Music and politics have seen a long partnership — from anti-war songs during the Vietnam era to songs that rally the masses at campaign stops — but in the nation’s capital, the politics stops when the music starts.
Several political operatives, strategists and government workers have nighttime alter egos as rock stars, playing in bands on the local club circuit.
“I think the most political song we play of is ‘Killing in the Name Of’ by Rage Against the Machine,” said Kent Strang, the grassroots director for the Illinois and Missouri chapters of Americans for Prosperity, who sings in the band Dr. FU. The song is about racism and police brutality.
But that is an exception, he says, noting that the band usually covers more mainstream songs, from Guns N’ Roses, Katy Perry or Bruno Mars.
“I think people are more interested in hearing ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ than a political song,” Strang said.
Jamie Rea, who plays guitar for the band Midnight Hike, sees it as a good thing.
“For me it’s a healthy sign for the city — that we’re not all about government and politics,” he said.
The Hill spoke to several members of local bands and got the same response: While a lot of these musicians deal with politics by day, it’s all about the music at night.
And they say the audience wants it that way.
Charlie Kramer, who works for the International Monetary Fund and plays guitar in three different bands, says the Washington crowd doesn’t want their music to take sides.
“The bands I’ve known, where they try to make some kind of political issue out of it or try to do some push some kind of agenda, people aren’t really into that. They want to go out to the club and they want to hear some rock and roll, they want to get a drink and they want to dance. And that’s the end of it,” he said.
Strang noted that “you don’t want people telling you who to vote for or pushing policy in your face — you get enough of that at work.”
For the members of Midnight Hike, a local band that recently released its second album of original songs, their time on stage is personal.
“Something about this hobby is at a different level than politics,” said Eric Letsinger, the band’s drummer, who is also CFO and CEO of Campaign Fix the Debt.
And it doesn’t matter that the six band members have different personal and political ideologies.
“There is a mutual respect but not six people who have a lock-step ideology,” Rea noted.
Kent Marcoux, who plays keys and is a reverend at an Episcopal church, pointed out that music is an element that unites people of all beliefs.
“I grew up in New Orleans, where we were deeply divided on racial lines, geography, politics — music was like the common life blood.”
Lead singer Eric Schmid pointed out that going political, “annoys a lot of people. I think rock and roll should be more about bringing people together.”
Kramer, who has been playing the guitar since he was 10 years old, has noticed a similar phenomenon.
“It’s amazing how many people I’ve met in the music biz — people who play in bars and clubs and stuff — who are all over the map in Washington both politically and professionally,” he said.
“It’s a great way to hang out with a whole group of people that are just as diverse as can be.”
Washington, D.C., might not be known for its music scene, but Greg Gonzalez, a government attorney who plays guitar for Dr. FU, said there are more people involved in it than many assume.
“More people out there than you think are doing music,” he said, noting he’s met journalists, politicians and lawyers through his band.
And his music washes over into his professional life, too.
“Every once in a while I’ll meet someone through work who has seen the band,” he said. “It keeps mixing up in weird ways. That was something I wasn’t expecting.”
Dr. FU doesn’t play political gigs and, while its five members have different political leanings, it doesn’t present a problem for the group. Similar to the members of Midnight Hike, they see their music as their personal time and the focus of their social life.
“Our mission isn’t to sit down and have policy discussions,” Strang said of the band, which formed in 1999.
And there’s another reason band members keep the politics out of it: several government agencies have strict ethics rules or requirements for security clearances that can cause a sour note for musicians.
“Ethics issues depend on what kind of job, but with a political job you don’t want to have any kind of misinterpretation,” Gonzalez said.
“You associate U2 with what Bono is doing, but do you really know what The Edge thinks about it?” he explained, adding that Bono’s “beliefs are associated with the band.”
Kramer, for his part, encourages more of Washington’s wonks to pick up a musical instrument.
“You make a few bucks and get free beer in the bargain. What’s not to like about that?”
Midnight Hike will be playing at Jammin’ Java in Vienna, Va., on April 10.
Dr. FU will at the Rí Rá Irish Pub in Arlington, Va., on May 3 and at the Mahalo Cove in Sterling, Va., on May 4.