Baltimore punk favorite Double Dagger goes out on a high note
Published: October 12, 2011
Double Dagger plays the first of two Baltimore farewell shows
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A little under a year ago, before Double Dagger was set to headline a show at Current Space, I asked the band’s vocalist Nolen Strals about the details of the story illustrated in his lyrics for “Vivre Sans Temps Mort,” a sweeping meditation on life and death.
Strals, then a teenager in Georgia, as the story goes, was on his way to see punk band Agent Orange with his friends when, a few miles outside the venue, they drove past the gruesome scene of a dead man sprawled out in the highway after being hit by a car and dragged along the pavement.
And then he saw what he called the best performance of his life. Things quickly shifted from a recognition of the omnipresence of life’s end to a celebration of being alive. “There’s no way we’re gonna die tonight/ If we shout loud enough they can’t turn out the light/ If we shout loud enough they can’t turn out the lights,” goes the Double Dagger lyric.
“This probably sounds stupid,” Strals said at the Current, “but that show was almost like a spiritual experience for me. And it’s just Agent Orange.”
The musical recounting of that night didn’t arrive until 2009 on More, the most consistent and artful LP by Double Dagger, Strals’ band with bassist Bruce Willen (along with Strals, an occasional City Paper contributor) and drummer Denny Bowen.
With the recent announcement that the trio is calling it quits, that album will also be its last after nine years, three albums, three EPs, a tape, a split 7-inch with Economist, and a CD-R. The members say they simply don’t have as much time to dedicate to the band anymore as they would like and decided to bring it to an end.
“We never have done this band half-ass, we’ve always done it full-tilt,” Strals says while sitting at Willen’s kitchen table recently. “So if we can’t do it at that full-tilt, I don’t think it’s worth doing.”
While acknowledging the end would be bittersweet, all three were able to rattle off a list of accomplishments they are proud of, accomplishments they never thought they would manage when they first started: touring Europe, signing to Thrill Jockey, playing with bands they admire and respect, putting out as many records as they did.
And they did it with what they call “punk brains,” a mixture of do-it-yourself and never conforming to what’s expected, which also meant trying to push beyond the tropes of punk music itself.
Double Dagger songs pummel you with a mixture of Bowen’s explosive percussion and the noisy, fuzzed-out barrage of Willen’s bass functioning as lead guitar. “The density of sound he got was incredible,” musician/composer Dan Deacon says in a separate interview. But the same instruments in the hands of the same players could just as easily produce something melodic and beautiful. Often, the switch would occur within a single song.
As Jesse Morgan, a friend of the band’s and a founding member of Charm City Art Space, puts it, “They appeal to your mind as well as your balls.
“[CCAS co-founder] Mike [Riley] and I described them as a punk band or a hardcore band,” Morgan continues. “I think there’s just as many people who would be like, ‘Oh, they’re not punk rock.’ And not as a negative thing, but [they] would put them on the same level as the Rapture.”
Still, Riley says, Strals’ lyrics function as the pointed social criticisms of any punk band worth its salt.
“It should be more than just about how angry you are at the world, but why you’re angry at the world,” Riley explains. “If not offer a solution, offer a different way of approaching the problem, and Nolen’s lyrics offer those kinds of thing.”
In summation, Deacon says: “I think the key things are that they are all really talented and focused. Denny is one of the best drummers I’ve ever heard, Bruce is very detail-oriented on the bass, and Nolen realizes how important the frontman role is to a band like theirs. It’s just solid all around.”
This much is certain: If the band was playing a hometown date, there was a sizable group of people who made sure they were there—art-school hipsters and punks, young teens, and dudes in their 30s.
That brisk November night a year ago in the lot behind Current Space was no different, with a crowd of mostly teenage moshers and pogo-ers packed in front of the small stage, a semicircle of older heads forming around them. The guys of Double Dagger took the stage lit only by a floodlight stationed at their feet, their shadows cast several stories high on the neighboring building.
As they ran through their set, the surging crowd of moshers would invariably pull the floodlight’s plug from the extension chord, rendering the gallery’s back lot almost completely dark. Sure enough, someone would eventually plug it back in, and the light would shine bright once again.
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