By Melissa Fossum
By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Troy Farah
By New Times
"Are you talking to me?"
Just when the exported goods of New York's renewed dalliance with the Trouser Press history of rock seemed to have expired, stellastarr* and its metallic brand of arty New Wave kicks off round two.
Pretend it's for the better, because in some ways it really is.
In the wake of the Strokes' 2001 critical and commercial smash Is This It?, Big Apple alt -- and its garage-roots cousin from Detroit -- has crashed loudly onto the radio and MTV (or, more precisely, M2), loudly proclaiming that the indie-rock underground isn't quite as dead as the mainstream claims. For the couple hundred thousand consumers who've bought or downloaded songs by Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, and the Rapture, it's provided an alternative that's catchy the way kiddy-punk bands aren't, hard in a way that rap-metal isn't, and not so self-conscious of droopy emotion as the emo army.
Sure, the buzz alarm set off by the British press (and lifted by their American cousins) continually threatens to overwhelm these New York first-wavers before they've even stopped feeding on classic post-punk dishes and developed their own recipes (egos expand faster than songwriting skills, you know?). But hating the Strokes because of their miles of wasted style and Hollywood girlfriends only deprives the haters of some great singles, rock's ultimate dance-rock bastard child of Damn the Torpedoes and The Cars. Which, if you like to bop your head, is just plain silly. I mean, unless you're a Godsmack fan.
The folks pretending that the Empire State invasion is a pop-cult passing fancy should think again. Big Apple's clubland, whose '90s stars -- Helmet, D Generation, Jonathan Fire*Eater -- fizzled in the national spotlight, continues pumping out rock contenders. In fact, despite New York's horrid economic climate, journalists, label people and club bookers all say there are more new rock bands, more people going out to see new rock bands, and more people booking shows featuring new rock bands in the city than in any recent memory. In other words, there's more of a scene.
stellastarr*, a quartet of 25-year-old pop rocks whose self-titled debut on RCA, home as well to the Strokes, was released in September, is the commercial lip of New York's second wave. They're also representative of the speedy musical ascendance Nu New York currently affords its bands, as well as the mix of artsy naiveté and professionalism these young bands have adapted -- both for better and for worse.
Singer and guitarist Shawn Christensen, bassist Amanda Tannen and drummer Arthur Kremer met at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute of Art & Design, playing in a band when no one in town cared. After graduating in the spring of 2000, they hooked up with recent Philadelphia transplant guitarist Michael Jurin, formed stellastarr*, a design-oriented play on the name of a hearse parked in Christensen's childhood neighborhood, and began gigging around New York just as the pace picked up. Their first official show was with the then-barely-known Strokes. "The place was already packed," Christensen recalls. They spent the next two years cutting teeth at New York clubs that have since become semi-legendary, places like Brownie's and Baby Jupiter, partly because they fell victim to the post-9/11 economy and the city's draconian nightlife regulations.
In that atmosphere, stellastarr* mastered hooks culled from various '80s corners and from the first wave of Brit-pop, then cobbled them onto Jurin's meaty guitar and Russell's disco hi-hats. And while Christensen claims that the group "doesn't have exactly a cool New York' sound," believing him is next to impossible. At its best -- the album's driving "My Coco," for instance -- stellastarr* is the commercial side of Nu New York at its catchiest.
It may simply be -- as is the case with many 25-year-olds -- that Christensen hasn't yet embraced the tradition he's working in. Or that he's artfully stealing from. In the meantime, stellastarr*'s (and Nu New York's) biggest champions see these influences, and the innocence with which they're being plundered, as among the Big Apple scene's virtues.
"A lot of the people who go to stellastarr* shows and who are going to buy the stellastarr* album don't know Joy Division or Mission of Burma," says Nick Marc. A scruffy 34-year-old Brit, Marc runs Tiswas, an influential eight-years-strong weekly party at downtown club Don Hill's that's hosted every major Nu New York band on its way up, and whose small label funded the recording of the stellastarr* album before giving it to RCA. "There's some influences that you're talking about in stellastarr* the band themselves probably don't know," invoking the naiveté many New York musicians carry in their back pockets.
The aesthetic that Marc has developed at Tiswas is at least partially responsible for all this. A catchy mix of classic New Wave, post-punk and shoegazer psychedelia, as well as indie- and Brit-pop, Tiswas started as a hangout for Marc and his British mates tired of the artsy gloom and doom of Gotham's hipper, experimental music. The Tiswas sound was familiar to any long-term dabblers in the New York underground, and Marc began booking bands like the Strokes, Interpol, and Mooney Suzuki with this aesthetic in mind.