Slant 6 played their first show in the summer of 1992 as a late-night dare among roommates. During what is now considered the heyday of the Washington, D.C., post-hardcore scene, Christina Billotte, Myra Power and Steve Gamboa — all residents of the now-infamous Embassy House — began a three-year musical whirlwind that provided the Capital City with a sinewy, serpentine twist on a classic garage-punk sound.
In June of 1992, Gamboa, then the bass player in the Nation of Ulysses, arguably the most influential band in the D.C. scene next to Fugazi, was having coffee at 2 a.m. with his Embassy roommates Billotte and Power. They began chatting about the few songs Billotte and Power had written for their new band, a stripped-down punk outfit that combined the melody of garage rock with the artiness and emotion of D.C. post-hardcore. They were calling it Slant 6. The Nation of Ulysses just happened to have a show the next night.
“We were at this diner really late and Steve said, ‘Why don’t you guys play?!’” recalls Billotte,
“and I said, ‘Well, we don’t have a drummer,’ and he said, ‘I’ll play drums for you!’ I think he thought we wouldn’t do it, but then we practiced with him all the next day. It was a mess, but we did it.”
From 1992-95, Slant 6 played hundreds of shows, released two albums and a single, and became an important part of D.C.’s vibrant punk scene. (Their debut full-length, Soda Pop * Rip Off, is getting a long-awaited vinyl reissue on Dischord Records on October 14.)
Those lucky enough to see Slant 6 live or be around their bustling energy during their short run remember them as a punk band fearless in their musical vision; spitting out choppy blasts of guitar topped with soaring vocals one minute, then effortlessly switching into groove-laden slow burners. Led by powerhouse vocalist/guitarist Billotte and the equally commanding presence of bassist/vocalist Power (a transplant from Appalachia), Slant 6 ran through a series of short-lived drummers until they found Marge Marshall, a fashion designer and piano and trumpet player from London, England who brought a serrated, syncopated style to the band’s percussive backend.
“I’d played bass in other bands and I’d been playing guitar for awhile, so I wanted to do a band where I played guitar and sang,” remembers Billotte. “Myra’s aesthetic and my aesthetic blended really well. It definitely wasn’t exactly the same, but it was more similar than in other bands. Basically, you take the Wipers and the Ramones and you put them together; it was like that. So our sound was concentrated.”
The Embassy House, where all three members of Slant 6 lived together, was fertile ground for arty types and the perfect place for the band to expand their sound. With the Nation of Ulysses/the Make-Up singer Ian Svenonius leading the charge, the Embassy became Slant 6′s living space, social hangout, jam spot and gig venue.
“They had incredible parties there. They started doing Famous Monsters, which was this creative call to arms every couple of months. People would form bands, and Marge was actually a designer so she would do fashion shows. They even built a runway out of lumber they found in the alley or something,” remembers Dischord owner and Fugazi guitarist/vocalist Ian MacKaye. “A lot of people were living in every corner of this three-story house with a basement, and there were an enormous amount of creative people there, and a lot of people coming and going, so it was a bit of a madhouse.”
Billotte, who had previously played in the bands Hazmat and Autoclave (which also included Mary Timony of Helium, Wild Flag and Ex Hex), grew up in Dischord’s extended family, and spent countless hours perfecting her own music while teaching other women in the scene how to play. “Christina was a big part of the scene in D.C.,” says MacKaye. “She has a very powerful musical vision and vocabulary.”
“I thought Christina and Myra were the coolest girls ever,” remembers the Need’s Rachel Carns. She was a recent transplant to D.C. and had been bunking in the pantry of Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna when she briefly joined Slant 6. “They seemed to move with ease and grace as equals among the dudes who dominated the music scene. Christina asked me to join the band and we practiced a bit and I learned the songs. Then, bam, we went on tour with the Nation of Ulysses.”
The tight-knit D.C. scene quickly embraced Slant 6. But it was on the road during their first tour that the band realized they might be tapping into a sound that punk fans across the country were looking for.
“We did our first tour on just our first single [1993's "What Kind of Monster Are You?" on Dischord] and we played in all kinds of places. Enough excited people were at all of our shows that we made enough money to get through it, easily, even with our van breaking down every day,” laughs Billotte. “It was just a word-of-mouth underground scene at that point, and it definitely wasn’t about business.”
After returning home, Carns left the band and was replaced by Nation of Ulysses/the Make-Up drummer James Canty for a few shows. Soon after that, Marshall, another coworker of Billotte and Power’s, solidified the lineup.
“It was awesome playing with them for the short while,” recalls Canty. “I totally thought we could be a power trio like the Wipers or something, but Christina had other plans. The classic lineup happened when Marge was enlisted.”
After a few short tours, the trio was in a position to make their first album. Soda Pop * Rip Off was recorded at resident Dischord producer Don Zientara’s Inner Ear Studio in Arlington, Virginia, with Zientara and MacKaye at the helm. Featuring 13 songs, including rambunctious proclamation songs like “Don’t You Ever?” and “Double Edged Knife” and free-flowing, turned-out jams like “Love Shock” and “Invisible Footsteps,” the album’s recording process had its share of productive head-butting between MacKaye and the band, according to Zientara.
“It was a real good match,” says Zientara. “They had the chops, while Ian had a good deal of studio expertise. The band tended toward the contemplative, while Ian’s style was to ‘let ‘er rip.’ The energy was palpable because of this difference in style, but everyone works better with a foil. Ian probably knew this and used it to push the band further.”
By the time the band had released their second and final album, 1995′s Inzombia, they had spent the past three years working, living and touring together. Something had to give. Shortly after that artier sophomore album came out, the band called it quits. (Billotte went on to play in Quix*o*tic and the Casual Dots.)
Slant 6 left behind music that’s fondly remembered as a manifestation of the DIY ethic. Want to start a band? Pick up your instruments and do it, regardless of what else is going on in the scene around you. And if you’re blessed with inarguable musical talent, even better.
“Christina is a complete and utter genius,” says early drummer Carns. “Every song she writes is perfectly chiseled, fierce yet controlled and cuts like a knife…and through it all I hear the endless, seething rage of femaleness on what was then still very much ‘The Man’s’ turf. And Myra is a great songwriter in her own right.”
At the time, Slant 6 created garagey, rock ‘n’ roll unlike most of the other bands in D.C., a scene that was top-loaded with emotional post-hardcore. The trio’s original sound was something that Canty, another one of their short-lived early drummers, appreciated.
“I was kind of a gear-head, so I thought that badass Silvertone guitar Christina played was so cool,” he says. “It was amazingly gritty and soulful. And she played the hell out of it. The mix of that guitar with her ridiculously beautiful singing voice was a deadly combination. And Myra was the coolest bass player since Dee Dee Ramone, hands down.”
Slant 6 were also part of a newly emerging D.C. punk scene that had shifted from the male-centric paradigm of the past, says Billotte, citing riot grrl bands like Bratmobile and Bikini Kill (both moved to Olympia soon after) as their peers.
“Women’s roles in the younger bands at the time were strong and women were almost dominating the scene, at least at the Embassy there for a few years,” says Billotte. “I wanted to do a band where it was all women playing, but that’s not ever what the focus was. The focus was on the music, but of course it was women and it was from our perspective.”