New York Rocks

Andrew W.K.Photo: Awais/LFI-AW

“I need more beer!” shouts Karen O, the lead singer of a punky trio called the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, to the crowd packed into Brownie’s. The audience is far from the typical Avenue A indie-rock scenesters – it includes editors from Spin and Rolling Stone and legions of A&R representatives from major labels like MCA and Atlantic Records. The industry machers stand in stunned silence, until one brave soul passes Karen O a couple of Rolling Rocks. She wipes strands of her dyed-black hair from her face and guzzles the beer (much of which ends up on her New Wavey white tie) and then launches into “Mystery Girl,” a song that has all the great strutting, punky cockiness of the band’s five-song debut, Master.

It’s a scene that’s repeated in Manhattan nightclubs just about every week, but in a sharp departure from recent music-business history, where such bands-on-the-verge have hailed from Seattle, Berkeley, or even Des Moines, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are from New York. And they’re not alone.

Lowered rents, a new, more nightlife-friendly mayor, and a sense of frustration with an industry dominated by teen pop and secondhand grunge have created a musical moment in which New York matters again. “There’s definitely a whole ‘New York is back’ vibe happening,” says Casey Spooner of electro-pop act Fischerspooner, who recently signed a deal with Ministry of Sound (one that music-biz insiders put at $2.5 million). “It’s a post-Giuliani thing, it’s people bouncing back from 9/11, it’s all of these great places to go dancing or see a band in Brooklyn.” Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner sees history repeating itself: “What’s happening now reminds me of what happened in New York from 1979 to 1982 or so,” Zinner says, referring to an era when the city’s music lovers could take in everything from early hip-hoppers like Grand Master Flash to post-punkers like Television. “People are taking chances across the board, and as a result, a lot of the bands people are talking about really are high-caliber.”

Critics and A&R executives agree. “There are more good-to-great bands in New York now than there have been since the mid-to-late eighties,” according to Rolling Stone music editor Joe Levy. “It’s been years since things were this vibrant in New York,” says Peter Edge, the A&R executive with Clive Davis’s label, J Records, who signed Alicia Keys. More important, “New York has several bands right now who have the potential to be both culturally important and commercially successful,” says Tom Sarig, executive vice-president of A&R at MCA Records, home to Mary J. Blige, among others, “which is an A&R’s dream.”

The breakout success of the Strokes, who have become such a phenomenon in Europe that Iceland Air recently promoted a “Strokes Vacation” (round-trip airfare to Iceland and tickets to see the band in Reykjavik), may well be fueling the speculative talk about the New York scene in the music business. But Gotham’s music makers are a highly uncategorizable bunch, including everyone from anarchic rocker Andrew W.K. to arty pranksters the Moldy Peaches – a far cry from the fashionably distressed post-punk of the Strokes.

And unlike in years past, the center of this perfect-storm convergence of New York acts is Brooklyn. In addition to playing a more traditional role as a haven for refugees from Manhattan rents, the borough is nurturing new acts and new scenes thanks to clubs like Luxx, Warsaw, and North Six. “Brownie’s has been hounding me, but I’m dying to play Warsaw,” says Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer of the Walkmen, a much talked-about New York act whose sound resembles the airy sprawl of early U2. “There’s such a great vibe there.” Zinner has a similar take – “It’s more fun to play a loft party in Brooklyn,” he says – and Spooner makes an even bolder Brooklyn-centric declaration: “I started making music and performing,” he says, “because there was nowhere to go dancing except for big, shitty clubs in Manhattan.”

Nevertheless, Manhattan is still where bands play to be seen – and possibly signed. It’s several weeks after the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ gig at Brownie’s, but at the East Houston Street club the Mercury Lounge, the setup is eerily similar: The Walkmen play to a room so uncomfortably packed that raising a drink to one’s lips is nearly impossible. The industry-heavy crowd includes a co-president of Atlantic Records, and the vibe is predictably reverential, until a heckler yells, “Play another Strokes song!” The audience laughs in approval; lead singer Leithauser is so stunned by the remark that he doesn’t even offer a comeback. “I thought it was funny,” Leithauser says later. “The New York scene has become like a rowdy high-school class.”

Indeed, Leithauser’s throaty croak does resemble the Strokes’ Julian Casablancas, but more tellingly, the joke illustrates the inescapable shadow the Strokes cast over New York bands. Just about every article about the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, for example, begins with the fact that Albert Hammond Jr. of the Strokes wore a Yeah Yeah Yeahs button on Saturday Night Live. Zinner is appreciative of the nod but wants to keep his distance. “People are looking for the next Strokes,” he grouses. “We’re not it.”

The question of whether these acts will follow the Strokes into superstardom is something of a preoccupation in the New York scene, even if band members themselves are realistic about their chances in the music business, which has become increasingly cautious about taking on challenging acts (even cultishly popular artists like Tori Amos and Björk, for example, are considered money-losers). “We’ve been talking to some majors, but they talk in such a roundabout way about everything that it’s hard to understand what they’re up to,” Leithauser says. “In the end, I don’t care where we go, I just want to play music full-time.” Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs strikes a similarly cautious note. “We’re psyched about the attention, but we’re definitely a little apprehensive too,” he says. “We’re putting off deciding about what we’re doing label-wise until we get back from Europe.” Casey Spooner, however, is unapologetically in the Madonna-esque, I-want-to-rule-the-world category. “The underground is overrated,” he sniffs. “I want our music to be heard by all the kids pining away for the glamour of New York in their bedrooms.”

The Top Ten:
1. Andrew W.K.: With the raucous punk-metal of songs like “Party Til You Puke,” Andrew W.K. is the most loutish thing to happen to rock since Sham 69 shouted “We Got a Fight.” Not surprisingly, the grizzled rocker (who, ironically, was first discovered playing at the Astor Place Starbucks) is already a huge star in Europe, thanks to live shows so anarchic that he’s left drenched in sweat or even bloodied.

2. Fischerspooner: This sprawling pop-performance art troupe is headed by two Art Institute of Chicago alums whose amazing live show (part vaudeville, part Blade Runner) has helped them rise from playing galleries like Gavin Brown’s Enterprise to becoming the music-biz darlings of 2002. Even if their spiky, after-hours electro sound doesn’t translate in the mainstream, the thought of major labels shelling out millions for former performance artists is a rock-and-roll swindle worthy of the Sex Pistols.

3. French Kicks: Their upcoming full-length debut, One Time Bells, offers twitchy power-pop with a kaleidoscopic blend of influences (from Doors-like organ stomp to sixties-style surf-pop), all delivered with a sneer worthy of Joe Jackson or “I Don’t Like Mondays”–era Bob Geldof.

4. The Horrorist: The nom de plume of Oliver Chesler, an electronic-music producer whose darkly hilarious songs like “One Night in NYC” and “Mission XTC” have earned him pop-chart success overseas and high-profile admirers like legendary A&R man and Oasis mastermind Alan McGee.

5. The Liars: Some New York bands offer reverent riffs on the post-punk period, but the Liars gleefully mash up any number of eras, including punk, hip-hop, and New Wave. Their debut album (released in October 2001) also has one of the best titles to come along in a while: They Threw Us in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top.

6. Longwave: Though it just concluded a tour with the Strokes in Europe, there’s nothing ironic or arch about Longwave, a band whose confessional songwriting style and grungelike quiet-loud guitar dynamics might endear them to fans of Creed.

7. The Moldy Peaches: They emerged from New York’s anti-folk scene (and they too have toured with the Strokes), but the Moldy Peaches are so absurdist, so completely off-kilter – songwriting obsessions include bowel movements, downloadable pornography, and bunnies – that they make just about everyone around them look staid by comparison.

8. RADIO 4: They take their name from a song by Public Image Ltd., and, like Johnny Rotten’s notoriously experimental post-punk act, Radio 4 bring a dubby, electronic sensibility to rock. Their soon-to-be-released sophomore album, Gotham!, proves that Radio 4 are the most sonically adventurous of New York’s new wave.

9. The Walkmen: Some of its members may hail from Jonathan Fire Eater – the overly hyped band of yesteryear whose DreamWorks debut flopped – but don’t hold that against them: The group’s signature is the sort of spacious rock that made U2 albums like Boy so inspiring. And even if their just-released, first full-length album, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone, can feel elliptical in parts, songs like “We’ve Been Had” and “Wake Up” absolutely soar.

10. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs: The talk from critics and A&R execs has got them pegged as the next Strokes. But the group’s warped garage rock has a lot more in common with the Cramps or the Pixies. Though their sound is underground, their lead singer, Karen O, is one of the most charismatic women in pop this side of Gwen Stefani.

Hot label: StarTime International. Founded by former booking assistant Isaac Green in September 2000, this Brooklyn-based imprint has a roster so consistently stellar – signees includes the Walkmen, French Kicks, and Beach Boys–esque songwriter Brendan Benson – that it calls to mind powerhouse indie labels of yore like Sub Pop and SST.

New York Rocks