Our World Electric
Down with Gender brings its robot dance party to Baltimore
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This past summer, the members of Down With Gender manned their keyboards along the front edge of a big, lit-up, open-faced barn out in Baltimore County. Sam Hanson, the lead vocalist, was stripped down to tighty-whiteys, singing and dancing his way right off the stage and into a jubilant pit of crusty punks. Nathan Grover, the bass synth player, a skinny guy with a wild ’80s frizz of yolk-blond hair, danced behind the keys whenever nothing was required of his hands.
Lead synth player William Wooten-Janney featured a more serious demeanor than either the crowd or the rest of the band. While everyone around him was going nuts, he stood perfectly immobile. “[He’s] heavily influenced by Kraftwerk,” Hanson says of Wooten-Janney’s “sterile” stance.
During a particularly rocking guitar solo in the arena-sized anthem “Finish the Task,” there was no guitarist to be seen. Hanson playfully apologizes, “Our guitarist is on vacation.” Recordings of Kenny Wright’s brassy hard-rock hooks rip from an iPod that’s also the band’s full-time drummer. “We can function anywhere from a one- to five-piece band,” Hanson says. (DWG has another occasional guitarist/bassist, Zach Poyatt.)
“We definitely wouldn’t have written some of our heavier songs without a guitar,” Wright says. “Before I joined last December, the songs were a lot more similar to Kraftwerk.”
And 12 months later, things are very different from their origins as a bunch of suburban Kraftwerk-worshipping pals. Following a string of Baltimore shows, DWG recently played University of Maryland’s Third Rail Radio show Dec. 4, bringing its robot dance party to the airwaves for the first time. And its most recent CD, this year’s self-released There’s No Sex Like No Sex, was recently picked up by local label MT6 Records, which plans to rerelease it with new packaging in January.
Gathered after a show, Wooten-Janney recounts the band’s 2003 genesis in an odd, excited, but slightly monotone voice—as if the initial prankster’s thrill that formed the band was still fresh. The band “started as an AP psychology project designed to break social norms,” he says of their high-school days in the northern Montgomery County town of Damascus. “We started a band with a large piece of plastic and two melodicas, and we wrote down with gender on the piece of plastic.”
Hanson says that DWG’s songs fall into one of two categories lyrically: songs about robots and songs about gender. The song “Lonely Girl” spins a poppy little love ballad out of sweet curls and swirls of synthesizer note-bends. The lyrics follow a lonely girl in the 21st century in love with her pet robot and with no time for a man. “It’s our ideology that all the problems of the world would cease to exist without gender,” Wooten-Janney says.
“We eventually came up with playing music at a local strip mall for money,” Hanson says. “We had no talent, no songs, and no idea what we were going to play.”
Since then, DWG has self-released five CDs, each documenting another step in its development. The songs on February 2004’s Bull Feathers—the group’s first CD—are simple and repetitive, displaying the earmarks of straight electronica. The new band had eagerly adopted synthesizers as the easiest means of emulating aforementioned hero Kraftwerk. But “with each new album, we transitioned from a joke band to a fun serious band,” Hanson says. “We realized that we could easily be a real band, and that being electronic shouldn’t stop us from playing live and having fun.”
Hanson started listening to “more pop-oriented” electronic music, and DWG added guitar to its arsenal. “Songs became more pop-structured,” he says. “We learned a lot about music as we went on. We started to rely more on hardware than software.” This year’s There’s No Sex Like No Sex greatly succeeds at capturing the energy of DWG’s current live sound.
This summer, after Grover returned from college, the full band played at its synced-up best, with guitars howling and Hanson wigging out above synth waves that loosen joints. The beat of “Our World Electric” hops along like a basketball, while an overbearing synth taps out a bright riff so pleasurably annoying that even stiffs must dance. The fade-out of echoing laughter and sparse guitar gives the song a futuristic surf-punk vibe.
Above all, it’s live that DWG revs its machines into full punky orbit. This past summer, it played its first Baltimore gig, a Mount Royal Avenue house show. “Everyone gave us such a great response,” Hanson says. “It made me fall in love with playing live.
“Before we started playing in Baltimore, the most dancing anyone would do at a live set was a terrible robot dance to make someone laugh,” he continues. “And then they’d stop and be embarrassed.”
Dancing is clearly DWG’s third priority after robots and gender. On “Robots Bring the Dance,” Hanson yowls, “Robots bring the dance/ They move their joints so smoothly/ Robots bring the dance/ To the beat of a robot stereo.”
“When we can see that the audience is really into it, [our playing] gets tighter, the solos crazier, and my dancing goes out of control,” Hanson says. “[It’s how] Down With Gender shows should be.”