INTERVIEW: John Allen of CHARM CITY DEVILS (April 2015)

Though they’ve been a national act since Mötley Crüe’s Nikki Sixx signed and named them in 2009, no band flies the flag of Baltimore higher than Charm City Devils. (“Charm City” is a nickname for Baltimore.) Their blue-collar attitude and no-nonsense, blues-based hard rock embody their hometown while connecting to a long tradition of some of the rock music’s greatest acts. Prior to their recent headlining gig at a show dubbed the Baltimore Loud Festival at Rams Head Live, Live Metal’s Greg Maki sat down with frontman John Allen to discuss the Baltimore music scene, the band’s latest album (2014’s “Battles”) and more.

LIVE METAL: Well, since they’re calling this thing tonight the Baltimore Loud Festival, I thought we’d start by talking a little bit about the Baltimore music scene. How do you think it’s doing these days?

John Allen of Charm City Devils

JOHN ALLEN: Well, I think the music scene in general, as far as the live scene, is tougher maybe than it had been in years past. But there’s a lot of people making music all over the country, all over the world, with home recording becoming more affordable—and the quality is insane. So more and more people are making music all the time. The festival is really just a way to kind of try to support that and try to support local bands. We have a bunch of locals on the show tonight.

There are fewer places to play around here now, aren’t there?

Yeah, I guess, with Recher (Theatre) closing a year or so ago. You’ve got Rams Head Live, you’ve got Baltimore Soundstage—two great venues. And then a couple other places outside of the city, like Fish Head Cantina, supporting original, live music. It can be a tough sell, I guess, with patrons or whatever. You can go and see either a cover band or hear a DJ play your exact songs that you’re used to hearing on the radio. Sometimes it’s tough to play new material to someone and have them respond instantly. I know with just working singles to the radio, people like familiarity, and it takes, sometimes, a song being on the radio for a month before casual listeners get used to it enough to where they’re “Oh, I like that.” Sometimes it can be a daunting task, but you love what you do, so you get out there, you do it, and hopefully, that enthusiasm is conveyed to the audience and they can feel that, and at the same time, they’re responding to what you’re writing.

It seems like you and your band, having been a national act for several years now, have become sort of the leaders of this Baltimore scene. Do you feel any responsibility to that?

Yeah, certainly. That’s one of the reasons why (we’re) trying to do this festival, actually, is feeling that responsibility and trying to bring up the next crop of bands. Bad Seed Rising—one in particular—we try to put them on as many shows as possible around the region. They’re a national act themselves, with being signed to Roadrunner Records. They’re gonna have a really big year this year. They’ve got a great-sounding record, and they’ve got a great tour coming up in the summer. They’re rolling. And they’re kids, so they’ve got so much future ahead of them. They’ve got so much time, and they’re a fantastic band. If you can, see them live. They’re incredible.

For you, personally, I’m sure it must be different playing a show here in Baltimore as opposed to somewhere else. How?

What’s really weird is that Baltimore is always harder for me for some reason, because I put a lot of pressure on myself. I want to be so good, I want to be so perfect for my friends and family and the hometown fans that it has a different kind of feeling for us. It’s not like I just rolled into town this morning or this afternoon and I’m rolling out later on tonight or the next morning and I can not worry about it. I do that to myself, though. I gotta live here. I gotta look people in the eye or whatever. So I want it to be good. I care, you know? It’s great, though. It’s great playing the hometown. It’s great to have that kind of pressure, too, to up your game.

Do you do anything to maintain your voice?

I probably do everything wrong. I do everything you’re not supposed to do. I drink a ton of coffee and just do a lot of caffeine. I drink during the set. I drink Captain Morgan and whatever happens to be handy onstage. I talk all day usually. I don’t get enough sleep when I’m on the road. I do warm up a little bit. That’s kind of a geeky thing to admit to. But at this stage, that’s the only thing that I do that’s sort of proper, just to try to get myself ready to do the show. And then sometimes I go out there and the first song is really the warm-up. That’s the one where I’m kind of blowing it out, and I’m like, yeah, I should’ve maybe sang this song backstage (laughs)

It seems like from the first album to the new one, your voice has changed a little bit. It seems like it’s gotten a little deeper, a little grittier. Is there any reason why?

Yeah. I don’t know. With every record, I try to push the envelope. I sing higher on every record, and I sing, I guess, maybe a little lower on every record. My range has expanded a lot. I couldn’t sing low for years, and I’ve been trying to get down there. So yeah, it’s been an evolution. I like the aggressive sounds when I sing kind of husky and rougher as opposed to a clean-sounding voice; it just doesn’t seem rock to me. I’m a pretty high register. I’m a natural tenor, so for me to sing lower, it’s tougher for me.

Speaking of evolution, how do you think you’ve evolved as a frontman? Since this is the first band where you’ve done that.

I wish I had this many shows under my belt when I was on Crüe Fest 2. Looking back on it, I was really kind of thrown into the deep end of the pool. But you have the opportunity, you gotta take it. Now, me and the band, we’re pretty seasoned as far as touring goes. It’s a different ballgame for us live, I think. I think we’ve improved by leaps and bounds. Here it is, three or four or five years later—we should be. That’s what touring does for a band. It makes you better.

s-l640The new album, “Battles”—does the title refer to the sort of battles we face in everyday life?

Yeah. I thought it was a cool title, because it could be talking about really focused, small things, but it could be talking about larger issues, as well. Yeah, everyday things that you face, struggles within yourself—that’s kind of what the artwork is trying to capture. The universal battles between the good in you and the evil in you, that bad devil on your shoulder as opposed to the angel trying to get you to do the right thing. Of course, the battles with addiction. I have a few friends that go through that, and we lost one to that. I just thought it was a pretty universal, kind of wide open name for the record.

“Shots,” which when you first listen to it, sounds like a good-time, party song, is about that kind of thing, right?

Exactly, right, yeah. When I wrote the chorus, I thought, “Yeah, this sounds like a call to go and do cocaine and drink.” And I thought, “I don’t really want to do that. I don’t want to write a song that says that.” So I made the verses more about the darker side of it and how I’m sitting there just waiting for the phone call that tells me one of my best friends in the world just died. I actually wrote the song for a friend, and another friend succumbed to issues. Fortunately, the guy I wrote it for is still kicking around and he’s battling his demons, and every day I think about him and hope that he pulls through it.

What are some of your favorite songs from the album? Are there a couple that really stand out to you or are you so close to all of them?

Yeah, it’s tough when you do a record. I usually put it away for a while and then go back to it, and I’ll listen. I listened to it a couple weeks ago, and I was like, “Wow, that’s a really good moment there. That’s a really good vibe.” I really love the sound of “Crucify,” the groove and how down and dirty, and just a nasty, kind of bluesy groove. “Want” is another one that’s got a Southern kind of slow burn kind of vibe to it. Personally, I really like “Destiny” a lot. That’s more of a slow tempo kind of song, more of an anthemic kind of tune. Another we just started playing live is “Rich N Famous.” It’s just got this nasty, kind of Southern groove to it, also, and I just dig that song.

Do you find that after you write these songs and work on them in the studio kind of away from everything that when you play them live, they take on a new life or people react to them differently than you expected?

There are songs that surprise you. One case in point on the last record was “Love N’ War,” which was a song that was kind of towards the end of the record that nobody really gave much credence to. They were just like, “Yeah, it’s at the end of the record. Let’s really concentrate on the singles” and blah blah blah. I was sitting there going, “Well, wait a second. Let’s put more on the song. Let’s really, really, really polish it and put some more layers on it.” We ran out of time, really, with that one. When we played the song out the first time, the crowd exploded at the end of it. And I think a lot of it has to do with tempo. It’s a fast-tempo song, it’s really in your face, there’s a dual guitar solo. The song is just made for the live setting, and that’s kind of where I come from.

I grew up playing shows and trying to squeeze writing in between. A lot of times, when I get inspired to write a song, it’s usually with that energy and that kind of live vibe in mind when those ideas first spring forth. It sucks because most songs you probably hear on the radio are mid-tempo, they’re not those fast-paced songs that work live really well. I’ve gotta figure it out one of these days.

I see that with a lot of bands, where they have some radio hits and they have to keep playing those, and they’re kind of the softer songs. They could be so much better live if they would just play the good stuff, but they have to play the hits.

It’s hard, yeah, because you gotta play those songs, and if they’re mid or slow tempo, man, it can really zap the energy out of that set. We don’t have that problem. (laughs) For better or for worse. Most of our stuff is pretty in your face and up tempo and rockin’.

Tomorrow is Record Store Day, which I think is a really fun thing. So along those lines, how do you get your music these days?

11147080_10152941840468305_8507857107174066419_n.jpgI mostly download stuff, yeah. I’m using Spotify a little bit. You can find some really cool stuff on that service. Not to be a shill for Spotify, but I pulled up some Led Zeppelin stuff, and it just was a treasure trove of rough mixes and stuff. I think it was a work tape of them working the song out. It was really cool. It was “Gallows Pole.” I think it was a completely different vocal track and everything. I think it was the skeleton of the song, and then Jimmy Page probably went back and added to it and added to it and built the track up, and then probably did a real vocal take. I don’t know for certain, of course, but it’s just interesting to hear that stuff. I kind of do sort of the same thing. I work on stuff, and gosh, I hope it doesn’t leak out like that. (laughs) ‘Cause his stuff sounds great; mine does not.

So moving forward with the band, what kind of goals do you have?

I don’t know. Just writing the best songs you possibly can. That’s always sort of the goal. I write what I like and just keep on keepin’ on. We love what we do. Every time we play live shows across the country for new audiences, we always turn them on. We go out, we meet the crowds at the end of the set. It’s awesome to hear people talk. We were just outside of Chicago, we were playing with Hinder, and this guy was like, “Man, I heard you guys’ name, heard you were on the bill. I never heard you before, man. I thought you guys were gonna suck!” But he’s like, “You guys blew me away!” He couldn’t stop. He was gushing, like going crazy. He bought two shirts and both CDs we had for sale. He was over the top. But to hear that honesty was great. The name turned him off, but we turned him on live when we played.

Maybe it’s because I’m from Maryland, but I love the band name.

Yeah, well, when Nikki Sixx names you, you stick with it. (laughs)

Do you have any kind of bucket list of things you want to do, bands to tour with?

Oh yeah. It’s huge, though. I’m such a huge fan. Aerosmith, I would love to open for them. My friend just got to write with Steven Tyler, and I was so jealous. KISS. As a kid, I was a huge KISS fan, of course. They’re the ones that set me on this path. Damn you, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley! (laughs) We did get to play with Ace (Frehley) just a couple months ago. Who else? There’s so many. I’d love to meet Jack White. Of course, Jimmy Page. I’d doof it all up, though. I’d say the wrong thing. I try to stay away from the big artists, the big stars whenever we support them, ‘cause I’m such a goober. I’m such a fan. I’m never the cool guy around big rock stars.

Anything else you’d like to say?

Just hit us up on Facebook and all that jazz—Instagram, Twitter. We write back.

Tour plans for the summer?

I think we’re gonna lay low this summer. We toured all last summer. Did Winery Dogs and Slash. So this year, I think we need to chill for a little bit and get writing for the next record.


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