On a recent Friday night, a familiar tradition was unfolding in Petworth: A cluster of 20-somethings stood around the living room of a spacious house off of Georgia Avenue NW, slurping beers. A DJ blasted music while no one—at least not yet—danced. More people slowly crept in, stopping to peel off bills for a guy collecting cash near the door. Bikes were locked up outside. Punk provocateur Ian Svenonius was afoot. It was a little awkward, but that’s usually how these things go.
Shortly after 10 p.m., the next act started setting up. But it wasn’t a rock band, or anything as pedestrian as that—it was Olivia Neutron-John, a newcomer to the D.C. area who plays an intense and minimal strain of synthpop on a Casio. The rest of the performers occupied a similar vein: dark techno, much of it industrial-tinged. The headliner that night would be Secret Boyfriend, an experimentalist who toys with the boundaries between electronic and acoustic music, and who released a record that a reviewer for Resident Advisor called possibly “the most abstruse thing Blackest Ever Black has ever released.”
The lineup that night came courtesy of Select DC, a young duo bent on bringing more abstruse electronic music to the District.
Recent D.C. transplants Josh Levi, 27, and 24-year-old Jacob Knibb—who lives in the Petworth house—met on Facebook in January 2013 and bonded over their mutual desire to see more weird or overlooked synthesized music in the city. Levi booked bands back home in St. Louis, Mo., and Knibb had been into punk and noise while growing up in Chesapeake, Va. Two months after they met online, they booked their first show together. That event brought electronic music-makers Ital (D.C. expat Daniel Martin-McCormick) and Container (Providence’s Ren Schofield) to Comet Ping Pong.
Despite the excitement surrounding Ital in 2012, the Comet show flopped, by Knibb’s account. He says attendance was low, and they didn’t make enough money to meet the tour manager’s guarantee. But the curation set the tone for the other shows Select DC would later book: independent, dark, and vaguely punk synthesized music, usually performed in noncommercial venues and people’s houses.
It’s not a money-maker, but that’s not the point.
“Josh and I are mainly interested in creating opportunities for marginalized performers whose work generally resemble noise, techno, house, minimal synth, American primitive, industrial, avant-garde electronic, or some mutant hybridization of styles,” writes Knibb, who has his own musical project, Rosemary Arp. (Levi plays solo as Radiator Greys.) “I say ‘marginalized’ because they don’t represent a typical band/DJ dynamic or their sound doesn’t fit within the current interests of other venues or promoters. I wanted to create an ‘Other’ outlet for the people who didn’t fit in with an established D.C. scene.”
The pair has booked about 20 events so far, their most recent one a noise night at Ghion restaurant near U Street NW. April 12 at Union Arts DC, they embark on their biggest gig yet: a nightlong production called the Vanguard Festival.
“Vanguard Festival came together by chance when a number of artists contacted us about shows on the same date. It gave us an opportunity to put together a huge bill of acts we wanted to see, and whom we want to expose to the greater DMV area,” Levi writes. So far, the lineup includes a mix of noisemakers like Los Angeles’ John Wiese and Philadelphia’s Embarker alongside dance-friendlier artists like Claire and—again—Ital. Numerous acts on the bill, from DJs to live performers, are local.
Of course, noise isn’t underrepresented in D.C., not by a long shot. Just look at the annual Sonic Circuits Festival and the related shows it helps put on throughout the year. The broadest definition of electronic music has a home here, too, though dance clubs like U Street Music Hall and Flash tend to focus on more accessible house and techno—the kind of thing more likely to pack floors and sell liquor. (Though Select DC has worked with Flash before.)
Select DC exists mainly to plug the holes unfilled by commercial venues and larger promoters. “Many of my friends who have hit me up for shows in the D.C. area have either had a rough D.C. show five-plus years ago, or have never played the District before,” Levi writes.
With its DIY ethos, Select DC clearly sprouts from punk-rock soils, but not just when it comes to eschewing commercialism: Knibb and Levi also try to support women musicians working in an otherwise very male genre. Levi points to a December show the pair booked for Providence’s Unicorn Hard-On (Valerie Martino). “Having her play to an audience mostly comprised of women” was critical, he says. “We are huge proponents of promoting female musicians in such a male-dominated arena.”
While Select DC remains a strictly underground operation, Knibb says their small community of followers probably know what to expect from him and Levi at this point. “I think we’ve gotten a reputation for being the weird, noisy dance people in the city.”
A sampling of some of the artists Select DC has brought or will bring to D.C.: