Sunday, December 4, 2011

More Than Me: An Oral History Of D.C. Rock Legends radioblue

This little project started because I was a music snob.

The more nostalgic I became for the years 1987 to 1990 when I worked for three College Park, Maryland record stores (The Record and Tape Exchange, 11/1987 to 08/1988; The University of Maryland Record Co-Op, 09/1988 to 06/1990, and Kemp Mill Records, 06/1990 to 07/1990), the more I realized how closed-minded I had been in those days.

Preferring UK acts like Stone Roses, The Sundays, and Cocteau Twins, I could count on one hand the US bands I held in similar high regard: R.E.M., The Replacements, The Pixies, Throwing Muses, and the recently broken-up Husker Du, roughly.

Local D.C. acts were beneath me, mainly 'cause I got sick of working at The Record and Tape Exchange where the non-hardcore loving owner would kiss the asses of those guys when they brought their vinyl in for sale on consignment.

And the D.C. press seemed to be covering Dischord acts at the expense of other acts, never mind that bands like radioblue and The Now and Frontier Theory were getting more popular.

Luckily, I worked with Rich from The Now during that final year at the Co-Op. This was after Gene Hawkins was out of the band but before Lucy Brown signed to Atlantic, and a few years before Gene's tragic death.

Rich practically forced me to listen to Fugazi's 13 Songs, and "The Waiting Room" convinced me I was too narrow in my focus. There was great music being produced in D.C. and I was missing it.

Case in point: the nearly huge radioblue.

(Yes, it's a lower-case r!)

Looking back, I saw these guys a few times at the old 9:30 Club -- I can even remember standing in the audience at the old 9:30 Club and begrudgingly admitting to a friend that "Yeah, these guys are pretty good." -- and I vaguely remember the band playing at a party at the apartment of Jenny, the local RCA/BMG college representative.

And even now when I play their CD, Just Like Jane, I am surprised at how tuneful and polished these guys were. In a pre-Nirvana era, way before Jawbox signed to Atlantic Records, before Slumberland Records made the D.C. area a fertile home for C86-inspired jangle-pop bands, radioblue were writing big tunes and creating a sound somewhere between The Mighty Lemon Drops and US power-pop like early Matthew Sweet and D.C.'s own Tommy Keene.

There are so many styles on Just Like Jane that the album, probably intentionally, sounds like an audio resume for any prospective big label who might have wanted to sign the guys.

Oddly, Pennsylvania's The Ocean Blue -- once opening act for D.C.'s The Now -- achieved some success around this time with a slightly similar sound but where they were fey and forced, radioblue were confident and wildly melodic. There are traces of The Smiths and The Cure here, sure, but it's really a great record that captures the positive mood in the alt. rock world before everything became grunge-y and depressing.

So, in the words of Marty DiBergi: "Enough of my yakkin! Let's boogie!"

Here's the story of radioblue from the guys who lived it: [left to right] Mark Helm (vocals/guitar), Danny Ingram (drums), Steve Engel (bass), and James Lee (vocals/guitar)!

KENIXFAN: An important question for anyone, especially a musician: What are some of your earliest musical memories? What inspired you before you joined radioblue?

DANNY INGRAM: When I was about seven, I was madly infatuated with my babysitter Irene. She was a gorgeous blonde teenager whose family had recently emigrated from Poland who was very into The Beatles and the music of the day. Her older brother had a Gold Sparkle Ludwig drum kit (my feet couldn't reach the kick pedal) and, desperate to impress her, I tried to play along with her records on the kit. Around that time, a neighbor and dear family friend bought me my first kit: a champagne-finished jazz cocktail kit. Our neighbor, Richard Spencer, had played sax for Otis Redding and was the front man of the D.C. R&B band The Winstons. My parents never got me proper lessons, and I soon gave up playing because I simply wasn't getting any better on my own.

It wasn't until much later (1979) when I was encouraged to join a band. I'd been to see The Clash at the Ontario Theater; after the show I was backstage talking with the band. Joe Strummer admonished me to get off the sidelines and get in a band. Shortly thereafter, I volunteered to sit in on drums for the D.C. hardcore band The Untouchables, when their drummer left for college. I haven't looked back since.

JAMES LEE: First, wearing out The Beatles' Red and Blue vinyl albums in 6th grade, then getting blown away by The Buzzcocks and The Sex Pistols on a tape my friend lent me.

STEVE ENGEL:: For sure, lots and lots of Beatles. The Who came a little later.

MARK HELM: I started playing and singing at 14. In the Winter of '77, I won a talent contest at a popular local bar (I played guitar/harmonica and sang Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young's "Helpless" with the crack house band...the guitarist was my instructor). By that summer, I'd joined a gigging band (all guys a few years older than me) and was off to the races. I gigged professionally with the band and as a solo [artist] for years before radioblue. Stagedoor was an unconventional cover band: we did stuff by Little Feat, The Grateful Dead, Steeley Dan, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Allman Brothers, one point we had 2 drummers and a horn section!

Way pre-radioblue, my high school/college band, Stagedoor, was active from 1975-1985. My first paying bar gig was when I was 15. I played several nights a week all through HS and college.

KENIXFAN: How did radioblue form?

JAMES: Steve Engel (bass), Paul Stark (drums), and I formed radioblue in 1987. Mark Helm joined early 1988. Danny Ingram replaced Paul in 1991.

STEVE: James and I had played together in high school and through college with Ricky Greenspan on drums (also from high school who I played with since junior high). Ricky decided to move on so we placed an ad in the City Paper for a drummer. Paul [Stark] answered. He had a style that was quite different from what we were used to and was a great drummer. When Paul left in 1991, we asked Danny Ingram to join in.

MARK: It all started with radioblue making posters. We discovered a way to make them for next to nothing by using a process normally used to make architectural plans -- they smelled awful of ammonia, but looked great. Before we did this and loaded up the van with posters and buckets of wheat paste and went out in the dead of night, there weren't any real band posters all over D.C.. and the art of those posters made by James Lee, was amazing! James still has most of them and they should be in a book! Anyway, if not for our guerilla marketing, we never would have had the success we did.

A pre-Danny Ingram shot of radioblue...

KENIXFAN: I have been instructed to ask about Mark's audition for the band. Do tell.

STEVE: Well James, Paul, and I had played for about a year together and decided we needed another player. When Mark came in he played lead guitar-type stuff but with what I thought was a great unique edge. It didn't exactly fit though. Maybe a little forced. Paul and James, I think, were looking for someone who played with a more ethereal texture. I felt James already played that style and Mark's leads would complement what he was playing. It took some convincing and a second audition. Mark nailed it.

MARK: The story of me auditioning for the band and James and Steve getting me to ditch my Beach Boy-cum-grad student-cum hippie look for ALL BLACK is pretty funny.

JAMES: Mark came in an audition playing surf and blues-type leads. Paul and I weren't convinced, but Steve persuaded us to give Mark a second audition which went really well.

KENIXFAN: You guys played EVERYWHERE in the D.C. area. What are some of your most vivid memories -- good or bad -- of the various D.C. venues from those days?

STEVE: The shows at 9:30 were always the best. The staff was awesome, the crowds were tons of fun, and they all made us feel welcome and at home.

DANNY: I joined the band in the latter half of its existence, but for me, the most memorable radioblue shows in D.C. were at the 9:30 Club. The most memorable shows over all (for me) were in L.A..

JAMES: Memories:

9:30 Club: cat-sized rats;

The Bayou: the sound guy for The Tom Tom Club yelling at me, "Do you want good sound? Do you want good sound?" after I shifted a monitor during our sound check;

America University Bender Arena: watching Mark play Glen Tilbrook's leads back to him, note-for-note, backstage when we opened up for Squeeze;

The University of Maryland: opening up for and meeting [The Byrds'] Roger McGuinn;

DC Space: showing up for our first gig and not realizing we needed to bring our own PA.

MARK: It kinda bothers me sometimes that radioblue is treated like a footnote when we were arguably the biggest draw in D.C. for many years and were definitely [some] of the most interesting songwriters.

I probably played at The 9:30 Club (with radioblue, solo, and with my other band, Super 8 [Tom Kane, Danny Ingram, Mike Harvey]) 50+ times. Not to mention selling out The Bayou, doing some really cool Birchmere shows, playing the Black Cat with Jeff Buckley...

A blurry shot of the pre-Danny Ingram lineup of radioblue...

KENIXFAN: Let's hear some stories about your peers. You guys hit your stride somewhere between the first burst of Dischord glory and the later success of Slumberland Records (formed in College Park) and Velocity Girl (who signed to Sub Pop). In that era, you pretty much ruled the D.C. music scene apart from the Dischord guys and successful local acts like The Now and Strange Boutique.

STEVE: I think Mark and James and Danny are probably better equipped for this one. They are the ones who really made friends with the other guys and gals and hung out with them much more than me. I will say this though, Marginal Man and Mother May I rocked the hardest and were my favorites.

Their shows were super energetic, they put on great shows and wrote the best tunes.

DANNY: I had run the gamut of D.C. bands by the time I'd started drumming for radioblue, including some of the first Dischord bands. As one of the earliest fixtures on the D.C. punk scene, I'd always felt intrinsically linked to the bands and people...but radioblue were firmly planted on the outside of that scene. And it was, at times, an uncomfortable separation. Many of the Dischord bands were gaining nationwide attention -– and I think some of us felt like we were treading water in D.C.. We did, however, play with Strange Boutique once or twice after I'd left them. That was a bit odd, given that my wife at the time was the singer for Strange Boutique. But there was no animus -– they were as affable and goofy as ever (outward appearances of goth-y seriousness to the contrary notwithstanding).

JAMES: Loved the music scene back then -- everyone supported each other. I remember hanging out with a lot of bands -- Strange Boutique, Big Bang Theory, Mother May I, Shudder To Think, Marginal Man, The Neighbors -- I'm sure I'm forgetting a few.

MARK: By the way, radioblue had a strong relationship with [Rhode Island's] Throwing Muses. We played together a lot -- one very big show in Philadelphia. Later, when I was working on the Jamie Blake album for A&M, I ended up in [producer] Gary Smith's studio in Boston, working with [Sean] Slade and [Paul Q.] Kolderie and saw Kristen Hersh and Evan Dando [of The Lemonheads], and even Juliana Hatfield, who I first met when we traded our vinyl records (The Blake Babies and radioblue's Warehouse) and smooched on the back steps, there among the rats!!!

KENIXFAN: Tell me about recording your CD and why it took so long -- I can vaguely recall people wanting a CD from you guys in the record shops I worked at maybe two years before it existed.

STEVE: I didn't realize it was so long. I'm not sure but I think we put out a cassette before Mark came in around 1988. After he joined, we recorded an album but only released it on vinyl, I think, in 1989. Then we did the CD which came out in 1991. I guess we were more concerned with playing live. I enjoy recording but it's very stressful and tempers can fly so, for me, playing live shows was more fun.

JAMES: Our first release was on vinyl but was only an EP. We were so busy playing out live after that, it was another year and a half before we started recording again.

MARK: I do like Just Like Jane...just wish we'd done a studio recording of the actual song I wrote "Just Like Jane" -- it was our "Rain" [from The Beatles]. James probably has a good 8-track demo...

KENIXFAN: Back to influences: your sound was clearly influenced by British acts of the era. Where those your biggest influences at the time?

DANNY: Probably not applicable to a lowly drummer, but at the time, my drumming influences were Dave Ruffy [The Ruts], Martin Atkins [P.I.L., Pigface, Killing Joke, Ministry] and John Maher [The Buzzcocks].

STEVE: Since James and Mark were writing most of the music, I would say by osmosis I was influenced by those British Manchester bands. My preference, though, was probably more straight ahead rock stuff. I get a lot of grief for this, but, for sure, The Smithereens were my favorite.

JAMES: Yes, definitely. I was really into the whole Manchester scene.

MARK: We were doing noisy, obviously Beatles-esque tunes 5 years before Oasis!

KENIXFAN: Why did the band breakup? What happened?

STEVE: We went to Los Angeles in late 1991 and tried to showcase for some major labels. It never panned out. It was a lot of fun out there though. When we got back to D.C. in early 1992, Danny got the offer to play with Swervedriver. That's an opportunity that he just couldn't pass up.

We played with some "guest" drummers for a while (for a couple of years) -- most notably Rob LeBourdais from Mother May I. Around that time (it's been so long, I believe somewhere between 1993/1994), I think Mark was feeling he wanted to be more of a front man so he started Super 8, radioblue had run its course and that was that.

JAMES: We mostly lost our energy after we got back from L.A.. Danny joined Swervedriver, and Mark formed Super 8.

DANNY: I think it imploded. It was probably the three Ds: drugs, divorce, and disillusionment. I left, and I think the band carried on for a bit after that…but, really, how could they have lasted for too long without me?

KENIXFAN: What did you do after radioblue?

DANNY: I went on to fill in on drums for Swervedriver for a year (1992); then, in 1993 I played in Emma Peel with Steve Hansgen (ex-Minor Threat) and John Stabb (ex-Government Issue) –- releasing a single on John Lisa's record label; after that, [in] 1994, I drummed in Ultracherry Violet (who released a CD on Bedazzled [KENIXFAN: D.C.'s answer to 4AD and Projekt]). I gave up drumming for a few years –- only coming off the bench, as it were, to play on Mark's solo LP on Not Lame records (and playing in his band Super 8). After a few years rest, I hooked up with James and Steve at a party. We talked about doing something together…and then formed King Mixer, who are still going today. I've also played drums for Modest Proposal (their 25th anniversary show) and am now also playing in Dot Dash (with ex-members of Julie Ocean and Modest Proposal). We have a CD that just came out on the Canadian record label The Beautiful Music.

Most importantly, I re-married and now have 2 beautiful boys (Sam, 8, and Noah, 5). Now I can just live vicariously through them as they grow into budding musicians.

STEVE: James and I continued to play with another drummer in a band [called] Isabella's Bed for a while until we hooked back up with Danny (again I can't remember the time frame so I'll say 1999) and formed King Mixer. Dan Marx is a guitarist who we're all friends with and he joined a few years later (2001?) and we still write songs, record a bit, and play out live sparingly.

JAMES: We're still practicing and playing out occasionally.

MARK: I made the record that would become Everything's OK on Not Lame...I also did a record on A&M with a D.C. artist named Jamie Blake that tanked because A&M went under just before the record came out, signed a publishing deal with Warner/Chappell and failed to land a major label deal several times -- spectacularly!

And then there's the week I spent hanging out with Paul McCartney, but that's a whole other story!!!

KENIXFAN: Any chance of a reunion? Maybe a benefit gig or two?

DANNY: I am loathe to do reunion shows. I wasn't in Modest Proposal originally, so I didn't really have a problem with that. But I didn't play in the Strange Boutique reunion, and have turned down requests to do a Youth Brigade reunion, among others. That said -– I'd never say never. But D.C. seems to be getting swept up in reunion mania –- and I'm not inclined to simply try and cash in on that; I'd only consider it if there were real demand to do so.

Otherwise it has the potential to be very embarrassing.

STEVE: You know, we had a great run and thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. Hopefully, a lot of others enjoyed it as well. I think my preference is to look forward to new things so I don't think a reunion is in the works. A benefit is a different story though. If for some weird reason, our presence could help out an organization or some people I wouldn't dismiss the idea.

JAMES: I'd have to re-learn all the songs!

KENIXFAN: Even though radioblue was formed by James, I'm gonna let Mark have the last word on why radioblue were such a great D.C. pop band in that brief window between Dischord's rise and before Nirvana defined alternative rock, when there was room for melody, hooks, and positive energy:

MARK: I actually listened to Just Like Jane today on the way to work for the first time in years... I gotta say, in all modesty, I was kinda amazed -- not that it holds up -- it's just a unique record.

Last week I got an email from The Mighty Lemon Drops' main guy/writer, and old pal, Dave Newton, here's what he said about the same:

"This song is fucking ace, matey! In fact, I listened to the album again a few months ago and I still hear four or five bonafide hit singles on the album... I tell you man ... We (me & my band) fought for you...we thought you lot were so good and we would listen to this album on the tour bus all the time and told everyone that we thought mattered about you guys... what a great band! It blew me away when I listened to it again recently! Time for a re-issue!?!"

KENIXFAN: An enormous Thank You to Mark Helm, Danny Ingram, James Lee, and Steve Engel!

You can find out about King Mixer here:

James Lee runs a design company: JML Design.

You can learn about Dot Dash on this blog and on their Facebook page.

Follow Mark Helm on his MySpace page:

And on his Soundcloud page (there are 2 radioblue cuts up there):

Busy: The Rise of radioblue In Context

I was sans car during these two months so I didn't go to any of these shows but there are plenty listed here that I would have loved to have attended...

Look at the bands playing the old 9:30 Club in late 1988! I went to that In Tua Nua show and spent most of my time backstage chatting with Tom Terrell - R.I.P. -- and opening act Luka Bloom. Tom used to sell his promos at The Record and Tape Exchange when I worked there.

radioblue was playing here with Frontier Theory, another great local D.C. band. Mike Kelley from Frontier Theory was also the college rep. for A&M Records and he was a great guy. He took me and a few record company-types to dinner with The Blue Nile in Adams Morgan somewhere, and he got me backstage to meet Robyn Hitchcock even though Hitchcock was a bit intimidating.

May 1990. I was at that Chills show but have no idea why I missed some of those other ones. Since I was working with Rich, I probably went to that Now show and I forgot -- until now! -- that I saw that Something Happens! gig with Miracle Legion -- one of the many times an opening act was better than the headliner.