Last night at Strand Book Store, Lizzy Goodman said she considered her new oral history, Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011, a “dirty high school reunion.” Which was weird, because I don’t remember going to high school with Aziz Ansari and Seth Meyers, who were in the audience.
The last time I saw Aziz out and about was at LCD Soundsystem’s comeback show at Webster Hall. So it’s a safe bet he crammed into the Strand’s Rare Book Room to hear James Murphy, who took the stage to chat with another local legend who’s featured in the book, Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
To kick off the reminiscing about the NYC music scene in the aughts, the LCD frontman recalled seeing Zinner’s pre-YYYs band, Challenge of the Future, at the Cooler, the sadly bygone Meatpacking District venue, and then seeing the Yeah Yeah Yeahs for the first time at Parkside Lounge, on the Lower East Side. Journalist Rob Sheffield, in turn, remembered hearing LCD for the first time when Justine D played “Losing My Edge” at Don Hill’s.
Yes, it was that kind of talk, with all the obligatory asides: “This was before blogs…”
What might be surprising to members of the Mac DeMarco generation is that, before the Strokes blew up in 2001-2002, the “New York scene” wasn’t really on the radar.
Or so Murphy recalled: “There was a moment when you were in a band because that’s what you did. It was not a very good idea; that’s just what you did. You liked doing it and there was not really a lot of optimism about what was going to happen. But then, suddenly, you have the internet.”
“No band that I knew in New York City ever got signed, or even played outside of New York,” Zinner said. The biggest success story in his circle was Jonathan Fire*Eater. “And they would tell us that whenever they left New York, there would be like five people at their shows.”
As a result, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs didn’t get their hopes up. The band’s first EP, Zinner said, was “just made as a demo so we could try to get a show at Mercury Lounge or [East Village club] Brownies, and that was as far as we thought.”
Murphy noted that towns like Louisville and Chicago were getting all the hype, and “nobody was thinking New York was going to be the next Seattle.”
Before the internet made it easy to stream and sell songs online, he said, “you had to spend money on pressing something, or a gatekeeper had to spend that money on pressing something for you. And it was really expensive. So it was normal to be in a band and not expect much.”
The best one could hope for, Murphy said, was to get paid $800 for DJing a fashion show—or to get $75 for doing sound, as Murphy did at venues like Maxwell’s, Brownies and Westbeth Theatre Center.
Zinner, a fixture at places like Lit, said he found himself DJing all the time: “I’m the worst DJ in New York, but it didn’t matter, I think. You could just play what you liked and it seems crazy but that was a novel thing at the time.”
Murphy recalled distributing flyers that read merely “Hey, I’m DJing at Plant Bar tomorrow,” without so much as a name, a date, or the address of the tiny East Village bar that became the unofficial HQ of Murphy’s label, DFA Records.
At that time, there was a “loosening up of the fashion and art worlds,” Murphy said. He remembered Black Dice, a Brooklyn band on DFA that was known for its rough-and-tumble performances, being invited to play after-parties for fashion shows. “You’d be like, ‘Really? Anybody seen them?’”
Before such opportunities arose, it was sometimes easier for New York bands to catch on in Europe than it was to make it in their hometown. After the Yeah Yeah Yeahs posted some songs on their website in the early aughts, “people would write us from Sweden and Mexico and England and all over,” said Zinner, who at the time lived in a “big loft” in Williamsburg. “And it seemed so crazy that we couldn’t get a show in New York.”
Back then, Murphy said, less people went to shows, and selling out a 200-capacity venue like Brownies was thought to be a big deal. Going to see a friend’s band was considered a drag rather than a claim to coolness. “People only wanted to get on the guest list if you were playing with a band from out of town,” Murphy said.
Of course, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and LCD Soundsystem are now a very big deal, but that doesn’t mean they feel like rock royalty. “We’ve never felt like we fit in, ever,” Zinner said.
The goal is still to “at least not feel embarrassed at your own after-party,” Murphy agreed.
With that, most everyone, including Seth and Aziz, moved over to the after-party at Bowery Electric. Remember when it was Remote Lounge?