Across the City Line, the Young'ns of Economist Make Rock That's a World Away From Baltimore's Indie Scene
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"We toured in a Ford Aerostar minivan, so there was five of us and all our equipment in there," says Nick Podgurski, drummer of the Baltimore-area quartet Economist, speaking of their two-day jaunt with fellow local band Flowers in the Attic. "We didn't even have a van, so this guy Nolan Throop drove us. He's driven us to a bunch of shows. He's going to drive us [when we tour] this summer, but we're going to do the smart thing and get a hitch and a trailer."
Economist is new to this whole rock thing. For starters, although its members have been in bands before, Economist represents their first serious musical venture. ("We're ex-members of screwing around in the basement," Podgurski says.) For another, all of the band's members are young, too young in fact to drink at the bars they sometimes play. Scruffy singer/guitarist Denny Bowen is 18, and Podgurski and guitarist Tom Ferrara are both 19. James Morton, the band's shy singer and bassist, is the band's oldest member, at 20.
They are also at a geographic remove from Baltimore's tight-knit indie/punk scene. All of them live in outlying suburbs--Bowen and Ferrara are from Perry Hall, Podgurski from Bel Air, and Morton from Westminster (all four will be students at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County next fall).
But none of this has kept them from circulating their sound in these parts, as two recent releases will attest. One is a split seven-inch, Microcosm and Macrocosm, which draws on a collaboration between Double Dagger, a band very much of Baltimore City (the microcosm), and the young quartet from outside the Beltway (the macrocosm). The release comes from the new Ellicott City-based indie label Hit-Dat Records, started by Sean Gray.
"There weren't many bands who [Gray] felt he could relate with in his area, so he found us and he found Double Dagger," Bowen says. "I never met someone who's so passionate about music."
At the same time comes Economist's self-titled debut EP (also on Hit-Dat), which the band recorded last July. The band planned to release the EP on the D.C.-based indie Phosphur Records, but financial problems caused delays, and the band responded readily when Gray offered to step in. Aside from the upcoming record-release show, about the only thing the band has on the horizon is the summer tour, when once again they'll all pile into a friend's minivan to hit the road. But in the meantime, Economist is cutting a figure for itself on both sides of the city line.
The band played its first show at a house in Arbutus in December 2001, and it has since honed and perfected its grungey post-hardcore, math-rock style without much input from Baltimore's scene. "For a while, we played a lot of shows but at weird places, so it was always the same people showing up," Podgurski says. "We were around for a while without anyone really hearing us. We try hard but in weird areas, so it's harder to get people to hear us."
Economist generally plays small, quasi-illegal DIY spaces. They played the larger Ottobar for the first time last April opening for the Burning Brides. "It was a bit strange," Bowen says. "We'd never really done a sound check before. It felt like being a guest in someone's house, playing there with the big stage and the lights."
"We're not used to the professional part of it," Ferrara says.
As a result of its origins outside the city, Economist sounds like no other local band. There is no irony or subtlety in their tight, tense, angular assault. The songs are complex and at times oblique, but the intricacies never overwhelm their forward drive or the visceral punch of the two-guitar clamor. At their best, as on the song "1986," the guys in Economist simply rock, riding irresistible guitar riffs heroically through simple, furious rhythms. Though its members are likely too young to realize it, the band sounds more like Surgery and other bands associated with the early-'90s scuzz-punk label Amphetamine Reptile than any of their contemporaries.
"We're a product of ourselves, not of any scene or anything," Bowen says. "None of us listen to the kind of music we play. Our influences range from Nirvana to Captain Beefheart . . . "
"To Portishead? Fridge?" Podgurski continues. "We're playing in a band to be in a band, not to be a part of some genre."
If Economist eschews genres and scenes, the thing that makes it stand out most in Baltimore is, paradoxically, its lack of a device. Many local indie bands make use of attention-grabbing hooks, like Oxes' reliance on wireless guitars and theatrical mayhem or Long Live Death's psychedelic folk occultism. Economist is simply a rock band: four guys standing onstage playing music, neither pandering to the audience nor attempting to alienate it.
"A lot of bands get popular because they have a gimmick--they lack members or have surplus members," Bowen says, referring to how the local postpunkers (and friends of Economist) in Double Dagger lack a guitar player and how the frenetic Washington dance-punk band Black Eyes has two drummers. "I guess it's hard to just be a rock band, and that's all we are."
"And that's what music should be," Podgurski says, after making sure to mention that he still likes those bands for what they are. "You shouldn't need a gimmick."
Economist plays a CD-release show/Hit-Dat Records showcase May 31 at the Talking Head with the Organ Donors, Double Dagger, Cutter/Hammer, and Tuohy.