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DRGN King: The Making of a Musical Kingdom.

May 9, 2013

Jump PhillyText by Beth Ann Downey. Images by Ryan Treitel.

It’s about 9 p.m. on a blustery, cold Wednesday. Inside a cute rowhome on South 18th Street, a bunch of dudes in or related to Philly-based indie band DRGN King stand around, talking about meat.

Meats of various shapes and sizes, including large turkey legs that only seem like they existed in medieval times, are currently smoking in the oven. But the mid-January indoor barbeque isn’t happening for fun. The meat will be used in a scene for DRGN King’s video for “Wild Night,” a single off the band’s first album, Paragraph Nights, which has just been released a day before on Bar/None Records.

DRGN King frontman Dominic Angelella is slightly more dressed up than he’s usually seen around the city. He sports a blue blazer and off-color maroon cords. His distinctive curly red hair looks the same as it does most other days and much less relaxed than Angelella himself. Though his project that has been three years in the making has just been released to the world, Angelella is chill, confident and excited.

“That was the first album I’ve ever put out,” Angelella says between sips of his Yards brew. “In a way, I’ve been waiting to do that since I was, like, 15. But it was one of those things where, suddenly, it wasn’t that stressful anymore. I thought about that all the time and then it was like, ‘Oh, that happened.’ It was one of those things that I’ve always wanted to do. It was a dream of mine, and it went down.”

More friends of the band start to trickle in, summoned for the party scene that’s about to be filmed for the video. Angelella’s DRGN King partner, producer Brent “Ritz” Reynolds, hustles between the kitchen and the dining room, holding up the process to make sure the meat and medieval feast look just right.

“This is a metaphor for how we recorded this album,” Angelella says. “I would rewrite a song and Brent would be like, ‘Cool, I’ll finish it.’ Then I’d come back, like, five days later and be like, ‘Are you done yet?’ And he’d be like, ‘No man I’m still getting it ready.’ Finally, when it would be ready, it was like incredible. It was like the best shit I’ve ever heard. It’s just because the way he does shit is so cool. He pays attention to every detail and takes his time with it. He’ll put a hundred tracks of music on a song and it’ll make sense, like, there’s a reason that they’re all there. I don’t think that way, you know what I mean? But he does and that’s what’s cool about it.”

It was the intersection of Angelella’s songwriting and guitar skills coupled with Reynolds’ production background that brought about the uniqueness of Paragraph Nights. It’s part electronic and part live-sounding, half youthful and half old school, a rare album that escapes genre labels, indie conventionality and expectations.

Jump PhillyThe album is a melding of their influences, and also of the specialties of the other musicians they’ve brought in for live shows, rehearsals and recording — guitarist Brendan Mulvihill, who also fronts Norwegian Arms, drummer Joe Baldacci, whom Angelella has been in bands with since age 18, and bassist Steve Montenegro.

All are at tonight’s video shoot, drinking beer or wine and also eyeing up the meat.

Though all members have responsibilities to other projects, they are dedicated to delivering DRGN King live shows now that Paragraph Nights has been released. What they may not know, however, is that songs like “Warriors” showcase what Angelella originally wanted the project to be about — rap. That’s what he told Reynolds when the two met in 2009.

“He was really, like, not into that,” Angelella says with a laugh.

It’s 10 a.m. about a week after the video shoot and Angelella sits on the leather couch in the band’s Pennsport practice space. The couch doubled as his bed the night before. He came in, intending to do work before the band’s record release show at PhilaMOCA the next day but ended up watching The X-Files and fiddling around on his bass.

Angelella looks tired but not run-down, at home in his regular vintage green Lacoste cardigan he wears more often than not. He’s surrounded by the clutter in what doubles as Reynolds’s production studio — old magazines, coffee cups and a handful of small DRGN King posters from the shows they’ve played at Kung Fu Necktie.

In the midst of trying to describe the process of making a DRGN King song, Angelella pours an entire cup of coffee on himself and his leather couch/bed.

“You know what’s so great about stuff like this is that it happened in slow motion,” he says. “You can see it happening and just be like, ‘Oh no, this is not good.’ But it just happens anyway.”

Arriving at this point in his career definitely didn’t happen slowly for Angelella. Trained at the University of the Arts as a jazz musician, the Baltimore native spent years as a guitarist working in various Philly bands like Hop Along and Norwegian Arms, and with artists like Patty Crash and Khari Mateen.

He did time in other, less desirable projects which he calls “sell-out shit.”

DRGN King has offered Angelella his first stab at songwriting.

“A lot of people talk about me being a versatile guitar player but in my mind, I’ve always been a songwriter first,” he says. “That’s just always what I wanted to do since I was a little baby. So for me, it’s a pretty big deal to have a collection of songs out in the world for people to listen to.”

Most of the lyrical content for the album is informed by being a young person in Philadelphia or any major city, says Angelella. Though it wasn’t his intention, it’s the recklessness of “Wild Nights” or the subtle angst of “Menswear” that help the autobiographical nature of DRGN King songs relate to a wider, youthful audience.

“I felt like I was trying to create a little world for the record to exist in, something where you could just kind of fall into it for a little while,” Angelella says. “When me and Brent were first starting, we would have these all-night sessions because we didn’t work together that much. We’d maybe see each other every two weeks and I would just come here and get totally sucked into his world. I’d be here until 5:30 or 6 in the morning, just working on stuff and watching movies. So it was like that or going out and getting drunk with my friends or hanging out with people. Just meeting people and seeing where their heads were at.”

And now?

“We work together, like, every day,” he quips.

Angelella and Reynolds both agree that despite the fact that they come from very different music scenes and worlds, their meeting and starting a project together was probably inevitable within the small, sequestered Philly music world.

“There are the rock kids and the rap kids, and of course there is an in between, but I feel like I’m in a weird place,” Reynolds says of his past work with artists like Dice Raw and The Roots, and with labels like Epic. “I sort of feel like a part of all of them but in a way sort of distant. Not distant but a little bit of an outsider, at least in comparison to Dom (Angelella). I do think there are the weird biases. Or the mainstream versus the underground thing, label versus no label, the red tape around certain things you’re supposed to do as a punk kid or a songwriter. Sometimes, I sort of might not be as aware of those things but don’t really care.”

The duo’s heads are already deep into the material for their next album. After one conversation with Angelella and Reynolds, you get the feeling the album could include everything from garage rock to orchestral music featuring the clarinet. And though Reynolds jokingly protests, Angelella says his rapping days are definitely over.

“You’ve got to catch Dom drunk and ciphering at like 1:30 a.m. outside somewhere,” Reynolds says. “That’s where you will still hear him rapping.”

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