How D.C. hardcore is being revitalized by a new generation of bands

THIS IS HARDCORE

A new generation is making Washington's punk dialect its own — while it can.

Published on May 12, 2016

Every song is angry, fast and almost over. That’s how it’s gone for decades, and that’s how it’s going right now. The guitarist is vandalizing the air. The rhythm section is losing a fistfight with time. The frontman is staring into the ceiling like he’s trying to burn a hole in it. Eight minutes later, they’re finished.

The venue is Washington’s Black Cat, the band is Kombat, and the music is hardcore — a new iteration of the accelerated punk rock that exploded out of the District in the early ’80s. Pioneered then by Bad Brains and popularized by Minor Threat, hardcore pushed punk’s sneering animosity toward an even angrier edge, then spread across the American underground with befitting speed. Now, more than three decades later, Washington’s hardcore scene has been repopulated with a flood of young bands who, instead of seeking new margins, seem to be drilling their way to the music’s center.

Note: Above: ‘I’d rather not be remembered in the future.’ – D.J. Doroheng, frontman of Kombat, seen here performing at Black Cat. (Photos by Josh Sisk for The Washington Post)

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From afar, it might look like a reenactment, a revival, a childish nostalgia trip. But up close, the scene looks more like a regional folk tradition in bloom — a new generation of tight-knit punks sorting out their musical inheritance with remarkable self-awareness. And from the inside, the moment feels profound. “Everyone is very conscious of the past,” says Ace Mendoza, a 22-year-old who plays in some of Washington’s most committed hardcore bands. “But you have to live in the now. You have to understand that it’s not the same.”

To truly live inside of that “now” is to know that nothing ever lasts — which explains why the urgency of today’s hardcore doesn’t spring from adolescent reflex so much as an acute awareness of the music’s perishability. These kids know their hardcore history. They know that their moment is just another flash in a continuum of flashes. But it’s still theirs and theirs alone.

This counterintuitive youth-zen seems to flow throughout the scene’s citizenship — especially through D.J. Doroheng, the 23-year-old Kombat vocalist with the flammable glint in his eye. Over the course of Kombat’s terse and combustible set at the Black Cat back in April, it was clear that his band doesn’t just improve show by show, it improves song by song. But the group’s teenage guitarist, Daniel Peña, is preparing to graduate high school, which means Kombat probably won’t last through the summer. Doroheng is at peace with that.

“I feel like some bands are concerned about their image in the future,” he says. “I’d rather not be remembered in the future.”

Doroheng and Rael Griffin prepare to stage-dive at Damaged City, a punk festival co-organized by Coke Bust drummer Chris Moore, right.

Hardcore’s sonic profile hasn’t changed all that much over the years. It still requires a guitar, a bass, a drum kit and a human throat, all working at high volumes and higher speeds. The ethos isn’t much different, either. Today’s scene remains driven by a tenacious D.I.Y. work ethic, while the songs themselves burn with contempt for the outside world. But because hardcore is intrinsically personal music, the 21st century circumstances that currently surround it help make it feel fresh. It’s an old sound covered in young fingerprints.

Top: Griffin performs with Bust Off at the Pinch. Friend Leo Denegro shouts along. Bottom: Stuck Pigs perform at the Pinch – guitarist Brendan Reichhardt, drummer Ace Mendoza, bassist Rob Watson and vocalist Sarah King.

Back in March, down in the basement of the Pinch — a bar in Columbia Heights that serves as a locus for Washington’s all-ages scene — you could hear a band called Stuck Pigs forcibly asserting its singularity. The songs were incredibly fast, and as each of the quartet’s members pushed past their respective speed-limits, they entered that vertiginous state of suspension where a band’s aggregate emotional purge begins to overwhelm the technical ability of the players. In hardcore, that’s where the magic is. It makes people move.

And the Pinch itself is relatively cozy, so whenever a crowd decides to mosh, the space turns hot and claustrophobic, like the inside of a microwave popcorn bag. People shove each other from side to side, as if the linoleum floor has turned into a seesaw. They put on mean faces as they prepare to launch their bodies across the room, then smile when they collide. It’s communion posing as mayhem — a co-ed crowd going for human contact, not injury.

Rael Griffin, a 19-year-old who sings for an all-teen hardcore band called Bust Off, always seems to be the first one in the pit at these shows. Like many of the scene’s musicians, he’s eager to throw his entire being into the music, whether he’s onstage or off. “This music just does something to me,” Griffin says. “When I feel someone’s body slam against mine, I understand I’m real right there.”

While just about any type of music can provide a confirmation of existence, the idea feels heightened within hardcore. When a mosh pit continuously reshuffles the crowd around you, it requires you to commit the entirety of your body to the encounter. Everyone in the room becomes physically connected to the moment. No one is gazing off into their phones.

Which isn’t to say that these kids don’t know how to use the Internet. They’re incredibly well versed in just about every style of hardcore — something you can actually see in the crowds, where colorful band T-shirts, baggy black hoodies and pyramid-studded denim jackets all bang and swirl in the same ecstatic spin cycle.

Leo Denegro, 18, is impossible to miss in the pit. The Smurf-blue piping of his black leather jacket matches his dyed spikes of hair. He looks as if he stage-dived out of the pages of “Banned in D.C.,” a popular book of photographs documenting Washington’s original hardcore scene, but Denegro says he sees himself as part of a continuity more than a revival. “Hardcore is a thing that just reincarnates itself,” he says. “We don’t try to copy, we try to make it our own thing.”

That sense of ownership seems deeply genuine, and it continues to foster an increasing inclusivity within the scene — a scene that’s still predominantly male and white, but less so than it was in, say, 1982.

Rob Watson, 23, the singer of Pure Disgust and bassist of Stuck Pigs, says he felt comfortable in Washington’s hardcore scene upon realizing he wasn’t the only black kid in the room. “And now there are all these bands with queer people, women and people of color, and they’re making music for people like them,” Watson says. “Hardcore and punk are more accessible than ever with the internet, so people see people like themselves and think, ‘I can do this, too.’ ”

He’s right. The Internet has made hardcore more accessible — along with everything else. With an endless variety of digital countercultures available to young people, hardcore doesn’t magnetize as many adolescent ears as it used to. Some say that’s why Washington’s hardcore scene feels less cliquish than ever before. If you bother to come out to a show, you clearly want to be there.

“There’s no room to be uninviting because all of pop culture is subversive, now,” says Sarah King, the singer of Stuck Pigs. “You can form an identity online without ever having to go outside. So there’s no room to be mean or exclusive. . . . Poseurs still exist, but people in D.C. are nice to them!”

Note: Clockwise from top: Griffin crowd surfs during a performance by Bust Off at the Pinch. Red Death live at the Pinch – guitarist Mendoza, vocalist Chad Troncale, drummer Connor Donegan and bassist Robin Zeijlon. A D.I.Y. public-service announcement is taped to the wall at Damaged City Fest.

From the top: Griffin crowd surfs during a performance by Bust Off at the Pinch. A D.I.Y. public-service announcement is taped to the wall at Damaged City Fest. Red Death live at the Pinch — guitarist Mendoza, vocalist Chad Troncale, drummer Connor Donegan and bassist Robin Zeijlon.

Washington’s new hardcore scene is too democratic to have a top or a bottom, but Stuck Pigs are at the center of it. Instead of being fueled by friendly competition, this scene is steeped in promiscuous collaboration, where a dozen bands might share the same four-dozen musicians. That’s certainly the case for Stuck Pigs, whose members also play in Kombat, Protester, Pure Disgust, Red Death, Soft Grip, Stand Off, Unknown Threat and Zipper, among others.

But listen closely to each of those bands, (nearly all of them stream their music on Bandcamp), and you’ll hear the depth of their hardcore literacy. They know all about the groups that made the District a hardcore capital before they were born — the Faith, Government Issue, S.O.A., Void, Youth Brigade — but they’re equally familiar with the echoes that followed. They know Mecht Mensch from Wisconsin, and Koro from Tennessee, and Gauze from Japan, and dozens of other immolative ’80s groups whose cinders still flicker on YouTube. That level of hyper-fluency allows each musician to bring different influences to each band they play in, which allows each band to bring a different sound into the common airspace.

“People say we’re hogging the scene, but we’re just playing music with our friends,” says Brendan Reichhardt, who plays in Kombat, Protester, Pure Disgust, Stuck Pigs and other groups. “We all share a mentality. We’re all people who’ve devoted our lives to hardcore punk.”

Devotion. Is that hardcore’s paramount virtue? That pledge of commitment to something so utterly ephemeral? Reichhardt talks about hardcore’s temporary essence as if he’s talking about the facts of life. Maybe he’s talking about the meaning of life.

Note: From the left: Kohei Urakami performs his first show as the frontman of Zipper. Denegro dances in the center of the mosh pit at Damaged City.

From the top:Kohei Urakami performs his first show as the frontman of Zipper. Denegro dances in the center of the mosh pit at Damaged City.

It was around noon on a Saturday in April when a middle-aged guy in flip-flops came flip-flopping through the mosh pit and onto the stage at Calvary Methodist Church in Adams Morgan, trying to stop the show. A brash local hardcore band, Collusion, had only been playing for a few minutes when the man stormed the stage, shouting, “This must stop!” Apparently, he could hear the music from his neighboring condo.

Chris Moore, the concert’s organizer, calmly talked the guy offstage. He wasn’t about to allow this show to get shut down. It was the biggest gig of this year’s Damaged City Fest, an international punk festival that draws hundreds of fans to Washington each spring. In addition to being one of the festival’s founders, Moore, 29, ultimately serves as the scene’s coordinator, custodian and patron saint, organizing punk shows year-round.

And having played in numerous bands — including Coke Bust, Sick Fix and others — he knows that young people drop in and out of hardcore constantly. So he has made it his mission to ensure that Washington continues to have a scene for them to drop in and out of. “It’s really easy for a punk scene to lose steam,” Moore says. “People let things fall to the wayside. So you have to be constantly going for it, and pushing, and trying to get people excited about stuff.”

To that end, today’s hardcore seems more concerned with self-preservation than showing its teeth to society. The genre’s pioneers routinely struck heroic poses during the Ronald Reagan years, threatening to dismantle mainstream culture at 170 beats per minute, but today, the Internet seems to have completed that job. After a weekend of intensely insular performances at Damaged City, it was easy to get the sense that modern hardcore can’t change the world. But it can change your life.

It definitely changed Kohei Urakami’s. The 21-year-old had wanted to sing in a punk band for as long as he can remember, and on the last day of Damaged City, he achieved his life goal in less than six minutes. Having moved to Washington from Japan four years ago to attend college, Urakami only recently formed Zipper — a quartet with Mendoza on drums, Doroheng playing guitar for the first time and bassist Julaya Antolin from the band G.L.O.S.S.

Zipper’s three-song bombardment at Damaged City might have been the festival’s shortest set, and it was certainly among the best. While his bandmates quickly doled out sonic bruises, Urakami screamed entirely in Japanese, proving that hardcore is ultimately its own sonic language — one that’s still capable of communicating complete catharsis in an instant.

“It’s so cool that people are so into something we just started,” Urakami said afterward, his angry mouth now bent into a smile. “It feels real.”

The mosh pit churns at the Pinch during Damaged City Fest.

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