Jersey Beat Music Fanzine

Shawna Kenney and Rich Dollinger of D.C.'s Safari Club

Interview by James Damion

From 1988-1998, Washington D.C.'s Safari Club played host to countless touring and local acts. The impact of the club would often be reflected in the stories bands shared about their tours, giving color to the highlights of their stops along the way. As a less traveled teen, hearing that my friends had taken their van to Washington D.C. or California was like a trip to the moon.

Seeing that most of the bars and venues that hosted bands during our halcyon days are long gone, it's essential to give attention and credit to the structures and people who helped provide a space and environment to express the vision of the punk rock movement of the Eighties and Nineties.

While I often regret not reviewing or interviewing them at the time of the 2017 release of their book "Live at the Safari Club:'A History of harDCore Punk in the Nation’s Capital, 1988-1998," I felt it essential to track down Rich Dollinger and Shawna Kenney to answer some questions and share their Washington DC's legendary Safari Club memories. Here’s what they had to say...

Q: I understand you’re originally from Alexandria, Virginia. Was there anything going on there musically? Or did you have to travel to nearby DC to get a taste?

Rich: Northern Virginia had a lot of good local bands. Scream, Askance, Ipecac, Device, Avail, Initial Reaction. So my bands could play locally in churches and small restaurants that booked bands. But DC was a short metro ride away, so DC felt just as local as any other town in Northern Virginia.

Q: We always hear about the early D.C. scene and Revolution Summer bands. Yet aside from Fugazi and a few others, the years that followed have trickled in rather slowly. Was there a particular need for a place to host all ages shows?

Rich: There was never a problem finding a place for all ages shows in the DMV (DC/Maryland/Virginia) area. The Wilson Center, St. Stephens Church, Sanctuary Theatre and even Ft. Reno Park had all ages shows for years. Safari Club was a happy accident.

The Live At The Safari Club book by Shawna and Rich
Q: How did the opportunity to book shows there come about?

Rich: I never booked shows. Shawna and Pam were the first regular promoters at the Safari Club. Later, John Cornerstone and Hard Karl took over. The club was shut down for a few years before Martin Castro, Gabe Banner and Jon Hennessy started booking there again under the name Chamber of Sound.

Shawna’s boyfriend’s band Indian Summer got booked on a pay-to-play show at the Safari Club. Swiz was also on that show but refused to play and took off. Indian Summer decided to go along with it. Somehow when everyone took off, Shawna got left at the club assuming her boyfriend or someone from the band would come back for her. No one ever came back. Shawna waited hours and befriended the owner. He owned a cab company too and got her a ride home. In the meantime she offered to book bands on the weekends during the day. (The 9:30 Club didn’t have weekend matinees.) He offered her two dates. The first show was all local bands. The second show was Gorilla Biscuits, Swiz and Lucy Brown. The owner was so impressed with the turnout, he wanted GB every weekend!!

Q: Mentioning the Safari Club without bringing up Shawna would be unfathomable. Had you known her prior to the Safari Club and how did your relationship evolve?

Rich: I met Shawna years after she was booking shows. I had met her partner Pam once, but never Shawna. We met in 1995 through Martin Castro (who was the current Safari Club promoter). Shawna was hired to hang posters and hand out promo CDs at a Slayer show in rural Maryland. Her car broke down and she called Martin to see if he would drive her to the show. He didn’t drive but asked if Shawna could get a few more people into the show. He called me and asked if I could drive them. I was available and the rest is history. Shawna and I have been best friends since.

Q: Who were some of the other people who helped shape and develop what made that block of cement so special?

Rich: I think it was the fact that the shows were during the day and kids could spend the whole day there meeting other kids from out of town and just really getting to know each other. 9:30 shows were like “wham, bam, thank you ma’am.” You were in and out and it was late and you never really got to hang out. The bands were “pro”. The Safari Club was for bands who couldn’t get shows at 9:30. No contracts, no managers. It really was kids booking kids for kids.

NYC's Underdog at the Safari Club. Photo by Joe Wongananda

Q: One of the first things that come to mind when thinking about the Safari Club is the diversity of the bills. You booked bands that had a very broad sound and message. For every hardcore band there was a Lucy Brown or Junk Yard Band. How did that diversity foster itself and were there times when you quickly realized you had chosen or booked the wrong band for the kind of venue you were running? Meaning, I love hardcore music and I love go-go music, but they don’t necessarily go together.

Rich: Shawna and Pam booked crazy line ups. But I don’t think go go bands played any of the hardcore shows. Sammy had a cool story. He remembered packing up his drums while the go go bands were loading in. He stuck around to see what they were all about. But those shows were completely different.

Shawna: Pam and I had eclectic punk taste. She was from the Midwest, I was from the DC area. So we liked everything from the Chicago Wax Tracks bands to Dischord groups to New York hardcore and local little bands that no one had ever heard of. We liked to mix it up. Metal, punk, ska, it was all the same to us. Once we booked Murphy’s Law with Crucial Youth opening and we thought that was hilarious but I don’t think the crowd appreciated it the same way we did. Some people were confused but we saw the humor and I guess we were just entertaining ourselves. We weren’t professional promoters.

Q: What were some of the issues you faced?

Shawna: The club owner was constantly pushing us to make more money and thought he could push us around because we were 18 year old girls. Sometimes certain bands had a bad attitude, specifically The Dwarves. Eventually some bands wanted us to sign contracts. We weren’t comfortable with that. We were very lo-fi.

Q: Looking back, it seems as if every great music venue was located within somewhat of a warzone. Can you describe the Safari Clubs surroundings?

Rich: Safari was pretty close to the old 9:30 and DC Space. So not too out of the way for 80's punks. There was a liquor store across the street who would sell beer to 14 year old kids. There was a trans hooker bar down the street. The one time Dr. Know from the Bad Brains came out, his car got broken into. Ken Olden had a story about a homeless guy hitting him up for cash. Ken only had enough for the show and maybe a record or shirt. The homeless guy told him that if it was night time, he’d just rob him. So people were calmer during the day, I guess.

What's left of The Safari Club today
Q: Most of the independent venues that book shows inspired a sense of community that fostered a socio-political idealism that spread throughout and often beyond their community. “Food, not Bombs” immediately comes to mind. I could only imagine what that could entail in a political hotbed such as Washington DC. What, if anything was happening in and around the club during the decade or so of the Safari Club?

Rich: There were other outlets that got involved in that. St. Stephens Church was where Mark Anderson and Positive Force booked a lot of benefit shows. Also Ian MacKaye’s dad had a office there. I think he had something to do with the Washington Free Clinic, which was run out of there for a while. There was also the Beehive Collective that was more Riot Grrrl and political than Moshington DC’s Safari Club. LOL The Safari Club promoters weren’t particularly political. But the scene was into vegetarianism, feminism, anti-racism etc. Coincidentally, it was the location of the first ever PETA protest in 1980. Eight-nine years later it was a hub for vegetarian/straight edge kids. The club used to be a chicken processing plant that Ingrid wanted to expose.

Q: Many of the bands I was friends with or interviewed spoke highly of their visits and shows at Safari Club, giving it an almost legendary status. Was there anything special you offered to local and touring acts?

Rich: I think it was all about the scene. Kids from NY, NJ, Philly, Delaware, Richmond, VA Beach, etc would travel to Safari Club shows. There was always a positive vibe there.

Shawna: Several bands stayed at our house. We gave some of them tours of the city. We tried to pay everyone. And we paid the band who traveled the farthest the most. We tried to book local, unknown bands with bigger touring bands. We stayed friends with a lot of the bands we booked too.

Token Entry and friends onstage with Big Chuck The Bouncer at The Safari Club.
Photo by Joe Gongananda
Q: As someone who went to the majority of his hardcore matinees at CGBG’s, I got to know some of the bouncers. Can you tell us a little bit about “Big Chuck” and his presence at shows?

Shawna: When we first started booking bands there, the club had their own security team, which they wanted to pay out of the money from the door. Pam and I were not happy about that and did not think that we needed security and felt we could police our own scene. But Big Chuck was cool. He was a bouncer for many of the go go bands and he bounced big hip-hop shows at the Capital Center. So we kept him on board. After a while he started to understand hardcore dancing better and we developed a very friendly relationship with him.

Q: The club had a solid ten year run. I’m sure you booked/experienced some pretty mind blowing shows. What stands out for you all these years later?

Rich’s highlights:
1. First Shelter show ever. Ray came down with Judge and wanted play a couple Shelter songs before Judge went on. Most of us were too young to have ever seen YOT. So this was our first time seeing Ray in action.
2. Taylor from 4 Walls singing for Sick Of It All because Lou’s eye got cut up pretty bad.
3. Bad Trip’s trampoline.
4. Judge doing "NY Crew" impromptu and changing it to "DC Crew."
5. Getting the Gorilla Biscuits' "Live At The Safari Club 7-inch and hearing all of our friends singing along.

Shawna: It was exciting booking GB. Their first 7-inch had just come out and we had listened to it at nauseam! I also really loved Underdog and was excited seeing them in person. And Token Entry! I had seen in Baltimore a year before booking them. It was great seeing their energy at the Safari Club.

Q: It’s hard to think of anything worse than a fire. Can you describe what happened? The immediate and long term effects? Was there ever the thought or intention of moving forward and finding a new venue to book shows?

Rich: The club burned down in 1997. Me and Shawna moved to California a year earlier. So we’ve only heard second-hand what happened. Kurt Powers from Time Flies was so bummed because his band’s first show was the last booked show at the Safari Club. When the bands got to the club it was burned down and they had to move the show to the trans bar down the street. After that, kids started booking shows at the churches and VFW halls in the suburbs.

Q: How did the idea of the book “Live at the Safari Club” come about? Can you share the process with me and how you got everyone involved?

Rich: Shawna and Dave Brown were on the Dissonance PodCast hosted by Mike Paarlberg in 2011. Dave brought up making a documentary about the Safari Club but we knew there wasn’t enough good video footage. Then we stumbled onto Joe Wongananda's photos. We used his photos on friends’ 7-inch record covers for Release, Four Walls Falling, etc. We thought it be great to make a book. It took over six years to gather everything. We had two computers stolen at one point and had to start over. We pulled apart the interviews to try to tell the story from many points of views. It was great reconnecting with old friends and meeting people who were around but we never new.

New and used copies of Live At The Safari Club are available from online retailers.

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