I recently spoke to him on the eve of the Dischord Records release of the Dag With Shawn album—the mythical first session of one of the most famous DC hardcore bands—some 25 years after its original recording.
So Shawn, let’s tackle this chronologically. Did you grow up in DC, or go there for college?
I’m from a small place outside Washington, DC.
How did you become part of what was going on?
Well, when I was a kid I was always into different music. I listened to a lot of B-52s, a little bit of Frank Zappa, I was really into the Cars and stuff like that. I didn’t think of it like punk music, more like new-wave. Then there was a kid I met called Matt Ray, and there were these proper punk kids I met—they had like spiked hair and biker jackets and stuff like that. We would cross paths because I had these other friends who had these dances which were like neighbourhood get-togethers where bands would play a couple of songs. You know, a band might play a Black Flag cover or something like that. Outside of that, I was just getting records played to me. Matt Ray was the one who said, “Hey, let’s play up at Wheaton Community Centre,” and after that I was totally hooked. I was like, “I’m totally a punk rocker!”
How old were you during this?
Erm, senior year in high school. So 17 years old.
And Ian Svenonius was from the same neighbourhood?
Yeah, probably eight or nine blocks away, so we’d see each other every day. He was already going to DC to see shows, he knew the bands, he knew what was up and everything like that and I was still exploring it. Matt knew more about the California scene. So while Ian was giving me stuff like Minor Threat and Bad Brains, I was getting Fear, X, Discharge and stuff like that from Matt. Ian was more on my side of town, whereas Matt was out like a six-to-eight mile drive away. So since me and Ian were closer we hung out a little bit more. Ian was definitely the one who was like, “This is DC.”
Shawn Brown with Swiz, Photo: Boiling Point
Had you not been to DC shows before?
The biggest concert I’d been to was maybe seeing The Police and REM in the seventh grade and my first hardcore show was the Obsessed, Iron Cross and Government Issue!
And that just changed everything?
Yeah, I was like, “I don’t want to be part of the normal world.” I hadn’t thought about doing bands or anything like that but I wanted to be a punk rocker. “Society SUCKS!” You know what I mean?
DC was still pretty wild back then, right?
Yeah, we had one scene which was pretty much Nazi fuckers. Then the other scene who wasn’t about that, but liked to fight! So they clashed every once in a while, and if they couldn’t find each other, they’d fight someone else.
So how did you go from being at shows to being invited to try out for Dag Nasty?
I was just going to the shows, freaking out, grabbing the microphone, being annoying. I knew Colin Sears and he walked up to me one day, like, “Hey, I’m forming this band. We’re practicing in my basement. Do you want to check it out? We could do with a singer.” And I’d go hang over his house and Brian Baker’s sitting there with Roger Marbury and I’m like, “What the fuck?!” I was super intimidated. Sometimes pressure is good for people. And I think that pressure is what helped me. It taught me how to front bands in that way, because there is a lot of pressure, whether you’re skilled at it or not.
I think for me, the real pressure came as they started writing more melodic songs, they wanted more melodic singing and I wasn’t capable of doing that.
Is that why you parted company with them?
Well, I’ll tell you this: Ian MacKaye told me that Minor Threat broke up because Lyle and Brian wanted them to sound more like U2, and Ian didn’t want to do that. So that’s why they started talking to Danzig and taking their opportunities to create Samhain. So when you talk about it, the difference between Minor Threat and Dag Nasty makes a lot of fucking sense. Maybe Brian thought, “Hey, Shawn’s not someone who can front a hardcore band but I can teach him to sing.”
Did that become apparent to you after the recording—like, “That’s not really what we wanted”?
That’s the feeling I got. Like I said, at the time I’m like 19, so I was immature too. It hurt my feelings a little bit. It was a learning experience and I was really thankful I got an opportunity to play with those people.
But it wasn’t an amicable split?
They told me right after we got off stage. I was like, “What the fuck?”
Have you seen that letter where Brian writes to Kevin Seconds asking him to sing in Dag Nasty? It’s on daghouse.com.
Most of that stuff I had to really tune myself out of. There’s probably stuff about Dag Nasty that was probably common knowledge, but it’s news to me.
So when you were being told they were going to try someone else, was Dave Smalley already in at this point?
I thought they must have had someone else. By the time Dave showed up I knew who he was. I was like, “Man… him?”
Is it true that none of Dave’s lyrics are on that first record? The thing I’ve heard is that the only bit he wrote was that little spoken word bit: “I walked down the street one day and you were going the other.” That’s the only thing he contributed.
Right. Some of them were just me, and some of them me and Brian collaborated on.
So Brian didn’t write all the lyrics?
No, no, no, no, no.
So Dave Smalley was singing your words?
Yep. At the end of the day, we know what we wrote, you know what I mean? At this point it’s like 25 years now. But yeah, he didn’t write all that, but that’s just music, man. After, I found out how many times that happened in the history of music and people were in a similar situation.
Change a word, claim a third—the classic!