The year 2001 was a good one to be a band from DC. The sky was the limit (or so we thought) for the city’s loudest spokesmen, Dismemberment Plan, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists burst onto the scene with the searing, now-classic Tyranny of Distance, and the future seemed bright for newer buzz bands like Q and not U. Even Fugazi, who spearheaded the last great music resurgence in DC, got in on the action by casually recording their best album, um, ever (The Argument).
But since that time, D-Plan’s Travis Morrison got a day job, Fugazi went back into hiding, and many of the city’s promising new bands have either failed to break through or broken up entirely. Musician and producer Devin Ocampo, who’s been playing in and recording DC bands for almost 15 years, has witnessed the contraction of his city’s music scene firsthand. He might also help save it.
Completely Removed, the first album in five years from Ocampo’s band, Medications, is a thrilling beast of a record that combines the rabid, jittery post-punk of Les Savy Fav with anthemic power-pop vocal melodies that Rivers Cuomo would sell his soul for (if he had one left to sell). I recently spoke with Ocampo about how the scene in DC has changed, his philosophy as a producer, and the implications of indie rock entering the mainstream consciousness.
You’ve been playing in DC bands for almost 15 years now. How would you say the music scene’s changed over that period of time?
Devin Ocampo: I’d say the most obvious major change has been economics. The city has become really expensive to live in. DC was a small community of artists to begin with, and I think it‘s pushed out a lot of the people that would be making art on a regular basis. So I guess the major difference is there’s not that many of us left. There doesn’t seem to be anybody doing anything. There aren’t as many people that are artistically minded and that don’t really care about their jobs. They just couldn’t afford to live in the city, so they’re moving to Baltimore or Brooklyn. Though it seems like more is starting to happen again. Things are starting to get cheaper. There’s always a cycle with these things.
That’s about it. DC’s always been an eclectic, all-over-the-map music scene. Although when people talk about the Dischord sound, I’ve never really understood what it was supposed to be. (laughs) It’s so varied, even among the bands on Dischord.
Yeah I guess they expect every band to sound like Fugazi or something.
DO: Right, right. But if you buy a lot of records, they don’t really.
What are some of your favorite bands playing in DC now?
DO: I like Deleted Scenes. We’re doing some shows with them right now. They’re a pop band. The Aquarium is good, though, they don’t play very much. I recorded a band called Imperial China. I like them quite a bit.
Speaking of which, you’re a very prolific engineer and producer as well. How does recording other bands differ from recording Medications?
DO: Honestly, I don’t think there’s a huge difference. Usually, my style of production is to become a temporary band-member for that period of time that we work on a record. I really try to put my complete soul into it. But I have to pretend. I don’t want to just do things that I would do, record bands that I want to be in, you know what I’m saying? My first goal is to get inside what they want from their perspective, and then I try to be someone in the band who knows how to get there.
Is it fun to be able to play all these different roles depending on the kind of band you’re recording?
DO: Yeah, definitely. It’s great. I love working with bands and it’s really rewarding to be able to help attain someone’s vision or get closer to what someone heard in their head when they wrote a song. It’s really amazing to me to be able to help in that process because when I was starting out, my one experience with recording in a studio was so miserable. I was told that everything I was doing was wrong with complete disregard to what I wanted. I have vowed to never work with anyone like that or certainly not to be that person.
There was a five-year gap between Completely Removed and your last record. Why the long break?
DO: One, we had to reassess how we were going to function without a drummer. We parted ways amicably with our previous drummer. We agreed that we weren’t going in the same direction. At the same time, I ended up building a studio in my house while working at a local studio in DC. Also, I got married. My wife’s Brazilian and we had to deal with getting her into the country, so I spent a lot of time going to Brazil. And Chad (Molter) moved to Colorado, which also sort of hampered our ability to work on things all the time. So it really just look a long time.
When you split up with old drummer, what two directions were you going in?
DO: I think that we were sort of paring down our ideas, honing in on specifically wanting to make music that was based on songs. And our drummer, who’s a bit younger, was a little more hungry to just play and to do as much as possible and throw everything but the kitchen sink into the mix. So we were a little bit at odds at times. We’re just trying to make the truest, clearest statement as possible, whereas he was a little more focused on just having fun.
The album is this strange perfect hybrid of power-pop and post-punk. What bands influenced you the most when writing the album?
DO: Well, I think as far as that hybrid, on the top of list would be XTC, mixing that lofty, artistic, creative melodic pop idea with rock—straight-up rock. So that was a big one. We’re big fans of Field Music, an English band... um, how about everything? We just went back to the basics for most of it, things that, classically, I’m a huge fan of, like Bowie and the Beatles. Just trying to soak it all in and write good music.
Your guitar playing is really impressive technically, but I never find that it gets in the way of the songcraft. With what you’re capable of as a guitarist, skill-wise, do you find that to be a challenge sometimes to balance virtuosity with melody and songwriting?
DO: Yes and no. I’ve never tried to be a flashy guitar player, and I’m not very technically minded. I don’t know how to read music, and I don’t really know what chords I’m playing half the time. It’s not in the front of my brain. I could maybe noodle through what it might be if I was forced to, but it’s not the way that I work or the way that I write. It’s just what comes out of me and I guess the real difference is it’s more the intent of trying to do right by the songs. I know it sounds cliche and stupid, but it’s true. If you let the song tell you where to go, it’s a better outcome. Or a more listenable outcome, I should say.
I read an article about how back in April you were having trouble booking shows across the country. But now that the record has gotten a lot of word-of-mouth buzz are you finding it easier to book shows?
DO: It’s not so bad. The whole thing got blown out into people thinking we couldn’t book shows. A lot of it has to do with us getting married or almost married, bills, and things like that. Some of us are almost 40 years old. The economics of touring just gets more and more difficult. We’d love to keep doing it, but we feel like we need help. It’s not something that any of us are particularly good at. We’ve just done it because no one else would. It’d be great if we could just call someone and say, “Let’s do a West Coast tour in January,” and they set it up for us, but we haven’t had any luck making that happen. So I don’t know, we’ll see. There does seem to be some interest around the record.
Having played in independent bands for much of your life, what are your thoughts on indie music becoming such a huge part of the mainstream these days?
DO: I usually get asked this, and I feel kind of old saying, “I miss the way it used to be.” There’s some nostalgia about the way things were. I guess my main feeling is that the “indie” music scene or the “punk” scene or the “alternative” or the various names it has had all through the years—in the ’90s—I really felt there was this push toward music for money only, and that meant labels and booking agents and clubs. There was a whole other corporate whatever you want to call it. But we’re going to do it our way. We’re going to make art for art’s sake. We’re going to support artists because they’re good. And I think it started to really happen. It started to make money and be able to feed itself and be an alternative from what the mainstream was. And then it just got sucked up by the mainstream. It got to a point where... I don’t know if you could point to any one person, but just the whole thing as a machine couldn’t resist going even further and being sucked up by the mainstream. So now there isn’t an “alternative.” There isn’t “independent.” It’s all the same shit as far as I’m concerned.
Do you feel that labels like Dischord are keeping that old spirit alive?
DO: I guess so, to a certain extent. But in some ways, though, they’re almost oddly antiquated with this old way of thinking about things, those of us that still operate that way. So I guess we still carry the torch. I hope someone’s interested and thinks it’s interesting to do things ethically. And that always changes. There aren’t any hard fast rules as far as how you operate as a band or an artist, but I think as long as people are thinking about the way that they do things, the way that they operate as a business... so yeah we’re still trying. Whether they’re listening, I don’t know.