Friday, May 29, 2009

Water Works USA: The New Brooklyn Scene?

It is May 1st, and Tamur Records has taken over the Silent Barn.

The label, run by Ray Weiss of the band Le Rug, is having its showcase at the Ridgewood loft, just over the Brooklyn-Queens border. There is a band playing in the kitchen in front a sink full of dirty dishes, and another is setting up in the hot, smoky basement. There is art all over, with demons and polka dots painted on the walls. In one corner, a broken arcade game sits next to a broken piano. The space exudes a bohemian haphazardness, a mishmash of little pieces of cool. The crowd is young and goofy-looking. Many people are apparently in high school, and almost all are sweaty and unwashed. When one band stops playing, members of the crowd pick up instruments and start setting up. It is almost impossible to tell who’s in a band and who isn’t; everyone appears to know everyone else, and everyone has similar enthusiastic expressions.

Of the numerous bands playing, two in particular stand out: Le Rug and Tom Blacklung & the Smokestacks, both punk bands from the NY/NJ area. Le Rug includes members of a third New York band, Fiasco. These three bands share many things: members, a label, geographic location. Along with a fourth Tamur band, Michael Jordan, they are all examples of a shifting underground that’s bubbling up in Brooklyn. They are the newest incarnation of the borough’s musical tradition, one that’s still largely localized and do-it-yourself. Some might call it a scene, but there is disagreement over the term. Whatever it is, it is still mostly undefined, but Le Rug, Michael Jordan, Tom Blacklung & the Smokestacks, and Fiasco are all good places to start in trying to figure it out.

Le Rug is the project of Ray Weiss, a stylishly scruffy twenty-one-year-old. Bearded and leather-jacket-clad, he is both charismatic and geeky. He is Le Rug’s only constant member. He estimates that there have been about twenty different members during the band’s approximately two-year lifespan. The band is based in New York, where Weiss is from, but there have been members from all over the Tri-State region, including New Jersey and Westchester County. Weiss is extremely prolific, releasing six Le Rug records in about two years.

Le Rug’s music comes from the punkier end of indie pop. Weiss describes it as “a hybrid of the Smiths, the Fall, and Built to Spill.” It is catchy post-punk loaded with sweet harmonies and hooky melodies delivered in Weiss’ aloof Everyman voice. His dexterous guitar playing calls to mind mathy mid-90s bands like American Football or Cap’n Jazz. The songs are well constructed, with twisty songwriting rife with sudden tempo and rhythm changes and clever lyrics about Pat Buchanan and St. Vincent’s psychiatric ward. Le Rug’s music is a little too fast for dancing, but not quite hard enough for moshing. Instead, it occupies a sweet spot between the two, somewhere that’s a lot of fun to listen to. Of all the bands profiled here, Le Rug seems to have the greatest potential for widespread popularity.

That being said, don’t count on Le Rug showing up on MTV2 anytime soon. Weiss has prior experience with the music industry. His old band, the Medics, was courted by Island Records, a division of Universal. The label offered them a three hundred thousand dollar advance, but wanted to fire some of the members because of how young they looked. Weiss quit, and the band broke up soon after. According to Le Rug’s Myspace page, Weiss “decided I needed a band that had balls.” He returned to the underground and formed Le Rug.

This sort of thing will never happen for the brilliantly named Michael Jordan, a five-piece hardcore band made up of NYU students. Four of the members are from New Jersey, with the fifth hailing from Chicago. They have been together for somewhere between two-and-a-half and three years. Drummer/ vocalist Michael Sheffield describes their music as “comedic hardcore,” but he doesn’t give himself enough credit. Obviously, a band named “Michael Jordan” has a sense of humor, but the music they play is less hilarious and more furious.

Citing bands like Sleep, Jawbreaker, and Born Against as influences, Michael Jordan plays feedback-drenched heavy punk rock. It is lo-fi like the best early-80s four-track-recorded hardcore, but with enough awareness of music post-1984 to keep it from becoming a stale throwback. The band’s two drummers play pounding, skull-rattling rhythms. This is not to say that they are totally abrasive, however. There are some hooks buried in there as well. Their riffs often resemble pop punk with the scraping, corrosive noise cranked up, not unlike the aforementioned Jawbreaker. The melodies are shouted and imprecise, but not without some degree of pop sense.

In person, Sheffield is soft-spoken and friendly, belying his onstage intensity. There, he is all flailing limbs and oxygen-deprived screams, while the rest of the band flails in equal measure. Live, Michael Jordan has to be a competitor for the title of “loudest band in New York,” an avalanche of drums and distortion. Sheffield self-deprecatingly describes Michael Jordan as “pussies making the hardest music imaginable.”

Tom Blacklung & the Smokestacks play the most straightforward music of any of these bands. They themselves are hesitant to call it anything other than rock-n-roll, and rock it does, just hard-charging, no-frills guitar-bass-drums punk rock. Many of their songs showcase tricky rhythms and singer/guitarist Joe Plourde’s raw-throated yell. It’s what Washington, DC punk godfathers Fugazi might sound like if they developed a sense of humor and started playing something more danceable. The band formed in June of last year, and is comprised of New School students. The members are split between Brooklyn and Jersey City, and practice in Midtown.

Of these four bands, the one to garner the most national attention so far is Fiasco, a trio of soon-to-be high school graduates from Park Slope. Fiasco has received mentions in the Village Voice and on Pitchfork, and has embarked on a few tours. This past March, they toured to South by Southwest in Austin, where they played nine shows in just four days. They have been playing together as Fiasco for three-and-a-half or four years, but have been playing together in various incarnations since 2003. All Brooklyn natives, they grew up within three blocks of each other.

Guitarist Jonathan Edelstein is a reserved and thoughtful eighteen-year-old who plans on attending Lang next semester. When asked to describe Fiasco’s music, the first thing that Edelstein said was “usually loud.”

“It’s complex,” he adds. “We’re not a band that improvises. Our music is very structured.”

He also describes it as “not punk, but punk influenced,” and “random and spastic.” Edelstein has an impressive ability to explain his own music, a difficult thing to do, because all of his adjectives are accurate.

Fiasco is a mostly instrumental three-piece math rock band. Math rock is a genre of music that takes cues from punk rock, but adds complex rhythms and time signatures. It is characterized by angular guitars and very fast drumming. The members of Fiasco are all very technically proficient at their instruments. Their rapid-fire playing is intricate and dizzying, with fleet-fingered guitar and bass runs slashed through by discordant outbursts. Clusters of notes careen around like a swarm of bees. Everything is painstakingly arranged and perfected, focused and tight as a drum, probably due to the members’ chemistry developed over a six-year period. It is incredibly high-energy music.

One of the most interesting things about Fiasco is the very fact that they play this music, considering their ages. The heyday of math rock was in the mid-90s, when the members of Fiasco were still in elementary school, and even then it wasn’t particularly popular. It is rare to find teenagers drawn to such idiosyncratic, uncommercial music, but somehow Fiasco found it.

“I’m not sure how it happened,” Edelstein says. “I was just lucky, I guess. A lot of kids don’t find out about it.” He recalls scrolling through the online music guide Allmusic, just following links and exploring. But math rock isn’t the only thing he listens to.

“I try to listen to whatever,” he says. “There’s good music in every genre, you just have to look for it.” He feels that people don’t appreciate older music as much, and new music wouldn’t be what it is without its historical foundation.

All of these bands are linked, geographically, ideologically, and personally. According to Le Rug’s Ray Weiss, the community is “incestuous.” The current lineup of Le Rug consists of him and all three members of Fiasco. He used to live with Joe Plourde from Tom Blacklung & the Smokestacks, who recorded Michael Jordan’s most recent EP. However, most of the participants are loathe to call what they’re doing a “scene.”

“You have these bands from Brooklyn, Queens, and New Jersey who all know each other and play together,” says Weiss, “but nobody gives a shit about the scene except kids and blogs.”

Michael Jordan’s Michael Sheffield finds that things are spread too thin. His band has had trouble fitting in; “Brooklyn kids think we’re too hardcore, and New Brunswick [New Jersey] kids think we’re too noise.”

“We can’t can find a home, so we rely on comedy,” he says.

Tom Blacklung & the Smokestacks’ drummer Josh Rosenberg concurs with Sheffield, saying there’s just too much out there for there to be a truly cohesive scene. He says that there are “a million” bands like his. He feels that part of the problem is that very few people in New York prioritize going to see local kids playing music, since there are so many other things to do.

Weiss thinks there is too much competition to really have a scene. This is not necessarily a bad thing, though, because it leads to better music through social Darwinism.

Jonathan Edelstein of Fiasco has a different perspective. Fiasco used to be lumped with other very young bands in New York as “kidcore,” which he says was mostly children encouraged by their parents who didn’t necessarily want to play.

“We were labeled ‘kidcore’ by all this people,” he says. “People would just come to see kids. But now that we’re getting older, it’s not cute anymore.”

“It wasn’t about music, it was just about image,” he adds.

His time with kidcore makes him appreciate the community he is now in more. According to him, there’s a flourishing DIY [do-it-yourself] scene all over New York. He mentions Todd P, the Long Island City-based DIY promoter who books a lot of shows and is instrumental in bringing a large number of independent touring bands to New York, as a major player in the scene. Edelstein does acknowledge that it can get competitive, but he still finds little to complain about.

All the bands agree that there are definite positives to being where they are.

Michael Jordan’s Sheffield says that the city is a great resource for musicians, where, although it may be difficult, every band will eventually find someone to help them, and fit into some niche somewhere.
“It’s the capital of the world,” says Ray Weiss. He likes that New York is so close to places like Philadelphia and Providence. He also appreciates how friendly other bands are, with most bands letting others borrow their equipment as necessary. There’s also a lot of press, like bloggers who will write about bands they see.

On tour, Edelstein observed scenes around the country, and found Brooklyn to be unique.

“People in, like, Alabama, are trying to do what we do here,” he says. “Brooklyn is the most well-developed scene in the country.”

Brooklyn has a long musical history that is still currently flourishing, with borough-based bands like TV On the Radio and Grizzly Bear earning critical accolades and higher cultural profiles. But there has also been a trend toward disposable buzziness and bandwagon jumping. Style trumps substance, and many bands are more concerned with image than with music. However, among these younger bands, there is a refreshing lack of image-consciousness.

“We’re just dudes,” says Sheffield. “If we were going for an image thing, no one would listen to us.”

He concedes that it’s impossible to totally get away from image, but that they consciously try to stay away from caring about marketing themselves or doing things just to get attention. Smokestack Josh Rosenberg also recognizes a tendency for musicians to get caught up in their own persona, and he and his band try to avoid that, even though they can’t help it.

“We happen to look really cool,” he jokes.

One thing the bands all have in common is a connection to Tamur Records, a label run by Ray Weiss. Even though the bands claim that there is not much of a scene, Tamur serves a scene-building role. The label was started in 2004 by Conor Meara as a non-exclusive collective that helps bands book shows and get their music out. Weiss says the label’s primary function is helping to book shows for bands who “haven’t gotten their promotional wheels turning.”
Most notably, Tamur’s entire catalogue is available for free download at the label’s website, tamurrecords.org. All of the bands are very much in favor of giving music away for free.

“The only albums being sold are to ten-year-olds,” Weiss says, “like High School Musical and things.”

Weiss explains that artists make so little money from album sales that it’s often not worth going through the trouble to prepare them for sale, and makes more sense to give it away. He has found that bands can reach more people that way, as it draws more people to shows and traffic to the bands’ websites.

Joe Plourde of Tom Blacklung & the Smokestacks finds more of a community among Tamur bands than with others. He recalls a plan among the label’s overseers to get one set of instruments that every band could use, so that time between sets would be reduced and the shows would be better. The plan fell through, but it was still indicative of the agenda-free, DIY nature of the label.

Michael Sheffield says he loves what Tamur does.

“It’s an orphanage for bands that are too purist or too weird,” he says. He describes it as a haven for outcasts, and appreciates that they encourage bands others mostly ignore.

Most of Le Rug, Michael Jordan, and Tom Blacklung & the Smokestacks’ music is available on Tamur, and Fiasco plans on making their out-of-print first album available soon.

All of these bands are different, but in some overarching way similar. It may or may not be accurate to call the similarity a scene, but there is definitely something to it. At the showcase, Jonathan Edelstein and Joe Plourde were introduced for the first time. Though the future and current Lang students had previously never met, they know a lot of the same people and listen to a lot of the same music. They may not ever speak again, but at that moment they were almost the same: two sweaty, bespectacled guys in a basement in Queens enjoying the community spirit of rock ‘n’ roll.

Le Rug - The Boss

Michael Jordan - Wires

Tom Blacklung & the Smokestacks - Tweek

Fiasco - Oh, You Horny Monster!

(MP3s via Mediafire)

1 comment:

Kim said...

great piece! gonna nab those mp3s right now