While some may know of Baltimore, Maryland’s Charm City Devil’s from their first album released in 2009, most should definitely remember them for their 2012 cover of Man of Constant Sorrow from Sins. Since the release of their third album, Battles, their second single, Karma, is currently on the Top 40 Active Rock chart. Prior to their set at H.O.M.E. Bar Chicago in Arlington Heights, IL, I sat down with lead singer, John Allen. We discussed the meaning behind the title Battles along with his head space during the writing process and making your own destiny and never giving up until you reach your goal. We discussed the benefit of working with an independent label and the impact of FM and satellite radio on music and bands today. He listed the number one item on his bucket list, other artists he admires, the craziest tour prank he’s ever been a part of and much more.
Listen to the entire John Allen interview below:
MiS: Today I’m joined by John Allen, lead singer of Charm City Devils. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.
John: Thank you for coming.
MiS: Charm City Devils released their 3rd album, well, your third album, Battles, last September and for me, a lot of these songs seem to have a really bold sentiment behind them and the cover photo conveys struggle and turmoil. I was just wondering if you were you writing from a personal place or outside influences.
John: I think from a, probably more from a personal space, I mean, that’s what most of my lyrics involve, usually. In the past I’ve been inspired by different things, people around me and maybe things that I’ve read, but since we were, since we did the last record I lost both parents, so when you suffer a personal loss, you wind up with a, and an old band member actually, one of my first bands, passed away right on the day actually we released Sins, so it was a very emotional, kind of trying couple of years there, supporting the record and then coming home after touring. When you go through a personal struggle I think a lot of things come out, maybe things that were buried, a lot of issues or whatever and that’s kind of what Battles, the name of the record, is about. It’s about the battles big and small that everybody kind of struggles with every day and I was trying to convey that idea.
MiS: So is music a form of therapy considering…
John: I think it is for me, yeah.
MiS: I know personally it’s almost like you channel different emotions though music. I’m assuming from the writing, same thing, you’re getting those emotions out.
John: Right. Yeah, for a long time I’ve kind of said that and kind of felt that way. It’s almost like a, definitely a way to expound and like you said, it’s sort of, it’s my therapy to get those ideas out. EXPEL THE DEMONS!
MiS: Well speaking of, so on the CD artwork, it appears to be a devil and an angel. Was that another intentional battle or…
John: Yeah. Between just the broad concepts of good and evil, that struggle, that battle, yeah, we talked about that being the cover first, having a kind of classic look to it. We were trying to cover a wide spectrum of different battles. The cover as it stands with all those different images of myself, it’s more of a personal struggle, personal battles maybe, and then the inside cover with the angel and demon, these wider broader themes.
MiS: Well cool. For me, Destiny is a great song…
John: Thank you.
MiS: …and I was just curious your thoughts, do you feel that people are actually in control of their lives or, in a weird twist of fate, are people already pre-destined to carry out certain parts of their life and they just don’t even know it.
John: That song lyrically just kind of started flowing from me, so I didn’t really even think about it in those terms but I think, with each record I always write a song that I try to speak to the fact that I’m still doing it after all this time and I’m speaking about perseverance and I guess in that way I’m talking about making your own destiny and just driving on no matter what that’s gonna entail, what’s gonna happen, you’re gonna just keep going forward and whatever comes will come and you just have to believe and keep the faith that you’re driving towards something better and something, some sort of payoff in the end.
MiS: Considering your killer cover of Man of Constant Sorrow, I was pleasantly surprised at the tempo for God’s Gonna Cut You Down. How did you approach rearranging that?
John: I don’t know, it was Anthony’s [Arambula] idea to cover the song and I thought it was a really cool song to do, but I wanted to do it a little faster and I just started messing around with guitar parts and just kind of put that arrangement together and then the band just nailed it. You know, for us, we were talking about it earlier today on the radio, the thought process a lot of times when we right is live first, how the song is going to come across live, how the audience is gonna dig it and so for me, the original arrangement when we were messing with Man of Constant Sorrow, when we took it to our producer, was fast. He’s the one that kind of slowed it down and kind of gave it that moody kind of vibe and I think what he did with that arrangement really worked. It gave it that eerie quality. But, I like what we did with God’s Gonna Cut You Down too. I think keeping a high energy kind of vibe to it was a good thing.
MiS: I think most people think of the Johnny Cash version that’s why it took me by such a surprise because I wasn’t expecting such an up tempo version. So, are you guys playing it live at all?
John: We have played it live. We’re not playing it tonight, but we have played it live.
MiS: Do people, do you see people’s faces that are like, “Wait a minute, I know that song.”
John: Yeah, you know, I’m not sure. I’m not sure if people recognize it as, it’s not one of his more well known songs, I don’t think, because he did it later in his life, right? I think some people do, people that are really into music, but I’m not sure the general, the broad numbers really recognize it.
MiS: Okay, so Charm City Devils are now part of The End Records. What about them drew you to want to be part of their roster?
John: Well, small label that can really kind of bottom weave and figure out the new sort of model that music, the music industry is kind of going towards, that’s what really drew us to them. Speaking with the president of the label, initially, and he was really into it, really fired up about the band, really loved, I sent him six songs that are all on this record and he was blown away so, when you have someone who is enthusiastic about your music and your band, it tends to make you enthusiastic and excited to work together.
MiS: Awesome. So, it seems like satellite radio is doing a lot more, maybe than it was initially, to help break bands and get new music out there vs FM. Do you agree?
John: Well, I think both formats, both forms do tend to play, at least in Active Rock, in the Active Rock world, they both do a lot to break new bands, at least in this era, which is great. I mean, years ago, I think it was a lot tougher and I think a lot of new bands are having a lot more opportunity. Program Directors are giving a lot of new artists a lot more opportunities, which is great, really thankful for it. I think the advantage that an Octane has is that it can be reached everywhere, or I should say, it can reach everywhere in the United States. If you’ve got a satellite radio, you can hear their programming, you can hear a new band that you might not necessarily hear if you’re in Paducah, Kentucky or where ever, so that’s really advantageous and they actually have a lot of power, I think, now. It’s a very important format.
MiS: So, the other day I was thinking about, there’s a lot of bands that give up on their dream because of the industry, it’s tough. It’s not easy…
John: It sure is.
MiS: …so 7, 8 years later, 3 albums later, what’s the key factor in you guys still out there doing it?
John: You know, (sigh) I don’t know. (laughs) I’ve had, like I was speaking to the song Destiny, from the record, I just, I never want to give up. I’ve always, I’ve been doing this a long time and I’m a lifer. The guys in the band are lifers. Our lives have changed, we have families and stuff and it makes it really, really tough, because the business doesn’t care. The business doesn’t care if your daughter has a dance recital or is sick or whatever, so that part of it really can be tough but the advantage we have is A. we won’t fucking give up and B. we get along really well. These are my brothers. I was raised an only child so I didn’t, they’re the closest thing really I’ve had to an immediate family for a long time. I’m really lucky, or blessed or however you want to put it, to have these guys with me in the band.
MiS: Well, I’ve seen you guys a few times and I will say, I mean, you guys put on a great show.
John: Thank you.
MiS: It tells that you guys are in it together and it’s not, you’re just up there playing an instrument just to get money. You know what I’m saying? I think when bands are true to what they’re trying to do, it just brings everybody together and everybody has a good time. Plus the music, the songs and lyrically, there’s content and meaning, whether it’s a slower song or faster song, you guys give a lot of ways for people to latch on to your songs.
John: Cool. Thank you. I think we give a lot of ourselves whether it be, like you said, in the lyric, in the show, hell, just getting to the show. (laughs)
MiS: Alright, I’m going to do a few rapid fire questions. Just the first thing that comes to mind. So, one thing on your bucket list?
John: Humm, I don’t know how rapid fire it’s going to be, I’m pretty sleep deprived. One thing on my bucket list. I’ve been really fortunate to have a lot of things occur. One thing I’d like to do on my bucket list, you know, there’s two bands that I would love to open up for that I haven’t had the opportunity yet and that’s Aerosmith and KISS and those are probably high, very high on my bucket list. They’re probably number one and AC/DC too, those three I should say.
MiS: Not bad choices. So, your favorite new band?
John: Probably (snaps fingers while thinking) crap, I’m having a hard time, Royal Blood.
MiS: Oh yes! Have you had a chance to see them live?
John: I haven’t seen them live, no.
MiS: For a two-piece, they sound…
MiS: …humongous. It’s awesome. Another artist you’d like to collaborate with?
John: Humm, another artist I’d like to collaborate with. Who could I collaborate with? There’s a lot of great artists out there, man. Wow. A lot of people that I really respect and love. Royal Blood guys, they write great stuff. Jack White, guys from Shinedown. I think they’re phenomenal, I don’t know.
MiS: All good choices.
John: Yeah. Dave Grohl.
MiS: Another song you’d like to cover?
John: Umm, I’ve actually recorded just something recently. I don’t want to let the car out of the bag yet.
MiS: Like you did earlier? (laughs)
John: Just a demo. What’s that?
MiS: The Studio East… [Editor note: While on air at a local radio station earlier that day, though a misunderstanding, it appeared like John confirmed a major concert announcement a day before the official statement was to be released.]
John: Oh yeah. Well that was totally inadvertent…
MiS: I know.
John: Every year they do a concert and I was like, yeah, you should put us on that thing that you’re gonna do, because they do it every year. That’s all I was talking about. I was talking broad general terms. They thought I was being specific. I really didn’t mean to do it. Umm, let me see. Humm, there’s so many great tunes out there. I’m wondering when somebody is going to cover Smoke on the Water, is what I’m wondering. (laughs)
MiS: I do not believe I have heard anyone cover that one.
John: I don’t think they can, that’s the problem.
MiS: Alright, so a band people might be surprised you listen to?
John: Oh, something that somebody might be surprised I listen to, umm. Hey, shut up over there! I hear you, you fucker. (laughter from outside the room)
Jason Heiser (drummer for Charm City Devils): Where are you?
John: Right here. (door opens)
Jason: Hey, this is John Allen…
John: There’s no ceiling right here, I can hear everything you’re saying.
Jason: So how did John get a hat from The Machine Shop? I said, he probably went, “Hey, this is John Allen from Charm City Devils.” (laughs)
John: Who is this?
Jason: The Machine Shop. How did you get a Machine Shop hat?
John: Oh. I paid.
Jason to someone outside the room: He paid. (laughs) Oh I just sold an X-large black T.
John: Oh cool. Who’s out there right now?
John: That would be cool if you sat out there for a little while.
John: (laughs) (door closes) Okay, so what was the last question? Be surprised that I listen to. I listen to a lot of Pop because I have two little girls, 6 and 8 year olds and we drive around in a car so they always want to listen to Pop radio so I am inundated with Top 40 stuff so I listen to Taylor Swift. (laughs)
MiS: Alright, your favorite local food joint?
John: Favorite local food joint in Baltimore, umm, there are many. If you want to go chichi, there’s probably Bistro Blanc right near my house that’s out in Glenelg, Maryland but in Baltimore I should go with a crab house, I probably really should. Crab Quarters down in Bengies-Chase or Mr. Bill’s in Essex, Maryland, that’s the real deal right there in Baltimore.
MiS: Alright, the greatest tour prank you’ve ever witnessed or participated in?
John: The only one I ever saw was when I was playing drums still and I guess we were out with Bon Jovi and all four of us mooned him. We got down behind the barricade and four guys in the band, I think we wrote something on our ass cheeks too, if I, I don’t remember what it said though. Maybe thank you or something.
MiS: That’s hysterical. Alright, so you guys are currently out with Hinder and I believe you are doing some of your own solo dates, so after the March and April time frame, what’s next for you guys?
John: Well, hopefully we’ll jump back on with either Hinder or Theory of a Deadman or somebody like that, you know, might take some time off in the Summer. We were on tour all last Summer prior to the record coming out so, who knows. We’re hoping to jump on, to catch on somewhere. The single [Karma} is doing well at radio so if it keeps climbing the chart then other bands looks at that and they go, “Hey, why don’t we get this band,” so we’re hoping that it will keep going in the right direction, maybe these Hinder guys will call us back up and say, “Come back out with us.” We’ve been having a blast with them. Great shows, great dudes.
MiS: Well cool. That’s all I have, so I just want to say thanks again for chatting with me and best of luck with everything.
John: No problem. Thank you.
Listen to Karma here and then call your local radio station and/or call Octane Ch. 37 on SiriusXM at 888-3-OCTANE and request it!