Listening to Chalk Circle ’s “Reflection,” it’s not too hard to pinpoint the era when this music was made. The jittery rhythms, choppy guitars and speak-sung vocals place it squarely in the early 1980s, a period after the initial punk explosion when a slew of young music fans were inspired to pick up instruments and form bands.
Placing where the music was made is a bit more difficult. At times the dozen songs recall the slapdash pop of British DIY devotees Desperate Bicycles; the art-punk minimalism of fellow U.K. groups Young Marble Giants or Animals and Men; the rhythmic workouts of Athens, Ga.’s Pylon; or the no wave stutter of New York’s Bush Tetras. You wouldn’t group Chalk Circle in with the whiplash frenzy of D.C. hardcore, but the 12 songs on “Reflection” were made during that scene’s heyday in 1981 to 1983.
The songs — a collection of studio sessions recorded at Inner Ear Studios and various live recordings — aren’t particularly loud or fast. And they were played by an all-female band. Maybe those are all reasons why the group sort of fell between the cracks of D.C.’s punk history, even though the band members were longtime friends with some of the most imporantant figures. (More on that in the interview that follows.) The band is notable for being the first all-female act to emerge from D.C.’s punk scene, but “Reflection” should ensure that Chalk Circle is appreciated for its musical merit instead of being a mere a historical curiosity.
The songs achieve a similar catharsis to hardcore, just without that genre’s standard outlets of aggression. There’s a feeling of excitement and discovery throughout — a group of friends fulfilling a creative vision on their own terms, without it ever feeling like an amateur pursuit. What the band members may have lacked in classic technical skill they more than made up for with a sense of dynamics that propel the songs forward — as well as sideways and occasionally in circles, happily forgoing standard structures.
“Side By Side” lurches forward, stops, starts, features call-and-response vocals and wraps up within two minutes. “Scrambled” is the closest thing to a punk song here, checking in at just 90 seconds, but the distorted guitars and militaristic march of the verse leads into a double-speed twist-up in the chorus, keeping the song true to its name. “Easy Escapes” features the collection’s clearest vocals from singer Mary Green and finds her offering a sort of existential anthem: “Easy escapes aren’t to be found/Must find my own way out/No one has the easy answer/But is there an answer?”
“Reflection” was released earlier this year, a joint effort by archival label Mississippi Records and Post Present Medium, the label headed by Dean Spunt of L.A. punk duo No Age. The album comes with a fantastic 16-page booklet of liner notes written by Don Fleming, a noted producer who also played in D.C. band the Velvet Monkeys. He paints a complete picture of the scene that Chalk Circle grew out of and eventually found itself looking into from the outside. Guitarist/vocalist Sharon Cheslow -- who has gone on to perform as Coterie Exchange, played with Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna in Suture , and contributed to the book “Banned In D.C.” with Cynthia Connolly and Leslie Clague -- answered some of my questions via e-mail earlier this week about “Reflection” and the D.C. scene three decades ago. Read it after the jump.
How does it feel to hear these songs now — had it been a long time since you listened? Were you planning on putting a release together or did Dean (Spunt) approach you?
Alex Yusimov of Mississippi Records was the one who initially approached me. He had heard a couple of our songs and asked if we had enough material to put out a record. I loved what Mississippi was doing because it reminded me of Folkways. So I went through a laborious process of trying to track down good enough quality audio, because not only had it been over 25 years since Chalk Circle disbanded, but the audio recordings we'd done were in different formats — cassette, reel-to-reel, vinyl. I had saved most of our recordings, but only had original masters for some of them.
It was fun to re-listen to the songs. It made me remember how excited we all were to be in a band and to record! That was one of the great things about punk — the whole process of playing out and recording suddenly became demystified and accessible. Chalk Circle did our first studio demo at Inner Ear with Don Zientara and Howard Wuelfing in early 1982, seven months after we played our first show. I'm very happy there was enough documentation to release.
After I had a clearer sense as to what audio was available, I proposed to Dean Spunt of No Age, who runs Post Present Medium, and Alex if they'd be interested in doing a co-release and they were both really into it. Dean and I had met through our mutual friend [Hawnay Troof amd XBXRX singer] Vice Cooler , and then Dean and I became friends after I moved to L.A. in 2005. I did a Coterie Exchange performance with David Scott Stone on a bill with [Dean’s] pre-No Age band, Wives. I loved what Dean was doing with PPM and creating a community through the Smell. He and I talked a lot about early D.C. and L.A. punk, and we loved a lot of the same bands. It turned out he'd bought “Banned in D.C.” in high school, which was Cynthia Connolly's book on early '80s D.C. punk I'd helped compile in 1988!
Chalk Circle liked bands on L.A. independent labels such as Dangerhouse, New Alliance, Happy Squid, Slash, and SST. So it seemed natural for Alex, Dean, and I to work together to put together the release.
It really struck me how at the beginning of the Chalk Circle story (as told in the liner notes of “Reflection) you were very much part of the "inner circle" of the D.C. punk scene, but as the favored sound veered more towards hardcore, Chalk Circle seemed to be pushed to the periphery. Is that an accurate portrayal? Was it hurtful, disappointing? Do you think this was due to being female, having a more "arty" sound that didn't fit in, a combination? Did it help motivate the band at all in any way? Do you think the band has been "overlooked" in terms of its place in the history of the D.C. music scene?
There was no "inner circle" in our minds at the time, because we were all such weirdos. Looking back we just happened to have been involved in the birth of D.C. hardcore because of our friendships. There was actually a tight-knit D.C. punk scene that already existed, that we looked up to, and we were sometimes called "teeny punks" because we were younger. Chalk Circle's drummer, Anne Bonafede, became friends with the Teen Idles and Untouchables, which were the bands that evolved into Minor Threat and Youth Brigade, while at Wilson High School. She worked at the Georgetown Häagen-Dazs with Ian MacKaye and Henry Rollins. I became friends with people while working at Yesterday and Today Records in Rockville, Md.
Initially we were all part of the D.C. punk/hardcore scene and people were very open minded. We all co-existed harmoniously until the hardcore sound became more codified and shows became violent due to kids who didn't really understand what that scene was about. That's when a lot of girls and older punks dropped out.
Yes, another part of the problem was that some guys looked down upon the artier bands because those were the bands that had girls in them. Part of it was due to immaturity or differing tastes. Partly there was not-so-subtle sexism. We simply did our own thing. The view that people have of early D.C. punk that is based solely on hardcore or Dischord bands isn't the full picture.
Don Fleming did a great job with the liner notes. He was able to put Chalk Circle into context because he was there and knew us. We played our first two shows opening up for his band, Velvet Monkeys, and they were very supportive. HR of the Bad Brains was supportive too, before Chalk Circle ever formed.
Chalk Circle had our own vision and we were very motivated to get out there and do things on our own terms. We were the only all-girl punk band in D.C. then, and we got called everything from silly girls to bimbos. It was difficult at times, but Chalk Circle were very passionate about what we doing and that helped us overcome obstacles.
Fortunately Chalk Circle have been appreciated by a lot of people interested in portraying that time more accurately, and we've been mentioned in several books. Also, in the early 1990s Bikini Kill and Bratmobile took interest in Chalk Circle because they'd moved to D.C. in 1991 and I collaborated with some of them. I was interviewed for the Experience Music Project's riot grrrl retrospective and also for Kerri Koch's riot grrrl documentary “Don't Need You.” It seems people interested in riot grrrl history have great respect for Chalk Circle, and hopefully now that this release is out more people will understand how we fit into the broader history of music.
Did you ever feel more part of a national/international scene with bands such as Young Marble Giants, Dolly Mixture, the Raincoats, etc., — predominantly female bands who were playing a similar style of music?
The whole punk story has been incorrectly portrayed in the past 10-20 years as a bunch of male bands with the females on the sidelines or as two separate scenes. It wasn't like that. The initial music scenes in the U.S. and Europe and Australia were about boys and girls, men and women, working together to subvert a music and cultural system that seemed boring, abhorrent, and oppressive. There were all these smaller subsets or off-shoots, such as no wave, industrial, post-punk, new wave, hardcore, etc. Chalk Circle became part of this larger underground force.
We all believed really strongly in creating our own culture and participating in the national/international punk community. We developed our own sound and thought of ourselves as a girl gang ready to kick down walls that said we couldn't do things because we were girls or kids or punks. While I was in Chalk Circle I worked on fanzines and had a radio show on WMUC-FM. I had connections to the strong network of musicians/fanzine writers in the U.S. and also interviewed some musicians from Europe. The whole point was to be creative and productive, regardless of gender.
So although we loved the Raincoats and the Slits, and definitely felt inspired by them, I wouldn't say we listened predominantly to female bands. I didn't listen to Dolly Mixture at all. Seeing and hearing other female musicians gave Chalk Circle courage, and to this day I owe so much to them, but the truth is that Chalk Circle were part of a mixed-gender community. We wanted to show people that girls could be taken seriously, because girls have an amazing spirit that often goes unnoticed and unrecognized!