Exclusive Interview with John Allen – Vocalist with Charm City Devils

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Maine Music News recently discovered a new band that we think many of our readers will find as interesting and power packed as we do.  The band?  Charm City Devils.  Chris recently chatted with Charm City Devils lead singer John Allen.  

MMN – Charm City Devils is opening for Hinder and Candlebox at the State Theatre in Portland on Sept 20th. Let’s get the fans out for the show – what can we expect when we see a Charm City Devils show?

JA – Baltimore bands that get signed, tend to be pretty entertaining live acts. That is one of the things that we pride ourselves on. I can actually sing, the guys in the band can play. Even though it is real straight ahead rock, we are not crazy virtuoso guys that are going to get up there and jack off on stage for an hour. Our set is song driven, but it is fun. It may harken back to another time and music of let’s go out and party and get laid and have a good time, man. It is entertainment, we are not going to get up there and stare at our shoes and sing about our mother abusing us. It is not about that. The songs on the record may have some deeper meaning, however, in the live setting we are playing high-energy stuff.

MMN – Your album SINS was released back in April of 2012. How has that been received? Have you gotten the traction you had hoped for from its release?

JA – What happened last year was crazy. We really didn’t think anything was going to come of it. We released “Man of Constant Sorrow,” our first single in January of 2012. We were sitting around worried that nothing was happening for the first couple of weeks. Of course, being unrealistic musicians we thought it would take off like crazy, but after about the second or third week, it actually did. It started catching on out West. We wound up with a Top 20 single out of it. The record actually came out in April of 2012 on a small label, Fat Lady Music, owned by a friend of mine. The single kept building through the spring, and it reached its pinnacle in June of last year, so much so that a bigger label came and bought out the contract, which does not happen a whole lot in this business. The new label is eOne Music, and they re-released the record at the end of July last year so it came out July 31st with bonus tracks, SINS, deluxe version.

MMN – Let’s talk about your version of “Man of Constant Sorrow.” This was originally released as a bluegrass hit for the movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou? the first time I heard your version I thought, “Holy Shit, these guys made that entirely their own!” Is there a story here? What were you guys thinking or doing that created this song?

JA – We talked about doing a cover and wanted to do something that was outside the box. We talked about other tunes and they all seemed that they would be a typical cover that a band like ours would do. When that one was brought up, I initially thought it was crazy, but you mentioned the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? and whenever that movie comes on, my wife and I watch it, we love it. I dug into the song and I found out that it is actually over 100 years old. They think that Dick Burnett, a blind fiddler from Kentucky wrote it, but when he was asked, he responded that “maybe I did.” So, I don’t know for sure, the origins are definitely murky and if you read Wikipedia it says that parts of it, or the gist of the song, may even go back an additional 100 years back to the old country, Ireland.

When we first started messing with the song, it was actually being done in double time, it was fast. It was not until we got into the studio with the producer that we cut it in half and gave it that real dark vibe. He really added a nice vibe with the backward vocals in the front giving it kind of a demonic thing. It’s really groovy. It struck a chord with people. You figure, if the song has lasted at least 100 years, there has to be something to it. We were fortunate that our version struck a chord as well. We did dismantle it, and we have had a few hate emails and comments but there has only been like two or three. One was hilarious; it was so over the top – full of hatred. To elicit that emotional response, I told the guys that we are doing something right. Now people are really responding to it, mostly positive and just a couple of negative ones. There was one lady from out West and she said, “What you did to that song was an abortion, you should all die in a fire.” It was just so wrong what she wrote that it was hilarious and unbelievable.

MMN – Can you talk about the videos you have out for “Man of Constant Sorrow?”

JA – There are currently two versions. There is a “Man of Constant Sorrow” video with the band in it, and we shot that here at my house and at our practice space. It was really low budget, cost us like $100. I think that is what we paid the model. It is not one of those $100,000 – $200,000 videos, but it gets the point across. We shot it in the woods behind my house. We wanted to have a dark story behind it, especially, if you watch the lyric video, which has over half a million views. The song is so old that it is public domain so for the lyric video, our bass player went and found a bunch of stock file that was public domain as well. One was one of the earliest silent movies made, Dr. Jekyll and Mr., Hyde. I think it has Drew Barrymore’s great great grandfather in it, Lionel Barrymore. If you think the original band video is creepy, you have to check out the lyric video. It is super creepy! It really goes with the whole video of the song as well.

MMN – Your music is fresh while feeling familiar at the same time. There is something very unique and fun here. Talk about your how the band came to this sound. What are your influences? When do you know you have a Charm City Devils song?

JA – I originally played drums in a band called SR-71, which was more of a punk/pop band. My roots lie in blues-based rock, ACDC, Led Zeppelin, stuff like that. I am a big fan of Delta blues, specifically Robert Johnson. The reason I found Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, and Willie Dixon, I am a history geek and have read about Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones and their origins, and they kept citing Robert Johnson as they felt he was the father of rock and roll. I made it my business to find his recordings and try to check out the music that influenced these giants who in turn have been influencing people for years and years. That is where the sound comes from in our music.

On the other hand, I really love bands like the Ramones, Misfits, and punk rock stuff like the Sex Pistols. I could never really figure out how to put the two together until I started singing. At the end of SR-71 I wrote a couple of the songs and sang into a distortion box as I really was not comfortable with my vocals yet. I played sloppy guitar on it, even though I was a drummer. That is how this band was formed.

We started playing around the Maryland area. I should have called the initial band Farm Team since all of my original band members kept getting plucked out for other bands. I am thankful that happened as I called up some friends of mine that I had played in other bands with. Anthony and Victor are actually brothers and then I got Nick into the fold. He was a guitar player in my first band, and we had already recorded a bunch of stuff. I had this song called “Lets Rock and Roll.” A local radio station, 98 Rock, saw us play it live one night, and they added it to their play list. From there we got a deal 2-3 months after Nick’s arrival. It happened pretty quickly, and in my experience, it never happens that easily. We were signed to Eleven Seven, Nikki Sixx is the President of that label.

It was the weirdest situation. I sent them an email, saying hey I have this song that is being played on the radio, I just need someone to partner up with. Here is my resume, what I have done with SR-71, we had a couple hits. A couple days later, I receive a phone call asking me about the band, etc. Next thing I know they are asking me to come to New York to meet with them. I went to New York and had a lunch meeting with them. At the end of lunch, the CEO, Allan said, “Let’s do this.” I was shocked, because it is never this easy. But once the lawyers got involved, it took another 7 months before the deal was signed.

I could not believe it happened like that. Usually you have to showcase for the boss, and then you have to do it for his boss, and anywhere along the line, someone can say no. Or someone gets fired, and the deal goes out the window. However that was not the case. We got the deal, they put us on CrueFest2, and we toured the country opening for Motley Crue, Godsmack, Theory of a Deadman, and Drowning Pool on the main stage of CrueFest.

It was my first experience touring as a singer out in front of the band. Talk about crazy. I toured forever as a drummer. To do that as my first time, talk about being thrown out in the deep end. It was definitely a different situation. It is a huge adjustment. Here we are three years later. I think I am finally getting a good handle for fronting the band. I wish I had more experience under my belt back then. We pretty much toured all last year, and now it is clicking on all cylinders so to speak. It takes time, repetition, muscle memory, and all that kind of thing.

MMN – Many of our readers will know your latest single “Devil is a Woman” because it is getting great airplay on Sirius XM Octane. I hear it all the time. Can you talk a little about this song? Who is this woman?

JA – You know, I don’t really know who specifically the woman is. The song is sort of a stream of consciousness in a lot of parts. It might just be women in general. I think the tale is in the pre chorus- never trust anyone. It is basically telling you right from the get, if you think that you can totally trust anyone, just be wary. That is the cautionary tale, if you will.

MMN – So there is no specific instance or heartbreak?

JA – Oh man, there have been many, there have been so many (laughs). How can I just name one? I have been married for 15 years now and I am happy. Things muddy over the years.

MMN – Music is a business – we sometimes forget that. You released SINS on a different label than your first album. What made you move from Eleven Seven to Fat Lady Music?

JA – The basic crux of the situation is they went to radio with the single, and radio did not embrace it. Because of that they basically were done with us. It happens. When you are dealing with labels, sometimes someone gets fired, it could be your champion with the label. Sometimes you may not get along with someone at the label. There is a personal aspect as well.

When I went to the initial meeting. The CEO told me, “I don’t like new bands.” Then he proceeded to tell me that what he does is take old bands and helps them have a comeback. He worked with Meatloaf a few years back. That is what he does well at. He was right. At the time it did not bother me that he was so forthright. I thought, well, there is always a first time to break a new band. Everyone at the label seemed like they wanted to break a new band. Unfortunately, they tried to break two new bands at the same time – it was us and a band called The Last Vegas. I have seen major labels that have done that, releasing two baby bands at the same time, and it was a struggle for them to do it, let alone an indie label. I think strategically that was a tough thing for them to do.

In the end, it came down to radio. The station in town had been playing our song a full year and a half prior to Eleven Seven releasing it. So when Eleven Seven released it, they could not play it any more. Once you hit the 500 spin mark with radio, no matter how big the song it, stations want to pull off of it. They think at 500 spins, it is a burnout. We were well over that with “Lets Rock and Roll.” The problem was that here we were one and a half years later, and we really needed our hometown station to spearhead the ad campaign for us. At that point, we were trying to get added to play lists all over the country, it’s called getting an “Add.” The more Add’s you get, the more spins you get, and the business works on momentum. When it looks like all the stations are adding, then all the other stations follow suit, wondering why are they adding them and why are they increasing spins, we should increase spins too. It is all a big hype machine. So for us, timing wise, it was just out of sync.

MMN – Today when you are going out trying to get added to playlists at different stations you have traditional stations and you also have satellite. When you are trying to get picked up by the stations, do you have to work within a promotions budget?

JA – The label generally has a promotions budget, however Sirius XM started playing ‘”Devil is a Woman” on their own through me reaching out to them. That was really cool. Them doing that was just mind blowing. They have been so good to us, and we are so thankful to them. That format, because it is nationwide and almost everyone has Sirius XM in their cars, is an incredible medium, and it’s very important to new bands like us.

MMN – Can you talk about the challenges you are facing as a new band? What would you like your fans to know about being new in this modern digital age of music? What can they do to help you out?

JA – I don’t know if it is really a modern age problem. I think about this a lot, and as a kid I didn’t realize that the reason a band is on tour or the reason a band is making television appearances is that they have a new album out or they have a new album coming out. I never put that together. If I liked a band, I went out and bought their record. If was really into them, I went out and bought their whole catalog.

I think fans need to know that if you really like a band, you need to buy their music. You need to purchase a hard copy or download it from iTunes, but you need to purchase it. It is like the movie business – when you release a new record if you don’t have a big first week, if the record label does not see a lot of sales, they lose heart. The days of things building, an underground phenomenon, slowly increasing sales just does not happen anymore. One reason it can’t happen is there is just so much music out there competing for buyers’ dollars and fans’ attention.

If you really like a band, you got to get on it when the getting is good. If you don’t, bands get dropped, they break up, it’s over before it really has a chance to begin and become something. I think that is the biggest challenge.

Plus the market has become a singles driven market. That has been a huge shift as well.

MMN – When you are putting an album together is that part of your thought process?

JA – Mostly I am just trying to write the best song that I can. I don’t have a concept album vibe going on. Ever. I’m not that highbrow to say that I am going to write a concept album. I am writing either an inspiration that I come up with or a melody that I think of or a guitar riff that I am messing around with or a beat. It all springs from there. I am trying to make that thing as good as I possibly can. It ends up becoming an obsession to make it as good as I can. Whether that song becomes a single or an album cut? That remains to be seen when it starts off as nothing.

The thought process for me really is to make it as great as I can. I used to really be protective and sensitive of my songs, you know everyone of them are like my children. After you write so many of them, they are kind of like taking a shit. Some are more impressive than others. Some you have to work real hard at, and some come out real easy, and you are like look at that, that’s great. I have gotten over being sensitive about it.

MMN – With that said, what are some of your favorite things about creating music, being on the road? – What drives you to get up and do what you do?

JA – Creating music is one of my favorite things to do. I can sit down in my basement studio and work for hours trying to get something perfected. The creative process to me is just one of the most fulfilling things out there.

Then when you shift gears, playing live for years has been my main sense of satisfaction due to the immediate feedback you are getting from the crowd. You know if what you are doing is working or not. There is nothing like it when you play a live show. You hear the crowd or just walking on stage, you hear the crowd yelling your name, and going crazy, that is just an incredible feeling.

I was talking to this guy a long time ago who had been around the Baltimore scene playing clubs. He joined a bigger band, and he said he was walking down the ramp to an arena when the house lights went down and 10,000 people just roared. He realized that all those years of slugging it out, beating his brains out in the clubs, made it worthwhile for those few seconds. That connection is just fantastic.

MMN – I noticed that you guys are on the line up for the Monsters of Rock Cruise. Can you talk about how you got booked onto the cruise?

JA – Our managers knew someone who is involved with the cruise and they called us up. I was actually getting ready to get on a cruise in Greece when he called me up and asked me if we wanted to do it. I have never seen Cinderella. I am a fan and can’t wait to see those guys. Kix are from our area, we love those guys and are huge fans. I took a couple vocal lessons from Steve. We have known them forever. It will be great to get to hang out with them for a few days on the cruise. They are sweethearts.

MMN – Artists are fans, too. Anyone on the MRC you’re looking forward to meeting, maybe getting to chat with?

JA – Cinderella definitely, as I have never seen them. Tesla, as I love Jeff Keith’s voice, he has such a nice raspy blues voice. Y&T, love me some Y&T, I have never seen them. Love Hate should be good as well.

MMN – When can we look for new music from Charm City Devils?

JA – We have been writing and recording. I just did an actual trip and demoed some stuff for the producer that did the last record, Skidd Mills. We are starting to play this weekend, and I am hoping to put a couple new songs into the set. That is the other thing, too. With people recording shows, you might not want to play something live before it is ready. That is always a concern. We are trying to figure that out as we move forward in this new millennium.

MMN – John, you have been incredible gracious with your time and your responses, we greatly appreciate it, and we are really looking forward to catching your set at the State Theater, opening for Hinder and Candlebox, on September 20th, 2013.

JA – No worries, I appreciate you doing this.

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