It all started when Madi Shapiro crashed her car.
“My car got totaled and they paid me more than it was worth,” says Shapiro, frontwoman of the psych punk band, Wet Brain. “I was like, ‘what can I do with this money to do a good thing?’ I really love Baltimore and I love the music scene here and so I wanted to do something that was good for it.”
The crash was back in October 2013. But it’s not until now that Shapiro, sitting upstairs at The Crown on a snowy day in January, is ready to talk about her project: a series of 7-inch compilations featuring DIY Baltimore bands. “The Wheel,” the first release of the series, will feature Hive Bent, Curse, Big Mouth, and Wet Brain.
Figuring out exactly what to do with the money was a slowly evolving process for Shapiro, but once the idea was fully formed, she started reaching out to bands and eventually ended up with the four that are on the record.
“The ones that really got back to me first were the ones I went with,” says Shapiro. “Also, I kind of wanted the first couple to be more, like, female voices.” Shapiro decided to found her own label for the series, Girl Problem Records. The name came after selecting all-female or mostly female bands for her first release, though not all the records in the series will exclusively feature female-fronted bands. But female-focused music holds a certain significance to the label’s founder: “Music that is involving and sang by and written by women for some reason is way more intriguing to me.”
Except for the pressing, the making of the record was entirely done in Baltimore. The bands recorded over a couple days in August with Baltimore producer Mike Walls. The resulting compilation is ruthless and, best of all, weird. From Shapiro sardonically screaming “Fuck me into submission” and “I’m so fucking happy now” on the Wet Brain opener ‘Wife Life,’ to Curse’s dirge-y, electronic ‘Between the Wardrobe and the Wall,’ and on the B-side, Hive Bent’s ‘Dikdan’ with its dissonant harmonies, and the maniacal laughter on Big Mouth’s creeping ‘Hunter,’ the four songs are as dark as they are funny, with lacerating guitars and some seriously savage vocals.
The album artwork, too, was done by a Baltimore artist: Amanda Boutwell, Wet Brain’s drummer. The cover of each record in the series will be based on a tarot card, and for this release, Shapiro chose the card depicting the wheel of fortune, hence the title, “The Wheel.” A veiled female figure representing fortune stands at the center of the wheel, with Maryland flags in the background.
It’s fitting choice in many ways. “I feel like I’m taking a really big chance and putting a lot on the line in this project,” Shapiro explains, “and it could lead to, in the wheel card, great gain or great loss. So it’s kind of like a metaphor for the unknown, like, I don’t know where this is going.”
Shapiro says she already has bands in mind for her next release. Her plan is to use each record to highlight a different scene in Baltimore, a different “karass,” as she explains, employing a Kurt Vonnegut term that describes a group of people metaphysically bound by a common goal. “I think there’s also some coldness in Baltimore, like maybe people aren’t as welcoming,” Shapiro says. “I’ll put it like this: Sometimes people are very suspicious of nice, friendly people here and I don’t know why that is. It can be a little bit exclusive. But I guess hopefully this will help people be more in touch with pockets within the city.”
Marian Ochoa, who Shapiro met through connections to the Baltimore Free Farm, helped with the packaging for the label’s first release and will be more involved with the second one. “She has volunteered to take on the task of coordinating a zine for the next release involving band interviews and commentary on the DIY scene in this city and other punk/feminist literature and art, which is something I wanted to do for this release but didn’t have the time or resources to pull it together,” Shapiro says in a follow-up email.
As Shapiro sits at the bar sipping a glass of beer, The Crown is empty save for the bartender and another Crown employee who comes in mid-interview, both of whom Shapiro greets by name. It almost feels like we’re in her living room. Despite her occasionally activist-sounding platform, when she talks about her project, Shapiro seems uncertain if there’s any broader importance to what she’s doing, or even if music in Baltimore is particularly special.
“I’ve traveled all over the world almost, and for some reason I chose this weird, fucked-up city as my home because I feel that it has a sort of realness about it that is comfortable,” says Shapiro. “I think it also facilitates the ability within a person to be in touch with a universal—human—condition,” she concludes with a light laugh.
But it doesn’t really matter if it means anything, because it’s clearly a labor of love, and it’s hard not to love Baltimore when listening to some of its finest and fastest. Besides, whatever universal human condition Shapiro may or may not be capturing with Girl Problems, her real goal seems much simpler: “All of the people that contributed to this record, and all of the artists that contributed to it and then everyone who’s going to do work at the release show and then everyone who comes to that show, everyone who buys the record—hopefully those people will get something out of it.”