Bitte Orca, it turns out, is Dirty Projectors’ real New York album, an urbane and sophisticated outgrowth of the most fertile new-music environment the city has seen since the CBGB heyday of the seventies. It is no coincidence that it came out within months of beloved albums by two giants of the local scene—Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion and Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest. These three bands do not sound alike. Animal Collective layers lush, romantic harmonies on top of kooky, heavily sampled orchestrations, a sound that is equal parts madness and impeccable logic. Grizzly Bear has a much more down-to-earth, folky approach, reveling in the pure pleasure of melodies and the ways they can be turned inside out and upside down. But the three bands all embrace many of the same virtues: fearless sincerity, devotion to craft, agnosticism about digital technology (which is to say, they use it but don’t fetishize it), profound musical curiosity, ingenuity at using the human voice as an instrument, and an uncanny ability to reproduce their complex material in live performance (in no small part because this is where the money is).
These also happen to be the qualities that define the most exciting aspects of the local scene, the vast swarm of artists who inhabit the bars, clubs, and unlicensed loft spaces of Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Bushwick, and beyond. Is there a 23-year-old alive in northern Brooklyn who’s not making music right now? It may be a good deal harder to get rich in the music business than it was a generation ago, but that doesn’t seem to have deterred anyone. What are they all after?
It could be that they want to be David Longstreth.
The last exciting era of New York rock, roughly a decade ago, coincided with the final great gasp of the major record labels. The scene was personified by the Strokes, a self-consciously retro band whose hipster dress code was as carefully orchestrated as its hipster music. Barely into their twenties, they partied with models and ransacked minibars across the world, all courtesy of RCA Records, which had them positioned as a global brand of New York cool. It didn’t last, in part because the Strokes never achieved the superstardom that was preordained for them and also because the music business went into a death spiral, as digital pirating eviscerated sales of CDs. Today, though singer Julian Casablancas has recently released a solo album, the Strokes are on an ill-explained hiatus–sick leave, and RCA Records has about one tenth the number of employees it had in 2000. If you want to know what a depression feels like, you don’t have to find an old codger from the thirties; talk to someone who worked for a major label.
“Is there a 23-year-old alive in northern Brooklyn who’s not making music right now? It is a good deal harder to get rich in the music business than it was a generation ago, but that doesn’t seem to have deterred anyone.”
Though few New York bands ever got the full Strokes treatment, the lure of big money and instant fame permeated the late nineties–early aughts scene. The winning template was all about applying a light contemporary gloss to a vintage rock style. Musicians competed to see who could sound the most like Joy Division. Remember Interpol? Not every band got caught up in pilfering the past—some like Les Savy Fav played wild, off-kilter tunes that defied any mold—but revivalism exerted a powerful kind of peer pressure, and as that trend waned along with the Strokes, the outside world lost all interest in the fad that was New York rock, discarding it like yesterday’s Von Dutch trucker hat.
For a while, nothing seemed to fill the void. Hip-hop ruled the airwaves but fueled little discernible activity on the ground. Despite the presence of giant local hip-hop stars like Jay-Z, the independent scene has stagnated, populated by artists who keep promising to “bring New York back” but never quite pull it off.
Still, the conditions for a new wave of music in New York were beginning to develop, In 2001, when Daniel Rossen, now a member of Grizzly Bear, was an undergraduate at NYU, he remembers going to see Animal Collective at Tonic on the Lower East Side. The band, which then wore costumes and masks, played a freakier kind of music than had been heard downtown for some time. “I had a jazz background, and I recognized elements of free jazz in what they were doing,” says Rossen. “But it was a lot more exploratory. It was pretty staggering. It showed what was possible.”
In Manhattan, a scene built around that kind of music proved impossible to sustain. Promoters needed more-mainstream fare to afford the high rent. Manhattan clubs started to close, places like the Cooler in the meatpacking district and later Tonic. But the scene reconstituted itself in Williamsburg, largely thanks to freelance promoters who began hosting concerts and screenings in private lofts. Among them was Todd P, who saw a perfect symbiosis of supply and demand: tons of kids who made their own music (or maybe it was art or fashion or film) and would happily support the music of others, provided it was reasonably priced. The fantasy of one day being able to sell a lot of records could no longer be entertained seriously, putting the emphasis on live shows and simply having a good time with friends. The number of venues proliferated. The club Union Pool opened in 2000, Daddy’s in 2002, the Glasslands Gallery in 2006, Death by Audio in 2007, the Market Hotel, Above the Auto Parts Store, Brooklyn Bowl, and Bruar Falls this year. “It’s because Brooklyn [became] a place where young, college-educated people wanted to live bohemian lives,” Todd P explained to the website Gothamist. “Because of that there’s this possibility of being able to live in New York City and being able to sort of afford it without having to hold the most serious day job in the world.”