D.C.'s Britpop Invasion

By Fritz Hahn
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, November 9, 2001, Page WE05


    Panic Dancers occupy every inch of floor and stage space at Panic, a weekly dance event at the Metro Cafe. (Photo by Kevin Clark/The Washington Post)
Mark Zimin's first weekly DJ night folded in 1998 because it didn't draw a crowd. During its 10-month run, Zimin and two or three friends sometimes put on Rolling Stones albums and talked while they played, because no one else came to dance to the Britpop and soul music he was spinning at Red, the subterranean club south of Dupont Circle.

Three years later, with essentially the same record collection, his monthly Mousetrap dance party fills the Black Cat to capacity. And his dedication has allowed others to start their own events, creating a vibrant scene.

In early 1999, Zimin approached the owners of the Metro Cafe about trying again. "A core amount of our crowd is the indie crowd," Metro Cafe owner Nick Nichols says. "We thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool to have a night for them where they could get together and hang out without seeing a band?' They're just like anyone else, you know. Sometimes you want to go out and dance. Why should they have to go to a club like Platinum and listen to a totally different style of music -- one they may not like -- if they want to move their bodies?"

The promise of the latest music from England, plus classics from bands like Blur, Pulp and the Stone Roses -- or just the idea of dancing -- eventually began luring more than 200 people a month into the Metro. By its first anniversary in May 2000, Mousetrap had outgrown the club. Zimin moved his event up 14th Street to the Black Cat, where it is held on the second Saturday of the month. After the switch, crowds more than doubled, which Zimin attributes to the Black Cat's "clout" on the scene -- and its advertising. Zimin, for one, wasn't surprised. "When bands like the Charlatans and Oasis come to town, they pack 1,200 into the 9:30 club. And I always thought, 'Who are these people?' There were probably 1,000 that I've never seen before. People obviously like the music, but they just don't hear it when they're out."

Metro Cafe capitalized on the trend by adding more DJ nights, each with its own flavor. In June, Zimin started the Wag, a monthly event focusing on soul, garage rock and moddish tunes from the Who, the Kinks and the Stones. At Bliss, a monthly dance night that began at the Metro in September 2000, DJ Will Eastman mixes excellent but little-known indie bands like Baxendale and Spearmint with more mainstream groups like Pulp and the Smiths. Panic, a weekly dance night that began at the Metro last October, is run by WHFS DJ Tim Pogo and former Club Heaven DJ Jim Noble. The duo draws from the '80s and '90s, with some '70s thrown in: They Might Be Giants, James, the Pixies, Blur and even the Specials find a way onto the playlist. In June, the Metro added Wax, a weekly event that feels a lot like vintage Mousetrap.

There are similarities. Songs like Pulp's "Common People," Blur's "Girls and Boys" and the Stone Roses' "Fools Gold" show up time and again at the Mousetrap, Bliss and Panic. "Yeah, there's a lot of overlap," Zimin says. "But a lot of people only come to Mousetrap, and they want to hear the same stuff. I'm going to try to oblige them."

Eastman agrees, with the traditional DJ lament, "You have to walk the tightrope between provocative, new and fresh material with the familiar songs that get people out on the floor. I try to salt in the Pulp and Smiths, but not do it chaotically."

As the dance nights began to grow, they moved away from the self-proclaimed indie crowd to a broader audience. At Panic and Mousetrap, in particular, there are more baseball caps among the English soccer jerseys; black stretch pants almost outnumber thrift-store fashions.

There are many theories about the increase in popularity. The first has to be the music. As WHFS DJ Pogo says, "The only place to hear Britpop, besides your home stereo, are these dance clubs." Zimin points to the area's "untapped audience of indie rockers, sitting around and listening to records." But it's obvious everyone at the Mousetrap and Panic doesn't special-order records from England. They've come to dance to familiar-sounding rock music. No thumping bass lines, no skittering techno beats.

There are other reasons to feel comfortable. None of the clubs has a strict door policy, so whether you're wearing a well-tailored '60s suit or jeans and sneakers, you won't be turned away. The dance nights are all-ages, giving college students a place to hang out -- most clubs won't let them in until they can drink. And the cover charges are less than at other dance clubs -- $5 for Mousetrap, the Wag or Panic, and $4 for Bliss and Wax.

Should local musicians be concerned that rock clubs are increasingly turning to DJs to bring in crowds? "I've never been worried about it," says Black Cat owner Dante Ferrando, who brought Bliss and the Wag to his club last month. "But for us, internally, it's a bit of an identity issue. Everybody does DJ stuff, and we have a strong reputation as a live music club." The band-or-DJ conflict lessened in September, when the Black Cat moved to a new, multi-stage location. Now, Ferrando says, the club can appeal to two groups on the same night -- holding a DJ event in the main concert hall while a band plays on the back stage, or vice versa.

Zimin, for his part, remains more interested in the scene than his DJing. "The success of the Mousetrap is not the size of the line out the door, it's that these other nights exist because of it. People who like this kind of music used to have no choices. But now there are plenty of nights where we can go and just hang out."

© Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company