5 Questions: Chester Hawkins and Tag Cloud (Chris Videll)


Let’s talk about punk. Not the kind that’s associated with a complacent form of perceived rebellion. And not the kind that’s associated with “confrontational” clothing or a certain hairstyle. And certainly not today’s watered-down, pre-pubescent-friendly iteration.

I’m talking about ACTUAL punk — the sonic equivalent of throwing a hand grenade onto a giant pile of musical conformity. ACTUAL punk smashes the system in ways you’re not expecting. Case in point: Chester Hawkins and Chris Videll, two of the District’s most interesting purveyors of non-conformist, experimental music.

On the surface, Chester and Chris couldn’t be further removed from what’s commonly perceived as punk. But don’t be fooled by their disarming smiles, affable personalities and armada of synthesizers. These chaps are punk as fuck. And more importantly, Chester and Chris have carved out their own individual sonic spaces in DC’s ever-expanding world of avant-renegades.

Chester, in particular, has a long and storied history of demonstrating that punk comes in more shapes and sizes than crashing guitars and furious sneers. In fact, Chester might be the first to tell you that punk can sometimes come in the form of … a bunny suit.

Blue Sausage Infant

Blue Sausage Infant 5nov09 at the Velvet Lounge, Washington DC

Nearly 10 years ago (November 2009), Chester donned said bunny suit when he played what was the inaugural We Fought the Big One live music showcase at the Velvet Lounge in NW DC (along with DC noisemakers Screen Vinyl Image and NYC post-No Wave super-group Outpost 13 — it was quite an event). I’m still convinced that I’ve never seen something so visually adorable juxtaposed with sounds so harrowing and surreal.

Chester has been pushing the boundaries of sonic possibility in our nation’s capital for more than three decades. The man continues to write, record and release albums that defy expectation and easy categorization. My personal favorite of the Hawkins’ oeuvre is the “Natural Causes” LP from 2017. Blurt magazine called the album “one of the more satisfying electronic albums in recent memory, a deft balancing act between experimental music, dark psychedelia and pulsing Krautrock.” You should pick it up.


Under the nom de plume Tag Cloud, Chris Videll has traded in the kind of gravity defying, ambient soundscapes that’s eerily reminscent of 1970s “kosmische muzik” favorites like Cluster, Harmonia and early Tangerine Dream. Tag Cloud has been releasing records since 2012. If you haven’t heard Tag Cloud before, I recommend checking out “Pattern Recognition” from 2017 on Versus Records. You can thank me later.

With Chester and Chris collaborating for the first time in a live show context at the March 1st edition of We Fought the Big One, I thought it would be a good time to ask these fellas more about making such adventurous music in DC.

1) You guys have both been part of the DC underground music scene for A LONG TIME. Obviously, a lot has changed over the years, with venues, labels and record stores coming and going. What do you see as the biggest difference between the scene today and how it was when you first became part of it? 

CH: Big question! I started this madness in 1985, which was another age. Cassettes were the only option and (pre-internet) we were stuck with the slow pace of the postal service and the whims of ‘zine publishers. Our “internet” was record-store gossip and ads in Unsound, Factsheet Five, etc. One big difference now is the ease of sharing music: the means of production & distro are everywhere, which can only be a good thing. But of course sites like Soundcloud quickly became the place where everybody’s random flatulence could be distributed globally, with no effort. As a listener it’s impossible to filter the gems from the crap. BUT: here in DC at least, there’s been some lingering energy with indie record-stores. Like beautiful cockroaches they refuse to die, bless’em… so there may be hope for the old organic networking routes yet.

Chris: Some of the folks that were my introduction to the scene were actually doing it for quite a while before I became aware of it. That goes back to early Blue Sausage Infant days, New Carrolton, Stolen Government Binder Clip, and the like. But I guess I have been around for a while now, too. A big difference to me is that for the most part there’s no longer a regular experimental music series like Sonic Circuits, the Electric Possible, or Audio Vortex. Currently Rhizome DC fills that gap, but it seems like there are fewer venues for underground music outside that. I also have my list of sadly missed record shops, but fortunately we have some really good new ones.


2) Making non-pop music like you both do – or to use Jeff Surak’s phrase “music of the non-entertainment genre” – music that by its nature asks the audience to engage on a deeper level – is really a different kettle of fish in more ways than one. Have you figured out yet what drives you to make the music you do? I have nothing to prove this, but I feel like you guys have different motivations than the local indie rock band that plays Galaxy Hut on a Monday night.

CH: I have a terrible problem with earworms. If I catch a tune with a sticky melody, I WILL carry it in my head non-stop (awake and asleep) for a month or more. One notable example went on for years. So I’ve developed a love of “grey music” — without hooks or edges. Music based on drones, fog textures, or motorik patterns allow me to enjoy music without the earworm hangover. So in my own material, I strive for “ultimate grey”; a music with plenty of dynamic flow, tension/release, all that — but without the melodies and hooks that cause suffering. It should be like a half-finished work, where the listener’s job is to finish the piece by being engaged and focused. Does that answer the question?

Chris: The motivation that got me started was watching people play Sonic Circuits and the like and being presumptuous enough to think, ‘Hey, maybe I can do something like that too?’ But mostly it’s the idea of creating these sort of immersive sound environments. When people tell me something was meditative for them, I feel like it worked. If they have that reaction that’s hopefully an active listening experience. So maybe that’s different from that band at the Hut on a Monday? Although I have done a couple of Mondays there before myself and have been seeing bands there a pretty long time.


3) As you continue to make and record new music over time, how important is it to – to borrow a phrase from Roxy Music – “remake/remodel” and try something completely different to what you’ve done before?

CH: Remake/remodel? I call it very important but not required because sincerity is FAR better than innovation. An artist’s music should evolve naturally, with life and age. In some cases, rehashing earlier techniques might be the best way to do a piece, but avoiding a method simply because it’s been done is just ego noise. A piece will be what it needs to be, damn the past. I try to maintain a 50/50 partnership between me & my own material. That kind of makes NO sense, which is perfect.

Chris: It’s pretty important, but like Chester points out, development should always organic. I haven’t done a few things I would like to mostly because of limitations in my recording setup. The original idea was to have more acoustic drone along with the electric. That will come back around sometime. I’ve thought about doing something much more noise oriented at some point, too. Under a different project most likely. Playing in several different projects (BLK TAG, Lab Mice, etc.) and doing different collabs also hopefully gives me new ideas for my own projects.

4) I’d like to take a moment to ask both of you – what is it about the other’s music that speaks to you and makes you want to collaborate?

CH: Ah! Videll’s project Tag Cloud has been a breath of fresh air since it began. He’s got an instinct for textural balance that makes his drone pieces almost too active to be called “drone,” but the pacing is magnificent. I’ve been envious of that patience for ages. It’s the ability to let a thing unfold without fuss. He’s able to produce sounds and vibes that are very sympathetic to 1970s kosmische LPs, but carry a 21st-century gravitas. I feel like we’re coming from different angles of the same center, and collaborating is like seeing that center from all sides at once. A rare treat.

Chris: Chester takes a lot of influences that I dig (psych, krautrock, industrial, concrete) and makes something original and personalized out of them. Hard to do. And it’s still evolving in really interesting ways. He’s been at it for a while, too, so there’s a wealth of experience to learn from. Most of all it’s fun to collaborate.

5) What gives you greater artistic satisfaction and fulfillment – writing and recording or the live performance?

CH: With Blue Sausage Infant it was all about live action: bring a truckload of electronic toys to a venue and roll around in a mad freakout with animal costumes, confetti-guns + strobe-lights, hypnotic rhythms, psychedelic projections, etc… Since then it’s shifted mostly into studio-work. It’s much more of a hermit composer’s trip now. The new work is more focused on audio science, charting dense harmony clusters and such. Also, DC doesn’t seem to have the live-venue support it used to, for this kind of thing. I’ve been hatching evil plans to play out guerrilla-style with battery-powered gear. No venues, no hype, no charge, no audience necessary. Play a duet with a singing Metro escalator somewhere, that kind of thing. Right now there’s too many projects in the works. If I live another fifty years, they’ll never be done.

Chris: Not sure. The pendulum kind of swings back and forth. I do most of my recording at home, and I like immersing myself in the process. Some days I feel like I’m actually starting to get a handle on it. Took me a while to get comfortable with playing live, but now it feels much more familiar. A friend told me I would eventually get to that point, and at first I wasn’t at all sure.


Check out the Bandcamp pages for Chester Hawkins and Tag Cloud to listen to sounds and purchase music.

And be sure to see their first-time live collaboration at WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE on Friday, March 1st!


YouTube Playlist: Nightshade DJs


Dive bars, experimental shows, rock shows, noise shows, fancy hotels, radio stations, and even a bike polo party. Name a type of DC nightlife spot and the Nightshade vinyl DJ collective of Emily Haugh (left) and Laura Catania (DJ L-Cat) have probably played it. Or will soon. Because these DJs HAVE to spin (I know the feeling). And their undeniable drive for playing fascinating songs for a captive audience is only matched by their desire to curate an aesthetic experience that’s uniquely tailored to their specific surroundings.

While the Nightshade DJ collective gets around, they can be heard with great regularity at Showtime Lounge (113 Rhode Island Ave NW DC), where the duo hold court every first Thursday of the month.

But how did they get together in the first place?

A little over two years ago, Emily, who works at a record shop, met Laura, a long-time record collector with a knack for discovering obscure gems. At the time, Emily had already been DJing solo for about a year. A mutual friend, Jonathan Howard from DC’s Cigarette, encouraged Laura to give DJing a go.

When Emily asked Laura to spin with her to see what it would be like, the two clicked. “I think she thought it might be fun to have a friend contribute at one of her gigs,” Laura says. “I had been collecting records for a long time and a good amount of them I had always imagined playing in entrancing sequences for others. As soon as we collaborated, our professional and creative chemistry was immediately apparent.”

“It turned out we were both pretty good at listening to music together and fine tuning the ‘mood’ of the event,” Emily says.

Since that initial collaboration, the Nightshade DJs have spun records at seemingly every type of nightlife spot under the DC moonlight, always tailoring a musical landscape to fit the locale, and reveling in the sonic fun along the way.

“Our malleability and guileless enjoyment in combining our collections to see what kind of hypnotizing palette we can create connects us with people,” Laura says. “Our passions and tastes are woven together to birth any type of mood or environment we want.”

Laura adds that the duo are just as adept at throwing killer dance parties as they are at turning the interior of Studio Ga Ga into a haunted house.

But what type of songs light their fire? To find out, I asked Emily and Laura to select five tracks each and provide some commentary for Big One blog readers…


Princess – “Say I’m Your Number One” (1985)

Emily: “This record is the reason I collect 12”s from this era. The difference in bass, snare, loudness, etc was so dependent on how they were mastered and pressed. It blasts through the speakers and heavily impacts the room. Bold, vulnerable, delirious.”

Alan Vega – “La La Bola” (1990)

Emily: “When you arrive at the function and everyone is conspicuously, delightfully evil, this is what I imagine it would sound like.”

Strawberry Switchblade – “Little River” (1985)

Emily: “A pop song for freaks. It even hits the classic 2:30-40 second mark. However this duo always took it to a darker place, whether melancholy, mischievous or surreal.”

Bryan Ferry – “Day for Night” (1987)

Emily: “A couple of summers ago I stopped sleeping on this album and became totally obsessed. I mainly stuck to ‘Limbo’ and ‘The Right Stuff’ but recently Laura introduced this track into the rotation, and it’s become the go-to. Johnny Marr is no Manzanera but he’s all over this album, inducing a slithering, tropical angst into Bryan Ferry’s tortured lounge singer daydream.”

Clio — “Faces” (1985)

Emily: “This is the greatest Italo single of all time. Full disclosure – I don’t own this because it’s prohibitively expensive but I still rep Italo records in my collection. Not all of that genre is good. This one is perfect. Angelic, soaring vocals, razor sharp contrasting keys, hard, bestial percussion and bass. One day I’ll have this and it will melt everyone’s face off.”


Evelyn “Champagne” King – “Love Come Down” (1982)

Laura: “This is my favorite ECK song and a perfect example of everything I look for in an RnB soul/disco song from the 80s, which is absolutely my favorite music to play and what I collect the most of when I record dig. I’ve been on a high from this music since 2013 that I’ve never “come down” from. I often imagine my mom dancing alone in her room or in the clubs to this in that decade, because she had a big thing for it too. There are so many others like ECK that were not necessarily crossover acts, so many gems less famous than this one that are lost in time and I’ll always be searching for them. This song is one of the most danceable of the whole era.”

Rexy – “Don’t Turn Me Away” (1981)

Laura: “Dear Samantha Urbani… THANK YOU for bringing this little-known group back to light by re-releasing their record a couple years ago. I’ve been enraptured with it since I first heard it. I idolize this creation from start to finish and if I were to create a band I’d want it to sound like this. The delivery and style is so original and so cool that it’s hard to categorize with genre titles. It’s a college kid duo from late 70s West London, whose keyboardist went on to play with Eurythmics. They were part of a community of freaks called ‘Blitz Kids,’ look it up.”

Imported Moods – “I’m A Scorpio” (1970)

Laura: “What kind of outer reality is the person living in that wrote the horn section of this song? I want to know. Also please take me there. Emily found this and ended up gifting it to me for astrological reasons one will have to just guess. It’s a downtempo mysterious soul groove about how Scorpio and Virgo should be together. 1970, Memphis, not much else known. Imported Moods is a great group name. Your average folk doesn’t even know what kind of treat theirs ears are soaking up when we play a wax copy of this.”

Chacalón y la Nueva Crema – “A Trabajar” (1982)

Laura: “This song comes from a fascinating compilation double LP that I had first heard online and came across a copy of in Roma Norte, Mexico City. It’s Peruvian Cumbia from the 60s and 70s, called Chicha, which is kind of a mix of Andean rural folk music, surf rock, cumbia, and more. It is a fascinating piece of Latin American and Peruvian musical history and it delights my senses and my heart very deeply. This particular track is an uplifting song about rising early every morning to work and persevere every day in order to progress, and it makes sense because Chicha was invented by working-class Andeans trying to make a living in the bigger city of Lima.”

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – “Satellite” (1988)

Laura: “One of my favorite B-side scores! A thrilling thing to happen is when you discover a good b-side that you didn’t know was there before. When a b-side is better than the a-side, I get secret chills. This track wasn’t released on any of their records and it’s one of my favorite that they did. I love OMD more than many synth-pop acts of the era and this track is hopeful and desperate in a lustful way, it has a truly sexy beat and that lower, deep synth creates such a perfect dark but catchy pulse that I’ve never gotten tired of.”

Want more? Like the Nightshade DC page on Facebook and follow them on Instagram. And be sure to catch their guest dj sets at WFTBO on Friday, Feb. 1st with special live guest Lazuli!