After Philadelphia band DRGN King toured the country in support of its 2013 debut album “Paragraph Nights,” frontman Dominic Angelella found himself looking to his past for songwriting inspiration. “As corny as it might sound, I needed to tap into the original feeling that I had when I first saw bands that made me really excited,” the 28-year-old singer/guitarist says over the phone from Philly. “That feeling was really far from the realities of becoming an adult and still being a musician, and figuring out how the hell you’re gonna do it in this climate.”
Perhaps it’s inevitable for any career musician, in moments of doubt, to look back at what made them want to pick up an instrument in the first place. For Pete Townshend, it was memories of the ’60s mod movement that inspired The Who’s 1973 album “Quadrophenia.” For Angelella, it was his formative years in Baltimore’s punk scene of the 2000s that ended up inspiring DRGN King’s latest album, “Baltimore Crush,” released in October. “Baltimore Crush” was the name a Woman’s Football Alliance team that was set to start playing in 2011 but ultimately never happened, although Angelella liked the phrase for its broader connotations about his old hometown. “It’s sort of like writing a love letter to the city and a certain time of my life, but the smart-ass answer is it’s named after a defunct women’s football team.”
Angelella, who grew up in Baltimore County as the son of a Towson University professor, first had his mind blown by local punk bands like Charm City Suicides at Ten Car Pile Up, a DIY venue in an Oddfellows Temple lodge above the Towson clothing store of the same name. “[Charm City Suicides’] Mike [Apichella] had his shirt off, he had a monster drawn on his chest, and he was singing ‘Heroin Sucks,’ and I would never be the same from that moment,” Angelella remembers. Soon, he was playing with a post-hardcore band called Beyond The Grunt Call with future members of Heaviness Of The Load. And in 2010, Angelella returned to his old stomping grounds, playing with Heaviness Of The Load for a Ten Car Pile Up reunion show.
The most explicit nod to those days on Baltimore Crush is ‘St. Toms,’ about a church on Dulaney Valley Road where Angelella briefly booked shows. “People were doing a lot of drugs and getting naked and . . . it was a church, so they shut it down,” he remembers. But mostly, “Baltimore Crush” inhabits the more abstract emotional space conjured by Angelella’s memories of Baltimore. “I don’t want all of our old friends to get lost,” he sings, first softly and then with pained intensity, on ‘Lovers Rock.’
Angelella formed DRGN King as a studio project after moving to Philadelphia for college and meeting collaborators like Brent “Ritz” Reynolds, an experienced hip-hop producer who’s worked with big names of Pennsylvania rap such as The Roots and Mac Miller. Reynolds helped give DRGN King’s 2013 album “Paragraph Nights” an eclectic, beat-heavy sound, which made for a unique fusion with Angelella’s guitar-driven compositions, and Philly rap star Peedi Crakk even appeared on an early DRGN King single. Reynolds and Angelella have also worked together on some high-profile rap and R&B projects, contributing tracks to Juicy J’s 2013 album “Stay Trippy” and singer Tinashe’s recent major-label debut “Aquarius.”
With DRGN King’s current live lineup being louder and more guitar-driven than ever, Angelella is happy that the band has proven difficult to pigeonhole. “It’s been kinda interesting, because I feel like some people are like, ‘What do those dudes do again?’” The band has been able to carve out an unlikely career path with the support of Bar/None Records, the long-running New Jersey independent label that’s launched the careers of bands such as They Might Be Giants, Of Montreal, and more recently The Front Bottoms. “Glenn [Morrow], who’s the owner, he knows everything, he’s been around for so long and signed so many cool bands, so he’s always got interesting advice,” Angelella says.
Although Angelella and DRGN King will remain based in Philadelphia for the foreseeable future, he enjoys coming back to Baltimore and enthusiastically keeping up with its music scene from afar. “It was weird to be the exact age that I just missed Wham City. I left Baltimore and Dan Deacon moved to Baltimore the next year,” he says. “I went to the first couple Double Dagger shows, and I was really lucky to get to see that band right when it started.” These days, he’s a fan of Horse Lords and hopes that DRGN King will get to do a show with them at some point.
This summer, Angelella and Dr. Dog’s Eric Slick are releasing the debut album from their collaborative project Lithuania. But in the meantime DRGN King is embarking on another tour in support of “Baltimore Crush,” crisscrossing the country over the next month. And one of the first stops in the tour is Baltimore, with a show at The Crown this Friday, Feb. 20. But now, Angelella isn’t the only Baltimore native in DRGN King, with the recent arrival of new bassist Christine Cuniff. “We were friends in high school,” Angelella says. “She just moved to Philly, and we started making music together and it worked really well. So her and I have a lot of shared history of the whole Baltimore thing, it made perfect sense that she joined for this tour.”