Keeping It (Way) Underground: DNA Test Fest
Sean Gray and Christopher Berry are at the Austin Grill in Silver Spring and they can't stop talking about the tacos. For two full minutes they rave about the tacos, how it's their favorite thing in the world right now. OK, they're not talking about food from the Tex-Mex chain. They're talking about a band, Taco Leg. A band that is most likely unknown to everyone in the world who is not currently a member of the band Taco Leg.
"It's like the weirdest band either of us have ever heard," Berry, 22, says. "I think they're all 18 years old. They're from Perth in Australia. From what we can gather they listen to '80s hardcore, K Records stuff and Bikini Kill."
"We don't know anything about this band," Gray, 26, adds. "I just don't know how serious they actually are. And that's the great thing about them. They're probably our favorite band. And it's not an ironic thing. I mean, they sound like [expletive]. But there's an aesthetic to it that makes sense."
"It's so real," Berry adds. "It's too real, man.
"Our favorite band" and "sound like [expletive]." You read that right. But that's how Gray and Berry roll. Championing obscure bands -- and, yes, sometimes harsh and unlistenable bands -- is the focus of their lives. They play those bands on their respective radio shows at WMUC. They put out records by those bands on their label, Fan Death Records. And they'll be hosting more than a dozen of them at the Velvet Lounge this weekend for the second DNA Test Fest.
The two-night event features all varieties of underground, far-out-there acts. Taco Leg won't be there, but here's a sampling of what you can expect: The brutal, sludgy noise of Drunkdriver; spacey, fingerpicked folk from Kurt Vile; the shoegaze-goth-electro soundscapes of locals Screen Vinyl Image; power pop from the Lampshades; even some 1930s-style ragtime from Armida and Her Imaginary Band. The unifying theme is that there is no unifying theme. Or, more accurately, it's simply a bunch of bands that Gray and Berry want to see.
"If nobody showed up, it would still be awesome for us," Gray says.
That won't be the case, thanks to the presence of popular local acts Screen Vinyl Image and True Womanhood on Friday and on-the-verge indie star Kurt Vile on Saturday. But here's an example of the obscurity level that we're dealing with: Saturday's "headliners," Pink Reason, played at the Velvet Lounge a month ago. And there were a dozen people in attendance. Gray knows there will be more people this weekend, but instead of playing to the masses, he's taking it as an opportunity to expose people to new sounds. Maybe even against their will.
"I know that a lot of people are going to show up that first night to see True Womanhood and Screen Vinyl Image," Gray says. "But there are a bunch of bands playing before them that they're going to have to suffer through," he says, referring to Pygmy Shrews and Pfisters. "It would be so easy to book a show that I know would sell out. But we want to do our own thing and the people who will be receptive to it will be receptive to it."
There's no doubt that Gray and Berry take pride in discovering bands that many people would classify as "not music." Gray is a self-proclaimed music elitist. "I have no patience for bad music," he says matter-of-factly. And that means most of the bands currently playing in D.C. "To me, there's nothing going on. There are maybe three bands that you can solidly say are good. We want something to be going on in D.C. It's a clean slate right now. We can throw these avant-garde bands out there, we can throw these punk bands out there, we can throw these really crazy bands out there and do something different in D.C."
A statement like that might cause some people to think they are simply trying to out-indie the most indie of people. But then you ask Berry to describe the sound of Rosemary Krust, a band on Friday night's lineup, and with a completely straight face he asks, "Have you ever heard the Sonic Youth side project Mirror/Dash?" A moment like this makes you realize they aren't putting up a front. These bands are their lives.
They can't say enough positive things about the bands they love. Of Screen Vinyl Image, Gray says: "They are the most interesting and best D.C. band that I have heard in a long, long time. There's nobody that sounds like them. Not only are they a tight band but there's something about their sound. We listen to tons of music and I still can't pinpoint exactly what they sound like. I can say that they sound like Bauhaus meets early Jesus and Mary Chain, they sound like really weird avant-electronic stuff, but you can't pin it down to that."
When talking about Vile, Gray says, "He's the real deal. He's completely genuine about what he does. I don't think he even knows that people worship him. There's also this nice organic way of where he's gotten to where he has. He hasn't just come out of nowhere. He's been doing what he's done for years." If any act on the bill has crossover appeal, it's definitely Vile, whose 2008 album "Constant Hitmaker" was an addictive collection of bedroom-psych-folk. If it doesn't necessarily sound too much like Elliott Smith, his songs have that same intensely personal feel.
Of course, if you want to get a good spot to see and hear Vile play his fragile, whispery tunes, it means you'll have to endure Drunkdriver, a band every bit as intense as its name implies. And that's exactly how Gray and Berry want it to be.
"I think this year you're getting the best of the best," Gray says.
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