In Search Of…

As we all recover from the CMJ Festival, which brings together bands from all over the world, I started thinking about bands like the recently retired R.E.M. and Pearl Jam, and I recalled the days when record companies had relevance and would look to regional acts to nurture and grow into stars—when A&R (Artists & Repertoire) people not only mattered, but also cared. Athens, Georgia, gave us R.E.M. and The B-52s, and Seattle gave us Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, just to name a few. And all of those bands had a distinct sound and sensibility that was a symbiosis of music and art with the intrinsic values of their region. Isn’t R.E.M. the perfect sonic accompaniment to Faulkner? Can’t you feel the weather in the sounds of Alice in Chains? Clearly the natural and cultural surroundings and history influence artists, specifically musicians, right?

So I started thinking about Brooklyn—specifically North Brooklyn—and how this place impacts today’s musical output. I wondered if it did, and if it did, how? Did the musicians playing at Glasslands, Death by Audio, or Pete’s Candy Store have a specific sound? I wondered why my girlfriend had not kicked me out for my endless prattling.

Long before the invention of electric guitars and amplifiers, Brooklyn’s history of artistic and eccentric personalities goes all the way back to Walt Whitman, perhaps the first real Brooklyn (dare I say it) hipster. If you doubt me, just take a look at Whitman’s photo on the Library of Congress edition of Leaves of Grass and walk out on Bedford Avenue on any Saturday afternoon. Let’s just say that look has stood the test of time.

Brooklyn during Whitman’s day, very much like today, was a confluence of ethnicities and cultures. The difference is that 150 years after Whitman’s seminal book of poems, the printing press has advanced to the point that technology now gives Brooklyn’s melting pot many avenues and methods of expression to give voice to artists’ many backgrounds, influences, and interests.

The new century put a stake through the heart of the recording industry and brought a radical paradigm shift, away from working with bands and artists so they could grow into a viable commercial act, and to the all-too-familiar business model of musicians being treated as products and line items on the balance sheets of the multinational organizations that own the labels. Hence the idea of a nurturing A&R department was obliterated and replaced by a sales and data driven “be good or be gone” philosophy. Oh yeah, and there was a little thing called Napster that the industry got all up in arms about.

But all was not lost in that tectonic shift in business practice. You might say it is the yin and yang of business. You see, while the companies shifted one way, toward the bottom line, the artists shifted another. With the massive advances in technology, the barrier to entry, across all media, have been lowered considerably; almost any artist can record an album for a fraction of what it used to cost and have it sound almost as good as if it had been recorded at The Hit Factory or The Record Plant when those studios were in their prime. Musicians suddenly were able to take the DIY approach and have it sound professional (if they wanted it to sound that way) without the help of the labels.

Of course the term “Brooklyn Sound” has been kicked around for a few years, with both New York magazine and the New York Times highlighting it in 2009. But if there really was a movement afoot, why hadn’t a cavalcade of A&R people, or what remains of them, come across the river to snatch up these bands, like they had in Athens and Seattle and almost every city in between? Yes, some Brooklyn bands had been picked up, like TV On The Radio and Interpol, but what about the others? What was it all about? Was there an identifiable Brooklyn Sound? I decided to pack up my messenger bag and go in search of the 2011 Brooklyn Sound.

I thought that picking the brain of Main Drag Music owner, Karl Myers, might shed some light on the matter. Maybe if I knew what equipment musicians are buying, that might point me in the right direction. Myers, a musician turned business owner, finds his customers looking for a “cleaner sounding” amp, like a Fender, versus the hard rock distortion that Marshall amps are known for. He noted that there’s an increased “interest in delay and reverb effects pedals” which lends itself to that “shoegazing” sound, like The Pains of Being Pure At Heart.

Myers was honest in saying he was “probably not the best guy to ask.” So I threw my bag over my shoulder and began poking around the neighborhood to see who was playing locally that might represent a sound indigenous to North Brooklyn. I quickly concluded that only a healthy mixture of MP3s and the Internet, along with a smattering of live performances, would work to assess the essence of the scene. Attempting to witness all that the North Brooklyn music scene has to offer would have required an epic amphetamine bender.  And that is not necessarily the best way to encounter and digest any music, or digest anything, for that matter.

I started by listening to some of the bands that had moved up beyond the local club scene: TV On The Radio, Vampire Weekend, Grizzly Bear, Yeasayer. I noticed two things. One: even with the technological advances, there was a prevailing DIY sound, which is really characterized by sounding as though they had recorded straight into a boom box. And two: I noticed, more than anything, how different the artists sounded from one another. I was struck by the musical bouillabaisse. There was an astute lyrical quality to the songs, which came as no surprise given Brooklyn’s wordy heritage. But there was no real discernable genre or sound. There was folk, blues, art pop, art noise, electronic, rock, and so on. And sometimes there was a mixture of blues and art pop or noise rock. But there was no identifiable trait like the jangly guitar sound of R.E.M.’s earlier work, or the crunch that defined the Seattle sound. All of these Brooklyn bands were distinct in their non-distinctiveness. How meta.

I wanted to know if the non-distinctiveness that identified these bands that had moved up the ladder had morphed into something a little more identifiable, so I decided to see some live music. The first stop was Pete’s Candy Store,where I saw the “band” Springs, led by Brooklyn-based guitarist and vocalist Michael Visser. That night, it was simply him and his guitar, so I was a little confused about why he was advertised as a band. Nonetheless, as I waited I asked the bartender if she thought there was such thing as a Brooklyn Sound, to which she shrugged, handed me my drink, and took my money. Apparently, she had no opinion.

Eventually, Springs took the stage. Seeing Visser perform alone with his electric guitar in front of a nominal 15 people reminded me of the mettle that it takes to get up there. His voice was decent, the songs were decent, but there was something nondescript about the performance. I didn’t feel he had a passion for his songs. His guitar playing was well above average and reminiscent of Roger McGuinn-era Byrds, sans the Rickenbacker jangle. The songs themselves were well crafted, but the performance seemed rote. Something was missing, which is not to say it was bad. It wasn’t. I just didn’t see a shine or real sparkle in what he was singing. I walked away thinking to myself that this couldn’t be representative of the Brooklyn Sound.

I decided to contact Jake Silver, the booker at Pete’s, to find out what he looks for and what his thoughts are about a Brooklyn Sound. Silver, like Karl Myers from Main Drag, is a musician. As he was explaining the challenges inherent in booking 100 artists per month, he admitted that, given Pete’s space and his own folk background (he played with Pete Seger and Arlo Guthrie), he tends to look for the more independent folky artists. Given the breadth of music he receives, he looks for the one song that grabs him and strikes a chord with his belief that there is a “stronger purpose” to making music. Certainly his ideology lends itself to the folk vibe. When I asked him about a specific sound, he noted that the one thing he’s heard most often is the DIY quality. Hmm, could this be the common thread?

Next on my 2011 Brooklyn Live Tour was the Warm Ghost album release party for the album “Narrows”. Full disclosure: I did not use any press credentials to get on the guest list. Not because I couldn’t have. I just think in order to maintain a level of objectivity it’s only fair to pay. It also allows the freedom to be honest without any sense of guilt.

Judging by the synthesizers and computers that were set up, I was pretty sure Warm Ghost was going to have a pretty technical sound. As I nestled into the corner and watched the local Goth crowd come together, the duo took the stage. And they did not disappoint. They were pretty technical, reminding me of Depeche Mode with a dash of The Smiths (sans guitar) and a touch of New Order thrown in for good measure.

But as their set continued, I was again nonplussed. Yes, they were more than capable performers, but they didn’t wow me. I wasn’t seeing any hunger in their performance. Warm Ghost was exactly what I had anticipated, which is to say they were a technical synth band. After they finished their set, I was again left scratching my head, thinking, “What exactly is this Brooklyn Sound?” I’d listened to a bunch of Brooklyn bands on them Internets (a series of tubes) , and I’d seen some live music. But I had yet to identify a specific sound.

Maybe I was crazy. Maybe it just didn’t exist. And as is the case when you start feeling a little crazy, you seek the advice of experts. Where years ago we had A&R professionals who went out and listened to bands, today we have a data driven A&R department manned by overeducated people who lack any sense of passion, the technological A&R found in the algorithms of Pandora and MOG, and what used to be the bastard arm of the music industry, advertising. Outside of bookers, music directors at ad agencies are the only humans willing to go out and look for new music. Algorithms aren’t physically mobile enough…yet.

So I contacted Josh Rabinowitz, SVP/Director of Music for Grey Worldwide, and fellow Brooklynite, to get his take on this whole thing. Josh said that North Brooklyn has “a vibe, an aura, a culture driven by music,” describing it as “a progressive and nurturing environment that has been a zeitgeist of hip for some time and shows no sign of waning.” When I asked if there was a sound native to Brooklyn, he replied, “There are just too many bands to define a sound.” I was beginning to think that this was turning into quite the Sisyphean task.

I reached out to former music executive and current music industry raconteur, Bob Lefsetz, and asked him if such a thing as a regional sound existed. He said he believes “it’s about the community of players,” that it need not be about location, but really “anywhere like-minded people gather.” So, yeah, when people form bands or create art it is only natural that the influences they bring help create a potpourri of music—some good, some bad, and some great. As Lefsetz said, “I believe a hive of players can inspire others to greatness.” Hindsight being what it is, perhaps a Sherpa would have helped me navigate the mountains of the Brooklyn music scene.

Suddenly, I began to wonder what had brought all these people here, to Brooklyn. Earwax Records’ Michael Evans moved from Boston in 1986 for the “creative music scene”. A musician himself, I asked him if there was any of that still going on. “Not so much,” he replied. Evans attributed some of this to a “removal from the experience.” He went on to explain that, as opposed to experiencing an avant-garde piece, the outstretched arms of the audience holding smartphones to record the event actually removes them from it. In his opinion, technological advances have actually hurt any avant-garde tendencies.

Before going to see the next band on my itinerary, Merrily and the Poison Orchard, I emailed the Portland native and current Brooklyn resident, lead singer Merrily, to ask her a few questions. I wanted to find out what musicians thought might contribute to this mythical Brooklyn Sound. Speaking of her band she said, “I’d imagine it comes from our each being new to New York and bringing along with us our own backgrounds.” Her band hails from Chicago, Phoenix, and Baltimore, and each member brings their city’s respective sounds and tastes, along with their musical influences. Merrily went on to say, “I’ve noticed bands from Brooklyn take chances and seem more into what they’re doing.” While I think it’s true that bands from Brooklyn take chances, I had yet to see a band that was really into what they were doing. Admittedly, my exposure was limited.

But then I saw Merrily and the Poison Orchard and realized why she said what she did. Her band is really into what they’re doing. They had an air of playful professionalism—beer drinking (not to excess), playful banter, good songs, and some feedback all made for a good little show. Merrily and the Poison Orchard sound a little like Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs, with a hint of Edie Brickell. They could be right at home in a Zach Braff movie or at the tail end of a “Grey’s Anatomy” episode. I can’t say I saw them playing as if their life depended on it, but it was a Tuesday night playing to 10 people. Once again, a testament to the mettle of any musician.

I asked Mike McCgregor , the guru behind the now silent, but still electronically live, ChocolateBobka.com, if there was a Brooklyn Sound. “Most certainly not,” he said. “The scope of things going on here is far too wide to cast real signifiers on it. Just about every style of music imaginable is being played, resurrected, and created in this borough, for better or worse.” Earwax Records’ Evans agreed, saying there are currently “pockets of scenes.” Well, OK then.

It occurred to me that this was really an existential exercise. There is no right answer, there is no wrong answer, there is only my answer, and I can honestly say, as far as my ears can tell, there is no definitive Brooklyn Sound. There are many sounds. Sure there is a literary sensibility that began with Whitman, through the pugnacious writing of Hubert Selby Jr., to the lyricism of Paul Auster. And depending on your mood, you can find any of those qualities, lyrically and sonically, in any number of Brooklyn bands. But to try to say there is a sound? Well, that is impossible. Brooklyn is a borough forever in flux creatively; it will always be an amalgam of so many different people, mixing their influences and experiences to create so many different sounds. I don’t think there will ever be one musical genre or sound that will come to define Brooklyn. I certainly hope not.

Our musical community can hold its head high because it is what it has been since the days of Whitman: a goulash of ethnicities, personalities, cultures, and tastes. And what remains of a recording industry known to bleed regions dry of talent like a vampire shows no sign of ever bleeding Brooklyn dry. The constant movement of people, ideas, and creativity will insure the original voices we’re known for keep progressing. It’s a giant ring of garlic keeping the bloodsuckers out.

Thankfully.