As jagged waves of distortion swell around a sold-out Los Angeles club, Cole Haden assumes his spot before the microphone, elaborate tassels dripping from both arms and six-inch heels cutting an unmistakable silhouette. The mustachioed frontman begins teasing out the intro to ‘Donkey Show’ in frantic bursts of spoken word: “To turn a desert into ivy around him / Everyday, everyday the sun turns slowly over me.” Within minutes, as some thrilling live footage shows, the warped set opener has skewed into an assault of thumping electronica and the crowd are sounding their own feral howls of release.
This palpable sense of community has quickly come to define the unstoppable rise of Model/Actriz. The Brooklyn gang – completed by Jack Wetmore (guitars), Ruben Radlauer (drums) and Aaron Shapiro (bass) – have embraced a fevered word-of-mouth buzz that’s followed them everywhere since they dropped their debut album ‘Dogsbody’ earlier this year, appearing at tastemaking festivals including SXSW and Wide Awake alongside dozens of their own headline shows across the UK and US.
It’s not hard to see why their sound has lent itself to the live arena so naturally. The debut album arrived like a shot of adrenaline to the system back in February. A mix of electronica with scuzzy guitar flourishes, the raw intensity of ‘Dogsbody’ instantly set Model/Actriz apart from other names on the scene. With a rhythmic, mechanical pulse, percussive elements akin to charging power tools, and a vocal delivery straight from the book of noise-rockers like Gilla Band or METZ, the record makes for a truly transformative experience.
Model/Actriz have even earned some fans at these shows. Speaking to NME earlier this year, Fontaines D.C. frontman Grian Chatten described their performance with high praise: “They’re such a mad, thrilling live band, particularly when they attack the bass. The energy is just crazy and fucking cool.” Sticking to a demanding touring schedule, they’re far from finished for the rest of the year either, with more UK dates to come in November including stops in Glasgow, Manchester, Bristol and a milestone headline date at London’s Fabric.
It’s slightly surprising then, that when NME catch up with Haden and Radlauer, they sip away mid-afternoon drinks from a calmer and dramatically different setting. Speaking from the sunroom of an idyllic lodge in a remote Nashville forest, Haden says his choice of writing retreat for the follow-up to ‘Dogsbody’ reminds him of his upbringing in rural Southern Delaware, where he was raised close to sandy coastlines and stunning greenery.
“I love it here,” he says, in front of a postcard-perfect view of sloping woodland; even on the other end of Zoom call, you can take a sense of comfort from this backdrop. “I like the crickets, the quietness and being able to stand at your window naked without worrying about someone seeing you,” Haden warmly chuckles. Momentarily lifting himself out of his current setting, the frontman casts his mind to the importance of those early live shows.
“From the very outset, the performance has always been the main part of our schtick,” he says, recalling basement shows in Boston and backyard parties in LA. “In the first iterations of the band, I was actively trying to intimidate people with my performance. I was angry about not really knowing how to give myself the license to make the art that I wanted to make, I would almost take it out on the audiences or hurt myself as a sacrificial lamb.”
“There’s always room for more queer voices in darker music” – Cole Haden
Though the band’s rise has felt rapid, it’s been anything but overnight. Having formed in Boston in 2016 after meeting at a DIY show, Haden pulled the brakes on Model/Actriz not long after their sonically bruising but groove-heavy 2017 debut EP ‘No’.
Speaking today, Haden says he needed the time and space to find his own voice, and after a 18 month-long break, the frontman returned with a newfound focus. “I realised that what I really wanted to get out of the shows was being a conduit through which people can feel something.” He pauses. “Life is really lonely for everybody, I want people to feel less lonely at our shows.”
Perhaps most crucially, the hiatus offered the band time to settle personal scores around a sense of identity and belonging away from being in Model/Actriz. “I didn’t believe any of the words that would come out of my mouth before [the break]. I was a virgin when we recorded the first EP, and half of that first song [‘Matador’] is about getting railed.” On that fidgety and distorted track, he repeats: “Get hard / Dumb fuck / Fuck good / Come strong”.
Haden continues: “I was posing as these things that I felt needed to be. It was subversive to me also, nobody knew that I was just a bachelor taking the piss out of rock music. The space gave me the confidence to write what I actually believed to be true to myself.”
In the summer of 2019, after a triumphant comeback show in LA celebrating five years of their first label Danger Collective Records, the band felt invigorated once more. Radlauer notes: “That night gave us a confidence in our desire to continue doing this and the reward was a sense of community.” Haden adds: “It shone a light on a lot of potential energy and new aspirations. Before, we weren’t thinking about the project much further than a day-by-day basis. We’d matured; we were capable of seeing goals as a group, and the future suddenly opened up.”
When the band reconvened, having relocated to Brooklyn, all eyes were on the debut album. As the world opened up post-pandemic, they pinballed between different writing spots in the US, from the basement of Shapiro’s parents house in Vermont to Haden’s grandfather’s remote cabin in Pennsylvania. Describing their time at the latter, Haden recalls a scene straight from a Stephen King novel.
“There was no service, just local TV stations playing polka music. On the last night we were there, a fucking bat snuck in the room as I was going to sleep. I got the flashlight on my phone out and this thing was just flying around over my head.”
“Releasing ‘Dogsbody’ was one of the most important days of my life” – Ruben Radlauer
The results, though, were well worth the jumpscares along the way. A listen as fun as it is brutal, ‘Dogsbody’ exudes an intense darkness; just ‘Crossing Guard’, a jittery anthem that channels the vocal delivery of NYC heroes LCD Soundsystem, but also the incisive, cutting edge arrangements of industrial contemporaries today like UK noise outfit Scaler (FKA Scalping).
The album came as an emotional purge for the band, and that’s something they hope comes through for the listener, too. ‘Dogsbody’ is, in essence, a celebration of pulling through dark times. As Haden explains: “We don’t see it as a heavy album, but more as accepting the shittiest thing in your life and seeing the joy in having worked through it. When people listen to our music, I want them to feel lighter.”
As a queer frontman claiming space in a traditionally undiverse genre, it’s no wonder that throwaway labels of post-punk leave a slightly bitter taste in the mouth for Haden – or as he puts the tag, “as irritating as a mosquito buzzing around.” To cast that catch-all net over the band would be going against what they’re trying to achieve. Growing up as a lover of theatre, Haden is more ready to cite Cats the Musical as a pivotal influence on his work than any other bands in the underground noise scene.
From a young age, Haden always knew he always wanted to be a performance artist. “I’ve never been shy about it,” he recalls. “There is a pantheon of icons of theatre and my ambition is to be one of those people. That’s always been the fire under my ass. There’s really not much I can do in this life, so my goal is to continue improving and looking up to those heroes of mine.”
One of Haden’s “heroes” is Lady Gaga, and it wasn’t until ‘Bad Romance’ era that the stars really aligned for him. Haden’s eyes light up as he begins discussing how she was a central figure of his formative years. “She really unleashed something in me,” he says. “She was the introduction for me and all of her fans to a Rolodex of references and forms of artistry. It was the spark that led me away from doing theatre which is a noble craft, but I wanted to write the script myself. She was such a seminal figure for me, I loved what she was building.”
Growing up, having been left alienated from some of the machismo in noise-rock, Haden felt like he stood on the fringes before eventually finding his own voice during the second iteration of Model/Actriz. “I just didn’t have an entry point to the community, I felt excluded from it,” Haden says. “Having grown up in a place with no scene at all, moving into one I felt like I was constantly having to justify my presence. There are a few icons but maybe that’s just like Fred Schneider of The B-52’s, there’s always room for more queer voices in darker music.”
It’s understandable then, that the band have never felt tied to a scene, despite coming through in a vital wave of emerging NYC acts like Geese, Been Stellar and Nation Of Language. They’re certainly not about to get gooey over any sentiments of carrying a torch for the city either. “Maybe back in Boston playing in basements was more of an obvious community,” Haden says. “Everything we were doing was so DIY, it was just us playing in the basement with the house cat. In New York, it feels different when the [underground] spaces are owned by a board of directors.”
There’s no denying that Haden, though, is being the change he wants to see as a frontman. “I learnt how to invite myself to the party,” he explains, “I felt like I needed other people’s invitations before.” In tearing down barriers, he’s found that warmth and community reflected in his own audiences. “For the first time this year, we were really able to really see who was listening to the music. We’re in Tennessee now, so I’d describe our listeners as Dolly Parton’s ‘Coat Of Many Colors.’”
Referencing the pandemic, a time when we were completely devoid of all live shows, Haden notes: “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone right?” Radlauer answers his pause: “Releasing ‘Dogsbody’ was one of the most important days of my life; it really was a coming-of-age moment,” he concludes. “We’re just so grateful to be able to be playing live again. When we have the opportunity to give it our all, we do – that’s who we are and it’s our duty.”
Model/Actriz’ debut album ‘Dogsbody’ is out now via True Panther Sounds
Listen to Model/Actriz’s exclusive playlist to accompany The Cover below on Spotify and here on Apple Music
Writer: Rhys Buchanan
Photographer: Alanna Taylor
Label: True Panther Sounds