Brooklyn Calling

Clockwise from the top, Angel Deradoorian, David Longstreth, Amber Coffman, Brian Mcomber, Haley Dekle, Nat Baldwin. (Photo: Grant Worth. Styling by Autumn Costner and Mark Spalding.)

Though there was no ceremony to mark the occasion, Dirty Projectors became a proper Brooklyn band a little more than three years ago. Prior to that, the name had stood for whatever music David Longstreth was making, wherever he happened to be, with whoever was at arm’s length. He was a bit of a drifter, living in New Haven, where he dropped out of Yale and then returned, as well as in Providence and Portland, Oregon. But as his ideas began to crystallize for what would be the band’s fifth album, he had settled back in New York. “There’s just a culture of getting things done here,” Longstreth says. “Those other places have their benefits, but there’s definitely a sense that nothing is so important that it can’t be put off until tomorrow. You get to a certain point where that drives you crazy.”

Longstreth took up residence in a falling-down brownstone on Halsey Street in Bed-Stuy. It had a leaky roof, a basement prone to flooding, and eight roommates, not counting the unofficial girlfriends, boyfriends, and assorted couch surfers who often tipped the sleepover population well into double digits. This was the Crazy House of Rock; inhabitants included members of Vampire Weekend, Phosphorescent, Ra Ra Riot, and the Castanets. But as messy and chaotic as it sometimes was, nobody ever confused Halsey Street with The Real World. Longstreth was on a mission. He had recruited a new guitar player and singer from California, Amber Coffman, who also happened to be his girlfriend, and he set about teaching her the complicated new songs he had written for an album to be called Rise Above.

The interminable rehearsals, conducted at the house, struck some roommates as inhumane, not to mention annoying, but Coffman remembers them as the good old days. “I never worked so hard on anything in my life,” she says. “It was totally inspiring.”

What Longstreth, now 27, had in mind was a song-by-song tribute to Black Flag’s punk-rock classic Damaged, an album he had revered as a kid but had not actually heard in more than a decade. His goal was to re-create not the sound but the sensation of the album, the mark it had left on him. He also intended it to be his “New York album,” he told the indie-music website of record, Pitchfork. “Angular, austere, obsessed with authenticity, like New York bands supposedly are.”

If you detect a subtle jab with that word “supposedly,” you may be onto something. Longstreth didn’t make Rise Above to fit in. He made it to stand out.

Rise Above is what might be called an “acquired taste” or a “difficult work”; it mixes brittle, crashing shards of guitar and drums with light, fluttering vocals. But many critics, including the staff at Pitchfork, adored it precisely because of its difficulty, and so did a passionate group of fans who were hungry for something different and were enraptured by Longstreth’s fervid imagination. Admirers went so far as to compare him to Prince and David Byrne, classic outliers with the singular power to draw the mainstream toward them.

Stillness Is The Move - Dirty Projectors

Dirty Projectors hit the road, as Longstreth whipped his band into a virtuosic live act. After years of fluctuating lineups, he solidified a group that includes a rhythm section of drummer Brian Mcomber, who has the guileless disposition of actor Michael Cera and still works part-time as a biology researcher, and bassist Nat Baldwin, an experimental songwriter in his own right who likes to drink beer and talk sports. Longstreth signed up another female singer from California, the hypertalented Angel Deradoorian, who also plays guitar and keyboards, and just before starting work on the follow-up to Rise Above, he added yet a third, Haley Dekle.

For the new album, Longstreth once again wrote and arranged all the songs. But this time he did it with this specific group of collaborators in mind, incorporating their gifts, particularly Coffman’s and Deradoorian’s powerful, contrasting voices, into his vision. He named it Bitte Orca, melding the German word for please with a carnivorous whale, because, well, he liked how it sounds and he doesn’t need a better reason than that. The album was released in June to ecstatic reviews, as critics celebrated songs much more outgoing and comprehensible than Longstreth had written before. The austerity and angularity of the tracks on Rise Above are softened with sweeter melodies and a nuanced blend of musical genres. There are strains of folk, hip-hop, classical, jazz, African pop. The first single, “Stillness Is the Move,” with a funky syncopated rhythm and a leaping, acrobatic melody sung by Coffman, is, as some critics noted, what it might sound like if Nigerian guitar legend King Sunny Ade played on a Mariah Carey song, a collision of unlikely musical forms into a serendipitous new idea. The hook—made up of Coffman’s bright, sopranic bursts—is one that any music producer would love to play with.

Animal Collective.Photo: Cory Schwartz/Film Magic

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.”

A band called AIDS Wolf performing at Death by Audio.Photo: Joe Perez

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 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.”

Cannibal Resource - Dirty Projectors

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 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.

Grizzly Bear at Music Hall of Williamsburg.Photo: Lucy Hamblin

The legend of David Longstreth started to grow. Stories were told of how he slept in a crawl space, worked eighteen hours a day on his music, and survived on spaghetti. His behavior could be very unpredictable. “He just loved chaos,” says one collaborator. “He liked things being on the verge of collapse, to keep everybody thinking.” But to his fans, he stood for something important, the antidote to the mainstream takeover of alternative culture. They understood that his music wasn’t simply random or quixotic. It had integrity, logic, symmetry.

Longstreth toured relentlessly, performing at pizza places, parking lots, warehouses, dorm rooms. Many of his early converts were amateur musicians who composed their own private, oddball symphonies and glitch operas on four-track recorders and computers. They regarded him as a hero. “It was impossible not to notice just how into him people were,” says Rosen, who would later be one of Longstreth’s roommates in that house on Halsey Street. “You could tell he wasn’t quite like the rest of us. He was more focused. He just wanted things more. And he had this power to make other people want them, too.”

Daniel Rossen of Grizzly Bear met Longstreth about four years ago, in Hamilton, Ontario. Grizzly Bear and Dirty Projectors were sharing a bill. Longstreth had just a four-piece band at the time, the only current member other than him being Nat Baldwin on bass. Longstreth affected what Rossen describes as a “really schizophrenic Frank Zappa routine. He was wearing giant glasses, hair all over the place, extremely disheveled. There was a comic element to it, but he also had a very determined look about him. You could see how hard he was pushing himself.”

It’s a little hard to reconcile the Zappa-like Longstreth of four years ago with the way he presents himself now. (And not only because he hates Zappa: “I think that shit is so fucking nerdy,” he told The Onion’s A.V. Club. “It’s technical in this way that’s really not musical.”) What’s different about Longstreth is, well, everything. He’s neat, mild-mannered, and not as willing as he used to be to discuss with interviewers his own work in the context of Wagner’s and Coltrane’s, lest he comes off as an overbearing autodidact.

“It was impossible not to notice just how into Davidpeople were. He just wanted things more. And he had the power to make other people want them, too.”

The critical success of Bitte Orca has opened up huge opportunities: He got a chance earlier this year to perform with David Byrne and to write music for a benefit performance at Housing Works in Soho with Björk. Next year, the stage gets bigger: In February, he and the band will perform with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (Grizzly Bear did the same with the orchestra last year), and then will be at Lincoln Center as part of the American Songbook series.

He and Dirty Projectors were back in New York last month, a brief stopover in between a European tour and a four-week spin around North America. The thing Longstreth was most excited to talk about was the recent improvement of their quality of life on the road. “Europe was all about food for me,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve eaten so well in my life.” He was equally excited that the next leg of the band’s tour would be their first in a fully equipped bus; Dirty Projectors are used to traveling in a van, and early last summer, the one they were in flipped over on a highway near Kalamazoo, Michigan. So the bus was going to be an especially welcome change.

After rehearsal at Mcomber’s apartment on the border of Bushwick, the full band convened for a late lunch at Diner, in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge. If Dirty Projectors have suffered at the hands of their slave-driving leader, they hide their scars well. Everything, like the gig with Björk or the upcoming mini-tour of Brazil, was “awesome” or “amazing.” They discussed what to eat with purposefulness, as if everybody’s order were a communal concern, and compared their encyclopedic knowledge of other bands with the geeky zeal of ornithologists discussing rare birds. Disagreements were subjected to speed-Googling competitions. Is Sublime from Garden Grove, California, or did they just write a song about it? Go!

Slouching in the banquette, Longstreth said that as much as he’d like to get back to songwriting and planning the next album, “we sort of feel like there’s more touring to do behind this record.” It makes sense—the road is where bands like Dirty Projectors make their rent money. Even buoyed by appearances on Letterman, Jimmy Fallon, and NPR, Bitte Orca has sold just 43,500 copies, including legal downloads, substantially less than Merriweather Post Pavilion and Veckatimest, which are both well over 100,000. On a typical night on the road, the Projectors can make about $5,000 (which also has to cover travel and management expenses), and maybe double that for a special occasion. The longer they can stay on tour, the better they can live when back home, and the more resources they can devote to the making of their next album.

Within days, Dirty Projectors were back on the road. The Trocadero Theatre in Philadelphia was their second stop. A few hours before the show, Longstreth stood outside on the sidewalk, talking to his tour manager about the impact that that night’s Phillies play-off game might have on turnout. “It could be pretty light,” he said, though he didn’t seem to quite believe it.

The turnout, in fact, was not light. The Troc was close to packed. Fans knew the words to songs and hollered for obscurities from the Longstreth oeuvre. Their set was short, less than 90 minutes, and though the band played flawlessly, they were a little bit stiff, particularly Longstreth, whose expression and posture barely changed from song to song. Wearing the same hoodie and plaid shirt he’d had on earlier in the day, he seemed reticent, as if a hint of performative gusto might counteract the seriousness of the music. The women were less inhibited; they at least ditched their hoodies in favor of elegant black outfits. And near the end of the set, when the Projectors broke into “Stillness Is the Move,” Coffman took the microphone from the stand and danced as she sang. It was a gentle step, not a full-blown boogie. But she looked like she was having a blast, payoff for all that rehearsing.

Later this month, Dirty Projectors will be back in New York for four nights of sold-out shows at Bowery Ballroom and the Music Hall of Williamsburg. Then it’s down to Brazil. By the time they come off the road and settle back in Brooklyn sometime next year, they might not recognize the scene they left behind. It’s mutating all the time. There are other bands poised to break out, like Yeasayer, which toured with MGMT and just played a show at the Guggenheim Museum. The neo-hippie thing from California, which has already turned Bushwick lofts into flowery outposts of Laurel Canyon, might yet yield a Brooklyn star. Or the new LCD Soundsystem album due out early next year could reignite interest in the DFA roster, which includes excellent young artists like Holy Ghost!, and Still Going. Or maybe it will be something out of nowhere that blows up, a kid who’s been pouring his soul into home recordings and is just working up the nerve to introduce them to the world at Bruar Falls. It could be happening right now.

Brooklyn Calling