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The Retirement of Double Dagger

Baltimore’s post-punk heroes hang up the glyph and launch new musical adventures

Photo: Frank Hamilton, License: N/A

Frank Hamilton


Nolen Strals remembers the moment in 2011 when he realized Double Dagger, the Baltimore post-punk band he formed with Bruce Willen in 2002, was breaking up.

“We hadn’t practiced for a long fucking time, and Bruce and I were going over to [drummer] Denny [Bowen]’s house for practice, and there was sort of this unspoken tension,” says Strals. “I think we all sort of knew, because we didn’t even go straight back to the band room, we all sort of hung out in the living room. I could be remembering this wrong, but I think I said, ‘So this is it, right?’”

In its time, Double Dagger became one of the most successful bands to come out of Baltimore in a generation, signing to Thrill Jockey, playing with bands like Jesus Lizard and Pere Ubu, and earning a national audience and acclaim from the likes of Rolling Stone and Pitchfork. But the band, which initially labeled itself “graphicdesigncore”—Strals and Willen are both designers and the band is named after a typographical symbol—and always handled its business with great care, sensed things were over.

“The other guys just said, ‘Yeah.’” Strals recalls. “We sort of quietly had a conversation about how we didn’t just want it to end. We wanted to be very deliberate with it. We wanted to do some last shows. Because we always tried our best to be very deliberate and to be sort of thoughtful. We didn’t just do things.”

Two years later, sitting around a table made from an old hotel door on two sawhorses in the offices Willen and Strals share for their graphic design firm, Post Typography, the three members explain how they were so sure the end was nigh even as they were writing their best material.

“We didn’t want to end up being one of those bands that never plays,” says Bowen. “That may work for a lot of people, but that wouldn’t [work] for us and how we feel about the band. . . . That momentum was so important to how we operate.”

But there is certainly no animus or hard feelings here, no Behind the Music bullshit. Time spent with these three friends yields as much ribbing and dumb jokes as anything else, and what clearly comes through is a shared sense of pride in what they’ve accomplished—a creative arc that spanned nearly a decade and ventured from three-minute punk songs tied to themes of graphic design to sweeping six-minute tracks that inspired a listener’s desire to raise their fist as much as use their brain. After a series of farewell shows, the swan song arrives in the form of If We Shout Loud Enough, a new documentary on their final days, and 333, a final record of the last six songs the band recorded.

But they’re not done with music. Each of Double Dagger’s three members has started a new band: Nolen Strals in Pure Junk, Denny Bowen in Roomrunner, and Bruce Willen in Peals—each with a new sound, a new direction, a new beginning.

In If We Shout Loud Enough, music-scene regulars like former Sick Weapons singer Ellie Beziat and Atomic Books owner Benn Ray touch on one of the things that made Double Dagger’s evolution compelling to watch: As bassist Bruce Willen and drummer Denny Bowen continued to shift the dynamics of the band’s sound and write more complex arrangements, singer Nolen Strals’ lyrics took on themes that could be more forthcoming and confrontational.

The new album opens with what is perhaps Strals’ most personal song to date.

“The Mirror” addresses his speech impediment, something he has struggled with since the third grade, and directly deals with his perceptions of what other people are thinking as he stutters and fights to force out words with a firm grip on the tip of his tongue.

In the lyrics, he doesn’t answer the phone “because it’ll take so long to get to hello, they’ll think there’s nobody home.” Parents are leery about having Strals around their kids because they “don’t want him to t-t-turn out like him.” Dates and other special nights feel ruined.

At the song’s peak, there’s the visceral scream: “I’ve got so much to say/ I’ve got so much to say/ I’ve got so much to say/ But I can’t get it out.”

As anyone who saw the band can attest, there was hardly ever a point when Strals, known for wandering the crowd and quite literally getting in people’s faces as he sang, wasn’t direct. It’s when he’s offstage, he says, that “I have to choke these words out.”

“There’s days I speak totally fine. And then there’s days I talk to my dad on the phone, and I’ve been talking to my dad since I could talk,” he says with a light laugh, “and I just can’t get the fucking words out and it’s just so frustrating.

“A lot of the times when I stutter, my mouth opens and nothing comes out, or what comes out is ‘arr, arr, arr,’” he says, mimicking the strained grunts from the times he’s stuck on a word. “It sounds so awful to me. Just thinking about what other people think that that sounds like really stresses me out, which makes the stuttering and the stammering even worse. It kind of felt like I needed to exorcise those thoughts.”

Giving voice to his frustrations has helped Strals to conquer them, as is also the case with “Vivre Sans Temps Mort,” a song from 2009’s More that starts out agonizing over human mortality and then pivots to finding joy in the energy of a punk show. While he still struggles with stuttering, Strals says things have gotten better since penning the lyrics and performing the songs in the band’s final shows and in the studio for the album.

Literally and somewhat thematically, 333’s closer, “Heretic’s Hymn,” serves as a proper bookend, a moment when the man previously wrestling with his insecurities over laboring to speak delivers a statement on the commodification of DIY culture that is strongly worded and crystalline.

The song has many moods, starting with a repeating, melodic bass line and a steady backing beat as Strals employs religious metaphors about social-climbing bands selling their souls to make a quick buck and draw a few laudatory blog posts, a place “where we banish ideas and only worship what sells.”

Willen and Bowen accelerate the music into a thunderous roar before it dissipates into a trickling bass line and light drumming that surge and recede like the ocean tide, setting the stage for Strals to impart the following advice: “But if this is my last song/ If these are the last words I ever write,/ I hope you won’t forget/ You’re only free making art outside.”

Beyond the commentary, therein lies the band’s credo—and one of the reasons they endeared themselves to this scene and remain so essential. There was never any bullshit. They wrote songs that cast both a critical and loving eye on our city. They designed all their own album art and posters. They continued to play to all-ages crowds and all manner of spaces. And even when the Baltimore scene became chic some five years ago, and the blogs started shining a spotlight on bands from Charm City—including Double Dagger, who was pictured in a Rolling Stone story that cited Baltimore as having the “Best Scene” in America—they stayed true champions of our town.

And they worked and worked at it. As outlined in If We Shout Loud Enough, the members of Double Dagger place great importance in a band having the time to ply its craft, to hone the sound they are trying to achieve, without any interference that stunts or corrupts artistic growth.

“Obviously the film isn’t necessarily about ‘the early years of Double Dagger’ or anything like that. But I thought [director Gabriel DeLoach] really showed, yeah, we worked hard at what we did. We thought a lot about what we were doing the whole time. We were thoughtful about it,” says Willen. “One of the things the three of us always did, as we were writing songs or figuring out what we were doing next—we weren’t just like ‘Oh yeah, we’ll do this thing.’ It was more like, ‘OK, we’re doing this thing. How are we doing it? How can we do it in a better way?’”

The film makes clear—and the members of the band don’t disagree—that early on, Double Dagger, well, kind of sucked. But keeping at it and continuing to learn taught them more than it would have if they had been picked up by promoters and blogs and shuttled out to chase money on nationwide tours.

But that is exactly how the system operates now, and Strals, Willen, and Bowen say it has set up a system that plays out much like a futures market, where companies and publicists wager bets on what could be the next big thing.

“It’s totally capitalized. As soon as you reach certain achievements, the weird emails start coming in from goofy companies. A lot of them it’s, ‘Fuck off. This is bullshit,’” says Bowen. “I can’t speak for everybody who’s been in those situations, it just seems really weird and too much all at once. There’s no room or time for growth.”

And this has set up a false expectation that, right out of the gate, creative types think their art is great and expect it to be praised as such. Willen posits that 90 percent or so of the work produced in all art forms falls in a spectrum that ranges from OK to total shit.

“If you want to work your way up from that—because face it, most people start somewhere within that 90 percent, even people who eventually get good—you have to figure out a way to do that. And I think if you have someone being, ‘This is how you do that,’ or doing it for you, well, I think number one, you lose out because you lose out on that grip on a human being and an artist,” he says.

“That’s the saddest thing, I feel like. A lot of these bands or people who suddenly, out of nowhere, blow up without getting the chance to perfect what they’re doing or their craft,” he continues. “In a way it’s kind of a disservice to them because, you know what, maybe they would have gotten really, really good at what they’re doing if they had a few years to work on their music or tour or think about it a little bit more. But suddenly, if you’ve gone from recording an album in your bedroom to playing a 2,000-person club, you don’t have that chance for growth.”

So while “Heretic’s Hymn” is a condemnation of the people seeking to be fast-risers without putting in the work, it also serves as a blueprint for those who wish to avoid that direction. Bowen, Strals, and Willen say that, over the years, they’ve seen many Baltimore bands follow a similar path to theirs and the results have paid off, citing Dan Deacon, Ponytail, and Dope Body as acts they witnessed seeing marked improvements over time. The cheap rents and lack of cutthroat maneuvering in the artistic community still allow for it to happen now.

And this is something they hold dear about the music community, because the three of them have set out with new bands.

Even before the band broke up, Bowen had been working on guitar riffs around 2008, when he had spare time between drumming for Double Dagger and the Dan Deacon Ensemble. He eventually fleshed those out to demo songs using a four-track recorder.

Bowen approached Dan Frome, who was running sound on the Dan Deacon Ensemble tour, and asked to record a demo in Frome’s home recording studio in the Copycat Building. With some guitar work added in from Frome, Bowen recorded all the parts of what would eventually make up the songs on the self-titled cassette and first release from Roomrunner.

They put together a full-fledged lineup—with Bowen on guitar and vocals, Frome on guitar, John Jones on bass, and Chris Morawski on drums—out of necessity when filmmaker Matt Porterfield asked if Bowen had his own band to play a party in New York City for the release of his film Putty Hill. They called themselves Roomrunner, the Japanese translation of treadmill, as “kind of an ode to the cyclical nature of things,” Bowen says.

Upon the cassette’s release in late 2011, Roomrunner’s ear-piercing, heavily distorted wall of guitars and loud-quiet-loud dynamics drew comparisons to the grunge rock of the ’90s.

With pretty much every other band and genre of music being reclaimed and championed by some newer band, there was a chance to prop up some of the unheralded and more obscure acts from the days of the so-called Seattle Sound.

In an interview over beers at the Ashberry Pub in Hampden, Bowen doesn’t shy away from his intent.

“Yeah, it was intentional, because it’s always the kind of music I like to play. But it was also a joke in a way—kind of being like, ‘Haha, if everything is on the table now, then this is on the table too. If it’s cool to like anything uncool and redeem it, then this is cool too. By the transitive property, you must claim this.’”

As a joke, during their first couple of shows, they put a Local H cassette on their merch table as an acknowledgment of their forefathers. But Frome knows you have to dig a lot deeper than Nirvana and Foo Fighters to really pick up who Roomrunner is culling from.

“Denny’s like an encyclopedia of weird, unknown ’90s bands with big, nasty bass tones. So there’s a lot to draw from that is not obvious, and by the time it’s actually in there, nobody would be like, ‘Oh, that’s from. . . do you guys listen to fucking Cherubs or something?’” says Frome from the couch of his Copycat loft. “And that’s a cool thing when I read [in the press] about ‘Oh, ’90s Nirvana-era throwback.’ Period. End of story. ’Cause I know it’s not just that.”

Double Dagger came to an end, and Sonar, where he worked the sound board, closed, so Bowen decided to make Roomrunner a full-time thing. Though the lineup has changed several times, Bowen continues to crank out new songs and in 2012, Roomrunner released the Super Vague EP. Almost immediately, Roomrunner drew the attention of music outlets such as Pitchfork and SPIN, and with that, soon came the “goofy emails” from promoters and other stakeholders in the futures market, even from sports network ESPN, seeking to license a song.

They got the same delete treatment as before, but Bowen freely admits Roomrunner operates with far less restraint than Double Dagger, which is how, say, they ended up in a pool in their shorts and posing for SPIN’s swimsuit issue at the South by Southwest Festival earlier this year.

“Whereas Double Dagger was more controlled, I feel like Roomrunner is supposed to be balled up and let go, just thrown out there, and it’s bouncing all over the place. It also kind of just happens. We say yes to everything,” he says. “Whereas Double Dagger kind of operated with more of a Fugazi frame of reference, Roomrunner kind of operates with a Devo frame of reference. They would say yes to putting their song in a Swiffer commercial because it was the most ridiculous thing. So it’s like, yeah, sure, we’ll open for John Maus.”

With their first LP, Ideal Cities, due out this summer, the admittedly self-conscious Bowen quips there’s a Roomrunner bubble about to burst once people hear the new album and everyone will have a collective “gotcha” moment.

And he jokes that his version of guitar-rock will make his contemporaries sound impressive by comparison.

“There’s a lot of talk about guitar music coming back and that type of thing. So we’re trying to provide the low bar of the spectrum in which to make other things seem better. Because there’s not a lot of really great things out there. As long as we can get into the low-end to prop things up and have fun doing it—that’s kind of what we’re going for.”

Frome, however, decided to take a more positive approach.

“I think they’re great songs,” says Frome. “I think Denny, really since we started playing together, has exponentially gotten better in many, many ways—songwriting, singing, and lyrically. It’s been really comfortable and easy, and not that we’ve not done work. We do a lot of stuff, but it doesn’t feel like that. It just came together so easy, it never seemed to be a big struggle for us to be satisfied.”

Not unlike Bowen, Willen spent his free time working on melodies and little bits of music in his home. But much of it was mellower, what he termed “pretty music.”

He and William Cashion, the bassist in local electronic-pop group Future Islands, had talked about getting together to play music well before Double Dagger broke up, but it wasn’t until the start of 2012, following the final show, that they got together in Willen’s home.

As for why he thought he and Cashion were a natural match, Willen says, “I’ve always really admired his musicianship. I think we share a similar approach to bass-playing in some aspect or another. I feel like I got where he was coming from musically.”

They both knew they wanted to do something that wasn’t as loud, something more ambient and calming. Both describe the music as “meditative.”

Using guitars, pedals, keyboards, an old toy piano, and anything else they thought of, they would improvise to see what struck them.

“We would just sort of play aimlessly. If one of us particularly liked something that would happen we would stop. ‘OK, I kinda like what we just did there. How can we kinda organize that and make it something?’” says Cashion while sitting at a table in a park on the western end of the Washington Monument. “For the first month or two, we just recorded everything. We would just go plug in a bunch of different stuff and make different sounds, and then we’d listen back to the recordings. ‘What about this here, this section?’”

Under the name Peals, defined as a ringing set of bells, Willen and Cashion played their first show in April 2012, and went into the studio in June and recorded Walking Field, due out May 14.

“Some unexpected things came out of that album musically, just sort of through the improvisation and the instruments that we were using or trying out and that we never used before—responding to the things that each other [was] playing,” says Willen. “And I think also the music is richer or has more depth to it than a lot of music that either of us has made before, which I think is really interesting.”

It may not seem like it immediately, but the eight songs on Walking Field do have ties back to Double Dagger and Future Islands. In addition to tinkering with new ideas, Cashion says he gets to further explore a technique he’s used in Future Islands he calls “floating guitars,” in which he stacks guitar swells using delay pedals.

In Willen’s case, some of the more contemplative instrumental songs from Double Dagger, and even some of the louder punk songs where he used looping, informed much of the music in Peals. Also, Willen says, the music of both bands is meant to elicit a similar effect, only with a different result.

“One of the things we tried to do with Double Dagger was sheer volume, and the energy of the performance and everything involved the audience in this really overt way,” he says. “You can’t ignore us because we’re so loud and so in-your-face and kinda like harsh. And with Peals, we’re trying to do a similar thing except not through the loudness and the in-your-face aspect. It’s maybe more trying to break people out of what they’re doing but in a way that’s a little more introspective.”

Those connections should not be overstated, however. Plenty of people have gone to shows knowing there were members of Future Islands and Double Dagger and come in expecting something more punk or more dance-y. At a recent show, Willen spotted some teenagers he had seen around at Double Dagger shows.

“You’re sorta like, I wonder how they’re going to feel about us not having this really crazy, intense wild show experience. But I think, at least at the last show, these guys were super-psyched about it,” he says. “Other times I can tell people looked at us and were like, ‘This is not punk rock. I’m outta here.’ And you know what? That’s fine.”

For Strals, his first post-Double Dagger project started and ended as a joke. To celebrate his birthday, he formed the one-off band Distrack with Chris LaMartina, Chris Berry, and David Goldberg to play a show at Golden West Café in September of 2011.

It wasn’t until April of the following year, when Strals moved in with LaMartina, that the idea of forming an actual band took shape. While going to different Baltimore diners and lunch counters as part of a breakfast club, LaMartina, a filmmaker, and Strals would joke with CP contributing illustrator Alex Fine about starting a band of all artists. When they found out CP contributing cartoonist Ben Claassen played bass, that’s just what they got.

At their first practice, when trying to come up with an idea of what their sound would be, Fine played one song he had been working on, but it didn’t seem right. Then he played what Strals called a “total ripper,” and the foundation was laid for the short bursts of punk—almost all of which clock in under two minutes—they would go on to craft.

With Strals’ lyrics veering into more bleak territory than Double Dagger did, LaMartina says he is reminded of Southern California hardcore bands like Agent Orange.

“They’re dark, but they’re still fucking catchy as hell. It’s sort of that weird line, and that’s why I say early ’80s Southern California hardcore,” he says on the phone from Frederick, where he is filming his latest project. “Because you still have really quasi-depressing content but sang with this raw energy that makes it a little bit more relatable.”

Sure enough, Strals mentioned the same era and band.

“This is closer to capital-p Punk than any band I’ve been in since high school,” he says. “But that’s a lot of what I listen to and have listened to for years.”

“After our second practice, I said to the other guys, ‘This the kind of band I’ve wanted to be in since I was 17.’ And the fact that I’m 34 and I’m in the kind of band I wanted to be in when I was 17, you know, a lot of people would see that and think, Ugh, you need to grow up, or Ugh, that’s fucking lame,” he continues. “But it’s like, ‘Fuck you. No.’ Yes, I’m not at all who I was then. But in a lot of ways, I’m still the same fucking person and all that stuff I listened to then, most of it’s still fucking great stuff. So why would I not want to sound like a modern version of a band that could have opened for Agent Orange?”

They took the name Pure Junk, a reference Strals found in a book on the history of comic books, as a nod to the comics and MAD-magazine humor they all grew up with and love. And it seemed to fit all of their day jobs, with LaMartina making horror movies on a shoestring budget, Strals doing design work for magazines and newspapers that get tossed in the trash, and Fine and Claassen contributing to newspapers that, ahem, also get thrown out.

With something of an artists’ supergroup, each of their first shows had its own illustrated pocket zine with a different theme. One had MAD’s gap-toothed poster boy, Alfred E. Neuman, introduce the members of the band. Another placed their heads on the wrinkling muscles of Iggy Pop’s body. Yet another had them all as babies. To find the information about the show, you had to flip all the way through the zine.

And much like the comics they love, friends have been trying to keep a complete collection intact.

As a songwriter, Strals says the shorter format of Pure Junk’s songs has been liberating in a way. He still has to cram a lot of syllables in a small space, but there is less pressure.

“There’s just not the weight and the expectation thematically for 60 seconds as there is for a seven-minute epic. And that weight being lifted off my shoulders,” he says with a chuckle, “has been really freeing, because some of the lyrics are a lot more abstract than anything I’ve done before.”

Getting settled onstage took a little getting used to. There were times where Strals would catch himself doing similar gestures or moves as he did in Double Dagger. It took until about the fourth or fifth show to shake that and get truly comfortable.

“Those first couple shows, I was distracted by the pressure to not repeat myself, and then one show, it was gone, and I was like, ‘This is what I do now,’” he says. “And I’m still figuring it out, because we haven’t played that many shows. But I don’t feel the baggage or that weird pressure to not look like I’m in Double Dagger when we play.”

There’s not much time for songwriting with everyone’s busy schedules and LaMartina currently making a movie. But the members of Pure Junk hope to double the length of their set and play more shows in the summer.

One of those will come on June 23, when the three post-Double Dagger bands will share the stage at the Ottobar.

“That’s the closest you’re gonna get to a reunion,” says Strals.

As they sit in the Post Typography office in the days before the documentary and final album are set to hit stores, Strals, Willen, and Bowen admit to being a little nostalgic.

“I think as time has gone on, I’ve always liked our band, but I was never proud of it,” says Strals. “Having this hindsight and seeing how much it still means to people, what it still means to strangers and to people whose opinions I highly value, I am really proud of what we did. And I couldn’t be happier with the two people I was lucky enough to do with it. And I think we all agree.”

When they talk about watching If We Shout Loud Enough and seeing themselves on screen, attentions tend to turn to that final show at the Ottobar—the waves of crowdsurfers, the positive energy of the crowd, the feeling backstage of not wanting to fuck anything up.

“I definitely remember when we came out onstage to start playing and everyone’s like ‘Yeah!’ Cheering not in a way like ‘here’s the band,’ but almost like ‘thank you’ kind of cheers,” says Willen. “That’s when I got really choked up. I’m getting even a little teary thinking about it. It was definitely a really powerful, emotional moment—going in front of all those people and having that kind of reaction. Whoa, this is totally out of nowhere.”

In one of the final moments of that show, Strals tweaked the lyrics to their signature song about Baltimore’s directionless gentrification, “Luxury Condos for the Poor.” Though the song is meant to be a call to action, he didn’t want the last words of the song, about ghostly abandoned rowhomes and “waterfront gravesites,” to be negative.

Instead, he sang: “They’re still building a ghost town/ They’re still building us a ghost town/ We’ve been flipped so much that up looks down/ They’re not building a city/ They’re building a ghost town/ We’re building a city, all of us, through what we do, through what we make.”

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