Despite a fresh coat of paint and an influx of young, rich and hungry to its “reclaimed” downtown, Washington D.C. has always been, at heart, a sleepy southern outpost planted dead in the middle of a swamp. Sound familiar? Unholy twins New Orleans and the District of Columbia seem to be these days. In either place you’re destined to see battlefields and cemeteries scarring the landscape and monuments to heroes and criminals scattered like pieces on a gruesome board game. And while New Orleans feels the vacuum of power’s absence, D.C. takes our collective submission in concentrated doses.
Camped at the crossroads of this great flux of energy is Hand Grenade Job, an alliance—a sisterhood—of Erin McCarley and (frequent NOLA visitor) Beck Levy, who together have shrugged off their surnames and adopted Solanas instead, in honor of the woman who took a shot at Andy Warhol. Like our two bonded cities, this coven has gathered from opposing coasts of the North American continent; Erin is SoCal born and bred while Beck is a D.C. native. HGJ have been classified as experimental or post-punk, but pre-punk seems more accurate, or better yet, pagan—there’s a healthy dose of the occult in their sets, illustrated best in their song “Witchcraft,” which alternates the enchanting refrains of “Sometimes I use the magic of attack” with “Sometimes I use the magic of escape,” then erodes into a more modern lament of the fringe dweller: “Sometimes I use.” Most of HGJ’s songs are performed with acoustic percussion, droning guitars, or sounds that feel like they come from a blighted dollhouse. They sing together, with vocals so entwined and harmonized it forms a single, towering, overpowering wave.
In my conversation with Beck and Erin one evening, we discussed everything from unwaged motherhood (Erin has two children aged 3 and 1), fantasizing about assaults on the republic’s power centers, battling fellow acoustic pain-worshippers Pygmy Lush for ultimate hermit status, punk house woes—and we even cracked a few jokes. Ultimately, talking with these two sorceresses, I couldn’t help but feel like an ant crawling around the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, staring up at a stone giant who’s been cursed to watch a city and civilization slowly eat itself, forever unable or unwilling to blink.
How did you first meet and what are some of the first memories you have of each other?
Beck Levy: The normal way—in the back of a van! Erin was playing music with my housemate at the time, Katy Otto. And Erin really scared me; she was a real shredder. Years later I finally got up the nerve to play music with her… The memory that stands out for me is that their band was called Problems and I was their number one fan girl. I would follow them around to their shows and hang out with them at the bar at the show. At one point, we were all talking about how we needed to do an X cover band for Halloween and Erin was like, “Yeah, okay, you can do that but I’m singing Exene’s part.” And I thought anything you want, Erin! You’re so coooool!
Erin McCarley: I thought Beck was the bad-ass teenager that I really never had the balls to be. I just hung out alone in my room whereas Beck was totally out in the world kicking ass and I just didn’t have that nerve. So I was kind of impressed.
BL: If you can call the Treeswing— which is an infamous punk house in Riverdale, Maryland—the world, I was certainly out in the world. I lived in an area that was not a room but part of the hallway and it was called The Zone.
EMcC: Yeah, Beck was living in a hallway so I ran into her often.
What’s living in a hallway like?
BL: It’s a lot like being in a band: the space that you have access to is the space that you take up on purpose and you’re constantly defending your territory. There’s a feeling of being under siege and that perhaps there are not as many walls or doors as there should be. And a lot of moments where instead of focusing on the task in front of you, you’re wondering about all the decisions you’ve made in life that have led up to that moment.
At least the rent was cheap, right?
BL: Yeah, it was! [laughs] In a way.
You don’t see a lot of witchcraft used in the advancement of political causes. What kind of hex are you putting on exactly? What are you wishing upon the fascists of the world?
BL: Well, right now we have lots of different projects. We set the routine of doing a hex at our first show and now that we have that down, we can adapt our projects for each show. Right now our biggest ongoing project is levitating the Pentagon, which has been attempted many times before—but never successfully. Initially, when we started at our first show, we were casting a specific curse on Darrel Issa [R-CA] and Trent Franks [R-AZ], two representatives who’ve used women’s access to abortion as a bargaining chip in their blocks for D.C. statehood. So they were our first stated enemies; but we’re at war with the entire fascist insect.
EMcC: And we’re perpetually collecting stated enemies. What goes into those hexes exactly?
BL: There are some ritual elements; we have the trappings of ritual magic (candles and crystals and whatnot) but the most important part is our stated intention, chanting and the relentless siphoning of the energy of our audience into the object of our desire.
How does that translate at a punk show?
BL: Most of the time, in D.C., people are pretty docile about it. Receptive, I mean.
EMcC: People in D.C. usually want to be dominated; they want their energy taken from them and harnessed.
The Razorcake review of your cassette describes HGJ as an “exercise in patience.”
BL: That was so flattering.
EMcC: I couldn’t have said it better. Do you find that to be the case when you’re doing a show? Of course, volume is such an important part of hardcore/ punk/whatever, so do you find your crowd being tested?
BL: You know, there are only a handful of times I can even think of where people were talking during our sets because, although we’re very minimal, I think we’re pretty assertive about the amount of negative space we require in order to perform our songs correctly.
How do you assert that negative space? That’s really hard to pull off, to get people to stop talking and command that silence.
BL: Well, we have a set—and I don’t mean like a set list. We have a habitat that we create for ourselves every time we play. And there are a lot of props involved in terms of setting the mood. And I think that when you go so far in setting precisely the mood that you want, people are a lot more inclined to understand that something is happening that is maybe outside of their normal experience of going to socialize at a punk event.
EMcC: People, when they come to see us, essentially find themselves in our habitat as opposed to their comfort zone. And so by them finding themselves in our space that we sort of dictate, I think it sets the tone.
BL: We just want to force ourselves into every sensory experience our audience has while they’re subjected to us.
The name Hand Grenade Job: that’s the kind of band name that seems to just fall from the sky, like a gift from some other region. It’s really good. How did you come up with it?
BL: Well, it’s the primary name that we use. We’ve been known to operate under other pseudonyms like: Holy God Jesus, Handsome Good Joy, Horned Goat Jackass, Handsome Gash Jihad, Happy Gay Joy… But really we’re just called Hand Grenade Job because Violent Femmes was already taken.
Going quiet seems to be the thing older punks do after they’ve exhausted the volume aspect. I was wondering if that had happened to you, if you were fatigued by the general noise levels of hardcore.
EMcC: Nobody has tinnitus in this band; nobody is fatigued that I’m aware of, in the sense that you speak of and actually, there’s probably more rage in my life than there ever has been. But I find that that negative space we create sometimes conveys more pain than turning to 11 on the amp.
BL: I think there are a number of reasons why we sound the way we do right now; one of them for me is that at this moment, there’s not anyone besides Erin that I’m interested in playing music with.
It seems like people tend to dig deeper into their own past and relationships to find more compatible bandmates. Did you find that to be the case?
BL: Well, Erin and I definitely have the finishing-each-other’ssentence thing that being twins comes with, so I’m really grateful for that. And there’s definitely a lot of psychic synergy and metaphysical trust-falls involved.
If you are twins, who would you consider your parents?
BL: Chairman Mao is our grandfather. Assata Shakur… Can Lydia Lunch be our aunt? I don’t want her to ever have been responsible for taking care of either of us.
We’re talking psychic twins, so you could have a dozen parents.
EMcC: I don’t think we want to have any parents.
Erin, you said earlier you have a lot of rage right now. Any of that come from having to raise two children?
EMcC: Not directly, no. I think there’s something to be said for coming to the realization that the world as you experience it and all of the really fucked up things in it—that can happen to you and you can function and deal with it however you choose to. But when you realize that it’s going to happen to these little creatures that have no real part in creating it… sure, it can be kind of a bummer.
How familiar are your children with your music?
EMcC: They’re incredibly familiar with it. My 3 year-old is our roadie and he wants to come to all of our shows. He carries our stuff, he knows our songs, he does silkscreening with us…
BL: He’s our biggest fan but also our biggest critic. He’s always asking us really hard-hitting questions like “What are your songs about? Why don’t you play faster? Why do you play quiet?” He’s got his taste in music; we’re not the kind of thing he normally listens to.
EMcC: His favorite band is the Rip Offs. We’re really not his thing. He feels obligated to his mother, that’s all.
I was going to ask how you juggle being in a band with raising kids but obviously you’ve got it figured out if one of them is your roadie.
EMcC: Yeah, you just assimilate them.
BL: We’re actually just raising an army. The Hand Grenade Job army.
Are they coming on tour with you?
EMcC: No, they’re not coming to New Orleans.
BL: You know, in a way, a life in punk rock can prepare you for one thing about motherhood, which is getting used to unwaged labor. [laughs]
EMcC: Very well put.
Beck, the last time you were in town you did some vocal tracks for the Thou/ Body split. What was the atmosphere like in the studio?
BL: I work for Bryan Funck. I’m his employee. It was pretty terrifying. I can only imagine it was a lot like being in the Soviet Union with a lot of mutual suspicion, feeling like the KGB was around every corner. Maybe like collective punishment… But that’s how you get the best performance.
BL: Yeah. It was really fun and [engineer] James Whitten is an awesome dude.
I heard a rumor that you might be in Pygmy Lush. Confirm or deny?
BL: Well Erin is actually in Pygmy Lush now… Mike [Taylor, guitarist for PL] sometimes sends me these texts where he’s like “you should sing for Pygmy Lush” but then it doesn’t get followed up with me coming to practices. [laughs]
EMcC: I played bass with Pygmy Lush a couple times and it’s pretty awesome. But you know, they can have me as they see fit. They seem more reclusive than you two.
EMcC: It’s a contest. Maybe that means they’re winning but don’t count us out yet.
On the one hand, HGJ has a reverence for things like cassettes and letter-press, but you’re also very internet savvy. You have a Tumblr and a bandcamp, Facebook, Twitter, you released a song every week for a month online… Is that something you’re doing out of necessity or have you come to terms with that medium?
EMcC: You are totally striving for flattery. I don’t think anybody has ever called either of us internet savvy.
BL: It’s necessity. I’m a letter-press printer and so if I had it my way, that would be the only way I’d communicate with the world: by setting what I have to say in lead type and producing individual prints. But yeah, we do the internet thing out of necessity. We’ll do what we have to do by any means necessary, even if it involves 140 characters… Here’s the deal: most of the time we write songs really quickly because it’s just the two of us. So we’ll go through periods where we have our tape that has six songs (or song-like things) on it and then we’ll have just as many more songs all of a sudden. And neither of us necessarily has the time or energy to commit those all to the analog forms that we would be happiest to see them in… As soon as the songs are ready, we want them to be out there, before they go bad. Everything has a shelf-life.
Do you have plans to physically release any of that stuff ?
EMcC: Right now we’re looking for sponsorship from Bulleit Bourbon. And until we get that we actually cannot commit to any other sponsorship.
BL: This interview is sponsored by them.
There’s a line in “Personhood” where you say “your sperm will not make a lovely person / I will not shelter deadbeats in my womb”: where did that come from?
EMcC: I really saw the potential—I did not have the personal desire to—but I saw the political potential when I was pregnant of having a public abortion. There were a lot of things going on at the time, namely D.C. being used as a bargaining chip in national battles about safe legal access to abortion, and abortion access [being] used as a bargaining chip in battles about D.C. budget autonomy. This was happening while I was pregnant and I really had fantasies about going down to the fucking White House lawn and aborting my child because I wanted to make a statement that—
BL: —that women’s labor cannot be expropriated from the property of their bodies.
EMcC: Yeah, and I’m not going to shelter some fucking asshole who’s going to grow up to shit all over people and women—in my womb. So that person’s going to be aborted on the White House lawn and sometimes that has to happen.
BL: It all goes back to that German autonomous feminist slogan from the ‘80s: the unborn are protected, the born are exploited.
EMcC: There it is.
What made you decide not to do that?
EMcC: Because I wanted children. I planned to have a family and I desired my second child to be born healthy and happy and wanted. However, the political reality and cultural climate that we live in, even with all of that desire for me to actively seek out having a child, I could still fantasize about what it would signify for a woman to just trot on down to the White House and abort her child.
BL: One of the unique realities of living in the city that we live in is that… we have DC as a local city and as a federal city, so a lot of the political realities and decisions that are made far away for some people are just right in our faces here. For people like me and Erin, that provokes reaction.
EMcC: We’re also under constant surveillance. We have some of the highest surveillance rates, so basically I could’ve done that anywhere and it would’ve been caught on film.
BL: If Erin had done that on 14th Street, the panoptical gazes of State would’ve taken like 700 pictures of her from ATM cameras, Metrobus cameras, red light cameras… it would’ve been really well documented.
EMcC: I’m a fucking movie star and I don’t even know it.
We all are at this point, in that regard.
BL: Yeah. Andy Warhol had it all wrong; that’s why our great grandmother Valerie tried to kill him.
Beck, have you heard any good jokes lately?
BL: Oh yeah! Dude, I know a ton of good jokes. Why was Bryan Funck standing outside of the house?
Because he didn’t know when to come in. It’s a singer joke, do you get it? How many punk kids does it take to change a light bulb?
BL: Punks don’t change anything. How many vegan straigh-edge kids does it take to change a light bulb?
I’m better than you.
Good one! Any parting shots?
BL: We’re not going on tour; we’re coming to New Orleans and Baton Rouge. We play in D.C. (and rarely outside of the D.C. area) but we have this week that we can use and that’s where we want to come because we love y’all. It’s the only place worth going.
Hand Grenade Job plays New Orleans on Wednesday, March 13th with Small Bones and Bitchface; Thursday, March 14th; and Friday, March 15th with Heat Dust and Pyeya. For venues and times, check out noladiy.org. HGJ will also play the Spanish Moon in Baton Rouge on Saturday, March 16th with Goatwhore, Barghest, Misanthropic Inoculation and Vatnett Viskar. For more information on HGJ check out handgrenadejob.bandcamp.com