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Making a Scene: Baltimore, Maryland's Wham City

Erika Szabo
Photo by Uli Loskot

Goofy, childlike, chaotic, tribal, artsy -- all of these and more describe Wham City, the sprawling collective of artists working together to make Baltimore, Maryland, a community thriving on wild abandon and mutual support.

Whether blistering with electronic bass or crunching guitar fuzz, music scenes across the globe stimulate and illustrate in a plethora of ways. Every so often, a music scene will come along and bite the lucky few who dare to touch it. Today, listeners can’t get their hands off of Wham City, a music scene – or rather, collective – hailing from Baltimore, Maryland.

“There is no single label or word that can describe Baltimore’s music,” states Wham City musician Kevin O’Meara (drummer of Videohippos, Butt Stomach and Blood Baby). “Many people have actually rejected the word 'scene' in favor of 'community.' 'Scene' connotes impermanence, a desire to be aesthetically homogenous, and a lack of genuine feeling or intent; whereas 'community' suggests permanence, diversity and love.” Never has a community rattled our minds and scrambled our senses as much as this frenetic family has.

Early on, Wham City performed to establish their place in art and music. They conducted TV talk shows, video productions, theatrical productions, photo shoots, fashion shows, lecture series, potluck dinners, and dance parties. The collective of musicians/bands, filmmakers, animators, fashion stylists, writers, actors, and artists brought the community together in the strangest of ways. “We all do each other favors -- I scratch your back, you scratch mine,” says Lizz King, Baltimore native and Wham City musician. “That’s how things work at Wham City”.

Despite the loss of their physical headquarters in “Charm City” (a rented industrial loft space once located between Mount Vernon and Charles Village), Wham City is still supported by the city of Baltimore. And by juxtaposing pop-cultural junk they grew up on, Wham City proves they’re not really experimentalists. They merge obsessions with cartoon characters, music, comic book heroes, video games, and cult classic films into gimcrack visual and auditory affectations. They both celebrate these pop cultural hybrids and parody them with abandon.

Wham City musician Jim Triplett (guitarist of Videohippos) recalls, “The scene in Back to the Future when Marty's over at Doc's house and he plugs in an electric guitar into this huge amp, and when he strums a chord the amp blows up, throwing him across the room. That scene and Nirvana years later were the reason I got a guitar and started writing songs.”

During Wham City’s prepubescent days, future names of the Baltimore community were attending SUNY Purchase College in New York. Among the many students studying art and music were Dan Deacon, Dina Kelberman, Jimmy Joe Roche, Peter O’Connell, Adam Endres, and Connor Kizer. Trying to name their new dorm on campus “wham city” garnered little support from the administration, so the name lay dormant for years. Now mostly in their mid-20’s, the co-founders of Wham City were lured from their post-collegiate life in the small town of Purchase, New York, to Baltimore, Maryland, the city of choice for low rent and large space.

“Baltimore is a beautiful city and very affordable,” states King. “There is more potential here and creative freedom. There wasn't an established vibe of pretension like you get in NYC or LA or other places. People here are kind and you can be whomever you become, whoever you were, whoever you are.”

However, the summer after graduation was one of the worst for the Wham City crew. Everyone was practically broke and living in decrepit apartment buildings. Things got a bit more sociable for them after summer ended and school started. Gradually, more and more non-New Yorkers found themselves entwined in the ball of creativity that was Wham City.

As the Baltimore community grew, the Purchase students decided to rent a performance space for holding art and music events. After their November 2004 Walt Disney revue show for Beauty and the Beast (viewable at www.myspace.com/whamcity), a few friends turned into 150+ people by their second performance in February 2005. Soon patrons had to be turned away; maintenance was almost impossible to manage. When Wham City moved a floor up, they decided to put a reasonable price on their sui generis performances and “Wham City 2.0”, or “Charm City”, was born.

Whether incorporating pop culture projector images to the backdrop of a musical performance, or encouraging warm-up routines and impromptu dance-offs, Wham City performers succeeded in their attempts to connect with audiences in ways few had attempted. As shows grew larger and larger, many new Baltimore bands began to form. During the summer of 2006, Wham City’s success inspired others in the area to throw their own shows. With less attention to professionalism, and even less to considerate behavior, some shows would rage on all night -- though not without consequences.

Two years ago, at the peak of their triumphs, the "Charm City" industrial loft space was shut down. “We weren't vandalized, but our building was, which subsequently led to our losing the lease on our place,” explains King. “The owners were under the false impression that we were the primary cause of all the ruckus in the building. That was not the case.” Still, the community stuck together and committed to finding a new space to call home. Currently, most Wham City members spend their time touring the country.

The Last Show at Wham City 1.0

Among the many Wham City members is musical genius Dan Deacon, co-founder and father figure of Wham City. Building his reputation with manic, impossibly catchy pop anthems, Deacon is at the forefront of the Wham City-craze.

“I think all of us are grateful to Dan (Deacon) for spending so much time on the road, taking us with him on tours, and helping us all out so much,” says King. “We're a big family.”

While various Wham City musicians/artists are modestly gaining their share of the popularity, Deacon is gaining national attention for his emotive electronic concoctions. Last summer, he released his sixth full-length album, Spiderman of the Rings, and has been featured in The New York Times, Pitchfork, Insound, and many other publications. Deacon is truly making a name for himself, and his ear for structure and melody are now hallmarks.

With a wide array of musicians sporting bands names as unique as their sound -- Ponytail, Double Dagger, OCDJ, Lexie Mountain Boys, Human Host, Death Set, Butt Stomach, WZT Hearts, Sports Ghosts, Ecstatic Sunshine, Blood Baby, Santa Dads, and many others -- Wham City is a community that continues to grow. Even though the original headquarters no longer exist, the community runs strong. And many have the city of Baltimore to thank for that.

“The city welded itself. The city united Wham City,” claims King. “We would be nothing without each other, and we wouldn't be there without the city. It's a synchronistic relationship.”

Wham City’s all-embracing quality is a big part of the crew’s appeal. The typical underground venue clique is exchanged for friendly welcomes and cheery hellos. With Wham City’s high-spirits, everyone is sure to be invited, but, as Deacon's song and semi-official anthem "Wham City" has it, first you have to climb a mountain of snow. Past the big glen, you will find a castle and fountain. This fountain flows gold into a huge hand held by a bear. The bear has a sick band of goats and cats and pigs and bats with brooms and bats and wings and rats and great big dogs like queens and kings, and everyone plays drums and sings of big sharks, sharp swords, beast knees, bees lords, sweet cakes, mace lakes. Oh mamamamamamama!

Photo by Uli Loskot

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