Double Dagger is a very loud punk trio from Baltimore — or at least, it will be until tomorrow. The group, which includes bassist Bruce Willen, drummer Denny Bowen, and vocalist Nolen Strals, announced this summer that it's breaking up, after a little over nine years together. After a hometown gig tonight, which will wrap up a week-long farewell tour, the band will cease to be.
The members, who range in age from 26 to 33, are hardly over the hill, and they still get along fine. They've been signed since 2008 to Thrill Jockey Records, the storied Chicago indie label that's also home to The Fiery Furnaces, Tortoise, and Future Islands, and regularly tour across the U.S. and Europe. They're also heroes at home — when the band plays Baltimore, Strals spends most of his time out in the crowd, hugging audience members as they shout his lyrics back to him.
Bands break up all the time. But few do it when they've got a record deal, years ahead of them to keep touring and promoting, and the support of a fiercely loyal local scene. The Record spoke with the members of Double Dagger this week, shortly before their third-to-last show at the Black Cat in Washington, D.C., to find out why they're ending things now.
So, seriously — why are you breaking up?
STRALS: Without getting into it, all three of our personal lives have been really hectic in the last year. That's eaten up a good bit of our time.
WILLEN: We didn't want the band to get to a point we weren't able to devote our full amount of energy to it. We've never done it half-assed: Every time we play a show, we practice really hard for it, make fliers for it, promote it, do everything we can to make it a really awesome experience for everyone involved. We wanted to end the band before it got to the point where that wasn't the case.
This is a short farewell tour — just eight shows in six cities. Have there been any surprises?
WILLEN: Detroit was really great — we'd only ever played there once before, a long time ago. It reminded us that when you're a band most people in the room don't know already, you have to work harder. If we play a show in Baltimore, all the kids in the crowd start flipping out as soon as we start — which is awesome, but it's easy. You instantly have that energy to feed off of. But when you're playing to a room full of people, most of whom haven't really heard you before, you're responsible for starting the energy.
BOWEN: That's always been a fun challenge for us. It's part of what makes Nolen really good in what he does as a front man.
Double Dagger performs in Brooklyn in 2009.
Has it been an emotional trip, especially as you've gotten closer to the end?
STRALS: It wasn't for me until the second night in Chicago, when I couldn't find my glasses after the show. This guy helped me find them, and then when I put them, on he gave me this enormous hug. He squeezed me so hard, and said that our music had gotten him through some really hard times. That hit me really hard, knowing that it actually meant something. But I'm still glad the band is stopping. We didn't want to keep doing it just out of obligation.
BOWEN: Ultimately, we're a punk band. I feel like some bands in different styles can get away with being around for a really long time; they can develop and change and take breaks and come back together. But I don't think that really meshes with what we do on the punk rock side of things. We could get boring and make crap records, but crap punk records are some of the most embarrassing things ever.
The last show is Friday, after which you'll be wrapping up some unfinished recordings to put out posthumously. What happens when there's really nothing left to do?
WILLEN: We get jobs at fast food restaurants and then just come home and watch TV. That's it. (Laughs.)
Have you all kept up day jobs this whole time?
WILLEN: Yeah, definitely. We've always been really fortunate as a band: we've never lost money, we've never had to put any money in out of our own pockets. Even at the very beginning we did okay. But we're not rolling in the dough or anything. With some people I think the feeling is, "Oh, you guys are touring Europe and the United States, you must be doing really well!" I think very few indie rock bands make that much money.
STRALS: We self-sustain.
WILLEN: But like we said on the website, we're all creative people and we're all going to keep making music and making art and everything — just not as Double Dagger.
Baltimore has a pretty robust DIY music culture — it seems like a tight-knit scene of people who are eager to help each other out. Have you benefited a lot from that?
WILLEN: We always like playing house shows, people's basements, and stuff like that. But we also like playing in clubs, art galleries, street festivals ... It's fun to be able to not play the same place every time, to play to different audiences and get different reactions — not always good ones.
STRALS: We don't want to exist in a vacuum.
WILLEN: Yeah, we try to be democratic. But we do play as many all-ages shows as possible.
Can you tell me about the song "No Allies"? It's one of your best-known, and it seems to always get a huge response when you play it live.
STRALS: The song is about frustration with parts of the DIY scene. I started to feel at a certain point that there were these DIY promoters who were playing favorites. In all the years that I'd been into punk rock, that was just something that didn't happen. Local promoters are supposed to support the local bands. It seemed like there were a couple of people that weren't following that unspoken rule. So that song is just kind of calling them out — but in a smart-ass way.
Have you dusted off any really old songs on this tour for the diehards?
WILLEN: Yeah, a few. We've been playing this song "Art School Girlfriend," which is one of our earliest songs and the first thing we ever released legitimately.
STRALS: Last week, at [Baltimore's] Charm City Arts Space, when we chanted the beginning to "Art School Girlfriend," I turned around and there was this kid at the front just gaping, like it blew his mind. The look on his face ... I nearly started laughing.
BOWEN: The funny thing is, these are the songs that our friends used yell out at shows as a joke. And now we're playing them for real.
Your final show is on Friday back in Baltimore. Have done any mental preparation?
WILLEN: We're a little scared, honestly.
STRALS: I'm scared I'm going to get really hurt.
By the crowd?
STRALS: Yeah, I'm scared the teenage boys are going to rip me to pieces. They know they're never going to get to grab me again.
Double Dagger performs tonight at the Ottobar in Baltimore. The event is sold out, but will be filmed for a DVD documentary about the band's final nights on the road. For information on the movie, as well as a posthumous album due in the coming months, visit Double Dagger's website.