It’s Baltimore 2005. Two hundred college age kids pack a dimly lit space in Station North while three-piece band Blood Baby cycles through aggressive guitar and drum riffs. The band’s frontman, Adam Endres, wears his hair like Captain Lou Albano. Several kids crowd surf as Endres shouts subversive repetitive lyrics like “Stab my face!” and “Buzzy buzzy buzzy bee!”
This isn’t Sonar or the Ottobar. It’s someone’s home — a cavernous warehouse apartment whose six residents each pay rent of $180 a month. One of them, in taped-up glasses and a Fred Flintstone T-shirt, interrupts the band’s set to take the microphone:
“Whoever threw our toothbrushes in the toilet — eat your own filth.”
Amid ironic cheers and applause, he storms off, and Blood Baby improvise new lyrics to the next song: “Tooth brush, hate you!”
The guy in glasses is Dan Deacon. And in the summer of 2004, he and five of his friends moved from Westchester, New York, to this warehouse apartment. They call it Wham City.
How did a group of post-collegiate New York transplants end up hosting wild, 200-guest music shows in Baltimore? How did Dan Deacon, 30, go from there to touring the world as an electronic composer-performer, scoring a film for Francis Ford Coppola, and palling around with Val Kilmer? And finally, how did Baltimore become the site of a fervent cultural renaissance, named best music scene in America by Rolling Stone in 2008.
WHAM CITY: YEAR ZERO
Musicians and artists Dan Deacon, Dina Kelberman, Connor Kizer, Peter O’Connell, Adam Endres, and Abra Aducci were classmates at Purchase College, an artsy state school in Westchester County, New York. Most ambitious Purchase alums move to New York upon graduation but these six friends never considered it.
“We wanted to live in a city but couldn’t afford New York, and I didn’t like New York — I just didn’t like the vibe of it,” says Deacon. “And I didn’t want to live in a city that required such a huge amount of income just to survive.”
The six chose Baltimore, mostly for its location, size, and cheap rent.
“We came down here and we looked at an apartment in the Copy Cat… It was like they didn’t want us to rent there. The guy kept saying, ‘New York. Man, I wouldn’t move here from New York. Wouldn’t do it.’ Looking back on it, it was insane. I haven’t heard of an empty unit in that building since.”
Despite the discouragement, the friends moved into the building, but moving into a place rented out almost exclusively by college students means during the summer moving into an empty building. “I thought it was just a bunch of art studios and we were the only people living there,” Dan recalls.
“I think that initial isolation was really difficult, but it was insanely crucial to forming Wham City…we never would have become this tight-knit group. There were literally months none of us had cell phones. There was no landline and no internet. You ever see the movie Alive? It felt like Alive.”
The group’s first real introduction to the larger community was their musical revue of Walt Disney’s Beauty and the Beast staged at their apartment. To their surprise, they played to a packed house on opening night. It was an important moment for Wham City and Deacon. “I remembered why I moved to the city. I moved to Baltimore so I could have a place where I could have performances and workshop crazy ideas.
“I knew we’d never be able to do this in New York because we wouldn’t have had enough money to spend every single day rehearsing it, we wouldn’t have been able to find a venue that would be cheap enough for us to use, and people just wouldn’t take it seriously…[Beauty and the Beast] solidified Baltimore in my brain forever, like, ‘F[orget] New York. Baltimore for life!’ This is it.”
Wham City continued to draw large audiences with eccentric theatrics and eclectic musical line-ups. The apartment was a place where you could see buzz-worthy national acts play back to back with house bands like Santa Dads (a Hermetic ukulele and trumpet duo), The Boo-Boos (a twangy-pop cover band), or Butt Stomach (an improvisational drums and electronics project), among others. It quickly established a reputation among Baltimore show-goers.
Baltimore locals and MICA students began collaborating with the tenants of Wham City, and the name came to signify a collective more than a venue. Matt Papich and Devon Deimler (both MICA students at the time) began a curated events listing website called Wildfire Wildfire (later a record label). Warehouse venue Floristree began having larger shows on a regular basis and bands like Ponytail, Wzt Hearts, Ecstatic Sunshine, Beach House, and Celebration were all formed around this time. Nautical Almanac and Double Dagger were already active. Wye Oak would form in 2006. The scene was gaining momentum.
Touring bands who played at Wham City or another warehouse venue in town went home singing the city’s praises. Plus, Baltimore bands were notoriously evangelical on tour. Deacon, for one, toured constantly, and talked up his adoptive hometown at every stop, spreading the word about remarkably large shows in warehouses featuring the greatest bands you’ve never heard of. Eventually, people who hadn’t set foot in the town were talking about Wham City and the Baltimore warehouse scene. Notable acts Future Islands and Jana Hunter relocated here.
In 2007, Dan Deacon released a widely acclaimed album, Spiderman of the Rings. In 2008, Rolling Stone named Baltimore “best scene” in the nation. In 2009, Deacon followed up Spiderman with the dense, sprawling double-album Bromst, which appeared on many critics’ “Best of 2009” year-end lists.
The same year, Dan recorded several interviews with NPR. One of them caught the attention of Francis Ford Coppola. “Two months after the interview [Coppola] emailed me, and I thought it was an elaborate scam,” Deacon recalls. “You know, one of those ‘you have just inherited two hundred million dollars from a Nigerian prince‘ kind of deals.”
It turned out to be real.
“He invited me out to his place in Napa. We hung out for a few days…mostly he just wanted to talk about points that were brought up in the NPR interview: how the live experience exists only for a single point in time and space, and then it’s gone — how that’s powerful.”
The two artists had a connection and talked for hours about film and technology, the power of celebrity and more.
Coppola hired Dan to score his upcoming film Twixt, and the two hatched a plan to tour the movie as a live event, with Deacon performing the score and Coppola editing the scenes together on the fly.
On one of Deacon’s trips to Napa, he met Twixt‘s star Val Kilmer. The two hit it off. “He’s going to sing on my new record, and we have an idea for a short film we’re going to do together.” Last week Dan and the band Future Islands played a show at a DIY space in Los Angeles. Kilmer came and handed out slices of pizza to the audience “Andy Kaufman style,” Deacon says. Kilmer refers to their budding artistic partnership as a “one-thousand-year collaborative dynasty.”
Tim Kabara, committed Baltimore scene maker since the early nineties and de facto local music historian, places the phenomenon of Wham City and the Baltimore renaissance within a larger generational shift. “You had the grim Generation X aesthetic giving way to this new, more fun kind of a thing,” says Kabara. “It’s telling that the first thing Wham City did was Beauty and the Beast. That would have been such a wrong move for people my age and older. We would have said, ‘No, that’s Disney, that’s corporate, that’s bad.’
“Wham City injected humor into everything they did, and they had this take on post-modernism where everything was fair game,” Kabara continues. “It spoke to people of that generation. Friends my age might not get it. But because I was a teacher I was around youth and I guess I was a little more elastic.”
Kabara also connects the collapse of the record industry around the turn of the century and the emergence of greater camaraderie in the local scene: “When I was coming up in bands, the plan was always to get on a bill with a touring act. Then someone important might see you play and you would get signed. But it’s no longer about elbowing each other out of the way to get a deal.”
In the absence of record labels’ benedictions, cooperation goes from moral ideal to a matter of survival. Success depends on promoting one another’s shows, sharing equipment and other mutual favors. Like Facebook, it’s about making friends.
As Kabara puts it, “It was a we all of a sudden. ‘I am going on tour’ turned into ‘We are going on tour’ turned into ‘Baltimore is going on tour.’”
So why Baltimore? One thing that helped was a cultural scene that had been fomenting for decades, with under-the-radar venues fostering weird art and creative music for some time.
Lenient landlords helped too. Kabara remembers countless short-lived, house venues before Wham City. “They would be around for a while. Then…the landlord would figure it out, or the cops would be called too many times, and that would be it.”
Around the mid ’00s house venues began sticking around longer and getting away with more.
“The best landlord in the city has to be the guy who owns [Floristree’s building on the west side]”, says Deacon. “That building has been a cultural institution in the city for a long time. I think a senator or a governor went there, to Floristree. (Note: It was a senator. Last year BMA Director Doreen Bolger brought Sen. Barbara Mikulski to the live-in venue.) The building even got a grant once.”
Baltimore’s extra-large artist apartments have capacities that rival many legit spaces. The combination of these factors mean that a house venue can offer better pay than a licensed venue, since any money donated goes straight to the performers.
Being well-populated with college students didn’t hurt either. In Deacon’s assessment, “it’s a huge college town; youth culture is a major part of this city.”
Deacon further credits the city’s geographical location for its bands’ national success. “For a touring musician, it’s easy to go to New York and come back, to go to Philly, to go to DC, Richmond, North Carolina, Pittsburgh. Even a trip to Boston could be done in a weekend. The out of town bus system ends up being surprisingly good because Baltimore is on the route from Washington to New York.”
Beyond the practical advantages the city offers an up-and-coming artist, Deacon won’t discount Baltimore’s je ne sais quoi. “It’s very neighborhood-based. Because of that you can feel like you’re in a small town but still live in an urban environment. Plus, the landscape, the beautiful architecture, some of it still at its old glory and some of it dilapidated and falling apart—I think that definitely has an impact on your brain, living in a post-industrial landscape. And it’s definitely inspiring.”