The Mystery Inc. Gang!
For decades, Washington, D.C. has been the site of a thriving DIY culture. Underground house concerts connect D.C. to a nationwide network of musical communities, where collaboration, self-determination, and a shared love of music unite thousands of college students and others in an effort to hear everything the DIY music scene has to offer. One venue for these performances is Mystery Inc., an underground performance and living space in Georgetown run by five students from George Washington University. These students act as musicians, promoters, business managers, and everything in between to help the underground DIY culture continue to thrive in D.C. and abroad. With shows hosted once every week or two, Mystery Inc. is a hub for the independent artists’ scene.
Although from outside the Mystery Inc. house looks unassuming, inside through the door, down the basement steps and through a comfy living room area, the venue itself is a vibrant cellar room covered with colorful soundproofing blankets on the walls and windows. A massive blanket, emblazoned with the venue name and signed by all the bands that have played there, hangs just next to the door; in the back of the room, amps, mic stands, and a battered drum kit occupy a small niche, creating an organic feeling of closeness and comfort. To talk about Mystery Inc., its goals, and the DIY scene in D.C., I sat down in this basement concert room with Rob Cline, co-founder of Mystery Inc. and a member of the touring indie rock band Nowadays. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did Mystery Inc. start?
I’ve been a music person my whole life. I started playing saxophone in fifth grade and then picked up guitar in seventh or eighth grade. Throughout high school, I was in bands, and then senior year I started the band that I’m currently in. Some older friends that were part of DIY throughout high school slowly showed us into the scene and how it all works; towards the end [of senior year], we got an opportunity to play a house show, and then we started playing with bands that were touring all over the country. That was kind of my dive into the scene – this meant not just being in a band, but being in a connected network of people who do music.
I’m a GW student, and now that I’m old enough to live off campus...that’s where it started. When we got the opportunity to move off-campus, we immediately started looking for a place we could do shows. I brought the DIY scene from high school with me to GW and wanted to see more of a scene [there] since GW didn’t really have one.
Who is involved with Mystery Inc.? What is your role, specifically?
Since I’m in a band and we’ve been on tour a few times, we have connections from lots of other places. A big thing for me is that I don’t book shows that are just local bands; I try to book shows around touring acts. A lot of DIY bands are on tour, they need places to play, and they love playing house shows. When you’re on a self-made tour and you’re a small band, you’d much rather play a house show with forty or fifty people than play some bar where only ten people are going to show up.
I do all the booking; I get the bills together and organize the bands and provide gear. On the night of, I make sure everything is running smoothly and work with the bands to get them on and off stage. I also mix sound when the bands are actually playing. I live with four other people and they all help out with smaller stuff with running the actual show on the day of; some people take donations at the door, others help clean and prepare the space.
How do you connect with everyone? How do people find out about events here?
A big thing I do is promote shows. Every single show, we’ve had more people come. At first, it was just fifteen or twenty of my friends, but then they would come and bring their own friends. I post on all the DIY groups on Facebook; for every show I make a Facebook event and invite hundreds of people, and I also make sure to get local D.C. bands that have different friend groups, so I can make sure that different people are coming. Then, when people get here and I’ve never met them before, I just go up and talk to them – I really like making conversation and organically growing the network. A lot of times after shows, I get people to find me on Facebook and I kind of just use my Facebook page as a show promotion tool. Overall, we try to keep it low profile; Mystery Inc as a house doesn’t have any kind of online presence.
What draws you to the DIY scene?
DIY means organized and underground. I think those are two things that don’t necessarily go hand in hand. You can have organized music that’s not underground and you can have underground music that’s not organized – I like doing both. I think what DIY brings is a community; when you have a community that transcends geography, it helps you find a common culture and people who you want to be friends with right off the bat because you have this common interest. DIY also carries an ethos, or a value system; we take donations at the door and all the donations go to the band. Nuances around money and payment are very different between the music industry and DIY; we are very collectivist in the sense that bands and artists should always be paid as much as humanly possible. The house will only take money if something breaks; we try and get all the money to the bands because in the end it’s about the artists and we need to support them financially.
What kinds of acts perform at Mystery Inc.?
We don’t have “big names,” but we’ve had some indie-famous—like underground famous—people. I would say that some of the biggest groups we’ve had include a group called Gobbinjr from Brooklyn, who are doing really well right now, and the Obsessives – they’re from D.C. and moved to Philly, but they’re also gaining a lot of traction.
Genre-wise, my home base is always indie rock, with indie emo mixed in too. It’s definitely a good mix; if I have a punk show one week, for the next show I’ll try to do indie. We also have alternative rock, indie pop, R&B, jazz hop and chill hop, noise sets, experimental, and math rock; most of them are in the indie and punk realm, with a few standouts – I’m not opposed to any kinds of music, I like having all the genres.
With regards to keeping the DIY culture going in D.C., have you had any difficulties with the local noise ordinances?
We’ve been a mixture of smart and lucky with that. We’ve had one complaint, and it had nothing to do with the music. On this one night, we had a show where so many people came; people were out on the street, on our deck, sitting on our porch, sitting on a bunch of other people’s porches. The neighbors were calling and saying, there’s a bunch of kids hanging on my porch, you know what I mean? Other than that, we haven’t had any problems – we’ve never had a noise complaint, and we’ve never had the cops called on us. I attribute that, in part, to some very strict guidelines that we stick to – we follow all the D.C. noise ordinances. Shows on weekdays end at 10:00 p.m., and shows on weekends end at 10:30 p.m. That’s an advantage of DIY; because it’s a community, you can corral people around the idea that shows will happen from seven to ten and you should be there, because if you treat it like a party, people will show up at nine, see one band, and then it’ll be over. So, the timing is a big thing with handling the noise ordinances, and sometimes you just have to tell people to keep it down. Also, we have these semi-noise-proof blankets hanging around; their point is to absorb some of the sound, and then underneath them I put sound-proofing material.
Any final thoughts on the DIY scene, especially as it relates to Mystery Inc.?
So many really, really good bands have played here. Many times, I’ve just had a show and been so happy about the music that was played. I love DIY, it’s been a great four months so far, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the year. We’re doing a cool thing here at Mystery Inc., so if people want to come and check it out and see what we’re doing, we’d love to have them.
To get more information about upcoming performances, the address for Mystery Inc., and more, you can message Rob Cline on Facebook.
Batterman is an Undeclared Freshman.