A Music Roundtable Chat With DC Bands

Remember when we were blown away by a few DC bands who played down at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas? We’ll, we snagged those very same bands to come into Washingtonian.com and do a live chat with us (and you!). Jukebox the Ghost,

Remember when we were blown away by a few DC bands who played down at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas? We’ll, we’ve snagged those very same bands to come into Washingtonian.com and do a live chat with us (and you!). Jukebox the Ghost, These United States, and Le Loup (or members thereof) will take your questions on Monday, April 28, at 2 PM.

Want to know their secrets to musical success? Their thoughts on the flourishing DC music scene? What life on the road is really like for an up-and-coming band? Ask them anything. If these groups’ lively music and charismatic stage presences count for anything, their answers are going to be pretty great.
That's' all the time Le Loup, These United States, and Jukebox the Ghost have for us today. Thanks for all the questions, and thanks to the bands for chatting! Our next music chat will be Travis Morrison this Friday; submit your question for him in advance here.

Alexandria, VA
Is there anything sweeter than Jim Thomson's mustauche?

Tommy from Jukebox the Ghost: No.

Sam from Le Loup: that depends on how you're using the term 'sweet.'  if you mean it in an 'awww, that's sweet' type of way… one time i saw a chimpanzee cuddling a kitten on a rainy day, and it warmed the cockles of my heart ALMOST as much as jim's mustache does.  or do you mean it in more of a 'wow, that's a rad mustache' sense?  because this other time i saw barack obama ride a wild grizzly bear through a flaming hoop, set over ten junked cars (also flaming), and jim's mustache is twice sweeter than that.  so… i guess the answer is no, no matter how you cut it, there's nothing sweeter than jim's 'stache.

Jesse from These United States: that's true about Barack Obama.  hope!  unfortunately, Sam neglected to consider my beard.  my beard will duel with Jim's mustache at high noon on Wednesday.  unless Jim's mustache is busy.  in which case, Jim, have your mustache's secretary call my beard's secretary, and we'll see if we can't work something out.

Washington, DC
Are all the bands in DC pretty friendly? Is there like an underground network? Do you all hang out at the same bars or what?
Sam from Le Loup: all the DC bands i've met are incredibly friendly.  there's generally a real air of camaraderie between the musicians and artists; everybody seems very willing to help everybody else out.  no underground network (or am i just not cool enough for that, guys?), but people hang out when they get the chance.  i've since last year moved to the b'more area, and i know the jukebox fellahs are now situated in philly; to the best of my knowledge, jesse has been touring since SXSW or before.  so i suspect all of us three miss our DC friends.  but everybody's very personable.  jesse knows absolutely everybody not only in the DC music circuit, but pretty much in the US music circuit, and i wouldn't be surprised if he hangs out with them- all of them- regularly.  amazing man.

Jesse from TUS: I could easily have Sam Simkoff killed.  if that is what you mean by Underground Network, then Yes.  Sam, please remember this next time you answer a question about what is sweeter than Jim's mustache.  in all seriousness, as in any place, it seems to me that there are two dozen different intermingled scenes.  Tom and I hang a lot with the whole Gypsy Eyes and Federal Reserve crowd, except when they're busy quitting our band.  which is every 4 or 5 days.  you can usually find us all in some form or another at Iota or the Black Cat or when we wanna get away from live music (who in live music doesn't wanna get away from live music every once in a while?) at Pharmacy Bar or around a campfire at Josh Read's house.  sometimes I see Jamie of Greenland on a random street corner, and we perform a secret handshake and move swiftly on, without a word being spoken.

Tom from TUS: I think bands in general are pretty friendly people – and given the amount of musical cross-pollination going on right now in DC, it seems like everyone is somehow loosely involved with everyone else's projects.  Which makes people extra friendly.  There is also a secret handshake involving sending Jesse Elliott a Friend Request while making the sign of Jim's mustache.  In Rondo form.

Washington, DC
I saw the photos of TUS and Le Loup joining each other on stage in Texas. When can we get a super group on stage performance from all of you here in DC?!
Sam from Le Loup: i don't know about that exact lineup, but i think there are a fair amount of collaborations between bands all the time.  there was a holiday performance with members from washington social club, jukebox, exit clov and le loup (probably missing somebody).  our drummer robby practiced a little with pash recently.  TUS has other DC bandmembers onstage with him all the time.  you kind of have to just keep your eyes peeled.  playing songs onstage with other DC musicians you respect is a blast, especially when you haven't practiced at all before getting up there.  gives it a real sense of spontaneity and playfulness.  so it'll happen plenty more.

Jesse from TUS: I think Sam was drunk when it happened, and he's probably drunk right now as he's answering this question.  don't trust Sam's answers.  clearly Le Loup and These United States played together at SXSW.  I think there's even photographic evidence of it on your website, if I'm not mistaken…

Tom from TUS: TUS and Le Loup have played together a few times here in DC…and we all keep sneaking into each other's bands.  Sometimes Dan sets up his amp outside my house and funks out on bass into the wee hours of the morning.  Its a little strange.

Fairfax, VA
Not to diminish all the hard work you guys have surely done, but in terms of bands, you all seem to have shot to the top relatively quickly – lots of publicity, contracts, national tours, whatever. That takes some bands years and years to achieve, if ever. How did that all happen for you?

Tommy from Jukebox the Ghost: I've heard people say that about us before, but I try to remind people that we were a band for three years before we started playing successful shows, or even considered recording an album. It was good to have a few years to get ourselves together and write some good songs. So while it may seem like a very short trajectory to the outside world, we've been playing music together since early 2004. But as far as our progress in the last year goes, we've been incredibly lucky — and the credit for all of that would have to go to our incredible manager, Seth Kallen. Hardest workin' man in the biz.  We also made a deal with satan.

Sam from Le Loup: in our case, yeah, i feel like things moved pretty quickly.  although, honestly, we have a long, long way to go.  if you go on a national tour, and there are shows in several cities where there are thirty people in the audience?  there's always another step to take.  but yeah, that initial step is a big one.  and i'm not entirely sure how to give a good answer to that question.  i think maybe we're all sitting on the cusp of a new model for distribution, advertisement, etc. in the music biz.  what with the internet being as big as it is these days (i mean, it's EVERYWHERE!), and technology both for recording music and putting it out on the internet being increasingly easy to procure and navigate, maybe bands just make it to a certain level faster.  we certainly had a lot of help from our friends, initially, and our label eventually, and touring like a demon does wonders in general, i think, but the real kicker will generally be blogs and blogs and blogs.  they now determine who's gonna be a buzz band, who's gonna be nothing, who's gonna be huge.  look at what a pitchfork review will do for a band.  a favorable one will cement you into the scene.  a poor one will bury you.  so in terms of initial national buzz, we owe a lot (or have to blame) the online community.  the hard part these days isn't getting there.  the hard and scary part is trying to figure out a way to stay there.

Jesse from TUS: we have been scraping and crawling and kicking and bleeding and begging and cheating and stealing and crying our way to the …uh, where are we now, Tom?  I think the "4th from the bottom" level… for the last 3 years now.  there are only 42 levels in this game.  shouldn't take too many more decades til we get to the top.

Tom from TUS: We made it to the 4th from the bottom rung?  I'm going to celebrate by illegally downloading the Le Loup record again.

Who are you guys listening to right now – both local bands, and national acts?
Sam from Le Loup: i can't get away from animal collective.  no matter how hard i try, they still fascinate and flummox me.  panda bear, for that matter.  fleet foxes are beautiful.  yeasayer.  grizzly bear.  bon iver.  locally, i'm a big fan of georgie james and benjy ferree.

Tom from TUS: There are so many good locals at the moment – Le Loup and Jukebox the Ghost (and not just because they're reading this).  Georgie James is great, and I've had the privilege of playing with Laura on a few of her solo sets, which are equally inspiring.  Roofwalkers. Kitty Hawk. Vandaveer. John Bustine. Revival. Greenland.  The list goes on and on…its a great time to be playing music in DC right now.  Pick a venue.  See a show – you'll be amazed.

National acts – I was amazed by how many great national bands we played with on our last tour.  Its really humbling to realize how many good bands are out there – my favorites (in no order) The Triceratops, from Birmingham AL.  The Peekers, Shreveport, LA.  The Lisps, from Brooklyn.  Musee Mechanique, from Portland.  The Scourge of the Sea – Lexington, KY.  Pretty and Nice, Boston.  The Shot Heard Round the World, Brooklyn.  And – Baltimore's own Wye Oak.

Jesse from TUS: Two Sheds. Rafter Roberts.  The Childballads.  Frightened Rabbit.  WHY?  David Dondero.  Buck 65.  Purr Bats.  The Scourge of the Sea.  Rachel Ries.  The Cotton Jones Basket Ride.  those're the CDs that're literally sitting on top of my CD player, waiting their turn in line – lots of the bands we played with along the way on this last tour.  trading CDs with bands you play with is one of the most fun parts of playing music.  except when those bands suck.  or you suck.  both of which is always a possibility.  that is the risk you take.  we live life on the Edge.  this one guy we played with in the UK, in Manchester, calls Tom "The Ridge."  because he looks like The Edge.  that's amazingly funny.

Tommy from Jukebox: I'm LOVING Why?'s new album, "Alopecia" and These United States' new record. Those would definitely be my top two right now.

OBviously the internet is a must-use for any band these days…how have you guys leveraged it for you all? What do you think of digital downloading?
Sam from Le Loup: two weeks before our album came out officially, it showed up on a bunch of bit torrent sites.  got downloaded thousands of times.  on a purely profit-driven level, that sucks.  and as somebody who wants to be able to afford to make music for a living, i was a little concerned about how that would hurt my chances.  as it is, i think we've officially sold something like 3,000 albums to date.  in the two weeks before distribution, almost that many copies were downloaded from the internets.

but you can't think of it on purely a profit-driven level.  it'll forever and always drive you crazy.  the artist is always the one that's traditionally screwed financially, right?  before, it was record execs taking the big piece of the pie.  now it's the fans.  better the latter than the former, don't you think?  and most of us (i like to believe) aren't in this for the paycheck anyway.  we're in it because we want to share our music with people, because we think we have something to contribute.  and on that level, it's an amazing form of distribution and promotion, and i'm just happy people love music and listen to it that much.  it's unfortunate to our label, though, who we love very much, and, as a startup label, can't necessarily afford to take big hits.

Jesse from TUS: Sam is correct.  except our album sales are different.

I love the pedal steel guitar! Where'd you learn it?
Tom from TUS: I tried to sell my soul to learn to play a la Robert Johnson, but apparently even the Devil gets lost on his way to Bailey's Crossroads.

So I'm still learning to play pedal steel, but have reached this point mostly through the advice of my peers, the inspiration of my elders, and the supreme tolerance of my house mates.

Washington, DC
Do you think there is a "DC sound" anymore? All three of your bands play very different music, but do you guys see any similarities that might be attributed to other music coming out of DC?
Sam from Le Loup: i don't know of any particular 'DC sound.'  it certainly isn't like before, when the DC sound was defined by the harder-core movement.  i'm actually quite glad that the bands coming from DC are so varied in their styles.  makes for a very eclectic i-pod.

Jesse from TUS: I don't believe there's EVER actually a specific "sound" to one particular place at one time.  there's always many, many, MANY sounds – history just gets to decide what the most influential one was, and then slaps a tag on This Place at That Time.  that used to take a couple decades to decide.  now it seems to take 6 months.  we'll say what Future Historians of Six Months From Now say about Our Times, I suppose.

Tommy from Jukebox: If the bands participating in the discussion today are any indication, there's definitely not a unified sound. But that's kind of a cool thing. It seems like a lot of the major rock bands in DC aren't working within the Dischord/Fugazi framework. It might have to do with the transient nature of DC residents — I'm just taking a guess here, but it seems like a very small portion of people in DC bands right now actually grew up in the area.

Washington, DC
Who are your favorite new bands, in DC or anywhere? Any newcomers we should watch for?
Tommy from Jukebox: The Drunken Sufis are a DC band that has an album coming out soon. I hear it's going to be terrifying.

Jesse from TUS: my favorite new band is The Cotton Jones Basket Ride.  this changes every day, but today, that is they.

Tom from TUS: Favorite New Bands: The Tom Fun Orchestra (and not just for the name).  They're Canadian.  They're playing in Glasgow, Scotland tonight.  If you're free.

I also love the Felice Brothers (unfairly trashed by Pitchfork).  As an unrelated sidenote, Jesse now hates the Felice Brothers, as a result of it being the only record to be agreed upon in the traveling vehicle.

Jukebox: How did you come up with such an awesome name? Love, a fan

Tommy from Jukebox: We used to go under a different moniker, but a year and a half ago we decided to change our name. We were all brainstorming ideas and trying to think of good words to use. I was listening to Captain Beefheart's incoherent ramblings on the Zappa album "Bongo Fury" when I heard the word 'jukebox' — Ben wanted 'ghost' in the title from the Nabokov novella 'Pnin'. And Jesse wanted us to be a 'the' band. So we sandwiched it in the middle. Kind of a lame story. I hear there's an episode of Happy Days that has something to do with a ghost in a jukebox, so feel free to use that explanation.

Jesse from TUS: to answer the question from the Jukebox the Ghost fan… Jukebox the Ghost stole its name from These United States, which used to, in its formative days, be called 'Jukebox the United States of American People Which is Awesome.'  Jukebox called that whole idea ghastly, and a ghost was born.

Tommy: That's true.  Way to call us out on our interview fib in public, Jesse GOSHHHHH. "Jukebox the United States of American People Which Is Awesome" was a major influence on our sound early on.

Bethesda, MD
What's the best venue to play at? Best venue to watch a show?
Tommy from Jukebox: When Rob ran sound at the Velvet Lounge, that room was killer. Always sounded good, and such an intimate space. But as far as big venues go, the Black Cat mainstage and the 9:30 Club are awesome to play.
Washington, DC
Do gigs really pay the rent here in DC or do you have side jobs as well?
Jesse from TUS: in These United States, we all fluctuate between varying degrees of employment.  as of this writing, 1 of the 5 of us currently in 'the band' (if that's what we can even be considered) has a job outside of music.  some make money on the Road.  some make money in the Studio.  some just don't make money.  most would like to see a Minor Revolution in the Currency Systems of the World's Major Powers.

Sam from Le Loup: wait, who's got a job?  how can i get one of those?  i will take literally any job you offer me.  any paying job.  no questions asked.

music doesn't make us money.  especially when there are seven people in the band.  even if we get paid well for a gig, each individual cut might buy each person a sandwich at the end of the day.  but a discount, day-old sandwich.

Tommy from Jukebox: Because we have less than half the number of people in our band, we can buy each person TWO day -old sandwiches when we're on the road.  

Ben from Jukebox: I was actually raised on nothing but two day-old sandwiches. But honestly – i have piano students. or had them. but i have travelled so much i have lost them all. Except for one. That i am terminating this afternoon.  In the business sense.

Tom from TUS: I'm the one in TUS currently employed.  I'm lucky enough that my job (at a non-profit theater in DC) allows me to take my laptop on tour with me.  Its a delicate balance – and I realize how lucky I am to be in the position.  Although it'd be much nicer to just have a significant other who totally took care of me (I have no moral objections to being a kept man).

This one's for Jukebox the Ghost: Being there for the first time, what was the SXSW experience like?
Tommy from Jukebox: A total rush. We played 6 shows in four days — Some were great, some were terrible. DC does TX was definitely my favorite one. We have a lot of love for our fellow DC bands, and the whole day was just an excellent, drunk afternoon of band-to-band love. It was such an awesome reminder of how many stellar bands are in the DC area right now.  Le Loup, Georgie James, These United States, Exit Clov, Pash, Middle Distance Runner, Bellman Barker, Tereu Tereu, Vandaveer, the list goes on and on and on…
Who are the drama queens on the DC music scene? There have to be a few!

Tom from TUS: I played onstage wearing a pink muppet jacket once.  Does that count?  Jesse is also probably going to mention me in his response, i'm sure.

Jesse from TUS: all the Drama Queens of the DC scene work for These United States.  seriously – come see a show some time!  people quitting!  amplifiers being dragged out into the street and hurled angrily!  twelve drummers fighting!  a partridge in a pear tree!  etc!

Tommy from Jukebox: I think we can all vouch for this — One time I saw These United States break up and reunite 5 times in one show.

Tom from TUS: Sidnote:  It wasn't an "angry" amp-hurling.  I mean, I guess I was angry.  But it was also fun.  In an angry sort of way.  (I guess I just outed myself as a drama queen, huh?)

Arlington, VA
What's next for all you guys – more tours, bigger venues, perhaps a musical feature on Grey's Anatomy??
Tommy from Jukebox: Well, our debut record came out in stores and on itunes a week ago, so we're touring constantly in May and June in support of it. As far as the long term future is concerned, I have a running bet with Jesse (drums in Jukebox) that Wendy's won't serve sushi in the year 2020. He's betting they WILL serve sushi. If I lose, I have to eat Wendy's sushi for every meal of the 2020 "When Hell Freezes Over" Jukebox the Ghost reunion tour. If he loses, he has to eat Wendy's for every meal of the 2020 tour. Which he wouldn't mind at all. So that's a big part of our long-term vision.
i think some of you in le loup had "real" day jobs before hitting it big in terms of the band world. (and maybe this applies to the other bands as well?) so did you just up and quit your jobs? did they let you take a leave of absence? if the band thing doesn't work out, can you go back to your careers?

Jesse from TUS: I mean, I think EVERYbody has had a "real" job at SOME point, right?  I started working when I was 13, at a video store.  then for an auctioneer, furniture moving company, newspaper, library, international war crimes court, New Jersey deli.  I've worked with the best and the worst of em.  no difference, really.  the world of music work is just an exaggerated version of all that.  it's still a job, too, especially these days.  it's funny that people often see it as such a separate world, even though it's integrally tied into our everyday lives.  people work to run music venues.  people work to hock stuff to Grey's Anatomy.  people work to just record music, even if they don't do all that additional stuff with it.  for better and for worse, we all still use USD when we go to the corner market for a day-old sandwich.

Sam from Le Loup: Q for jesse: what was tougher, working at an international war crimes court, or the deli?  i mean, when you're working at an international war crimes court, i suspect you have to deal with all sorts of existential issues and tough political quandaries, but when you work at a deli… hoagies.  heros.  thousand island dressing?  half-sours.  discuss.

most of [Le Loup] had jobs before doing the band thing, yeah.  only one of us managed to keep a job throughout our last two month tour.  when you're going to be gone for that long at any given point in the year, it's hard to keep a steady, serious job.  but you have to prioritize.  it's so easy to think that once you're out of school, you need to buckle down and grow up.  but we're still young, and there's no better time than drive around the country playing music than now.  i want to ride that wave as long as it goes, and worry about money later.

Tommy from Jukebox: Right now, none of us in Jukebox have jobs.  We've had to quit them all with our constant touring schedule.  But as I said before, we manage to buy at least TWO day-old sandwiches for each band member, so that helps take some of the individual financial burden away.


England, UK…
Bands of your stature like U2, Radiohead and Oasis seem to skip over our little island when they are trying to take over the world, what made you decide to tour the UK? (to These United States)
Tom from TUS: We heard that your country was much simpler to navigate.  Especially Nottingham.  And Bristol.  (hi Nadia)
I think the DC music "scene" is definitely revitalized from the 90s and early 2000s. Do you guys agree? What's making this happen? Why now?
Tommy from Jukebox: No idea why.  But there is a TON of great music coming out of DC right now.  'Tis a beautiful thing. 

Tom from TUS: As far as "revitalizing" the music scene:  Half the musicians in this city are "in" These United States, and Sam employs the rest in Le Loup.  I try to weasel my way into session work with the remaining stragglers.  Jukebox the Ghost were actually about to be assimilated…so they packed up and split.  We know where you live, guys.

Jesse from TUS: I really don't know.  I wasn't here then.  I do think Tommy pointed out something really interesting in his previous answer "It might have to do with the transient nature of DC residents — I'm just taking a guess here, but it seems like a very small portion of people in DC bands right now actually grew up in the area." 

it cracks me up every time someone's like "weird!  These United States doesn't sound like it's from DC!" which happens a ridiculous amount of times, actually (see Washingtonian.com SXSW wrap-up 😉 the short answer is: well, we're not.  we're from Illinois and Kentucky and Pennsylvania, and I personally have spent more time in Europe and Iowa and Mexico and Michigan than I have in the District.  music in general is so transient these days – and so is DC.  and that combo is what makes things so eclectic around here.

Tom from TUS: I'm also always curious as to what the DC "sound" is.  In the 1930s DC was a center for Jazz.  in the 40s bluegrass made its way from the hills and spread via the DC airwaves.  In the 50s this was a center for country music.  In the 80s – punk/hardcore.  and in the 90s we had bands like Q and not U and the Dismemberment Plan (to name 2) who were keeping DC on the musical map.  It changes and mutates and grows.

Jesse from TUS: don't forget all kindsa "urban" (do they really call it that these days?) music, too!  hip-hop, soul, R&B — DC's always been fertile ground for LOTSa genres…

C&O Canal, Georgetown
Hey Tommy, Is it true you had a stint as a historical reenactor on the C&O Canal in Georgetown for a while? Did that influence your music at all? Write any songs about the donkeys that pull the boats? Fondly, Canal Stalker
Tommy from Jukebox: That is true.  Big, poofy 1800s clothes, banjo-playing, the whole bit — Three years working at the park.  Most of my songs were inspired by, or directly influenced by mules.  That goes for Ben too.
springfield, VA
How did you all get together? I want to learn more about your origins as bands
Tom from TUS: I actually got rejected from both Le Loup (their Bearded Man quotient was filled.  I don't think calling them "Lay Loop" helped.) and Jukebox the Ghost (the "one-Tommy-in-a-band" rule).  So by default I ended up in TUS.

Sam from Le Loup: how'd we get together?  i dunno… something about myspace… something about craigslist… met up and started a band… playing for a year…

Tommy from Jukebox: Jukebox the Ghost started as "The Sunday Mail" at GWU.  Ben and Jesse were neighbors in their dorm.  They used to have another guitarist, but he left the country after freshman year.  I had put up signs around school trying to start a band, and got a call from those Ben and Jesse dudes.  We've been married ever since.

Washington, DC
Which muppet do you each most resemble?
Jesse from TUS: I'm assuming we're limiting this to Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem?  I would like to think I am the Dr. Teeth of the group, but of course am probably more akin to Scooter.  Tom is definitely Janice.  Robby = Animal.  Mark Charles –> Sgt. Floyd Pepper.  and our most recent addition for the next few shows, Justin Craig, would definitely make sense as Zoot.
England, UK
If the US became a totalitarian state and folk music was prohibited, (imagining the punishment for your hanus crime would be having to listen to Creed on loop) what genre of music would you venture into?
Sam from Le Loup: i'd play rap music.

Tom from TUS
: Wait – TUS aren't a totalitarian state?  Oh…the Country.  Er…I'd venture into electronic pop music – have you guys heard of Hot Chip?  I just discovered them…they're rad.  If i knew anything about making electronic music i'd trade in my instruments tomorrow.

Jesse from TUS: agreed. if Tom knew anything about electronic pop music, I'd trade his instruments in tomorrow.

Tommy from Jukebox: Jukebox the Ghost would continue to play zydeco, because you can't outlaw zydeco.

Jesse from TUS: oo.  zydeco.  good one.  damn.  that'd be up there for me.  really, tho, Electrified Street Thumb Piano.  no, seriously.  check out Konono No. 1 – http://www.crammed.be/konono –  if you've never heard of them.  part of an amazing movement of African musicians.  Africa is the birthplace of everything.  damn.  I wish Africa would be the totalitarian rulers of this new anti-folk thing we're talking about.

incidentally, one of the best quotes ever about music, from Louis Armstrong (or was it Big Bill Broonzy, Wikipedia forces me to ask myself?!) — "All music is folk music. I ain't never heard a horse sing a song."

Tommy from Jukebox: Shit, that sums up everything.