by Damon Locks (original interview appeared in Stop Smiling magazine)
9353 was a crucial piece of WDC musical history that remains virtually unsung. During the early 80’s, the music scene was dominated by the now famous D.C. hardcore scene and the nationally under appreciated go-go scene. 9353 operated during the heyday of this musical environ yet remained outsiders. 9353 provided a point of view, that while local, was very foreign. 9353 seemed to take an abused and kaleidoscopic view of suburban life: instead of the repeated collaged segments adding up to a beautiful tapestry, these images became disturbing visions made of recognizable elements that were fractured, set askew and distorted. Any quaintness that might have existed was overturned to reveal the unseemly qualities normally left uncommented on. The themes of 9353’s music revolved around: babies, the teen age, decrepitude and the way society fails us all. The music was otherworldly. The stories in song performed like a demented radio play with different voices to match the different characters. In 9353’s music there is a specific feeling of alienation captured that is simultaneously connected and disconnected to the experience of growing up just outside our nation’s capital.
By the end of the decade the original band (Bruce Hellington, Vance Bockis, Jason Carmer and Dan Joseph) had broken up. Singer Bruce Hellington has attempted to sustain the 9353 vision over the years, but it has proven a challenge to say the least.
For me personally, the band 9353 opened up a door to another place. I was quickly digesting the influx of sounds flooding in from every direction. Something about 9353’s take on the world infected my system and I was left forever changed. The importance of exposure to the musical energy of early 80’s in D.C. is immeasurable. The first 9353 show was February 21st 1983 – just 2 days before I saw my first concert. I saw their second show at 9:30 Club and was instantly a fan. The WDC scene has been well documented on record and in books but the work of 9353 hasn’t really been given the attention deserved.
I was happy to be able to talk to 9353’s singer Bruce Hellington to gather some insight into the band.
Kids are supposed to wanna grow up to be things like firemen and astronauts – 10 Witches, 9353
Opportunity is when you get the chance to get screwed over by somebody. That’s how it was for us and it still is that way today. 9353 was a functional, serious art-invented machine, but nothing will ever go right with 9353, it never will. We’ve never been paid for anything. We got nothing. It’s different when you are trying to make a real thing that doesn’t have any signposts from the world telling you what to do or how to be.
For guys that were fucked up on drugs, hating their jobs, breaking up with their girlfriends and getting kicked out of their places to live constantly, doing those two records in three years was kinda the smartest thing we could have poured our gig money into at the time. Looking back on that, I appreciate Jason’s determination. Vance and Dan were amused by it. They were not a driving force to get us into the studio and to get those things recorded.
It dawned on me about 10 years ago how fortunate we were to have failed and to not have to have gone out and suffered endless tours and successful things. We went out for two weeks once. We got ripped off at the only two shows that didn’t get cancelled. We waited for the third show. Then the headlining band, which was The Bangles, saw our record and kicked us off the bill. That was it! That was our big tour.
I heard a rumor you once borrowed the Minor Threat van?
That was that tour. We didn’t borrow it, we bought it. We had only paid them a fourth of what we owed and that van didn’t make it the full two weeks we were gone. I could tell you that would be the beginning of an extreme lifelong sore spot between Minor Threat and 9353 but the truth is there was already a sore spot for years before the van incident. Lyle Preslar took 9353 to court. He sued us, was countersued and he lost. He booked the ill-fated tour…and Jeff sold us the van. Every time we got in bed with Minor Threat it headed south.
What it is you wanted and what you actually get will be two different things – Egnopssponge, 9353
We had been arrogant assholes the whole time but we were never censoring our brains. We would speak openly about anything to anybody and it would get us in so much trouble. I think what it was, those guys embraced us to a point, the tensions started to rise regarding where music itself was going. There is a musical thing that was always denied in the WDC punk rock thing. 9353 was all about embracing challenging arrangements that took 90-degree corners then back again, sometimes maybe not. But the point is, that wasn’t appreciated like we thought it would be or could be or should be. As the years unfolded, we thought, “What you guys are still playing three chord punk rock? Don’t you feel a little weird about that? Aren’t there any bells going off in the back of your psyche?” In my experience when you pull back the curtain what you have is a bunch of weird chicken shits trying to control everything behind the scenes and keep it down and keep it simple…like a police force or something. I gotta hand it to the whole Dischord crew, they were in the midst of instigating a huge international youth bully culture. We felt like we were the Beatles in the midst of all of this Rockers shit. This was really bad. We were focused on the kind of music that would just make a bully or a skinhead not want to sit and watch or hear us. The design of 9353 was to be purposely brash and antagonistic but in a manner that did not make skinheads feel good at all.
Washington has this really annoying style. It took me years to examine it all. There’s a lot of fear and weird ideas here. The majority of people we’ve rubbed elbows with the music scene people they are offspring of either government, media or military. So you have the punk rock scene functioning as some horribly gone wrong political student event, where there is all of this hierarchy and all of this snobbery, all of this unnecessary rudeness and just mean spirited private school competition crap. I loved the Bad Brains. They were the only band on the D.C. scene that we looked up to and learned anything from.
How did you develop your approach to the music of 9353?
On the rooftop, they won’t know if you jumped or you fell off – Rooftop, 9353
Jason and I had a band called Color Anxiety, which was the predecessor to 9353. It was a kinda new wave Roxy Music thing. We had a musical genius that was writing the songs for us. He was the Shah’s economic advisor’s son. He came over here in 1980 as many Iranian’s did. He ended up in our high school hanging out with us. We had a little band thing called Spinal Icebags in 1979. Then a couple name changes, Citizens For Decency and a few other stupid moves. Then finally we went with Color Anxiety. Color Anxiety blossomed. It was Spring of 81. That was where I honed my little bag of tricks or even learned to do them at all. I was pushed into being a singer in my friend’s bands because they said I looked like a singer and they didn’t have a singer. But I had a steady dedication to being a childhood alcoholic and a criminal. I had no musical anything other than being a consumer.
Alice Cooper and Nina Hagen are probably the two singers that showed me (by example) more of what to do or what could be done. I wasn’t really doing anything other than being completely willing to make a fool of myself. It was one night in March/April 81 that I was knighted with a magical wand. I woke up one day and I had a voice that could meet my imagination. This was a major factor, I didn’t own any of this stuff (gestures to his effects pedals), every effect that I had heard other people doing, I had to learn to try to do without (the help of effects), I just had to mimic it.
I have seen a lot of normal things get braided in with a lot of very abnormal things in the communities and in the lives of people I have known. There is a shared experience that everyone has and then there are things that people think that only they say to themselves. One of the things I have been able to do is reach into a lot of psyches and say, “I am on the exact same page as you.” Sometimes this backfires because a lot of insane people think they know me. I am basically really dedicated to attacking the inner psyche of the lonely alienated youth because that is what I was. I spent most of my time from 1973-1980 hitchhiking around the country. I didn’t go to school for the most part. I learned everything I know about people way before I ever got involved in punk rock. I know that everything I think is not that original. In the end you become impressed with a lot of people no one notices and unimpressed with a lot of people everyone notices.
There were band influences that were hitting us really hard. I would say, if I was to be completely honest, the 3 greatest contributors to what 9353 was to become musically came from…one was local, Jim Altman’s band Scandals. They were a glam-rock art-rock in the late 70’s in high school that we were just in awe of. They were everything that we could ever hope to grow up to be like. That was the band that first showed us that kids on your street can be as great as any rock stars you’ve grow up listening to. The two bands that really hit home for us harder than any American band were The Stranglers and Punishment Of Luxury. Those two bands brought something to the table. No American bands that we knew of received that information and knew what the next link in the chain should be. We felt burdened by that responsibility.
Your visual aesthetic helped differentiate 9353 from most every band in WDC at the time. How did you develop this aesthetic? Your wheat pasted show posters were omnipresent, disturbing and eye-catchingly amazing.
Feeling fear is never fun cause fear is just not fair – Spooky Room, 9353
DC was a very oblivious place back then and it scared me. The thing is, I had nothing going on in my life. I was a homeless, drunk, troublemaker who had a penchant for defacing property. Then all of a sudden it wasn’t painting…it was pasting! It didn’t qualify as the same kind of crime. It was very accepted. Visually, I was influenced by the second Killing Joke record cover, What’s This For? It was so simple and very effective. That had a big influence on me. There was a singer in DC that I had admired for a long time because he had done a painting for every show they did. The Razz was the name of the band. But he never had them printed or put up in public anywhere. I was inspired by that idea. The opportunity arose by way of a girlfriend I had. She had her own band. They were pretty lame. I made a poster for her band that I thought was really fucking cool. Simple, black and white cut out pictures white paint involved. The band hated it. I was so offended as an artist at the reaction they had that I ripped their name right off of it. It never became a 9353 flyer but I put the numbers with this style of artwork and decided, “I’m right, you’re wrong. I’m not giving it up.” That was my whole thing. That is the entire story.
Is there truth to the rumor that the catalog number for an exhibit of a fetal baby in a jar at the Walter Reed Medical building was the origin for the name of the band?
These babies are teething on rings of misfortune – Babies, 9353
Yes and no. I’d been on the art scene for a little while. I had been observing how the art world worked at the time. I knew you just can’t show up one day and say, “Hey guys lets call the band 9353. Let’s go out and tell people that the band is called 9353.” I knew you had to give them something. If you hang a painting on the wall people will come after you with torches and pitchforks if you don’t have an explanation for that painting. You hang the same painting on the wall and you give them some stupid story and they will say, “That man is a genius.” So I came up with a story. The story was true. The thing did exist. The number I did scrape off. That was not the number but I told the whole world it was because I am giving them an art story.
Will the original line up of 9353 ever reunite?
One thing for sure it won’t take long before somebody flakes up and their gone – Ghost, 9353
Neither Jason nor Dan has performed with 9353 since 1986. Dan has denounced his piano work on the 3rd CD and disclaims it as official 9353. He hasn’t drummed in 9353 or any band I know of in 20 years. Jason’s return to 9353 almost happened in both 1992 and 1993, but ended badly instead. Vance has since returned and played the most recent 9353 show and is “in” if we ever find the super touch guitarist everyone still expects us to have. 9353 is in a very stupid situation of career purgatory. There will most likely never be an original reunion. There probably shouldn’t be. Vance and I have next to nothing that wasn’t charitably given to us. We are on the bottom of the game several stories under the sewer level. The gift we bring to the live 9353 is as uncomfortable to witness as it is to deliver. Why? One can only wonder. I could tell you it was this reason or that reason. Truthfully the answer comes from within: my inability to properly seize the whole thing versus knowing what the chemistry was and trying to make it real again. I will sit in my near indigent life stew until I can foresee a way to release the old and new again properly. Then, like last time I will also ponder – Is this vanity, or responsibility, or a total waste of time and money? I don’t know yet. I have a new band. I’ll probably release something from that before picking up the 9353 tab solo.
Bonus question from Peter Cortner:
From the song Ghost, is Tommy a real person?
He is. Tommy is Washington’s most fantastic and most bizarre bass player: the bass player for Specimen Fred and Spinal Icebags. Ghost was a true story. We drove around in his opal Cadet, drinking beer all day. He had a huge spray thing that he stole from the car wash that day. And every bit of beer he pissed into this thing and at every stoplight he would spray people in the car next to us. We were horrible teenagers. One day in Arlington County, in the summer of 1980 we spent the day doing that. The police had already come to his house twice, because of the license plates, to ask his parents and to ask him questions about why he might be doing this. He was the one who talked me into being a singer.