Shriek and Spell

Q and Not U deconstructs the ABCs of punk rhetoric.

When it comes to centers of power, none in history can approach the hubristic might of Washington, D.C., the seat of the American Empire. And yet, dwelling in the shadow of that city's neo-classical white-marble monuments is a thriving, outspoken punk scene, one that revolves mainly around the independent Dischord record label. The list of bands that have called Dischord home over the years is illustrious: Minor Threat, Rites of Spring, Nation of Ulysses, Lungfish, Fugazi. One of its newest, most striking constituents is Q and Not U. The group is made up of Harris Klahr and Christopher Richards, who move between guitar, bass, voice and synthesizer, and John Davis, who plays drums and percussion. Their mother tongue is punk rock, but as the once-supple dialect of punk has hardened over the years into a rigid paradigm, Q and Not U has smoothly eluded its grasp -- by inventing a new language.

"We kind of rebuilt things from the ground up," Davis explains. "We started in '98, and it was great for a while; but by the third year, it sucked. So we were like, 'Okay, we've got to start this totally from the beginning again.'"

Davis is speaking of Q and Not U's transition from quartet to trio, a move that wasn't an act of subtraction as much as it was a metamorphosis. The group's debut album, No Kill No Beep Beep, was released in 2000 and rang like a manifesto, reinvigorating Dischord and helping to bring a whole new generation of kids into the indie-punk fold. Davis describes his band's sound at the time as "pretty typical post-punk." In a sense, he's right, though the orthodox formula of right angles and spiky aggression had rarely been so compelling. But with the dismissal of bassist Matt Borlik in 2001, the three remaining members decided not to do the conventional thing and replace him; instead, they were going to start deconstructing the syntax of punk rock.

Men of letters: John Davis, Harris Klahr and 
Christopher Richards of Q and Not U.
Shawn Brackbill
Men of letters: John Davis, Harris Klahr and Christopher Richards of Q and Not U.

"Matt, at least at that time, was pretty into structure," Davis remembers. "As a four-piece, there was zero improvising. It was very by the book. But now Chris and Harris have multiple instruments that they go back and forth between. When we play shows now, we're all free to try something new. A song might technically end, and we'll just keep on going."

This newfound sense of freedom spilled over into the group's second full-length, 2001's Different Damage. From the cerebrally floor-shaking opening cut "Soft Pyramids" to the somber abrasion of the closing track, "Recreation Myth," the album is a sprawling, half-solved jigsaw puzzle of tones, beats and recursive imagery. Visions of beds, blankets, pillowcases and hospitals crop up often throughout the disc, as do commas, pockets, trees, lungs and, yes, even language. "Who has the nerve to sing 'la la la'?" a slurred voice demands on "This Are Flashes," punctuating the record's halfway point. "This name is a language I don't understand."

"There's something sort of nebulous about the lyrics," Davis says by way of understatement. Lines like "No cognoscenti can stab critique in the back for making me cognizant" aren't exactly Raymond Carver, but they're as lucid as "See Spot run" when compared with the couplet "Avocado in the neckline of the swimming suit/Matched just right with the vitamins in the pocket of the swimming trunks."

"A lot of times when I first hear Harris and Chris's lyrics, I'm like, hmmm, what are they talking about?" admits Davis. "But I like the fact that you have to figure it out for yourself. At the same time, I think there's a place in music for more traditional lyrics about love or work or whatever. A lot of my favorite songs are really simple pop songs."

Q and Not U's music teems with pop as much as it does art. Besides the faint influence of hallowed Dischord acts like Shudder to Think and Jawbox, there are hints of Brian Eno, XTC and even Brazilian music and Afrobeat. The group's brand-new single, X-Polynation, neatly embodies this dichotomy: "Book of Flags" is a catchy, propulsive shot of punk disco, while the title track is a torque-driven pileup leaking a trail of shrieks, squeals and dissonance. The effect is exultantly unsettling -- all according to plan.

"We don't want the act of listening to our music to be a passive thing," Davis explains. "We want people to enjoy themselves and have fun at our shows, but at the same time, we want them to be a part of it. We obviously want people to hear what we're saying, and we want to express ideas."

Davis and company, however, are more interested in forcing their audience to meet them halfway rather than make them swallow wads of sophistry.

"Today it's so common to have everything explained and spoon-fed to you. That gets a little tiresome," declares Davis. "So much of American culture is telling you, 'Relax. Don't Worry. Everything's okay.' People get too comfortable, and I understand that; I'm like everyone else. But as a citizen of the United States, I feel a duty to say what I think and to try to get other people thinking, too. Things are very complacent right now. People ignore the rest of the world and even the other people around them in their own neighborhoods. All through the '90s, there was a lot of that going on. The Cold War was over. The economy was fine. People stopped caring so much about the environment. They didn't think it even mattered if George Bush got elected.

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