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Nolen Strals, the singer of the abrasive Baltimore art-punk trio Double Dagger, has what he calls “a weird sort of internal conversation” whenever he’s commissioned to do graphic design work for a large media outlet or corporation.
“Doing work for these major labels and these big corporate entities, there’s part of me that’s like, ‘Hell yes! This illustration? It’s gonna be eeeverywhere’” says Strals, who started the design studio Post Typography in 2001 with Double Dagger’s bassist, Bruce Willen. “But at the same time, it’s kinda like, ‘Oh yeah, a major label, these are the machines that we rage against,’” As the studio’s profile has risen in recent years, Post Typography has earned commissions from The New York Times, Wired, Esquire, Time, and The Washington Post (disclosure: I work there as a copy aide). The studio recently worked for Columbia Records on the cover of The Roots and John Legend’s album Wake Up!
But Strals’ internal conversations aside, it’s not exactly productive to apply the tired debates over “selling out” to Double Dagger’s members because they worked with a major label as part of their day jobs. Says Willen: “I think we try and view things in shades of gray, and not just be like ‘major labels bad, indie labels good.'”
On the 2009 song “The Lie/The Truth,” they cast this gray area as the space wedged between what some consider to be unshakable absolutes: “In your perfect worlds of black and white/where talk of gray is treason/the compromiser is crucified/and no quarter ever given/You may make it easy to divide us/when you exaggerate the meanings of meanings/until everyone is defined as the righteous or the demons.”
But it’s also inaccurate to say that for Strals and Willen, Post Typography’s corporate commissions are compromises. Their design work, from show posters to mass media, is known for being clever and witty. (Mary Murphy, vice president of design for the high-end textile company Maharam, a Post Typography client, describes the studio’s style as “modern with a twist.”)
In particular, the studio often bends and warps letters and numerals, the most basic units of written communication, to challenge ideas of how we see and interpret the printed word. “With lettering, part of the attraction for me is that letters, at their root, they are transmitting information,” says Strals. “But since they are these abstract shapes that have been given this other meaning, they’re flexible. So you can take those abstract shapes and you can bend them and rearrange them to carry more than just the information.”
Double Dagger also plays with the parameters of their music: The group is capable of three-minute gut punches and more spacious, nuanced explorations of the punk idiom. The band formed in 2002, and over the course of three albums has gone from a stripped-down garage sound to its current state, a combination of thunderous and precise drumming from Denny Bowen, who joined the band in 2004, and buzzy, distorted bass from Willen in place of a lead guitar. Strals often enters with sung-spoken verses and choruses containing aggressive, full-throated wails. It’s a brand of punk that moves in boom and bust cycles of sonic explosions and melodic progressions.
“Things have just been progressing where it’s like, we’re not just writing songs verse-chrous-verse, then the end of the song anymore.” says Willen. “We’re adding other parts and not necessarily having a sort of typical pop song structure as much.”
Bowen, who has no affiliation with the studio, did the best job drawing a parallel between the work of Post Typography and the music of Double Dagger. “When you guys were just doing primarily show posters and to the work you guys do now, you guys are making the audience use a different part of their brain and think differently with the visual palette,” he says to his bandmates. “And I think that you’re doing the same thing in Double Dagger, with the palette being rock.”
“I like that,” says Willen.
“That’s a good quote,” says Strals. “That’s gonna be a pull quote.”
Double Dagger performs with Imperial China and Tiny Bombs at 8:30 p.m. tonight at the Black Cat. $8.