All photos: Olivia Alonso
Amanda Mackaye and “KC” are the (usually) smiling faces behind the free, decades-long summer concert series in Fort Reno Park (in Tenleytown, across the street from Woodrow Wilson High School at 3800 Donaldson Place NW—Click here for a full schedule of bands and more info on the series).
The series began in 1968 as one of several government-commissioned, neighborhood-based community projects across D.C. as the city tried to heal itself following the riots of the same year. Starting out as what was essentially a government-sanctioned hippie festival, Fort Reno evolved over the years, reflecting trends within the city and music at large. Since the early ‘80s it has most prominently been associated with D.C.’s punk and post-punk sounds, with bands like Fugazi, Q and Not U, and The Dismemberment Plan all playing some of the most well-attended shows in the history of the series. Amanda and KC, the two current stewards of this D.C. institution, sat down with BYT to share their thoughts and stories about the series.
Amanda, a member of D.C.’s most prominent family of musicians, seems to exist in a naturally caffeinated state, as she brimmed with energy despite drinking only organic ginger ale at the bar where we met. KC is a yin to her yang; he’s a bit younger, not quite as verbose, not originally from D.C., but similarly good natured, sharing a sense of gently sardonic humor with Amanda. Both listen to every submission, book bands and organize volunteers to keep the series running. After years of involvement with the D.C. punk scene (through bands like Desiderata and the Routineers, with which she performed at Fort Reno) Mackaye took over organizing the concerts in 2005, also the year KC began volunteering (or as he puts it, “I came to the first one and then, just, didn’t stop coming”). On the whole they receive about 150 submissions each year for 35 total slots (three bands play every Monday and Thursday).
Below is an abridged transcription of their chat with BYT, which touched on the history of the series and current challenges to it, the D.C. music scene at large, our view of entertainment in general, and the ‘80s hair metal song “Fuck Like a Beast.”
How long were you going to Fort Reno shows or participating in Fort Reno before you started working there?
AM: Well let’s see… the first year I ever went I think was 1984. And then I took a break in the ‘90s, because I did a lot of touring on my own and managing of other bands. Had to have been the late ‘90s when I started getting back up there, but yeah when I was at Wilson was when I first started going there. Good times.
KC, what about yourself?
KC: The first show I went to was the first show in 2005. [AM interjects: “Whatever that show was”] I don’t rememb—it was Gist, Sentai, and somebody else.
AM: See? He remembers things better than me. [Ed. Earlier Amanda had described KC’s job with Fort Reno essentially as “remembering stuff”]
KC: But I don’t remember where I heard about [Fort Reno], probably from the Fugazi movie or something like that.
[To AM] Do you remember what your first show was?
AM: I can’t. But I can tell you what my most memorable one was.
I can’t remember the name of the band—Fort Reno back then was very different, I guess it had to do with the fact that the quasi-government was selecting bands. The band that played was this heavy metal cover band, they were outrageous. The guitar player had a wireless setup, which, if anybody who reads this has ever been to Fort Reno in the past will know that that was crazy because the interference from the radio and TV towers used to be so bad there. So this guy had a wireless setup on a flying ‘V’ guitar and during one of the songs he literally jumped off the stage and was playing on his back in the grass to no one. And because I didn’t listen to that kind of music I didn’t realize that these were cover songs—they played “Fuck Like a Beast” and I thought [the female singer] was telling a real story, when she was like, ‘When I was a little girl my mama told me honey there’s three things you’ve gotta do for your man: you gotta be there when he gets home, you gotta do something, and then you gotta [mock screams] fuck like a beast!’ And I was sitting in the crowd and I was like, ‘oh my God what the fuck is going on?!?’ I mean I thought, ‘this is the weirdest story I’ve ever heard, who tells their kids that?’ And I don’t think it was for a few more years that I found out that was somebody else’s song. In many ways I was a sheltered child.
KC: My dad told me, and I would read about it later, that there’s a George Pelecanos book set in the ‘70s and he had referred to shows at Fort Reno as, ‘all the bikers up there.’
What goes into picking a band (now), aside from them being local?
AM: A lot of arguing. No, not really. Well the last two summers KC and I have started trying to listen to things together, which is actually a pretty interesting method. It takes a lot of pressure off of me.
Was it just you before?
AM: Yeah. And it also means that when people are sad, I don’t have to feel so horribly guilty, because it wasn’t just me anymore. I love to talk about music. I don’t remember a lot of things but I love to talk about it. So it’s nice to listen to it with somebody else and talk about what we’re hearing, because we have different tastes and hear things differently. [KC] has a good ear and very good taste in music…
Though we’ve never discussed it I do think I’m probably more sensitive to certain things about bands than he is, probably because I am like, ‘Well, they’re 13, so we should give them a show’ or ‘we haven’t given enough props to the ladies yet,’ so I tend to look a little more closely at what’s making up the band and while I’m focusing on some of that minutiae he’s focusing on something really important which is…
KC: Listening to it!
AM: So I think it makes for a good compliment. I think it’s better for the bands ultimately, because as a team we’re better at taking them in as a full package. Doing it on my own it tended to get pretty compartmentalized, but I’ll let you know if it ever comes to fisticuffs or anything.
Have you ever had any crazy reaction from bands, angry letters, angry phone calls?
AM: Yeah, I had a long argument over email with a band that I didn’t give them a show. They felt that it was their right to play there because they were citizens of the District of Columbia and it was a park in the District of Columbia and I [pause] disagreed.
KC: And it also happens a lot of times that it’s not even the bands that submit that are the bands that complain about not getting a show, it’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy, and vicious cycle where, ‘I don’t submit because I’ll never get a show so I don’t submit so I never get a show.”
AM: The way that the Internet has intervened…there’s a good and bad to how it’s set up in that people can write something and people can leave their two cents on it. And so, generally speaking I stay out of the two cents because it doesn’t do anything, but it’s interesting to watch the two cents because I’ve watched people argue with me when I’m not involved in the conversation, about not picking some band, who didn’t even submit….the point is not about the band, [KC says in unison] the point’s to complain.
With one of the bands there was like a summer’s worth of bitching and moaning that we were refusing to allow somebody [to play], and I finally contacted the band and was like, ‘What’s up? Are we at war? What is going on?’ And they were like, ‘No we don’t actually want to play Fort Reno. It’s not the right venue for us.’ I think that when we love bands we all want to see them but you have to take under consideration that the band is not ours, the band has there own feelings.
AM: And Fort Reno is not for everybody. It’s a great place, I love playing there, I love going there, but it’s hard. It has a lot of hard edges to it. And I appreciate any band who says, ‘Thanks but no, it’s not for us.’ It has a mystique… the pressure can be quite intense. It sometimes feels like you haven’t arrived until you’ve played Fort Reno or if you want to actually get anywhere you need to do this. And really this is not that.
KC: I think sometimes people also want a reason to go. So they want a band to play so they can go; when if you just come and go and enjoy it for what it is no matter who’s playing, you get to experience something different. For me, when I started going, it was a big cross-section of music, and I wanted to see what was going on in the city, across different age groups…
AM: When I was going shows in the mid to late ‘80s there was a lot of just showing up somewhere, you actually had no idea who was playing and it didn’t matter, you just went. You paid your $4 or whatever and went into the show….and the idea, at least for me, was to just check shit out. And that’s Fort Reno’s strength in a lot of ways: it’s free! It’s free; it doesn’t cost you anything to go there and you might actually find something you like or the worst that’s going to happen, you’re going to hang out in a park on a lovely summer evening, costing you nothing.
That makes me think of the line from the City Paper oral history [of Fort Reno], someone said, ‘the worst that’s going to happen is that it’s going to rain and you’re going to Guapo’s for Mexican food.’
AM: Exactly….making these commitments to entertainment, it takes a weird thing. Something happens where it becomes very crucial….I’ve never really put a whole lot of thought into it but I do think that subconsciously I’m trying to stop that. To ‘unshow the show’….you don’t have to make it into an event. Who cares who’s playing? It’s free!
KC: We’re not trying to expand our brains. We’ll be there if you want to come.
AM: Because we don’t have to meet any numbers it really doesn’t matter if band one goes with band three. We don’t have to craft anything unless we really want to be clever about it. It doesn’t matter if one person comes or a hundred people come, and that’s hard for bands, because I think that people who play…somehow get conditioned that they have to add add add or grow grow grow…and I disagree. Some of my most favorite shows have been because there was nobody else there but me.
When you’re scheduling do you try to put certain types of bands on the same night, according to genre, according to makeup?
AM: It depends. Some summers I have started out with that and it’s worked out well. Probably more than anything right now the balance I try to achieve is…try to keep everything secret, all the way, so that when I ask Band A ‘do you want to play Fort Reno?’ And they say yes, and they ask me who with, I say, ‘I don’t know. I’m asking you, and that’s it.’…I want to force bands to check out something else themselves.
Right now the balance I try to pay attention to is as many shows as possible I have at least one band that says, ‘we’ve never played a show before’. So I try to get them on shows with other bands that have been doing it.
KC: They learn things from each other. You see a 13-year-old drummer talking to a 33-year-old drummer and that kid has the best look on his face! They’re talking about what they do together and they both feel like they’re in legit bands.
Have you noticed over the years trends in the sounds of bands submitting to Fort Reno?
AM: Yeah. I successively feel like I don’t know what the kids are doing these days. That’s another way that KC [contributes]…he digests a lot of music. But I think you can [pick up on trends] like this year I felt everyone’s really quiet. Just the temperament of the music is very mellow, even the punk stuff …is gentle. I liked it. It was interesting.
KC: ‘Cause there is a little bit of that…last year and the year before it was louder stuff, and that stuck out to me….there’s a mix of great summertime stuff that would really work great outside and there’s stuff that would be really amazing to see outside, ‘cause you just don’t see it.
AM: Going back to your question about if people ever get upset about not getting a show, that is a hard point where I have to tell people, ‘I really like what you’re doing, but it’s not going to work outside….’ I don’t want people to intentionally have a bad show. I would like to make sure that we give you everything we can to help you have a great show….but if we listen to something and go, ‘no way, no one would actually know if they’re playing.’ I’d feel bad.
What differences in sound have you noticed in the general D.C. scene, over the years?
AM: That’s a difficult question. I don’t know where—I don’t know. I assume I have But…I think I expect things to change all the time, so I’m never really surprised when they do. I do find myself surprised in saying things like, [deepens voice] “Now that’s a real punk band.” [KC laughs] And I honestly don’t know what I mean by that. But I’ll say things like, “they know how to play punk music.” And I don’t even know what I mean by that.
KC: That does kind of show that it’s not just that anymore, if that jumps out at you. I think when I started it was kind of the end of the dancier stuff like Q and Not U and stuff like that.
KC: Yeah which really kind of opened it up to anything anybody else is doing.
AM: Yeah. I hope you agree with this KC, I think that one of the things we try to ascertain from [submissions]…we’re trying and hoping to find bands that are just trying to fuck with shit a little bit. [At Fort Reno] You have such a great opportunity to not play what’s expected, again, this doesn’t matter. You have a freedom that is pretty great. When I’m listing I’m looking for bands that make me think, “I’m not sure what they’re doing, and I’m not sure that I like it, but the fact that I can’t out my finger on anything really makes me want to have this happen.”
KC: And these two or three bands every year that we both really like but are not sure what they’re going to do, you know it’s going to make someone sitting on a blanket, drinking lemonade, look askew a little bit, and that’s always fun.
That’s kind of the beauty of getting hundreds of submissions and just being able to just go through it. And yeah, then you can see if there’s a trend, but if there’s a trend all that stuff’s going to sound the same, so the thing that’s weird is going to jump out and be great.
You’ve sort of started getting into this, but what shows stick out to you as the most memorable, for whatever reason?
AM: There was a show, and forgive me everyone who will probably rail about this, it has been one long show every band has played together, and it’s very hard for me to remember which band played what night, but we had a show set up and Mary Timony [of Wild Flag, formerly DC bands Helium and Autoclave] was going to play, I just don’t remember what shape it was at that era, and Marty’s truck, he’s our sound guy, his truck broke down which meant that we had no sound. And I got on the phone and I managed to pull together a PA from Radio CPR, I got somebody who was ready to go pick it up and deliver it, and we started late, it was CRAZY, but we started late and ended on time but it was so energizing…
KC: There must’ve been a ‘harDCore’ band on there too, ‘cause that’s they don’t need their full 45 minute set time.
AM: It was so energizing because it was exactly what everyone is so in love with the music community here about, which is, in a pinch, everyone got together and made the show happen, like it was definitely going to happen, no matter what. People were going to drive to Marty’s truck with all of their cars and all of their things…the show was memorable because it was so intimate and personal and put on by everyone. It was just a great, great night. [pauses] I wish I’d remembered who played. [laughs]
KC: I was going to say that I remember the bands who are cursed with rain.
AM: Oh, like Brandon Butler.
KC: Brandon Butler, Georgie James, and America Hearts.
AM: Oh yes, it’s true. We scheduled them [and had to cancel] twice in one summer.
KC: During the summer we turn into amateur meteorologists, and we talk all day about stupid crap.
AM: ‘You been watching the front?’ [Laughs]
KC: Stupid models, so it’s already iffy. When it starts raining everybody who came pitches in and pulls all the shit under the stage or puts all the shit in cars and we tear down a show faster than anyone has ever seen….one year where it happened on [Fort Reno annual tradition] Night of A Thousand Cakes and all the cakes [started flying].
AM: Oh God. People started grabbing cakes.
KC: I also remember any band that makes good use of the space…the past couple years, just the amount of people that come usually for The Evens is surprising. For me that’s when people who don’t even know I do it show up and go, ‘This is what you do, this is what you’re talking about? This many people are here all the time???’ And I’m like, ‘Oh! Sure! It’s very popular!’ It’s fun to me just to see the ebb and flow every year, and what people want to see. You get a good idea of what’s going on. And I’m always surprised by what people dance to. And how spontaneously people start dancing, because it’s never on the things where [the band] says ‘come up and dance.’
People dance? I thought that was the whole D.C. live music curse was that people don’t dance.
KC: Inside live music curse.
AM: Things happen at Fort Reno. There was one year, I wish I could remember this kid’s name, he came to every show two or three summers in a row, every single show, and one summer he was a page or an intern on the Hill and…
KC: He came in a suit.
AM: He came in a suit and he was late to the show and he came from behind the stage on the path, running in his suit and fist pumping and just did a flip into the crowd and started dancing. I don’t even think he knew what was going on, he just knew, ‘Omigod the show already started I’m not there yet!’ And he danced the whole night.
Cornel West Theory, that was last year right? [KC nods] That had a lot of people moving and grooving.
KC: Poor But Sexy.
AM: Oh yeah, lot of people dance to Poor But Sexy.
People have described D.C. as racially divided, do you see a divide in the music scene or do you think it crosscuts?
AM: Yeah it’s hard. I am uncomfortable many nights because there’s [sic] too many white people on stage. I don’t know a good way around it. I don’t think it’s appropriate to ask people, ‘Please identify yourself.’ I don’t want it to be trite, but I think it’s important to have more diversity in everything. I think it will come in time. We had a couple of bands that play predominantly go-go music submit this year, and I talked to them, and I think it was not their thing. Once they found out how we operate it was not their thing. And that’s ok. But I was glad that they did [submit].
KC: At least they had heard of us.
AM: At least they had heard of us. And they looked at our crazy-ass website and looked at that thing I wrote, and thought ‘Ah fuck it, I’ll do it anyway.’ One guy he drove to my house and looked at me and said, ‘Is this the place with all the concerts?’ And I was cleaning the yard or something and was like ‘yep.’ And I give it to them, I’m really glad that they sought it out. They didn’t know what they were looking at, and once I explained it to them, they said ‘It’s not really my thing.’
If you wouldn’t mind expanding on that, what was the holdup?
AM: Well the biggest thing is that we don’t pay anybody. So that’s a big thing for professional musicians. And I should qualify that by saying, I consider everyone a professional. If you’re doing it you’re a professional. But people who need to make their living, pay their bills, a night with no pay is a big deal.
The other biggest kicker is if it rains the show’s just cancelled. Period. You may not get rescheduled and you may not get a show next year. There’s no guarantee.
KC: Go-go or not any big band usually has trouble wrangling everybody for a free show for 45 minutes.
AM: So it’s not for everybody, and that’s ok. But we’re open to everybody saying they’re interested, I’d love to hear from more and more stuff, that I know is out there, but I don’t know how to find it. We want people to be interested enough to want to do it. I think it changes the flavor if you just start looking around for bands. [Then it becomes] more about what we want.
KC: I end up talking to people afterwards who know people in the world music scene or other stuff like that. There are people who live here who do a lot of that stuff, and it always ends up being, ‘oh, blah blah blah, I wish there was more of this there,’ [and I say] ‘Could you tell them next year when our window is open and they can send stuff to us.’ ‘Cause we do it really democratically; if you send us something we will listen to it.
Do you think there will be more rappers, go-go bands, electronic artists in Fort Reno’s future?
AM: I would love to have more of everything. We can only work with what we get…but I’d love to have some crazy jazz band, or some brass band, I’d love to have any of it because I love all kinds of stuff. I love punk music. I can listen to it all the time. But I’m not an exclusive sound [person]. And…this year we didn’t get much electronic music [looks to KC for affirmation]. That’s another trend, there have been years where you can really kind of tell [that] there’s a lot of people with a lot of gear in their house and no band. And that’s not in any way meant to be disparaging. That’s just a thing that was going on. And I’m never sure if people are ware of other people doing it too, or if it’s just a weird, cosmic thing where all across the city there’s people in their house working away on stuff by themselves.
KC: And there are people who play sonic circuits, stuff like that. And I listen to that stuff…but not everyone sends stuff in. Y’know, I’d like to hear a guitar orchestra.
AM: That has been a battle at times…there are a lot of bands that just don’t submit. I guess it’s complicated, unless you’re paying attention. I mean I don’t think it’s that complicated: we make an announcement in the traditional ways [physically mailed submissions], that we are now accepting demos. This year I gave five weeks It was a really long time to make some kind of communication…[Amanda’s brother Ian’s old band, Fugazi’s, song “Suggestion” comes over the stereo] or writing us a letter and explaining why here’s no music.
[Amanda starts nodding her head along to beat while KC talks]
KC: I don’t know what kind of reputation [Fort Reno] has.
AM: [Asking BYT] What’s our reputation? [Laughs]
KC: No, no I mean within the musician community, if it gets talked about as a venue as much. I know that it gets talked about a lot by people who go and stuff like that, but there are people who live here and come here who just don’t get there for whatever reason.
Maybe as D.C. has become even more of a transplant city?
KC: I don’t feel that way about it. Other stuff in the city I do, but maybe it is that. It seems like a thing that lifers do.
AM: Yeah. I think that the transient nature affects the sound more than anything else. And it does it in some pretty interesting ways, because you have folks who are here to go to school, and they started playing music wherever they lived before, you get a submission where [the reaction is], “Well that’s kind of weird. I’ve never heard that stuff around here before.” So it’s sort of neat in that way, in that sort of medfly way, it sort of flew in and we’re not sure what to do with it. But I think the transient quality of the city affects [pauses to consider wording] I don’t want to say interest, but because people leave and come back, you might might forget what’s going on and then [remember], or stop playing music for a while and then restart.
KC: The flip side of that is you see a lot of people discovering [Fort Reno] for the first time and that is awesome. Somebody learns about it from their friend, and they’re really happy and want to check it out. Especially if they’re definitely just here for a little while, people [ask] ‘I live in Boston, how can I do this in Boston, what did you do, who did you talk to?’
AM: Everyone should do it. Everyone should have outdoor concerts. Except for when they rain!
You all have been very generous with your time, thank you.
AM: We have no life.