For fear of being sized up by a hipster wearing something asymmetrical and self-made, there are those who prefer not to walk down Williamsburg’s Bedford Avenue on a Saturday night. This is not the case with the girl who has just sashayed out of the L subway station wearing nothing but a shapeless piece of pink fabric belted at the waist and a pair of stiletto heels. Once she’s out of earshot, two guys smoking outside the L Café begin to giggle. “Looks like somebody got new window treatments,” says one, stroking his goatee in a posture of mock rumination. His friend bursts into the first few strains of “My Favorite Things,” but by then, she’s already disappeared into the Reel Life video store.
Near the L Café, there’s a brick wall supporting a cluster of Sharpie-written flyers: “Share available with four other art-oriented chill people.” “Musician/audio engineer seeks smart, clean, liberal, fun, vegetarian(ish) student/artist for large 2-level loft. Serious musicians, illustrators, technicians, and writers encouraged.” “Cute apartment share … I’m looking to create a productive scene. You can paint here, or sculpt, or spin, or write, or yell, or whatever your thing is!”
Inside Fabiane’s, a coffee shop on Bedford – “Please come and see my friend’s new movie at the Anthology Film Archives,” says the boy behind the register, setting a flyer onto every tray – two girls are complaining about the latest Fischerspooner show at Deitch Projects. “And the costumes!” one shrieks. “Hello – ?”
The girls in question, both wearing choppy cavewoman-invents-scissors hairdos, are halfway through their iced mochas when they embark upon a heated debate as to whether they’re living in the old Manhattan, the new Manhattan, or some unconfirmed-as-of-press-time Manhattan. From what can be overheard, there are those who tout Brooklyn as the new Manhattan, and there are those who tout Manhattan as the new Brooklyn. Whatever the case may be, the old East Village is now the new West Village – despite the fact that Avenue C is the new Avenue A. However, Avenue A is over, because Williamsburg is now the new East Village.
“How many artists can even afford to live in the East Village anymore?” one says.
The other replies, “Williamsburg is the only place to find people who are still interested in living a bohemian lifestyle.”
Nevertheless, the rest of the people don’t look like they’re about to start banging on bongos. Last summer, Fabiane’s began to get overrun by swarms of stroller-pushing mothers – you’re more likely to hear a conversation about Fisher-Price than Fischerspooner.
The fact that this article is being written will no doubt symbolize to some that the scene in Williamsburg came to an end a long time ago. “All the people who moved here when they were 25 are now in their thirties and having kids,” says Dave Alhadeff, who’s lived in the area for three years. “It’s basically turning into Park Slope – a lot of baby shops, tchotchke stores, and moms.” But any talk about how Williamsburg’s becoming overgentrified and stale (and there’s a lot of it) could be chalked up as a sign that the young people in Williamsburg – most of whom will themselves have kids in five or six years – don’t want to lose what they have. Right now, it feels like a charmed creative moment, and everyone wants to ride it. (Dave himself, who used to work for Urban Box Office, is currently working on a furniture-design store, a guidebook to the city, and numerous other projects.)
Of course, riding the creative moment looks pretty good when there’s not much else to ride. The dot-com industry has crashed, both the media and music businesses are tanking, and it’s difficult to find a twentysomething who’s not living on unemployment. Couple this with the impact of 9/11, and you get a sense that, after the nineties, the world is ready for a change.
“Williamsburg definitely has that feeling of ‘partying before the apocalypse,’ ” says Ana Matronic of the electronic band Scissor Sisters. “There’s a sense of reckless abandonment, with this sort of sinister undercurrent of war and destruction – partying while Big Brother takes a nap.”
“There’s a really rich scene here,” says the 42-year-old promoter and D.J. Larry Tee. “I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that young kids can actually afford rehearsal spaces – so you get all the cool people living in a place where they can practice and develop; that fosters a sense of community.”
Tee and Spencer Product’s parties – “Mutants” on Friday night and “Berliniamsburg” on Saturdays, both at Luxx, were hailed as the long-awaited antidote to a nightlife dominated by anonymous techno and Lizzie Grubman–helmed boutique openings when they launched last year.
The invocation of Berlin here is far from accidental. “There’s a strong German element to the music we play – especially German disco,” Tee says. “But the name is a joke, inspired by something the designer Hedi Slimane said: ‘Williamsburg is the new Berlin.’ Plus, we wanted a name that was really terrible and memorable.”
Taking its cues from electronic artists like Fischerspooner and Peaches, the music played at Luxx has been alternately branded as “electro,” “tech-pop,” and – in the most vicious case – “avant-tarde.” It has more to do with do-it-yourself humanization of what had been a fairly impersonal form, and it’s already inspired an assortment of copycat parties, like Washington’s “Sleaze” and London’s “Nag Nag Nag.”
Of course, not everybody’s biting – a friend of mine who recently purchased a compilation at Other Music was harangued by the girl at the cash register: “My friend recently made a T-shirt that says electro sucks,” she sniggered, dropping the compilation into a bag. “I completely agree … “
Tee and Product began Berliniamsburg because “we wanted to create an environment that promoted a new way of life,” Product explains. “We wanted to apply the do-it-yourself mentality to everything from the club’s décor to the music we make on our home computers to the clothes we wear.”
Spencer had been balancing his nightlife gigs with a daytime job as a freelance graphic designer for mtv.com. The day he was fired, he says, “I’d just thrown a party the night before and was completely exhausted. I kept thinking, Something has to change. When my boss called me in, I was worried that he was going to give me a permanent position – because that would’ve been an offer I couldn’t refuse, and it would’ve meant I’d have to stop throwing these parties.” When he was asked to leave, Spencer was relieved: “I thought, This is my way out!”
With its mix of New Wave–inspired fashion, DIY aesthetics, and synthesizer music, their parties’ vision has obviously drawn a lot of comparisons to the eighties, but Product rejects that theory himself. “Comparing this stuff to the eighties devalues the level of creativity that’s going on right now – this hybrid of fashion and music and art stars.”
On this particular Saturday night at Luxx, a sea of revelers – almost all of whom are wearing outfits that would’ve been suitable for any scene in 1982’s cult sci-fi film Liquid Sky – are not so much drifting about as being pushed by the centripetal force of the crowd. Dressed in a long cape and panties, Prance – Spencer Product’s stage persona – arrives onstage looking like the love child of Prince and a Philip K. Dick android. Slicing the air with his hands, he launches into “When Love Dies,” one of his creations, which owes more than a little to “When Doves Cry.”
“The sweat of my body covers me,” he growls. “Candy Darling, can you picture this … ?”
Near the front of the stage, a boy named Scott Hug is taking Polaroids of the show for his self-published journal, K48, which began as his thesis at Pratt Institute and has since become the unofficial chronicle of the Williamsburg arts-and-music scene. He says that he dumps nearly his entire salary from freelance graphic design into the project. “A lot of New York kids have their own projects that they start up because they have a trust fund or a connection,” he says, “but their projects usually suffer because they have so much money and so little talent.
“My magazine is based in chaos theory and the irrational,” Hug explains. “I don’t want it to be pretentious – my first issue bordered on that; it was a little too arty. But I want to inspire and influence the young kids coming up – I want them to know that now that we all have computers in our bedrooms, they can be used as really powerful tools for change.”
Scott gives away a handful of buttons and bumper stickers to a coterie of mohawked boys. The bumper stickers have slogans like K48 WANTS YOU TO BATTLE ME and ATTENTION CONSUMER!!! K48.
“I made this propaganda to be assertive,” Hug says. “I’m not a corporation, you know, so I have to be aggressive. The media is controlled by Condé Nast and all these larger corporations. The stickers and buttons are my way of saying that even though you have all that money and advertising, I think it’s just a bunch of shit.”
Hug likes to covertly plant these stickers inside newsstand editions of magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. “I don’t want K48 to ever become commercial or mass-produced,” he says. “If I could, I would sell it for free. It should be bartered, be my currency … “
He points out a tall, dark-haired man in a business suit who’s taking photographs of the crowd. “He’s working on a book called Punk Revisited or something like that,” Hug says. “He’s just trying to cash in on the whole thing. You know, it’s all the interest the media’s created about Williamsburg that’s causing the rents to rise. All this media coverage is definitely going to kill the scene.”
A crowd carries plastic cups of mint juleps back and forth from Andy Salzer and Thomas Meus’s Williamsburg apartment and into the loft space directly across the hall, where the designers are throwing a party to celebrate the fall line of Yoko Devereaux, their avant-garde fashion label. Lit only by industrial clamp lights, young models plucked from the streets of Williamsburg swagger across a makeshift catwalk created with black masking tape, each of them heavily made up to look mutilated, slashed, or otherwise decomposed: There goes Kenan, of the electro band Soviet, wearing a black T-shirt depicting a suicide note that reads GOODBYE CRUEL WORLD. There’s Spencer Product again, in a T-shirt graced by the images of dead celebrities: JonBenet Ramsey, James Dean, and Grace Kelly. Meanwhile, on a small stage entirely constructed out of cinder blocks, Hungry Wives perform the soundtrack to the show, their faces obscured by Yoko Devereaux “body bag” hoodies that zip up over their faces. At the end of the show, Salzer takes the stage and launches into a song titled “It’s Over.”
“The scene is dead, honey,” he sings. “The Palladium is a dorm. Twilo was sold on eBay …” Salzer, aside from being a fashion designer, is also a member of Hungry Wives (as, it must be mentioned, am I).
After the show, Salzer pushes through the throng and says, “Shit, I told the landlord that only 50 people were coming.” Back in his apartment, he starts flipping through a rack of clothing. “Our spring line is based on celebrity fanaticism,” he explains. “Celebrities don’t reach a point of martyrdom until they die prematurely. So, for this line, the catch-phrase is ‘You’re not legendary until you’re dead.’ “
Salzer originally moved to New York from Seattle to launch UV115.com, a site selling club accessories that was almost instantly bought out by the doomed Urban Box Office. “UV115 was a B2C prototype,” he says, laughing. “You know – a business-to-consumer prototype. That’s the kind of ridiculous thing I’d have to hear every day. For example: ‘taking conversations offline’ and ‘your path to profitability’! What the hell does that mean?” He fires up a Camel Light and says, “Really, all I was selling was an idea. It felt like a scam, actually. Everything and everybody was overvalued.”
After UV115 folded, Salzer took six months to figure out what to do next, living off the sizable amount of money he’d made. “I always wanted to be involved in fashion, but I found it to be such a calculated business – all about the marketing. And after the dot-com, I wanted to work on something that actually had meaning.”
“The possibility of an unknown finding success right now is much greater,” says Thomas, “because the media is so hungry for something different.”
The idea of creating a fashion designer – Yoko Devereaux, of course, does not actually exist – was clearly inspired by Salzer’s less-than-inspiring experience with the Internet. “The desire to move into the clothing line was truly about bucking all the bogus nonsense surrounding the dot-com sensation,” he says. “My involvement with the line is more about tongue-in-cheek commentary on the structure of industries.” Indeed: He and Meus recently created a pair of jeans with “$900” stenciled in gold on the ass. Two pairs were sold from Soho’s Selvedge store – for $900 apiece.
“The people in Williamsburg take themselves less seriously than in Manhattan,” Salzer says. “It’s fostered collaboration between tons and tons of amazing people. If you look at what I’m doing, I’m working on fashion and music, and it’s all at your fingertips because these people live down the street from you. There’s none of that ‘What am I going to get out of this?’ attitude.” He pauses to take a long drag from his cigarette. “The press and attention will eventually ruin it – the challenge for now is to see whether any of the talent in Williamsburg will be taken seriously enough to be invited into actual New York City culture.”
“We are not bohemians!” Matt Moran shouts from behind the turntables of his Williamsburg apartment, where he’s scouring through a stack of recently purchased industrial records, sieving out all but the most assaulting. “We’re bohemics!”
“Yes, bohemics,” Alex Chesler says, laughing. He’s leaning in the doorway, drinking a bottle of beer. “Help – ! We take drugs instead of eat food. We’re bohemic!”
“I just found a large mushroom growing in our bathroom and almost ate it,” Moran says, pouring a healthy amount of Jagermeister into a tumbler. “I don’t know – does that count as bohemian?”
Oliver Chesler, Alex’s older brother, walks into the bedroom with his girlfriend, Julie. They’re laughing about a drug binge that ate up the better part of last week. “After three days,” Oliver yells, slouching down onto the bed, “I decided, we can’t do this anymore! I look over and Julie’s crying – because I’m the one holding all the coke!”
“I did not cry!” Julie giggles.
Oliver, Alex, and Matt – electronic artists who perform under the monikers the Horrorist, Acrosome, and D.J. Satronica, respectively – launched their own record label, Things to Come, six years ago, after a handful of producers dubbed their work too “dark and strange,” in Oliver’s words.
Oliver’s best-known song as the Horrorist, “One Night in NYC” – a creeped-out tale of a girl’s first encounter with the Limelight, ecstasy, and sex – is relatively unknown in America but has the distinction of being banned by every radio station in the United Kingdom (nevertheless, it hit No. 1 on the German dance charts). Alex, who often performs in a mask made of white gauze and plastic eye-bubbles, makes a hybrid of techno, gothic, and industrial over paranoiac vocals – a genre he calls, somewhat jokingly, “terror-core.”
While Oliver, 32, supervises the business aspect of Things to Come, Alex and Matt both have other careers outside the label. Matt, 28, is “a product-development manager for wireless community services,” and Alex is in his sixth year at Columbia, getting his Ph.D. in neuroscience. “Generally,” says Alex, “I stay up until four in the morning working on music, wake up at nine, and then head off to the lab. And then do the whole thing over again.”
“Alex has a lot of skill,” Matt says. “He just injected his lab partner with a retro-virus. He’s really skilled at giving cancer to his friends.”
“That was a bad day,” Alex says, taking a long swig of beer. (No, they’re not kidding.)
“So maybe it’s upwardly mobile bohemia,” Matt says. “I was punk rock when I was younger, and people called me a sell-out for getting a job. But I don’t feel bad about working a job, because otherwise I couldn’t afford the equipment to do my music.”
“You’re not a ‘sell-out,’ ” Alex says, laughing. “You’re a ‘buy-in.’ “
“No regrets!” Matt yells. “I sold my soul, but I don’t want it back!” He slugs down some Jagermeister. “I spend all my money on the record label. I spend $300 every two weeks on records, and even more money on equipment. So I’m broke all the time, even though I make a good salary.”
“I just started the label so that I have clothes to wear,” Alex says, zipping up his black Things to Come hoodie.
“Really?” Matt says. “I thought you did it to get laid.”
“Things are definitely getting better,” Oliver says. Oliver’s trying to put his finger on what’s inspiring so many people to charge ahead with their creative projects, whatever they might be.
“In past times of terror, like in the eighties, fashion and music responded,” he says. “It’s like how an abused child will piss his pants. The governments of the world are like parents, and the people are the children. The artists are the organs who sometimes unknowingly show the signs of the parental abuse for the society. It’s now – what? 2002?” Alex and Matt laugh and nod. “Sorry – I must have Ozzy syndrome. I swear I wasn’t dyslexic two years ago.”
He clears his throat and says, “Now you can feel the nineties are finally fucking ending. I hated all the grunge and the hip-hop and the darkness. It was terrible. I always felt bad.”
“The people in Williamsburg are just as much assholes as they are in Manhattan,” Matt says. “But here, the first question is ‘What do you do?’ The second question is ‘What else do you do?’ And the third question is ‘How much money do you make?’ “
A few weeks after our interview, Matt gets laid off from his job. “Unemployment’s great,” he says, laughing. “I think everybody should do it. I’ve actually started writing my own songs now. It’s really not so bad – I didn’t like anybody that I worked with, anyway.”