“We just wanted it to be bigger.” That’s what Roomrunner frontman Denny Bowen says he and his bandmates hoped to achieve with their full-length debut, the soon-to-be-released Ideal Cities. On May 28, the Baltimore wrecking crew — rounded out by bassist Dan Frome, drummer Bret Lanahan, and guitarist Jeff Byers — will follow up their two EPs (2011’s self-titled effort and last year’s Super Vague collection) with nine tracks of meaty, feedback-gnarled noise rock. Bowen recently spoke with SPIN about the record’s inspirations — Hot Snakes, Drive Like Jehu, Sebadoh, the Foo Fighters’ The Colour and the Shape, to name a few — and offered a track-by-track breakdown of the foursome’s first LP. Stream Ideal Cities below and scroll further to read Bowen’s commentary.
:audio=0:113124:playlist:Roomrunner, Ideal Cities:
We didn’t actually have it set to be the first track in the first arrangement of the track sequencing. But we decided to put it first to be a way to see if people were really on our team. When the verse kicks in and the feedback comes in halfway through, that’s to see how much you can take. The way Dan put it was, “Try to like this,” because it can be irritating. We had assumed for the longest time that “Weird” was going to be the first track, but we decided to get out of our comfort zone and try something a little bit different. It’s one of the ones I just brought to the band while we were just practicing and it really came together almost instantly. The little spots where we struggled, Bret was really awesome with putting it together — the way the song ends, that whole progression, and the different transitional stuff. And Dan really got it to sound perfect. The bass tone is fucking awesome. It sounds like a table saw going through a sandwich.
That one I’d been sitting on for a long time. It probably even could’ve gone on Super Vague, but it wasn’t recorded. That one was more along the same lines as the earlier stuff: really straightforward, a two-part song with a bridge. It was probably in the first batch of songs that I had written for the first two EPs and just never fleshed it out to the completion point.
I had [this riff] recorded in my cell phone and it was always kicking around in my head for a long, long time. That’s another one where the ending portion is a loop that I’d been sitting on for about eight years. It felt really good to finally find good homes for these little noodly, spiraly, goofy things that I was toying with for the past few years. They were like pets that were fully grown and dying and if I didn’t find a place for these animals then those deaths would be on my hands, something I couldn’t live with. I played [the band] the demo track in the car on the way to a New York show or something. Bret seemed to commit that to memory immediately, so when we came to it at practice it just came together really quick. We became proud of that song quickly. It cut away all the fat of everything that we were doing at the time. It was nice to work on something new. We had been playing certain songs — like “Weird,” “Duno,” and “May” — every night for the past six weeks.
It’s partly named after the hockey player Wojtek Wolski. He played on the Washington Capitals this year, but who knows where he’ll be next year. He’s a personal hero of mine — not for any real athleticism reason, I just think he’s an admirable person. There’s a lyric in the song that talks about admiring someone for changing where they are every year and being that I’ve lived in Baltimore my whole life, I found that to be an admirable trait for someone to possess. But it’s also kind of a joke in a way, because his name is funny. It might be an easy way to get free tickets to a Wizards or Capitals game or something. I wrote this one without having a guitar at all, while I was on tour [drumming for] Dan Deacon in Australia. We were going on a lot of flights, and I was sitting in planes and airports a lot, and I had a little notebook and graphically wrote out this idea — not really in traitional music staff writing, but just in blocks and circles and stuff. I had this rhythmic idea and really tried to strip it down to a super minimal approach to a song. I think we fucking nailed it.
That song was acutally written when John Jones from Dope Body was in the band in its first functional lineup. John Jones was playing bass and Dan was playing guitar then. I had worked on a demo of that when I was writing all the other stuff for the first two EPs [in the summer of 2011] and we hashed it out in the practice space we had at the time. It came together really well, didn’t have to explain much, everybody understood the idea. I told Bret to play a drum part that sounded like the band Karp and at that point he wasn’t familiar with Karp, and he just nailed it. He knew exactly what I was talking about without me having to play him that band or explain what their band was or lineup or anything. It took a long time coming to record it. We wanted to do it justice and make sure it was recorded well because we really like playing that song.
That honestly is the only song that was like, “This one’s going to sound like Nirvana, I guess.” But for the verses I tried to make it sound more like Sebadoh, where it would get loud and then quiet in the middle of the verse. Oftentimes when Bret was picking me up from my house to go to Dan’s to play for practice, he was listening to some Sebadoh stuff and that put me in that frame of mind because I hadn’t really revisited any Sebadoh records since high school. This is definitely one of the songs where it felt like we were really coming together as a band and really on the same page.
That was a tough one for me because vocally it’s slow and I’m singing in some high register that I don’t feel is appropriate for me. I feel like I should have an autotune rack when we play that song live. Lyrically, “May” and “Duno” are pretty personal. [“May”] is about being terribly in debt for years and possibly the rest of your life. [It’s about being] worried about never being able to move beyond being a debt slave and also working back from a negative — not just in debt, but in other instances of being.
The full working title was “Youth Against Girls Against Boys” because that was the two things I thought it sounded like, was Girls Against Boys and “Youth Against Fascism” by Sonic Youth. It’s one I was kind of self-conscious about for a while, and felt weird about playing a guitar solo and stuff like that, but then Bret assured me that it was really cool. It’s hard to gauge a reaction on that song because we’ve only played it live maybe twice. Once was when John Jones was still in the band a long time ago and the other time was in New Orleans on our U.S. tour when nobody was at the show and we fucked it up so bad that we stopped halfway through the song and then had a slight argument. It was a weird night.
I was trying to go for a real archetypal use of that beefy bass sound that’s in a lot of bands I really love, most notably the Jesus Lizard and Shellac. I had an initial idea for the rhythm, I would say, in 2009, but I didn’t really get around to laying down a fleshed-out idea for it until the summer of 2012. That one had a lot of deliberate things I was trying to rip off. The choruses were like Hum and then the bridge was supposed to be a Chavez rip-off. Lyrically, it’s about representing yourself to someone that doesn’t really know you and doesn’t really know where you come from and you’re starting with a blank slate, and seeing where that takes you and where you end up and how you have to continue representing yourself in a certain way.