(all photos: Fitsum Belay)
A lot of noise has been made recently about the difference between the Baltimore and the DC music scene. Some have suggested that Baltimore’s scene is more pure because it’s cheaper to live there—hence more DIY shows run by artists who don’t have day-jobs. The cost of living difference is undeniable. The flip side of that coin though is that Baltimore is tiny. You’re never going to stumble onto a space or a scene or a band you haven’t heard of before. I made such discovery Wednesday night, only a dozen blocks from my house at the Bobby Fisher Memorial Building on North Capital where kids have been putting on punk rock shows for a while without making much of a self-promoting fuss about it. Plus cakes!
Apparently the building is named after a friend of the Borf art collective guys who died (check out our jazzy opening party photo set here), not the chess player, though the famously iconoclastic prodigy could be a guiding spirit for punk kids everywhere if you think about it. The building is covered in amazing wild graffiti outside and in, making you feel you’ve wandered into a Blondie video by accident. The event was billed as a vegan cake-off and rock show each of which component cost three dollars, though I’m not sure who would be there just for one and not there other.
“I just want to come in for the cake, not the music, which is twenty feet away in the other room, can I just pay half?” Unlikely.
I enjoyed #3, which had a spicy gingerbread sort of thing to it, but Fitsum liked #7 which was carrot cake almost. Somehow the winner was #10, though, probably because they brought it in late and it was full of chocolate or soy-milk chocolate or whatever vegans put in their cakes. None of them tasted like vegans either, which in my experience is not the best flavor.
The doors were at 6:30 on a worknight, so you know what that means. Teenagers! Lots of them. Most of them seemed to be there to see the Max Levine Ensemble, veterans of the pop-punk scene who keep getting better as they approach their hoary early-20s. Their recorded output can be uneven, but live they bring it, especially in a tiny cement room with the tinny PA channeling David Combs’ and Ben Epstein’s tandem choruses into distorted buzzes barely penetrating the power-pop chords and Nick Popovici’s speedy drum fills.
Japanther refuses to be an average punk band. They seem to operate on the idea that professionalism is the same thing as being fake. Their songs stop at weird angles and disintegrate into feedback or abrupt off-tempo crashes. In the silence drummer and singer Ian Vanek gives speeches to the crowd with his eyes closed, rattling the sticks on the tom and the ride cymbal like a parody of a beatnik poetry reading. Bassist Matt Reilly sings shyly into his yellow phone and stomps on a distortion pedal that looks like it was made from a muffler. Before songs he changes cassettes in the tape player, sending random quotes and prerecorded vocals, keyboards and hip-hop breaks winding through the mix. Ian berates the crowd about the evils of the music biz and the power of individualism and love and how they should probably get crazy ASAP. It’s impossible to tell where the performance begins or ends, making it hard to know when to clap or what to do after or during a song—surely a purposeful goad to the staid standards of rock shows: Mosh here, clap now, encore, jumparound. They’re like the Pentecostal ministers to hardcore’s now ancient catechisms. Maybe it’s the lack of booze or drugs, but the kids seem confused for the first half of their set, which is of course what Japanther is going for.
But when the stinky mass finally gets circling, it’s far more celebratory than aggressive. We need a new word for the dancing that you do in a big group of friends (whom you may have never actually met), the hugging and bouncing into their bodies and grabbing their shoulders and crowd-surfing that’s more like the triumphant victory-carry at the end of a baseball game than a boot-to-head Lollapalooza thing. Let’s call it “mooshing,” maybe? A one point boys and girls join hands and jig in a ring around a couple twisting together in the center—it’s like a Greek chorus in a really good play, probably a comedy. It’s possible because no matter what kind of transgressive tricks the band plays on its audience, the music is awesome straightforward heart-on-sleeve pop-chords and melodies over driving danceable beats.
Now this doesn’t have anything to do with a Baltimore/DC rivalry, but here’s what the Baltimore City Paper said about these guys: “Understand, Japanther is not a “good” band in any classic sense-you wouldn’t want to listen to this outside of a show: it’s basically Ramones-y, lo-fi punk cut up with samples and junk Casio beats…” Oh yes, the “classic” sense of “good,” as defined in Plato’s Republic. I think it was Book IX where Socrates said: “This isn’t Monteverdi, or John Cage, or something with verifiable highbrow credentials like Sigur Ros, so let’s get let’s get condescending y’all!” To be charitable he probably didn’t really think about it before he wrote that, otherwise he would realize how silly it sounds coming from a resident of the town that spawned Death Set, Dan Deacon and the whole Wham City style of trashy techno-infused pop-punk that’s set to take over where traditional pop-punk has faded into emo crap.
In fact, Japanther’s music is very much the definition of Classic Good, on record as powerful and catchy as it is live. Which just goes to show that even people in the DIY capital of the Mid-atlantic can miss the point entirely, while some in this fussy self-possessed city of club-kid excess and $60k parking spaces can put together a fantastic underground experience. Plus, you know, cake.