And then there was the singer, Nolen Strals. Each of the couple dozen people stuffed into that basement became pretty intimately personal with Strals that afternoon. He shouted his lyrics directly into your eye, tangled you into in his microphone cable and dripped sweat all over you. And when I say you, I mean me. The theatrics were memorable and the noise was righteous — but that wasn’t what stuck with me the most. I left obsessed with one song they played. Something about luxury condos. Most of the band’s tunes were sharp blasts of punk with some jagged twists and turns, but this one was different. It worked with some variation of soft verse/loud chorus, except this loud chorus was a cannonball blast and Strals’s face turned an uncomfortable shade of red as he pinballed around while shouting about “luxury condos for the poor.” It was cathartic; I had a new favorite band.
The next time I saw Double Dagger was at the popular Baltimore warehouse space, Floristree. It was July now, and the occasion was Whartscape, Baltimore’s then-annual mega-blowout celebrating Charm City’s percolating underground scene. In retrospect, it’s hard not to see this night as the scene’s creative peak. Then-lightly-regarded out-of-towners Yeasayer and Dirty Projectors played early in the evening while hometown heroes Spank Rock and Dan Deacon closed things out.
“I hear that from a good amount of people,” drummer Bowen says. “That show was really crazy. Personally, I thought that show was bad. I thought we played poorly. I know [Nolen] did some crazy [expletive], jumping all over the place in the audience. But I thought it sounded like [expletive].”
Fair enough. The band performed on a makeshift stage with a makeshift soundsystem. Notes were missed, mistakes were made. But none of it mattered in the slightest because of the happy anarchy Double Dagger inspired. When they played “Luxury Condos For the Poor,”there was a spectacular surge in the crowd. It might have seemed dangerous if everyone wasn’t having the time of their lives. The shakyYouTube video (watch below) gives a decent idea of the pandemonium.
I’ve seen Double Dagger 11 more times since then. Wednesday at the Black Cat will make 14 in total. And that’ll be it. After nine years the band is calling it quits. Besides being a near-peerless live act, the band released fine recordings, particularly 2007’s “Ragged Rubble” (home to “Luxury Condos”), 2009’s “More” and 2010 EP “Masks,” arguably its best release to date. They remained fiercely D.I.Y. in a time when it was almost impossible to do so and served as one of the pillars of a vibrant and diverse Baltimore underground that even Rolling Stone dubbed “Best Scene” in 2008. They also stayed true to their musical vision, remaining ruthlessly efficient and never expanding beyond their very basic setup.
I talked to Strals and Bowen before they set out on their final tour and cannot recommend Wednesday’s show at the Black Cat highly enough. Read the interview after the jump.
I always said you couldn’t hide at a Double Dagger show — Nolen would find you no matter what. Was it fun to break down that barrier between performer and audience?
Nolen Strals: Oh yeah. When I first got into punk rock, part of the appeal came from the fact that there’s not this hero worship. The bands and the audience [are on the same level]. So going out into the audience, that’s more fun for me. And I hope it is for the audience, too. There’s part of it that’s motivated by just trying to make it a group activity. So that the audience isn’t just this static thing. To acknowledge their presence, to engage them so that they’re more than just listeners.
You guys made a lot of music without ever really changing up the basics of your sound. Was that ever something you were tempted to do or was it a mission statement to explore every avenue you could with the same setup?
Denny Bowen: I thought when I added, like, a tambourine to my drum set that was a big deal! Bruce added a delay pedal. And we thought, is this too much? We wanted to keep it really simple. We wanted to be making all the music as opposed to playing the equipment that makes the music. It never really seemed worthwhile for us to get into doing any kind of weird things with additional instrumentation. For us it made more sense to be direct in everything that we did. We like the simplicity of it.
You guys and [fellow Baltimore band] Ponytail ended this year. There was no Whartscape. You can call it the end of a certain era of the Baltimore scene. You don’t strike me as especially nostalgic folks — do you think it’s time for other people to do their own thing or do you get a little wistful at the end of an era?
Strals: It’s a combination of both. There’s definitely this group of us in our mid-20s to early-30s, these bands that started in the early to mid -2000s, that built our own thing here. Just thinking about not being an active part of that now, that’s definitely kind of strange. But I’m going to keep playing music and Denny, he definitely is. So just because Double Dagger’s ending, that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop being creative, that we’re going to stop being part of the music scene here. Like, duh. We’re just going to be in a different part of it.
That’s one thing that we’ve been talking about for the last two years. There are all these young kids that come to our shows but they aren’t starting bands. We just think it’s really strange. It’s not that it’s strange, but it just makes me sad. It makes me wonder what’s going to happen to the Baltimore scene because a lot of the kids that go to shows, they’re so used to there being all these bands that they just take it as a given, that it’s always going to exist. There doesn’t seem to be much drive for them to start their own bands.
So many shows were in D.I.Y. spaces, but it was still very organized and communal. Do you think that self-supporting network of these little places where everyone looks out for each other is harder to replicate than even the bands?
Strals: There has definitely been a group of kids who, for a couple of years, ...really cared about creating and perpetuating a really positive and sustainable community here. The people who care about it the most and do the best job at it, they’re the ones that are still here. Those spaces are still open — Charm City Art Space, Floristree, Current Space. I think that Baltimore’s really lucky that there are so many people who want to make sure that there are these venues that are well run for smaller bands to play at. For the touring bands, if they can come here and have a show that’s really positive, but the local bands have some good spaces to grow up in.
So why is this the end?
Strals: It did feel like it had run its course. The band is still going strong. People still like us. But for various reasons we just aren’t able to put the time into it that we used to be able to. We never wanted to half [expletive] this band. We figured we should stop before we were forced to keep going.
Bowen: We don’t want to feel like we have to write a record just because we can put one out on Thrill Jockey. That wouldn’t be fair to the label or us or anyone listening to it. And we’re definitely not at that point, which is why we’re doing this now. We wanted to put bookends on what we do so it’s a mark, a point in time. Not just fading in and out of focus. A series of exclamation points instead of a series of ellipses.