There was no single dominant style of music. Aggressive new forms of dance music emerged, driven by bands like the Rapture and the art-pranksters calling themselves Fischerspooner. A disco-fusion scene centered on the band LCD Soundsystem and its label DFA, the brainchild of an indie-rock refugee named James Murphy. The DFA crowd was all about finding new combinations of dance music and rock and letting it go all night.
Meanwhile, a more studious, art-focused scene was coalescing around a Williamsburg band called TV on the Radio, which released its label debut EP Young Liars in 2003. “They had art-punk, gospel, freak folk‚ everything interesting that was going on in Brooklyn,” says Robert Lanham, the freewilliamsburg.com blogger, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1996. “TV on the Radio was just a completely different organism.”
As bands formed and new venues opened, Brooklyn took on a critical mass that other hotbeds of experimental music, like Providence and Baltimore, couldn’t match. “I moved here because I knew I could get gigs,” says Sam Buck Rosen, a songwriter who used to run a tiny performance space in his hometown of Newburyport, Massachusetts, where it was “my goal in life to get twenty people to come to a show. In Brooklyn, there are so many places, and there’s not just one crowd. You get entirely different people depending on where you play.”
It all adds up to a hotly competitive cultural economy that demands (and rewards) innovation. “Bands are able to thrive in Brooklyn like they wouldn’t be able to in other cities,” says Josh Moore, a talent buyer for Bowery Presents, which opened its first Brooklyn venue, the Music Hall of Williamsburg, in 2007. “There are no limitations here. Any kind of music has potential to be widely accepted.”
Which takes us back to David Longstreth, who was born in Southbury, Connecticut; his parents had moved there from California to start an organic farm, but when Interstate 84 came through, the rural town got sucked into the metropolitan vortex. His father ended up managing a nature reserve, while his mom worked as a lawyer for the state. Longstreth has one sibling, an older brother named Jake; they were close friends, the kind of kids who preferred to make stuff in the backyard rather than watch television. It was through Jake that he discovered the icons of “do it yourself” rock, bands like Pavement, Fugazi, and Guided by Voices.
When Jake went to college, he left behind his Tascam four-track recorder, which David started using to construct his own music. “The first tape he sent me blew my mind,” says Jake. “The musicianship was crude, but it was just brimming with ideas. The textures were incredible. David had been reading Ian MacDonald’s book Revolution in the Head, which analyzes every song the Beatles ever recorded, and he definitely picked up ideas from it. He understood recording as an abstract, discrete art form.”
By the time he went to boarding school at Andover, Longstreth’s musical ideas had grown considerably larger. “He was into Wagner,” says his friend Tristan Perich, now a minimalist composer in New York. “That whole rich harmonic vocabulary, chords you don’t hear in other music.”
Longstreth enrolled at Yale to study music and art but says he rarely ventured out of his dorm room. He found himself completely absorbed in making his own music, though there wasn’t really anyone to play it for. “I hung out with no one,” he says. “If there had been an indie-rock scene, I probably would’ve hung out with those kids. But there was nothing. In hindsight, I think it was really, really good for me. I got totally introverted.”
To the consternation of his parents, Longstreth dropped out of Yale halfway through his sophomore year and moved in with his brother in Portland. Down in the basement, Longstreth slaved over his debut record, which he titled The Graceful Fallen Mango. He says he had no particular ambitions for it and never considered who might listen to it. Only 500 copies were produced, though of course it now lives on the Internet. A reviewer for allmusic.com approvingly noted of Mango that Longstreth’s voice sounds as if it were “genetically engineered from strands of Paul McCartney, Ian McCulloch, Jeff Buckley, Freddie Mercury, and Elvis Costello.” Which is another way of saying it sounded like nothing anyone had ever heard.
Going back to Yale to finish his degree, Longstreth kept making albums, introducing the name Dirty Projectors, which he now claims to forget the origin of. He released two albums in 2003, another in 2004, and then, in 2005, a non sequitur “chamber-pop” opera about Don Henley and Aztec cosmology called The Getty Address, which included contributions from more than two dozen musicians, all spliced up and put back together.