New York buzzbands are cockier, louder and more up against it than anybody else, and for every Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Diiv or Interpol the Big Apple has thrown up since the turn of the century, there have been a million Fischerspooner failures. Here, NME’s Gavin Haynes meets WALL, the latest NYC act to be talked up in hushed tones. Coming the week their debut EP is released, this is their first ever interview.
I flew into New York and within two hours – barely enough time to have a shower and shovel all the hotel stationery into my luggage – I was back out of my room, in a cab, up at The Cake Shop, watching WALL. That night, they played the way I felt – squeezing me bodily through the eye-bleed queasy dislocation of jetlag, of a head like a half-empty bottle of Nembutal. It was rattling, exhilarating.
First drummer Vanessa Gomez took to the stage, small and steely-eyed, pointing her drumsticks skywards, like one of those Ancient Egyptian dog-man creatures stood guard over the Temple Of No Wave. Then Elizabeth Skadden joined her, in sensible knitwear, her bass slung preposterously low like Paul Simonon’s. The soon pair locked into a groove that could not have been more urgent had it been sent by cycle courier with red tape up the edges.
Guitarist Vince McClelland – a tall pretty boy with a Jerry Lee corkscrew of mousy blonde hair – was up next, striding out to scratch at the neck and the bridge of his guitar, whipping it like a disobedient donkey until it gave him the coarse atonalities he was looking for.
Finally, Sam York – long streak of piss, all 6ft limbs – jittered onstage, opened her long thin lungs, and unleashed her stream of consciousness that sounded like Dadaist pamphlets assembled from shredded brochures for Upper West Side therapists.
WALL were the sound in my head. The sound of a fantasy New York of cracked pavements and broken lives, the rattle of subway cars, the whine of elderly people being assaulted, the fast staccato chop-shop rhythms of a tumbledown global capital. They were sharp and uncompromisingly so. Like early B-52s if they’d grown up on Wu Tang, this was swagger music, designed to make the weak feel stronger and the strong feel indomitable.
That sense of riding on the rim of a moment, circling on the edge of chaos, is the result of four very different minds coming together – a musical friendship that has taken on a chemistry above what its participants had anticipated.
In fact, when Elizabeth Skadden moved to New York after a three-year stint on the arts scene in Berlin, she wasn’t necessarily looking for a new band. “But being in a band is like falling in love. It always happens when you least expect…” WALL started when she hooked up with her childhood friend Sam York, who became the singer, drummer Vanessa Gomez who had only started playing a couple of months earlier, and guitarist Vince McClelland, of 60s moptop homagers The Keepsies.
They’ve often been compared to 80s alt godheads and REM-influencers Pylon – one comparison they seem to actively enjoy. Naturally, The Bush Tetras and ESG always crack a mention. But while the no wave tag is there in Gomez’ blank-eyed marching rhythms, Skadden’s loping bass, and the squeal-of-brakes whine of Vince’s guitar, there’s also a melodic force to their songs that only comes through with repeated listens.
Take, for instance, ‘Milk’ – from their forthcoming self-titled EP – where York’s playful surrealism takes things in a direction that most of the no wave’s deadening non-sequiturs wouldn’t dare. “The sky opened up / milk poured out / They say that is the way,” she deadpans, as the song decelerates into its gawping chorus with the tuneful efficiency of Jefferson Airplane transforming like Optimus Prime into Jefferson Smart Bomb.
‘Cuban Cigars’ is their breakout-hit so far – a strident cock-of-the-walk post-punker that alternates York’s sly whimsy: “Fresh baked bread keeps the pigs well fed”, with Skadden squawking “suited up, playing rough, walking in and talking tough” and ends abruptly with everyone coughing like they’ve all choked a fistful of Cuban Leaf down the wrong way.
‘Fit The Part’ takes a classic post-punk riff and gradually accelerates it, with York babbling her own neuroses about switching social roles as the song increasingly trips over its own rhythmic complexities. It feels New York to its bones – something all the more remarkable given that each of the band members come from a different part of Texas: York and Skadden hail from Austin, Gomez is from Houston and McClelland from the half-a-horse town of Buna.
The four-way hyper-democracy of WALL’s songwriting style is best evinced on ‘Last Date’, a corkscrewing cherry bomb written twenty minutes into their first rehearsal. “Band practice is like a group date,” Skadden muses. “If all the participants were solving a problem the entire time they were on the date.”
In the hive mind, everyone inputs. And everyone respects everyone else’s input completely. WALL is all, or it is nothing, they say. “Steve Reich developed his music as a series of patterns,” Skadden explains. “Each musician repeated a section for a certain amount of time, sometimes at the whim of that musician. Within WALL we will create a musical idea that we like and then just decide how many times we want to repeat that before moving onto the next part. We first start with a drumbeat, add bass, and then guitar and vocals. Everyone usually has input into everyone else’s parts which is really helpful to create a balance.”
If there are two poles which drive WALL’s sound, then it’s the bass-vs-guitars face-off of Skadden-McClelland, whose musical histories are pretty opposite.
Skadden’s mom was a hippy who brought the avant-garde likes of Laurie Anderson and Devo into the home from a young age, to the extent that her taste has consolidated around the scratchy, challenging, atonal end of the spectrum. “Honestly, something is wrong with my ear. I can’t listen to something like The Cars or The Clash, and think it sounds good, I just can’t do it.” Skadden was previously of Finally Punk, the Austin, Texas punk luminaries who styled themselves as ‘No Rules’, swapping instruments in-between their one-minute songs. “I enjoyed Finally Punk so much that I didn’t believe I could ever find something that even came close,” she says.
Working with Vince has been different. “I’ve played with other guys before Vince, but honestly never liked it. I find men are quite limiting in a band context. Women, in my experience, are more open to sharing. Vince has a willingness to experiment that’s amazing. I think of him as my own personal Eric Erlandson: stoic, patient, talented. Et cetera.”
On the other side of the spectrum, Vince’s previous act was the cute, pin-neat 60s pop of The Keepsies. “I became obsessed with this book, Songwriting Secrets of the Beatles,” he says. “I would write songs based on different chapters of the book.” The Keepsies is still a recording project, he adds, co-owned with Austin Brown of Parquet Courts. Vince was an early drummer in semi-legendary Austin indie act Ringo Deathstarr too. “Elizabeth works like a focusing element,” he explains. “I noodle over all of our songs, and she picks what she likes. I have a terrible memory, so she’s good at stopping me and saying, “Wait, play that again.”
WALL’s rhythmic tumble-dryer is all the more remarkable given that Gomez was an utter drumming novice when she arrived. “I’ve just always connected the most to the drums when listening to music,” Gomez explains. “I always mentally imagined myself doing it. Riot grrrrl made me believe I could. So… I’m so glad that I finally pursued it like fucking 15 years later.”
Years ago, a friend gave her their drum kit for free. “And then more recently a few friends gave me a few lessons, but being in a band is what really helped me learn.” She grins. “I’m lucky to have bandmates who are so patient…”
For her part, York grew up listening to “a mix of terrible indie bands from the mid-2000’s mixed with weird Zolo and a whole slew of 80’s jams that I discovered via Elizabeth. We’ve known each other for nearly 20 years and lived together as youngsters.” Two of the videos she most remembers watching on repeat together were ‘Bostich’ by Yello and Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’ – about as far at either end of the palette as you could get. “I think something that has helped our friendship together for so many years is that nothing in our lives has ever been normal…”
Her songwriting style has been a matter of experimentation so far, but the hunches keep coming up good. “Each song feels like a gift from the corner of some messy closet of my mind… It’s wild how sometimes I can just hear it, I can hear the words.”
Since she arrived in New York, Sam has modelled for the likes of Ryan McGinley – the on-trend art photographer who specialises in shooting naked people on dramatic landscapes. His latest book, Way Far features her unclothed atop a cliff, and involved an epic trek with a whole band of models right across the continental United States. But she’s coy on the details of her modelling success.
“Being naked was something I’ve never really felt I had to come to terms with,” she reasons. “I was lucky enough to make friends with Ryan early on in moving to New York and get introduced to a whole community of people who felt the same way.”
Recently, they’ve been offered the chance to do a video with another friend of York’s – Richard Kern, the legendary East Village photographer and Sonic Youth collaborator, and in recent years the man behind the proto-Suicide Girls erotica of Vice’s Shot By Kern series.
Not that the band see him through that lens. “To me, Richard Kern is a legend because of Death Valley 69 and such,” says Vanessa, “I love his old stuff. A friend of mine just showed me ‘You Killed Me First’ which is soooo good. But ‘The Manhattan Suicides’ and ‘Horoscope’ videos are what got me super excited about collaborating with him.”
WALL are still making it up as they go along. Their self-titled EP – released last Friday on Wharf Cat Records – includes all four of the first four songs they ever wrote. It was produced and recorded by Parquet Courts man Austin Brown, in the concrete room they used to use as a practice space.
Having struck oil with their first four jams, the creative engine of WALL is clearly still gathering steam, and hence subject to much change as they uncover the true source of their powers. “We are making up songs now that incorporate all of us in the vocals, I guess that’s the main difference,” says Skadden, of their forthcoming and as-yet-untitled album.
“I think we got a lot weirder on that one [the album],” Gomez continues. “And I like that.”
The weirdness will not trump what Vince calls “Having a record with depth and high replay value, something you can really sink your teeth into.”
But really, WALL consider themselves to have won already, just by going on these four way dates.
“In my mind we’ve already succeeded,” York concludes “Sure there is always more to be had, but we are four friends making music together and it doesn’t get much better than that.” When it’s love, well, you just know.