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Public Figures makes music to amplify the imagination

The punk rock duo is performing at Songbyrd on Sept. 18

Public Figures is Van Hillard, left, and Chad McCall. (Marcela Morales)

Van Hillard grew up dreaming of aliens. His childhood in Caddo Parish, La., was spent staring at the night sky — what he calls “imagination fodder.” Decades later, the self-described “cryptid-head” makes music for the “amplified imagination” with D.C.-based punk rock band Public Figures. Its sophomore album, “Where to Find a Werewolf,” drops at the end of September.

It’s not Hillard’s first punk project in the DMV. He began performing with bassist Chad McCall in the first month of the millennium, and the two haven’t parted in almost 23 years, lending their talents to the quartet People Chasing People and the “activism-minded” Park Snakes. But the latter — in a tale artists know all too well — was disrupted by the pandemic, leaving McCall and Hillard with an abundance of free time. They used it to begin the thundering art punk duo Public Figures.

Named for John Keel’s paranormal “The Mothman Prophecies,” the band’s first release, “Year of the Garuda,” is musically intense — crashing drums, heavy bass rig and occasional synth — and lyrically easygoing: The raw vocals of the single “Shark Song” repeat endlessly, “All hail the shark.” Hillard says he uses that repetitive framework to “tell a story.”

“A lot of [lyrics] will come on walks, and I just kind of roll with it,” Hillard said. “Those weird little serendipitous moments, you have to wait for them, or posit yourself, work to enable them to happen.”

But the veteran of the local scene describes the group’s upcoming release as sleeker, more polished and fueled by a newfound band identity. Political and a bit nostalgic for a simpler time, the instrumental bits highlight the pair’s hard-earned confidence in their respective musicality, along with a willingness to try something newer and more experimental.

With lyrics about getting “X-filed” and “little green men,” it should come as no shock that Hillard is a devout field investigator for the International Mutual UFO Network, researching civilian claims of unidentified objects above. His upcoming novel, which he describes as a “wacky little read,” is a D.C.-based whodunit featuring interdimensional space travel.

Despite song names like “Death on Layaway” and “The Terrorist, He’s Watching,” Hillard says his primary inspiration on the new album — besides extraterrestrials and chilling creatures of the woods — is the search for fun and positivity.

“We try to keep it simple,” he said. “We’re entertainers. It’s still the best thing on the planet, to perform in front of others. I think just about all 8 billion of us would agree, whatever your medium is, it’s fun to share these things with people.”

Opening for Outerloop on Sept. 18 at 7 p.m. at Songbyrd, 540 Penn St. NE. songbyrddc.com. $14-$17.

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