Unlike other metropolises, it’s not terribly easy to find lifelong natives of the Washington, D.C. area. Part of that is because of the gentrification process that’s squeezing so many out of rent they were once able to afford. But, also—growing up in and around the nation’s capital exerts a strange and particular pressure. The industry in D.C. is pretty much purely politics and its associated supports (universities included), and as such can feel suffocating. Those who arrive for jobs with rotating administrations, lobbying organizations, and think tanks rarely interact with anyone outside their circles, skimming along the city’s surface.
Channels is comprised of three individuals who know this peculiar world intimately—the notorious J. Robbins (Jawbox, Burning Airlines, many production and engineering credits) and bassist Janet Morgan (of Shonben, also Robbins’ wife), who currently live in Baltimore, and drummer Darren Zentek (Kerosene 454, Oswego), who is still in D.C. proper. And so, their anti-Trump Inauguration protest 7-inch, “Backpfeifengesicht/Airstrip One,” feels more natural and less opportunistic than many other political statements. Even when addressing entirely personal matters, and even in the poetic, playful lyrical abstractions with which Robbins often works, there’s politics in the water.
“Backpfeifengesicht”—a word which can be translated from the German as “a face in need of a slap”—is as direct an indictment of Trump as possible. It goes from the sort of roiling, percussive noise rock this crew is known for (dual vocals from Robbins and Morgan urgent, overlapping) to chiming pop luxury at the flip of a dime, seeking the humanity of a man with seemingly no empathy. “Airstrip One,” a tense little jam that works expertly with post-punk negative space (particularly when it comes to Morgan’s vocal lines), locates the terror of losing ground that exists at the heart of xenophobia, fascism, and nationalism (“Who was holding all the gold in that Golden Age?”). It asks of those it critiques: “Were you fighting for the right side? Did you throw away your lifeline? Did you wake up on the wrong side of a burning bed?” As Robbins repeats those words, and as the song sharpens into punk glass, there is honest passion and power in his voice—grit, if you will. Resolve.
“Backpfeifengesicht/Airstrip One” is also the first new Channels material in a decade; adult responsibilities, including complicated healthcare for Robbins and Morgan’s son Callum, who was born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, made bringing the group together regularly too challenging for a time. There is an ease to these two complicated, coiled-up songs, a sort of effervescence that pushes through even in the most pointed moments; the band is obviously having a blast playing with one another. This is reportedly only the first new material from Channels’ second life, and hallelujah for that. If all political gauntlet-throwing felt this resonant, we might just pull through.