Photos by Mark Hoelscher for DCMD
My D.C. is a new interview and portrait series on DCMD where some of our favorite D.C. artists take us to their favorite local spots, share more insight into their artistry and connection to the city.
Johnny Fantastic and Leah Gage, who together make up experimental noise-pop band Stronger Sex, know the bartenders. They also know Ted Zook, who was setting up for his Monday night set with his project Lost Civilizations. The Dew Drop Inn is a place that Fantastic and Gage know quite well, a cozy pub on the corner of Edgewood and Franklin Streets in Brookland where D.C.’s most interesting bands can be heard.
The jukebox in the corner catches my eye as we walk down to the basement, a storage area with freezers and florescent lighting. Fantastic considers sitting inside of one of the coolers, and Gage quickly shuts that idea down. Their synergy and dynamic friendship shines through both on and off stage, and together they’re set to release an upcoming album, There Is No Stronger Sex, this summer. Before their performance at Black Cat on March 4 for Sounds of the City Festival and D.C. Music Download’s five-year anniversary show, I spoke with Stronger Sex about their new album at their favorite D.C. hangout, Dew Drop Inn.
D.C. Music Download: Nice selection. I’ve never been to the Dew Drop Inn.
Leah Gage: Really? It’s my favorite bar.
Johnny Fantastic: They give me the second Monday of every month and let me do literally whatever I want to do. I’ve done the most random things. I’ve put a rock band together and had them play here. I’ve come with just my guitar. I’ve DJ’d. I’ve had Stronger Sex play. I’ve had all my bands play here at some point. And I’ve set up shows here, like when Weyes Blood played here.
Awesome! Do they have shows here often?
Gage: At least every Monday, it seems. And they are definitely having more shows here. Peter and Andy, who are both the bartenders here today, are booking a lot more. It’s a good spot for shows. I’ve played shows with all of my bands here besides The North Country.
Fantastic: We’re doing a show here in April with me and a guy from NASA. We’re going to talk about volcanoes and have an artistic [collaboration], almost like a live podcast type thing. We’re going to do an informative lecture. That’s what I mean. I like this place because they never tell me what to do when we come in.
What influence has the D.C. music scene in broader terms had on your music?
Gage: Well, I do think there’s definitely more of a move towards electronic music. That’s influenced me in the last five years and that’s cool…exposed me to different things.
Fantastic: Personally, I’ve seen myself go from perpetually being unnoticed in the scene, having to beg people for gigs and playing gigs that did not fit me at all, [to] now feeling like I know more people and I know who to talk to if I want to open for a band that’s coming to town. Xiu Xiu is coming to town on April 10, and a band I’m in is opening. We’ve been around a while and we know who to talk to get the gigs that we want to play. So for me, it’s becoming more exciting for me in that regard.
What will you be playing at the Sounds of the City Music Festival?
Gage: We have a bunch of stuff. We have an album recorded that we’ve also mixed. Almost ready.
Fantastic: Yeah, we’ll be playing songs off that album.
Going back to NASA, I’ve read that a lot of your inspiration in music comes from space, philosophers and I think I also read that Iceland fits in there. What about D.C.?
Gage: For me the thing that’s the best about D.C. and living here is having a creative space that I run, the Bathtub. That’s always been a place of collaboration and a place where a lot of things have happened and ideas are able to spark.
Do you continue to feel support with the Bathtub and the DIY scene in general?
Gage: Yes! I think so. Have we?
Fantastic: Of course we have.
Gage: I mean, it’s where we can practice. We can practice and it allows us to do this. This, in a way, is DIY, getting to play [at Dew Drop Inn]. We can schedule shows here that enable us to practice for bigger stuff like the Black Cat. It’s great to have a venue that you can book for, that you can create connections that help you make connections outside of D.C. and having the DIY show space can help with that.
Fantastic: It’s good to have a variety of shows too. If you spend all your time just trying to play the Black Cat, you’re going to miss something important. And if you just do DIY, you get comfortable playing the same circuits and never really get your music out to more people. So, you have to do both. We played the Kennedy Center one night and then came here and played.
The past Stronger Sex releases have been very layered and there are always a few things going on with the instrumentals. Do you generally approach songwriting and the music making process with all of that worked together in your mind or is it more of a working process as you see what fits together well.
Gage: For me, I definitely piece it together bit by bit. Occasionally, you’re thinking of something [fully].
Fantastic: I went to Qualia [Coffee] with one of my machines and just put my headphones in and goofed off until I found something I liked. Then, I was hanging out with Leah at band practice and we were like, “Hey, let’s jam on this thing,” and we jammed. Then, maybe Leah will write a song over it. We have a song like that, it’s kind of [Leah’s] torch song. But, it’s written by a jam that me and Erik [Sleight] had. We just didn’t know what to do with it, and then Leah just picked it up and we had a song almost all ready to go.
Gage: Yeah, that’s amazing. That’s really fun to me. Johnny and I do that a lot.
Fantastic: I don’t like to just start from scratch. It’s more fun to interact. Like to have someone throw something at you and be like, “What would you do with this?”
Gage: Exactly. And it definitely helps you get past writer’s block, you know? Just send it off and someone will come back with something. It belongs to the world anyway.
Fantastic: Not if it’s Taylor Swift.
What differences do you see on this upcoming LP from the self-titled album? What can we expect?
Fantastic: There’s more simplicity to it. The first record was so dense. I had that “I’m making a masterpiece” obsessive compulsion to work on it, change it and make it perfect. For this one, we just said, “You know what? Everyone calm down. Everyone take a deep breath and let’s just do it. Whatever it is, we will accept it, release it and move on. We don’t have to make a big deal about it being a masterpiece.” And for that reason, I think it came out even better than the first one. It’s just natural that way.
Gage: It captures a moment. It captures a time. I think we both play the songs differently, maybe than we did when we recorded them. But, we recorded the album after coming back from a month-long tour. It captured that and what happened on that tour. It’s an album that I think captures the time rather than being a masterpiece.
Fantastic: What really makes the difference is the environment and circumstances that came together to make you make the album that makes the album different.
Do you guys feel that playing for other crowds is different than playing here in D.C.?
Gage: There’s a freeness to being on tour that I don’t think I necessarily feel in D.C. When you don’t know the people that you are performing for, for me at least, I can let go a little more. Sometimes I think that helps my performance. But, it’s nice to go home to your own bed.
Fantastic: That’s the defining difference…the knowledge that you’re playing at 8 p.m. so you can just chill at your house until 7 p.m. and then mosey on over, play, then go home.
Gage: You can get up to go to work tomorrow and know you’re going to make money.
Fantastic: Right. Versus pulling into a town you’ve never been to before and not knowing where you’re going to stay necessarily that night and then getting to the gig and it’s not open. It’s like a whole adventure when you’re out on tour.
Begging the audience for a place to stay…
Fantastic: [Laughs] Yeah!
Gage: We did that once. That was in Nashville.
Seems like a real adventure. Anything else to say to the fans coming out to the Sounds of the City Music Festival?
Gage: Come early because we’re going first on that night.
Fantastic: And, uh, don’t be all stiff.
Gage: Yeah, please dance.
Fantastic: Don’t wait for the show to warm up to let loose. Stretch a little bit before you come. You know, a couple of high-step practices. Maybe have a Red Bull or something. Get it together, everyone! We don’t want people staring and being like, “Oh, what’s going on? Is there music up there? Oh, look, there’s a band,” and we’re halfway through. So, get in the game.
Stronger Sex will perform with Den-Mate, Nag Champa and Fellow Creatures on Saturday, March 4 at Black Cat Mainstage. Doors open at 8 p.m. and tickets are just $12–get them before we sell out!