Baltimore composer Drew Swinburne is a pretty reserved human being (look at that stare!) who makes pretty outgoing music — danceable 8-bit teen anthems (albeit with some college-level economics thrown in), extended party-type remixes and mashups, that kind of thing. And his 20-minute quadrophonic vocal chant “Canticle of Spring” epitomizes this everybody-get-together-and-feel-something musical impulse. “Canticle” debuted at the Bell Foundry in Station North as a communal celebration of the spring equinox in 2011. The vocal parts were performed in Zasaa, a language invented by musician and “spiritual transhumanist” Connor Kizer, and it was a one-night-only affair: no recordings were made. If you missed it, you had to wait another year.
Tag: wham city
Baltimore, as we all know, is brimming with talent. Our beloved Ravens are enroute to New Orleans to claim their title as Superbowl champions in two weeks. We’ve produced legends such as Dan Deacon, John Waters, and Michael Phelps, to name just a few. Our creative scene is bursting at the seams, and there are endless opportunities to absorb the wonders produced by our artists.
WORMS is precisely one of those opportunities. Area writers come out for a night of readings on a predetermined Tuesday of the month, September through May. This month will highlight work by Timmy Reed, Dave Beaudouin, Kate Greenstreet, and Lesser Gonzalez Alvarez. Hosted by Wham City‘s (and the Baltimore Fishbowl’s!) very own RM O’Brien, the night should be full of fresh and promising work, and some of that great talent we know resides within our rowhomes.
Last night, Baltimore’s Dan Deacon put the finishing touches on an album’s worth of mashups — tracks made from blending several songs together — and threw it on SoundCloud for free. It’s called Wish Book Vol 1, and Deacon says it was pieced together during long treks on his veggie-powered school bus, on which he’s been touring in support of America.
Since Baltimore’s own Dan Deacon and Keith Lea released an app that turns an audience’s smartphones into a kind of crowd-sourced light show, confirmations of the app’s technological novelty (it requires neither wireless nor cell service to sync all the phones in a venue) and stunning visual effect have been slowly accumulating.
Baltimore’s own Dan Deacon is featured in a 600-word interview this month in Rolling Stone promoting his new album. In it, he names the musical and real-life influences of the record (David Bowie’s Low and American geography, respectively), and he name-drops Prettyboy Reservoir. The Rolling Stone piece is just one of an uncountable number of interviews, both international and domestic, that the Baltimore musician is giving in anticipation of the August 28 release of America.
The Contemporary Museum has been an art institution in Baltimore for the past 21 years. After a twelve-year stretch in the Home Mutual Life building, the Contemporary returned to its location-hopping roots with temporary shows at various buildings around the city.
For reasons still not entirely clear, Contemporary’s board of trustees voted unanimously to suspend operations, a move that entails cancelling the last week of Baltimore Liste, a month long program of an ever-shifting art exhibit and an opening every Friday with performances.
As it happens, I was a part of what ended up being the last Liste perfomance on May 18 as part of the Wham City Comedy Tour. We were certainly pretty rag-tag — we had virtually no props or sets, we didn’t even have projections as we originally intended — but I didn’t think it was bad enough to bring down a decades-old museum.
Just want to say thanks to Sue Spaid and the Contemporary Museum in general for letting all of us — including a thirty-something man in a giant egg costume deliver off-color one-liners — perform at one of the city’s many historic, vacant buildings (namely, the bank at 1 E. Baltimore St.) And thanks for the monochromatic snack spread.
Ed Schrader’s Music Beat, a two-piece band of bass, a single drum, and equal parts tuneful singing and Aflac-Duck-style screaming, are fresh off a six-week tour as the support act for local rising stars Future Islands and are awaiting the release of their debut full-length album, Jazz Mind, on underground, avant-loud standard-bearers Load Records domestically and Upset the Rhythm in the UK.
Ed Schrader, who bangs the drum and sings, cites a coerced a cappella rendition of Montel Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It” at a local rock show during his high school years in Utica, New York, as the moment he began his career as a performer. “The school bully was there, and he’d heard me sing the song in gym class,” Ed recalls. “He was like, ‘Get up there and sing it, or I’ll beat you up.’ Before that I hadn’t done any music or any performance or anything.” That night Ed was asked to join a Smashing Pumpkins tribute band, which he did. “But,” he adds, “they didn’t like me because I danced too much.”
To talk about the genesis of ESMB we have to start with Ed’s one-man, audio sitcom, “A Family Affair.” Let it be known that a great idea can strike anywhere.
In 2004, Ed was between semesters at SUNY Brockport and had recently decided to abandon an allegorical detective novel he had been piecing together during trips to Tim Hortons. In need of a new creative project, Ed bought a cheap audio recorder and began recording short episodes of a sitcom/soap opera based on the family problems of a hometown friend, Andy. “I would have a conversation with Andy that I was just using for new material, you know,” Ed says. “And then I would dramatize that conversation right afterward and add things — like David Bowie showing up.”
An uncomfortable living situation had Ed taking frequent and long walks around Brockport ad libbing episodes of “A Family Affair.” He eventually sought to expand the format of the show — to make it “more like an opera” — and episodes began to include songs sung from the point of view of the characters. This was the beginning of the body of work that was to become Ed Schrader’s Music Beat, and several current live staples made their debut on “A Family Affair,” including “I Think I’m A Ghost” and “Night Vision.” (I can’t imagine the teenagers and 20-somethings who sing along to these catchy songs would ever guess that they are about a mother’s struggle to come to terms with her new life as an empty-nester.)
Soon, Ed was recording songs independent of his sitcom. He remembers, “I would walk around, press record, and just let whatever crazy thing come out of my head. That’s how ‘Gas Station Attendant’ was written, just walking by a gas station and going, ‘Uhhhhh, gas station attendant!'” Guess where he was when he wrote his song about checking email.
So by the time Ed had moved to Baltimore in 2006 he had already amassed a huge catalogue of short, weird songs, but hadn’t yet considered playing them out. In fact, that idea didn’t occur until he was on tour with percussion-heavy instrumental jam group Teeth Mountain. The original plan was for Ed to open with a long improv comedy routine, but crowd reaction got worse and worse, until eventually it was just “this awkward thing every night.” When the group hit Iowa, Ed stole a drum from Teeth Mountain, and his comedy set was edged out by drum and voice renditions of his songs. Ed was able to learn how to play drums with practice and help. “By the time I got back home I had a full set I could play. I was like a musician,” Ed says.
2009 saw the release of Ed’s first solo 10-inch record, The Choir Inside, on the Wham City label. “That whole album was pretty raw,” Ed says. “The vocals I would record in the alley. Every night, when I first moved to Baltimore, I would go to the Dunkin’ Donuts near the CopyCat [in Station North], and on the trip there and from I would record a vocal track. And for some of the percussion I used a Starbucks cup, put a little reverb on it. I’ve always wanted people to be like, ‘Where’d you get that sound?’ But they’re not. They’re like, ‘You should have used a real drum.'”
Devlin Rice joined Ed on bass a year and a half ago, taking what was at best a compelling performance art project and making it something you could move to, something almost pop. “I want to be a pop musician; that’s always what I’ve wanted to do,” Ed says. “Most of the time [my solo performances] would go really great because people respond to, like, a drum and somebody yelling, but it didn’t have the focus and the structure that it has now. If I was solo it would be like Michael Stipe by himself, off in outer space. [Devlin] is like the rest of R.E.M.”
He’s not kidding about the R.E.M. comparison (they’re one of his favorite bands, alongside David Bowie and the Police), and he’s serious about wanting to reach the widest possible audience, too. It’s this potent mix of eccentricity and ambition that has gotten Ed so much attention in such a short time.
Last week, Ed Schrader’s Music Beat played to a sold out Ottobar, opening for Future Islands. The crowd reaction was priceless. Some were well aware of Ed’s music, others were new to it, but unfazed, and yet others, recently won over by Future Islands’ latest well promoted record of angsty, slowburning synthpop, On the Water, looked to each other for answers, confused as to whether these two well groomed guys vacillating between explosive screamfests and spare, melodious ballads were to be taken seriously. “Is this guy real?” I heard from behind me.
On stage, Ed didn’t seem to notice. He was too busy making jokey patter and walking like a chicken in slow circles around his drum, hamming it up for a hung jury. And that’s ESMB’s key ingredient: Ed’s bullet-proof self confidence. He doesn’t stumble over a crowd’s initial hesitation, and even as he’s given his music more structure, he’s never been tempted to compromise his vision. For Ed, it’s not about making concessions to the opposition; it’s about staying on message. And that message hasn’t changed since he began performing. Really. He’ll even occasionally still break into “This Is How We Do It.”
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.”