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Steely Dan 

Wham City kingpin's fantastic electronic fireworks show

Wednesday, Jun 13 2007
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They say he's 9 feet tall, that he's got 17 fingers (eight on one hand, nine on the other), that his beard's as long as the summer solstice, that the noise he makes with his knobs and switches, his doodads and whatzits, is so loud and frenzied as to provoke fits of epileptic glee. They say he leads a crew of miscreant musicians — lost boys and girls, living here and there amid the forgotten streets of Baltimore, hunting at night for a good time and 16-oz. cans of Budweiser. They say a lot of things about Dan Deacon and the Wham City collective of which he's the unofficial ambassador. As for Deacon, he keeps it simple.

"We're just a group of artists that like it," says the bearded, balding twentysomething when asked to sum up Wham City. The it here is not that simple. Wham City is the name of an illegal warehouse space in Baltimore that Deacon and his college buddies colonized and turned into a thriving arts group. But since the building's demise, Wham City is the name of the crew that once thrived there, comprising painters, clothiers, musicians, writers, elephant trainers, etc.

But Wham City is ultimately more than that. It's an aesthetic, defined as much by Deacon's purely electronic music as it is by Wham City affiliate Ecstatic Sunshine's dueling guitars, or Ponytail's icky, chaotic punk rock or Deacon side-project the Ram Ones, which is merely Deacon and buddy Connor Kizer doing an audio skit. Deacon plays a knuckleheaded police commissioner to Kizer's straight-faced cop. Seriously, this is their "band":

"Kizer get in here right now!"

"What's the matter police commissioner?"

"There's a knight hiding."

"Like a knight in shining armor."

"There's a knight hiding in my room."

That's the final track on Deacon's latest album, Spiderman of the Rings. He's got another half-dozen self-released LPs, but this new one marks his introduction to an audience outside the illegal warehouse circuit (see New York Times article, etc.). Like the skit, Deacon's solo electronic jammers are absurd, hilarious, and full of merriment. "The Crystal Cat" is four minutes of four-on-the-floor stomp that sounds like someone taught the Ramones how to program drum machines — "Gonna get my pant suit on!" Deacon wails. Elsewhere there's "Pink Batman," a pretty tune that showcases Deacon's composition skills (that's what he went to school for), braiding melodic lines as if he produced the jam with a loom, rather than a computer. The centerpiece, though, is "Wham City," Deacon's tribute to his home base.

"There is a mountain of snow/ Across a big glen/ We have a castle enclosed/ There is a fountain," sings an ecstatic choir as beats and synths pop and whiz spazztastically about them. The song flies by for 10 minutes. It sounds like two videogames fighting. It sounds like a flying dream, like soaring over a landscape. It's probably what Superman hears in his head when he's aloft.

Deacon and his buddies have a made a point of creating that freedom, that fun, with Wham City. They're certainly not the first to do it — one of Deacon's stated influences is Fort Thunder, the Providence, R.I., performance space that gave birth to acts like Arab on Radar and Lightning Bolt — but they may be the first to do it so joyously. On his current tour, Deacon is setting out to share a little bit of that spirit with the rest of us — in legal spaces.

"This tour is more of an experiment in how to enter into that weird non-community world," Deacon explains. "This experiment in legality has been fun."

As for the future of Wham City, Deacon and his friends hope to find a new, legal warehouse space, and continue building on their legend. "Obviously it won't be the same sort of crazy-weird hidden fire-code-breaking masterpiece that it was," he says. "It'll be a fire-code-rule-respecting crazy masterpiece."

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Garrett Kamps

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