Any dead-serious subculture becomes ripe for satire at some point, and if the success of The Hard Times is any indication, hardcore punk was long overdue for derision. And the punks themselves, it seems, craved it more than they realized.
In a little more than a year, the website — with its insider jokes about scene clichés, browbeating frontmen, mosh pit faux pas, austere lifestyles and so on — has become a hit, racking up pageviews and earning guffaws from people who instantly find humor in headlines like “Ted Nugent Begrudgingly Inducted Into Straight Edge Hall of Fame” or “Henry Rollins Driving App Tells You How Hard It Would Have Been to Get There in the ’80s.”
Gags like those, of course, would be impossible without the nearly four-decade legacy of D.C.’s hardcore scene. A dive into The Hard Times’ archives reveals that the site, based in California’s Bay Area, owes a debt to ideas and trends that can be traced to the Washington region.
Founder and editor-in-chief Matt Saincome freely acknowledges that debt. One of his first pieces for the site was “Ian MacKaye Prepares For Another Long Day of Documentary Interviews,” which skewers the Dischord Records co-founder’s status as a punk figurehead and an accomplished conversationalist. It was an early sign that the Fugazi and Minor Threat frontman — and progenitor of straight-edge culture — was hardly off-limits.
“The truth is, I’m a really, really big Ian MacKaye fan, and the reason why I wrote that story is because I was seeking out and watching so many punk documentaries… and Ian MacKaye was popping up in all of them,” Saincome says. “I love Ian MacKaye interviews. My Ian MacKaye interview was a highlight of my life. He sent me postcards afterward — I still have them on my wall. But I do think it’s funny how often he pops up [in documentaries].”
Saincome interviewed MacKaye in 2010 for his zine Punks! Punks! Punks!, and he says it was a “life-changing conversation.” (Another, more recent fanboy moment for him: when Brian Baker — of Minor Threat and Bad Religion — started following The Hard Times on Twitter.)
Saincome, 25, says he’s been straight edge since high school — no alcohol and no drugs, in particular. “For me it doesn’t have anything to do with sex or the type of food you eat, or anything like that. [It’s] an addiction-free type of lifestyle” for him, he says. Two other people on The Hard Times team are also straight edge, he says.
Saincome doesn’t consider himself particularly preachy about his lifestyle, but straight-edge adherents generally are known as some of the most sanctimonious characters in punkdom. For that kind of thing, nothing is better than self-deprecation, Saincome says.
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“We found that … the most pointed and funny articles come from people from that particular subgenre. So if you’re writing a straight-edge article, it’s always best to come from a straight-edger,” he says. “‘Cause if you are something, you kind of know what’s silly about it.”
That instinct gives The Hard Times an undertone of love instead of self-loathing. For Saincome, it colored his exploits prior to starting the website. As frontman for the hardcore band Zero Progress, he assumed the persona of The Champ, a blowhard egotist whose costume included thick chains. The point was to mock hardcore’s macho tendencies from the inside, even if it made punks uncomfortable. The behavior of punk singers, naturally, is a big target — especially their reputation for haranguing crowds. (See: “Hardcore Frontman Running Out of Generally Well-Accepted Beliefs to Share.”)
“It’s different for everyone, but I do think that when people get up on stage, they like to present themselves in a certain light and in a certain manner, and in a lot of times in punk, it’s in a moral crusader role, and they’re preaching to the choir a bit,” he says, equating the tone of the site’s anti-frontman jokes to the ball-busting that happens in the van when bands tour together. The public face of punk doesn’t always show that jokey side, though.
“I think a lot of people appreciate what we’re doing because punks do like to joke around and have a good time,” he says. “It just doesn’t always get the spotlight.”
And that self-awareness, Saincome says, is a vital part of what separates The Hard Times from its most obvious comedy antecedent, The Onion.
“I think a lot of their tone has to do with hating life — it’s funny as f**k, I love the Onion — but we don’t hate hardcore and we’re writing about hardcore. So a lot of our stuff definitely has a lighter touch to it than theirs,” he says.
At one point he did a deep dive into The Onion’s archives, and it helped him make an important distinction for his own content.
“Crust punks… maybe get an unfair helping of satire from us. Straight-edgers, too.” —Matt Saincome, founder and editor-in-chief of The Hard Times
“It wasn’t gonna be punk satire, it was gonna be ‘alternative lifestyle’ satire,” Saincome says. “The way music people live their lives, not just at the concerts, but the way we live our entire lives as an alternative underground culture.”
The satire establishment has taken notice: The Hard Times is now part of The Onion’s advertising network, meaning that “they package together a bunch of websites and pitch that whole network to advertisers,” Saincome says. The Hard Times’ contribution? Saincome says that his site has as many as 1.4 million unique visitors a month. There’s also a project in the works with Vice’s music site, Noisey, he says.
Although The Hard Times draws on D.C. hardcore’s influence and history for inspiration, Saincome says he sees the area’s current scene through a different lens: friendships, particularly with the band Coke Bust and all its related projects. Saincome says he’s never been to Damaged City, the ever-growing annual festival founded by Coke Bust members, but he views it as a beacon for a lot of other scenes. (The 2016 version of the fest kicks off April 7.)
The Coke Bust guys “did a good job of not eating their young, of supporting younger people in the scene, and playing in bands with them … and I feel like that doesn’t always happen in the Bay Area. We’re a little bit more fractured. [Coke Bust] seem to keep it pretty tight, which I think works to their benefit.”
One trip through D.C. with Zero Progress gave Saincome an anecdote that summarizes another pillar of The Hard Times’ comedy: edgy or extreme characters operating in totally normal situations.
“When we went on tour, we stayed at a friend’s house, and it was in a fancy D.C. suburb, and all the hardcore kids were hanging out, like, in the decked-out basement of his mom’s place. Which I thought was awesome, you know? Dude, I don’t mind,” Saincome says, noting that he grew up in the suburbs, too. “But I remember his mom was like — in the morning when we woke up, because we’d played a show — like, ‘OK, I made you guys some sandwiches, oh, here’s some cereal with vegan milk.'”
Saincome likes to cite examples of that dynamic, including “Family Prepares for Another Horrible Thanksgiving With Vegan Punk Son” and “Black Metal Guitarist Spotted Celebrating Gammy’s 87th Birthday at Old Country Buffet.” Another target for fish-out-of-water jokes: the vehemently DIY, dumpster-diving “crust punk” lifestyle.
“We try to spread it out, but the more extreme of a personality type that your particular subgenre of punk has, the easier it is to pick it apart a little bit,” Saincome says. “So crust punks definitely maybe get an unfair helping of satire from us. Straight-edgers, too.”
Keeping things fresh hasn’t been too difficult, he says, because the site has dozens of contributors and the editorial team rigorously vets story ideas. Being able to chart the audience’s reactions via analytics and social-media activity helps, too, Saincome says. He half-jokes that The Hard Times is now entering its “Fugazi phase,” and branching out a bit more. (Recent headline: “Audiophile Neighbor Pounds Ceiling to Demand You Adjust Midrange.”) Consider it a nod to another important facet of D.C.’s punk culture: intelligence.
“We have a really intense drive in us to not be ‘basic’ or ‘simple.’ A lot of the basic and simple ideas work the best, but we try to do things a little bit differently,” Saincome says. “In our editorial meetings, it’s one of the main things we think about. And I think it’s been part of our success, because I think anyone can make jokes — but to make a couple of smart jokes once in a while, I think that’s part of the reason why a lot of people like us.”