By Jenn Pelly
ON A GOOD DAY, it takes Krissy Agathos, 19, about an hour and a half to drive to Brooklyn. That’s where the Centereach-native—who works as music director at Stony Brook University’s student-run radio station WUSB—spent most of her winter break catching concerts.
“Every single weekend was spent in some bar or DIY venue in Williamsburg or Bushwick,” Agathos says of the offbeat, artsy hotspots. In recent years, these “Do-it-Yourself” (or DIY) concert and art spaces—Meccas for creative urban youths, hidden away in gritty warehouses, expansive lofts and tiny, dark basements throughout Kings and Queens counties—have come to define New York City’s independent rock underground. Seven nights a week, college students, 20-somethings and bands from around the world flock to these spaces, seeking refuge from the poshness of Manhattan’s bar-oriented music scene.
The weekend before Agathos’ classes resumed, she decided to visit a DIY space she’d never seen: Dead Broke HQ. With a mural-clad entrance and walls adorned with offbeat movie posters, the space was “absolutely reminiscent of Brooklyn DIY,” she says. But this was not Brooklyn. This was the home of Mike Dumps—founder of DIY punk label Dead Broke Rekerds—on Holbrook’s Huber Lane; a “quiet and typical Long Island ’hood,” Agathos says. “You could barely tell anything was happening there, except for the dozen cars parked outside.” Inside, the LI punk band Everything Sucks played a set at the 5-year-old makeshift performance space.
LIKE THE EBB AND FLOW of Long Island’s northernmost estuary itself, music scenes have come to the Island in waves. They pick up speed and sounds and people; some active participants, others engaged bystanders. They make a lot of noise. And eventually, they crash. In 2010, a significant portion of said noise can be attributed to a number of “indie rock” bands—a nebulous term, but basically defined as groups on independent record labels, or none at all, who generally favor the standard guitar-bass-drums set up, and mimic vintage ’60s, ’80s and ’90s pop and rock. They’re challenging the archetypal Long Island sound (i.e., emo, hardcore and pop-punk—all limited genres whose creative growth ceased sometime in the early ’00s) with obscure influences and fresh directions, from Björk-inspired avant-pop and ’80s shoegaze to abrasive punk and experimental cassette tape-music. It could be debated whether this has been the energy of Brooklyn gold seeping east, or a separate trove long in the works, but the fact remains: Long Island bands in 2010 are crafting sounds that are more creative and offbeat than they’ve been in years.
JOHN NOLAN, 31, has been something of a Long Island musical legend over the past decade, since he began performing in 2000 with the Amityville-based band Taking Back Sunday, whom Rolling Stone in 2003 called, “an emo-by-numbers band…[whose debut album] sidesteps many sad-sack emo pitfalls.” In late 2003, Nolan left TBS to start his own band, Straylight Run, and has been concentrating on a solo side-project since summer 2009. His musical endeavors have unequivocally defined the aughts-era Long Island sound.
Asked to illustrate the typical Long Island sound over the past decade, Nolan describes it as, “one that has its roots in punk and hardcore, but incorporates a pop sensibility. It has very melodic and memorable melodies, mixed with some aggressive guitar work.” Though vague, the description befits Long Island hit records of the ’00s, like Glassjaw’s Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Silence (2000), Taking Back Sunday’s Tell All Your Friends (2003), and Brand New’s Your Favorite Weapon (2001), which Nolan agrees were crucial. (All three bands have since played Nassau Coliseum.)
But according to Nolan, the bands that really defined Long Island music by “shaping the sound and making it what it was” are those that preceded Long Island’s biggest household names; he says the past decade “absolutely” had a first wave and a second wave. “You have to look at the bands that came early on, in the mid and late ’90s,” he says, citing melodic hardcore punk bands like Silent Majority, Inside and The Movielife as “very, very key.”
“Bands like Silent Majority and Inside were doing something that was very exciting on Long Island, and it influenced a lot of young people to start their own bands,” Nolan says. “I look at those bands as creating the sound people have come to associate with Long Island, and then bands like Taking Back Sunday and Brand New as having brought it to another level.”
That next level came in 2001, when emo-core bands like Thursday—New Jersey-natives who regularly played around the Island—began garnering national attention. “Their shows were starting to become these insane events,” Nolan says.
“Bands like Thursday and Saves the Day were starting to sell out places like [Rockville Centre’s] Back Street Blues, which holds maybe 150 people, and it was just crazy. People were going nuts,” he says. “And it was literally six months later that those same bands were playing to 500 or a thousand people. It went from, ‘Oh my God, these guys just brought out 200 people,’ to, ‘Oh my God, they just sold out a nationwide tour to thousands.’
“There had been this strong scene and community developing in Long Island and Jersey for five, 10 years, of bands that had really created a sound,” Nolan says. “It was building for a long time before people noticed it.”
THREE YEARS EARLIER, in 1998, Mike Andriani, had something different in mind. While attending Suffolk Community College, the Rocky Point-resident started Rok Lok Records; his first release was hardcore band On the Might of Princes’ The Making of a Conversation, which dropped in August ’99. “Expression is painful when it is limited,” reads the first line of RokLokRecords.com’s history page. “Limitation was the state of emergency our community had been in.” Inspired by the strong noncommercial work ethic of punk and hardcore, but no longer intent on mimicking it, Andriani wanted to contribute something different to Long Island’s creative community.
“There was a period where people were talking a lot about ‘the Long Island sound,’” says Andriani. “Not to take away from that, but as those bands were getting known worldwide, people had to say, this is just one thing coming out of Long Island. In some ways, I wanted to play devil’s advocate.”
Andriani, 32, grew up saturated in the indie rock counterculture of the ’90s: decidedly low-fidelity guitar bands like Sebadoh, Pavement and Velocity Girl, who released their music on pioneering independent labels like Merge, Matador and Slumberland (all established in 1989) in order to maintain complete creative control and distance themselves from the mainstream. College radio and independent “zines” helped bands raise their profile while maintaining “DIY” roots and remaining obscure and innovative. Though technically “underground,” many of these bands generated cult followings and continue to release well-received records and tour extensively.
For Andriani, Beck’s 1994 album Stereopathetic Soulmaure—a collection of home recordings produced among friends—sums up his musical objectives because it sounds like the singer is coming from an “outside” perspective. “It doesn’t even sound like music, and that’s what I love about it,” he says.
Capturing “outsider” music—another form of lo-fi recording that rejects commerciality—has been a goal of Rok Lok Records, but Andriani never wanted to focus on just one genre. “I just feel like if I’m going to do this, why not do something people have not heard?” he says.