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.
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.