Baltimore’s Charm City Devils — singer John Allen, guitarist Vic Karrera, bassist Anthony Arambula, guitarist Nick Kay and drummer Jason Heiser — returned to the battlegrounds of rock ‘n’ roll with their powerful sophomore album, “Sins.” The album, which hits the streets April 10 on iTunes and CD Baby via Fat Lady Music, serves as a fitting follow-up to their 2009 debut, “Let’s Rock-N-Roll.” The album already started to create buzz as the first single, a cover of “Man Of Constant Sorrow” (from the Grammy®-winning soundtrack of the George Clooney Oscar®-nominated film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”), has been exploding on the Active Rock radio airwaves ever since its release. With a video for the song just hitting the Internet, it won’t be long until the song is blasting from every stereo in the land! “Sins” finds the band pulling from real life experiences over the past few years and discovering a harder, edgier tone than their blues-based roots. Doing everything from promotion to mixing to shooting videos themselves, Charm City Devils embody the hardworking, blue collar mentality of the hometown. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with frontman John Allen to discuss the making of the new album, the challenges during the process and what the future holds for this band on the rise.
We like to give our readers a little background on the artist we are interviewing. How did music first come into your life?
Probably my mom singing around the house while she was cleaning and stuff, ya know? After that, I guess like a lot of kids in the U.S., it was Sesame Street and my parents record collection. They had the Beach Boys, the Beatles and Frank Sinatra. They had all kinds of wacky stuff in there! I was going through some of their stuff today while I was cleaning out and found some Ray Charles records in there. They had pretty eclectic tastes. They bought stuff that was hugely popular at the time they were growing up. It’s really interesting because classic music like that finds ways to bridge generations.
Who would you cite as some of your biggest influences as an artist and a songwriter?
Again, growing up in the states, it seems to me that your friends and your friends older brothers, I didn’t have older brothers, but they tend to influence you as an early rock ‘n’ roll kid. My early influences work bands like Iron Maiden, KISS, Aerosmith, AC/DC, Metallica, Mötley Crüe and bands like that. Anything considered to be hard rock or heavy metal are right up my alley! Those guys are who I got turned onto early. Later, I got into The Ramones and a little bit of the punk thing.
What drove you to pursue music as a career as opposed to following a different path?
I don’t know, man. When I started listening to music and there was a moment when I knew I really wanted to learn to play? KISS is what really did it for me. From the incident that I heard them, I knew I wanted to play. I thought, “This is what I want to do!” and I was just a little kid at the time. I haven’t looked back since! I started a band in the fourth grade, we couldn’t really play or anything but we had a band! [laughs] We even put on a concert once but my mom wouldn’t let us charge admission! [laughs] But we tried, had to make some candy money! [laughs]
For people out there who may just be discovering the band, how did the lineup initially form?
I have known almost all of the guys in the band, except for the drummer, for a long time. I played in various bands around Baltimore with these guys. In trying to finalize this lineup, I called Victor to play guitar because I was playing guitar and singing initially. I called Victor to add the second guitar. Anthony and Victor are actually brothers. I asked if Anthony was still playing bass and he wants. We already had Jason in the fold. As soon as possible Anthony and Victor started playing, from the first note, Jason said, “These guys are great and they can really lay it down!” He was really fired up and I wound up coaxing my old friend Nick into joining the band. I said, “Why don’t you learn ‘Highway To Hell’ and play the encores with us.” Then I was like, “Well, why don’t you learn a couple of our songs?” Finally, I was like, “Man, fuck it! Just learn the whole set and join the band already!” [laughs] That way I was able to put my guitar down and stop torturing people with my terrible guitar playing! [laughs] Really, I just wanted to be able to set the guitar down and be able to move around more on stage and put out more energy. I felt that I was chained to the mic stand when I had to play guitar. I definitely have a lot more freedom up there these days.
You guys didn’t get your original record contract in the most conventional way. What can you tell us about that?
Yeah, 98 Rock [WIYY] here in town started playing “Let’s Rock-N-Roll,” which was just a demo at the time. I ended up sending an e-mail up to Eleven Seven in New York. I didn’t know anybody up there. I just said, “Look, we have some airplay happening down here in Baltimore and it is doing really well.” There is a thing called research that all radio stations do. I put in the e-mail that our song was researching right in the middle of their playlist, which I thought was pretty cool because it was a demo tape. We were competing with the other 30 songs on their playlist, which were all major label artists at the time. I laid out my track record and mentioned that I had played drums for SR-71 and I had co-written a bunch of songs with Mitch Allen, which had done fairly well. I never expected to hear anything but, much to my surprise, a day or two later, I got a phone call from New York on my cell phone. I didn’t recognize the number and I hadn’t received any phone calls from New York in a couple of years. I thought to myself, “Whoa! This might be interesting!” I picked it up and the guy on the other end was from Eleven Seven Music. His name was Steve Kline and he said, “You sent us an e-mail” and I said, “Yeah?” I really thought I was being punked! [laughs] I really didn’t believe it was for real but that is how it all got started. Then Nikki [Sixx] heard the stuff and he signed off on it. He said, “Yup! They are good enough to be on my label!” [laughs]
That is a pretty good endorsement!
Yeah! It felt really good, man. He is an amazing icon in the music business. I can’t thank him, that label and the management up there enough for all that they gave us.
Your new album is titled “SINS.” I know we are pretty excited about it. What can you tell us about the album and what fans might expect sonically?
I think what we tried to do with this album was to try and grow as songwriters and musicians. I think we have taken a leap into what is uncharted territory for us. We really wanted to step up our game. Instead of such a raw, stripped down production, like we did on the last record, we wanted to be a little more elaborate but not grandiose. We wanted to tackle different aspects of songwriting and introduce heavier moments, in addition to some lighter moments, to cover the spectrum a bit more. That was something that Skipp Mills, the producer, really helped us with. He has had a lot of success throughout the years. He has won a Grammy, he is a fantastic songwriter, producer and engineer and I really feel he has helped us grow on this record.
The album has a slight change of musical direction, I guess you could say. Was that intentional or more organic?
Well, the last record wasn’t really a band record. The last record, I wrote the songs and I played a lot of instruments on the record. This time around, it was a whole band effort. In most ways it was very organic. As far as the songwriting goes, I wanted to grow. I felt like I was writing the same song over and over again after the Cruefest tour and I didn’t want to just rewrite the first record. I wanted to get better. It finally dawned on me that you should always try to be the best in whatever vocation you have picked. I am through with wasting time and I want to dive head first into becoming the best singer, songwriter and performer that I can possibly be. I owe it to myself and I owe it to the audience who are the paying customers.
How are you approaching songwriting differently these days?
I am trying to expand on melody. Most of the time, having been a drummer and an animal playing live shows, a lot of times my inspiration comes from the thought of playing it live. It is the thought of performing something up-tempo, in your face and very intense. I love that part of music but there is also a time for a mid-tempo groove for people to dance to or for strippers to shake their moneymakers to! [laughs] In all facets, I wanted to push the boundaries a little bit more.
Looking back on the process as a whole, what was the biggest challenge in putting this album together?
Probably just to get it out there. The biggest challenge is getting people to hear it. We have does this solely independently. We are working our butts off doing everything we can do ourselves. There is no record label staff. My friend owns the record label that we are on and we have done all this stuff ourselves. The first song, “Man of Constant Sorrow,” is exploding on radio out west in the heartland of the country. It’s insane. Tonight, I have been working on an acoustic mix of the song that we are going to offer as part of the digital download of the record, as a bonus track. I’m doing that along with different web updates. Our bass player is editing our video for the song right now and he is finishing up our new website. We are all wearing five different hats and trying to get this record out to music lovers everywhere. That is going to be our biggest challenge because we don’t have the big budgets that the major label bands have. We don’t have the promotional budgets, the big video budgets or the big touring budgets. We don’t have any of that but we are going to do this thing smarter, or in a way that is smart for us, than we ever have before because we have to make the dollars stretch. With gas prices at $4 per gallon, it makes that touring prospect very daunting at this stage of the game! [laughs]
The first single is “Man of Constant Sorrow.” How did that come about and did you expect it to take off the way it has?
Frankly, it really took us by surprise how the single has really caught fire! It is a good surprise though, I will tell you that! The cover came about because I have been a huge fan of the movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” I love the movie and the song. When I heard Ralph Stanley sing it on the Grammys the year they were up for the award, it sent chills down my spine. I have always thought about that moment. When we were kicking around the idea of doing a cover for the record, I thought, “Why don’t we try that?” When we dug into it, I did research for the song and found out that it was a really old song and it wasn’t just written for the movie. It is an old folk song that has really muddy origins. For example, the guy that they credit with writing it says he is not sure that he wrote it! [laughs] I don’t know if that dude is too much of a partier, if he just doesn’t remember writing it or what the story is. If you believe what Wikipedia says, he may have borrowed heavily from an old Baptist hymn or he may have borrowed heavily from an old folk song from Ireland that may even be a hundred years older than that! That whole mystery and mystique around the song made me say, “Wow! That goes right along with the story of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the Devil down at the crossroads.” That mystique seemed very rock ‘n’ roll to me! I thought it could be a great rock ‘n’ roll song which made it all the more exciting to cut that song.
You guys are pouring your blood, sweat and tears into this album. I am sure there will be some relief when it is out there but also a time to celebrate. What are you doing to mark the occasion?
We are kicking off the tour at The Recher Theatre in Towson, Md. We are going to do the normal CD release party and we will have the physical copies there with us. We are having a lot of other bands there on the bill with us. I don’t know, maybe we will have some dancing girls up there with us and I don’t know, maybe we will do some live healings on stage! [laughs]
Sounds like it has potential to be an interesting evening! [laughs] You are probably at a good point to reflect on your body of work. How do you feel you evolved as an artist through the years?
Shew, I hope that I am writing better songs. Man, I go back and I listen to some of the early stuff and — I know a lot of people really love the first records that I put out. However, when I go back and listen to it or do the occasional reunion show with some of the bands that I have been in, I cringe at what I was doing songwriting wise. But it is a process, I mean, it is a learning process and hopefully I have evolved as a songwriter and artist. It is the only thing you can hope! It really is all left up to the public and whether they feel that way or not and if I strike a cord with a massive amount of people or not. I guess that will be the true test and if something lives on, like “Man of Constant Sorrow,” which has been around for at least a hundred years! I could dream of writing something that would last that long but realistically, uh, I don’t know!!! [laughs] I can hope though!
You are definitely writing from a lot of personal experiences on this record. I was curious to hear what you might consider the defining moment in your career so far?
I don’t know. Ya know, as a performer, I have had a lot of great ups in my career and I really can’t complain. I have had some serious lows too! [laughs] The last tour, playing amphitheaters and opening the main stage of Cruefest was great. I can’t pick one of those nights because so many of them were stellar. We got the opportunity to play Hershey Stadium with this band alongside Jon Bon Jovi. That was great! At one point, I got to jump on stage with Mötley Crüe and sing one of their songs with them a few times. That was a freaky experience! I was up there singing and I am standing there next to Vince Neil. He looks at me and our eyes met and I was like, “Uh, oh, oh, uh, I don’t know what the next word is!” [laughs] I completely forgot the words because I was starstruck. I am actually on stage at Madison Square Garden with Mötley Crüe! That was a trip, man! If someone would have told me 10 or 15 years ago that, that was going to happen, I would have told them they were out of their freakin’ mind! [laughs]
You’ve seen the music industry change so much through the years. What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in the music industry in this current climate?
Learn to do a little bit of everything, whether it is web development, video editing and, most importantly, songwriting. Learn how to write songs and to play your instrument as well as you can. Usually, the first thing that I tell anyone who is younger, is to get together with other like minded people and get a band together. Get that group together and start playing off of each other. I think that is probably the best thing you can do — learn how to be a band. I think that is the first step. There are a lot of bands that are able to do a little bit of everything and it gets tougher out here all of the time. At the same time, the rulebooks have been thrown out the window, so the music industry, right now, is kinda like the Wild West. Anything goes and anything can happen! Just look at how I got the deal with Eleven Seven Music that we were talking about earlier. It was completely unconventional. If anyone told me that is how they got their record deal, I would have told them that was total horseshit. But it happened, it happened to me. I had gotten other record deals the traditional way where you showcase, you court and it takes forever. There are all sorts of scenarios now and there is no set way of getting there. Just keep your dream alive, keep doing what you are doing and work as hard as you can.
It sounds like you are in a good place creatively. In your opinion, what does the future hold for Charm CIty Devils? Both long term and short?
Short term, we are going to get out there on the road and play all of the towns where the radio stations have been playing us to give back. We are playing towns like Colorado Springs, Boise, Spokane, Denver, Salt Lake City, Cedar Rapids and Waterloo. A bunch of dates were just added today like Johnson City, Tennessee, Shreveport, Louisiana and Greenville, North Carolina. Right after the Recher Theater show, we are going to Columbus, Ohio and we will be hitting Lansing, Michigan right after that and then Chicago. We are going to play every nook and cranny where they are supporting us! There are stations that are playing us that we are still finding out about that we didn’t even know were on the record as they say. We were just added to Rocklahoma as well and it is something we are very excited about! Long term, I am just going to keep going! Until I am in the ground and they throw dirt on me, I am going to keep writing and chasing after this crazy dream of mine! I’m too dumb to quit! [laughs]
Is there anything else you want to tell your fans out there?
Yeah! You can find our official website at www.charmcitydevils.com. Sign up for our e-mail list and write to us on Facebook. You can find it at www.facebook.com/charmcitydevils. We write back and we try to be really good about that! After all, the fans are the ones who enable us to do what we love to do.
Awesome! We appreciate your time today, John. We look forward to spreading the word on the album and wish you guys all the best out there on the road!
Thanks, man! I really appreciate that! Take care!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.