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.
Continuing my series of interviews, this week’s installment features one of my personal favorite songwriters in DC, Spoonboy. Spoonboy is David Combs, either solo, or with a band. He is also known for his socially conscious pop-punk band The Max Levine Ensemble.
You’ve been involved in the DC area music scene for quite a while. Could you detail for us a little about the history of your involvement?
I started going to DIY shows in the late 90’s, mostly ska shows when I was a teenager, but also punk shows. At the time there was a community of people putting on punk shows who were closely linked with people who were putting on protests against things like globalization and the Iraq war, like Positive Force and the people at The Wilson Center. I definitely came into music in DC through a very politicized punk scene.
I started playing shows with my band the Max Levine Ensemble, and the more I got out on the road, the more I met people who I connected with and it got to the point where I was putting on shows in DC for other bands as well as benefit shows and things like that. It was nice to be able to bring bands to DC who maybe normally wouldn’t have had a chance to get out here.
Were there any particular bands in DC that inspired you to get involved with the music scene?
Early on there was a group of people who put on ska, punk, and garage shows in the suburbs of DC and they were called Rude in DC productions. They were also in a band called The Ratchet Boys. It was my earliest exposure to a group of people who were creating a music community they wanted to see just by doing it themselves. Obviously, I was also very inspired by Dischord Records. I used to go see Fugazi all the time. I also remember feeling particularly inspired by Black Eyes. They were doing really interesting pushing the boundaries kind of music, while also bringing in political ideas and queer identity into their music, but in a way that felt much more expressive than political. These are the bands that pop in my head from when I was getting involved early on, but I could list dozens of bands that have had an impact on me at different times in the DC music scene, and also with broader, less local music scenes I’ve been a part of from touring around the country for so many years. Often it’s the people who you are closest with who will have the most impact on your music, and that’s certainly been true for me.
You tour more than almost any musician I know. What’s it like to be on the road so often?
I feel like some people talk about being on the road being something that wears on them, but I’ve never had that experience. I miss people at home, but it just feels like the thing I should be doing. I feel very in place when I’m touring. Being able to plan a tour has also been one of my mental health strategies in dealing with depression. When I have a trip planned, it puts my mind at ease in a way that’s hard to achieve when I’m at home and feeling like things are static.
What do you think of the current state of the DC music scene, and what role do you see punk music in particular continuing to play in it?
I feel like I’m a lot less involved in a hands-on way than I used to be. I still book shows when I can, but I’ve been out of town on tour so much that it makes it a lot harder. I think that there’s really cool stuff happening in DC music where there are these overlapping circles of music scenes that have popped up around different bands or venues or house, and you have venn diagrams of people who are involved in multiple different scenes, but these concurrent music scenes also have their own identities as well. I think it’s great. I’m most firmly planted in a scene that has put on Punk shows at houses like The Rocketship for a long time. But I see people putting on other kinds of shows at other houses and venues, and it’s great that people are supporting each other’s ability to put on music in DC.
Your music always seems very aware of certain issues and topics most people are afraid to tackle, though I feel like Spoonboy and The Max Levine Ensemble do it in different ways with different issues. Would you elaborate a little on the difference for you between the music and intention between the two projects?
The first band I started playing out with in DC was The Max Levine Ensemble. We started in high school and we still play. (We are currently recording a new record!) After a few years I started playing solo under the name Spoonboy, so I could play on my own schedule instead of scheduling around other band members. But then Spoonboy kind of developed into its own musical identity as I began playing with other people and occasionally played with backing bands. The Spoonboy project is definitely more personal and vulnerable in contrast to the more manic side of Max Levine Ensemble. Both bands have always a had a political element, but I always write coming from a place of sharing my experience and how my experience informs and is informed by political ideas, rather than trying to put out some political agenda I’m trying to purvey through music.
A lot of the Spoonboy songs veer towards writing more around the politics of identity like queer identity and gender identity; questions about mental illness and the ways that our culture sometimes exacerbates and creates feelings of alienation and powerlessness. I also just write about how I’m feeling whether or not there’s a political element, but I have a pretty political mind so it seeps in a lot.
I think you write about things that people have a hard time talking about.
Yeah, with Spoonboy I have several songs about difficult family dynamics, I’ve written a bunch about feeling at odds with how gender is socialized, and about dealing with mental health issues. I think that for the people who relate to those things, I’ve it can really hit a nerve, especially when we’re taught in our culture not to talk about these things. It can be therapeutic for me to be able to speak about this stuff publicly, but it’s not like I need to have a therapy session every night on tour. The fact that I hear from people who can relate to the songs who felt like no one was talking about their experience and are impacted by it in a positive way is what makes me feel like it’s worthwhile to go out and play the songs over and over. It’s probably the most gratifying thing about playing music. It’s an incredible thing to hear that you’ve helped someone through through hard times with your art and expression. It makes you feel like you are contributing something worthwhile to the world and it’s certainly the impetus that keeps me doing it.
Your recent set of songs that you’ve released is less narrative than your last record, “The Papas.” Was that intentional?
The way that this songwriting has come out has definitely been less narrative than the last Spoonboy record. The last Spoonboy record was a collection of stories around the theme of how patriarchy is socialized and these songs are more of a collection of songs I wrote as individual songs without a relationship to one particular storyline. In the songwriting and lyrics and instrumentation though I feel like I was able to give a little bit more than I ever have before, and I’m really excited about it!
Any closing thoughts?
I’ve just recorded these 9 songs that will be coming out on tape and vinyl that I’m really excited about. It’s three split records with three great bands – Colour Me Wednesday, the Goodbye Party, and Martha and you can check them out on bandcamp. And I’ll be playing DC9 this Friday with a full backing band and I think it’s the best Spoonboy has ever sounded, so I’m hoping people will come hang. Thanks so much!
Louis Weeks put out a fantastic record this year, and I’ve been very impressed with his live set, particularly since he has more recently expanded his band. Glad to have DC steal this guy away from Baltimore! The show is free, and it’s great to see more arts events in Anacostia. This show definitely deserves your support.
Yet another visual art and music collaborative event popping up in the District.
You’ve heard what he has to say, and I’d highly recommend checking out one of DC’s best songwriters at this show. UK’s Colour Me Wednesday make a particularly energetic form of Pop-Punk, and The Goodbye Party is the solo project of Michael Cantor from the fantastic Philadelphia-based band, The Ambulars, who also have strong roots in DC.
Fuzzy indie-pop band Goldbears from Atlanta open this show that also features Frederick Grunge band Lilac Daze and the very relaxing sounds of Gaithersburg’s The Red Lines. Very nicely put together eclectic bill.
Black Masala and Cat You Dog You headline this very fun show to help raise funds to support those in the Balkans displaced by the recent terrible flooding.
One of my favorite straight up rock bands around, they guys deserve the opportunity to be playing on one of DC’s premier stages. This one is early folks!
This is a benefit show for the awesome Fest Too that will be going on in Virginia later in the month. I’ll be writing more about it soon!
Another of my favorite straight up Rock bands in DC, Black Checker headline another great eclectic all ages bill at The Pinch.
Fantastic punk bill at Comet!
An awesome comedy show at a new DIY house venue.
Foozle’s Jake Lazovick headlines yet another show at Ft. Loko. This one is definitely quieter than usual.
The first show at yet another new house venue in DC! Loi Loi and AG/LG are two of DC’s most fun performers, and Linsay Deming brings an incredible voice to her blend of country & soul songwriting.