Wham City Doesn't Want To Take Over The World--But It Just Might Anyway
There is a mountain of snow
Up past the big glen
We have a castle enclosed
There is a fountain
Out of the fountain flows gold
Into a huge hand
That hand's a held by a bear
Who has a sick band
Of goats and cats and pigs and bats
With brooms and bats and wings and rats
And great big dogs like kings and queens
And everyone plays drums and sings
Of big sharks, sharp swords
Beast knees, bees lords
Sweet cakes, mace lakes
-- Dan Deacon, "Wham City"
"There," a frantic Dan Deacon says, hurriedly handing out lyric sheets before he's set to play. "You're part of the choir now." It's a Friday night in a greenhouse-like Ottobar on the first Friday in April, and hundreds of ropy teenage and twentysomething bodies in eye-harassing, rainbow-patterned graphic T-shirts and shiny ballet flats have already assumed the "dancing sardines" position of a sold-out show. Rjyan "Cex" Kidwell has just jammed out a set of almost pornographic hard-core techno on a prostrate laptop; the decidedly nonhandicapped Kidwell has been seated in a wheelchair throughout, and as his last beats ring out he leaps into the crowd, triumphantly surfing across the audience's outstretched hands as if the power of electronic music has cured him.
Deacon parks his table full of bright blue and red effects pedals and boxes in front of the stage. His pet plastic green Halloween skull flashes on and off, leering at the barely legal audience as Deacon begins violently twitching and vibrating. This signals that the show has started. You could maybe call Deacon's music--imagine Kraftwerk-esque electronic music at punk-rock tempos infused with the spirit of 1940s cartoon music and the frenzied novelty of '50s and '60s rock 'n' roll bubblegum--avant-garde. But the audience is going nuts like it's a VFW hall hardcore show or a 1992 rave, or both. Several times he asks everyone to take two steps back to preserve his equipment from being smashed in a moment of joyful abandon.
The climax of the set comes with "Wham City," from Deacon's new album Spiderman of the Rings (Carpark). The song was written as a "national anthem" for Wham City, the crew of Baltimore-by-way-of-New York artists who are Deacon's closest friends and collaborators. Deacon's friends and fans pile onstage, chanting the lyrics.
Far from a castle with a gold-spewing fountain, the real Wham City was a rented industrial loft space squatting somewhere between Mount Vernon and Charles Village. (Its members have requested we don't divulge the exact location in print.) In its first incarnation, it was often filled with garbage. Smashing plates in a sink with a baseball bat was a popular activity when bored. But especially after it moved one floor upstairs in the same building, it was a crucial local space for "music shows, variety shows, TV talk shows, video productions, theatrical productions, lecture series, potluck dinners, photo shoots, fashion shows, [and] dance parties" in the words of Wham City member Adam Endres. Wham City united many young people in the Baltimore art and music scenes who maybe didn't even know they needed uniting
In fact, the Wham City collective is but one spiky tip of a massive, tangled ball of creativity currently lurking just under Baltimore's liquor-licensed layer of legit bars and venues, galleries, and theaters. Bands are multiplying like sui generis bunnies in little warrenlike warehouses all over the city, and they're being formed by folks either too young to be squatting and making a racket five years ago, or not even living in the city, or both. These bands do intersect occasionally with the city's longstanding free improvisation/noise crews, but with their vestigial connections to punk rock and their continual reification/recycling of the pop-cultural junk they grew up on, they're not really experimentalists. They're making pop music that bends at various wonky, acute angles.
And though the music is the loudest and most obvious manifestation of all this energy, you can feel it in everything from local T-shirt designers to zine makers to video artists to sculptors to performance-art shenanigans yet to be named. More often than not, they're the same kids in the bands. Wham City has been, if not quite at the center of all this attention, certainly a central node.
Since you can hum along to some of it, the indie-music world outside Charm City is taking note of Baltimore's young underground. National media outlets have started to glom onto Wham City and its satellites as another installment of the Baltimania that's given us a hundred half-assed articles on club music and The Wire in the last 18 months. Just a week ago, Deacon was featured in the The New York Times, where he was hilariously described as a "sensitive electro-party rocker." Baltimore bands recently swarmed the annual South by Southwest music industry clusterfuck in Austin, Texas; Deacon played no less than five shows that weekend.
Locally, evidence of this explosion is increasingly easy to find on the records released by labels such as Wildfire Wildfire, Creative Capitalism, and recent Washington transplant Carpark (which is sucking up Baltimore bands at a quick clip); at exhibitions and performances at Current Gallery; at the biweekly Are We Not Men? dance party at the Depot; at the Talking Head club until its closure; at shows in the artist-riddled H&H Building; at house parties and one-off loft gatherings; at Baltimore institutions of "high" culture like the Walters Art Museum; and at Wham City itself, until recently. See, all this celebration comes at a strange time, because Wham City, as it was, is no more.
All illegal venues live on borrowed time; last September--after a string of shows plagued by assholes pulling fire alarms, smashing windows, and setting fires--Wham City was forced to stop holding shows following alleged complaints by the fire marshal to the building's management and threats of eviction from the building's owner. The collective rallied and is hunting for a new, potentially legit, space, but at the moment there's a feeling that the local arts community has lost something important just as its intensity is peaking.
Many of the kids at the Ottobar show are screaming in anticipation of headliner Girl Talk, but the rowdy reaction to Deacon's set by many who may have never set foot in Wham City is a sign that he's tentatively stepping out of the Baltimore underground and into the mainstream. On Deacon's album, the song "Wham City" fades out. It's as if in the real Wham City, atop the mountain of snow up past the big glen, the chant is going on forever and ever. At the Ottobar, Deacon cuts the music, and everyone cheers as if this plump, balding, bearded guy dressed in a pair of ludicrous plastic old lady's glasses and an oversized, yellowing Fred Flintstone T-shirt is Justin Timberlake.
"Wham City is what makes me feel like I don't have to be disappointed in my life."
-- Connor Kizer
It's the last gorgeous Sunday afternoon in April and various Whammonites are drinking beers in a sun-soaked, plant-strewn loft adjacent to what was, until seven months ago, the main room of Wham City. The collective initially formed around six friends, but its ranks have swelled to include anywhere from 16 to 24 people in Baltimore, and 11 of them are here today. It's two days before everyone has to be out of the building for good.
The future of Wham City as a fixed address remains up in the air. At an interview a few weeks prior, Deacon was excited enough by the prospect of a certain potential space to splurge on a $6.50 slice of strawberry shortcake at a Mount Vernon café. "I think it's been a $6.50 kind of day," he joked, but his enthusiasm was real. Today that enthusiasm has been downgraded to "some options" for potential future spaces, according to Adam Endres, a genial playwright sporting a hard-drinking biker's moustache and a goatee. Still, no one seems particularly bummed out as they relate the origins of Wham City, which began some 220 miles north of Baltimore in the small town of Purchase, N.Y., at the beginning of the decade.
Mostly now in their mid-20s, the members of Wham City came together at Purchase College, the arty wing of the State University of New York system, in the early part of the '00s. Most were there to study some form of art or music. The school attracted "a lot of kids who couldn't really afford to go to more expensive art schools but were interesting enough artists [to get into Purchase]," Jimmy Joe Roche says. Despite a serious demeanor and a haircut that crosses "black metal drummer" with "Saturday morning flea market vendor," Roche is the most soft-spoken and thoughtful member of Wham City, the group's resident theorist. "You had to have something going to be there. But at the same time, everyone's a little scrappy."
Among the 4,000 or so students, like-minded oddballs were bound to find each other sooner or later. For instance, Peter O'Connell, who plays guitar in the pleasingly violent and absurdist garage-punk band Blood Baby with Endres and Wham member Kevin O'Meara, met Deacon when, lacking a toilet, both needed to relieve their bladders and O'Connell found a disused cranberry juice jug. The two then "took turns pissing in it," O'Connell says to cackles from everyone. "Then we buried it in the woods, and every time we go back to Purchase it's still there, with these definite layers of sediment and colloidal life in it."
Bodily functions, proximity, and shared, if nascent, artistic outlooks formed friendships quickly. Deacon and cartoonist Dina Kelberman had already met; Connor Kizer, a friendly, lanky goof who now beatboxes and sings for Santa Dads, lived just above Deacon in a Purchase dorm. While the crew would only really begin its incestuous collaborations once in Baltimore, Endres says it was already "making a shitload of noise for no reason in the middle of the afternoon," in communal houses and dorms across the Purchase campus. Shows were booked at house parties where rooms would end up wrapped in plastic or shit got set on fire. A lifestyle of noise and mess as art and play was developing.
An image starts to form, listening to Wham City's members talk about the Purchase days, of a kind of Animal Punk House. "It does sound like we started a fraternity," Deacon acknowledges. "But it was more like Revenge of the Nerds." At the same time as the nascent collective was engaging in all sorts of faculty-baiting hijinks, the members were also smart enough to be part of the college's student government. This gave them leverage with the campus police, and also put them in charge of a massive amount of cash to be distributed, at their discretion, throughout the year for student-related activities. The money allowed them "this power to do awesome shit," Roche says, like starting a television studio. And if any of your troublemaking or art-making landed you in hot water, they could help you get out of it. It made them "corrupt politicians," Kelberman says.
"It was a very good introduction to bureaucracy and corruption," Deacon agrees.
"It was like Robin Hood," Kelberman says.
"It was like Robin Hood if Robin Hood booked Arab on Radar shows," Deacon adds.
While in school, "[Purchase] had built a new dorm, and they had a `name the dorm' contest," Deacon recalls. "The Outback" won, but Deacon rechristened it Wham City after the fact in a dorm-defacing prank that the group says ended in chaos and threats of expulsion for some members. "The Outback" may be dumb, but Deacon acknowledges that "[Wham City is] pretty much the dumbest name possible--I mean, it's better than, like, Fart Palace." The name lay dormant for several years, until well after the group had transplanted itself to Baltimore.
Purchase College sounds like a perfect environment for artistic mischief, but Kelberman says that, after becoming "sick of trying to figure out how to pay for our lives in New York" once school had ended, a group of Wham members--including Kelberman, Deacon, O'Connell, Kizer, Ben Furgal, Abra Aducci, and Robbie Rackleff--were lured to Baltimore in the spring of 2004 by the promises of a friend who painted the city as an art kids' paradise where, as Kelberman recalls, "everyone walks dogs for a living and there's all these warehouse spaces and it's so cheap."
The reality was less ideal. Stranded in a city where they knew almost no one, the Purchase kids developed a drunken bunker mentality, holed up in the space that would become Wham City with no phones, blowing what little money they had at the local liquor store, and destroying personal property when boredom threatened.
It felt as if they had made a major wrong turn. "I remember the first three months as just walking around and drinking," O'Connell says. "No one had any money for food, so it was just tons of cardio and alcohol." Then, as the summer was ending--with their money running out and the threat of real jobs and drying out looming--Maryland Institute College of Art classes started again, the building began to fill up with people, and the Wham kids slowly came out of their self-imposed exile.
"It was like the world cracked open," Charlotte Benedetto says. A brassy redhead who had already been living in Baltimore, Benedetto became one of the non-New Yorkers sucked into Wham City's orbit. She says the Purchase contingent's arrival shook up the stultifying "cool kids" mentality that had taken root at the parties and events happening in and around the building: "Dan opens the door and he's wearing this neon hat that says eat me and a shirt that has a flying shark. And he's like, `Hey, I'm Dan Deacon, you wanna come over and watch Waterworld, man?' Just piles of trash in every corner and they had cleared it out like, `Welcome, welcome!' Everybody woke up a little bit."
Things got a bit more sociable for the Wham City crew, but life remained sort of abject. "I remember getting calls [at Purchase] like, `My life is shit! I'm going insane!'" says Endres. Kizer was living in a half-converted bathroom with a bookshelf on the toilet. "It was my library," he says, somewhat proudly. "All of my books were in there."
"And some of the rooms had no windows," Benedetto says.
"My room had no windows!" Kizer laughs.
"Only Pete's room had a real door," Deacon says.
"Which I quickly destroyed," O'Connell adds.
The question--especially if you're reading this and have a mortgage, or even bathe regularly--is why anyone would want to live like this. And the answer is, basically, freedom. "Part of the reason for the way I live my life the way I do now is because of Fort Thunder," Deacon said at the earlier interview. Fort Thunder was a Providence, R.I., performance space and a kind of living gallery for a group of musicians (including Lightning Bolt), artists (including current Baltimore resident Brian Ralph), and combinations of the two between 1995 and 2001. The mythologizing of the Fort has now been going on for almost as long as it was around, and it's become an ideal for a generation that wants its living space to be an extension of its creative process, a generation that makes buildings themselves turn into ongoing, organic art projects. Or a generation that just doesn't feel like vacuuming that often.
Eventually, something had to give. Part of the reason for the move was to build a Fort Thunder-like environment for holding art and music events. Either the Purchase contingent was going to have to start building something in Baltimore or its squat lifestyle was going to be nothing more than a postcollegiate excuse to live like cave people.
"It wasn't until Adam [Endres] moved in, in November , that we started living a semblance of a human life," Deacon says. "I was on tour and I started getting these e-mails like, `We're doing Beauty and the Beast.' And I had no idea what that could even possibly mean."
"We're doing Beauty and the Beast" ended up meaning just that. When visiting a thrift store in Baltimore County, Endres had found a cassette of the soundtrack to Disney's 1991 animated adaptation of the fairy tale. Instead of booking a couple of noise bands to inaugurate the new space, the members decided to re-create the movie as a piece of live musical theater.
"I had a job at that point," Kizer says, "and I would get up at 6 in the morning, and then I would get home [eight hours later] and everyone would have just gotten up. And they'd be exercising, which entailed listening to an exercise mix and just running back and forth across the length of the apartment. And I'd, like, take a half-hour nap, and we'd rehearse Beauty and the Beast until 2 in the morning."
All the effort paid off; there's some must-see footage of the final result on Wham City's MySpace site (myspace.com/whamcity), featuring Deacon parading around as Lefou in a trucker's cap, his pale belly flopping out from under a crop top over a pair of tighty whiteys. The second performance in February 2005, shortly after the first, drew more than 150 people; folks actually had to be turned away.
Wham City's version of Beauty and the Beast cracked the code for the Purchase kids. Deacon's "space for shows" did quickly encompass music but it would never just be about bands. The idea, which continues to this day, is that you should never know quite what you're going to get at a Wham City show.
"I just think there's still a tremendous amount of room for integration between visual art and video and music and gallery shows," Roche says. "And there's so much that's been happening that we hope continues."
And perhaps even more important than providing a space to promote this mixed-media aesthetic, Wham City gave the members a safe haven to, well, dick around. Ideas could be quickly thought up and executed, eradicating the pressures of "professionalism" that come with putting on an event as a club, theater, or gallery. Or, as Wham member Ed Schrader says, "[Wham City] means I can wake up with a retarded new song in my head one morning, and be playing it two days later in front of 100 people."
"We all share anti-establishment tendencies, differing by degrees and exact purpose or definition. And, of course, we relish art and performance and watching each other act like ridiculous, insane assholes. Assholes you can look up to, assholes who accept their faults and humiliations as fuel for the expressions in our acts. Assholes who redefine asshole as `an awesome anal appendage.'"
-- Joshua Kelberman
"Excuse me," Mason Ross says. "Do I stink?" He does not. "Thank you," he replies with no discernable emotion. "I appreciate your honesty." Later, he asks for a penny. "I figure everyone can spare a penny," he says by way of apology. He wings it directly at the head of Ecstatic Sunshine/Death Set guitarist Matt Papich, who doesn't seem to notice. Ross asks for another, and again he flings it at Papich's noggin, who again doesn't notice. Ross weakly shrugs. What are you gonna do?
Ross may not smell, but the room has a certain Eau du Art School about it. It's slightly after midnight on a Saturday in April, and Wham City and a hundred or so of its closest pals have crammed into the center aisle of an empty theater in a closed Charles Theatre. Ray Roy, a filmmaker and Wham member who has since moved to New York City, was back in town to film a clip starring Robbie Rackleff as his Blue Leader character, a blue-suited superhero obsessed with video games and a fixture of Rackleff's Do the Math Comics site (dothemathcomics.com). Roy had been granted an upcoming guest editorship at YouTube where he'll be in charge of what makes it to the site's front page, and he wants to make sure his friends are well-represented on one of the most visited sites on the 'net.
He's already filmed a sequence with Rackleff spastically dancing to music by Wham City's Dan "OCDJ" Gaeta--imagine a club music DJ spinning video game MIDI files in a hoodie covered with tiny panda bears and wearing a half-deflated red walrus mask--and now Roy is shooting a "press conference" where Blue Leader explains his new superpowerful console system to the crowd, all of whom are wearing that same blue mask, each handmade by Dina Kelberman and Laurie Isabella. After only a few takes, the natives are getting restless. Folks aren't hitting their cues the way Roy wants them to, and his actors are hamming it up a bit more than is required of them.
But the shoot is eventually a success, a testament to the way that Wham City, despite all its principled jerking around, can get the job done when it needs to. It's also a testament to the way it makes hash of traditional art-makin' taxonomies. As a friend once observed at a Wham City theater night, we've all thought about undertaking the kind of absurdity-risking, medium-smashing activities Wham City busies itself with, but these kids actually do it. And "busy" is the right word. For Wham City, life is always a little better when you're working hard. Sure, there's always time to watch a dumb movie or two. (Quigley, a deeply inexplicable straight-to-video abortion starring Gary Busey as a reincarnated Pomeranian, is a particularly totemic item for Wham City.) But there's also always a new project to be completed.
The past six months alone have already seen a Wham City theater night, a cross-country tour, sundry live shows around town (and their attendant poster art), two episodes of in-house talk show The Ed Schrader Show, several records released by various WC-related bands, a gallery exhibition, a museum showcase, various videos, two issues of Catatac (a traditionally folded-and-stapled zine published by Kate Levitt, Mark Brown, and Kevin Sherry that's full of contributions from Wham members), and a bunch of stuff not yet ready for prime-time consumption. "I know of at least two board games that are being developed," Connor Kizer says. Sure, not all of it needs to be documented, but the irrepressible, overwhelming mass of stuff that Wham City churns out is always impressive.
And if Wham City is the best kind of anarchy--where everyone treats each other with respect and picks up after themselves--then Dan Deacon has become its informal minister of information, mostly because he tends to do the interviews. A friend apparently once called Deacon a "micromanager," and he uses the term several times to describe himself with the self-deprecating tone people use when they know a joke about themselves also happens to be true. Everyone pitches in at Wham City, but Deacon has, consciously or unconsciously, seemed to take on the role of wrangler or den mother.
He's also become the first member of Wham City to reach MP3-blog readers and tastemakers outside of Baltimore. It's still early, but Spiderman of the Rings has the potential to be a sleeper hit with the large slice of the indie-rock audience that doesn't go to "experimental" shows in firetrap lofts. Despite retaining the triple-shot techno tempos and frisky electronic noise, it's Deacon's most focused and pop-friendly record yet--listen and you will pogo. Plus the guy is always on tour, and all it takes is one look at Deacon--dressed like he was mauled by the discount rack at Goodwill and with a stage presence somewhere between a mad scientist and a grand mal seizure--to think his show is the greatest thing you've ever seen.
The rest of Wham City's bands occupy different points on a continuum that runs from "friendly" to "fucked up." Most are too odd to strike club bookers as surefire moneymakers; at the same time, they're perhaps not quite odd enough to play out-and-out avant spaces like the Red Room. The sound is more like punk rock given a 21st-century overhaul (Blood Baby and Video Hippos) or cuddly noise (Butt Stomach) or slapstick comedy (the Ram Ones) or dance/hip-hop with a cartoon moustache (OCDJ) or folk music from Neptune (the Santa Dads) or regular ol' folk music (Lizz King, the Boo Boos) or some combination of the above. Satellite bands composed of local friends and aesthetic contemporaries, like Ponytail, Death Set, Ecstatic Sunshine, and others, seem almost as important to the overall aesthetic: a version of "art rock" that grins and bounces more than it furrows its brow. They've also been important in inadvertently disseminating the Wham virus outside of Baltimore.
But in the spirit that Beauty and the Beast kicked off, when a Wham City member steps onstage, you've got an at best 50/50 chance of the end result being music. Wham City's semiregular theater nights have developed to incorporate one-act plays, dance sequences, lectures and rants and conspiracy theories, stand-up comedy, and inscrutable non sequitur sketches. And since few of the members have TVs, let alone cable, Wham City also has its own live talk show, later rebroadcast on the internet. Its host, Ed Schrader, carries himself with the twitchy nervousness pioneered by David Letterman and Conan O'Brien and then taken to the nth degree, battering and buttering up local guests at places like the Depot and Current Gallery, as well as ceding the stage so that musicians can play and actors and artists can present new work.
Schrader's brand of earnest daftness infuses much of what Wham City does. Deacon's "band" with Kizer, the Ram Ones, is really a series of absurdist sketches where Deacon plays a drooling "police commissioner" and Kizer his hapless, abused assistant. Mason Ross performed at the last Ed Schrader Show in his guise as a baby-faced stand-up comedian who assumes the hollowed-out look of someone who's just walked away from a head-on collision. Endres' plays explore a similar vibe of poker-faced nonsense. "A New Play" begins as a spoof of a fairy tale journey, turns into an existential back and forth that culminates in a surprisingly adept sword fight, and ends with at least one character dead and the rest eating a freshly delivered pizza.
Wham City's 2-D art is equally zonked. Dina Kelberman's poignant, microscopic cartoons, collected under the gently self-deflating banner of Important Comics, are full of little bears complaining about their looks, fatalistic walking circles, and cranky talking squares, their plain geometric cuteness finding its way into her uniform-derived fashion design work as well. Kelberman's work shares little on the surface with, say, Jimmy Joe Roche's queasy day-glo overlays of vagina-esque/Alien face-hugger/Rorschach-like symmetrical patterns. Roche's 2007 exhibition at Current Gallery with Ben Furgal, Glittering Ruin, featured arrestingly rough collages that looked like children's posterboard school projects gone apocalyptic, and videos such as "How to Make a Toothbeef Sandwich" throb with uncomfortably sweaty closeups, purloined pop-song soundtracks, and epilepsy-inducing gross-out humor.
And then there's what might be Wham City's most epic creation, the work that presses all of these buttons and more. Ultimate Reality, co-created by Deacon and Roche, is quite simple to describe: Deacon plays live electronics as drummers Jeremy Hyman and Kevin O'Meara pound along, all set to Roche's manipulated video footage from old Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. But that description doesn't approach how ecstatic and ridiculous the piece becomes at deafening volume and 40 feet high across a screen at the Walters Art Museum during a Friday night event in February. (It's also been performed at locations like New York's Anthology Film Archives and with noisy luminaries such as Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore in attendance.) The music--'60s composer Terry Riley's whirling keyboard dervishes meet the overwhelming multilimbed percussion of latter-day Boredoms--builds to squalling tribal peaks as Arnold's heaving bosoms and glistening biceps cleave and stretch like funhouse mirrors, all of it tinted in the rancid colors of spoiled fruit.
"The melting pot of referential visual materials--all the fliers, the videos we're making, board games, comic books--it's a melting pot of these mythologies that are coming out of what might be called `low cultures,'" Roche says. "And I think that's super important. I think it's something we all share. It goes back to Beauty and the Beast--all of the things we've been talking about feed into that. Instead of it being purely ironic or purely a joke, those mythologies are being seamlessly integrated into more spiritual [art]."
While it's important to try to get across the batshit breadth of Wham City's activities, each member is involved in so many simultaneous endeavors that you could fill up several pages just listing them. "That's the beauty of living in a collective," says Benedetto, who counts photography, fabric art, and painting among her disciplines. "If I need some typography, I'm going to go to Dina. And if Jimmy needs a wizard's robe, he's going to come to me. And if Dan and Adam are building a ghost in the big room, Kevin's going to come in and tell them that it looks like shit. We're constantly pollinating one another. I wouldn't even be able to say, `Oh, Pete's just in a band.' That's just not . . . right. He's much, much more than that."
"Yeah," Kizer says. "He has a van."
"And he works at [Holy] Frijoles," Deacon says.
"Wham City to me at its best is friendship and spiritual fulfillment."
-- Jimmy Joe Roche
After Beauty and the Beast, Wham City's newly launched performance schedule started to attract folks from outside its circle of friends. It also started attracting a lot of drunks. "At 2:15 [a.m.] there would just be a wave of people who were already drunk wondering, `Well, where do we go now?'" Endres says. "If you don't charge for shows, everyone just comes as an excuse to get drunk and trash your house."
"We were always aware of keeping the rest of the building clean, sweeping the stairs and the lobby," Deacon says. "I mean, I never grew up in big cities, I had no idea that it could be bad for too many people to come to a show. I think that's what gave Wham City a reputation as a dingy hellhole."
Wham City ditched the reputation as a dingy hellhole when it moved up one floor and became what some of the members refer to as "Wham City 2.0." Shows became a reasonable $5--fliers always included the simple request "no jerks"--and they ended at a reasonable time, namely before the sloshed hordes came crawling out of the woodwork after last call.
A chicken-and-egg scenario began to develop. "Simultaneously with our shows getting larger and larger, there were many new Baltimore bands that started to play out," Deacon says. "Ponytail became a band, Ecstatic Sunshine became a band, and those are two major, major factors in the Baltimore scene. Are We Not Men? [starting], that was very important."
All this activity reached one early peak in the summer of 2006 with Whartscape, Wham City's alternative to Artscape, bringing together all of the Wham City bands, associated locals, and a few out of town ringers such as Japanther, Matt and Kim, and Aa. By that point, Wham City had pretty much succeeded in revitalizing its immediate neighborhood as a hub for the arts. Perhaps too much so, a cynic might argue. Wham City's success inspired others in the area to throw their own shows, with less attention to professionalism.
"The reason the fire marshal got involved [with shutting down Wham City] was because of a show in another space [in the building] the week before," Deacon says. "Other people in the building wouldn't watch the downstairs door, they'd just prop it open. Shows would rage on all night."
"And we got the blowback from that," Benedetto says, "and because of that a very important, I think, arts community was kind of fucked."
Yet a recent show at the H&H Building featuring Deacon, Death Set, and Ponytail was more jammed than ever, packed to the point of taking elbows in the ribs and beers being smashed underfoot by rabid new faces and curious bystanders. Whenever anything threatens to become the next Hot New Thing--"My mom keeps calling me every time Baltimore's on NPR," Kizer says--the question of whether there's a saturation point comes up. When asked if they think there's a potential for things to get too big in Baltimore, everyone very visibly rolls their eyes and groans. "That would suck if it got so cool it got boring," Benedetto says with no little sarcasm.
"I think thinking about it in those terms already sets it up as a negative," Deacon says. "You should want more people to come, and be prepared for it to get bigger. And while you get bigger you do stuff at the same small, weird level."
It risks corniness to hammer at the "best friends forever" aspect of how Wham City works, but that all-embracing quality is a big part of the crew's appeal. Underground venues come with an unavoidable aspect of cliquishness and obfuscation, but Wham City would rather welcome you in than enforce some snobbish hipster door policy. The crew also knows that there's a whole network of similar kids in similar spaces out there in the great big world and it's better to venture out to meet them than hide at home. Last October, members of Wham City and affiliated bands piled into vans for a massive group tour where everyone got that much chummier. It was a trip that Dina Kelberman describes as "a trust exercise" and that many of the others call the best experience of their lives. "The scene feels a lot more unified now," Deacon says of the post-tour atmosphere in town. "This is the first place I've ever lived that I've been homesick for," Connor Kizer says. All roads lead back to Wham City, even if Wham City doesn't quite exist anymore.
And the road is where many Wham City members spend their time these days. Deacon is, of course, on tour right now as you read this; Video Hippos leave for tour in late May. The whole crew embarked on its third jaunt into the heart of the Midwest and the West Coast and other scary non-Baltimore places this past winter. At home, new albums from Deacon and Santa Dads will be followed over the next year by releases from Video Hippos, OCDJ, and Lizz King; all are to be released via Wildfire Wildfire, a local group of friends turned booking agents who recently launched a record label of the same name. Benedetto is currently preparing for an upcoming group show, Hacking Utopia(s), at the Current. (In a little bit of branding irony, it's billed as "Wham City [Charlotte Benedetto]," despite the fact that she's the only member taking part.) The second issue of Catatac just came out. If anything, Wham City's output has quickened since the venue itself was shut down.
"If we didn't get kicked out, we'd have been [at the original Wham City] forever, doing the same stuff," Deacon says. "It would have been like fourth grade forever. And it'd be nice to see what fifth grade is like."
And the crew would like to hold its fifth-grade classes in a new Wham City. Over his strawberry shortcake, Deacon had excitedly blabbed all the details he knew about one potential space he and his friends had looked at just that day. The group has since disavowed any knowledge of said location, but it's an exciting vision whether it comes to pass or not. There's been a void for legit places for these bands, and the dozens of others like them, to play since the closing of the Talking Head in late 2006; it needs filling and it would certainly be interesting if it was Wham City that filled it. "But if we [go legitimate], we need to make sure that we maintain the underground aspect," Deacon says. "How we started."
And that's the essential dichotomy of Wham City right there. Everyone is invited, but first you've got to climb the mountain of snow to find the castle and the fountain. Once there, you're totally encouraged to pick up whatever's around and join the sick band of goats and cats and pigs and bats with brooms and bats and wings and rats and great big dogs like kings and queens and everyone plays drums and sings of big sharks, sharp swords, beast knees, bees lords, sweet cakes, mace lakes, oh mamamamamamama...
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