High-Functioning Punk: Sister Polygon Records is More Than Just An Indie Farm Team

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[Originally published in the Washington City Paper on June 15, 2015]

It’s a quiet Friday afternoon, and G.L Jaguar paces through his apartment, pointing out a box of tapes, record sleeves, a tape-to-tape recorder. Then, the nattily-appointed guitarist for the D.C. punk quartet Priests moves towards a closet, lit bright by a window with a decent view of the Capitol. “Well, here it is,” he says.

There in the closet sits a short shelf with an orderly library of identical records and tapes, each stacked one next to the other. Here in Jaguar’s 16th Street Heights apartment lives Sister Polygon Records, the tiny but disproportionately influential label jointly owned and operated by the four members of Priests. While it can’t approach the size and scope of Dischord, an independent label synonymous with underground music in D.C., Sister Polygon might very well be more significant in today’s tight-knit world of underground punk.

Bands on the label, including Priests, have rattled the gates of the popular music kingdom, collecting acclaim from critics and deals from bigger record labels along the way. And they’ve done it while shunning buzzy bands, hot sounds, and pleas for coverage. Sister Polygon is a DIY concern through and through.

In fact, the label is built far more on friendships and mutual admiration than on any kind of desire to sign the next hot band. By the label’s own admission, the Sister Polygon roster is a collection of musical oddballs that would struggle to find the mainstream on a map, let alone stand in it.

The story of Sister Polygon begins, in some ways, with a band that has never appeared on the label. It was 2012, and one of Jaguar’s old friends, Richard Howard, had started a new band called Cigarette. By the time Jaguar saw Cigarette, he had just finished a series of audio engineering courses at Omega Studios in Rockville, and his old label, J Street Records, had fizzled. He’d been working sound at DIY gigs around town, but his primary venue, a space on 7th Street NW called Warehouse Next Door, had shuttered. Jaguar was left twisting. “There was a long period of time when I really wasn’t doing much of anything,” he says.

Cigarette’s spacy, sometimes unearthly post-rock was a revelation. “I thought, ‘This is so… weird!’ And I’m really happy people are making music like this,” Jaguar says. For weeks, he spent most every day in the Howard family’s basement, recording a series of demos meant to be the first release on a new record label, Sister Polygon.

Cigarette never did release those songs on Sister Polygon, but the recording session and general momentum bled over into Jaguar’s then-new musical project, Priests. It was the band’s intention from the beginning to put out its own music. “I didn’t like the idea of going around to labels and people that I didn’t know saying, ‘Hey, check out my band! Put out my music!’ says Priests vocalistKatie Alice Greer. “I don’t expect you to care as much as I care, so I’d rather just get my resources together and do it myself so I don’t have to ask other people for help.”

Priests recorded and released a limited run demo tape—Greer insists they only dubbed about 50 copies or so, in part on a tape machine Greer’s father, a minister, had used to record sermons in Michigan—and a two-song single. Jaguar then began asking bands he felt were “vibrating on the same wavelength” as Priests if they’d want to put out music on his new label. New York-based feminist punk band Shady Hawkins’ 2013 LP Dead To Me became the second Sister Polygon release and its first on cassette tape.

Tapes have become the preferred vehicle for Sister Polygon. At J Street, Jaguar learned that bands that don’t tour much or teeter on the verge of breaking up won’t sell a lot of records. But tapes are a fraction of the cost of vinyl and can be dubbed at home if need be. They’re perfect for the music Sister Polygon favors: ambitious albums from artists as brilliant as they are disorganized.

The label’s third release was Drift + Fade—a deeply experimental album that included a nearly 15-minute long drone track—from Carni Klirs, a fixture in the D.C. underground music scene. The label also pressed a tape by Dudes, an avant-garde D.C. punk trio that occupied very much the much same musical world as Chain & The Gang. They broke up shortly after the tape was released.

According to Priests drummer and Sister Polygon co-founder Daniele Daniele, the label’s owners put out music they like from people they like “that doesn’t have any other way to get out.” Some bands appear destined to find a home on another label. “But people like Dudes, they’re a bunch of freaks. I’m like, ‘you are so weird, and I love you, but no one else is going to touch this with a 10-foot pole,’” she says. “We’re interested in finding people who are underrepresented or weren’t signed, making something weird enough where there might not be a normal outlet for it.”

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When Greer first saw Providence sixpiece Downtown Boys at a show in Pawtucket, R.I., she was enamored. They were wild, with this dynamic bilingual singer, Victoria Ruiz, and jarring horn section. They were a big, political band—but not political in the way that bands tend to be in D.C., Greer says. They were open, welcoming, radiating a kind of positive energy. There was a spontaneous connection between Greer and Ruiz; both women come from worlds outside of punk and sometimes feel like outcasts in the scene. Even after she began singing for Downtown Boys, Ruiz knew little of the punk ecosystem of 7-inch records, cassette tape demos, and online zines.

Greer came back to D.C. preaching the gospel of Downtown Boys, and she and Jaguar quickly booked the band’s first D.C. show, a bill with Priests at Asefu, a now-shuttered Ethiopian joint that hosted the occasional punk gig. After the show, Jaguar took Downtown Boys to Ben’s Chili Bowl and tried to convince Ruiz and the band to let him record them. A week later, they scheduled studio time. “That was one of the first times the idea of Sister Polygon expanded outside of just being like, this immediate group, or just people that we already knew really well,” Greer says.

For those who have yet to catch a Downtown Boys show, Jaguar recommends imagining a fight in a Looney Tunes short: a cartoon cloud of chaos, with fists and feet flying in every direction. It was the first band he recorded for Sister Polygon that wasn’t his own. “It was a real struggle to capture what that sounds like live, recorded. I struggled for a long time to get that sound just right,” he says.

Around the same time, Joe Steinhardt, co-owner of Don Giovanni Records, emailed Priests about working together on an album. “I loved them. From the first time I saw them, they were one of the best bands I’d ever seen,” Steinhardt says. But when he approached the band about possibly putting out a Priests record, they initially bristled. “It was like a stranger coming out and asking, ‘Can I babysit for you?’ And you’re just like, ‘No, this is my child, get away from me,’” Daniele says.

While Don Giovanni isn’t EMI, it’s also not Sister Polygon. It’s a big label in the world of independent music, and the Priests crew didn’t know Steinhardt from anyone. But Priests got to know Steinhardt and realized that he saw Don Giovanni in much the same way as they saw Sister Polygon. They settled on putting out a Priests EP, and Jaguar—his friends call him Gideon, his given name—began selling Steinhardt on his Sister Polygon labelmates. “Gideon was just, ‘These are the best fucking bands ever, you’re going to love them.’ And he was right,” Steinhardt says.

While Priests recorded the songs that would comprise the band’s debut EP on Don Giovanni, Bodies and Control and Money and Power, Sister Polygon churned away behind the scenes. It was a hectic time, Jaguar says, but the label finally released the Downtown Boys EP in mid-2014. The record lit a fuse beyond the punk world, landing on a Rolling Stone year-end list as an album you probably didn’t hear in 2014, but should have.

That same summer, the label put out a five-song tape by Pinkwash, a Philadelphia-via-D.C. power-punk duo. Joey Doubek, the band’s singer, spent much of 2008 caring for his mother, who died a year later from breast cancer. The resulting band and music channeled Doubek’s anger, both at the disease and the way corporations exploit it: “Pinkwashing” refers to the corporate trend of imposing pink on a product in the name of breast cancer awareness while doing little to address the disease or the people affected by it.

“That to me is a band that I want to support in every single way that I can,” Greer says. “That to me creates great music. Tell me about your personal experiences. Tell me about its dimension to the rest of the world, and the bullshit that we see in the rest of the world. That’s what I want to hear about.”

It’s the kind of music and message Steinhardt wants to hear, too. By the end of 2014, he’d signed deals with both Downtown Boys and Pinkwash.

Since Steinhardt first saw Priests and Downtown Boys in New Brunswick two years ago, Don Giovanni has released records by both bands. The Pinkwash LP should be out before the end of the year, and a Priests full-length should be out sometime in 2016. At Sister Polygon, the attention has translated into brisk sales of the bands’ 7-inches; the Downtown Boys record is in its second pressing, and its sales allowed the label to produce the Pinkwash 7-inch.

“It makes sense that there’s crossover” between the two labels, Steinhardt says, “but it is kind of weird and unintentional.” If he’s soured any feelings at Sister Polygon for signing two of the label’s most popular artists, that certainly wasn’t part of the plan, and he’s reminded Jaguar that he recommended Downtown Boys and Pinkwash in the first place.

“They are a label that exists with an actual identity. So many labels today have no identity, and are focused on big releases or buzzy things, but the bands have no real identity,” Steinhardt says. “I don’t look to Sister Polygon for what I should put out; I look to them for what I should be listening to.”

Jaguar sees Don Giovanni as the next level up for the bands that have made the jump from Sister Polygon. Whatever Sister Polygon might be in the future, for now, it’s a label run out of a guy’s apartment closet, with no space to store even a few thousand records, let alone a 5,000 or 10,000 run of any one album. If Priests continue to do well as a band, Jaguar suggests, they may have more resources to put into Sister Polygon, and perhaps the label can become what Don Giovanni is now.

Sister Polygon’s owners wouldn’t call the label a tastemaker, far out in front of the encroaching tide of the larger independent music world. “I never thought of Sister Polygon as a stepping stone, like if people don’t have resources, we can give them resources and then can get their foot in the door and move on to better things,” Daniele says. She thinks of the label like this: People start DIY record labels as a way to create something that’s going to last, something people can touch and hold on to. Because maybe the world is fucked, maybe no one cares about what’s going on in your scene, but it matters to the people who are there, who are living it. To those people, it’s still important. It could mean everything.

“For those people, I want to create something,” Daniele says. “A little wall against the flood, you know? Give us a little shelter with each other where we can be together, and appreciate each other’s music, and share it in a physical format.” And if it’s too weird, or political, or challenging? All the better. Let the whole world hear it.

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