After a punk show, very seldom is a drummer the first topic of conversation. Sure, punk rock has produced any number of distinctive and skilled timekeepers, but conversation doesn’t often revolve around them. Which is a shame, because in the case of Washington D.C.’s The Warmers, drummer Amy Farina’s playing makes her the de facto leader, the main point of conversation – like Keith Moon. Comparing a relatively obscure Dischord band to The Who might seem an odd choice. I know. But bear with me:
By 1996, Washington D.C.’s Dischord Records was on the tail end of a serious roll–the decade had seen the label produce a strong document of the city’s music scene. A look back on Dischord’s 90s releases is a who’s who of legendary post-punk movers and shakers: Nation of Ulysses, Jawbox, Shudder to Think, the ineffable Lungfish, Hoover, and of course a pre-hiatus Fugazi, who played Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong that year–along with the standard slew of U.S. dates–in support of 1995’s Red Medicine.
In the decade’s second half, Dischord lost some steam as bands defected to major labels, broke up, or juggled members into new configurations. The Warmers were one of these ‘ex-members of…’ bands, with a rhythm section of Amy Farina on drums and Juan Carrera on bass previously spotted on a 7” by Lois and Alec MacKaye, who’d sung first for the Untouchables, then Faith, and finally Ignition. MacKaye’s credits often overshadowed the rest of the band, with discussion and reviews mentioning the well-known frontman had started playing guitar, or, alternately, rehashing Ignition’s legendarily impassioned live show/Faith’s place in Dischord’s 1980’s canon.
And to be honest, MacKaye and his guitar are what initially caught my attention. I never progressed beyond a very low six-string plateau and was drawn to the simplicity of The Warmers’ guitar lines, raw and trebly. Here, I thought, is a band that places value on economy and simplicity. The vocals kind of hung around the guitar, as if singing and playing was a challenge—a similarly charming call to arms echoing the ‘do it yourself’ rallying cry so prevalent at the beginning of punk rock.
It wasn’t until later–until I started playing drums–that I rethought the record and realized how much the band reminded me of The Who.
Learning to play any instrument becomes an evaluative lens. Learning drums forced me to relisten to all my records, reconsider them. And my initial impression of the Warmers–cool minimalism–changed.
With all due respect to MacKaye and his axe, and to Juan Carrera–who, like John Entwistle, holds things down and doesn’t get much credit–this is clearly Amy Farina’s record. Drummers like Grant Hart add nuance by playing slightly behind time; others play around the beat. Farina’s style is so unique that none of the normal descriptors apply. She’s the lead here. Take album debut “Snake Charmer” as an example: for 80 seconds, the band builds to bombast, with Carrera’s warm tone providing a counterpoint to MacKaye’s shrill spindle. Farina’s the engineer, driving on her toms, throwing in cymbal crashes to punctuate rolls. Then, about 80 seconds in, as the song hits its verses, she pushes to the front, weaving multiple snare hits through MacKaye’s single-note riff.
I almost said ‘single note lead’ at the end of the last paragraph, but this guitar has nothing to do with leading. Yet years of conditioning have led to certain ways of hearing: guitarists and singers are traditionally most important, drummers the butt of jokes. When thinking about The Who, it’s the mic swing, the windmill that we first remember. The idea of a drummer being the leader of a band is relegated to jazz–usually, anyway. But in the case of both The Warmers and The Who, the drums are at the fore.
In The Warmers, MacKaye and Carrera never bogart time or space–and Farina leads with fabulously off-kilter runs that initially defy, then become their own kind of logic. Whether it’s the descent in the verses or the outro of “The Lowdown,” the inventive endurance of rolls on “No One Like Me No One Like Me,” or the precise, open hi-hat on “Occupation: Fish,” the band’s paean to Roberto Clemente, Amy Farina’s playing on The Warmers’ self-titled debut–and, for that matter, on their posthumous “Wanted: More” EP–is a joy. The most engaging and interesting music is the stuff that doesn’t try to be anything but itself. Certainly there’s an initial, inspirational simplicity at play in The Warmers’ guitar work, but like the drums in many bands, this is just the background. It’s the strings keeping the beat here as backdrop for one of post-punk’s most innovative and overlooked drummers.
Michael T. Fournier wrote about the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime for the 33 1/3 series. He’s the author of two novels—Hidden Wheel and Swing State—published by Three Rooms Press, and has written for the Oxford American, Pennsylvania English, Vice and Razorcake. Fournier is the publisher of Cabildo Quarterly, a broadsheet literary journal he co-edits with Pittsburgh poet Lisa Panepinto. He lives on Cape Cod with his wife Rebecca and their cat. More at michaeltfournier.org and @xfournierx.