It’s late 2000 and New York bristles, rattles its cage, a city on the brink. Tiny foreshocks seem to shake the clubs and cafés almost nightly – something’s coming, something big.
A gang of Brat Pack punk lotharios in skinny jeans and ties, out to look like a classic band on the subway, emerge from producer Gordon Raphael’s underground Transporterraum studio with a rough-hewn demo EP they presciently title ‘The Modern Age’. A Seoul-via-New Jersey art school kid is watching DIY acts dressed as rabbits and Robin Hoods at the anti-folk nights at SideWalk Café in the East Village, soaking in the community vibe and wondering about transforming her acoustic duo Unitard into a trashy art-punk spectacular.
“It felt like something was actually happening” – director Dylan Southern
On the Lower East Side, two studio dudes start throwing wild and diverse club nights, playing Daft Punk to the rock kids and soon to start their own post-punk dance label. All NYC – and, for that matter, 21st century rock music – needed was the spark, the green light, the starting gun. A sign that its time was now.
“To us, the bit that was interesting was that initial explosion,” says Dylan Southern, co-director of the new documentary adaptation of Meet Me In The Bathroom, Lizzy Goodman’s acclaimed oral history of the early 2000s NYC scene. “The origin story, if you like, of the bands. Each of our stories [in the film] is a kind of coming-of-age story. The draw of this mythical city and the characters arriving there. We were fascinated about the transformations all of the characters underwent and how ephemeral [the scene was], how difficult to hold on to it is, and it’s tied to something more universal. When you’re having the best time of your life, you probably don’t realise it at the time
“When we read the book, the first half was the page-turner,” says his directorial partner Will Lovelace, considering a film which covers the gradual build-up to the lightning bolt emergence of a fully formed NYC scene including The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Rapture, The Moldy Peaches, The Walkmen, LCD Soundsystem and Interpol between 2000 and 2003. “I just wanted to read more and more. And so straight away it was like, that’s what the film should be.”
In the early 2000s, when The Strokes and their NYC pals were busy rendering the nu-metal and acoustic rock behemoths of 1999 obsolete and inspiring a new generation of wired, hyperactive millennial alt-rock to rise up across the UK, Southern and Lovelace were half a world away, but listening closely. Just out of university and making corporate films and music videos for local bands in Liverpool, they sensed the buzz beamed over from the Big Apple.
“The soundtrack to our corporate video hell was probably these bands,” Southern admits. “It was all that Fred Durst, pop-punk, that was the landscape, something needed to happen. It was exciting for us in Liverpool at the time suddenly seeing people who looked like The Strokes. It was just like ‘something’s actually happening’… It was familiar and different. Aesthetically it had ties to scenes that had emerged in New York previously, but then it also had a modernity to it as well.” Not that they could put a name to it. “It definitely wasn’t called Indie Sleaze back then,” Southern says. “I don’t know where that’s come from.”
Today, several music films later – including the 2012 LCD Soundsystem film Shut Up And Play The Hits and the 2010 Blur rockumentary No Distance Left To Run – the pair have convened in an interview room behind a trick bookcase in a King’s Cross hotel to celebrate the culmination of years of work on the film, gathering archive video and interviews to brilliantly piece together – as the book does – a surprisingly disparate scene.
“It was called the New York scene but it had different pockets,” Southern argues. “The Brooklyn scene was slightly different to the Manhattan scene and what was going on with DFA and James [Murphy] was a different thing altogether.”
“They weren’t living in each other’s pockets, not all of them,” says Lovelace. “The Strokes and The Moldy Peaches did hang out quite a lot in the early days, but I don’t think they were all hanging out. They all had their own versions of where they actually met each other and often it wasn’t in New York, often it was on tour in Japan or somewhere unexpected.”
“To the eyes of the world it’s a scene,” Southern adds, “but Interpol aren’t friends with The Strokes. Not that they’re enemies, but the truth is their touring schedules are different. They’re probably not in the city at the same time. They’re probably a little bit in rivalry with each other. It never seemed like it was a scene where everybody was hanging out together.”
Meet Me In The Bathroom, then, plays out like a series of disjointed threads that are gradually, fatefully knitted together. In rare, unseen footage discovered in an LA lock-up by a regular photographer on the scene, a pre-fame Strokes lark about geekily on the subway and tear clubs apart for a small but buzzing cult crowd. Elsewhere, in unearthed interview tapes, Karen O relates her journey from Ohio’s Oberlin College through the New York anti-folk scene to become the divided singer of Yeah Yeah Yeahs – retiring, insecure art schooler offstage; onstage, a rampaging, mic-swallowing punk wild-woman careering headfirst towards over-indulgence.
“She’s a person with a duality to her, starting with her own ethnic identity, being mixed race, but then she’s almost like two people,” says Southern. “There’s a Jekyll and Hyde aspect to her in that she’s very, very shy, and not very forthcoming in real life but then on stage she’s created this monster. It was very liberating for her to be that person, but it was also incredibly destructive. I think the weight of the audience’s expectations on how crazy or how far she would go on stage was the thing that took its toll eventually.”
“The weight of expectation took its toll on Karen O eventually” – director Dylan Southern
Karen was keen, Southern says, to ensure that her experience of being a woman on the scene was fully documented in the film. “It was really interesting to hear that perspective on that time, because quite often when you look back it’s a lot of white boys in skinny jeans and Converse, and she had a very specific role in that period. She talks about the way that she was objectified by photographers and in the press and sometimes found it hard to be taken seriously as an artist. Through the prism of today, that’s an interesting aspect of that period. They all seem quite comfortable talking about the lows of it, because all of those rock’n’roll cliches reared their heads relatively soon for those bands.”
Interpol are cast as the slow-burning outsiders of the scene, while James Murphy seems to shuffle uncertainly through the story. “He was doing his own thing in a different part of the city,” says Lovelace, “he definitely didn’t consider himself to be part of that same scene.” Murphy and his DFA Records co-founders Tim Goldsworthy and Jonathan Galkin initially act as the backroom engine propelling The Rapture to funk-punk fame, but Murphy almost seems to stumble into international success as LCD Soundsystem when the surreal and self-deprecating ‘Losing My Edge’ becomes an international hit despite his friends telling him that releasing it would destroy his career.
“With James, his coming-of-age story happens in his thirties,” says Southern, “so there’s something really fascinating about that, especially having made his midlife crisis movie, or midlife crisis in reverse, Shut Up And Play The Hits. Most 40-year-olds would quit their jobs and start a band. He quit his band and started something else.”
Southern argues that “through the energy of so many people doing similar things at the same time, [the scene] appeared around them.” But there’s a subtext to all the footage of pandemonium that greet the bands as they touch down in the UK, virtual unknowns back home but instant indie rock superstars here. It’s a kind of reverse FOMO; the sense that, thanks to the rabid enthusiasm of our music media and focal points such as NME’s “We Love NYC” issue of April 2001, a scene which was barely registering in NYC really happened largely in Britain.
“The scene reached a tipping point” – director Will Lovelace
“I feel like that’s what happened,” says Southern. “We’re such a small island, and to break the States takes years. It feels like a rite of passage for all of those bands. There’s a scene where every one of them comes to the UK, and it feels like they needed to do that to then go back to New York and be as big as they were.” “When they came here it was amped up,” Lovelace adds. “Suddenly there’s crowds everywhere and they know all your music. For some of those bands that hadn’t been the case until they came here, which must have been an interesting experience.”
The NYC Indie Rock Culturequake of 2001, then, comes across as a unique coming together of Transatlantic forces and cultural headwinds; a glorious collision of ambition, talent and impeccable timing. New York was the right place with the right sound, look and attitude at exactly the right time – the point when the desperate need for it had become overwhelming. It was also, considering the evolutions in music consumption and promotion in the intervening two decades, virtually unrepeatable. There’s no algorithm, for example, currently scouring the pubs and scout halls of the Isle Of Wight for more of wherever Wet Leg came from.
“I think part of it is the time,” says Lovelace. “It’s the fact that it’s happening as the internet is in its infancy. The bands in the film are making music at a time when it’s still very DIY, they’re still promoting their bands in the way that people always had done and it feels like it was on a tipping point. A few years later, it’s very different.”
“It does feel like it’s the last time a geographically specific scene could organically emerge,” says Southern. “With the differences in the way that we consume music, the differences in the way that people make music, the differences in the music that people are interested in, it doesn’t feel like it could happen in that way again. So there’s something special about it in that it feels like the end of an era. Even though it was exciting and nascent at the time it very much had its own death written into it in a weird way… It was a different world and the intervening years had changed so much, so it felt really fascinating to look at this very specific period which was the cusp of all of that change. It’s about how different the world was culturally and technologically.”
As with any quicksilver grassroots phenomenon, the scene in New York essentially dissolved the moment the spotlight hit it. Bands galore were snapped up by labels and set off on world tours that rarely crossed paths. Gentrification hit the East Village and Brooklyn, forcing out musicians and artists. Karen O moved to LA “grieving for the scene”; the fickle glare of the press moved on to Detroit. Though numerous great bands continued to emerge from New York for the rest of the decade and beyond – TV On The Radio, The National, Vampire Weekend, Public Access TV – the formative scene, such as it was, scattered.
“It burnt brightly for a very short time,” says Southern. “Once those bands ascended then they were the world’s and New York was just their point of origin.” Yet, unusually for a decades-old scene, many of the bands in the film are still going concerns, and their tunes laid a fresh bedrock for alternative guitar music as resilient as the CBGB punks of the 1970s. As the buzz around Meet Me In The Bathroom attests, this little story from a long time ago seems simply never-ending.
‘Meet Me In The Bathroom’ hits UK cinemas on March 10