December 01, 2004

On the Scene: Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Part Two - By Jin Moon

subway map of Williamsburg area

This is the second installment of Playback's newest series where we focus on specific music scenes in cities and regions all across America. In the last issue we featured Ambulance LTD, The Realistics, stellastarr* and Folksongs for the Afterlife from the Williamsburg, Brooklyn rock music scene in New York. In the second part of our microscopic rock study, we look at four more rising bands with some pedaling their way into new forms of art-garage and others veering more towards shoegazing goodness.

Sea Ray

Sea Ray

Sea Ray's brand of uplifting shoegazer rock washes over listeners with catchy harmonies, thoughtful vocals, warming cello parts and wonderful guitar and bass parts. This sextet includes lead singer Jordan Warner on vocals and guitar, Jeff Sheinkopf on keyboards, I-Huei Go on bass, Anne Brewster on cello, Colin Brooks on drums, and Greg Zinman on guitar. Formed in 1997, Sea Ray has steadily grown into a group that deftly incorporates dreamy, atmospheric film and video projections into their soft and graceful live set. Sea Ray's ability to compose angelic unwavering music draws listeners into the band's blissful melodies, especially on Sea Ray's latest release, Stars At Noon.

“When we’re coming up with a new song, Jordan Warner usually brings in the body of a song and then the rest of us put clothes on it,” says I-Huei Go. And the band's music is constantly growing and changing. “Songwriting is a never-ending process,” says Jeff Sheinkopf who joined the lineup in 2000 with drummer Colin Brooks. “We’re still working on arrangements for songs we’ve been playing for years.”

In addition to perfecting their existing songs, Sea Ray also has a passion for constantly creating new works. “What inspires me to write music is not wanting to play other people's music,” says Brewster. “Writing my own music feels so much freer.”

The diverse influences of the band ranging from Ron Sexsmith to Bach is what makes Sea Ray so distinctly a New York-based band. Drawing from the different flavors in the city, the group's sound is classic and timeless. “Living in New York, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, but like anywhere else, you either isolate yourself or you try and soak up what’s around you,” says Sheinkopf. “The advantage to being here is that there’s so much great music and art happening all the time, you’re constantly reminded that you have to work harder.”

The Fever

The Fever

Geremy Jasper, lead singer of Brooklyn-based band The Fever, has always had a big ambition to sing and write songs. “When I was in the fifth grade, we put on a show about the Constitution,” Jasper says. “I was really into Fat Boys, Run DMC and Beastie Boys’ License to Ill. I wanted to be a rapper back then. So I wrote this song called ‘The Constitution Rap.’ It was actually a very Joey Lawrence, ‘Give Me a Break’ moment. We did it over this instrumental Run DMC track with great synthesizer licks. We had big gold chains and we had a kid come out and break dance in the middle. It was insane.”

Not much of the fervent stage theatrics have changed in Jasper's live performance skills as he often falls to the floor in furious sweeps with strands of hair sticking to dripping sweat on his face. The only difference, of course, is that he's rockin' and rollin' instead of spitting wack rhymes about social studies.

“I've always been a big ham. There's something about getting behind a microphone where you kind of lose yourself,” Jasper says. “There’s the performance, and then there's the performance of writing lyrics. I'm really in love with words.”

The wild nature of The Fever's five-song EP, Pink on Pink, is a frenzied mix of incredibly catchy songs including crowd favorites like “Ladyfingers” and a cover of Sheila E's “Glamorous Life.” This band, including Sanchez on guitar, Jay on organ, Achilles on drums and Pony on bass, channel their raucous energy into playful spurts of simply constructed upbeat rock songs that can get a crowd dancing.

But behind all of the fun songs that sound so carefree, Jasper is a songwriter who is always thinking and writing ideas down. “I always have a notebook of stuff that I'm kind of writing. Sometimes there's a lyrical idea that is kind of developed with the music in mind,” Jasper says. “And sometimes the music just exists and then it inspires the lyric. There's no set formula to my songwriting.”

There might be no formula, but there's definitely a uniformity to The Fever's music. “I feel the natural sound of New York City has influenced our music a lot,” Jasper says. “New York is very tense, loud and kind of nervous, but also very beautiful and inspirational at the same time. There's a certain intensity and immediacy here. Things are kind of sped up here. I could never sit on a porch with an acoustic guitar and just sing about trees.”

The Natural History

The Natural History

Some brothers play football or baseball together. Max and Julian Tepper play rock ‘n roll. “It’s not weird to be in a band with my brother as opposed to if I were in a band with an ex-wife or something,” Max says. “ know there are bands that feel like a band of brothers or sisters, but the fact that I’m actually in a band with my brother makes it special. I spend so much time with him. Sometimes it’s great. Sometimes it sucks.”

Along with drummer Derek Vockins, singer-songwriter-guitarist Max and bassist Julian formed the Natural History, a math rock band with many classic influences such as Elvis Costello, The Beatles, XTC, The Kinks, Shellac, and Squeeze. All of the group’s hard work has paid off with a stellar debut self-titled EP and recently released full-length, Beat Beat Heartbeat (StarTime International).

Often touring with labelmates and friends French Kicks and The Walkmen and other bands like Idlewild and Spoon, The Natural History have come more into their own. Their sound has become very distinctive -- aggressive, yet melodic rock that is driven by Max’s hardcore-Costello-like vocals and catchy hooks.

Though Max adored music, the road to becoming the frontman for one of New York’s most buzzworthy bands wasn’t easy. He started to learn the bass when he was 16, and later in high school he picked up the guitar. Then he started to practice singing and writing lyrics. “It took me many years to find my voice,” Max says. “I was kind of singing like a country guy when I recorded my first song at age 18 or 19. I didn’t really know how to sing, and I didn’t really know what I wanted out of singing and I didn’t write lyrics. So I started to take voice training more seriously. I would just take songs I really liked, learn the song, and sing along with it over and over again. I did that with The Beatles, Elvis Costello, Squeeze, The Everly Brothers -- just the music I was really into.”

His songwriting skills have also developed over the years. “I’ve always written the music first and then the lyrics come second. Normally, listening to music gets me inspired to write a song. They’re all personal stories. Beat Beat Heartbeat is pretty much just about the pressures of going out and feeling like you’ve got to be super-social. ‘Telling Lies Will Get You Nowhere’ is just about me when I was a little kid. I came up with this whole plan to go to the beach with my friend by myself in New York City. The lyrics are pretty obscure though.”

The Fiery Furnaces

The Fiery Furnaces

When Matthew Friedberger was in fourth grade, his teacher asked the class to work on a project about “weather.” While most of his peers decided to make weather vanes or barometers, Matthew asked his teacher if he could instead write a song about the weather. To his surprise, the teacher let him do it. “I went home that night and made up some ridiculous pounding piano piece called Cumulonimbus Clouds (The Storm Comes In). I had to play it in front of the class and write it down,” said Matthew, who grew up surrounded by music from his mother, father and grandmother.

Today Matthew’s still pounding on a piano with The Fiery Furnaces, a Brooklyn-based band fronted by his sister Eleanor. When Matthew first tried to seriously create music, he used to isolate himself in the basement and attempt singing Who songs. To ensure total privacy, he would keep his sister out of these makeshift studio sessions. Ironically, it was only later when he began to collaborate with his sister that he became more and more confident in his musical abilities. “Before I didn't think I could write a song and now I do,” Matthew said, cheekily adding, “My mistake.”

Together, the two create fantastical numbers (sometimes epic in length) about London suburbs, lost dogs, leaky tunnels and tropical icelands. The lyrics are always teetering from edgy and bizarre to clever and humorous. “In general, I don’t write nearly as much as Matt,” said Eleanor. “Alone, it’s still something that kind of happens magically. I play some chords and sing. When Matt and I write together it’s much more structured. We talk about what the song’s going to be about and what it will sound like.” Paired with Matthew’s inventive, body-moving piano and guitar parts, Eleanor’s distinctive vocals ring with strength, a contrast to her slight frame. Sometimes she seems to channel Chrissie Hynde’s punk rock, and other times her voice adopts more of Joan Baez’s folky heart.

Being brother and sister, they were very much influenced by each other. “It was mostly Matt’s domineering personality and aggressive behavior that influenced me as a kid,” Eleanor said. “He had a huge appetite for finding out everything he could about a band he liked. And he listened to music at a loud level, so I was forced to hear whatever he was playing. Luckily, he had really good taste.”

“We have similar tastes,” Matt says, “because our tastes were developed by many of the same things and people -– namely our family and the records I bought before Eleanor was interested in that kind of thing or was allowed to walk down to the record store by herself.” The band’s debut full length Gallowsbird’s Bark bowed this fall on Rough Trade.