Why Baltimore?

Jeremy Krinsley + Nate Dorr

Photos by Nate Dorr. [OCDJ performing at the Depot's bimonthly "Are We Not Men"?]

[OCDJ performing at the Depot's bimonthly “Are We Not Men”?]

“There is one common bond between all the bands,” says Michael Bouyoucas of Thank You, seeking to summarize the “unrelatable” range of sounds coming out of Baltimore. “At least most of them aren't trying to be famous. Or they're not cognizant that that's even possible.”

“Or desirable,” adds drummer Elke Wardlaw.

“I feel like if you try to do that in Baltimore, people are just going to laugh you off the stage,” Bouyoucas continues. “If you try to pull some really thought-out, self-conscious thing, people just won't respond to that. You can't get away with that here… You'll just be met with really bad indifference.”

[Thank You]

Baltimore is more than HBO's the Wire. It's more than crabs sold by the bushel on the roadside. It's more than the Wham City art collective. It's more than Baltimore Club, the local hip hop sound that takes over 92.3FM every Friday and Saturday at 9pm. It's more than art school bands from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), more than the long-running Red Room improv concert series. The “plucky and resourceful” (still Elke) Charm City is so many things, in fact, that despite exhaustive research, we didn't hear about half of it until we hit the streets, and will only have chance to cover a fraction of it here. So it comes with clear conscience that we present to you our strange, scattered vision of Baltimore's current landscape.

There's a tendency for out-of-town press to lump Baltimore's music under the umbrella of Wham City, a collective glowing in the wake of electro-scientist Dan Deacon's international success. Conceptual from the start, the collective now exists only as concept: after several moves between floors of the sprawling Copycat warehouse, the once-epic art and performance space was forced to stop holding shows in September 2006, and by April 2007 its motley cast of artists, musicians, and prophets left its hallowed halls forever. But, it lives on (see a recent group performance at a “Teen Night” at the Walters art Museum), much as it did in its earliest years, when it was simply a name on the tongues of the founding nucleus of Deacon, visual artist Dina Kelberman and vocalist Connor Kizer.

While at SUNY Purchase, they birthed “Wham City” as the worst name they could devise for a dorm-naming contest, papering the campus with fliers preemptively announcing it to be the winner (and could the persons responsible for that name please report to the student council to collect their reward?). In light of Wham City's effects on Baltimore in just a few years, their jocular attitude is also an incredibly punk/d.i.y. way to effect change. Their success can also be seen as a product of their chosen home, a city willing to accept their heretic visions as its own, and where the unlikelihood of financial success nurtures innovation for its own sake.

In this spirit, Wildfire Wildfire originally formed to throw parties, and has since blossomed into a record label and informal booking agency. It's run by Devon Deimler and Matt Papich (the latter of Ecstatic Sunshine). “We worked with booking agents for a while,” Devon said, “and it's just not the type of world that we are naturally thinking of, or want to. And we don't have to.” Instead, Matt sees what they do as a sort of collaborative “faking it” between audiences, Wildfire Wildfire and spots like Floristree. With everyone in on it, a small group of people can make real events work on a larger scale than would otherwise be possible. The idea of faking something until it's real may not be unique to Baltimore, but it definitely finds unique expression here. Take the Wildfire Wildfire-released Santa Dads, who Matt describes as “the weirdest band we've ever seen. Not in a spectacular way, but actually the opposite. In a way, and I mean this in a good way, they're sort of pathetic.”

[Connor, of Santa Dads]

As such, the Santa Dads might arguably be the most Baltimorian band out there. This is a project created when Dan Deacon added the name to a flier before informing Wham City's Connor Kizer and Josh Kelberman that they were a band and would be playing in a week. Somehow they accepted this, along with the natural tuning Connor's ukulele falls into when left alone for a while, and their signature costumes: Connor dons a tiger suit Dina sewed for a Halloween Hobbes and Josh wears a red dress found discarded on the street. By now, Connor and Josh's aspirations have grown increasingly megalomaniacal, hilarious and impressive. They're presently working out a series of 20-minute-plus compositions under the rubric of “Beasts”, and the pair are already planning an opera based on the I Ching as well as their own variant of They Might Be Giants ADD-explosion “Fingertips”. “Most of our practices involve us sitting around saying things and then fighting about it horribly,” they say.

[Santa Dads]

This inward-looking arises partly because there's no pressure to go out in Baltimore, something echoed again and again by people as disparate as the now nationally-successful Beach House and electronic innovator Cex. The Dads “have every version of Risk” (the board game), but that might only be because their friends are always around. As Connor noted, half his acquaintances work with him in the Charleston Theater, conveniently just across from the bi-monthly “Are We Not Men?” dance party at the Depot. When day-glo hip-hop chopper OCDJ played the party the next night, Conner was able to duck out of work for a few minutes to stick his head in.

OCDJ's Dan Gaeta was the only person we met who dared to venture that the emperor of Baltimore wore no clothes: “There's a major lacking of a critical dynamic. Nobody wants to tell somebody that they suck. It's been great as I've been encouraged to keep doing more and more things, but at the same time … a lot of people do bad things and no one tells them. It's kind of awkward. There's no precedent for constructive criticism.”

[WZT Hearts]

But as he himself noted, Gaeta benefits from the open field: if he masters his next major project (puppet ballet), he can hope to showcase it at a space like Floristree. Chatting with some of the residents of the Olympic-sized loft space spread over the sixth floor of a downtown Baltimore industrial building, it seems the venue/living space for eight maintains the same sort of reluctance to seek profits, and uses ticket prices solely to cover costs. Though there are many other art-spaces in the city, Floristree “can hold a few more people,” said, Jason Urick, resident and member of WZT Hearts (an improvisation drone outfit pronounced “Wet Hearts”). “We know how lucky we are and we try to spread it around.”

[The Lexie Mountain Boys]

The Lexie Mountain Boys were the first act that night. Like many other Baltimore acts, theirs could have originated on another planet. The members shy from dubbing themselves as performance art, but their costumed pantomimes and chaotic vocal arrangements come off like a disjointed, characterless Commedia dell'arte, or a lobotomized Greek tragedy. Cymbals and cream pies crashed through the air, old-jazz funeral dirges were moaned and operatic flourishes bubbled (babbled) out as freely during our conversation as during their set. Baltimore's scale is such that this (non-performance-art) group fluidly crosses the line between the high art world and the easy-going d.i.y. scene, having once been employed by the Baltimore Museum of Art to mount a human pyramid in the sculpture garden for an hour a day for the month of October 2006. Founder/nucleus Lexie Mountain (the group conceived to go with her name) stated: “Whatever we do, we're trying to take ourselves seriously in being as ridiculous as we can possibly be.”

“In comparison to other bigger cities, Baltimore has a really creative group of people, [who are] so excited about new people, and so excited about whatever anyone is doing,” says The Lexie Mountain Boys. Their debut album Sacred Vacation hits via Carpark in June.

[Floristree]

[Drinking at the Lithuanian Social Hall, a weekly occurrence.]

The Floristree show seemed to be the week's “big event” and representatives of almost all of the Baltimore scenes turned out, including one of the city's current success stories, the lush, dreamy Beach House. For Alex Scalley and Victoria Legrand, Baltimore's assets and drawbacks may be one and the same. “You're not making a lot of money, but you're not spending lots of money,” Victoria said. “Also there's not that much to do, so you end up doing a lot of things at your house.” “A lot of your energy gets put inward,” Alex elaborated, “because it's really easy to be bored. Basically a lot of the nights the only thing to do is get drunk. So you stay in, and work on your own things.” Victoria again: “Make crafts, or whatever, with your friends… it feels a lot like a town.”

[Beach House]

The Lexies called the city “open and welcoming,” and even with a recent increase in people who see the city as an art destination, no one seemed upset that the club might be expanding. Denny Bowen, drummer for post-hardcore MICA typographers Double Dagger admitted, “if I heard that [people were moving to Baltimore for music] three to four years ago, I would have been like, 'Why? That was a very poor decision.' But even in that case, I'd be very happy to have whoever moved here.”

[Double Dagger]

Double Dagger, along with Ponytail and Ecstatic Sunshine, were initially drawn to the city not by false idols, but for school. All three formed at MICA, and both Ponytail and Ecstatic Sunshine (as well as pre-WZT Hearts project Cutter/Hammer) came arbitrarily out of a single class called “Parapainting”, in which Professor Jeremy Sigler assigned students to form bands, and mandated an end-of-semester performance. The traces of these bands' education don't necessarily grace the stage, but Ponytail tumbled down a well of art school comparisons for its music, which spans heavy psychedelic guitar rock and ambient drone, buoyed most distinctively by Molly Siegel's dolphin-like vocals. Guitarist Ken Seeno: “I think we're the abstract expressionists of Baltimore.” Dustin Wong: “We're not fucking modern art, we're like comic books… Magnets, we're magnets on the refrigerator… we're like kids peeing in the sand.”

[Ponytail in guitarist Dustin Wong's living room, sans drummer Jeremy Hyman, who was touring with Dan Deacon at the time.]

[Ecstatic Sunshine at Floristree]

Ponytail might be one of the youngest acts to emerge from Baltimore, but it's important to keep in mind a deeper history. We ran into Nathan Bell, one survivor of the post-hardcore era of the 90s. For more than five years, Bell performed with Lungfish, perhaps Baltimore's most classic post-punk/hardcore act. “When I first came here and started playing with bands it was more along the lines of post-hardcore bands, and that's the background I came from and everything went 1-2-3-4 and loud and heavy. There was a lot of great bands in that day.” Now he is one half of Human Bell, a collaboration with Dave Heumann, another Baltimore vet from the band Arboretum (incidentally, European tour partners of Beach House). Their self-titled album for Thrill Jockey came out in January.

[A view from the Copy Cat, former site of Wham City and home to many young Baltimorians.]

That era is also well-remembered by the three members of Thank You, more locals freshly-signed to Thrill Jockey. In the 90s, the scene was smaller and classically all-ages/punk. Typical venues of the time were Memory Lane, a converted strip-club (polls intact) in an industrial park, and Laugh and Spit, a shaky row house in the shakier southwest reaches of Baltimore. “It always seemed so dangerous,” Elke said. “But it was awesome to feel like you really had to make a huge effort just to see shows.” “There was one night the Great Unraveling was playing,” Jeffrey McGrath recalled, “and there was a riot that burst down the street and into the Laugh and Spit… and there was a show two days later. That's just how it was.”

[The well-trafficked Normal's record store, where we found Nathan Bell talking to the store clerk.]

They didn't want us to make them look old, but their vantage point does offer a slightly broader view of Baltimore than simply its long-gestating music culture. “It's a crisis city,” McGrath told us. “Since the 1960s. People who have lived here for a long time, their psychology is part of that crisis psychology. It's not so bad, it's kind of great. But it does feel kinda lawless.” The trio pointed to the “big, stupid condos being built “in the face of abject poverty” (a situation addressed in Double Daggers' “Luxury Condos for the Poor”). They're not old, but they're certainly wise: it's not too much of a stretch to compare their churning brew of guitar silence and storm to the evolution of the city's sounds through the past decade.

Another longtime local spent years away from home only to return further entrenched in his city. Rjyan Kidwell, aka Cex, aka the longest sideburns in the room, was instrumental in the boom of experimental electronic music in America at the turn of the century, founding the seminal Tigerbeat 6 label with Kid 606 before turning to hip hop and rock motifs. One of his current focuses, a run of lo-fi cassette recordings and mixtapes through his semi-secret Must Finish imprint, lucidly captures his city's d.i.y. ethos.

[Rjyan Kidwell]

“It's one of the last places in America that seems to me really unique and magical, and since one of those places, New Orleans, got utterly decimated, and it wasn't really a big deal that that happened, I got worried that it might happen to this place too. I want to be here to enjoy a dirty, dark, magical place while it still exists, before the tides of climate change or developer greed wash away those little bits of magic,” says Kidwell.

“These are places where reality is pretty close to that other dimension.”

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