CMJ 2007 on Someone Else's Dime
October 2007;

Classes are hell. And even worse are midterms. Two exams prevented me from scooting down the Metro North into the city on Tuesday, the first day of this year’s CMJ Festival, so an early morning Wednesday trek had to suffice. The College Music Journal’s annual music festival is a great gathering of minds and corporate sponsorship; a five-day, citywide celebration of up-and-coming and current college radio chart toppers. The festival is seen as an opportunity to acclimate college music directors with the more human face of radio promotion. Concurrently, it also serves as a swell venue for labels to showcase their bands. CMJ is probably the closest thing the East Coast has to SXSW. Fittingly, as music director for a small college radio station in the Hudson Valley, I was given a badge, a hotel, and an expense limit and sent out the door (with my free-wheeling assistant Kate) on my merry way down the Hudson, with the directive of, “Go forth! And experience!” And for four days, I did. I also ate a lot of free food.


{Wednesday, October 17th}

Head out from Grand Central on the 6 to our hotel, the Holiday Inn SoHo, on Lafayette. Dropped off bags and got situated. From there, walk to the Puck Building to register and pick up badges. The gift tote this year is a pretty sad sack. Pushed out the door, complimentary energy drink in hand, we head off back down Lafayette and then across Prince St. to the Apple Store for a mid-day performance from Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore.

And what a way to start everything off. The Apple Store is a tad small, for one, but also a strangely adequate space for such a performance. It's odd being forced to sit in rows of cushioned seats a few feet from Thurston as he shreds an acoustic guitar as harshly as an electric, although not an entirely uncomfortable one. Space concerns aside, Moore and the band he’s assembled (including SY drummer Steve Shelley and violinist Samara Lubelski) are in top form. The band steam rolls through most of Trees Outside The Academy and then encores with some choice cuts from 1995’s Psychic Hearts. It’s also a little weird seeing Moore play with people who aren’t Kim Gordon and Lee Renaldo. While still a little fresh on the road (Lubelski is still using notes, a rendition of “Wonderful Witches” momentarily stumbles), these are consummately ragged professionals. We leave with the feeling that we just witnessed a group of people who musically never have a bad day.

From here we eat. And eat some more, and save some leftovers for back at the hotel room. Thank the heavens for this expense limit. It’s nice to be able to tip extra. As the sun falls, we head to Delancey and make our way into the Bowery Ballroom for The Windish Agency’s Deerhunter/Dan Deacon extravaganza.

It’s one of those occasions where the openers outshine (and in one case, outclass) the headliners. Baltimore’s Ponytail are all spit and mental fury. These Wham City alumni offer extremely competent musicianship fronted by a bona fide spastic. Vocalist Molly Siegel flails around on stage, alternately smiling and grimacing, sputtering out the most guttural of sounds. If nothing else, she makes Ponytail an engaging live experience.

Next up is White Williams, recent tour mate of Dan Deacon and Girl Talk. White Williams is the singular brainchild of ex-Cleveland native Joe Williams, although here he’s accompanied by a full band (all with a similar taste for pastiche). Filtered through the lens of synced-up background animations, the band shuffles around on stage to their own brand of electro pop. While the music is absolutely inoffensive (and the only of the night to feature melodica solos), the crowd is only half in-step with it. The mellow dance beats bring us to the cusp of dancing without actually giving us the final push over the edge. While enjoyable, Williams sounds better on record.

No Age then proceed to break the fourth wall. At the tail end of the Los Angeles twosome’s pummeling set of fuzzed out drum and guitar wallops, Dean Spunt (drums/vocals) and Randy Randall (guitar) pull a few of their fans onstage to dance around for the final number. Randall hands his guitar off to a starry-eyed fan and lifts him up on his shoulders, while Spunt continues to bang away on his drum set. The band is a hit, garnering the biggest reaction of the night from the crowd (the merch table was swamped afterward). It’s deservedly so. No Age has energy foaming from the mouth.

Then it’s Dan Deacon’s turn. Armed with flash photography, the press are the ones who end up on stage. Deacon is, of course, down on the ground in front with his hodgepodge equipment deck and trippy green skull (coupled with the recent addition: strobing cat). Deacon’s set is infectious. The house lights are turned off and the only light we’re allowed is from the glow of his deck. We start off chanting "Ethan Hawke" and "Gattaca" before Deacon wisely builds the crowd up to a slow grind. It’s going to be intense soon enough; there’s no need to rush it. As expected, there will be sweat, and lots of it. It’s visible on the brows of everyone when the house lights are turned on full blast in the middle of the set by Deacon’s command. He corrals us to the sides of the Ballroom to make enough room for “a dead whale.” He then sends a few of us on victory laps up and around the Bowery’s staircases. It’s all in the name of fun. He runs through songs like “The Crystal Cat” and “Okie Dokie” to everyone’s expected delight. At the conclusion of his set, he, of course, hands out lyric sheets and the crowd, of course, belts out “Wham City” in unison. And it is, of course, euphoric. Dan Deacon’s got this shit down. There’s not much to actually physically witness during one of his sets. It’s more about the group experience (like that wonderful “Wham City” crescendo) and dancing till you drop. For some, it’s a blast. For others, not so much. To quote my assistant, “I’ve now seen what hell looks like.”

Deerhunter come on stage a bit after midnight. Immediately, singer Bradford Cox (who earlier had been stalking around the venue with an MTV camera crew) laments the fact that they are following Deacon’s set, and it’s the truth: The crowd doesn’t have much energy, or patience, at this point. The band plays well, at times eerily well. Renditions of “Spring Hall Convert” and new track “Calvary Scars” are gorgeous. Regardless, one can’t escape the feeling that Cox’s bandmates are more than a little fed up with him and his antics. Before the band encores with “Flourescent Grey,” Cox shambles out on stage alone, clearly inebriated, relating to the audience how he misses his family and whining for a cigarette before finally breaking many violations and lighting up onstage. (My assistant overhears a sound guy in the balcony: “Hey I don’t care what they do; I’m getting paid overtime.”) Cox continues to alienate himself from the audience and the band long after most of the crowd has filtered out. Everyone looks pissed. And it’s a shame. We walk out after the band has finished, Cox still looming on stage mumbling away about nothing; a sad, solitary figure.

We head back to hotel room and fall fast asleep. We have an early morning ahead of us.


{Thursday, October 18th}

We take a cab to Other Music after our morning rituals to have breakfast with Vampire Weekend. More than a handful of us cram into the small record store after stuffing our mouths full of the pastries lined up on tables outside. The fresh, young chaps play the floor in celebration of the release of their first single, “Mansard Roof,” on XL Recordings. They’re clearly grateful to Other Music for being the first store to carry their music, and it’s nice to see the band (who are immediately about to go on tour in Europe opening for The Shins) repaying justly with this lively performance. The Columbia grads are unsurprisingly tight live, and their sparse sound carries well in Other Music’s small confines. The band oozes charm as they work their way through several bouncy cuts from their EP and forthcoming full-length, the dreamy “Bryn” and comparatively raucous “A-Punk” being the highlights. Vampire Weekend wrap up the quick six-song in-store with “Oxford Comma,” and the placated crowd disperses rather silently into the afternoon. It must be muffin-induced comas.

We spend the day around town. Forbidden Planet, The Strand, and meeting friends for lunch. Full of sushi, we head to the Gramercy to check out Datarock. Unfortunately, in order to get to Datarock, we must wade through the waters of mediocrity. Tonight, the Gramercy is playing host to the Eclipse Gum Showcase, and apparently a long-lasting gum does not a good show make (and they aren’t even giving out free samples!).

First we’re treated to two completely forgettable bands that sound like The Killers. They’re so forgettable I’ve already forgotten their names. After that troubling twosome is a group of idiots from Scotland, named Biffy Clyro. Outside the venue, stickers are being handed out that are boldly asking, “Who The Fuck Is Biffy Clyro?” But more accurately, “Who The Fuck Cares?” The band emerges on stage, two of three members already shirtless, being cheered on rabidly by four drunken teenagers holding the flag of Scotland. The band then commences to play a labored set of boring “hard” rock tunes. Here’s how tough they think they are: Singer/guitarist Simon Neil hands off his guitar after every song for an identical axe, because he thinks he’s shredded so hard that it’s out of tune after only one ditty. As Datarock’s set time approaches, the music and house lights are abruptly turned on after Biffy’s finished one of their songs. But of course they keep playing anyway, forcing the lights and music back off. When the sound guy shuts the band off for a second time, Neil violently hurls two microphones into the crowd. If I lost an eye at a Biffy Clyro concert I would be inconsolable, probably suicidal. Because nothing would be more pathetic.

But hey, eventually Datarock arrive on stage. And it’s a fun time. The Norweigan electro-rock duo is accompanied live with a drummer and bass player. They play nearly every song they have. Their drummer does the worm. They all jump a lot. Keyboardist Ketil Mosnes plays a mean saxophone, while Singer/guitarist Fredrik Saroea safely crowd surfs and shreds simultaneously. Lots of vaguely homoerotic touching and mutual disrobing. And matching outfits, that can’t be neglected. I wonder how much that ensemble cost. It was a pleasant time, but I think we’re still wary of getting our eyeballs knocked out of their sockets by projectile mics. We swiftly make our way out of the venue before we’re blind.

Head back to The Bowery Ballroom for a second night in a row. Now this is something I’ve been waiting for. See, I have a small list of current touring bands I absolutely must see in a reasonable time frame. The super intense, seafaring lads of British Sea Power are right near the top. And as my luck would have it, their headlining spot at the World’s Fair Showcase is allowing me to check their name off said list with a smile.

The band is in great form here. Somewhat restrained performances of “A Wooden Horse” and new single “Atom” have me pensive, but the lads quickly curtail my fears with pitch-perfect renditions of “Fear of Drowning” and “Remember Me” from their 2003 debut The Decline of.... In fact, they dig back into the dusty vaults several times throughout the set, even busting out the old non-album single, “The Spirit of St. Louis.” Brothers Yan and Hamilton trade off vocal and instrumental duties throughout the set. Hamilton plays three new songs, (“Down On The Ground,” “The Pelican,” and “No Lucifer”), proving with a supreme sense of finality that his songs should be given more spots on the band’s LPs.

The band plays for a decent amount of time. Then a crazy-eyed Yan swings his guitar around recklessly, sings his thanks and good-byes to the audience, and eventually abandons the stage with his guitar left feedbacking up against his amp. The crowd waits curiously in front of the squealing guitar and empty stage for a minute or two before a sound guy comes down and unplugs it, the house lights flashing on bright. The band is long gone, probably off drinking tea in tiny cups somewhere. It’s quite the exit. See? You can make a lasting impression without chucking microphones. I swear you can.


{Friday, October 19th }

Friday is a slow day in preparation for something grand. We have lunch with more friends before heading once again to the Apple Store in SoHo to catch a live performance from Simian Mobile Disco. Their short set is interesting, or about as interesting as dial twisting can be, but the seated venue is certainly not the place for this sort of event. The few standing folks dancing to the Bristol duo’s heavy dance beats in the back of the area just look awkward in this sterile environment. Will say one thing though: killer light set-up.

From here, and after leering at Vince Vaughn’s gargantuan head for awhile at the IFC Center, we head to the Knitting Factory for three levels of noise at the Lovepump United/Panache/Skin Graft/Blue Ghost Showcase

There’s a lot to see here. I’ll do my best.

We start off with Japanther. Yelling their hearts out into telephones converted into microphones, the crusty Brooklyn punk duo captures my soul forever when they partially cover the Misfits’ “She.” The songs they play from their latest full-length, Skuffed Up My Huffy out on EXO, sound incredible on the Knitting Factory’s main stage. The crowd is a blur with maniacal energy. For 15 minutes. And then the set is over and the band gives us the “Thank you, and Goodnight.” It took them about as much time to play as it did for them to tie up the badass ‘Japanther’ banner to their amps. And you know what? That’s perfect. I don’t think the boys will ever be accused of overstaying their welcome.

Japanther’s short set gives us ample time to squeeze downstairs into The Tap Bar before L.A. noise band HEALTH begins. We’re all cramped in like sardines in a can in the small, poorly situated Tap Bar. But that’s just something we’ll have to deal with. HEALTH is just one of those bands I find completely irresistible. Their music screeches, squeals, and bangs on record. Live? It’s something else entirely. The band preps with the drum-led vocal chant of “Lost Time.” The young band jumps around while spookily harmonizing with each other, building up the tension before they pick up their instruments and let it all loose. They fly around stage as they burn through most of the songs on their debut LP. At some points, they lose their instruments and make sounds into their microphones that I’d mistaken for guitars on the record. Never once had I thought it was the human voice that was capable of such sounds. HEALTH pack it up after a blistering performance of “Triceratops,” and to very little shock, I discover I’m caked in sweat and the regretful odors of those in my close proximity.

Back upstairs on the Main Stage, we catch Portland’s Old Time Relijun. The K Records stalwarts bring the crazy to the Knitting Factory’s floor. All the cuts from their recent release, Catharsis In Crisis, have a little sped-up intensity added to them in the live translations. Frontman Arrington de Dionyso isn’t wearing pants, and it’s probably for the best. He’s got to let those chicken legs breathe. The band is crazy good tonight and is probably the only rock band in the whole wide city using an upright bass in the same fashion. Plus, it should be noted that Old Time Relijun is the second band, after Datarock, to further the saxophone craze of CMJ ’07. Saxophonist Ben Hartman even goes as far as to use two of Bill Clinton’s instrument of choice simultaneously during one song. I foresee the revival of the bass clarinet at CMJ ’08.

Hardly anyone is downstairs at The Tap Bar for Washington D.C.’s The Apes. It’s a real shame. The guitarless quartet rocks about as hard as anyone does, filling in the hollow parts with some crunchy bass and keyboards. Vocalist Lucius Twilight flops around on and off stage like a loaded spring. The band runs through a bunch of new tunes off their upcoming 2008 release, Ghost Games. The few crowd members that are there get a bit rowdy, and eventually Twilight urges them on stage. All in all, it’s an erratic, fuzzed out performance with three times the punch of their recorded output.

Up next is the drum cacophony that is Brooklyn’s BIG A little a. The band has three drummers. Enough said. In this live arena, songs that seemed like merely sonic experiments on record become fully fleshed out. The crowd is still unfortunately thin, but I’m happy to be experiencing this audio pummeling, even if there aren’t many around to share it with. Three layers of percussion coupled with keys and distorted vocals; it’s enough to pull even the tightest heartstrings loose. At the close of their set, the boys urge us to head upstairs to check out Montreal’s AIDS Wolf. We do so for a song or two, but the spastic noise and microphone cord strangulation quickly becomes too much for us. We’re still a little cautious around microphones after last night.


{Saturday, October 20th}

Being a music director at a college radio station has its perks (no, not digging through overflowing mail bins every week). One of the perks is receiving a special laminated invitation to the annual AAM Showcase.

Advanced Alternative Media is the biggest college radio promoter in the business, and as such, they have a lot of friends. And these friends just so happen to be in bands. These bands, also coincidentally, feel inclined to play AAM’s awesome showcase when asked. This year’s line-up consists Trail of Dead, Islands, Mika Miko, Oh No! Oh My!, Anna Ternheim, and a solo set by Will Sheff of Okkervil River.

We arrive early in Brooklyn on the L train and mosey on down to The Music Hall of Williamsburg. I still know it best at Northsix, and seeing it in its newly renovated form leaves me with a peculiar feeling. It’s a radically different look, and the new owners clearly spent a lot of money to make the space look basically like the Bowery. However, the unlimited free Vitamin Water supplied to us when we enter the venue quickly disperses my uneasy feelings. While ultimately leading me to frequent quick washroom stops, one really can’t devalue the immediate joy of receiving unlimited free Vitamin Water.

Austin’s Oh No! Oh My! start the afternoon off with their sunny, sweet array of musical wares. It’s overwhelmingly clear that they are a pleasant bunch of folks, and their music reflects every aspect of their totally harmless personalities. They play songs like “Lisa, Make Love!,” “I Have No Sister,” and “Walk In The Park,” like a band who is truly grateful to be playing for only a handful of people at noon on a Saturday. It’s refreshing. However, that refreshed feeling might also just be the Vitamin Water talking.

Mika Miko, all-girl rock giants from L.A.’s golden coast, are up next. And Jesus Christ are they good. Hands down some of the rawest sounding rock ‘n’roll ever to have graced my delicate ears. The band rips through half a battalion of songs in no time at all, hardly taking enough time to breathe in-between. Singer Jennifer Clavin (who, oddly enough, also sings into a converted telephone receiver microphone) is in a constant state of bouncing and yelping. Bassist Jessica Clavin holds it all down while guitarist Michelle Diane Suarez holds nothing back on those poor, beaten strings. I want to fall in love with every member of this band. But for now, I think I’ll simply bob my head and dream.

Montreal’s Islands are their own band now, fairly separated from any ex-Unicorns stigma they once carried, and it’s all for the best. For instance, singer/guitarist Nick Diamonds is now parading around as a total rock star. Like an unglamorous Marc Bolan, Diamonds strives to be an electric warrior. He’s lucky his band is so likeable. One of the two adorable violinists paused in the midst of a song to smile directly at the flash of my assistant’s camera. They played numbers both new and old, the obvious highlights being the closing triplet of “Volcanoes,” “Swans,” and “Where There’s a Will There’s a Whalebone,” the last of which features the customary freestyle rap guest spots. In this instance, it’s Despot and Giovanni Marks (formerly Subtitle) lending the freshness.

We go to lunch and come back to the venue in time to watch Trail of Dead play from the bleachers on the balcony. My feet hurt.

Sacrificing another night of potential ear damage at the Jesu/Torche/Fog triple team, my assistant and I retrieve our bags from the hotel, purchase some last chance milkshakes, and head back up the Hudson to the comfort of more familiar mountain territory. New York, you’re perfect. Please don’t change a thing.

[Photos: Kate Larson]

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