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Wonk Rock: Why Do So Many of Washington DC’s Politicos Play in Bands?

Midnight nears on a Saturday at the Rock and Roll Hotel, a nightclub in northeast Washington, D.C.  The front row of the crowd is lined with attractive women. Clad in jeans and a flannel shirt, drummer Jim Arkedis bashes his drums onstage to a cover of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley.” Arkedis’s band The Electric 11s is headlining the show. Blue Pinto, the indie opening act, shares little of The 11s’ classic rock sound. What unites the bands are their members’ day jobs.

On Monday, Arkedis will return to his work as Director of the National Security Project at the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank. With his Congress-ready looks, graduate degree from the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies (European Campus), and experience in counterterrorism at the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, Arkedis seems an unlikely rock musician. But he is in fact emblematic of a new, uniquely Washington music subgenre: Wonk Rock.

D.C. has birthed popular music scenes in the past. Go-go, a style of funk, originated in the 1960s in the African-American sections of the city. Hardcore—sped-up punk rock—proliferated in 1980s northwest D.C. But unlike those genres, the Wonk Rock scene is notable not for its sounds but its sociology. “The majority of bands we’ve shared stages with have had the ‘typical’ Washington jobs,” says Ben DeAngelo, Blue Pinto’s drummer. DeAngelo is an analyst at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Virtually every government agency and department is represented in the scene. DeAngelo’s bandmate Bill Irving also works at the EPA. Jonathan Burke enforces sanctions against Iran at the Treasury Department when he is not enforcing Cult covers on guitar for The 11s. Even the Department of Navy’s Special Counsel, Taylor Ferrell, is a passionate singer-songwriter and has an alternative-country band called The Treads. And while the majority of those in the scene seem to lean left, music may be one of the few areas remaining in Washington where Democrats and Republicans still cooperate. Former White House spokesman Tony Snow was in a band called Beats Workin,’ and Josh Bolton, President George W. Bush’s Chief of Staff, rocks out with his group, The Compassionates.

Of course, it is not only government officials who moonlight as Wonk Rockers. Quintessential Washington occupations such as policy-oriented lawyers, think tankers, researchers and underpaid non-profit employees are in strong supply. Journalists in particular have begun to sound off. Tom Toles, the Pulitzer Prize winning political cartoonist, is a vocalist and drummer for Lethal Bark and drummer for a band called Suspicious Package (topical band names are de rigueur in the scene). Brian Wingfield, guitarist and vocalist for the Electric 11s, exemplifies the trend—he is a Bloomberg energy reporter.

So many ink-stained scribes have taken to rock, in fact, that March 9 will see the fourth annual Journopalooza. Started by Atlantic correspondent Christina Davidson, last year Journopalooza brought together 700 people. Reporters from Variety, U.S. News & World Report, the New York Times and other outlets raised $21,000 for journalism non-profit organizations. This year seven bands will raise money for D.C. literary programs. (Again, bipartisanship is the norm: Fox Business Network’s Rich Edson co-hosted last year’s event.) “It’s a good way for sponsors to advertise directly to D.C. media,” says Davidson, who hopes the “lucrative target audience” of Journopalooza will lure funders.

While Wonk Rockers are indeed influential, virtually none of them profit from their music. Toles, who describes Lethal Bark’s sound as as “rock n’ roll with no guitars,” says he would “without hesitation” put down the pencil immediately if he could make a living with his music. “Music is among the best things in life, even better than alcohol,” he says. But like virtually every other Wonk Rocker, Toles is not expecting any commercial success with his music. Making a living as a political cartoonist is difficult enough—scoring a side career as a lucrative musician is virtually impossible.

At first glance, it might seem strange that so many wonks have gravitated toward the local music scene. After all, the rock n’ roll lifestyle is synonymous with drug-taking, partying and rebelling. None of those activities occur at the Brookings Institution, at least on a regular basis. The only thing dangerous about the State Department has been its low funding levels. Musicians are also known for their sex appeal and attractiveness. Bureaucrats? Less so.

But in fact, there is a good explanation for the frequency of wonks picking up their guitars. The same attributes required for achieving success in political jobs—dedication, ambition, concentration—are useful in making music. Anyone who has ever tried to master an instrument understands the many hours of solitary practice necessary. Anyone who has written their GREs knows the same thing. Similarly, Washington does not lack for egos. Taking the stage to warble off-key requires a comparable lack of humility.

Lethal Bark’s keyboardist Lee Drutman illustrates the wonk-music connection. Drutman is an adjunct professor at several universities and a data fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit encouraging government transparency.  His approach to music began in a characteristically obsessive manner. “In high school I would get the sheet music for classic rock bands and study them,” he says. He had many binders containing the sheet music of the Doors, the Beatles, Paul Simon, etc. “I studied how the chords went together and melded.” It’s better to nerd out than to fade away. 

At this point, the Wonk Rock scene is only growing. Journopalooza may outlast the magazines, newspapers and websites that employ its journalist-musicians. Perhaps the only thing that could stop the upward trajectory of the burgeoning Wonk Rock scene is the demanding reality of Washington jobs. Says Blue Pinto’s Ben DeAngelo: “Our bass player is moving to Cambodia for a few years to work with Conservation International.”

Jordan Michael Smith is a Contributing Writer at Salon.