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New Rock City

Sounds like: Spastic and surprisingly poppy experimental punk with fuzz bass, syncopated beats, and samples from NPR and books on tape. The need for speed: Fed up with the “tempo” of new music (“It was either punk-core or mid-tempo emo, like math rock”), Ian Vanek (drums and vocals) and Matt Reilly (bass and vocals) formed their own fun hip-hop-and-techno-infused punk band. In two weeks, they were throwing their BMX bikes in Vanek’s pickup truck for a cross-country tour of basements and parking lots. Up next: Their second record, Dump the Body in Rikki Lake, comes out October 14.

Sounds like: Nineties-girl-band power pop, complete with screechy sexpot vocals and massive feedback. Name game: “I have always been the No. 1 supporter of morning wood—and I don’t mean the band,” says sexy chanteuse Chantal Claret. “Either you get it or you don’t. Literally.” Slap-happy: “The people who come to our shows are pretty rabid,” Chantal says. “Girls take their clothes off, get onstage, and I get to slap a few asses. To me, that is the most amazing thing ever!”

Sea Ray
Sounds like: Easy-on-the-ears, dreamy pop for people who like Yo La Tengo and Spiritualized. Worth the wait: Originally a two-guitars-bass-and-drums band, Sea Ray later busied up the stage with a cellist and a keyboard player. After years of recording and performing together and opening for everyone from Interpol to Yo La Tengo to Girls Against Boys, the Brooklyn-based band recently signed with indie label the Self-Starter Foundation. Keeping it real: They’ve gained cred with an all-too-rare lack of pretense. “One girl complimented us after a show,” says keyboardist Jeff Sheinkopf, “for being the only band of the night that wasn’t wearing white studded belts.”

Secret Machines
Sound like: An amalgam of Pink Floyd circa Meddle, psych pop à la the Flaming Lips, and raspy, young-Springsteen vocals. Bursts of sound: Josh Garza and shaggy-haired brothers Brandon and Ben Curtis formed Secret Machines in Dallas in July 2000, recorded an EP, had decamped to New York by November, and haven’t released anything since. Lab work: The Machines are putting the finishing touches on their debut CD with the help of a “mad scientist” who rejiggered electronic devices into processors that let the band micromanage every sound. “It’s still a rock band,” says Brandon, “but it won’t quite sound like what you’re used to, and you won’t know why.”

Split Me Wide Open
Sounds like: Exuberant electro-punk that’s close enough to Sparks—and far enough from Fischerspooner—to survive the fall. Marilyn Chambers does the East Village: Bassist Rebecca Cohen and singer Giorgio Handman found inspiration three years ago at a now-defunct gay bar watching a porn star scream, “You split me wide open!” People are still talking about . . . A Williamsburg showcase last year in which a nearly naked Handman depantsed guitarist Jon Vomit to very impressive effect. “There were a lot of jokes about his Big Goth Cock,” says Cohen. Up next: The band’s vaudevillesque debut as a threesome at Otto’s Shrunken Head on September 27. Then a cross-country tour of leather bars.

Sounds like: Soaring guitars and driving dance beats: Robert Smith and Belinda Carlisle resurrect the Smashing Pumpkins. Name game: “When I was a kid,” says front man Shawn Christensen, “there was a hearse on my street that never moved. It was the most hideous glam purple you’ve ever seen, and it said STELLA STAR on the side in glitter. It felt kind of epic and science-fiction, like our songs.” The Social Anxiety Club: “I was literally mute until third grade,” says Christensen. But he did persuade the classically trained bassist down the hall—graphic designer Amanda Tannen—to join him. And then guitarist Michael Jurin and Lithuanian drummer Arthur Kremer. Up next: A self-titled debut, out September 23 on RCA.

Ted Leo & the Pharmacists
Sounds like: A harder-rocking early Joe Jackson who’s not afraid to scream (or whistle). Ch-ch-changes: On some songs, Leo sounds like John Lennon. On others, Mick Jagger. Sometimes even Curtis Mayfield. “I have a pretty big range,” he admits, “and I definitely use it.” But what is punk? “There was a time when a band like the Clash could make a record like Sandinista and still be punk. The Jam could mix Motown and the Sex Pistols and still be punk. Punk was about breaking down boundaries. That’s what informs our music.”

TV on the Radio
Sounds like: The crossbred vocals of Peter Gabriel and Ozzy Osbourne fronting a pissed-off Beta Band. Size doesn’t matter: In the beginning, Tunde Adebimpe (lead singer) and Dave Sitek (multi-instrumentalist) had different plans for their sound. “When we first decided to record, Dave said he wanted small music, really small music,” says Adebimpe. “Then we finally started recording, and we were like, hold on a second—this sound is big. Can we actually do this?” Pixie dust: Their EP Young Liars ends with an eerie a cappella version of “Mr. Grieves,” a classic Pixies song. “I was playing it for a friend in this café once, and someone came over to us and asked me if it was the original version and if the Pixies were the ones who covered it. And I’m like, blasphemy. Hell’s no!” Up next: The band’s recording its first LP for Touch & Go.

The Vitamen
Sound like: Infectious, upbeat hooks like the Kinks; weird, funny lyrics like the Moldy Peaches; deadpan poignancy like Pavement. Old-shul ties: The trio attended high school together in Mamaroneck, where front man Jesse Blockton and bassist Matt Hyams also went to Hebrew school. Eventually, they joined up with drummer Dave Rozner—“from a rival temple,” says Blockton. Years later, they took their sound to Los Angeles but found California to “suck shit” and returned to New York City. “People get us here,” says Hyams. “L.A. is more about suicide. New York is about having fun.” Mama’s boys: Whether they are playing an unsentimental ballad about the excruciating quest to protect one’s mother from life’s disappointments (“I’m gonna do everything in my power / to get money to give to you”) or harmonizing about masturbatory anxiety, you find yourself caring improbably deeply. Up next: They play Luna Lounge on Halloween.

Signing Bonus
You heard these bands here first—now the world’s hearing them.

Signed from: Tiswas Records.
Signed to: RCA, May 2003.
Appearances: Carson Daly, an MTV “You Hear It First” guest spot.
Status: Self-titled debut comes out September 23.
How it happened: Borrowed money from their label to fly to South by Southwest, where NME and Carson saw them play. Then came the majors.
Why they signed: “They understood our visionary thing. And we saw their head of A&R dancing to the Rapture at South by Southwest. If the head of A&R is grooving to the Rapture, that’s a label we want to be a part of.”

The Star Spangles
Signed to: Capitol Records, July 2002.
Appearances: Played Letterman in full mod regalia after the show had a cancellation.
Status: Debut Bazooka!!! released on Capitol on August 19, produced with Daniel Rey (Ramones).
How it happened: A&R legend Howard Thompson saw them at Arlene’s Grocery and un-retired to shop them around; Capitol bit.
Why they signed: “We feel our music is far more interesting than anything we have to say about getting signed,” says Thompson. “We don’t want to be part of a story again. We want to be the story.”

The Walkmen
Signed from: StarTime.
Signed to: Record Collection (half-owned by Warner Bros.), May 2003.
Appearances: Carson Daly, an interview on MTV, and a song featured in a Saturn commercial.
Status: Debut on StarTime sold a whopping 23,000 copies; follow-up is due early next year.
How it happened: They played frequently at Brownies; a staffer who became a scout for WB passed on their CD.
Why they signed: They were wined and dined by many majors, but “some labels give you the spiel and only want you in case you happen to blow up,” says their singer.

Secret Machines
Signed from: Ace Fu.
Signed to: Warner Bros., April 2003.
Appearances: None—not typical Daly material. “They’re unique, and that’s a difficult thing to be these days,” says the label.
Status: Just finished first album after almost three years of (re-)recording.
How it happened: After Ace Fu rejected their debut, they did a residency in L.A. to ease the pain and ended up attracting record execs. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say it happened naturally,” says their singer.
Why they signed: WB’s commitment to helping them tour. “It was fairy-tale-like,” they say.