CHARM CITY DEVILS–John Allen (lead vocals), Ted Merrill (guitar), Jason Heiser (drums) and Rick Reynolds (bass)–are proud of their native hometown of Baltimore, MD, and they’re not afraid to wear their hearts on their sleeves. They even named themselves (at the suggestion of then-Eleven Seven Music label President Nikki Sixx) after Baltimore’s nickname, of which it was anointed in the ‘70s. Most recently, their beloved city has been described as a “rodent infested mess” and a place where “no human being would want to live.” The band, however, has another side to that narrative.
In their own words: “We can write about CHARM CITY DEVILS returning to their bluesy, modern-edged, and southern-tinged hard rock anthems. We also can tell you about the desire to rock the masses, but you have heard all the puffery before. Rather than bore you with the same old bio, we want to give it to you straight. We are Baltimore and Baltimore is in all of us! We have lived our whole lives in and around this city. Baltimore was once vibrant. The town had jobs, low crime and was a place to truly call home. While it is tough to argue that Baltimore doesn’t have a myriad of issues, we still want to tell the story of what still thrives here, which is the music.
Real life experiences are what we write about, what we sing about and what we care about. It’s gut wrenching to see our once “Charmed City” fall to ruin. We all want to be a part of something grand and we all want to have a sense of pride, not only in ourselves, but also in our community.
We have lost friends to addiction. We have moved venues due to safety. We have been the victim of robbery, and almost every night the local news the leadoff story is about a murder. Yet we pray that one day, this will turn around and peace and love will conquer, but we know we are far cry from that salvation. We write and play music for the distraction from all the negativity and anxiety that surrounds us. Through personal experience we are reminded that when things are really bad, and we mean really bad, we have the outlet of music to channel all those emotions and hope that those that feel the same way can find the same hope through our songs.
Baltimore to us is what Detroit is to Kid Rock or Boston is to Aerosmith. It keeps us grounded, motivated, and inspired. It’s the main reason we chose this profession and why we will always pursue our dreams.
If nothing else, the return of the CHARM CITY DEVILS is a reminder that not all the news in Baltimore is bleak and in the face of adversity we have to “Roll on, Roll on, on like a Skipping Stone!”
The band has dedicated their fourth studio release, a five-song EP appropriately titled “1904″ (which refers to the year of the great fire that burned the city to the ground as evidenced on the EP’s cover), to their favorite metropolis and are inviting all their fans to join in and show the world how great and resilient it truly is. “1904” will be released November 22 via Broken World Records. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Charm City Devil’s frontman John Allen to discuss his unique journey as a musician, the return of CCD, and the evolution of Baltimore’s music scene. Along the way, he offers up a inside look at his creative process, the making of their powerful new EP, and what the future may hold for the band.
You have dedicated your life to rock ‘n’ roll. How did music first take hold?
My earliest memories of music are my mom singing around the house. My parents were not very musical, neither of them played an instrument, but they loved music. We had sort of an eclectic record collection. When I was old enough to be cognizant of such things, I would go through the records and start pulling things out. I discovered they had some Beatles singles on little 45s and some Beach Boys stuff. That was the stuff I gravitated to early one, more so than their Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass LP or the Frank Sinatra records. Nowadays, I might broaden my horizons and check that stuff out but as a kid, it didn’t appeal to me, but the Beatles and The Beach Boys sure did! In Baltimore, we lived in row houses and my next-door neighbor started to have a band. The first guitar riff he learned was ‘Smoke On The Water,’ so I heard that blasting through the walls at full blast! [laughs] He had an Ampeg stack and I was like, “What is this!” Around the same time, kids in my neighborhood started getting instruments and started playing rock, so that’s how I started down the rock ‘n’ roll path.
What went into finding your creative voice as an artist?
You know, to be completely honest, I think I’m still trying to find my voice as an artist. To me, lead singing is a fairly new thing. I have sung in other groups as a backup vocalist but I’m still learning to be a better vocalist as far as emoting and getting some true emotion through. For years I played drums and sang backups. When you’re a backup singer, your goal is to blend. As a lead singer, it’s a completely different set of skills. You’re not trying to blend and you’re trying to develop your own sense of style or way to relate emotionally to the listener. I’m still trying to find that. I love it though! Like I said, it’s still a new thing for me but hopefully I’m learning. I’m a slow learner! [laughs] It’s taken me awhile, but I’m lucky enough to be able to do that!
As you said, you started your career behind the drum kit. What ultimately brought you into the role as a frontman?
I guess the impetus was that I wrote a song called ‘Burn Baby Burn.’ I didn’t think it really fit with the band I was playing drums for and I thought, “Well, it’s now or never. If I’m ever going to take the bull by the horns and be the guy in the band who’s steering the ship — the time is now!” That’s what I did. That song became 3 and quickly became 6. It wasn’t long before I was almost at a full-length album, so I just kept writing. A year and a half or two years later, I had a deal with Eleven Seven!
Music is something you’ve dedicated your life to. What does rock ‘n’ roll mean to you?
To me, rock ‘n’ roll is an energy. It’s about energy and good times. It’s an electric kind of feeling. I was just thinking last week about the sound of an electric guitar. Can you imagine what people would have thought if they heard the sound of an electric guitar 100, 150 or 200 years ago. Who thought of putting a steel string across a piece of wood and making a pickup? [laughs] When I hear a power chord, I’ve never done heroin but it’s like heroin for my ears! That is what rock ‘n’ roll is to me – it’s electric, it’s a rush, and it lives and breathes inside of me!
What does it take to keep a band thriving and moving forward in this day and age?
When I figure that out, I will let you know, man! [laughs] It’s very tough! It’s something I was thinking about when I sat back about a month ago. I talk to Shannon Larkin from Godsmack every once and awhile. I went and saw them when they were in Baltimore and it was probably the best I had ever seen them. They were amazing! About a week later I started thinking about how long they have been around and how they have managed to remain relevant and keep moving forward, which is an incredibly hard thing to do in this business. To keep that momentum going for any stretch of time is no small feat and they’ve been doing it now for years and years. I was marveling at the thought because it wasn’t something I had thought about before. It’s really incredible. For me, I put a lot of energy into this band and I imagine that they do the same, if not more so! I guess I have to have a meeting with them and find out what I’m doing wrong! [laughs]
It’s a tough business and there are so many factors in the business. I was talking to a friend of mine who worked in radio, but not really radio. Anyway, he was telling me that if you’re working somewhere, it’s so easy for someone to walk bye and say, “I don’t like this song…” or “I don’t like the singer’s voice.” It’s so easy to cut something down or knock it and it could go away so quickly just by swaying someone’s opinion. It’s much more difficult for the stars to align, for everything to work out perfectly, and something to hit. That’s why it’s so amazing when something does. Something magical happens when you strike a chord with people and it resonates. It’s rarified air, I think.
In Baltimore, I think it’s awesome every time I see or hear about a new music venue opening up. I think that’s great! It’s really inspiring to know that people are going out to see live music in greater numbers these days because it seems like it had kind of waned there for a while. Now we have venues like Anthem down in D.C., which is pretty huge if you think of it as a club. It’s like the 9:30 Club and an arena had a baby! [laughs] They are talking about a venue of that size opening in Baltimore as well. I think that’s great. I encourage that and I encourage people to get out and support local music, especially guys who are out there writing their own material. They are sweating and bleeding for their art. I don’t want to sound to lofty with that, but we do!
Like you said, it’s not an easy business. What keeps your creative fire burning so strong?
I’ll go back to the learning part of it. It’s like a guy who’s striving to find the answers to the mathematical equation that has yet to be figured out. I’m trying to learn at every point of the journey. I will have a spark of an idea in my head and will go to write that song. Sometimes it comes out very easily. Other times, maybe only a part of it comes out and then it’s a struggle to finish the rest of it, and for whatever reason it didn’t turn out the way you had hoped. It’s a fascinating thing — the struggle to make something out of nothing. You’re creating, out of thin air, something that might make an impression on somebody for years and years to come. I had never really thought about it until a friend of mine told me this story. I guess he was having an argument with his girlfriend and said, “I created something out of nothing!” In essence, he was saying, “What did you do today!” [laughs] I had never thought about what I did in terms of being a creator. It’s just what I have always done. I’ve always tried to be a creative person. Like I said, it’s so easy to knock something down. It’s much more difficult to build something than it is to tear it all down! [laughs] I love music and I love to support the scene as much as I can. I’m outside of the city now, so I don’t get downtown as much as I used to. I really love to hear new bands and new music. I will hear something new and say to myself, “Dammit, man! I wish I wrote that!” [laughs] It’s moments like those that fuel the fire to keep going and continue creating!
What were some of the lessons you learned early on that have impacted you over the course of your career?
Like I said, I’m a slow learner, so I’m not sure I learned too many lessons in my early days. There is one thing that still astounds me, something I saw when I was first coming up. When you’re the hot new ticket in town, you can get away with anything. You can get away with bad behavior and stuff like that but not if you’ve been around for a while. People don’t put up with it. So, to any of the young musicians out there breaking shit in dressing rooms and all that, remember that if you’re the hot new thing, then you’re okay for a little while. You can probably get away with that shit! [laughs] It gets harder after a little while. In all seriousness, I think the main thing I learned along the way is the importance of working on your songwriting. That’s what will eventually make or break you. Coming up in this scene, we were enamored by fantastic live bands because there are a lot of them from this area. As a drummer, I thought, “Shit, if I can twirl my sticks, throw them up in the air and catch ’em, it’ll be great!” The only caveat to that is that people can’t see that when they are listening to your music! Putting on a great show for a couple hundred, a couple thousand people, or twenty thousand people is fun but the way you reach people’s hearts and minds in massive numbers is through writing. Always make improving your songwriting your priority. That’s what I’m trying to do every day of my life!
You’ve certainly been busy! In fact, Charm City Devils’ brand-new ‘1904’ EP is on the way. What made now the time for this release?
There were a couple of factors. We had been messing around with the song called “Skipping Stone” for quite a while. I just thought that it seemed like a Charm City Devils song to me. We have a fan who has been battling cancer for at least a year and a half now. He uses one of our older songs, “Unstoppable,” as a fight song to pump himself up before going in for treatment. It pumps him up, gets him in the right headspace and gets him very positive. That really hit home for me. I thought, I want to play that song live for him again. That led to me thinking, “Shoot! There are a bunch of Charm City Devils songs that I’d like to do live again! Fuck, let’s pull this out of the moth balls and put something out!” So, over the last few months, we brought it all together!
You seem to have a great chemistry with the guys in the band. What do they bring out in your creatively?
I’m an only child, so having a band around me is like having brothers. That’s something I truly love because there is a camaraderie there. It’s the coolest feeling when somebody writes a guitar riff that inspires you to start writing a melody or lyrics or launches the drummer into playing a groove that is really awesome. It’s that connectivity that sparks creativity in the room. Unless you play music with a band, it’s something that isn’t easy to wrap your head around. It’s a great feeling and so inspiring to see something through to fruition.
What can you tell us about the writing process for Charm City Devils?
It’s different on a song by song basis. A lot of times, it’s either something I’m playing on guitar. It might be a riff that turns into a song or I hear something in my head. It might be a lyric or a melody but other times I will hear the music in there too. Of course, sometimes whatever I’m hearing in my head never translate to a recording, which is terrible! Then there are times where Ted [Merrill] will play a killer riff, where in the past it might be Victor [Karrera] or those guys. They would play something, and I’d be like, “Wait! What was that?!” Then I’d record that and take it into the studio in my basement, my laboratory, and start building a song around the riffs. It kind of works like that at first and then we get together to hammer it out. The seeds of the songs might start like that but there is no set pattern on how we might approach writing a song.
Are you a guy who is always writing? What goes into capturing your inspiration?
I’ve got so many voice memos right now that when I tried to play one the other day, it felt like it took a minute and a half to start playing because it’s so bogged down. I need to go through everything and start deleting what I don’t need. A lot of times it’s just revisions of melody or lyric ideas of stuff that I have already been working on, so I could probably safely get rid of a lot of that stuff. Before the voice memos, it used to be tiny scraps of paper all over my house with lyrics jotted down on them. It used to drive my wife FUCKING INSANE! [laughs] So, the voice memo has definitely been a lifesaver. I don’t really journal, but I think I come up with little ideas, almost every single day. It’s little scraps of lyrics here and there. I’ve gone back with this stuff and done a lot of lyrical revisions and melodic revisions as well. I’ve finally come to learn, after years of doing this, that the vocals are really important, man! [laughs] People really listen to those! [laughs] Seriously, lyrics have always been important to me and it’s an important part of the equation. Back in the day, I think it was more about the melodic content than the lyrical content but if you had both it was really phenomenal! Nowadays, it’s everything. I hear stuff on the radio, and I’m blown away by the stuff that people are creating. I think there is so much great stuff out there and it’s an amazing time to be a music fan.
The cover art for the EP perfectly ties everything together. How did you come across it?
Yeah, I was so lucky to find that photo. I think I had looked up “The Great Fire of Baltimore” and it came up. I was like, “This is so weird. This photo is so eerie.” It came about from thinking about the struggles the city has experienced in the past few years and how much I love Baltimore and how much I identify with it. The struggles the city has endured got us thinking about what we could say about it or how we could talk about it. That got me thinking about the Great Fire and how the entire city was almost burned down at point, yet the people of Baltimore rose from it and thrived afterwards. So, the thought being that this has happened to us before, hopefully we can rise from the ashes of these recent struggles and thrive going into the future. At the same time, it’s sort of a metaphor for the band. Charm City Devils was on hiatus and now we’re back. Hopefully, we will be out there thriving along with our beloved city!
Did these new songs lead to anything unexpected?
We have this song that wasn’t quite finished for the ‘1904’ EP. It’s almost like an old pub song. I could see people singing it in Fell’s Point, like the acoustic guys down there. It’s a rollicking sort of tune with some piano, which is really outside of the box of what we’ve normally done. That’s not really ready but it was something we were delving into.
What does this EP mean for Charm City Devils? It seems you are definitely focused on the future.
We have some regional dates to get out there and get our feet wet playing the new material. Unlike our previous releases, we plan to play every song off the EP. That’s something we’ve been working on in preparation for the shows. After the first of the year, we’re working on getting a little tour together. The plan is to release another EP sometime in early 2020 as well.
What’s the best way for fans of the band to help lend their support?
There’s a lot of stuff that fans can do and a lot of stuff that fans have done for us forever. It’s coming out to the shows and it’s calling the radio stations to let them know you’re into the material. It’s sparing the $3.99 for the pre-order for the EP. That would be awesome! It’s only 4 bucks for 5 tracks. We’re also going to have physical CDs available and I’m getting a bundle pack together with T-Shirts, a CD and I’ll probably throw in stickers and guitar picks as well. Anything you can think of we’d appreciate. Definitely check out the new music, stream it, buy it and come out to the shows. All of those things help keep us going. That’s the hardest thing. It’s usually feast or famine in the business. It’s really tough to get along in the middle and actually make a living. We’ve been in the famine situation and I’ve been in the feast situation for a minute! [laughs] Hoping to get back to that one!
Thanks so much for your time today, John. I can’t wait to see what Charm City Devils has in store for us in the year to come. Keep the music coming!
Thank you, Jason. I really appreciate it! I’ll talk to you soon!