to be perfect. I don’t want them to feel like they have to be experts in order to do something. People who see themselves reflected all the time are treated as individuals all the time.”

Foote concurs.

“I definitely feel that shows – especially because we are an all-female band. It’s like, ‘Oh, we have to super nail this’ or people are going to be like, ‘Look at this all-women band!’”

Saffron concludes with, “I would love for music programs like Girls Rock! DC to not even be necessary; for them to just be fun rather than being something that needs to happen, politically speaking.”

Honey plays Slash Run on Monday, July 22. For more information on Honey and to listen to their EP I‘m Your Best Friend, Admit It, visit www.honeymusicdc.bandcamp.com. Visit www.slashrun.com for more on the show.

Slash Run: 201 Upshur St. NW, DC; 202-838-9929; www.slashrun.com

Dwell // Photo: courtesy of Sofar Sounds

Sounds of the City: Outside the Music Box

Whether it’s go-go blasting from a street corner shop or jazz drifting up from a suburban basement, the energy of the creative spaces where music is produced sets the rhythm and determines the pulse that a city can become known for.

DC’s sound has shifted in waves over the decades, largely because the spaces where music is being made are continuously evolving. While the doors of most of the great jazz clubs that once lined U Street have closed and the back rooms and basements of punkdom are harder to come by, in 2019 there are more opportunities to hear live music than there have been in years. But it’s not necessarily the newly opened, traditional-style concert venues that are leaving their mark.

The emergence of brick-and-mortar spaces cared for by artist collectives – more intentional than DIY houses and more accessible than corporate clubs – are the places where the sounds of DC are generated today. And that sound is inextricable from an ethos of community participation in shared experience.

Rhizome DC takes physical shape in an early 20th-century house sitting just on the DC side of Takoma Park. Its founders established what is now a thriving 501(c)(3) after Pyramid Atlantic Art Center moved to Hyattsville and left a hole in the local arts community. The house draws its namesake from French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s concept: “Unlike trees or their roots, the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature.” That is, the space is built for multitudes of connections.

“Our main goal is to have lots of different things happening at the same time and nourish each other,” says Michael Smith-Welch, a member of the collective that keeps Rhizome running. “That’s what makes it exciting.”

The whiteboard schedule hanging in the kitchen marks events and shows every day and night of the month. As far as music goes, that means everything from jazz to experimental rock. In its first year, 600 acts came through the doors. Rhizome recently hosted the third annual installation of the Seventh Stanine Festival, a compilation of local musicians and accomplices like funk rockers Beauty Pill and instrumental ensemble Tone.

“A lot of those acts can’t play at the bigger places and it’s what we like: experimental,” Smith-Welch continues.

Rhizome is like a breathing machine – even the bathroom is converted into one big musical instrument. Strum any surface and the room emits an electronic feedback buzz in varying tones. It is also malleable to the needs of its community.

Beyond music, Rhizome offers workshops on fermentation, film and electronics, yoga classes, and an art lab for teens. While no one lives in the house, it does occasionally play host to resident artists, like the group of women who applied for a grant to have space to create while navigating new motherhood. An exhibition currently on display throughout the house is an installation of works from the Justice Arts Coalition, an organization that supports and sponsors incarcerated artists.

Across the city in the Trinidad neighborhood of Northeast DC, a back-alley carriage house is home to Dwell, an “off-grid creative space.” Like Rhizome, Dwell started as an alternative venue for local music when many others were shuttering doors or moving locations. And while it still caters largely to musicians, Dwell too has expanded with the energy of its community.

With no official address and printed maps given to event hosts for distributing to attendees, organizer Hannah Bernhardt says people are already jazzed when they arrive for the first time because they’ve had to interact with the neighborhood in a way they’re not used to just to find the space. Once they do, there is more whimsy in navigating the space itself.

“You get to journey through all of the levels of what happens here,” Bernhardt says. “On the first floor, there is a garage and a boat and evidence of woodworking projects [not to mention a pool table from Black Cat’s renovation days], and you go to the second floor and there’s music happening and the lights are flickering, and then you go up to the roof where there is a garden and a fishpond.”

The fishpond is a cistern of collected water used for the rooftop garden, a gathering spot for people to socialize between musical sets. It was all built out by hand by volunteer members in the community.

Dwell’s programming is managed by Bernhardt and Holly Herzfeld, childhood friends who grew up in the area. They strive to create a space that is welcoming for both the musicians who frequent and anyone who happens to find their way into Dwell.

“There’s a sensitivity and an openness that happens that’s really amazing,” Bernhardt says. “I often hear people say, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this, but it feels like home.’”

Her father David Bernhardt, who owns the physical building, adds, “People who return over a number of visits have a deeper, richer understanding of what’s going on.”

Someone who comes for a show with friends might return alone for a yoga class. This past May’s Dyke Fest drew hundreds of first-timers and familiars alike.

“We are trying to guide the way that space interacts with people,” Bernhardt’s father continues, “to value all the individual groups, tribes and circles that is the Venn diagram of our city and then bring them together. And this becomes Dwell. It’s especially important while Washington is changing again, and so dramatically, that we can set the tone for what is the culture [and] the music in the city and the vibe.”

Hole in the Sky (HITS) DC is another artist collective that congregates in an off-the-beaten-path performance and studio space. Unlike Rhizome and Dwell, however, HITS’ mission is a little more geared toward the needs of artists rather than visitors.

Though iterations of HITS have existed for about a decade, the collective’s current form really began to take shape about five years ago when a few artists set up studio space in the lofted building on the edge of Brookland that actually feels like a literal hole – not in the wall, but in the sky.

Annmarie Dinan Hansen is one of the lead organizers at HITS, which she describes as a “very fluid space,” one given to the “wants of those who are invested most in it” – a.k.a., those paying for the lease on the building. For Hansen, who has a punk background, that means a focus on punk music and “facilitating art forms that are underrepresented performance-wise.”

“We’re constantly navigating what it can and should be,” Hansen says.

That navigation hasn’t come without its challenges.

“There was a time when it had a reputation as not a particularly safe space for women,” notes Hansen, a vibe she hopes is changing. “We’ve been having a lot of events.”

HITS hosts a variety of collaborative gatherings, exhibitions for juried art shows, and other collectives and individuals in need of space to make, display and be inspired by art.

Conner Casey, a woodworker, folk musician and current HITS member, says that in addition to performance, the space is crucial for working artists.

“[This] can’t even exist as anything other than DIY,” he says. “It needs to be used as an arts space.”

Despite the enthusiasm of the communities that they build and serve, the “out-of-the-box” and “under-the-radar” nature of spaces like Rhizome, Dwell and HITS does not make them immune to developers’ dreams. Rhizome’s landlords, for example, own the Starbucks down the street and have visions of condos replacing the rickety white house on the hill.

But one thing is certain: DC needs these spaces. In them, music is binding force and a natural backdrop to the multitudes of expression that they foster. The subtle undertone of the sound they release seems to be: our city’s arms are open…come create with us.

Dwell: alley behind the 1200 block of Florida  Avenue in NE, DC (between Montello and  Trinidad Streets); www.dwelldc.info
Hole in the Sky DC: 2110 5th St. Unit 2, NE, DC; www.holeintheskydc.com
Rhizome DC: 6950 Maple St. NW, DC; www.rhizomedc.org


Support the Scene

A slew of small “official” venues around town also give lots of love to local bands. You can stumble into one of the following spots on pretty much any night of the week and likely catch an up-and-coming musical act.

Comet Ping Pong
Comet has been serving pizza and wicked backhands since 2006. It has also hosted thousands of live shows. Don’t miss local faves Park Snakes on July 15. 5037 Connecticut Ave. NW, DC; www.cometpingpong.com

Dew Drop Inn
Dew Drop is the hippest little train track hideaway in town. They just celebrated their fourth anniversary with a whiskey fountain and free hot dog bar. Don’t miss the triple threat of Lightmare, Dot.s (ATL) and Erotic Thrillers on July 11. 2801 8th St. NE, DC; www.dewdropinndc.com

Marx Café
If you dig jazz, blues, DJs and the Revolution, get your Commie ass to Mt. P’s Marx Cafe. 3203 Mt. Pleasant St. NW, DC; www.marxcafemtp.com

Pie Shop
The folks running Pie Shop are local musicians themselves, so they know what’s up. Plus, you can order sweet and savory pies from Dangerously Delicious downstairs and enjoy the rooftop patio between sets. 1339 H St. NE, DC; www.pieshopdc.com

The Pinch
14th Street feeling a little too posh these days? Head to the Pinch, go down to the basement lounge and revel in a good, old-fashioned punk show. 3548 14th St. NW, DC; www.thepinchdc.com

Slash Run
Named “best neighborhood joint” in 2018, their slogan kind of says it all: beer, burgers, rock ‘n’ roll. 201 Upshur St. NW, DC; www.slashrun.com

Photo: Trent Johnson

SHAED Rise To The Top Together

The path to making it in music has never been linear. In the social media age, it’s become a bit cleaner – blog support, streaming and ravenous music fans on the Internet rallying behind you can quickly take an artist out of local obscurity and into the national spotlight. For DC’s SHAED, an electro-pop trio formed in 2016, a combination of almost every success marker in music of the past 20 years brought them to where they are now.

In the literal sense, they’ve joined On Tap outside the LINE Hotel in Adams Morgan on a sunny spring day. The trio of vocalist Chelsea Lee and twin brothers and multi-instrumentalists Max and Spencer Ernst arrived with all their gear in tow, and after our interview were straight off to New York. While radio play, streaming support and a strong fanbase all tangibly factored into their meteoric rise to success with only EPs and singles released, it’s their sheer hustle and willpower to make it in an industry constantly changing and challenging them that’s perhaps the key factor in their ascension.

“The last six months, we’ve been on a headlining tour,” Lee says. “We did a lot of radio promo, we’re working on an album and we’ve been writing a ton. It’s been really, really great. Obviously, the Apple commercial lifted off a bunch of things for us.”

The Apple commercial in question wasn’t even just an Apple commercial. When the new MacBook Air debuted at the end of 2018 at the annual Apple summit, SHAED’s song “Trampoline” soundtracked CEO Tim Cook’s unveiling. An artist’s song appearing as a sync in these iconic commercials is a badge of honor after the brand established itself as a musical tastemaker in the early 2000s. With this kind of exposure, doors begin to open – and quickly. But the band didn’t even know when to expect the change.

“Like nine months ago, Apple reached out to us because they were interested in using ‘Trampoline,’” Max explains. “We got them all the files, but then didn’t really hear anything for months. Two weeks before the commercial actually aired, they reached out and said, ‘We’re going to use your song.’  They didn’t tell us what it was for, and they didn’t tell us until that day. So the day everyone else saw the commercial was they day we saw it, too.”

“Tim Cook did the announcement in Brooklyn and I was like, ‘Let’s just livestream this and we’ll see what’s going on,” Lee adds. “Spencer and I were in the car driving, Max was at home and I just put it on. And Tim Cook goes, ‘Aaaaand the MacBook Air!’ I said to Spencer, ‘Wouldn’t it be so funny if our song came on?’ and it did. Spencer and I had to pull over and scream.”

“Trampoline” is a perfect introduction to the band’s polished, haunting pop sound. Its lyrics could even serve as an ethos to another thing that’s made the band so successful – their connection to one another. Friends for many years while pursuing other musical endeavors – Lee as a solo artist and twin brothers Max and Spencer as alt-folk band The Walking Sticks – their relationships eventually blossomed into the band as it exists today. Lee and Spencer are married, and the three live together and have a palpable bond evident in person and in their music.

The chorus in “Trampoline” is the somewhat wistful, “When I dream of dying // I never felt so loved.” Spencer says it’s all about embracing your worst fears and finding joy in what terrifies you. To be able to write a lyric this heavy, the people around you must love you very much. It’s clear this is the case for each member of the band. Their incredibly deep bond goes beyond allowing them to make great music; it allows them to embrace the unknown in all aspects of their lives, no matter how frightening.

The trio works on music from a studio in their shared home. They’re the first to admit that spending so much time together, even outside of recording or touring, would be less than ideal for many musicians. But from the outside, it’s clear it’s given them an edge.

“Our routine is to get up in the morning, eat breakfast and go right into the studio,” Lee says. “Over the years, we’ve gotten more comfortable with each other. We’ve been able to work through problems. Getting to know each other is such a complex thing and then on top of that, living together and spending so much time together…”

“It’s a unique dynamic, for sure,” Max says, finishing Lee’s thought. “I’m sure it wouldn’t work for a lot of people. But we just love making music together. Financially, too, it’s great.”

Spencer notes that, “There are times, clearly, when you spend so much time together you get on each other’s nerves.”

“But we give each other our space,” Lee continues. “It works out great for us. We’re traveling all the time now. We definitely get on each other’s nerves. But we also definitely know how to handle it and work smoothly through things.”

In addition to the support they provide each other, their native DC is also essential to SHAED’s success. They credit local outlets, venues and fans for their early successes, and for still following closely as they enjoy their newfound mainstream notoriety.

“It’s not a huge scene, but it’s very tightknit,” Max says of their experiences at home. “If you’re making cool music here, there’s ways to be seen and there’s an audience for it. People still come out to shows – even if you’re not on a huge headlining run around the country – people still come out and support local artists.”

This summer sees the band off to a whole host of amazing new endeavors including sets at festivals like Japan’s Fuji Rock, BottleRock in Napa Valley and Lollapalooza. With tons of material in their arsenal, the trio is in the process of putting together a new album and aiming for a fall release and subsequent tour. All of these events will surely invite new fans into their intimate sonic world, but in the meantime, they’re leaning on each other as things continue to evolve.

“Being a musician and being in this world is so hard,” Lee says as she puts one arm around each Ernst brother, and they lean into her. “To have this constant support – these people that you can rely on and trust and feel at home with – is huge for us. These two are the kindest people in the whole world. It’s really nice to have that family vibe.”

SHAED play DC101 Kerfuffle on Sunday, May 19 at Merriweather Post Pavilion. Tickets start at $55. Gates open at 4 p.m. and the show begins at 4:30 p.m. For more on the event, visit www.dc101.iheart.com. For more on SHAED, visit www.shaedband.com.

Merriweather Post Pavilion: 10475 Little Patuxent Pkwy. Columbia, MD 410-715-5550; www.merriweathermusic.com

Photo: Rey Lopez

Game-Centric Bars Offer Next-Level Experiences

With a reputation for attracting the Type A working crowd, DC is a hardworking town deserving of a well-needed break from time to time. Enter bars with plenty of distractions in the way of arcade games, social sports and communal entertainment that also provide elevated dining experiences over the typical pub grub. In the past year, the city has seen a wave of bar openings that go beyond the usual food and drink offerings whether they be sport, arcade games, or providing a place to gather and unplug from the 9-5 grind.

DC newcomer SPIN recently opened its eighth location a hop, skip and a jump away from Metro Center, a hub for the downtown working crowd. Malin Pettersson, SPIN’s grand opening manager, reflects on what makes the ping-pong club an attractive destination for District denizens.

“You have to disconnect a little bit after work,” Pettersson says. “Everyone is so busy doing big, important jobs. SPIN is a place where you can really disconnect. We’re in the basement too, so you kind of have to disconnect.”

An oasis from the burdens of office life, the social sport club is an ideal refuge.

“When you play [ping pong], you can’t really focus on anything else but the ball,” he continues. “You can’t think about your issues at work or what you have to do. You just have to let go and watch that ball. I think that’s something that DC needs: a place to disconnect.”

At its core, SPIN is all about offering a place to create relationships on a personal, individual level.

“I think it’s great that [we] don’t want to sit still and want to have an activity, because it’s so much easier to connect with people that way.”

Beyond the escape aspect, SPIN offers an easy environment for folks to let loose and connect over an elevated bar menu and brews.

“Our chef is Filipino so he’s putting a little bit of an Asian twist on some of the items there and it’s been very well-received.”

Notable menu items include the fried chicken banh mi and crispy shrimp bao buns.

The Eleanor in NoMa is another bar raising the game when it comes to menu offerings and entertainment. When owner Adam Stein took the menu into consideration, he focused on comfort foods with some seasonal twists.

“We try to be super eclectic,” he says. “Even though a lot of our stuff falls into the bar category, we make as much as we possibly can in-house.”

Inspiration for some dishes came from the kitchen’s collective history of working together (think elote loco-style hush puppies or whimsical dishes from Stein’s childhood like the spaghetti sandwich.

“It was really important to us to elevate the food, the drinks and the service.”

Another important factor in his decision-making process? Keeping a sense of DC authenticity on the menu. 

“We definitely made sure we involved a lot of the local producers. A lot of our spirits [and beers] are from DC, Maryland and Virginia. In terms of food, we try to be seasonal, so we use a lot of local purveyors.”

Branded as a bowling lounge, bar and grill, The Eleanor caters to a multitude of crowds. No matter who walks in the doors, the mini-bowling lanes, arcade games and pinball machines ensure that anyone and everyone will have a good time.

Players Club on 14th Street offers an approachable cocktail program with throwback games in an environment where guests can have a “laid-back and entertaining time at the bar.”

“The venue works cohesively as a bar, a place to watch sports and an entertainment venue with plenty of options,” says director of operations Scott Herman.

Guests mostly fall into the category of “young professionals to bar and restaurant industry friends that stop by on their night off,” according to Herman. Although the retro basement bar doesn’t offer its own food menu, patrons can have items delivered from nearby Shake Shack.

“People love being able to order Shake Shack without having to leave the bar.”

At the end of the day, it all comes back to building an authentic connection.

“It’s been interesting to see how much people enjoy the games,” Herman notes. “We see lots of couples on dates – having games to play is an easy icebreaker for people that are just getting to know each other.”

Learn more about these game-centric bars below.

The Eleanor: 100 Florida Ave. NE, DC; www.eleanordc.com
Players Club: 1400 14th St. NW, DC; www.playersclubdc.com
SPIN: 1332 F St. NW, DC; www.wearespin.com


Game-Filled Watering Holes

Looking for a quick escape with friends? Whether you live in DC proper or across the bridge, the surrounding areas have plenty to offer in the way of social activities and fun distractions to take you away from the daily grind.

Bar Elena
Adam Stein also co-owns the H Street spot focused on eclectic comfort food (think fancy nachos topped with cotija, radish and black bean puree and General Tso’s wings), local shellfish, and a seasonal cocktail program with diversions that come in the form of pinball machines, skee-ball and classic video games like Ms. Pac-Man. Rounding out the bar’s offerings are two happy hours to draw in the after work and late-night crowds. 414 H St. NE, DC; www.barelenadc.com

The G.O.A.T.
The Arlington sports bar is home to 50-plus HD TVs to catch all the live sports action, plus a gaming lounge complete with the newest arcade games and throwback favorites like shoot-to-win basketball and skee-ball. Snack on next-level bar food such as filet mignon skewers, bulgogi wonton tacos and pastrami egg rolls. 3028 Wilson Blvd. Arlington, VA; www.thegoatva.com  

Jackie Lee’s
Brightwood Park’s Jackie Lee’s has fun on the forefront of its bar offerings. Patrons of the neighborhood spot can partake in vintage arcade games while chowing down on comfort pub fare like bacon-wrapped jalapeños and knocking back cold brews. Communal tables, Art Deco décor and an assortment of throwback games add to the social bar experience. 116 Kennedy St. NW, DC; www.jackieleesdc.com

Kraken Axes
What better way to let loose than by satisfying the primeval urge to hurl axes? The indoor axe-throwing haven recently relocated to Penn Quarter where guests can take a less traditional route to bar games. Throw back some brews while throwing axes and order up beer, wine at the bar and small plates from Kraken’s next-door neighbor Cedar Restaurant.
840 E St. NW, DC; www.krakenaxes.com

Pizzeria Paradiso Game Room
The local pizza chain’s Georgetown location debuted its game room early last year. The basement bar’s walls are splashed with colorful murals and it’s filled with familiar games like pinball, shuffle ball and skee-ball in addition to a rotating list of popular arcade games. As one can expect from Pizzeria Paradiso, the beer offerings are on point with 60 cans and eight taps featuring rotating craft brews. 3282 M St. NW, DC;
www.eatyourpizza.com/game-room

Punch Bowl Social
An adult playground of sorts, Arlington’s barcade features 25,000 square feet of restaurant, games, outdoor patio space and social activities galore. At the tri-level entertainment destination, guests can take part in all kinds of amusements including karaoke, bocce, bowling, table games (think Giant Scrabble, ping pong, billiards and foosball) and arcade favorites. Bar offerings include plenty of shareable items like sheet nachos and green chorizo fries to go along with boozy punch (of course), craft brews and signature cocktails. 4238 Wilson Blvd.  Arlington, VA; www.punchbowlsocial.com/location/arlington