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Living in a Baltimore row home listening to Smoke on the Water pulsate through the walls was where the desire to play music started for Charm City Devils frontman, John Allen.  “My next door neighbor had older brothers and they had a band” laughs Allen, “I would hear Smoke on the Water coming through the walls. For hours upon end I heard ‘duh duh duuuh, duh duh de-duuuh.’ I think that was the earliest thing that set me on this path as a musician. Guitar was my first instrument. That was too difficult. It was taking too long to learn how to play songs. I simultaneously in school started taking percussion (drums). My dad bought me a $50 set of used drums from a TV repair place. It wasn’t even a straight up pawn shop; it was bizarre.”

Allen met the members that would later form Charm City Devils while playing drums in local bands.“I started playing in clubs when I was about 16,” reflects Allen. “I’ve known the other guys for a long time. We’ve played in bands together on and off throughout the years.  The former drummer started writing and recording the material in the basement of his home for the band’s first album, Let’s Rock-n-Roll, released in 2009. Most of that first record was written before I had this line-up solidified. I put together a 10 song demo that had almost that whole record on there already.”

On his decision to transition from drums to vocals Allen says, “I finally got tired of waiting for singers to decide what they were going to do. Figured I’d take the bull by the horns and be the master of my own destiny. The way that I played drums forever was full out. I hit as hard as I could. I put every ounce of energy into it. My heart and my soul into it. But being a frontman now is a lot of fun. I get to talk on the microphone and not seem like I’m being intrusive. You’re more in control. Since I’m a control freak, maybe it’s a better spot for me out there.”

When the group first formed Allen explains, “I played drums in a band called SR-71 and that was just winding down. That’s when I had written the song, Burn Baby Burn. That song launched this band.” But it wasn’t always rock-n-roll nights; the other guys have fairly normal jobs back home in Baltimore as Allen explains, “Vic Karrera, our guitar player, owns his own business. He does custom motorcycle seats and custom car interiors. Nick Kay, our other guitar player, also owns his own business. He renovates houses and also builds houses. Anthony Arambula is an IT guy. He’s a private consultant for web development and Jason Heiser, our drummer, teaches at the School of Rock, in Baltimore.”

Allen’s music influences laid the foundation for him to contrive a bluesy hard rock band. “I like a lot of old blues stuff. The stuff I really love is Robert Johnson. I’m a history geek. I read extensively what the architects of heavy rock listened to like Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards. They all cited this guy Robert Johnson, who died under mysterious circumstances. That peaked my interest quite a few years ago. I got complete recordings of his. I love Blind Willie Johnson. It’s so stripped down, so raw and haunting. It’s very intriguing to me.”

I read extensively what the architects of heavy rock listened to like Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards. They all cited this guy Robert Johnson, who died under mysterious circumstances.

A local radio station gave the band its first break. “We had played a show in Baltimore and the music director from the station happened to be in the audience. At the end of the night he said ‘Hey man that song Let’s Rock-n-Roll really sounded good tonight. I’m gonna add that to the station’s play list’ I thought he was just being nice. I didn’t think it would actually happen. He calls me up and says ‘Hey I need you to do me a favor. I need you to get me a copy of that song. I’m gonna add it.’ He called me back about two weeks later and said, ‘Hey john I gotta tell ya the song is doing really great for us.’ I thought that was impressive since it was a demo and we were competing with all these major label artists.”

Allen’s positive response from the radio play inspired him to contact record labels. “I started sending emails out to people I knew in the industry that I met from SR-71. Wouldn’t you know it, not one of them got back to me, but I did send a blind email to Eleven Seven. I didn’t know anybody up there. A day or two later I got a phone call from a number from New York. I answered the phone and I heard, ‘Hey this is Steve Kline from Eleven Seven music. You sent us an email.’ I thought I was being punked. I didn’t really believe it.  Kline said, ‘I’d like you to come up and meet our CEO.’ At the end of this first meeting the CEO looked at me and said, ‘Let’s do this, let’s do a deal.’ I was floored. It doesn’t happen like that in the music business. A month later Nikki Sixx became the president of the label. He signed off on it.”

The band’s original name, Chosen Son, has a special meaning for Allen. “Chosen Son was more about me. I’m adopted,” explains Allen. But the name’s likeness to a Baltimore motorcycle gang spurred the change. “The motorcycle gang is called Chosen Sons. I always thought that was a cool name. I didn’t know if we would offend them. We thought better not to mess around with that.” Nikki Sixx conceived the band’s current name. “We actually submitted what felt like 500 names. Charm City is the nickname for our hometown, Baltimore. I get a phone call from Nikki . He says, ‘I got it I got it. Charm City cause that’s where you are from and devils because it’s like a gang name and a rock band is a gang.’”

For the band’s second album, Sins, Allen chose to work with Grammy®-winning producer Skidd Mills. He explains,“I really liked all the past work Mills had done. He had worked with our label mates Egypt Central. I really loved the Saving Abel records he had done. The vocal tracks sound amazing on those records. I wanted to do something that sonically was an improvement on the last record. We wanted to raise the bar with this album as far as musicality, song writing and melodies. I’m singing lower on this record and I’m singing higher also. The dynamic range of what we attempted to achieve on this album was much broader. The second record is more of a collaborative effort and it’s darker in a lot of way, but it also has lighter moments as well. It’s a broader album than the first one.”

“I’m just a whiny bitch,” Allen jokingly says about the painful, vengeful nature of their music on the Sins album. “I think I’m projecting that. I think I blame myself for a lot of strife or struggles I’ve had recently. I try to do a lot of self examination. And maybe through writing the music it’s a sorta therapy. The lyrics make it seem like it’s a person or an entity. But I think in the end a lot of times we have to take responsibility for our actions or our shortcomings. Maybe it’s not there so blatantly in the lyrics, but I think that’s where I’m pulling that from.”

Man of Constant Sorrow from Sins has quickly climbed the rock charts since its release this year, sitting in the Top 25 on the Active Rock charts. “Our retooling of that song (Man of Constant Sorrow), has a really cool, dark quality that I dig.” But this album has so much more to offer as Allen details, “Devil is a Woman got’s such a great groove. It’s got that swampy, bluesy thing to it. Spite is the song that would get you going if you’re getting ready for a night going out drinking. It pumps you up. The energy is there and the aggression is there. Blame is a great break-up song. It’s a nice F-you. Love n War has a relentless type of tempo and great guitar riff.”

After signing with Eleven Seven the band didn’t waste any time before heading out on the touring circuit, hitting Cruefest 2 in 2009 and Sturgis’ Rock N’ Rev Music Festival in 2010. “We opened for Bon Jovi for a month and a half in 2010, ” remarks Allen. The band recently played this year’s Rocklahoma. On the experience at Rocklahoma, Allen says, “It was fantastic. What a great event. We were busy hanging out with the other boys. Tom Maxwell, the guitar player for Hellyeah actually grew up near Nick and myself. We actually sorta had a band together for like five minutes when we were 13.” Allen continues about the current tour, “In Chesaning, Michigan we do the Showboat Rockfest [July 14]. Then we jump on with Theory of a Deadman in July and August.”

Allen was diagnosed with skin cancer following CrueFest 2 and before the band started work on Sins. As Allen notes, that experience shaped a song on the record. “There’s a song on the new record called Still Alive, which is about that subject. When I found out I had skin cancer I was more concerned about the impact it would have on my two little girls. I felt like it was out of my hands whether I was going to live or die. I felt numb to that. My worry was what impact it would have on two little girls. My one daughter was three years old and the other was one. The baby wouldn’t remember me at all and my oldest would have probably faint memories, if anything. I was worried that it might screw them up.” But as Allen explains, the good news is, “They got the cancer and now I’ll be sticking around for awhile.”

Allen wants people to know how much the band values their fanbase. “Write to us at Facebook. Throw us a like. We try to always write back to everyone. We’re very accessible. Come up and have a drink with us if you come out to one of our live shows.”


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