Photo Credit: Mike Kimichi
The modernization of civilization has gifted humanity with so many things, but in the past couple of decades it seems as if all of that building has gotten too out of hand, and the impact of all of it weighs heavy on the hearts of those who’d rather not see their favorite venues turn into juice bars and yoga studios. At least that’s the case with people like myself and Peter Hartmann of Poppy Patica. We talked with Peter not only about the heartbreak of watching the city he came up in turn into a place he doesn’t recognize, but also about the new Poppy Patica album, ‘Black Cat Back Stage,’ which drops on May 5th. All of that and more await below!
Kendra: You’ve got a single out now called “Awful Sound” that is quite the delight, and with that, I’d like to know what great sound inspired you to first get into music? Was it a particular song, album, or artist?
Peter Hartmann: Thank you! That would go back to when I was like 11 and heard Nirvana’s Nevermind for the first time. Also, I saw Ted Leo + the Pharmacists perform a lot in DC when I was growing up, and that was inspirational in a lot of ways. And my dad plays piano and sings and writes songs, so that introduced me to the idea early on.
Kendra: And you were sort of going about things solo for a while. What inspired growing Poppy Patica into a full band experience?
Peter Hartmann: I came up playing in bands, so that was kind of the norm for me until I started Poppy Patica. I had a band in high school that played songs I wrote and played in a number of other bands in college. I saw friends perform solo while at college and afterward when I moved back to DC, and that kind of gave me the confidence to start this project as a solo endeavor. It was also kind of a reaction to leaving college and knowing that my bandmates in the band Peaks were all going to move to different cities. I wanted to have a project to work with after we graduated, so I figured that something I could perform by myself was the only sure bet.
I continued to perform solo when I got back to D.C. playing guitar and drums with my feet. It was kind of a spectacle, but after one of my shows, a friend of mine told me he thought I could do better haha. The honest feedback was a good push to improve my setup. I had been seeing Sneaks perform around DC a lot at that time and got inspired by how she performed with just bass and a drum machine. Around that same time, a friend gave me an old drum machine that his coworker was getting rid of, so I adopted that as the sound for my new solo set.
It wasn’t long after that that I met Vishal Narang aka Airhead DC after we ended up on a bill together at the Velvet Lounge. He also had a cool solo set going with bass and a sequencer. I loved his music right away and eventually asked him to play bass with me. I had also recorded with Dan Howard (Swings) on drums who I knew from DC and college. The three of us played a handful of shows together in the summer of 2016. Both Vishal and Dan ended up moving to New York. I also played with AJ Thawley (Dove Lady) on drums for a while. Then I left town to travel and work remotely in 2017 and 2018. When I got back, I formed a new lineup for the band with Nikhil Rao, Jeremy Ray, and Chloe.
Kendra: You’re from DC, and I’m from California and spent almost 20 years in LA so I know all too well your pain when it comes to watching a city turn into something unrecognizable. Which, you channeled a lot of that into ‘Black Cat Back Stage.’ For you, what has been the most disheartening thing about the constant gentrification of DC regarding the music scene there?
Peter Hartmann: It’s hard to watch, and it’s happening everywhere, including here in the Bay Area. Seeing all of these new things pop up that culturally had nothing to do with DC was rough. The city no longer felt like it had a unique flavor. These new buildings and businesses seemed so generic that they could kind of exist anywhere in the country. I guess people want the same cookie-cutter condos, coffee shops, and clubs. It seemed like a lot of the people moving to DC didn’t really care about actual DC culture. I think it’s easier to live in a place where you don’t know what it used to be like. Then you don’t have anything to grieve about the changing face of the city.
The wave of change in DC was too big for me to stop, and I couldn’t live with the feeling of watching my hometown disappear anymore. I tried to be active and volunteer with organizations like Empower DC who were fighting for affordable housing and for a more just future of the city that would include longtime DC residents. The real loss in all of these cases is the displacement of communities that make the city what it is. For folks to lose their access to live in the city that they’re from is the real tragedy.
Things like the loss of venues and DIY spaces feels kind of silly to talk about when the city government and developers are actively tearing apart communities. However, it all kind of went hand in hand. Union Arts was one of the very last warehouse spaces of its kind in DC. It was a big building in Union Market that housed artists studios and a performance space with lots of great shows curated by Luke Stewart. So many different facets of the DC music and arts community showed up at the zoning board hearings to try to save Union Arts, but ultimately the building was sold to become a hotel with an arts focus. I’m not sure what became of these plans, but at the time it kind of seemed like the hotel would have an artist and musician zoo of sorts for hotel guests to observe.
When I first moved back to DC, there were a lot of group houses throwing shows in their basements or living rooms, but that scene seemed to have mostly dried up even before the pandemic. Maybe there has been or will be, a resurgence of them, but when I left DC in early 2020, it felt like there weren’t many options for venues, especially non-traditional venues. I’m not sure exactly what caused this, but I would guess that the extremely high and rising cost of housing played a role. Luckily, some friends who had been hosting some cool shows in their basement before the pandemic are going to reopen their doors to host my record release show in DC on May 12th.
Kendra: This album, while personal, also has these universal ideologies to them. Has that always been something you strive for when writing music? That a wide variety of people will be able to relate?
Peter Hartmann: I like to incorporate lyrics that feel poignant but also ambiguous. I want to make room for the listener to find their own meaning in the songs. I haven’t always had a philosophy about this, but I’ve used abstract or surreal language as lyrics for a long time to allow for various interpretations. There’s some magic lost when lyrics are too specific. I like for the meaning of the songs to be open-ended and for the experience of hearing them to be a bit like a puzzle. It’s fun to create multiple meanings with lyrics so that people kind of have to do a double-take and ask themselves what they just heard. It feels more true to real life. A personal song without a political element feels too indulgent. A political song without the personal element feels unrelatable. I like to write songs that include both so people can get what they need out of it.
Kendra: You have a balancing act of sorts with “Awful Sound” and “Sweetest Song,” but I have to say I was taken by “Band Aid” with Chloe M. Love the song but on the flip side of things, what do you think is something in the music industry that’s a huge issue that those in charge always just put a band-aid on instead of giving it the attention it deserves to actually be fixed?
Peter Hartmann: Most people just stream music these days, so I think those streaming platforms need to be held accountable to paying artists more for their streams. I think there should be more local and federal funds going directly to artists and music spaces.
This album includes new recordings of songs, new and old, from every phase of Poppy Patica up until that point. Some of the songs had been recorded and released before, but this album has the most fully realized versions of those ones. I wanted to pick two songs that had not been released anywhere before this album.
“Band Aid” is the first Poppy Patica song that wasn’t written by me. Chloe wrote the song and we started playing it live as a band. We decided to record it as well to capture the live set we had been playing together. This lineup of the band has come to close, mostly because I don’t live in DC anymore, but had we all kept playing together, I was hoping to restructure the band and have everyone writing and singing.
Everyone in the band is a songwriter and singer, so turning the band into a more collaborative project felt right. Then the pandemic came, this lineup of the band was kind of dissolving anyways, and I moved to California, so we never had the chance. Definitely keep an eye on the other three amazing musicians who played on this record: Nikhil Rao, Chloe M., and Jeremy Ray. They have been and undoubtedly will continue to be, making some incredible music.
Kendra: Now it’s time for a side note – with it being May, I always think of the end of the school year and all those memories of field trips, parties, and yearbooks. With that, I’d love to know what your fondest end-of-the-school-year memory was?
Peter Hartmann: I think fulfilling my childhood dream of performing at Fort Reno was one of those memories. Fort Reno is the site of a free summer concert series that has been running in Tenleytown DC since 1968. I grew up going to shows there and had hoped to perform there one day. I went to high school across the street from the stage where the shows are held. On June 18th, 2007, a few days after graduating from Deal Junior High, which is also located on Fort Reno Park, my band performed on the Fort Reno stage with Deleted Scenes and Mass Movement of the Moth. It was the first show of the year and our band The Boom Orangutangs played first, kicking off the series that summer. It felt like a DC rite of passage.
Kendra: Lastly, with ‘Black Cat Back Stage’ out on May 5th, what else can fans expect as we continue towards summer?
Peter Hartmann: I’ll be doing a release show in DC on May 12th at the Cool Ranch, one in Brooklyn on May 19th at the Owl Music Parlor, and one in Oakland on June 1st. While I’m in New York, I’ll be finishing a new record I’m recording with Nate Mendelsohn (Market), and also an EP that I recorded with Paco Cathcart (The Cradle). Those two releases will hopefully come out next year. I plan to get a new band together in the Bay to play some local shows and hopefully do a longer tour in the fall.