Interview with Shawna Kenney (co-author of the upcoming Live At The Safari Club book)Posted: September 9, 2011
How did you get into hardcore?
I grew up in a small town in southern Maryland (about an hour and a half south of DC), where there was not a lot to do. In middle school, I started skateboarding and an older skater made me and my best friend some punk tapes (Circle Jerks, the Dead Kennedys and TSOL). I was hooked on punk and later hardcore from there on out. My friends and I traveled an hour and a half to shows in DC and Baltimore, and sometimes put on little shows and “skate jams” in our own. When I was 16, I stumbled upon an interview with Ian MacKaye in the Washington Post. He was in Embrace, at the time. I wrote him what was probably a ridiculous fan letter and sent him my ‘zine, and to my surprise, he wrote me back with some very encouraging words. The whole “small-worldness” of this left a deep impression upon me.
I graduated from high school when I was 17, and moved to NY briefly. When I moved back to MD, my friend Toby (Morse, who is now in H2O—he, Todd Morse, Todd Friend and Rusty Pistachio all grew up together in that MD town) was very excited to introduce me to a new girl in town named Pam, who came from St. Louis, MO and was “all into punk rock, too!” (I had no other girls to go to punk shows with back then—most of my skating and punk friends were guys). So Pam and I became besties, then roommates. She became co-editor of the ‘zine and we moved to the DC area of Northern VA together.
One night I was out with my boyfriend’s band, who was supposed to play at the Safari Club. We get to the club and it’s a pay-to-play situation, and the sound man wants $50 from each band or something. The headlining band left right away and my boyfriend’s band was hemming and hawing about whether they were gonna do it or not. Someone forgot some equipment or something and they all left the club at different times, saying they’d be back to play, and somehow in all of the confusion, I got left behind. I sat there all night—until 3 am—waiting for my dumb boyfriend to come back to get me. This was before cell phones, so I used the bar’s phone to try to call him, Pam, or anyone who could come get me (by midnight, the Metro had shut off), but couldn’t reach anyone. I had about $4 in my pocket and a cab ride to Fairfax, VA would have been about $30. While shooting the breeze with the club owner—this Ethiopian guy named Haile—I asked him if I could book matinee “rock shows” on the weekend there sometime. He said sure, as long as he got a percentage of the door, so we took out a calendar, and he picked out two dates for me to start with. He must have felt sorry for me, because then he called up one of his cab driver friends and asked them to take me home—for free.
The next day, I was happy to tell Pam we had a place where we could do shows now—and I broke up with the guy.
What show(s) that you booked are you the most proud of and why?
I don’t know about pride, but the most exciting thing was probably the first Gorilla Biscuits show. Our first show was 3 local bands, and according to my notes, 69 people showed up. Cool, but Pam and I hoped they’d get bigger. The following week, Swiz and GB were booked. When Pam and I pulled up to the club at 11 to meet the sound people for sound check, 400 people were waiting outside! They didn’t even have a 7-inch out yet. We were blown away. Then they were 4 hours late, and people actually waited for them to show! We were nervous wrecks, thinking they might not actually come, but they did and everyone was stoked and it was a lot of fun.
After that, the Ethiopian club owner was like “Gorilla Biscuits, every weekend!” We had to explain why that would not work.
What show(s) that you went to in the ’90s stick out the most in your mind and why?
In the early 90s, I lived in NYC briefly and then came back and started college full-time, so most of the shows I went to were at the 9:30 Club or at CBGBs. I’d see Sick of it All over and over, wherever I lived (still do). Went to one of Into Another’s first shows at the Pyramid Club in NY. Briefly interned for Def Jam Records, so I went to (and worked) a lot of hip hop shows, like Public Enemy, EPMD, A Tribe Called Quest, Ice Cube, Ice-T, Salt-n-Pepa, etc. Saw an awesome Go-Go show with Rare Essence and Naughty by Nature in the Maryland suburbs. Saw the Ramones at a community college in Long Island once. Rage Against the Machine played a dance club in DC–that was pretty cool. I’ve been to so many shows, I get them all confused. I hung out at the 9:30 Club during that time a lot, not even knowing what bands were playing, and I incidentally saw bands like Jane’s Addiction, Nirvana, Danzig, Soundgarden, Bad Brains, Nine Inch Nails, etc.
I had no idea the Safari Club continued after we quit, until in ’95 when I met Martin Castro in a grocery store, of all places, then invited him to a Slayer show I was working (as an intern) and he brought along Rich Dolinger (who is now my husband). He and Rich told me about how Safari Club’s name had changed to Chamber of Sound and invited me to come see Shelter there that weekend. I was amazed when I walked in…the room was packed, everyone was holding up a camera, and almost half of the audience was female! There was lots of merch (not as common at 80s shows, either)—I mean, like a distro table—and Hare Krishna literature and food. It was pretty cool to see. Even though only a few years had passed, being back felt like I was in a time warp. It’s like I’d found some lost piece of myself.
Best shows I saw in the 80s include Soulside at DC Space, Verbal Assault at the Wilson Center, Fugazi, Moss Icon and Images at a church in Annapolis, and the Beastie Boys at some community center in Northern VA. Oh, and once Fugazi played the county fairgrounds in the town where I grew up, so that was pretty mind-blowing, going back there for that.
Do you prefer ’80s hardcore to ’90s hardcore or vice versa? Why?
Rich would tell you that I’m more into punk than hardcore, but I don’t really divide it up like that in my mind. 80s stuff like Soulside, Kingface, Dag Nasty, the Descendents, and Minor Threat I can listen to over and over and over again—it’ll always have a special place in my heart. I know more 80s music because I was kind of out-of-the-loop in the early 90s. But Rich played in Sri’s band (Baby Gopal), and in some hardcore bands in Cali (The Rule of Nines and Try Harder) so that’s given me an opportunity to see some great newer stuff. Still, I guess I lean towards the music of my youth.
What were some of your experiences (positive and/or negative) as a female in the predominantly male hardcore scenes of the ’80s and the ’90s?
Overall good experiences. I couldn’t help but notice the ratio when at shows, though, and I longed for a female friend into punk rock, as a younger teenager. I loved my guy friends, though, and still do. Since we were in such a small town together, we spent a lot of time making music, taking road trips, making zines, skating and just goofing off together. Most of them were pretty evolved dudes, and I think the DC scene in general was pretty welcoming. I was inspired by bands like 7 Seconds and Fugazi, who addressed issues of gender in their music. I was not really aware of riot grrrl stuff until it was over and was honestly a little jealous of that whole movement, later on. It must have been fun and empowering for the people involved in that.
There were a couple of bad things that happened that I’d never want a young girl to go through. Once I was waiting for (another loser) boyfriend at a Mentors and GWAR show (I had no idea who they were), and some drunk guy came up and tried to kiss me. I suddenly realized I was the only woman at the show and I didn’t really know anyone else there. I hid in the bathroom until my boyfriend showed up and then I just wanted to get the hell outta there.
Generally speaking, did being a female either help or hurt your involvement in the hardcore scene?
I don’t know. There is a culture of machismo in hardcore, which I was probably very attracted to at the time, and I was comfortable with that and knew how to work that. I never felt left out. A gay or emo guy probably suffered more than I did in that scene. Sometimes I felt frustrated some of the girls I met were just there hanging with their boyfriends and did not seem to love the music or culture, and I seemed to have nothing in common with the girls I met in college.
You and your husband Rich Dolinger are currently working on an oral history book entitled Live At The Safari Club, which chronicles the club’s entire 1988-1997 history. Discuss this book.
Yes—after living in LA for 9 years and NC for 4, we recently moved back to DC and found ourselves checking out what remains of the club—it’s this crumbling shell of a building surrounded by gourmet sandwich shops and high-rises—completely different neighborhood than it was in the 80s or 90s. Then we were on Dissonance Radio with our friend Dave Brown and he and the host joked about my next book being a Safari Club book. Later, Rich and I talked about it and wondered if anyone else would be into it, then thought that even if only 4 people in the world would want this “scrapbook,” we should do it, just to have a document of that time. There had been a lot of talk amongst friends about how early and mid-80s punk has been well-covered, and many of these punk books and movies love to say that hardcore died in ’85, but anyone who has been paying attention knows it didn’t. This era made its own contributions to the overall conversation of underground music, and that should be recognized.
I thought oral history-style would be the only way, because otherwise people will complain about our point of view. People are gonna complain anyway—it’s hardcore—but we’ve been overwhelmed with the number of people who have been enthusiastic about the project. The Washington Post Express mentioned us in a brief article about the Wilson Center’s 30-year anniversary and then our website went crazy, with people sending flyers, photos and stories. Now we feel like we HAVE to make it good and do it right, because people are counting on that. The scene is our family and we love the people in it. It’s cool to know it wasn’t just our imaginations—this music and scene matter to more than just us.
Who are some of the ’90s hardcore notables that you and your husband interviewed for the book?
Everyone is notable and I can’t divide them up by years. There are a bunch of interview clips on the website, but here’s a list of some people we’ve interviewed who are not on the website:
Ingrid Newkirk (President and founder of PETA)
Alec MacKaye (Ignition)
Kenny Innouye (Marginal Man)
Alex Daniels (Swiz)
Martin Castro (former Safari Club promoter)
Michelle Mennona (scenester)
Chuck Copeland (scenester)As a writer, who/what are some of your influences and why?
I like experiential writers like Hunter S. Thompson, Truman Capote, Susan Orlean—and people with an ear for language, like Alice Walker, Michele Serros, Sandro Meallet, Carolyn Forche, Chuck Palahniuk, etc. I teach literature, so I like to think I am immersed in the greats, every day. My hope is that this book is DC’s answer to Legs McNeil’s Please Kill Me or Brendan Mullen and Marc Spitz’s We Got the Neutron Bomb.