Luce Unplugged: Five Questions with Stephanie Williams and Matt Cohen

Madeline on June 14, 2017

It's no secret that the District's music scene buzzes with diverse talent. Yet, how do we harness this creativity in the Luce Foundation Center? With help from DC Music Download's Stephanie Williams for our Thursday shows, and insight from Matt Cohen, arts editor for the Washington City Paper, for our Friday showcases! From rock 'n roll and experimental to pop-punk and disco, audiences have gotten a taste of what continues to keep DC's music scene interesting. We spoke with Stephanie and Matt to hear where they find up-and-incoming bands, what they love about DC, their own musical heroes, and where you can find these artists when they aren't jamming at Luce Unplugged.

Eye Level: What do you think makes the arts scene in DC unique?

Stephanie Williams: What's great about making art here, specifically music, is how accepting and open the creative community is. No matter what your background or focus may be, there's a place here for everyone to thrive. People are also willing to help you and collaborate rather than it being a super competitive and cut-throat environment.

Matt Cohen: I'm from DC, I grew up in the Montgomery County suburbs. I've essentially lived here my whole life, so it's hard for me to compare it to anything else, but I think what makes it so unique is that DC is this melting pot of social, political, and cultural communities. The arts scene has a fascinating relationship with its own past, too. Like, all the big arts movements DC is known for—punk and hardcore, jazz, go-go, Washington Color School, etc.—artists are informed and influenced by all that, but they're not intent on repeating it. It's all about developing their own style, whether it's in the music world or art world.

EL: Matt Cohen, as a native to DC, how have you seen the arts scene evolve?

MC: It's become more inclusive and cohesive, for sure. The arts scene has always been very progressive, but in recent years, I've noticed different corners of it have merged and worked together. There are a lot more artists collaborating with musicians. It's so heartening to see a local theater company work with a local band to do musical accompaniment for a production, or having punk shows in the DC Public Library. The various collaborations I see nowadays are something you wouldn't have seen five or ten years ago. Or maybe they were happening and I just wasn't aware of it.

EL: Can you both describe a little bit of your process for discovering new, up-and-coming bands?

SW: I actually still do a fair amount of manual digging. I try to make an effort every week to scour Bandcamp and SoundCloud for any new releases that might have slipped under my radar. That's how I've come across most of the musicians I've profiled on DC Music Download. I also try to go to as many shows as possible to specifically see bands I haven't seen before. I've never solely relied on the submissions I receive via email. If that were the case, I would have missed a lot of awesome people.

MC: I wish I had an exciting answer for this, but I don't. I nerd out on discovering new music, so I'm constantly scouring Bandcamp, or other corners of the internet for new tunes. For local music, I get sent a lot of stuff, all of which I listen to. But honestly, the best way to discover new local bands/artists is just going to shows. I'd say 80% of the shows I go to are local bands. So I'll go and see a new band that just formed, or a band I've seen on a flier a few times. That's the best way, and always has been, to discover new music: go to shows.

EL: Stephanie, what do you love most about local music?

SW: I appreciate the DC music community's resilience. There are some limitations in DC that make it difficult for musicians to create here (high cost of rent, lack of affordable practice/work spaces, few outlets that cover local music and musicians, etc.), but it doesn't stop the scene from thriving. There's a strong DIY ethos here that's both inspiring and admirable.

EL: What are some of your favorite bands in DC? Is there a particular venue in DC you love?

MC: Tough question! I grew up on the '00s Dischord stuff, so Q And Not U, Black Eyes, Dismemberment Plan (though they were never on Dischord) were my musical heroes growing up and kind of made me think about music differently. I've been a longtime fan of Pygmy Lush from Sterling, Virginia. John Fahey was from DC—he's long dead and hadn't lived in DC since the late '60s, but he's a musical hero of mine. In the past few years, I've been really inspired by experimentation. Artists who make me think about music differently are some of my favorite bands. I think Hand Grenade Job, who played at a past Washington City Paper community showcase, is, hands down, the best band to see live. Every performance of theirs is like a seance and their music—I've just never heard a group that thinks about musical composition the way they do. Very stripped down and minimal, but at the same time their songs are huge and powerful. As for venues, Black Cat has been my second home for the better part of a decade. Some of the best people I've ever known in this city work there and it's always felt like the center of everything for DC's music scene.

SW: I hate to choose favorites, but there are bands that I've been a longtime fan of that I still love to see whenever possible. Heavy Breathing is one of those bands for sure. Their live shows are really unlike anything else I've seen here. I'm also a big fan of Nag Champa and what Jamal Gray is doing. He's one of those key people in DC that's keeping the music scene interesting. Venues, well, SAAM is one! It's such a beautiful space to see live music, and there's nothing that really tops it in DC. Songbyrd is also a wonderful spot to see an intimate show, as is Otherfeels.

Luce Unplugged is a free, monthly local concert series held in the Luce Foundation Center for American Art. This series is organized in partnership with DC Music Download, and The Washington City Paper. Be sure to check out upcoming performances and don't miss Flasher next Thursday, June 22.