Patrick Best revisits his heady days in the D.C. punk scene
The Madison-area musician's high-school punk band, Indian Summer, recently re-issued its sole EP. (Photo: Best, right, and Bill McDowell playing DC’s Safari Club in 1989.)
Patrick Best has spent much of his musical life improvising cathartic, long-form instrumentals at the intersection of folk and the avant-garde, most notably in Pelt and Spiral Joy Band. But it all started for Best in the D.C. punk scene of the late 1980s. The Mt. Horeb resident and multi-instrumentalist joined his first band, Indian Summer (not to be confused with a Bay Area emo band of the same name), as a high-schooler in Fairfax County, Virginia. As the band's vocalist, a teenage Best shouted out urgent lyrics about loneliness, violence, and what he calls "supposed traumas of your life as an upper-middle-class white kid living in the suburbs of DC." The music itself drew on elements of hardcore, but also reached for the melodic brightness of bands like Rites Of Spring and Lungfish.
"It's such a blur, because as a teenager, you're going through a whole lot of teenage stuff, trying to figure out the next stages of your life, so the writing reflects that. A lot of innocence and not very sophisticated lyrically compared to what I would do today," Best says. "I have a better understanding of the music now than I did when we were creating it."
While best and his bandmates—drummer John Dugan, guitarist Steve Francis, and bassist Bill McDowell—were relative youngsters in an often mythologized music scene, they did get to play several of the pivotal venues in D.C. at that time, including D.C. Space and the Safari Club. Best's last show with the band was at D.C. Space in 1989, opening for Shudder To Think. The one proper release Indian Summer made in its two-year run, the Cherry Smash EP, was recorded with J. Robbins, of the brilliant post-hardcore band Jawbox. This was one of Robbins' first experiences producing another band; he'd go on to record bands including The Dismemberment Plan, Against Me!, Lemuria, and Coliseum, and open his own recording studio in Baltimore. (Robbins recently released his first solo album and has a Jawbox reunion tour coming up.) Earlier this year, Indian Summer reissued the EP digitally and on vinyl, after Francis managed to track down the original multi-track tapes and have them remixed and remastered. The band will celebrate the reissue in August with a show at a VFW hall in Falls Church, Virginia.
The title track of Cherry Smash takes its inspiration from a soda of the same name. Over the song's mid-tempo churn (again, that Lungfish influence!), Best captured the hyper-vivid mix of innocence and angst and neediness you might expect from a 17-year-old trying to find himself through punk rock: "I gave it to you just to try / I didn’t like it much I don’t know why / You took the cup from my hands / I smiled as it met your lips / Sometimes things aren’t always right / Judgement passed right from out sight / You had to taste on this day / Now you found out what it was like."
Listening back now, Best hears the limitations of four teenagers just starting to learn how to write songs, but also feels proud about what the band was able to accomplish at the time. "We couldn't emulate Embrace or Minor Threat or Bad Brains, because I don't think we were good enough to play that kind of music, so I think we kind of evolved organically into what we could play," he says. The quality and clarity of the recording also indicate that Robbins, who would have been all of 22 at the time but a revered elder to the members of Indian Summer, was already developing the skills that would make him a sought-after producer and engineer.
"He came and heard us practice a few times and I have a really vivid memory of him showing up, best says. I was super nervous, and he shows up to our practice space and his car is, like, smoking. He had some old Impala or something, total wreck of a piece of shit car...we were all very enamored of the dude," Best says. "He was a really good musician. He could harmonize instantly. If I was singing something he would harmonize on top of it and say, 'When you do an overdub, you can do it a third above.'"
After leaving the band, Best moved to Richmond to attend Virginia Commonwealth University, and ended up playing in bands including the avant-garde group Hotel X (which put out several albums on the legendary punk label SST Records) and the band Ugly Head, before forming Pelt with the late guitarist Jack Rose. Dugan now works as a music journalist in Chicago, and his musical activities since Indian Summer have included playing in Chisel with Ted Leo. Francis lives in northern Virginia plays in a punk band called No Dead Monsters. McDowell currently lives in North Carolina and has largely retreated from music. The four will get together soon to prepare for their reunion show. Best perhaps inevitably finds himself thinking about the structure of the band's songs from a more sophisticated perspective. But he's also approaching it with a pleasing sense of things coming full circle.
"When we go back to do rehearsals, I'm going to have to refrain from trying to re-write all the songs. I'm so enthusiastic about it," Best says. "It was definitely a moment in life that was chaotic and crazy and there was a lot of personal turmoil going on, and now being much older with kids in high school—my oldest son now would be the same age as when I started singing with these guys."