Chisel: D.C.’s Forgotten ’90s Mod-Punks

Annie Zaleski

By Annie Zaleski

on 11.25.14 in Features

One of the more interesting upshots from the rash of ’90s and early ’00s emo, hardcore and post-hardcore band reunions is that it’s becoming more and more difficult to gauge exactly how popular these acts actually were the first time around. Groups like Refused, Texas is the Reason, Mineral and American Football play larger venues, for bigger crowds, than they ever did during their original existence.

‘We were playing for the communities we existed in; even if I thought about growth, I don’t think I thought about legacy.
— Ted Leo’

One band that hasn’t really experienced this kind of rebirth, however, is Chisel, the Washington, D.C.-via-Indiana band featuring Ted Leo, John Dugan and Chris Norborg. The lack of critical re-evaluation is puzzling, especially given Leo’s consistently excellent career and the growing excitement around Dugan’s new band with Karate’s Geoff Farina, Exit Verse. Perhaps it’s due to a lack of easy pigeonholing: Chisel’s music was diverse enough that the band slid seamlessly between the DIY indie, punk and rock scenes. On top of which, Chisel broke up in 1997, so they were unable to fully capitalize on the increased attention pointed toward underground music scenes in the wake of the success of acts such as Sleater-Kinney, the Promise Ring and the Dismemberment Plan.

The trio originally formed at the University of Notre Dame, where all three members were attending college. In 1994, Chisel moved to Washington, D.C. and jumped into the music scene — recording with Fugazi‘s Guy Picciotto and touring with Velocity Girl. The group received enormous support from then-radio powerhouse WHFS, who gave them a slot at a station-sponsored music festival opening for Radiohead in April 1995 (right after the release of The Bends), and booked them for a similar gig at the Washington Monument opening for the Cranberries, before the show turned into a mini-riot.
“We weren’t accustomed to playing acoustic,” Dugan recalls today of the latter performance. “I was playing brushes on a snare drum, so our set was a bit slap-dash. Thousands of people showed up, perhaps tens of thousands, while we were playing. It was lunchtime for federal workers downtown and everyone is expecting to see a Top 40 band live. For free. The vibe was getting really strange, so after the set I jumped in a friend’s car and we sped away. Not long after, it got out of control.”


Listening to Chisel’s output today, it’s hard not to think that they would’ve received far more notoriety for their music had they stuck it out just a few more years. Certainly there are echoes of Leo’s future mod-punk direction; 1997′s Set You Free especially had a pronounced soul influence, from the shuffling tempos and the flashes of horns. But in general, the band’s spin on D.C. post-hardcore was giddy and unaffected by expectations — corrugated punk, yelping power-pop, fuzzy indie rock, dub rhythms and wiry garage rock all existed on the same continuum.

Dugan, Norborg and Leo recently answered questions about Chisel’s legacy and time together — and whether the attention being devoted to these ’90s bands is merited. Plus, they also cleared up the Wikipedia-bred rumors about a Chisel rarities compilation. “False at present,” Dugan says. “Reputable labels have approached us about reissuing the Chisel records or doing deluxe remastered versions of them, but nothing is in the works at this point. Every now and then, someone sends us an archival recording of a radio station set or a video of a live gig. We’d like to get more of that material together to see if there’s anything worthwhile. It would be nice for the vinyl to be out there again.”

You toured with Fugazi and recorded with Guy Picciotto. Was that a big deal at the time? Or was it just another tour/recording session?

Chris Norborg (bass/vocals): From my perspective, recording with Guy was a bit surreal. I had literally just moved to D.C., and the next thing I know, I’m not only meeting all these people, but making music with them. As for Fugazi, I think we only played a handful of shows on part of one of their tours, but it was great fun. I remember that they travelled with a clothes dryer, which they used to dry — unwashed, I’m pretty sure — the clothes they wore onstage. I was simultaneously impressed and revolted.

John Dugan (drums): Touring with Fugazi was an incredible opportunity, kind of a dream come true for an aficionado of D.C. punk, as was opening for a reunited King Face in D.C. We also played a one-off Black Cat show with Fugazi, a benefit for CCNV, in early 1996.

I had been a Fugazi fan from my high school days in Northern Virginia. I was lucky enough to see them in small venues before they had released any records. Before Chisel, Ted and I had driven down to James Madison [University] to see one of the first shows on the Repeater tour, which was amazing.

‘It’s a good thing to also remember not necessarily how lucky you are, but just how great it is that you’ve wound up in such a position, and to be grateful for it. — Ted Leo’

So, yes, we were fans, but also neighbors with Guy and Brendan [Canty] in Mt. Pleasant. Chisel had reconvened in D.C. a few months before the recording session at Pirate House. Guy’s support of Chisel was inspiring. And that recording, the “D.C.” side of a mini-LP, was a great snapshot of the band’s changing sound which we were happy to put out.

D.C. had a culture of musicians recording other bands, so most of the recording I did there was aided by other musicians running their own studios: J. Robbins, Geoff Turner/Charles Bennington at WGNS, Rob from Eggs, the Trans Am guys, etc.

Ted Leo (guitar/vocals): I think it was a little bit of both! I’d lived in that house with Guy briefly, and would wind up back there to hang out many nights a week, so we were friendly; but still, it was exciting to know that this person you’ve admired so greatly was helping you make your record. The same goes for the tour. By the time we toured, I was pretty tight with all of them, and I was almost more awed by the presence of Lungfish on that trip. Fugazi are very personable people, and they can disarm you quickly. Lungfish — while ultimately proving to be some of the loveliest people on the planet — remained an enigma in many ways, and that made them a little more daunting to be around. Plus, they had just released Sound in Time, which is one of my favorite records from the era.

This has been something of a constant theme in my life — I’ve been very lucky to become friends with people whose work I’ve loved and have often been privileged to wind up working with them, and while a peer relationship does develop, I think it’s a good thing to also remember not necessarily how lucky you are, but just how great it is that you’ve wound up in such a position, and to be grateful for it.

I think people now might have a different perception of the band (and, for that matter, the ’90s underground) than they did then. When you guys were together, was there a sense that Chisel was a part of a scene and community that would be influential for years to come, long after you were no longer a band?

Norborg: I didn’t get that sense about Chisel, but I knew that some of our regular bill-mates (The Make-Up, The Van Pelt, Blonde Redhead, maybe a few others) would continue to inspire.

Dugan: I don’t know how people perceived the band then or now. I don’t think there was a consciousness of how the music scene would be perceived in the future. The three years we spent in D.C. went by in a flash. We didn’t spend any time pondering our legacy. We began with modest goals, maybe putting out a single and playing some decent clubs/venues. As with anything, your ambitions expand over time, you become more aware of the details in writing, recording and performance. I think that is typical for a lot of bands.


We felt privileged to play shows with so many bands who were unique and usually much better known than we were. I don’t know that we were closely connected to any scene in particular beyond the D.C. punk scene. It felt like we were better known in New York, Chicago and Boston than we were in D.C. Something about our sound enabled us to play on a wide variety of bills — with Elliott Smith or Shades Apart — and have it make sense. There was more than one avenue for approaching our music, so we drew from a few different audiences.

Leo: Everything felt very contiguous to me back then — like it was the next step in all of our evolutions. We began playing hardcore and punk shows along with the other people who were breaking away musically then, and while there was a lot of conversation and mutual influence, it didn’t feel like it was building toward anything more than whatever audience we were playing for at the moment.

I mean, yes — we all wished for an ever-growing audience. But bands that have influenced us probably didn’t change the world, and I think I saw us fitting into that continuum. Maybe one person you’ve influenced goes on to do something great, and the cumulative effect of many “yous” might add up to some sort of grand-scale influence. But mainly we were playing for the communities we existed in; even if I thought about growth, I don’t think I thought about legacy.

Your final tour was with Karate. By that point, was there a sense that you had started making any inroads into mainstream music/culture?

Norborg: Such inroads were never made, to my knowledge.

Dugan: It was a successful tour in that the shows were packed and we sounded good — it felt strange finding out that we’d [probably] sold out the Black Cat, a venue we had been playing periodically since it opened, pre-liquor license. With Karate, the crowds were familiar with both bands and there was camaraderie. We played many of the songs from Set You Free for the first time. We also knew that it was the last tour for the band.

We had no sense of impacting the popular culture. We had minimal coverage in the national press — a tiny mention in Details magazine for instance — and an announcement in the Washington Post when we split up. We were coming from an ethic of playing basement shows or DIY spaces on our tours, working with very small record labels. It was really about young people creating their own culture, so our expectations for our influence were shaped by that.

‘For Chisel, it was always about connecting with the live show. I think that’s where we were at our most potent and pure. — John Dugan’

Leo: Not really. We had our supporters in some of the more mainstream “alternative music” media outlets like WHFS in the D.C. area, and our shows in certain places were being really nicely attended, but a lot of it remained as it’d been for years. That particular Karate tour was very small — largely through the southeast. There were a handful of very great, very appreciative people at most of the shows, but it would never have given the impression that there was any real “breakthrough” happening.

As you look back now, is there anything you would change about how any aspect of the band played out — whether recording, touring, etc.?

Norborg: I suppose I would have liked to tour overseas. But I have no regrets.

Dugan: We did a lot of our recording and touring with minimal planning and deliberation. We were always diving in the deep end, winging it. We would come home with our instruments beaten up and play the next weekend with the same gear, or spend the weekend in a studio. Guitars and kick drum pedals had a tendency to explode on stage. Of course, I hear things that could have been done differently in recording or mastering, but we were experimenting and learning as we went, doing a lot very quickly, usually following our gut instinct rather than established studio orthodoxy. Chisel was action-oriented. We were never particularly business-savvy, so for better or for worse the band was never a job, always a passion. It would have been nice to tour Europe and Japan.

Leo: I would’ve liked to have toured a little more. [That's where] I learned a lot about myself, my strengths and weaknesses in songwriting, what I really wanted to do as an artist. And I learned some of it on my own, but some of it from John and Chris; so, you know — who can say what’d be worth going back and changing?

What is your take on the recent renewed interest/nostalgia for so many ’90s underground bands and communities? Is this attention merited? How true to reality are people’s perceptions of the scene/community now?

Norborg: It seems to me in this day and age a person can uncover a vein of nostalgia for any scene, era or movement. It’s so easy to get in touch with like-minded people, no matter how arcane the subject matter. So, I’m not surprised mid ’90s independent rock has its romanticizers. As for the merit of the attention, I dunno — say it’s 15 percent merited, 85 percent not?

Dugan: It’s natural that music fans want to know more about the past, especially the recent past. And certainly there’s a mystique to underground or indie bands from that era and those regional music scenes. I get it.

These days, there’s a more robust infrastructure — clubs, booking agents, publicists, online media, festivals, labels, sponsors — supporting independent music, at least in Chicago. Chisel never had our own booking agent. The entire process of recording and releasing a record felt somewhat mystical. I think things have become more professional, more formalized. There are more ways to get your music and your name out there. For Chisel, it was always about connecting with the live show. I think that’s where we were at our most potent and pure.

Jimmy Ruffin London 1973

I don’t think it’s so odd for bands from the ’90s to resurface and play festivals these days. There doesn’t seem to be an age limit for people getting up and playing music anymore. For the bands that barely toured but made great recordings, it seems obvious that there’s an audience that wants to see them live.

Leo: It’s sometimes hard to look at a particular reunion or piece of history and see how its perceived importance is amplified by the echo chamber that parts of the internet music writing world can be. But people like what they like and connect with what they connect with. They want to connect with the things they may have missed out on. I can’t pass judgment on that. And I don’t really know how people perceive that ’90s world now. I doubt anyone at any of the three sold out nights of American Football at Webster Hall thinks that’s how it was back when they were first around, you know? I think they realize that this is not the basement or VFW hall experience that they may be looking for. But again, it’s hard to say. I mean, partly because I so rarely have conversations about it. I don’t really know many people who were actually around back then who wax nostalgic about it, or try to figure out how that time is perceived now — and not because it was a bad or shameful time or anything, but just because most of them just kept doing things — kept living their lives. I mean, geez — our present gives us with enough to think about!