Pissed Jeans and puppies, French fries and Savages: CMJ 2012
Gazing out the rolled-down windows of our black downtown-bound Town Car, New York City seems almost too bright. We are tired and we make it to Soho from La Guardia in maybe twenty-five minutes. No traffic. It’s 11 am on Thursday, October 18 and CMJ 2012 has been going strong for two days already. We’re here to catch the last three action-packed days and nights of the weeklong music festival.
CMJ stands for College Music Journal, which, among other things, is a company that keeps track of what music college radio stations all around the country are playing. Every October, CMJ invites over 1,100 bands––the majority of which are unsigned and almost completely unknown––to New York. Fueled by buzz and organized by CMJ, these bands play shows all over Manhattan and Brooklyn. But CMJ is not a one-sided festival. It’s not merely entertainment but instead acts as more of an industry churner; it’s a week of networking and buzz-stoking. Besides the bands, there are thousands more music journalists, PR people, record label execs, and college radio board members all looking to both have a good time but also be there when the next big thing breaks, to discover the next Arcade Fire, the next Sleigh Bells, the next Mumford & Sons, or the next Gotye –– all artists who, through whatever mixture of charisma, talent, and luck, struck gold at CMJs past. It’s understood by everyone involved that the CMJ Music Marathon is a symbiotic relationship between the bands and the people that can make the bands famous. It’s high-stakes, but everyone’s nice to each other.
So why were we there? Because Denison’s radio station, 91.1 WDUB FM, is nothing to sneeze at. The Doobie is very much on the scene, and for three incredible, all-expenses-paid days, me, (the Music Director), Wes Judd (the Station Manager), and Eric Lindvall (the Tech Director) took part in that modern-day boho dance that is the CMJ Music Marathon.
After leaving our bags at the hotel, we head to NYU for check-in and to get our badges. There are free tote bags for us as well as the festival guide, which is as thick is as a novel though much easier to decipher than the somewhat dubious and very overwhelming CMJ schedule iPhone app. CMJ has two components: panel discussions with names like “Replacing the Record Label” or “Sifting Through Transnational Licensing Complexities” during the days and literally hundreds of band performances during the nights. The panels all take place in NYU’s Kimmel Center, which I assume to be basically NYU’s version of Slayter. The panels are informative and the panelists are knowledgeable if sometimes grumpy “industry vets”––we saw both the guy that owns Bar/None Records and the guitarist from the seminal punk band Gang of Four speak on topics ranging from social media to paying for music, for example.
Thursday night, after a short nap and pastrami sandwiches at Katz’s Delicatessen, we cabbed up to Irving Plaza to see Killer Mike. We got there far too early and had to sit through sets by bands called Color Film (they were terrible), Bear Hands (okay), and a teenage rapper wearing a ski jacket with the lift ticket still attached to the zipper (he was fine, but the live production –– two people on drums and MPCs behind him –– was great).
One guy near us in the audience stood with his middle finger up to Color Film for the entirety of their set. We thought maybe he knew them personally, like the singer had stolen his girlfriend or something. I asked him about this. “I came for Killer Mike,” is all he said. Well, I think we all came for Killer Mike, but nevermind. At about 10pm Killer Mike, fatter than Rick Ross with maybe a bigger beard and definitely a whole lot less glamorous, takes the stage. It’s something else! He spat fire and enunciated all his political rhymes in this great goosebumps-inducing way. He also kept doing this weird jumping around dance –– quite a sight for such a big guy. He was really humble too, and told us over and over how much he loved us. We clapped and roared and tweeted. The symbiotic relationship was thriving.
Killer Mike was over and we were on the L train to the Knitting Factory in Williamsburg to catch the last few bands in Sub Pop Records’ showcase (in CMJ-speak, a showcase is a collection of bands usually hosted by one entity, like a record label –– in which case all the bands are on that record label –– or a blog, or something like that). We arrived a little after midnight and King Tuff and Pissed Jeans were yet to go on. Kyle Thomas, aka King Tuff, stood at the mic in an LA snapback and some crappy Pirates jersey looking with his long hair and mustache like some strange punk redneck. His set was thrilling, though. It absolutely shredded. If you ever get the chance to see King Tuff live, do it. It was riff after riff after riff after riff. And then his voice –– it’s this sort of high, goofy whine that doesn’t seem like it should be coming out of his mouth but then makes total sense and is perfect. I used to intern at Sub Pop and my boss and other Sub Pop staffers were in the crowd. He bought us all drinks as the room readied itself for the assault that is Pissed Jeans.
Pissed Jeans is a hardcore band from Allentown, Pennsylvania, and hardcore bands today don’t come much hardcore-er. Matt Korvette is the wailing, screaming, throat-killing frontman. At one point during their set, my boss’s wife leaned over to me and yelled into my ear, about Korvette, “He’s a psycho. I wouldn’t be surprised if he, like, murders people. He has some totally normal day job, too!” Total psycho. What’s he do? I yelled back. “Like an insurance claims adjuster,” she said, laughing. Indeed. Korvette strutted around the stage with his straight-laced haircut and halfway-unbuttoned grey button-down getting sweatier and sweatier, yelling into the mic as his band of bros behind him kept a very, very heavy squall up (the lead guitarist might as well have been Jonah Hill; see the pictures below). For the finale, Korvette left the stage and ran to the bar. He was quickly followed by the two guitarists, who left their instruments leaning against the giant amps, creating infinite and glorious feedback. The three of them got drinks at the bar as the drummer –– shirtless, balding –– kept a beat going over the feedback and stared crazily into the audience. This went on for maybe fifteen minutes. The audience threw pizza boxes and slices of pizza all over the place. The heaviness continued unabated. The drummer didn’t break his maniacal stare. Finally, the rest of the band walked onto the stage again and unplugged it all. It was 2:30 in the morning. Pissed Jeans has a new record coming out in February. Keep an eye out for it.
Day two, Friday: We wake up and stumble to a diner near our hotel. We attend a panel discussion on the future of monetizing music. Will it all be streamed online? Maybe, but that’s not a very sustainable business model, some of the panelists worry. Not enough people are bothered by the ads to pay for a subscription to Spotify, for example. Music should not be free. Tonight, uninterested in taking the L back to Brooklyn, even though it’s only like four stops away, we decide to stick around our neighborhood. We get pizza in Little Italy, buy a bootleg DVD of The Dark Knight Rises, and then head to the Mercury Lounge to see a band called Daughter, a band called Choir of Young Believers, and a band called Savages.
Daughter is a three-piece (woman singer/guitarist, guy guitarist, guy drummer) from England and sounds like a less electronic version of The xx, but with much more build up and release. They’re not bad and in fact have just been signed to the tremendous 4AD. The singer, Elena Tonra, couldn’t have been more adorable if she tried. And did she ever try! Her thick, dark bob’s bangs were dangerously, adorably close to covering her eyes and when she spoke with her so-soft-you-could-barely-hear-it speaking voice she more often than not talked about puppies. “Do you––are any of you––I don’t even know if I should say this––I’m going to a puppy pageant tomorrow.” Aww! “Are any of you going to be there?” She started the next quiet song and about twenty seconds in she started giggling into the mic. The band stopped. “I’m sorry––I was just––picturing the puppies,” she said, quietly. Jaw-dropping levels of cute were beaming from hair-obscured face.
(Editor’s note: This isn’t exaggerated one bit. She stopped the song, laughing, almost whispering. “Sorry, I was just picturing puppies…”
Brief set change during which we started noticing a very strange trend among the audience members: short guys wearing leather jackets. Like not just a lot of short guys and a lot of guys wearing leather jackets –– only the short guys were wearing leather jackets. In my peripheral vision alone I could see probably four such people. Once we noticed it, we really noticed it. Weird.
Choir of Young Believers, from Copenhagen, Denmark, was up next. The singer/guitarist, Jannis Noya Makrigiannis, was wearing something that can only be described as a “neck situation.” I think it was two sweatshirts wrapped and dangling around his neck like a sort of massive scarf. There was also a cellist –– and she was wearing a leather hat and a floor — length tartan coat. There were five people on stage, although it became clear pretty quickly that the keyboardist was not needed (most of the set he stood by his keyboard just bobbing his head). They sounded very good, however. The scope and scale of the music was huge, in an impressive and sort of nicely dated 1980s pop way; lots of building intros and crescendos and gigantic hooks. Also, about three songs in Makrigiannis removed his neck sweatshirts! We were impressed, but we were really there for Savages.
Savages is an all-famale punk four-piece from London and they’re very, very intense. Singer Jehnny Beth gave off Natalie Portman-circa-V for Vendetta vibes and was dressed like a punk Audrey Hepburn from Funny Face. The band started playing before she came out on stage. When she walked out, cool and intense as could be, she stepped back, put her hand in the pocket of her black dress pants and examined the audience before suddenly reaching for the mic. Extremely punk and dressed all in black –– except for the drummer who wore black tights and red blouse –– Savages commanded attention for the entire duration of their set. And most of that attention was paid to Beth, who moved in the most captivating ways. Arms crossed one moment, flailing her hards at the audience the next; tucking and untucking her shirt, putting her hands in her pockets. The bassist, too, was fascinating to watch: she didn’t open her eyes or stop chewing gum once. The songs felt tight but also somehow spacious and oddly unhurried, though everything about the band is urgent. Savages are a band to certainly keep tabs on in the coming months. The New York Times wrote about their CMJ performances and I hear labels are fighting over them.
After we recovered from Savages and got our bearings, we found our way to the corner of St. Mark’s and 1st to meet up with my friend Estelle. We met her at V Bar and then she showed us all around the East Village. The night peaked at about 3:30, when, as we were waiting in the massive line at Pommes Frites for the Belgian fries and, like, sun dried tomato aioli, we saw a fat homeless guy wearing a purple velvet robe and a crown, compression shorts and no shirt drinking beer out of a Dunkin Donuts cup and kicking French fries, plastic forks and other trash out of his way with his bare feet. Only in New York! We got some free samples of fries and aioli, didn’t buy anything –– people were pretty mad –– and walked back to Estelle’s apartment.
Saturday, the final day of CMJ, loomed large. No panels today. We went shopping instead. The Nike Sportswear store on Mercer was addicting and smelled like seaweed, because, we learned, one of its massive dividing walls was actually covered in live, fresh seaweed. It worked, let me tell you. Levi’s and the J. Crew Men’s Shop had nothing to offer us. That night, perhaps still thinking about the seaweed Nike store, we had dinner at David Chang’s Momofuku Noodle Bar. Long wait, but the Brussels sprouts with chili and bacon alone were worth it. Not to mention the pork belly ramen.
Finally, we arrived at the Bowery Ballroom for our last night of CMJ shows. A band called Braids began playing soon after we got there. They were genuinely boring and are a good example of bands that exist solely to be hip: a woman and two men, two keyboards and a drum kit. It sounded something like Grimes or Purity Ring, but with even less bite, less urgency, less…talent? This is how music is supposed to sound today, I suppose. They’ll do fine. We sat down in one of the leather booths reserved for bands and waited Braids out. Wild Nothing, arguably one of the best-known bands of the week, closed out the Bowery Ballroom. Their set was good and got better as they kept playing, channeling a sort of mopey ‘80s bedroom pop thing, the band members looking down at the floor and making their instruments jangle in a the most pleasing way.
We left the Bowery Ballroom and walked to a bar called Pianos in the East Village where we were meeting Olivia, a friend of mine from NYU. We saw the last band we saw at CMJ 2012 –– Har Mar Superstar –– completely by accident, but I’m so glad we happened to walk into their set because it was by far the weirdest and also one of the best of the entire week. They were playing at Pianos. Wes, Eric, and I got there before Olivia and were abruptly turned away by the homeless-looking old bouncer who said, “You don’t have any girls with you.” First of all, this was a bar, not a nightclub, which should’ve made this a moot point. But dude was not kidding. “Girls are coming to meet us,” I said. “When they get here, I’ll remember you guys and you can come in,” he said, and motioned for us to get out of line. We leaned against a pickup truck and watched as this nuts bouncer turned away group of guys after group of guys. “We were just in there! We came out to smoke a cigarette,” one group protested. The bouncer wasn’t buying it. Before long there were about ten of us girl-less guys milling around in the street. When Olivia showed up we took our case back up to him. “We have a girl now,” I said. “Just one, though,” he said, seriously. We started laughing. We couldn’t believe it. Olivia said something to him. “This is a music festival,” he said. “That’s what we’re here for!” we said, still laughing, not believing any of this. We showed him our CMJ badges. “What band are you here to see?” Are you serious? “We don’t know what bands, it’s two in the morning, whatever band is playing!” Grudgingly, he lifted the rope and let us in.
It was not crowded inside. Olivia ordered us frozen margaritas and then we went into the back where the stage was. This really short guy with terrible long and stringy Tiny Tim-like hair surrounding his baldhead was jumping around the stage, supported by only a drummer. We found out later this was Har Mar Superstar, but we found out immediately that he was rocking it. His voice was so sweet and funky. He was moving so much. (Imagine this voice coming out ofthat guy.)
He took off his sweaty tank top and then his jeans until he was up there on the little stage in nothing more than his underwear singing these incredible little postmodern funk songs. It was bizarre. The crowd was going insane. He finished his set at about 2am, put his pants and shirt back on, and left the stage. Very strange, very good.
We slept late, got burgers in Greenwich Village, and took the Town Car back to La Guardia. Exhausted, thrilled, trying to remember everything we’d seen and done and eaten and drank, we boarded our flight back to Ohio. Don’t say going to Denison doesn’t have its perks.
-–Tristan Eden and Wes Judd; all photos by Eric Lindvall