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Iron Cages // Photo: Farrah Skeiky

With “Present Tense,” Photographer Farrah Skeiky Brings DC’s Vibrant Music Scene to the Front

If you’ve been to a punk, DIY, or house show recently, you might have been in the midst of local creative and photographer Farrah Skeiky. Her list of accomplishments runs long, and the common thread between them all is a devotion and dedication to DC’s famed music scene as it currently exists. Born of a desire to share that this city is as vibrant as ever when it comes to music and creativity, Skeiky’s first solo exhibition, Present Tense, opens at Transformer on January 18. To get to the heart of her work, which is at once a celebration and a call to action, On Tap spoke to Skeiky about her process and the progress she hopes drawing attention to live music in the District will bring.

On Tap: Present Tense is your first solo exhibition, and on your site it said the exhibition aims to “fight… the notion that this section of DC counterculture exists solely in the past.” As a music photographer, when did you first catch wind that there was an idea that counterculture was a thing of the past?
Farrah Skeiky: I love shooting all kinds of music. One of my favorite shows I shot this year was Lizzo. In 2018 I shot Blood Orange – obviously there’s a lot of national acts that I really, really love. But people kind of know and herald DC as a very important place to when it comes to music, but people really talk about it in the past tense, right? They talked about Minor Threat, Fugazi, and Bad Brains – all important bands. I’m never going to disagree about that.

And their contribution to music is obviously great, especially in punk music and the culture around it. Conversations about straight edge, veganism, benefit shows – all that stuff is really important, but it’s still going and it never really stopped. So for me, highlighting the bands and the people that are part of the present tense, where it gets its name from – this concept of people talking about DC as a place that used to have really cool bands and used to have really cool shows. And I was standing there talking to people who are saying these things, and I’m thinking, “But I was just at a great show last night, where three out of the four bands were local bands that are currently active or are in all these big bands currently playing reunions.”

I hate when people talk about this place in the past tense, when I’m in the middle of it and it’s active and it’s vibrant and people from all over the city bring all sorts of different stuff to the table. 

OT: What proved, to you personally, that it was alive and well? Was it a specific moment or a culmination of your experiences?
FS: [It] as kind of just a culmination [of everything]. I moved from Seattle to the Maryland suburbs [when] I was 15 and that’s not a fun move, to go from a very cool city to the suburbs. You’re kind of just getting into who you are and how you can use the world around you at that age. [So I] moved across the country, from one Washington to another. I really was not excited, but knowing that DC had this rich history that was still very much active, with really great independent music shows, all ages [and] culture, which is not common in a lot of cities – that was really important to me.

I feel like I watched it from afar, just like a lot of other people do in this country who are excited about punk music, but you don’t always realize it when you get there and [can] be part of it. So it wasn’t one specific [moment]. I think it was just, I realized I was going to more and more local shows and I was really excited about all of these local bands and what they were doing and I’m like, “well these are the bands I want to be taking more photos of.”

OT: Did you get exposed to photography and the local scene as a teenager in the suburbs of Maryland or was that something that happened as your career progressed?
FS: I never really thought that photography would play such a large part in my life. I got a camera when I was 16. I got my Canon Rebel XS. I was already engaged with art in school and playing music. I’ve played in jazz band and orchestra, and I thought that that was going to be how I engaged with music, by playing it in that class. It wasn’t really until my friends’ bands were playing something like the rec center or in a battle the bands [where] I was like, “I’ll bring my camera,” and or my friends said, “It would be cool if you brought your camera.” Live photos were always more interesting to me than any still one. I can capture people in that emotion and kind of show you how it felt to be there, rather than just tell you – I’m not good at words. I would rather show you how it felt to be there than tell you. That’s what I got really excited about. So it was probably 17 or 18 when I really started becoming excited about music photography.

OT: I’m guessing you had a rather large amount of photos to sift through for inclusion in this exhibition what criteria did you apply to capture this goal?
FS: It’s really hard because there’s a Present Tense book that’s coming out in February and that’s a couple photos of…almost every DC the band I’ve captured over the last five or six years. And that’s that book. The show was really hard, because it’s 16 pieces, I didn’t want to repeat bands and I wanted to get kind of a wide range. There are some from 2015 and 2017, and the most recent photo is from about three months ago. 

I didn’t want it to just be hardcore bands, and didn’t want it to just be photos of singers, because it’s very easy to catch [them] because they’re moving around the most. I tried to shoot photos of every member of the band when I’m shooting a show, so everybody has a photo of themselves. There’s also like, not just straight forward hardcore punk bands in there, but also bands that are more DIY or indie rock as well.

I wanted a little bit of genre diversity and having a kind of range. This isn’t just photos from 2019, there are photos from like 2015, when I really started shooting punk in DC more seriously. Before I was doing that, I was on and off the house photographer rotation for IMP for a long time and I kind of consciously made the decision to say, “Okay, I’m going to step back from that a little bit and focus more on local bands.” 

OT: Any particular favorites that are part of the exhibition you’d like to share?
FS: There’s kind of a lead photo that I have as part of this show. I think it was at Damaged City Fest, of this band called Sem Hastro. So in the photo, the one guy is choking the other guy. I love that photo because I feel like it’s a great little encapsulation of what DC punk and DIY has been in the past few years. Both of those people in the photo came to DC from other countries and participated in the punk culture here. 

Sem Hastro // Photo: Farrah Skeiky

So [in the photo,] the one doing the choking came from Japan was studying art at the Corcoran for four years. His band is still active, on and off, where he still lives in Japan, but he comes back to DC when they tour the States. The person singing came to DC because DC punk bands were playing in Brazil, and kind of made this super group of some of the Brazilian punks and some of the DC punks. The transient nature of DC is sometimes not the worst thing in the world. All these bands still have an impact here, these people still have an impact here. They’re still part of it, even though they’ve gone back to Brazil to Japan. They still made their mark and their contribution to it, so that’s one of my favorites. 

There’s also one crowd photo in there that I really love. My roommate is in it, and everybody’s expressions were just very sincere. Some of them are a little bit goofy. We’ve all had photos where we’re like,  “Damn, that’s what I looked like at that show? That’s the face I was making?” and there’s humor in it. Like you can’t take yourself super seriously in that moment when you look ridiculous.

OT: What do you hope those who view your exhibition gain from it?
FS: I want people to know that this is something happening right now. When people have this idea that punk and DIY is something that used to happen here, [and] when people were making important decisions about development and changing neighborhoods and changing venues and people access spaces and content, what your barrier of entry is, they’re not considering [music] because they’ve got it in their heads that it used to happen here. If it doesn’t happen anymore, they’re not making room for it. The reason that scenes and communities – two different things – can struggle in a city like DC is because they’re not getting enough support because they’re not being taken seriously.

That’s a big part of it. Smaller venues close, bigger developers come in, and the nature of it changes who’s controlling the booking of bands in the city. A lot of stuff is happening. Even smaller venues will book through Live Nation, which is so trippy to me. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but in the context of this, that means that a lot of local folks who have been here and are actively doing this thing [and] are left out of the conversation, because people are not doing their homework and realizing these people exist.

It’s hard, and we kind of need to shout our existence a little bit more so that we can maybe be part of this conversation, so we’re not constantly looking for a space and not having space to make things happen. We’re also like resilient folks. So if the show needs to happen in a house, our show needs to happen in a house. We’ll figure it out. We’re not gonna stop doing what we’re doing just because the new development and new DC isn’t making way for us. We’ll find a way. But wouldn’t it be cool if people knew we were here and supported our existence?

Present Tense runs through February 29 at Transformer, Wednesday through Saturday from 12-6 p.m. and by appointment. Skeiky’s work featured in the show is also up for sale. Her book Present Tense: DC Punk and DIY, Right Now will be released on February 22. For more on the exhibition and its programming, visit here.

Transformer: 1404 P St. NW, DC; www.transformerdc.org

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

Dropkick Washington

What better way to get into the spirit of St. Patty’s Day than to start your celebrations off with Dropkick Murphys? The boys from Boston will be stopping by The Anthem Saturday, March 10, exactly one week before St. Patrick’s Day.

Dropkick Murphys are touring in support of their newest album, 11 Short Stories of Pain & Glory, which was released through Born & Bred Records, the band’s own label. The record was released January 6 and has since garnered positive reviews for its anthemic, raucous Celtic punk. Those descriptors may sound a little old hat for DKM, but the approach which the band took to making this record is what makes this album standout from their discography otherwise.

In 2009, Ken Casey founded The Claddagh Fund. Ken Casey is the DKM frontman and the fund supports those recovering from addictions as well as veterans programs and youth and mentoring programs. The songs off 11 Short Stories of Pain & Glory were inspired by the various people Casey and the band connected with through The Claddagh Fund.

This includes: “Rebel With a Cause,” which was inspired by kids written off by the system; “Paving My Way,” which is about the path to recovery from addiction and “4-15-13,” which is an ode to the victims of the Boston Bombing.

There is a sense of pride and hope with this new album that leaves the listener with the feeling that you can rise above your circumstances to overcome the struggles in life. “4-15-13” is the last track on the record and though, again, it was written in deference to the victims of the Boston Bombing, it speaks to everyone: it doesn’t matter who you are, “we’re all just people trying to make our way…”

The following photos were taken by Shantel Mitchell Breen at a DKM show earlier this year:

Ken Casey and Tim Brennan

Ken Casey and Tim Brennan

image1

Al Barr

Al Barr

If you have not yet picked up your tickets for this show, visit www.theanthemdc.com. These boys never disappoint. You can listen to their new record on Spotify, iTunes and YouTube. The show is Saturday, March 10 at The Anthem. Doors are at 6 p.m. Tickets start at $35.

The Anthem: 901 Wharf St. SW, DC; 877-435-9849; www.theanthemdc.com