Wham City

Ben O’Brien of the comedy/music/art/weirdness tour on Gary Busey films, how not to get your DIY venue busted, and Beauty And The Beast

Both the Wham City Comedy Tour and the Dan Deacon song above take their titles from the legendary warehouse space in mid-2000s Baltimore where many of the current members (including Deacon) lived or spent a lot of time. They also used their home as a venue for music, art, and theater shows that got increasingly large—the first Whartscape was held there.

Though the space was shut down years ago, it lives on as a loose collective of friends and artists who (among their other projects) occasionally go on the road as the Wham City Comedy Tour, and they’re bringing their insane, absurdist comedy/music/performance art mélange to Danger Danger Sunday, March 27. The lineup for Sunday: Ben O’Brien, Mason Ross, Robby Rackleff, Josh Kelberman, Adam Endres, Connor Kizer, Erin Gleeson, R.M. O’Brien, Keith Lea, and, distressingly, “Funny Clown.”

We talked with Ben O’Brien about the old Wham City—how not to get busted, the impromptu, occasionally nude Beauty And The Beast musical revue, and Gary Busey movies.

The A.V. Club: When did Wham City exist as a space?

Ben O’Brien: About 2005 to 200 … 7. Or 2008.

AVC: What was Wham City before 2005, and how did the original members find the space?

BO: The original Wham City was five or six people; it was Dan Deacon, Dina Kelberman, Connor Kizer, Adam Enders, Josh Kilber, that crew. We all went to college together, and I was working on projects with some of them, so I didn’t live there, but I spent a lot of time there. They came and rented out a probably 3000- or 4000-square-foot space. Basically—[Pauses.] I guess I can be more candid because this is Philadelphia, not Baltimore. [Laughs.]

There’s this big building we call the Copycat Building, which has probably 40 studios in it, singles and giant spaces. The Copycat Annex is where I live now; all these buildings are owned by this one dude, and you can come in and build your own space. When we got our space here, it was just a giant white box, no rooms; that’s how it is in the Copycat. So when they came in, they had to build it all up.

AVC: Do you happen to remember what the rent was?

BO: The exact rent, I think, was $1800. I think it was less than 50 cents a square foot.

AVC: What do you think it was about Baltimore at the time that made Wham City’s existence and popularity possible?

BO: Baltimore’s always had a lot of potential for things like this; it’s got a really great art school, and the city is something like 60 percent abandoned. You can put on a show in a warehouse and there’s no one living within 20 blocks. The police are all dealing with serious crimes, and you’re kind of left alone in this abandoned city. If you’re smart, they really let you have shows under the radar, which is a huge reason I think why we have a pretty stable music scene.

AVC: Can you describe the place with your senses? What did it look like, what did it sound like, what did it smell like?

BO: [Laughs.] Good question! Well, it’s a beautiful building, with beautiful wooden floors and brick walls and 15- to 20-foot ceilings. But the door to someone’s room would be a hole that they bored through drywall, covered with a tipped-over table that they’d roll out of the way. There were a lot of walls that didn’t go all the way to the ceiling, so you heard everything that was going on in every room, at all times. The floors are kind of sticky and gross-looking; there’s, like, 20 broken, smelly couches; the kitchen’s all covered in mold and mildew … [Laughs.] Basically, everything looked like it was cobbled together from garbage. You kind of felt like you had to take a shower after you were in there.

But still, it was a very exciting place at the time. You’d go there and feel like anything could happen. Just huge shows, and you almost couldn’t understand who could get their shit together enough to organize something that successful. [Laughs.] But it just happened.

Everyone’s grown up since then; it just happens, you can’t live like that forever. [Laughs.] But at the time it was very wild. My friend Adam [Endres], every day, used to dance to music as hard and fast as he could while just smashing bottles.

AVC: You mentioned huge shows—what were some of the biggest events in the space’s history?

BO: One of the things that kicked the space off as a place was Wham City’s production of Beauty And The Beast. It was more of a musical revue, where everyone could take on a character and a song, dressing up and the whole nine. The costumes were clearly cobbled together, but also looked really good. Mrs. Potts was just one of our friends topless. But it was still very true to the songs! [Laughs.]

Then there were the Round Robins; bands lined up around the perimeter in a circle around the audience, and they’d go around playing one song each for, like, four rounds. It can be 10 bands in one show just going around and around and around. It’s this really fun, intense locomotive.

And the first Whartscape was at Wham City; it became one of the biggest DIY, volunteer-run music and art festivals—it actually had its final year in 2010—but it started in 2006 at Wham City.

[Wait for it. Seriously. —ed.]

AVC: What are the hardest things about running a venue out of the place that you live?

BO: Oh my god, where do I start? For our space, it takes at least eight man-hours to get ready, then eight to clean up after the show. And if you want to do it right, you want to be doing your own security, making people aren’t stealing stuff and doing graffiti. And dealing with bands and promotion is very time-consuming; it’s a lot of work, and you don’t get paid nearly enough for it, if at all.

And you live with other people in a building, there’s a lot of politics there. People pulling the fire alarm—that’s the biggest deal; that’s what got Wham City shut down, essentially. There was a lot of Wham City backlash, Wham City hate, pulling the fire alarm, going a little too crazy.

AVC: Are you saying disgruntled neighbors were intentionally pulling the fire alarm in an effort to get you guys shut down, or was it just kids playing Not My House?

BO: There was a contingent in the building, they were really intense—they would mess something up, like break or ruin something, and then write WHAM CITY on it, so Wham City would keep getting blamed for a lot of the destruction that was going on, and we started getting a bad name in the building. But—

AVC: [Laughs.] Wait, what? Are they cartoon characters? Why would anybody believe that you’d break something and then sign your name on it?

BO: [Laughs.] Well, I don’t know, at the time it might not have seemed that ridiculous. But yeah, people were crazy. Anyway, when you pull the fire alarm, the cops and fire department come, and the building manager gets really upset. Graffiti gets the building upset. And then they got kicked out.

That’s the problem with warehouse spaces—they can only get so big. When they get to a certain popularity where every show they’re throwing is huge and crazy, you’re eventually going to break the camel’s back somewhere—the building manager, the police, your neighbors, everyone that lives with you.

AVC: So there’s sort of a set life cycle.

BO: Some of the spaces are really getting it down now. People are getting smarter and older and wiser about it, and it’s good—we’ve had so much time to mess up and do the wrong things.

AVC: Speaking from all your experience doing the wrong things, what other advice would you give to someone trying to run a DIY venue?

BO: Have very good communication with your entire house. If parts of your house aren’t into it or aren’t informed about shows, there’s going to be a problem.

Let all your neighbors know when there’s going to be a show. That’s just courteous. And always stop your show before 2 a.m.

Clean up the common space—people throw beer bottles and crap all over the stairs; clean that up as soon as you can.

Stay sober at your own show. If you get drunk at your own show, you’re going to get in trouble with something.

Make sure every entrance is being watched, there’s someone working the door, and there’s good people all around keeping an eye on things.

Police the outside yourself. Don’t let people stand outside and congregate; that attracts cops.

Don’t overdo it—I know a guy who ran a venue near me who would have a show Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday. It’s impossible to deal with after a while. If you’re doing loud slammers, you’re going to want to do one of those a month; if you’re doing theater, you can get away with as much as you want. But most should keep it to two or three shows a month.

I always get up and make the announcement: “This is a place where people live.” There’s always some freshmen who’ve heard about a place and show up with this weird idea of it, like, “This crazy place where everyone’s always high on drugs!” And it really wasn’t.

But: Good communication, common sense, stay sober.

AVC: When you think back on that time period, is there any specific image that comes to mind?

BO: I’d say the Round Robins. There was so much energy and fun at those shows because it was just constant; it’s really fast and it’s really fun, and the show just doesn’t stop. And that is definitely something that I associate with the old Wham City.

AVC: Well, then, that’s all the questions—

BO: Oh, and Quigley! Do you know that movie?

AVC: Oh, is that the one with, uh … Busey in it?

BO: Yes! [Laughs.] It has Gary Busey, and he turns into a dog.

They were obsessed with that movie; they would watch the trailer over and over and over again, and play the music from the trailer ... Maybe I should have stuck with the Round Robins answer.

[We tracked down a recording of most of the original Beauty And The Beast performance; we’ve embedded it below, minus part three of four because Mrs. Potts is indeed extremely topless during “Be Our Guest.” —ed.]

More Interview