Dope Body carries on Baltimore’s out-there rock tradition
By Chris Richards,
David Jacober, drummer of Baltimore band Dope Body, was at a deli in Cincinnati, melty roast beef sandwich in one hand, iPhone in the other.
“For us to make this kind of music is very [chew-chew-chew] amusing,” he said. Then he passed the phone around the table and let his bandmates describe their sound:
“Obnoxiously over the top.”
“Some serious butt-rock,” they said.
Also: self-aware! The quartet was out on tour in advance of the release of “Natural History,” its bruising new album, which arrives Tuesday. On it, Dope Body exhumes the corpse of macho ’90s alt-rock — imagine the Rollins Band, the Jesus Lizard or Rage Against the Machine with a sense of humor — by churning out funky, rowdy rock songs, deep fried in testosterone and delivered with a smirk.
“We’ll play a riff and, and it almost sounds like a joke,” said guitarist Zachary “Zeke” Utz of the band’s songwriting. “Whether it’s absurdly distorted, or absurdly groovy, we just go with it. It feels good.”
This tour, however, hasn’t felt so good. Attendance has been slim, and few burgs have embraced Dope Body’s bravado with the same zeal as its native Baltimore, a city that serves as America’s petri dish for out-there rock-n-roll. It’s a place where the Maryland Institute College of Art grads are teeming (potential fans) and the rents are cheap (potential practice space). Hume, the Washington post-punk troupe that toured with Dope Body last year, recently relocated to Charm City for exactly those reasons.
Utz said the Baltimore scene has been a “huge influence” on the group, whose members are all in their mid-20s. “For any weird thing you want present, there’ll be somebody there to support it,” Utz said. “That embryonic stage of your band — you can keep riding that energy until you reach something a little more realized.”
Long before that, he and Jacober linked up at Baltimore’s Mount Saint Joseph High School, where they got their start playing in bands that sounded like the Strokes. By 2008, they had finished college and were sharing a loft with soon-to-be Dope Body frontman Andrew Laumann at the Copy Cat Building, the industrial-low-rise-turned-weirdo-rock-temple that has housed countless rehearsal spaces, artist studios, galleries and performances over the years.
The roomies formed Dope Body for a one-off gig before Laumann shipped off to San Francisco to join a photography collective called Hamburger Eyes. A few months later, he was back in Baltimore after realizing that being the lead singer of Dope Body would be “a lot more fun.” Today, he, Jacober and bassist John Jones all work in restaurants, and Utz teaches guitar lessons. (Utz says he’s not related to the Utz potato chip family, but if he was, he’d buy Dope Body a new tour van.)
At first listen, it’s Utz’s wild-style guitar work that feels like Dope Body’s hallmark. He runs his guitar through an array of effects pedals — and through his Apple laptop — in order to tap into a vocabulary of sounds that he “could never achieve through an amp or a distortion pedal.” He can make his riffs sound awkwardly heroic, as if they were performed by an animatronic Jimmy Page, or endearingly pathetic, like they’re coming from a flatulent Nintendo.
On “Natural History,” Utz’s most inventive dribbles and scrapes don’t sound like they’re even being played on a guitar. But Jones and Jacober consistently remind us that this is rock music, flexing their rhythmic pectorals while Laumann woofs along.
That’s the Dope Body sound. There’s also the Dope Body odor. When the foursome take the stage, they often reek of men averse to body wash. And they waste no time getting physical, stomping, thrashing and staring down audiences like a pack of wild-eyed Mr. Hydes.
“I think most people are scared of us,” Laumann said. “We look pretty harmless, but when we play, it gets intense. . . . [But] if I’m willing to dance crazy and look weird onstage, people will think, ‘I can’t look as weird as him.’ And they’ll be more willing to dance.”
Singing along is a more intense propostion. “Natural History” doesn’t have the same lyrical yuk-yuk’s as Dope Body’s 2010 full-length, “Nupping,” which featured song titles such as “Loner Stoner” and “The Shape of Grunge to Come.” This time around, Laumann broods more ambiguously.
“You talking to me? I didn’t think so,” he roars over the sludge-splashing riff of “Beat,” perhaps in mock-homage to Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle. On “Road Dog,” Laumann delivers life coach advice in a drill seargent bark: “Do what you wanna do, see what you wanna see, go where you wanna go!” It sounds more like a punch in the throat then a pat on the back.
Laumann said Dope Body’s mission is to pull listeners into a dark place, but for everyone to come out laughing. This music is outrageous, sure — but it’s ultimately about energy and catharsis.
“The place where we used to practice had a bunch of heroin addicts outside,” Laumann said. “Whenever we’d get done playing, we’d be totally exhausted. Totally spent. We felt like how they looked. I kind of want this music to exhaust someone to the point where whatever they’re upset about in their life, they’re not upset about it anymore.”
Dope Body performs with Hume and Roomrunner at the Coward Shoe Building, 322 Howard St., Baltimore, on May 19 at 9 p.m.