Old school punk rock doesn't get much more iconic than Washington DC's vibrant scene during the '70s and '80s, and DC locals James Schneider and Paul Bishow are trying to bring that rock epoch to a wider audience. Punk The Capital, Straight From Washington DC is an upcoming documentary -- featuring legends such as Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye, and H.R. of Bad Brains -- that explores the power and fury of some of punk's earliest roots.
The film, which includes dozens of interviews and tons of archival concert footage, is in its final stages, but the creators have launched a Kickstarter to help them complete it. After conducting 100+ interviews and poring over countless films, photographs, flyers, and zines, the last steps are "film lab transfers and preservation, editing, equipment rental and purchase, the final out of town interviews, sound mixing, and DVD production." The rewards for funding the campaign range from DVDs and posters, to bricks from iconic venues, to limited-edition prints of Shepard Fairey's PUNK ICONS series assembled especially for the film.
With 9 days left on the Kickstarter -- and $34,000 out of $43,000 raised -- we caught up with co-director James Schneider and spoke about his roots, the strength of the DC scene, and the process of bringing this piece of punk rock history to life.
Zumic: What was your first punk show?
James: It was a community center show with Rites of Spring and other bands, circa 1986. These were all-ages shows, something that became a standard thing here in DC. They meant that at 14 or 15 years old, I could start going to shows with friends easily.
What makes DC so special? Especially as compared to NYC and California?
This is something we cover in the film, what made the DC scene become such an influential music scene. By 1980, "punk" had largely become synonymous with the Sex Pistols' legacy of drugs and violence. That side of punk had crept into some of the nascent punk scenes as well, like in the LA scene. In DC, there was already a rising DIY music scene in the late '70s when the really young generation came on to the scene. With this and other conditions in place (and the Bad Brains!), this whole group of kids, like Ian MacKaye and Henry Rollins, just got supercharged. It quickly became more about building something and spreading a "just do it" attitude. It was a different approach towards not only music, but about ways to live. Also, unlike NYC, there's a tradition of people gravitating to DC take a stand for some cause or another, either in government or at protests, or to advocate for change in some other way. Just by the proximity, that energy gets into peoples veins.
What role do you think the straight edge movement played in the formation of the DC scene?
Straight edge has become a global phenomenon, but it didn't have the same effect in other places as it did in DC. Here, it kept a lot of people very focused on the music, affected the lyrics of the songs, and it seemed to feed into a general presence of mind within the scene. I think people that aren't from DC see this as being strict kind of system of rules, but it's not the case. It's unlike what you'd find in other musical communities, like around Sun Ra's Arkestra. There were lots of great bands in DC that were far from being straight edge and were making amazing music in those early years.
Do you think the scene is still as strong there as it once was?
There are a lot of great new bands in DC, though it's a lot more diverse and sub-genred than it was. There's also a thriving harDCore scene with bands like Coke Bust. I do think DC can still produce a new generation of great bands, I'm just not sure how cohesive a scene that would be. In any case, the history is here to draw from and I hope the younger generation doesn't reject it and that the generations work together.
As far as the film, what was the most interesting interview?
It's hard to say, there are so many great interviews. Nearly everyone could be the subject of a film in and of themselves. I can say that it's not only the well-known figures who bring the most interesting perspectives to the table, that's why we are talking to other people who made up the community like photographers, people putting out zines, doing radio shows, etc...
Were there any awkward interviews, fights, conflicts, or prima donnas along the way?
It might not make good copy, but we have been blown away by how generous everyone we've been in touch with has been. We've mostly been doing very long interviews, in part to make a document of different people's relationship with the DC scene. So there's plenty of time for things to surface during these sessions, but as intense as some of them have been, it's never finished in a scrap. This wasn't a scene that formed many prima donnas, but as one interviewee pointed out, it wasn't Camelot either, there's a lot of conflict that went down back in the day. Most people have moved on.
Why launch the Kickstarter?
Paul and I have shelled out a lot of dough to get where we are now but it's been spread out over a long period of time. This last push is the most expensive part and we can't do it without outside help. We want to make sure the project stays on track, and that it is built with a sense of community. In that sense, Kickstarter is a great DIY tool. It helps not just to get the film finished but also makes the project a lot stronger because you have all these people with you.
Concretely, we need to do the last out of town interviews, tons of archival preservation of hours of 16mm and Super 8mm film stock. The hard drives alone for all our footage and archives are close to 10,000 dollars once back-up copies are made. So this campaign won't cover everything, but it will ensure that we get this film done, and soon.
What interviews do you have left to do?
There are only a few more interviews to do. It's good to save some key ones until editing is underway, when you know what parts of the film still need to be fleshed out.
How are you going to release the film? Will it hit any theaters?
We plan to hit the festival circuit and we would love to do a theatrical run. We'll see when the film is done, but we will think long and hard about the distribution, how to keep it in tune with what the film is about.
The next project isn't public yet so I can't get into details right now, but I can say that it's about a hardcore politically engaged group from the late '60s. Nobody has ever done a film about them. It was a much different counter-cultural movement than with the DC punk scene, another context, and the stakes were a lot higher, but there's a lot of parallels.