The dichotomy of life in Washington, D.C. divides the capital city into jagged and sometimes unequal parts. On one side is This Town, the ecosystem fed by the city’s political class. On the other is D.C., the District, where regular folks live and go to school and get Chinese takeout or, more frequently than ever, leave watered-down sips of booze in the bottom of $15 cocktails in bars whose names holler back to the city’s Chocolate City past.
For the past five years, Jack On Fire has blasted both worlds. The brainchild of primary songwriter and guitarist Jason Mogavero, the guitar-and-drum-machine, political dance punk project has held the mantle as the city’s trickster and jester for three years, able to skewer D.C.’s cultural and political institutions with impunity. Over the past decade, the city has undergone massive cultural and economic changes, brought on by waves of young, mostly white residents moving into the city’s once majority-black core and fueling a boom in the high-priced bars, kitschy clubs, and condos that are the trappings of life in a gentrified city.
The song “Burn Down The Brixton,” from the group’s first demo, laid waste to the restaurant dynasty being built by developers Ian and Eric Hilton in and around U Street, the historic beating heart of black life in the District. Its barbs were aimed at both at the restaurateurs and their patrons, those newfound D.C. residents who don’t blink at spending $9 for a beer in the Brixton (a bar named after the historically black neighborhood in London). The song was brutal and direct, and backed by an absolute groove. It became the Jack On Fire formula. Mogavero’s songs lashed out at these destructive changes, pairing scathing political songwriting with guitar licks and head-bobbing and beats so thick, even the disparaged sulk away in step.
Gentrification now seems like a quaint problem compared to the current political climate in D.C. In the days and weeks after November’s election, Mogavero and singer Heather Rudow, who took over in 2015 from former vocalist Chrissy Ziccarelli, started to realize that the current political moment in America required something other than what Jack On Fire, in its current form, could deliver—not something more, but certainly something different. The band’s dance punk venom, trained on malfeasance both local and national, felt like it was lacking. So Jack On Fire played its final show on May 18, 2107 at the venerable Black Cat, nestled in the epicenter of gentrification in the District along 14th Street NW. That week, the band also released its final album, War For The Matriarchy, a nine-song romp through most every peak and valley of the band’s psychological landscape. Songs include an ode to period sex and a love song ostensibly about Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Commander William T. Riker.
Whether their instincts to disband were correct is something of an interesting question. The band’s seething satire and inability to mince words seems appropriate ammunition for our current conflicts, and Mogavero was never short of hooks with which to deliver its message. We sat down with three former members of Jack On Fire—Mogavero, Rudow, and vocalist Chrissy Ziccarelli—over matching half-pints of Fireball, the frat-house digestif of choice, to discuss the band’s life and death in a transformed city.
In some ways, I think of Jack On Fire as a local anarchist blog. The targets that the band chose over the years have been sometimes broad, but often hyper-local. People might not know what you were talking about unless they were in D.C. when you wrote the song. Why go after places like the Brixton, and condos, and so on?
Jason Mogavero: It wasn’t like we sat down in the Jack On Fire boardroom and decided that today we’re going to go after Muriel Bowser [the current mayor of D.C.]. We wanted to talk about larger issues. The issues that you just mentioned are all tied to gentrification. We had these specific targets, but there was never any plan or angle. It was always: Let’s just go in the direction we’re going in.
Heather Rudow: It’s fair to say that this is what was going on when the band started. Gentrification has always been a thing, but I feel like it’s happened at warp speed.
Mogavero: Absolutely. And the Brixton stood as a totem to that—not just gentrification, but profiting off D.C.’s history, as with all of [the Hilton brothers’] other places. Like, ‘Oh, the Blackbirds were an important band here so let’s have the Blackbird Lounge with stupid, overpriced drinks. Let’s name a burger with three meats on it after Ian MacKaye.’ You know? It’s a whiplash feeling for sure, so part of it is just the need to whip back in a real, immediate way, rather than in some metaphorical, larger one.
Chrissy Ziccarelli: I feel like Jack On Fire came about in its moment because of the climate that we were in. The political climate now is obviously different. Being very tongue-in-cheek was right for that time. Social media had become huge; there was a snarky, quick retort to almost everything, and we were a part of that. We were able to do that both for hyper-local things—things Jason and I would talk about at [local dive bar] Showtime, mostly. But also for big things, like when the March For Life was coming and we wanted to sing about something that was a bit more national.
Mogavero: We had the chance to prank the March For Life Twitter account into thinking that we were going to put out a song that they would like. But we wrote something about [Congressman] Trent Franks, not just because he’s an anti-woman bastard, but he’s actually trying to ruin women’s lives here in D.C.— specifically, women who want to get abortions. Chrissy in an interview once called it ‘rapid response.’
Ziccarelli: That sounds like a phrase I would have used. What we were doing was, we would meet and Jason would say, ‘Hey, I wrote these three new songs. Let’s play them a couple of times because we’re going to do them on Saturday.’ And I’d say, ‘Sure, sounds awesome.’
Rudow: I like to say that—not that I don’t have creative control in this band; I do and certainly Chrissy did as well—it’s basically like vomiting onto the world with a guitar and drums.
I think of it in a very traditional punk sense. Ian MacKaye and Minor Threat weren’t constantly writing about global politics. Most of the time, they were just writing about the scene. Where does everyone’s musical sensibilities come from—whether it’s punk or synth pop or whatever—and how does that get blended into Jack On Fire?
Mogavero: If we’re going to talk about one particular influence, it was definitely Bratmobile early on. The pithiness, the snottiness, the emphasis on really short songs. A lot of the band’s DNA was there.
As far as the move toward more electronic and dancier stuff, that came from our drummer leaving. We used to have a drummer; he moved out in the middle of 2014, so I started recording everything as demos, for which I used a drum machine and a really scratchy bass tone that I found. I put out ‘Burn Down The Brixton’ with that sonic palette, and it caught people’s attention. And I thought, ‘Hey, we don’t need another drummer.’ It just evolved from that, from not having a drummer and being too annoyed and lazy to get another one.
Rudow: Yeah, loading an iPad is way easier that loading in a drum kit.
Mogavero: Chrissy and I played a show once, and we didn’t really want to be there. And I realized it was really easy to ghost, just to grab my amp and my iPad and say, ‘Bye!’ When your back line is just an iPad, it makes your life a lot easier.
Rudow: Growing up as a 14-year-old girl in the Baltimore suburbs, I was very influenced by Le Tigre, and then getting older and listening to Priests and Downtown Boys. I have a theater background, and that was the first time in my life where I thought I could actually do this, and not just watch it. It’s funny now, because I’ve had multiple people tell me that I sound like fucking Fred from the B-52s. But I’m into it. I’m down.
I think one constant for the band has been its heads-on approach to issues large and small with songs like ‘Abortion Hooray!’ and ‘Andy Harris Needs To Smoke Some Weed.’ You don’t get a lot of subtlety with Jack On Fire songs. Why take that approach?
Ziccarelli: Have you met Jason?
Mogavero: It’s a couple things. One is that I’ve always really liked unadorned prosaic language in normally elevated settings. It’s very deliberately not poetic. It also has to do with the band’s name. ‘Jack On Fire’ is the name of a song on Fire of Love by The Gun Club. All the lyrics on that album are really intense, and very much from a raw place. And I fed into that, too. Whether we set out for it to be this or not, it’s punk wish fulfillment. I think that every one of our songs could be prefaced by ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if…?’
Rudow: It’s gleeful and hopeful. Our best songs are like that. I can say that’s been part of the editing process for four of our current songs. We’re taking raw anger, and being mad at these things and flipping it in that way.
Ziccarelli: It’s also based on the structure and the bands we were trying to emulate. When you only have a minute and a half to talk about a certain thing, you have to say what you want to say. Even the length of records we were putting out, it lends itself really well to just putting it out there. I made a joke about Jason, but everyone who has ever been in the band is pretty much ‘What you see is what you get.’
There’s been a consistent theme through the band’s catalogue: anti-patriarchy, pro-matriarchy, pro-woman. Where does your motivation come from to deliver that message?
Mogavero: Like Heather and Chrissy have said, it’s just a really raw response of anger to what happens. I’m never going to get street harassed, but Heather and Chrissy and every other woman I know who has lived in a city has and will. So it’s a form of therapy. It does feel weird to write about scenarios from a woman’s perspective. But if there’s something wrong with the first draft I write, Heather and Chrissy are great editors and collaborators. Whether it’s women’s issues or police violence. I mean, let’s face it, everyone in this interview has had some hand in this. We are all gentrifiers. I still think it’s important to fight for people who need somebody on their side. It’s a way of being a good ally.
Ziccarelli: When I first joined, when Jason would show up with a first draft and songs, there were definitely times where I wasn’t sure I could sing the lyrics. He immediately recognized my reaction. In some cases that reaction was what we were going for, but in some cases it was not. But he was always willing to listen so I could explain what made me uncomfortable about it, and we could then brainstorm about what we actually were going for, and who we intended to piss off, and if we were unintentionally burning the people we were trying to give a voice to.
What do you hope the band’s legacy will be?
Ziccarelli: I was a bit of a latecomer to Riot Grrrl, I didn’t start listening to those bands until I was in my 20s. But the thing that struck me the more that I listened to them, and read stuff on the history of Riot Grrrl, was that the whole idea was founded on the principle that anyone can pick up instruments and start a band. I was thinking, ‘Yeah, that’s true for pretty much everyone but me.’ But the spirit of Jack On Fire was so spontaneous and of the moment, when I thought back on that stuff I realized that was exactly what we were doing. I had never even been in a band before, and I just picked it up. So I hope that the more people listen to the band, the more people realize that anyone can really do this.
Rudow: I’m really proud of what this band has accomplished. I have a hard time thinking about how we’ll be remembered because, frankly, it’s still hard to believe it’s over. But the past five or six years have been a weird fucking time to be in D.C., and I hope that when people think about the tension, they think about us. And I hope that people think of us as these merry little pranksters, you know?
But this is the thing: I don’t want to say that we were court jesters because we tried really fucking hard! We agonized over every fucking downbeat, and every lyric was meticulous as fuck.
Mogavero: Yeah. The way you would deliver the line, ‘Trombone won’t be rusty long,’ in ‘Riker Sex Eyes.’
Rudow: I worked on that for days! So I hope that people remember us for lyrics that made you think. I hope that we’re a time capsule, you know?
Mogavero: So long as people laughed and smiled, then I’m good.