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Local Listens: The Public Good

Whether playing trivia at their concerts or singing about going bald, this quirky foursome likes to have fun—and they play at Fort Reno this summer.

From their sarcastic band name to their self-description as “monumental” rock, the Public Good refuses to take anything about their image particularly seriously.

“A lot of our approach to things is really tongue-in-cheek,” says John Elderkin, who sings and plays guitar for the band. “Everyone says they love the Stones and the Beatles, but what about the goofy bands out there? We’re actually influenced by the Monkees. We’re just having fun with all that stuff, but we do want to make sure the songs are really good.”

Fort Reno attendees can try to separate the sarcastic from the sincere this summer, after the Public Good reschedules their appearance at the summer-long concert series, which runs until August 12; concerts are from 7 to 9:30 on Mondays and Thursdays at Fort Reno Park (202-355-6356; In between lively rock tunes, which offset sometimes lachrymose lyrics, Elderkin promises “brain-wrenching” trivia, administered by vocalist/guitarist/keyboardist Sam Esquith, who’s also a 2009 Washington Post Magazine short-story-contest winner.

We chatted with Elderkin about punk rock, Adams Morgan bars, the beauty of band practice, and more.

John Elderkin, 40, guitar, vocals.
Sam Esquith, 32, guitar, keyboard, vocals.
Chris Garges, 35, drums; also produced and recorded the band’s latest CD.
Steve Ruppenthal, 40, bass, vocals.

Where are you all from originally?
“Steve, Chris, and I are from Charlotte, North Carolina. Sam is from East Lansing, Michigan.”

How did the band get together?
“Steve and I were in a band called the Popes in college. It did well for a while, and then it kind of imploded. We ended up here in DC for different reasons, and we really wanted to do music again. I think now we’re much more focused on music, as opposed to when you’re 22 and in a band—it’s easy to get distracted and make bad decisions. We’re a lot smarter now, and I think our songs are smarter. We also knew Sam and had mutual friends with Chris. We started the band about 2½ years ago.”

Any story behind the band’s name?

“On some level, it’s ironic because we’re not really offering the public any good. But it’s also some sort of ironic idea that, yeah, here’s our service to mankind. Here’s our rock and roll.”

You guys excited about playing at Fort Reno?

“We’re really excited. We’ve never played there, but we’ve gone out there before and have wanted to be a part of it. It’s a really great mix of people—like people who were in bands in the past or are into indie music and now have their kids there with them. And we’re using the show as an informal CD-release show. We just released our new CD last week—it’s called A Varied Program of Stereo Dynamics for Your Wild Nights Alone, a title which is, we think, entirely accurate.”

Lightning-round time. First song that made you want to play music:
“The first record I got was Glen Campbell’s greatest hits. He’s a country guy, and man did I love that record.”

First instrument:

“I tried piano but that failed. So then the guitar.”

Best local spot to seek inspiration or write music:
“I like to go to the Black Cat and the 9:30 Club to see music. Usually if I see a really good band, I’ll get inspired and think I should go home and write some songs. But for me, most of my inspiration comes from daydreaming and then trying to write a little story.”

Best local music venue:
“Iota and the Rock & Roll Hotel. We’ve never played the 9:30, but we’d jump at the chance.”

Best bar to hear music:
“The Velvet Lounge on U Street.”

Favorite local band other than yours:

Best thing about Washington’s music scene:
“The clubs to play in are great.”

Worst thing:
“DC’s a little hard to figure out. It’s kind of a transient city. Bands seem to come and go.”

Favorite local hangout:
“I spend a fair bit of time in a bar in Adams Morgan called Angles. And I walk my dog in Rock Creek Park a lot.”

Major musical influences:
“Steve and I were both really into the original punk-rock bands—the Clash, the Sex Pistols—but we always balanced that with the Monkees, the Beatles, the Stones, the classic stuff. That early punk-rock thing we found in college was a big influence—like, oh, wow, we could do this. Whereas classic rock, it’s like, those guys are awesome musicians—I could never play that.”

If you could listen to only one album for the rest of your life, which would it be?
“Probably Exile on Main Street by the Stones. That one seems to never get old.”

When introducing your music to someone for the first time, what song do you play?
“A song called ‘(Imagine the Girlfriends I’d Have) If I Still Had Hair.’ The character in the song is totally neurotic about going bald, but I think it’s just a well-done song. And ‘Black Ice’—it’s a really serious song, but we don’t beat anyone over the head with stuff. It’s about Steve’s father, who was diagnosed with cancer.”

Best thing about being in a band?
“I love going to practice. You can come in with some ideas and the guys in our band are so good that you know really interesting things are going to come out of these ideas. I could come in with something I think is one thing, show it to them, and it comes out way better. I love that.”

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