By Alex Tebeleff
Hey everyone, my name is Alex and this column is called DC DIT. I find the DIT mantra of Do It Together exemplifies more of what I hope my participation in the DC music scene will contribute as opposed to Do it Yourself. My goal is to connect people with creative ideas and interests and help grow a scene that features a remarkable amount of intelligent and talented musicians.
For the next group of DC DIT columns, I’m going to interview musicians from DC, or musicians related to DC in some significant way.
First up, this interview features Ramtin Arablouei from the DC band Drop Electric, who also performs under solo under the name Dullard. Drop Electric makes a powerful take on post-rock. It’s cinematic and epic sound is created by a group of people from diverse ethnic, class, and cultural backgrounds. Their live show also smartly incorporates visual elements that really make it feel like a performance.
What do you think about your role in the DC music scene?
First, I want to say that I can only speak for myself in this article. The other members of the project I’m in don’t necessarily agree with my opinions on DC music. In fact, they’ll probably laugh at this interview.
I just feel like I’m another band in the scene. I want to help as much as I can to grow the scene. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now. Also, I’m a music lover first. I feel like a music consumer before a musician in many ways.
I want to play a very positive role in the DC music scene. I try to connect and befriend artists I like. The group I’m in has been lucky enough to get on a great label, licensing firm, and receive national press attention. I really want to be a part of the burgeoning DC scene and help other artists make noise nationally. We have so much good music here that there is no reason we can’t catch the attention of more people around the country. I’m constantly looking for opportunities to help other artists.
I love the DC music scene, but I haven’t always felt welcome in it. Other bands haven’t always been super friendly to my band. So many bands have big-timed us at gigs or even talked shit about us on stage to the audience!
I don’t know, that has always felt weird. We play with other people all the time, and we are always down to share gear, and do whatever we can to make it a great show for everyone. You know, a collaborative effort. There has been a bunch of cases where other folks didn’t seem to share that goal. When you are playing local shows, it should be a group of bands. No headliner, no opener. Until you get to the point that you are selling out big venues on your own, be humble. Stay in your lane.
I love bands like The Sea Life and Young Rapids, they are laid back, it’s all about the music for them, and sharing a good time with people. I actually don’t know them that well, but that’s the vibe I get every time I’ve played with them or interacted with them. That’s what I want to see more of.
I’ve seen a lot of bands that I’ve really liked and been surprised by recently. Drop Electric is now moving to rehearse at the DIY space The Fold in Rockville. I recently saw Bearshark and Golden Looks there. We were blown away by these kids. They were incredible. Precise, mathy, prog in a lot of ways, but a lot of soul and heart too.
What do you think of the DIY scene in DC right now?
It is interesting that many of the DIY venues are popping up at the same time as corporate development is increasing. It’s usually the opposite. The city should guarantee more space for artists, and include that in deals with developers. In Baltimore they have designated art spaces that come out of community benefit agreements with developers. Why can’t we do that in DC? It needs to be built in the long term, it’s tough to raise a family, and be an artist or run a DIY venue. We need more long-term spaces. Look how many spaces have closed in DC because of complaints from neighbors.
But, ultimately, the strength of any DIY scene comes from its people. Right now, there are a lot of people taking on a leadership role and helping bands build from the ground up. This is so amazing to see!
I think one issue we are going to have moving forward are demographic changes. The city is having a large influx of affluent residents move in. And often this development means a war on the working class people of the city. Developers are gobbling up land and turning them into grand experiments in modern, wealthy, urban living. This not only impacts cost of living but it brings in residents that aren’t necessarily eager to go to someone’s basement to see a show. DIY scenes in other cities are in high demand. Young, artistic, ambitious, and usually not very wealthy residents fuel the scene. Right now, DC has that to some extent. But if the city government doesn’t step up to protect affordable housing and to ensure that development is done in an inclusionary and not exclusionary way we could be in trouble. Musicians and artists could play an active role in fighting for social justice in the city. The government should really understand we demand a different kind of development that does not push out working class residents and makes space for the arts to flourish.
I think overall the way the scene is going is a totally a positive thing. There’s more venues, more places to play for people who are coming up. I’m really happy with the way the scene is developing. I just wish that there was a more diverse presentation of the bands in the city from the press.
What’s your feeling on music journalism in DC?
I have a selfish beef with the DC music journalism scene, because a lot of my favorite acts in this city and a lot of my own projects have been frozen out of, or treated badly by the local press in the city, and I don’t understand why. I don’t have a ton of experience as a musician in the scene, I started working in DC as a sound engineer, and Drop Electric has only been around for about four years. I just didn’t pay attention before to the music writing before.
But now, my frustration is that a lot of the bands that are held up as the best bands by the local press are bands that all sound similar, look the same, are friends with the same people, and that frustrates me because there are groups like Laughing Man, or Black Hills, that are some of my, and a lot of other people’s, favorite bands, but don’t seem to get the proper recognition. I can’t figure out why this is the case. Are the acts I like not in the “in-crowd”? Are they making music that is too challenging? Are they not pre-packaged enough?
I guess I just prefer music that’s a little weird and original, and the local press doesn’t like that. Why? You aren’t Pitchfork. You can write about challenging, original music in a positive way.
For example, the City Paper recently put out a staff picked list of bands from DC that people outside of DC are paying attention to nationally, and someone asked me, why isn’t Drop Electric on the list? Drop Electric released a record on a national label, was well received by national press and European press, our music was featured in a major Hollywood movie trailer. In that article, they are basically implying that bands not included in their list are not being paid attention to outside of DC. Well, for the most part, that’s just false. They intimate that they have done research and that somehow their list is definitive. Forget my band, we are relatively small time. If their list is definitive then why isn’t Red Gold Green, who are signed to a major label and touring the country, on that list? What about SOJA, who are from NOVA, and are selling out big venues all over the country? Somehow Deleted Scenes isn’t on that list? Deleted Scenes has been a band for 10 years, have gotten amazing reviews in Pitchfork and other national publications and they didn’t follow the trends of the current times. Is that not enough of an accomplishment in itself to end up on that list? Or what about awesome up and coming acts like ACME or Chomp Chomp. None of these acts end up on “top acts to watch” list? It doesn’t make any sense.
And what about Outputmessage? He put out one of the best electronic albums in the past year or two. It got a good review in the City Paper, but beyond that, I feel like not enough people have really picked up on it. There are so many people in DC, and beyond, who would love his album if they just had the opportunity to know about it. If these diverse acts were presented for the local audience, I believe the audience would grow and become more interested in local music.
Ultimately, these “best of” lists are either trolling for clicks or written by people who are uninformed. The average person reads these articles, the person who isn’t in the scene and doesn’t pay attention regularly, and then thinks that somehow the author has authority on this subject. When in reality, the publication is probably just putting out a quick list that is based entirely on a perception developed through their larger community of friends versus doing research and forming a list that actually includes all of the nationally successful DC bands.
Well, what can be done? I think our press should really support the most original, challenging, and creative music. In Baltimore, the press loves that unconventional bands like Future Islands, Wye Oak, Dan Deacon, or Animal Collective [that] are successful, and supports them. Why isn’t that the case here?
I’m not trying to pick on the City Paper or any other publication, I’m sure everyone who takes time to write on local music means well and are lovely people, but this is just one specific example of what happens in the music press generally in DC.
DC Music Download to me is one of the only sources that have really been honest about the DC music scene. They are relentless about promoting local music. Look at the last 3 shows they’ve put on, they put so much effort into hyping those shows, and for the most part they picked bands that aren’t following indie rock trends. Drop Electric headlined their 2nd Anniversary show at 9:30 Club and it completely sold out. A few local bands selling out 9:30 Club, isn’t that local music news? Yet, pretty much no publications or blog covered it. Does that make sense?
I don’t mean to come across so negative. I think it’s a particularly great time to be in a band in DC. I know that in a big part our success was because people are paying attention now more than ever. But, my issue is that I think that the local tastemakers are unfortunately a hindrance to the scene growing, instead of helping it grow. First of all, there could be much more coverage of local music, period. And secondly, there could be coverage of a much more diverse set of bands.
Well, do you think race has anything do with it?
I don’t think anyone is racist at these papers. I don’t know them well enough to even come close to that accusation. But I think that people often relate to people who are similar to them, who look like them, and are into the same things they are into. So, they often just write about what they already know. It’s a privilege to be in the position to be a tastemaker. You should honor that by going out of the way to find new music and challenge yourself, and to be open to new music and to promote music with originality and freshness. I think that should be the journalist’s job.
With that said, I do find it very weird that bands comprised mostly of people of color don’t end up on these lists, unless they are rappers. That is a bit stinky, no? Our city isn’t even fully gentrified yet, and the press makes it appear that the indie music scene is occupied by a monolithic group. We still live in a majority people of color city and greater region. If you read the local blogs and paper’s writing about the music and arts you’d think this is a majority white, wealthy city. It’s ridiculous. It’s a problem.
But, hey, we are a city full of ambitious, ladder climbing young people, and the DC music scene is covered the way music is covered nationally, in that it’s about looks and a perceived message, it’s about image over music and originality. Even here, in our little city, some acts exploit their bodies and how they look, and make it so it’s not about the music. Bands come prepackaged, with slick marketing photos, and matching stage uniforms. It is cynical and insults intelligence. In my very basic, and probably uninformed assessment, the best local music scenes don’t focus on that kind of stuff. They have an organic music scene that focuses on the passion and originality of the music, and great acts can grow out of it. It’s almost like we have too many smart, privileged, people for our own good, we could stand to have some more working class, middle class ethos in this city’s art scene. Or maybe I’m just a naïve, idealistic, person from a working class family.
Let’s talk a little more about your music specifically. What’s the creative process of Drop Electric like? Why did you decide to start your solo project, Dullard?
Drop Electric is very much a collaborative band. One of us will bring a song idea with various levels of completeness and everyone else adds to it. No one is stuck to a specific instrument, although lyrics and vocals are squarely in Kristina’s territory. I mostly play drums, but sometimes I play keys on the new record, for example. There are no rules. There is no leader. A lot of times we just jam and write out whatever we come up with, and we are starting to do that more and more lately. But it takes a while to get at that. You really need to have a feel for your fellow musicians and band mates.
We are at our heart a loud guitar, based band. Our last record was more electronic, but that was definitely an experiment for us borne out of a need to challenge ourselves. We had never really done anything like that before. Our new album, yes we’ve finished another album, is returning to that big guitar based post-rock kind of sound. It is much easier to play live and very exciting to record.
As far as Dullard, it’s just me in a room. I still don’t feel like it is a real project. I just polished up songs that didn’t work for Drop Electric. We were done with our new album, I was getting bored, so I decided to these completed songs online and share it with friends, because why not?
I write most of my songs by myself, late at night. I try to create as much of an organic electronic sound as possible. It is very difficult to play my songs live alone. They have a stupid amount of layers and I’m not used to being on stage by myself. I’m trying my best not to just be a button pusher performer live. I respect even the 10 people who come see me enough not to do that. Who wants to pay money to see an idiot like me stand there in front of his computer? Oh shit, a lot. Afrojack and Avicii are multi-millionaires.
Any closing thoughts?
I can say on behalf of the band, we are really happy to be part of the scene here. We have love for so many of the acts here and what they are doing. We love this city and area. This is our home. I doubt that I will ever run away for greener pastures.
In the end, I have to believe good, original music lasts. Music that follows trends, that’s vapid and empty, that’s more about image than the music, doesn’t last.
This weeks shows
Tuesday, May 27th
Minneapolis’ Animal Love makes a variation of post-punk that is very likely to go over well with DC music listeners. It’s noisy, heavy, and angular, with more than a slight influence from DC post-hardcore. Arlington’s Plums is a name that keeps coming up more and more among DC musicians, and their experimental rock is a great fit for Animal Love. Two other heavy DC Post-Hardcore style bands, Jail Solidarity and Anchor 3, open this really well put together bill at Union Arts.
A bill of Melodic Hardcore from Florida at Smash Records in Adams Morgan.
Bristol’s The Flatmates make a classic sounding brand of punk influenced indie pop that goes really well with Baltimore indie pop band Expert Alterations. DC garage saviors Foul Swoops open this one.
Wednesday, May 28th
The other band that lives at The Paperhaus, Wanted Man, finally makes its performance debut at our space, and I’m very excited for those of you who haven’t seen them before to hear what they are doing. It’s classic 3-piece badass Rock n’ Roll. No pretentions, no bullshit. It’s just straight up passionate Rock music with great songwriting. Yonatan Gat will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen any shows from legendary Tel Aviv band Monotonix. I know their shows were some of the wildest I’ve ever seen. I’m really excited to be hosting him at our place, I think the Psychedelic music he’s doing now is a welcome growth from his previous work. Opener Our Griffins from Philly bring a little more variety to the table with their atmospheric and passionate alternative music. It’s really sonically and melodically aware music.
New DC Post-Rock band Wild Luck make their debut headlining show in DC. Local Math Rock band ShowPony is a great fit to open this bill.
Thursday, May 29th
They call themselves “Ramshackle Barbarian Folk,” and I think The Torches have an accurate idea of themselves. I’ve always really enjoyed this band, it’s been one of my favorites from DC over the past few years. Puff Pieces, on the other hand, are one of the more recent bands I’m most excited about. I haven’t got to catch them live yet, but from everything I hear, they are fantastic live, and their recently released recording sounds great.
Friday, May 30th
Well, you’ve heard what Ramtin has to say, now you can hear what his music sounds like. They do a great job of incorporating a visual element to really make it a complete show. I’ve written about The Walking Sticks before, so you know I dig their live show a lot; great sounds and really fun. It’s really great to see an all local bill at The Howard Theatre!
A show for a very worthy cause at St. Stephens Church. Though our media seems to largely ignore it in favor of what dress Kim Kardashian is wearing at her wedding, the suffering in Syria is absolutely massive. I won’t go into the numbers, but there isn’t a Syrian who isn’t greatly affected at this point, whether they decided to stay, have chosen to leave, or have simply been displaced. Besides the great cause, this show is worth your time with great bands as well.
A fantastic experimental bill at Ruth’s Pie House with bands from DC, Baltimore, and Providence, courtesy once again of Select DC.
This is the 34th installment of the Annual Washington Folk Festival. In particular, I’d recommend checking out Indian Sarod master Soumya Chakraverty on Saturday afternoon.
Saturday, May 31st
Couldn’t be more excited to play a show than this one. This is the first show at Union Kitchen’s new venue for The Lot, right at 9th and V in the middle of NW! The Effects recently put on the best first show I’ve ever seen opening for Young Rapids at Rock and Roll Hotel. This new band features members of Medications, Deleted Scenes, and Buildings. You might know Outputmessage as the singer from DC electronic band Volta Bureau. If the incredible album he recently put out is any indication, this live set shouldn’t be missed. Paperhaus will be making the DC debut of our new lineup, playing mostly songs from our upcoming album as well. As usual, the show is free, all ages, with plenty of food trucks on site.
Sunday, June 1st
Sam Moss, Alex Tebeleff, Laurel Haisley @ The Fresh Prince
I’m very excited to be opening up for the very talented Sam Moss. He will be here in DC from his native Vermont. He’s gotten national recognition from publications like NPR, Dusted, and No Depression for good reason; he’s one of the best Americana guitarists out there right now. Oust’s Laurel Halsey will be doing a solo set to open at one of the newer house venues in town.
Monday, June 2nd
Br’er has become easily one of DC’s most creative acts. Don’t miss seeing their intense and exhilarating live show. This show’s openers are Chicago’s wonderfully experimental Wei Zhongle, and the zany Three Brained Robot, who also runs one of the most active house venues in the country, called TYP house in Greensboro, NC.
Priests have been one of DC’s most popular punk bands for a year now, and their live show definitely kills. Philly Rock band Pink Wash, who also has DC roots, and Pop Punk band The Shondes, are two openers who are definitely worth your time as well.