Drawing a thin, jagged line between post-punk and graphic design
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Baltimore’s Nolen Strals and Bruce Willen, singer and bassist of Double Dagger, are hardly your usual post-punkers. For one, they’re successful capitalists, having also made a name for themselves as the two-man design firm, Post Typography. Their graphic work has appeared in the pages of The New York Times and on albums by Built To Spill, but truth be told, a DIY spirit pervades their dual existence just as much as an obsessive attention to detail. To wit, another odd element: Double Dagger comprises only drums, vocals, and bass—no guitar—despite how the band’s third album, MORE, is a distortion-heavy juggernaut that splits the difference between Fugazi and Fucked Up. Drummer Denny Bowen was resting up after touring in Dan Deacon's Bromst big band, but Strals and Willen happily spoke to The A.V. Club about the form and function of Double Dagger, which appears at Hideout tonight.
The A.V. Club: You two first started a metal band together while at the Maryland Institute College Of Art. How did that band, League Of Death, evolve into Double Dagger?
Bruce Willen: Well, when we started League Of Death, we wanted to play metal the way we thought it was supposed to sound—to have this really tough, evil band—but I don’t think any of us were actually listening to metal at the time. [Laughs.] We started Double Dagger to get closer to the music we were into, and mostly we wanted to do something that’d be fun to play in and fun to watch—something intense.
AVC: Is Double Dagger’s Spartan aesthetic key to your idea of the band’s identity?
BW: Definitely, and it has been since the beginning. We really admire bands who have a strong aesthetic. We’ve changed a little bit since we started the band, but overall we’re trying to keep things pretty minimal while working within pop structures. You know, we didn’t want to get overly arty with it.
Nolen Strals: At the same time, we didn’t want to be quite as minimal as The Ramones.
AVC: How do you get the sounds that you do out of that bass guitar?
BW: It’s developed over the years. Mainly, we’ve just been adding a lot more amplifiers. I’ll use a few effects pedals, but we’re not one of those bands that has crazy pedal boards. We’ve always hated that shit. We’re not gearheads.
NS: And I also think the fact that Bruce’s bass is this old hollow-body—like, made by Sears in the ’60s—really contributes to the sound too.
AVC: A recent press photo shows you guys surrounded by keyboards. Is that an intentional red herring?
BW: [Laughs.] Pretty much. We recorded the album in this art gallery building, and all the upstairs floors were fairly trashed. For whatever reason, there was a pile of broken keyboards in this one totally destroyed room.
AVC: How and why did you choose that setting for recording—particularly in mid-winter?
BW: We were originally going to do it in the Copy Cat Building [an artist loft the Wham City collective once called home], but there’s some sort of strange electrical field there, and my bass is so old and crappy that it was picking up this constant frequency that varied in pitch depending on which direction you pointed the bass, which was cool.
NS: But we weren’t trying to make it happen.
BW: Exactly. When we do our experimental druid album, we’ll go back. Luckily we knew the people who run Current Gallery, and their building is going to be torn down this fall, so the top three or four floors are empty and basically wrecked. So they’re like, “You guys can camp out here as long as you want… and there’s no power or heat.”
NS: Of course, we didn’t have to pay rent.
BW: It was a mixed blessing. At certain points, it was an intense and especially brutal experience, but it let us just focus on playing the music.
AVC: If you didn’t have any power, how were you able to record?
BW: We had to get really long extension cords and run them out the windows from the second and third floors up to the fifth. We put notes on them, like, “Do not unplug,” but a couple of times we had to go down and break into someone’s studio to plug back in.
AVC: Is the “more” obelisk on the cover of the album an actual object?
BW: It is. On the city limits, as you’re heading south on the highway, there’s a giant, 30-foot obelisk that says “Baltimore” on it. We shot some photos and did a little judicious editing and reduced it to “more,” which fits this album: The album is more of a lot of things, but it’s also a tribute to the city we live in.
AVC: You two are publishing a design book in fall. Are you incorporating any elements atypical to art books?
NS: Only subtle things, like there’s a specimen of typeface that’s a Descendents line.
BW: There’s one section of the book that’s a very traditional-looking diagram, except that all the words in it are names of metal bands. Probably 90 percent of the people that read the book aren’t going to pick up on that, but that’s fine.
AVC: Post-punk and spare design aesthetics have a long mutual history. Any idea why?
BW: If I was to venture a guess, I’d say that because post-punk is generally an artier take on punk rock, a lot of people who are into that music also have an interest in art. Or maybe they just have friends who are graphic designers. [Laughs.]
NS: I think that as a whole, post-punk is historically a little more stripped down and austere, which is a reaction against this great piling on of everything that you get in punk.
AVC: Of all the typographic symbols you could have used for a band name, why choose the double dagger?
BW: It is a nice, obscure typographic symbol, but mainly, it sounds punk. Plus, it looks cool.