(Updated 8 p.m.) A band consisting of former T.C. Williams High School students and a current Alexandria City High School (ACHS) teacher were recognized at the Wammie Awards last Saturday, a regional music award.
Rock band Hanoi Ragmen, an Alexandria-based six person band that started at T.C. Williams High School (before it became Alexandria City High School), won Best Rock Album for their debut album The Oldlight and Best Rock Song for Foolhearted off the same album.
“We’re definitely stoked,” said front man and guitarist Gabe Harr. “It’s a regional thing, so by no means are our heads blown up, but we put a lot of hard work into that record. Sometimes it feels like you’re shouting into a void, so it’s nice to have an institution recognize that and say it’s of quality and emblematic of rock.”
The band released an EP in 2019 and started work on an album, but those plans got disrupted when Covid hit. The band also signed with Alexandria record label Baffin Records and had to remix and remaster the songs.
Harr said it’s been a slow process, but the band has gradually been building over time, but that’s been part of the band’s charm as well.
“We started at birthday parties with bounce castles, but you build knowledge and people start to book you for shows,” Harr said. “We released our EP when we were in high school. It became a fun reason for a bunch of social circles to come together and jam with us. By the time we made our new record in 2022, we formed this little community of fans.”
Harr said that small community of fans has made shows an intimate and friendly experience.
“The way we’ve always understood growing success in Alexandria is: if you’re going to Hanoi Ragmen, you’re coming to hang out with your friends,” Harr said. “It feels like Hanoi Ragmen is everybody’s band, it’s not just us being cool on stage. The band is my best friends from Alexandria.”
Lead guitarist Max Powell said promoting shows up to this point has usually meant the band members just texting everyone in their contacts. The disparate social circles has also been reflected in an array of different music genres influencing the band.
“About a month before our shows, we text everyone in our phones, exes and all, and get it out to everyone,” Powell said. “I feel like we have a pretty eclectic range of musical interests and interwoven genres.”
According to Harr, Alexandria’s music scene has a big advantage over some of the other localities in the region.
“[Alexandria] is a community that’s big enough to have a lively music scene, but small enough that we all know each other and you can talk to musicians you think are cool,” Harr said.
Powell said it’s that fan connection that made the Wammie Award feel so special.
“As a band, we’re not usually too concerned with awards, but knowing our fans got us in there to know we could get judged… it feels like they have our backs,” Powell said. “Whenever we play D.C., we’re really just bringing Alexandria to D.C.”
The band is going to get a chance to bring Alexandria to D.C. later this year with their biggest show yet on August 12 at Black Cat (1811 14th Street NW).
“It’s a much bigger venue than we’ve played before,” Powell said, admitting that playing at the famed venue makes him nervous. “We did well and we sold out Union Stage in july this past summer. That was, like, 450 person capacity. Black Cat is 800. So it’s definitely a big step up for us.”
Powell also said the Wammies have drawn more attention to the band, putting more eyes on the Black Cat show in August.
“We left a pretty decent impression on people at the Wammies and we’ve had a few people looking our way now,” Powell said.
For those checking out the band for the first time, Powell said his favorite go-to song to direct people to is Foolhearted, the one that won the award.
“That’s one written almost entirely by our bassist [Beck Moniz],” Powell said. “It’s just a great fun pop rock song and it was the first song he ever wrote. To know him and to know how good of a song it is, I love that song. That and I would tell people to listen to the opening track. The sax solo, oh my god.”
The awards program also recognized Gregory ‘Sugar Bear’ Elliott for its 2023 Lifetime Achievement Award.
Elliott is the frontman of go-go band Experience Unlimited — known by fans as E.U. — which was most known for its song Da’ Butt in the Spike Lee movie School Daze. The song popped up again recently at the Oscars in 2021 when Glenn Close danced to it at the program.
In addition to leading the band, Elliott has been teaching special education at Alexandria City High school since 1996.
While E.U. hasn’t had a hit to the level of Da Butt’ in 1988, the band has continued to put out music, including an album called Free Yourself in 2021.
Image via Hanoi Ragmen/Facebook
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