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Baltimore City Paper

Crimson Wave's DIY scene-saving bummer pop

When Crimson Wave opened for sunny, stoner guitar-pop band Best Coast at a sold-out Ottobar in April of 2013, the four-piece, which found its sound in the basements and warehouses of DIY Baltimore, had never had used monitors before. 

A professional setup could have been an obstacle for the band, but its self-described "bummer pop" worked on the crowd, a natural opposite to play off the happier melodies of the headliner, Best Coast.

The band members sit in a circle on the sidewalk outside of a Remington auto body shop that doubles as their practice space and fondly recall moments from the show: They took a selfie with a group of high school girls who became their "fangirls," recognizing the band at other shows around the city; they ended up selling more merch than they'd ever sold before; some of their parents were in attendance. These are small glimpses of victory for an unapologetically DIY band, made up of four women, most of whom were fairly new to the game, but they are important glimpses.

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Crimson Wave formed in the winter of 2011, after Sophie Walter (guitar and vocals) convinced Sam Whitelaw to buy a drumset from their friend for $100. Sam taught herself to play drums, with the original thought of forming a jokey, Dead Milkmen cover band—the Dead Milkmaids. Instead, their friend Katie Langer had a bass, and Megan Lloyd (a City Paper contributing photographer) joined as second guitar and vocalist. It could have ended at that—a cover set or a couple of practices—but they bonded quickly, drawn together the immediate comfort they found in each others' abilities. For everyone except Walter, this was their first band. They learned together.

"The thing I like the best about our band," Whitelaw says, "[is that] it was like, 'We like playing music, let's play music.' We were never like, 'We want it to sound like this.' It kind of took on a sound of its own, which I think makes it more pure or endearing."

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The group's songs are slow burners, ones that, on first listen, sneak by but return and stick in your head for days. Its excellent 7-inch single, 'Say'/'Calling You,' released in the fall on Sean Gray's Accidental Guest Recordings, builds on the exploratory energy of Crimson Wave's self-titled cassette from July of last year. The band members have grown into themselves here, and the songs have grown more complex, tighter and composed with a clear point of view. Immediate yet obtuse bands such as Red House Painters and Codeine come to mind. And inside of the longing on both of these songs, there are '90s Mazzy Star vibes, but with a harder, brighter edge.

'Say'/'Calling You' had been a long time in the works, delayed almost a year after Katie and Sam's house was broken into and their band fund ($500 for recording that they'd been saving for about a year from playing shows) was stolen. But the delay was serendipitous—because Lloyd met Gray, who offered to release the 7-inch after immediately falling in love with 'Calling You.'

Crimson Wave is special because "they're a strong band who isn't afraid to be vulnerable, and the songs on the seven-inch come from a place that's all their own," Gray says. "They aren't following any trend or blog hype that could get them any kind of buzz," he adds, explaining that the "single just feels like what they want to do."

Despite frequent bookings at some of the city's choice venues such as the Metro Gallery and the Ottobar, Crimson Wave especially enjoy playing venues such as The Holy Underground, the venue that keeps the band close to its DIY roots and puts on good shows in a positive environment. Places like The Holy Underground and the people that run them are crucial to Crimson Wave's integration into the often-siloed fragments of the Baltimore scene.

Baltimore has been supportive of the band from day one. "Even when we sucked, we always got asked to play shows," Walter jokes. Unlike some of its peers, Crimson Wave isn't upset about the difficulty or reality of being a DIY band in this town, in this year—the members carry a gratitude and humility with them and it shows when you see them play and when they talk about the scene. This attitude stands in sharp contrast to the tendency of those who grumble over the state of DIY. For bands like Crimson Wave, navigating the male-dominated scene, the chance to play at all, unencumbered, is still fresh. The exclusive ideals of "indie" limit participation and perpetuate inequity, especially by people who are typically excluded, almost unconsciously, from alternative music—women, people of color, LGBT+ folks.

If Crimson Wave's existence weren't enough of a constructive response, there's Whitelaw's assistance organizing Ladyfest Baltimore, a two-day, three-venue, festival with all of the band featuring women, this summer. Ladyfest highlighted the current state of the DIY scene in Baltimore, much of which is pushed forward by women who really give a shit about making the music scene an accessible, safe, and diverse place for musicians and music fans of all stripes. Crimson Wave is four of these women. They happen to make great "bummer pop" songs, too.


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