By Wesley Case, The Baltimore Sun
6:43 PM EDT, October 15, 2013
In May, less than two weeks before the release of his band's anticipated debut album, Roomrunner frontman Denny Bowen was in a Massachusetts hospital.
Despite the growing excitement surrounding his Baltimore quartet's new full-length album, "Ideal Cities," the 28-year-old Bowen had much more serious concerns.
"Basically, in a way, I had a weird mental break for a period of time," Bowen said last week, over the phone from Northampton, Mass., where his girlfriend lives. He paused before declining to go into specifics.
After a moment, he clarified the severity of the issue.
"I'll just say this. As a result of it, I've been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and [post-traumatic stress disorder]," said the singer, who added his life-long battle with chronic migraines compounded the stress.
Bowen, the former drummer of Baltimore post-punkers Double Dagger, cheerfully added things are "definitely on the upswing now," but he doesn't hesitate to call 2013 "one of the most stressful, most insane periods in my life." Now, after a respite, he feels refreshed and hopeful he can make up for lost time.
"We didn't do a lot of touring this summer as a result of the diagnosis and everything. I kind of wanted to take a few steps back," Bowen, who plays U+N Fest with Roomrunner at the Ottobar on Friday, said. "I tried to spend the summer rebooting myself."
From the enthusiastic tone in his voice, Bowen now seems wholly committed to Roomrunner, which, even before the hospitalization, was not always the case. Bowen said he started the band in 2011 to deal with two break-ups: a six-year romantic relationship and the bittersweet end of Double Dagger. After releasing a self-titled cassette, a 2012 EP titled "Super Vague" and "Ideal Cities," Bowen wondered if the band had run its course.
"Everybody was looking at me like, 'What's happening? What's going to happen now?'" Bowen said. "I didn't know how to handle it, to be honest — just where to go next. After the record came out, it was like, 'Well, that's that.'"
He didn't realize he had underestimated the power of his band's own sound. For Bowen, it turned out that writing "Ideal Cities" wasn't just an artistic release, but a life reboot.
"The same thing was happening [in my life] over and over. I was playing shows with Double Dagger. Playing shows with Dan Deacon. Living in the Copycat [Building.] It was kind of on auto-repeat for half a decade," Bowen said. "It was frustrating. I was trying to rediscover who I was as a person, as cheesy as it sounds."
So Bowen set out to write rock songs that were effective — and not limited — because of their simplicity. He cites bands such as Shellac and My Disco as influences.
"Bands like that can do something where they're playing a single note but it sounds so powerful," Bowen said. "That means so much to me."
"Ideal Cities" is another reminder rock music can make its point without the fat. Whether it's the driving, sludgy guitar riff of "Wojtek" or the aggressive, feedback-riddled opener "Bait Car," Bowen and his bandmates (including guitarist Jeff Byers, drummer Bret Lanahan and bassist Dan Frome) have one of the leanest, most potent rock albums of the year.
The band's lack of frills and Bowen's knack for writing sticky choruses quickly garnered comparisons to Nirvana throughout the media, which, unsurprisingly, grew tiring for Bowen.
"It was an obvious influence," he said, "but it got to a point where it started being this dismissive thing rather than a complimentary thing."
Like anyone being mentioned with a generation-defining band, Bowen would rather avoid comparisons. And why shouldn't he? With Roomrunner's brief-yet-unexpected hiatus earlier this year behind him, Bowen is concentrating on the future, which includes a studio session with his "hero," producer J. Robbins. He does not know where the recorded material will end up (a split single with Baltimore's Dope Body is in the works), but the fact Bowen is talking about future Roomrunner releases is encouraging enough. Months removed from his hospitalization, Bowen knows where his future lies.
"In a way, I can't give up on [Roomrunner]," he said. "I know what I can do is play music and write music. My decision now is to jump back in the pool."
If you go
Roomrunner performs Friday at the Ottobar, 2549 N. Howard St. in Charles Village, as a part of U+N Fest, a two-day festival. Doors open at 6 p.m. Pissed Jeans, the Gories and more will also perform. Tickets are $18-$65. Call 410-662-0069 or go to theottobar.com.
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