Jason Farrell, lauded guitarist/singer of Bluetip and Retisonic, is a mythic figure who imprinted his legacy on Dischord Records by designing plentiful albums, including the postmodern packaging of Fugazi. As a teen bravado guitarist, he made sizzling records with Swiz, whose fiery prowess injected some bile back into the music of Washington D.C. Shaped by tough-as-nails vocalist Shawn Brown’s vehemence and intelligent wordplay, the tunes of Swiz were brash and emotive. After decades apart (since Swiz’s initial run in the late-‘80s and the short-lived Sweetbelly Freakdown in the mid-‘90s), nimble guitarist Jason Farrell and barbed vocalist Shawn Brown have returned full-force in Red Hare, whose ferocity is nuanced and shaped by elastic, rhythmic complexity. The music is an amalgam: shards of Farrell’s sonic past weave into a tough fabric, plus he still dispatches songs with panache, merging hardcore’s neurons with nimble pop hooks, elastic rock’n’roll, and winking nods to metal. Joined by the dizzying wrist gymnastics of drummer Joe Gorelick (Garden Variety, Bluetip, Retisonic) and Swiz bassist Dave Eight, they simply shred. Dischord has not offered something as acerbic as Red Hare’s “Fuck Your Career!” and bitterly anthemic as their “Be Half” and “Dialed In” in years, which renew and invigorate even jaded hardcore audiences.
Dave Eight: Bassist
Shawn Brown: Vocalist
Jason Farrell: Guitarist
Joe Gorelick: Drummer
David: Jason, in some ways, your high school was a punk rock training ground—gestating future members of Dag Nasty, Government Issue, Rites Of Spring, Fire Party, and others.
Jason: Growing up, I thought of music as this thing that you consumed. It was played by experts and marketed by geniuses in Hollywood and New York. I could get excited about AC/DC, KISS, Journey, et cetera. Wear their shirts, have an opinion as to how much Toto or Starship sucked… but actually creating and releasing music was way beyond my comprehension. A short stint of acoustic guitar lessons playing “The Streets of Laredo” did little to demystify things. It wasn’t until we all got into hardcore that things became more clear and possible. That scene lowered the bar and raised the encouragement level, giving people a chance to figure things out, even if they sucked in the process. Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School—and Bethesda in general—had quite a few notable punks actively making music. Seeing them skulk through the school halls after having seen them play over the weekend further lowered the stage.
During this time, it seemed everyone was sharing what little information they had. My friend John Garrish learned how to play a bar chord, then turned around and showed me how to do it. That small gesture was the key to deconstructing most of the songs I grew up to, and helped me in creating my own. Lawrence McDonald was—and is—a great guitarist and skater who had played in Capital Punishment with Colin Sears (Dag Nasty) and Mike Fellows (Rites Of Spring) during the first wave of D.C. hardcore. He was instrumental in teaching music theory to me and many other skaters in our crew by bringing us into his band The Bells Of.
David: Plus you’ve stressed that women, often left out of narratives, were great scene ambassadors.
Jason: There were a ton of girls from the scene at our school: Maureen Gorman, Kate Samworth, Natalie Avery, Katie Chase, Jenny Mercurio. They were so sweet and supportive of our little group of skate rats just getting our punk feet wet. Being very active in the scene, they would point us to up-and-coming bands like Rites Of Spring, Dag Nasty; fill us in on the bands we missed like Faith, Minor Threat; and try to expand our taste a bit with bands outside the thin scope of D.C. hardcore like The Alarm, The Birthday Party, Bauhaus.
If you only go by the albums, then the D.C. scene seemed lopsidedly male. But those vinyl fossils don’t tell the full story. Nor do histories about D.C. bands, if the focus is on bands and not audience. The heart of the D.C. scene—like many others—was social. The music was important for sure, but without the people, there wouldn’t be a show. Most of my memories and I’d guess the memories of others going to these shows was of meeting people, seeing friends, hanging out on the stairs out front. It was a social hub of boys and girls talking, flirting, fighting, joking, smoking, trading anecdotes, et cetera… so females were there. And not just in a passive social capacity: they played in bands—Toni C., Sharon Cheslow, Fire Party, Nike Chix, Monica Madhouse, Jenny Toomey; booked shows—Cynthia Connelly, Pam, and Shawna; or were just infamous characters—Crass Mary, Lefty. Just look at Banned in DC, the first and perhaps best chronicle of the D.C. scene—compiled by three of its prominent women.
David: Jason, Dave, and Shawn, like others in the D.C. area scene—Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye, Bert Queiroz, Kenny Inouye, Chris Stover, Eric Lagdameo, and more—you were skaters. As Jason has noted on doublecrossxx.com, “Skating and Hardcore were inextricably linked… it made the prospect of playing music seem more possible, logical, obvious…” How extensive was the crossover between the two D.C. area cultures/communities by the mid-‘80s, and why do you think it’s somewhat overlooked in D.C. histories?
Jason: To me and my friends, like all the people you name-checked, the skating came first. We then found the music that suited our activity. In the ‘80s, my Venn diagram of skating and hardcore was a solid black circle. And at the time, it seemed everyone had crossover to some degree. Not everyone was good or equally committed to either or both, but the two were common-law flirts. There was almost no need to mention one when speaking of the other, as they were two parts of one thing.
If the history of the crossover was overlooked, it was done so by those who left their skateboards in the closet along with their leather jackets. I’m not judging or begrudging punks who picked up a board for a few years only to drop it when Revolution Summer rolled along. As fun as skating is, not everyone can or should commit to it for life. And many skaters drifted in the opposite direction: going to shows to slam dance or get girls for a year or two only to fade on the whole thing. During my time in Swiz, my friend Chip, someone I had skated with and gone to shows with from the start, once said, “We all went through that hardcore phase, Jason… you just never grew out if it.” He was saying it dismissively but I took it a different way: skating and music are phases that many fall into and out of. I like to stay in phase with both as much as my life will allow.
David: On a blog, Jason describes the “blob” of his friends: skatecore youth exiting a station wagon, discovering the slam pit, smoking clove cigarettes, invading the nearby 7-Eleven during your first punk gig, Black Flag. In many ways, was forming a band an extension of that kind of wolf pack and brotherhood?
Dave Eight: Yes. Starting and learning to play music while becoming a punk was a completely natural progression. It kinda went hand in hand with skating. The magnetic attraction to both of these entities was unavoidable. We couldn’t help ourselves.
Jason: Yes, the wolf pack vibe continued… but it wasn’t the same group of people. By the time Swiz got going (1987), most of the core skaters I rode with since I was a kid had moved past punk. The formation of Swiz was random: Shawn and I knew each other from shows and skating ditches, Alex and Nathan had been playing off and on for a bit, but when Ramsey Metcalf pulled us all together for our first practice, we had never all met. Despite not knowing each other, we didn’t hesitate in giving a shot to a brotherhood of sorts. Ramsey didn’t gel as well with the rest of us, so we asked him to leave. That moment solidified the unit, and we’ve remained tight friends—despite the breakup and distance—ever since.
David: I know you all started seeing punk gigs in D.C., but what about in Bethesda? Was Psychedelly still around, which—though not very open to hardcore punk—booked bands like The Razz and Slickee Boys?
Dave Eight: I saw Hüsker Dü touring for Zen Arcade at the Psychedelly in whatever year that was, 1984 or ‘85? I’d never been there before and was totally surprised to find it about a block away from our skate shop hangout The Sunshine House. The show was amazing, maybe twenty people there. I remember Bob Mould asking somebody from the twenty of us to come up and help sing the song, “Somewhere” cause he couldn’t do it and play guitar very well at the same time. Grant Hart was wearing a purple silk shirt. Greg Norton had that wacky mustache and played the bass with three fingers. They were different and rad and super-intense without being pretentious. Great show.
Jason: The second show I ever saw was TSOL and No Trend at the Psychedelly on a Saturday afternoon in the spring of ‘84. Chip and I were the only members of B.S.R. (Bethesda Skate Rats) around that day. We were still quite new to the punk thing and didn’t really have the wardrobe. In preparation, Chip had cut the sleeves off the pink long sleeve shirt he was wearing, but kept the sleeve ends as bracelets. He drew cufflinks on them with a sharpie—affecting a Snagglepuss look. I may have messed up my hair. We were the only pre-pubes at a show that consisted of at most ten people: the bands, Chip, me, and Ian Mackaye. The singer of No Trend spent a very long time hanging a sheet from the ceiling to obstruct the audience’s view, then spent the set with his back turned. I don’t remember TSOL’s set. It was just an awkward daytime show in sleepy downtown Bethesda at a tiny bar/sandwich shop—a stark contrast to the sweaty, packed, dangerous, and exciting Black Flag show we had just seen somewhere deep in D.C.
A year or so later there were shows being held at the Bethesda Community Center and the nearby Chevy Chase Community Center. I remember seeing some great shows with Rites Of Spring, Lunchmeat, Embrace, Bells Of, Mission Impossible, and others spread out over the summer—the “revolution” one. I recall a few more happening in the years that followed—Rain, Swiz, At Wits End, maybe even Ignition?
David: Dance of Days paints a picture of leftist Bethesda youth, many later Dischord-affiliated, listening to Crass, Poison Girls, and Zounds, who founded short-lived bands like Fungus Of Terror, Bozo Brigade, and Gang Of Intellectuals. Were you aware of these locals, bands, and their tastes?
Dave Eight: Nope.
Jason: Not really. I recall hearing those names. Of the small Bethesda bands, I remember Bloody Mannequin Orchestra—Colin and Roger who later played in Dag Nasty—but mostly because Colin lived in my neighborhood a couple streets away. And Bells Of…
David: Jason and Shawn, if being in Bells Of… and Dag Nasty shaped your musical growth—from nothing to something!—did it also pave your way into D.C., or did you still feel an outsider’s perspective that perhaps later shaped your music and art?
Shawn: I guess being in Dag Nasty and later in Swiz did pave our way into the D.C. scene, and that scene definitely influenced us. How could it not? All we did was hang out downtown back then. That being said, coming from outside of the city (nearby Hyattsville, Md.) we had a little bit different perspective, so maybe we were more like outsider-insiders.
Jason: Playing second guitar and then bass in Bells Of… was my first band experience. I was fifteen and would sit in on Bells Of practices occasionally, waiting for Lawrence (guitarist and band leader) to finish so I could get a ride to the ramp. Alec MacKaye (Faith) was still their singer then—he soon quit, just before their second show (opening for Rites Of Spring and Embrace). Lawrence decided to take over singing along with guitar, and told me I was now in the band as second guitar. This was something I wasn’t expecting and probably wasn’t ready for, but I was happy to get the chance to play with two of my favorite bands.
Learning about music through Lawrence definitely started me on my own way into music, but it wasn’t a yellow brick road into the inner scene of D.C. Somehow Bells Of never got much acceptance in the scene, nor did my following band Swiz. That’s not to say that Swiz didn’t have any people at our shows, or any help. Amanda MacKaye was out biggest supporter—personally and through her label Sammich—and Dischord helped her fund Swiz releases, but we did feel palpable disinterest from the D.C. scene. I don’t know why this came as a surprise to us—our music was more in line with a sound the current scene was doing everything to abandon—but we took the rejection personally. It fueled us to dive deeper into the aggressive sound we started out with, rather than swing to the more experimental sounds like Soul Side and Shudder To Think or softer sounds of the era. After Swiz broke up, I was more actively designing record covers (Severin, Circus Lupus, Fugazi, Lungfish, Trusty, Fireparty) and that gave me the opportunity to shape my art/aesthetic, which has led to a career. I owe a big debt to Dischord for that and feel honored each time they ask me to work on a new cover.
David: Though Swiz missed being part of Revolution Summer, do you feel the band carried forward that ethos?
Dave Eight: I hope this doesn’t start a fight, but I still feel like Revolution Summer is bigger in legend than it was as a movement at the time. We went to see Rites Of Spring down at Food For Thought. Great show. I think somebody told me about Revolution Summer there, although I’m not sure I really understood what they were talking about. Carless and broke, I think we walked two hours back to Bethesda from Food For Thought that night.
To me, I don’t really think the ethos of Revolution Summer ever felt different than what was already instilled in 1983 from my first listen to Out of Step (Minor Threat), Still Screaming (Scream), Subject to Change (Faith), Joy Ride (Government Issue), No Policy (SOA) and Minor Disturbance (Teen Idles) EPs, My War (Black Flag), Lullabies Help the Brain Grow (Big Boys), Golden Shower of Hits (Circle Jerks), Paranoid Time (Minutemen), and Metal Circus (Hüsker Dü). Yeah, maybe I’m a bit off topic here. It wasn’t conscious, but I do feel like we carried an ethos of what was learned on that first group of punk records we all gathered.
Shawn: Swiz wasn’t an extension of that thought process. I mean, we had songs that were a bit more personal and inner-driven like bands of that time, but there was also a lot of political stuff they were doing, topics we might have touched on, but it wasn’t really our main drive. Swiz was maybe quasi-political at most.
Jason: As much as I loved the bands, music, and shows I saw from that era, Swiz wasn’t carrying on the Revolution Summer baton a year or two later. Influences were definitely there. Mike Hampton of Embrace is a phenomenal guitar player who certainly influenced me quite a bit. If anything, we were hoping to carry on the broader ethos of D.C. music, tapping in back to the Faith, Void, Minor Threat. Our position, compared to Rites Of Spring and Embrace, was more like an alternate parallel than episodic and linear—fancy talk—but I wouldn’t be putting Swiz up with any of those bands in terms of impact or importance. Hopefully we weren’t too much like a Neanderthal cousin that managed to survive.
David: D.C. punk always seemed so diverse and inclusive to many of us growing up in Middle America, yet Fred “Freak” Smith (Beefeater) mentioned D.C. should have been even more diverse, given its demographics. As a touring band that scoured the country, did you feel D.C. was special, different? Like an anomaly?
Shawn: Yes. I’ll just say that. Yes.
Dave Eight: Okay, first of all, when did the “freak” name sneak in there? Jason and I have said before how glad we were to grow up in D.C. and we felt honored to be close to the music scene there. I think for a long time I really didn’t think about bands outside of D.C., except for a couple in California and the Big Boys in Texas, or the Damned and Discharge. And then I discovered the Minutemen and a couple other things and slowly became aware that there were many other scenes around the country. It kinda made me realize I was a bit narrow minded toward D.C. stuff. It’s tough ‘cause there was so much great music in D.C. I kinda didn’t think to look elsewhere. I mean, after you witness Void at the Wilson center, you don’t really need to search out much else. It takes some time to come down off that sound.
Jason: The D.C. suburban area was very diverse. The diplomats and international status of the city brought exposure to many different cultures. D.C. as a city was predominantly black—seventy-eighty percent?—with the minority of whites huddled in the Northwest quadrant. This is where the hardcore scene emanated. Perhaps as a result, the D.C. scene was very white, like most punk scenes. I agree with Fred that it could have or should have been more diverse, but I do feel the scene was accepting of anyone who showed up: black or Asian or Hispanic punks were just punks first and foremost.
David: When opening for Public Enemy, did you feel that such a crossover audience was sustainable, perhaps somewhat like Scream and Minor Threat doing the Trouble Funk gigs?
Dave Eight: I wish I’d gotten to play this show. Damn you Nathan (Larson, who replaced Dave on bass)!
Jason: I was just happy to be opening for Public Enemy.
Shawn: I definitely remember a lot of punks being there, and hip-hop people who were straight up into PE, plus a bunch of suburban kids. Yeah, it was a crossover. I don’t know if anyone else thought of it, but it definitely made me think of the Minor Threat / Trouble Funk show.
Jason: I don’t know if it meant anything to the hip-hop crowd, but for the punks into PE and Swiz they were just like, “I can’t believe this is happening.”
Shawn: Oh yeah, that shit was legendary. Definitely one of the highlights of our career.
David: Unlike many D.C. bands, Swiz was touring constantly. Was this something inspired by locals like Government Issue and Scream, your own burning desire to hit the road, or maybe your quest for new places to skate as well?
Dave Eight: During our first show we saw, Black Flag touring for My War, I remember Rollins saying—possibly bragging—that they we’re gonna tour Europe soon after the show we were at. That was maybe the coolest thing I’d ever heard. At that moment I knew, without a doubt, that’s what I wanted to do. My goal/dream/purpose in life would be to play loud fast music, put out records, and tour. Simple.
Jason: We played out of town because we wanted to play a lot. You could only play maybe once a month in D.C., and for a while it didn’t seem like D.C. even wanted that much out of us. So, we’d take weekend trips out to Boston, N.Y.C., Norwalk, Rochester, Harrisburg, Richmond, Norfolk, Providence, anywhere that would have us. The shows were better received, so we kept coming back.
We did two full U.S. tours: on the first one in 1988 we tagged along with Soul Side and American Standard on their already-existing tour to California. We didn’t have anything planned for the way back, and our van broke down on our way to the last show anyway—we were too young to know about standard maintenance things like transmission fluid—trapping us in San Francisco for two weeks. By the second tour in summer of 1989 with Shudder To Think, we had gotten the whole maintenance thing under control, but the whole tour was poorly planned and left us demoralized.
David: Apart from the blistering speed of the first single, the two albums really explore slower, methodical tempos, like in the song “Cakewalk.” Swiz slowed down roughly at the same time as Verbal Assault. Did you make a conscious decision to shed old song habits and seek something new? Was it a reaction to Fugazi, Fire Party, and late-period Scream?
Jason: I always argued for aggressive songs with faster tempos. It’s a fun way to play. Thankfully, my limited vision was tempered by Nathan and Alex’s willingness to be more experimental. The song “Sunstroke” was the first time I lost my speed battle against those two. I’m glad they won. From that point on, we wrote whatever came out and at whatever speed it issued forth. “Cakewalk” was one of the last songs we wrote. Bad Brains’ Quicknesshad just come out. The opening track “Soul Craft” is so powerful and methodical, I had to rip it off.
Shawn: I think we were just writing songs, you know? We wanted to have a couple of songs that would give us a break in playing, give all the songs and us a chance to breathe. It wasn’t a reaction to Fugazi or Verbal Assault at all.
David: How would you describe the difference between Sammich, run by Amanda MacKaye, and Dischord, run by her brother Ian and Jeff Nelson?
Shawn: Well, Sammich was just beginning and Dischord had been around for a bit. [laughs]
Jason: Dischord was “big” and is still around, Sammich was “small” and is now gone. Sammich was lazily viewed as the little sister label to Dischord—shorthand answer mirroring the real-life relationship of Ian and Amanda—but I don’t think that’s a fair assessment. Amanda, along with Eli Janney in Sammich’s early form, should be given more credit for having debuted some of DC’s most noteworthy artists like Soul Side, Shudder To Think, and Dave Grohl’s humble beginnings in Mission Impossible.
Dave Eight: Dischord and Sammich are two different things but not far apart at all. It felt like Amanda was actually in Swiz, which was great. She came to the shows with us, helped us get paid. She was kind of a mentor/manager. Let alone she could give and take just as much shit as the rest of us, which of course is a natural part of touring. Being on Dischord with Bluetip was a dream come true. With Bluetip, it felt like we were a touch more separate from the label, but that was actually good because we were actually ready, for better for worse, to be more on our own and to figure out more how we liked to do things. In retrospect, maybe Bluetip shoulda taken Amanda on the road also. We could have used a solid ref [laughter].
David: Both Jason and Shawn have talked about the ugly side of D.C. punk—the skinhead scene that simmered—and Dance of Days suggests Swiz tunes like “Tylenol” were a form of defiance. Why did such a scene happen amid a city full of Punk Percussion Protests and Positive Force benefits?
Jason: Because everywhere has assholes.
Shawn: “Tylenol” wasn’t about that. Why did that skinhead scene happen within the D.C. scene? Because people have different interests. Because people are attracted to different stuff. Skinhead was always a thing in D.C. It wasn’t necessarily always a negative thing. Yes, we had some negative people that were inthe skinhead scene, but I knew skinheads who were just into being working-class people, y’know? I think every punk scene had that. I mean, you have to remember we’re talking about punk rock: no rules, no one is telling you what to do, so people are going to do all kinds of stuff. Yes, there was a knucklehead side to it that really came out in the late ‘80s, I understand that, but as far as being begrudging to skinheads in general, I’m not, because a lot of my friends were skinheads. I wish somebody would explore that whole thing more, because there’s a lot of shit I don’t know about, a lot of shit I’m interested in. Like, what were those guys trying to do? Or were they trying to do anything? What was their philosophy? What’s the attraction, and what did they get out of it?
David: In some ways, does the Red Hare song “Message to the Brick” also involve complicated (or not-so-complicated) issues of race in lines like, “money preying on a misplaced sense of pride and need for identity”? Though ethnicity is not specifically mentioned, the innuendo seems to suggest power-hungry politicians seek black votes; or is it simply about all voters being merely a numbers game?
Jason: You could read it that way—white Democratic politicians paying lip service to black and Latino voters—but I was talking about the Republican side. White politicians seeking white votes, stirring up racism, patriotism, or whatever sticks to get poor people to support platforms that are directly counter to their own self interest. It’s a fantasy piece where the scam is revealed and the dupe wakes up. Based on current polls, it would seem a bunch of people are still asleep.
David: Red Hare and Swiz engage anger; in Swiz, the anger is palpable, boiling both on the surface and pushing the themes, emotions, and musical force. Red Hare songs like “Horace” (“holding on to pent up shit from twenty years ago”) and “Be Half” (“stop being angry / it’s what you want”), the band seems to interrogate anger. Is that a kind of wisdom that comes from aging, or a way to recognize that anger is not always the right energy?
Shawn: I think it’s both. It’s wisdom, and trying to understand where that shit comes from.
Jason: Calling out bullshit and hypocrisy in yourself and in others is a classic lyrical theme in punk and hardcore. Anger—or sarcasm—is the reaction to that topic, it’s not the topic itself. Both Swiz and Red Hare approach the topic the same way: from a personal perspective. The perspectives of a nineteen year old and a forty five year old are very different. As a result, the songs of Swiz and Red Hare are different despite sometimes sharing similar topics.
David: Jason had a “twin love of Metallica and Faith” plus liked the crunch of Discharge, and Swiz reflects that—searing guitar, propulsive drums, and antagonistic but intelligent vocals. Yet, a secret ingredient in Swiz and Red Hare is sublimated new wave: Shawn’s early taste for B-52’s, Jason for Gary Numan. To me, this seems to create a slanted, rhythmically twisted version of guitar rock.
Dave Eight: Don’t forget the goth! I believe the era of music from the late 1970s to the mid-‘80s—there was so much great stuff. The Damned crossed so many genres: punk, new wave, and goth. I kinda think they made it easy to open our ears to bands like Devo and Bauhaus.
Jason: You are spot on. Yeah, I love the guitar chubb-chubb stuff. It’s really fun to play and can be exhilarating to hear. But I like a lot of stuff—new wave, goth, rock—and have shamelessly lifted from Love And Rockets, The Cult, Gary Numan, AC/DC, Kiss, T. Rex…. We’ve all played different kinds of music over the years. Red Hare has the chassis of a hardcore/rock band, but I’d happily pepper in anything in that we think sounds good.
Shawn: I don’t really think about it that deeply. I just listen to the songs you (Jason) present me. Seriously. I mean, maybe you heard reggae when you were seven, or the Cars when you were fourteen, and that’s all creeping in now with the songs you write, but I don’t think it’s a conscious thing. It happens organically. You play what you think sounds good, or what you think fits the song—after it’s done you can point at different bits and say, “That’s new wave,” or, “That’s AC/DC residue.”
David: Jason, your obsessive and sometimes costly detail/packaging is intense: the early comics of Swiz, the sheer, sleek modernism of Bluetip and Retisonic, “a synthesis of Reid Miles blue-note sophistication/simplicity with a Jetsons-like mid-sixties futurism” you admitted, or the new Red Hare hybrid style of natural imagery, careful craft, and horror design—those red eyes in the liner notes look like a color-saturated 1970s horror film! Did this happen as an evolution or stem from Dischord design or sources elsewhere?
Jason: I’ve done hundreds of record covers over the years for many different bands, drifting in and out of styles and approaches. In that time, I’ve been heavily involved in the design side of all the releases I’ve played on, too. Swiz, Bluetip, and Retisonic releases have the aesthetic through-line you described. But when Dave’s friend Adam Jones offered to do the artwork for Red Hare’s first album, I saw it as a chance to step back from putting my stink on yet another album. Like Adam’s work with Tool (10,000 Days), the rabbits he drew for the Red Hare cover were amazing: beautifully creepy, quite a departure from my Jetson’s/Bluenote send-ups. I put Adam’s art into a package, pairing it with somewhat creepy close-up eye photos, but naturally colored to counter the scary/gory vibe of the cover. Adam kept pushing me to go all the way, embracing the horror with a red wash across the faces. Glad I took his advice.