Forget Folk: New York's Music Scene Goes Glam
BUSHWICK — New York City music fans want drama.
Fatigued by earnest, listless or aloof performances, a new crop of glamorous groups are bringing the art of spectacle back to the city's clubs.
“We don’t want to have a show where you just walk in and it’s just four guys dressed like hipsters playing boring music and you’re just staring at your shoes, waiting for it to be over with,” said Alex Chappo, of the "psychedelic voodoo rock" band Chappo.
Elizabeth Valleau, lead singer of gothic-electronic outfit Wolvves, said many people now don't want bands that just stand there.
“We’re going out of a period of, I would say, a minimalist aesthetic in terms of musical trends," she said. "That could be a group of people who think that what we’re doing is artificial, stupid or over-the-top. I think there could be a newfound appetite for folks wanting to see a show, not just hear a great song live."
With the rapid, steady drop in revenues from recorded music, members of many bands say they need to put on a good show to help pay their way. A number of Brooklyn-based bands are looking to the past to build their audience, heightening the drama by using costumes, makeup, fog machines and video projections.
Borrowing from groups such as The Flaming Lips, Of Montreal and even Kiss, this new wave of bands is creating shows that create immersive experiences, piggybacking on the rising popularity of theater experiences like "Sleep No More."
The Bushwick prog-rock band Not Blood Paint is known for asking audience members what level of involvement they would like to have in the event — passive observer, active observer or participant. They then bring people into the performance, painting their faces or giving them roles in the narratives of their songs. Each member of the band has a background in theater.
“Bands are taking back that ‘straight from the artist to their community’ kind of approach and doing it really successfully, completely outside of concerns for the music industry,” said band member Seth Miller.
“People don’t pay for the music, and so we wrote a lot of our music thinking about the live space and live performance,” he said. “Being in a room with people and having that live moment is far more immediate and transformative than the hermetic environment of creating together.”
For show bookers, the theatrics a band brings to concerts usually bode well for sales, they said.
"From my perspective, if a band does have something a little extra like that, it’s always a positive thing because it seems like they’re at least thinking about what they’re doing as a whole act and not just a few guys getting together to play music," Steven King, the booker for The Rock Shop in Park Slope, said.
"It doesn’t always make it better, but it at least tells me that the band cares about what they’re doing and they’ve got some kind of vision," he continued.
Audience members crave interaction, said Valleau of Wolvves, which makes minimalist electronica with a gothic edge.
“I’ve been so impressed by how excitable people are,” she said. “Even in a small club with not many people around, if you start talking to them or yelling at them or throwing things at them, they get super amped up and involved…Live, people are just excited to be in a room with some big energy in it and might not care what kind of music we’re playing.”
Wolvves once asked audience members to throw sand and dust into a cauldron during a show and found people kept asking for more.
The "pop cock rock" band Mother Feather bring a glam edge to their gigs. Frontwoman Ann Courtney dons flamboyant custom-made frocks, Siouxsie Sioux-esque makeup and a killer sense of bravado when she hits the stage with the four-piece band.
“The makeup is just one way we commit to something that is bigger than our everyday selves,” she said. “There’s also an important ceremonial aspect to the application of the makeup and its destruction during the performance. Think of it like Tibetan sand mandala meets demolition derby.”
"A lot of what used to take virtuosic talent, endless practice or great physical effort to execute in real time can now be performed at the touch of a button. This leaves a lot of time and physical freedom to direct towards other creative outlets," he said. "If an artist is heavily using automated instrumentation but doesn't provide a visual, it can be awkward for the audience."
These flamboyant bands may also be coming at a time when dour singer-songwriter types have begun to tire a public that wants to let loose.
The members of Not Blood Paint add that their own theatrics may be a reaction to the serious scene that has dominated many local clubs.
"Maybe it’s in some way a reaction to coolness, to being aloof or reserved," band member Mark Jaynes said. "A lot of the things we do on stage or the way we look on stage are pretty grotesque. It’s in some way a confrontation to the audience but it could also give them agency to work through their own stuff and step out of themselves in that way."
New York City itself frees bands to create a dynamic image and performance, said Sagit Shir, who formed the band Hank and Cupcakes with her partner Ariel Scherbacovsky.
“Being here pushes you to your own creative place,” the Israeli immigrant said. “Not only is there a lot of creative visual inspiration and stimulation, but also something special about this city is that no one gives a s---, in a great way. You come here and you realize that you really can do anything and be anyone and dress any way you want and people will just accept it.”