By Jess Goulart & Zachary Schepis
Eula performing at the BTR showcase during CMJ 2013 at the Grand Victory in Brooklyn on Saturday night. Photo by Jess Goulart.
Bleary eyed, sore footed, and perhaps just a hair hung over, fans and performers made their way home after New York’s biggest independent music festival. In five days, over 1,200 bands performed at 70 different venues across Manhattan and Brooklyn. Twenty-minute sets ran from noon to midnight (and beyond) at almost every site, the pace and size of the event creating the ultimate breeding ground for rapid-fire music discovery.
Despite the time crunch, the artists at CMJ poured heart and soul into their performances, ignoring scant daytime crowds, ushering managers, and the general fatigue brought about by performing so many shows in so few hours. On Saturday, a hoarse but smiling Alyse Lamb, lead singer from Eula, tells BTR after the group’s third and final performance that she’s been “combating the vocal stress by drinking whiskey mixed with tea and honey all week.”
The tremendous amount of on and off stage effort put forth by performers is even more apparent to crowds at CMJ than at other festivals. Because venues are often unusually intimate, the barrier between audience and artist dissolves. Beers and quippy remarks are often passed back and forth, and a general atmosphere of camaraderie develops, strengthened by the tendency for bands to chill with fans after their sets.
Because you couldn’t possibly see it all, allow BTR to guide you through a curated recap of the CMJ experience…
BTR closed out the first night of CMJ coverage at The Studio at Webster Hall, the hidden basement venue beneath the legendary nightclub Webster Hall. The Studio hits that sweet spot in between so legit the hipsters have found it, and not at all legit so there’s vomit everywhere and no acoustics. Low hanging ceilings are padded with speakers and lights, the stage raised just a few feet with no barriers.
Apart from beats to move your feet, a strong ‘80s influence stood out in the showcase. Rising star Bad Suns featured layered harmonic guitar riffs underneath wailing vocals from lead singer Christo Bowman. An obvious crowd favorite, some audience members told BTR they’d flown in from California specifically for that show.
BTR caught up with Bowman after his set. Shrugging off questions about his biggest influences, he says the band has “an eclectic palate with the music coming from whatever inspires us in that moment. Mostly, we just love it when people dance.”
And dance they did.
As it’s common for a band to play multiple shows at CMJ to maximize their exposure, The Studio was Bad Suns’s second performance of the night, with others scheduled later in the week. When asked about the demands of such a schedule, Bowman laughs.
“This is our first time playing multiple shows in New York, and it’s just amazing – we’re having so much fun. We were just a band in a basement a year ago, when we put a song online called Cardiac Arrest that people really responded to,” he says. “From that we got a record label and have our first EP coming out in February, so CMJ is really incredible for us.”
CMJ is about live music, yes, but it incorporates other elements as well. Panels discussed everything from how the internet is affecting record sales and censorship, to independent touring, to the pop influence in Sweden’s rising music scene.
At the Tuesday Studio showcase, TimeOut Magazine sponsored a wall-sized projection of footage from BalconyTV, a music video website that films groups performing on rooftops/balconies in fifteen cities worldwide, to give you “music with a view.” Chris Okonski, the head camera man for BalconyTV’s Brooklyn flagship, tells BTR that unlike most multi-camera, edited videos, his are done in one take, with the Manhattan city skyline as “the world’s greatest backdrop.”
“Five out of the eleven bands that played the Tuesday Studio bill we’ve filmed – Lily and the Parlor Tricks, Satellite, Shepard, and Arms, so we have tons of visual content and stills from the featured acts,” Okanski says.
The next day, down on Lombard Street, the old jazz-haunt Piano’s sat in the cool afternoon. All was quiet. Too quiet. Not until traversing the entire length of the bar towards the back-room’s double doors did a low rumble of music become audible.
Stepping inside, the sky-blue ceiling lights washed everything in a dreamy glow and the five British musicians on stage, known collectively as The History of Apple Pie, cast their fuzz laden spell over the crowd. Though there’s plenty of breathing room at Piano’s, people seemed almost hypnotized – as if they were stoned, sleepy, or maybe just listening very intently. Either way, it was a far cry from the previous night’s frenzy at The Studio.
Even with a stoic audience, the band instantly found their pulse; snatching visual cues from one another, bobbing in unison, and enveloping the audience in their three guitar attack.
The stunning female duo at stage center easily stole the show. Guitarist Stephanie Min and bassist Kelly Owens are the perfect complimentary force; with Owens providing reverb-drenched backup harmonies for Min’s soft voice to sail over.
Like hundreds of other CMJ performers, this week marks their first time touring in the States. Laying down on the sidewalk after Piano’s, smoking cigarettes under what turned out to be an overcast day, the five Brit rockers reminisce to BTR about the whole experience.
“We’ve been here a few days, and I have to say it’s been really, really good,” guitar player Jerome Watson says. “Honestly, if you live in this city, I don’t think there’s even really a need to visit London. With CMJ, the venues, the subway system – you have everything you need here.”
“There’s one difference I’ve noticed though,” he adds. “In London, people nearly drown you off the stage with their talking. Here – well it’s a quieter audience. I kind of like it. I felt like they were really listening in there.”
It wasn’t only the performers who flew from all over the world for CMJ. Mexico City rockers Rey Pila not only brought their unique blend of ‘80s inspired pop-rock to Tribeca Friday night, but also an audience of Mexican fans to cheer them on and spice up the crowd.
“They’re my favorite band,” says Anna Colloma, who has been attending their shows in Mexico City for the past year. “It’s great to watch them play here, in this kind of environment. It’s all new, new to a lot of the audience in there, and it’s fun for me to see them dance to it.”
Rey Pila arrived on the scene dressed to kill, in fresh-pressed white tuxedos that caught the cornucopia of stage lights and sent them flying off the basement walls of the Party House. To kick it off, frontman Diego Solorzano adjusted his little red bowtie and extended his arms out wide in a full-audience embrace.
“Hola,” he smiled before leaping off the stage and onto the dance floor. “It’s a pleasure to be here.”
Solorzano spent entire songs singing in the trenches with the audience: grabbing girls and spinning them around, sweating and dancing with everyone. The band remained razor tight the entire time, with spaced out wah-guitars and funked-out accompaniments that brought to mind what Billy Idol might have sounded like if he were Mexican. At first it was clear what members of the audience were longtime Rey Pila fans, but after three or four songs everyone in the house was lost to dancing fever, and Santos Party House certainly lived up to its name.
After the set ended BTR caught up with guitarist Andres Velasco to talk to him about where his unique style of music comes from.
“Back in the ‘90s, we were hearing of all these incredible underground bands,” Velasco says. “Pavement, Built to Spill… all of those guys. But you see, there was no way then for us to get those CDs in Mexico City. That was until we discovered CMJ Magazine, which had a CD of music in every issue. That was our outlet for discovering new music. It was great then, and it’s great that we’re here playing an event for CMJ, all of these years later.”
It was an historic occasion on all accounts for Rey Pila, who quickly dismantled their set and were partying with fans, both old and new, in no time at all.
“I like playing here a lot,” Velasco laughs as he watches his band mate run off to celebrate. “In Mexico City we already have a following, which is great of course. But it’s a whole different feeling with strangers. Especially when we’re introducing our new material, it’s the perfect way to try it out and get a response. And something tells me they might have liked it.”
Though lines formed for big acts like Savages at Terminal Five, or Lou Doillon at The Highline Ballroom, most people found no such wait.
“There are just too many shows to spend time in a line,” one fan told BTR as they turned away from The Mercury Lounge at the sight of a people behind a red rope on Saturday evening, “I’ll just walk literally five blocks and see someone else.”
You might think this kind of set up would foster competition between performers, but it seemed to be just the opposite. Groups would hang out for entire showcases, cheering each other on, helping load and unload, drinking and smoking, and forming easy friendships with each other and fans. At BTR’s Saturday night showcase at the Grand Victory in Brooklyn, The Meaning of Life lead singer Marta DeLeon could be seen rocking out front row center to the stoner quartet Heliotropes.
Rock or punk, hip hop or electronica, grunge, alternative, new wave, pop, CMJ sampled it all, and allowed artists and audience to come together in mutual awe of, and devoted passion to, that thing that moves us most – truly great music.
BTR is happy to have been a part of such an amazing experience.