Best known as the frontman of Charm City Devils, John Allen has become a leading figure in the Baltimore rock music scene. In 2017, he teamed up with young guitarist Teddy Merril to launch his latest band, Stone Horses, later adding Charm City Devils drummer Jason Heiser and Australian bassist Rick Reynolds. With an EP released last fall and a growing number of live shows under its belt, the band is poised to break out bigtime with a modern rock sound heavily drenched in blues. Prior to a recent show supporting 10 Years at Baltimore’s Rams Head Live, Greg Maki of Live Metal sat down with John to discuss Stone Horses and the fate of Charm City Devils.
LIVE METAL: So Stone Horses, the new band, debuted last year. How did it all come together?
JOHN ALLEN: I’m just too dumb to do anything else, right? I have no marketable skills, so I just decided to get back in the studio and write. Just kept writing and writing and writing, and started collaborating with this guy, Ted—Teddy Merril. We wound up with some songs that we really dig and thought what the hell, we’ll keep going with it, and put it together.
Originally, I was thinking about maybe playing drums and standing up out in the front of the stage, and then we went to shoot the video and I was like, “Oh, man, this is exhausting.” I called Jason up and said, “Hey, man, do you want to do this?” And he said yeah. So now I have Jason in the fold and Teddy, and we just added a bass player. He’s an Australian guy named Rick Reynolds.
How did you find him?
Well, there was a guy out of Philly that we had used to fill in for Anthony (Arambula) back with Charm City Devils on a tour run up through the Northeast. I called him, and he’s so busy; he’s, like, in four different bands. He’s like, “Well, I can’t do it, but there’s this guy Rick Reynolds.” Rick, actually, was living in Dallas at the time. We flew him in, and he had learned all the songs, and he fit right in. Just a great, great guy, great player, monster on stage—lots of energy. He’s really cool.
What kind of influences went in to this particular sound for this band? It seems very blues-based.
Yeah, I think it is more blues-based. I wanted to go back to the roots of where I’d started when I put the drumsticks down—way back in 2006, I guess it was. Kind of get back to that raw, kinda garage-y, bluesy vibe that I love so much. I just love Jack White, Black Keys, Spiderbait and The D4—New Zealand band. That kind of stuff.
How does starting a new band now compare to earlier in your career, like when you were starting Charm City Devils or even back before that?
It’s tough. It’s so hard to get the name out there. I had people that were saying to just go with the name Charm City Devils. It’s not Charm City Devils, so I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to try to fool people just because the name had recognition. But I do see the other side of the coin where it’s so hard to let people know like, “Hey, this is what I’m doing now. This is my new thing. Please check it out.” It’s so hard for the average person—I assume, ‘cause it’s hard for me—to know what’s going on all the time with everybody. We’re just flooded with so many things to do and hear and see all the time. So it’s very tough to make a dent or make a splash with all that noise going on.
Yeah, everything is so accessible, but there’s so much of it.
Right. So it’s gotta be really great. That’s the key now. So I’ve been working my ass off and writing like crazy and just trying to write the best stuff of my life.
That leads me right into the songwriting. You write all the lyrics. Are they all autobiographical?
I guess some, to a degree, yeah. Some of it is about, maybe, what’s going on in the world, things I see, things I think are, maybe, fucked up or messed up. I don’t know if I have any solutions. I don’t think I do that. But maybe I’m reflecting our times in some of the songs. Do you have a particular one you’re asking about?
Let’s start with “Reckless Ways.” Are you referring to specific things in your life, things you’ve done, or just kind of a general feeling?
I think being raised Catholic in East Baltimore, my mother was racked with guilt, and of course, she passed on that Catholic guilt, even though I question religion. But if you’re like me, maybe you’re conflicted. I know in rock ‘n’ roll—”No regrets, man! No regrets!” But yeah, hurting people along the way in my life—yeah, I think that’s what it’s about. Looking back on things, and people coming up and saying, “Yeah, you said this” when I was younger, and I’m like, “Oh my god, really?!” Like, “I did that? I can’t believe it.” It’s like, “Wow, it’s fucked up.” It’s about not thinking before doing, things I did in my youth, and maybe I’m finally growing up. I don’t know.
What about “Believe?” On that one, you’re saying you want something to believe. Is there something specific or a kind of thing you’re looking for? What is that referring to?
It’s referring to the unraveling of the American dream and how so many people are hurting and so many people are struggling. So many people are looking for a savior. Some people thought that was gonna be Donald Trump, and maybe others thought it was someone else. Who knows?
I talk about the opioid crisis in the song. That’s when I’m talking about we don’t need any more doctor’s dope. How messed up is our system where it’s geared towards making more money for big pharmaceuticals but marijuana is outlawed? It baffles the mind on one hand, but on the other hand, it doesn’t ‘cause I know it’s all about profits. Everything is profit driven, and if it stays stagnant—the bottom line didn’t increase last quarter or last year—CEOs or whoever on the board, they’re out. You have to keep reinventing the wheel each year, so I guess having lobbyists that will do your bidding in Washington and get things passed that will be advantageous to big corporations and forget the everyday Joe on the street is the way that we’ve come to be. Maybe we’ve always been that way, and I didn’t notice it before. I’m trying to shed my naivete at this late stage. (laughs)
“Weiland”—that’s obviously referring to Scott Weiland. Why did you write that song?
It’s really meant to be a tribute to him, because I think that he was such a great poet, such a great lyricist and an underrated singer, too, and just a tragic figure. Maybe the last rock star. Who knows? The real deal. I have so much admiration for him going back and listening to the stuff. The music kind of said to me this kind of feels like this, so it took me in that direction. That’s why the lyrics are sort of more about poetry device than storytelling; (instead) of a plain-spoken, conversational thing, they’re sort of out there, and that’s on purpose.
What really made me sad when he died was that a lot of people almost expected it, and because of that, I feel like he wasn’t celebrated the way he should’ve been.
I think you’re right in that regard that it wasn’t unexpected, and that’s terrible. It’s sad. Because I’m in music, I do still think he was celebrated to a degree, but yeah, maybe not to the degree of, say, Kurt Cobain or something like that. We’re 20 years removed from the grunge heyday and all that. Maybe that’s why. I don’t know. But he was a fantastic artist, and it’s sad that he’s no longer around to give us his art and voice.
You’ve written more than just the six songs that are on the EP. How many songs have you written for this band so far?
We’ll be playing two in the set tonight that are not on the EP that we’ve been playing, at least one of them, since we started this—the opening cut, “100 Days.” We were really rocking at a clip there after the first of the year. We were writing like a song a week until I had computer issues with my Pro Tools rig.
But I’m really excited. I’m trying to finish some more up to have a second EP out. I was hoping to have it out by now, but those computer issues kind of stunted that. And then there’s another batch of songs. So there’s four, and then there’s another four—at least eight kind of in the pipeline right now to come out within the next year. And there are plenty in various stages that I’ve just got to finish.
Are they done in collaboration with the other band members?
Mostly Teddy and myself are writing everything. There’s a couple oddballs that I had ideas that I had sitting around—maybe one or two. But for the most part, it’s all me and Ted.
How did you meet him? He’s a lot younger.
Yeah. With Charm City Devils, we did a show here. It was the first time I ever saw him, here at Rams Head Live. He was at the School of Rock in Baltimore City, and they opened the show. I was like, that kid’s a rock star. So then I kept track of what he was doing for the next year or so. We had a tour opening for Slash where one of our guitar players couldn’t do one leg of it. And Winery Dogs—we did Winery Dogs for three weeks, and then we hopped on with Slash. One of the guitar players couldn’t do part of the Winery Dogs run, and then the other guitar player, Nick, couldn’t do part of the Slash run. So Teddy went out on tour with us, and for one part he played the part of Vic Karrera, and then he switched stage sides and played the part of Nick Kay on the second leg.
You’ve been playing some shows with Stone Horses, mostly regional, but you went out to Washington (state) for a show. How long did it take to get comfortable playing with a new band?
For me, it hasn’t been a huge transition. Jason and I have a familiarity. I feel like I’ve finally come into my own as a frontman/singer. It’s taken a long time, longer than I thought. It takes a lot of repetition for me and practice, but I finally feel I’m close to being there or I am there. So it feels great to get on stage and to be able to do it.
What kind of goals do you have for this band? Do you want to take it out on tour around the country, around the world?
Yeah. The immediate goal is to write the best songs that we possibly can, and then those will open the door to other things—tours, hopefully over to Europe, worldwide, South America—wherever. But I’m trying to not look too far ahead. I’m trying to focus on writing great songs—stuff that I love, and I feel like if I love it, then other people will, too. First and foremost, I have to be satisfied with what we’re doing—or we have to as a band.
What is the status of Charm City Devils?
Well, the guys can’t tour anymore, so what I’d like to do is, I have live tracks from Baltimore Soundstage from a year and a half ago—it’s gonna be two years ago in the fall—and I finally got those tracks. The guy who recorded them had them for a year, and we couldn’t hook up and make the transfer. I just dropped them off a couple of weeks ago to a guy, a friend of ours, to mix them. So I’m hoping to get those mixed and get those out, maybe on Spotify or streaming services. And then I’d like to do some reunion shows at the very least—give some fans in this area a chance to come out and reconnect. I had such a great time with that band. They’re lifelong friends, and it would be awesome to get out there and celebrate that.
Stone Horses YouTube channel