Seizing a cultural moment is equal parts hard work, dumb luck and a whole lot of partying – at least, that’s what Meet Me in the Bathroom, Lizzy Goodman’s new oral history of New York City’s early-2000s musical rebirth, suggests. The whopping, near 600-page account documents the unlikely takeover of bands like the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs at a time when rap-rock and post-grunge were at their peak. While the book features dozens of artists telling their stories, from Jonathan Fire*Eater to Conor Oberst, LCD Soundsystem and beyond, it’s not entirely about sex, drugs and rock & roll (though there is plenty of all that).
Through hundreds of firsthand testimonials, Goodman also gets at the heart of a world on the brink of change following 9/11. Meet Me in the Bathroom touches on policy shifts within the city that resulted in rezoning and contributed to gentrification, the transition from old-school magazine criticism to the tastemaking blogosphere, the democratization of music discovery thanks to Napster and the doom that trend signaled for the industry at large. From Britney Spears recording with the DFA gang to TV on the Radio coming together at a salacious saloon residency, here are 10 surprising things we learned from this extraordinary, expansive work.
1. Karen O practiced her stage persona at Bar 13’s Shout! party.
Few NYC gatherings of the era proved to be more influential than Shout!, the weekly mod dance party at Greenwich Village’s Bar 13 that catered to crate-diggers and counterculture heads looking to bust moves and look good while doing it. As journalist Gideon Yago put it, “The Shout! parties totally, totally, totally set the groundwork for all 2000s bands. It was where you would go on Sunday nights to dance and drink and listen.” One of those people was Karen O, who used the party to bring her microphone-eating onstage persona to life: “Just prior to getting onstage with Yeah Yeah Yeahs at the Mercury Lounge, where I kind of unleashed Karen O for the first time or whatever, I was going to Shout!” she says. “My best friend and I would get there early, have like seven cosmopolitans, and be doing knee slides on the dance floor. The dance floor at Bar 13 became where I practiced this persona.”
2. The Strokes devised some aggressive self-promo tactics early on.
Long before they signed with a major label, the Strokes struggled with a task every young, hungry band must take on: getting the word out. So together they set out to win over their native NYC with homemade flyers in hand. The “together” part, it turns out, was key. “That was something we actually really thought about,” Albert Hammond Jr. explains. “I remember being like, ‘No, we have to all go together.’ When we walk down the street and they see five guys, people would yell out ‘The Beatles!’ The idea is, if they’re yelling that out and they don’t even know who we are, they’ll come to the show. … it’s a starting point for a conversation. We made really, really cool flyers.” They also had a penchant for handing them out at interesting places. “I first met them at a Weezer show at Irving Plaza,” says journalist Joe Levy. “Albert and Fab followed me into the bathroom to give me a gig flyer while I was at the urinal.” Meet me in the bathroom, indeed.
3. Kimya Dawson unwittingly laid the groundwork for the Moldy Peaches by singing “Little Bunny Foo Foo.”
In the Nineties, Kimya Dawson and Adam Green, of the Moldy Peaches, serendipitously met while working at the upstate New York record store Exile on Mainstream. Back then, Dawson also chaperoned Green, who was barely a teenager, at shows. Once, Green invited Dawson over to a jam session he’d had with some friends. “They recorded all this stuff on a 4-track and then they said I should sing something. ‘Just make something up!'” Dawson says. “I was a camp counselor for ten years, and so I just belted out ‘Little Bunny Foo Foo.’ Next thing I knew, Adam put it on a seven-inch.” Later, when Dawson was in New York and home from college, she’d get together with Green and record. Those sessions eventually became the first Moldy Peaches album.
4. Paul Banks’ signature baritone was brought to you by Scotch.
Interpol made a point of getting out of the city to record their debut album, decamping to Tarquin Studios in Connecticut. That venture resulted in the magnificent Turn On the Bright Lights, which includes off-kilter anthems like “NYC” and gives some truth to the adage that you can sometimes see a place more clearly when you view it from far away. But vocalist Paul Banks says that during those sessions, he didn’t consider his voice to be totally on point. But a bit of warm Scotch, and some good studio equipment, helped ease his nerves. “I was a big fan of the music we were doing, felt like that couldn’t be fucked with, but I had my issues with my vocals,” he says. “I don’t identify my voice as being that bass-y. That baritone that I’m known for? It was ‘Where the fuck did that come from?’ I was not a fucking singer at all when the band started. I wanted to emulate how we sounded in the rehearsal spaces, but when you get into a good studio and it’s like a fucking spit guard and a five-thousand-dollar microphone, it’s pristinely clear. So when we did that record, I was just drunk a lot. I was on Scotch, because it was wintertime.”
5. Britney Spears once recorded with the DFA team.
One of the uglier fallouts that Meet Me in the Bathroom describes in detail is the one between the Rapture and the then-burgeoning Manhattan label DFA. The label had preened the Rapture, and released a 12-inch of their dance-punk standard “House of Jealous Lovers,” but the band later ended up signing with Universal, much to the chagrin of DFA’s James Murphy. “When the Rapture left, I was so angry and so hurt,” he says. “Tim [Goldsworthy, DFA cofounder] and I felt broken.” So what did they do? “We took a meeting with Britney Spears to do a song,” Murphy says. That’s right: According to DFA cofounder and label manager Jonathan Galkin, Spears came in and sang on a song that “sounds somewhere between, like, Liquid Liquid and ‘I Feel Love’ by Donna Summer,” and is, by his account, “awesome.” Goldsworthy remembers it a bit differently: “She had the icing off of two Magnolia cupcakes and four cans of Red Bull, did some really strange ad-lib vocal takes, and then just disappeared and was never heard from again.”
6. The street outside of Matt Berninger’s place in Gowanus ran with rotting milk.
In the early 2000s, a more drastic separation existed between Manhattan – where bands like the Strokes and Interpol roamed – and Brooklyn, where Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars and TV on the Radio lived and created. Matt Berninger, frontman of Ohio’s the National, eventually moved to Gowanus, Brooklyn, renting a space next to the infamously polluted canal that gives the neighborhood its name. One other particular quirk of his street became inspiration for a song: rotting milk. “In addition to all the burning cars, I think somebody was buying close-to-overdue milk and rebottling it in this warehouse across the street because once a week, in the middle of the night, they would just pour all the stuff they couldn’t use into the street,” Berninger says. “I’d come out my door and quite literally the streets would be filled with milk, which turned into a lyric.” Something else Berninger says he found on his street once – a box filled with “a headless chicken and a double-ended dildo inside” – would have made for quite the song too.
7. A debaucherous saloon residency helped bring TV on the Radio together.
At first, TV on the Radio’s live show consisted of Tunde Adebimpe and Dave Sitek improvising with a loop pedal and a sampler. The two released an EP, Young Liars, and soon recruited Kyp Malone to take over guitars and vocals. But it wasn’t until the post-punk experimentalists did some truly bizarre-sounding shows at a Grand Street spot named the Stinger Club that they found their drummer, Jaleel Bunton. “He’d seen a couple of the shows at Stinger,” Adebimpe says. “That’s where we played, every Wednesday and Saturday. It was just a saloon. But there was a sign behind the bar that said, ‘Get naked, you get a free shot. Oral sex, you get three free shots. Fuck on the bar, you get an open tab.’ And all those things happened.” Shortly after one of the shows, Adebimpe and Sitek ran into Bunton, who said, as Adebimpe recalls, “‘Yeah, I saw you guys, and you need me.’ The balls on this dude!”
8. The U.K. might have done more for New York bands than New York did.
The influence of the British press, including papers like Melody Maker and NME, on the careers of bands like the Strokes can’t be overstated. That’s not to discredit the work of the savvy American press, but the media exposure many bands experienced in England often led to stateside success immediately afterwards. The Strokes caused a frenzy when they went over, so much so that NME published a cover reading “We Heart New York.” Adam Green remembers that when he and Kimya Dawson went to England, “people were stopping us on the street and inviting us into their houses. We basically went from New York to England and just never worked another job again.”
The list goes on: The Yeah Yeahs were dumbfounded when they arrived at South by Southwest in 2002 and found themselves on a big showcase that Nick Zinner remembers as brimming with fans from across the pond. “That lone English guy from our first show at the Mercury Lounge, the guy who told us we should go play in England [and] we laughed? He’d turned into like three hundred English people,” Zinner says. Even the Killers’ Brandon Flowers took a page from the Strokes and the White Stripes’ book. “We knew the story of the White Stripes and the Strokes and how it started in England,” he says. “So we thought maybe we were lucky that we had that chance. In September of 2003 they flew us over and we played four gigs. We got great write-ups in NME, and that was it. Everything changed.”
9. DJs combatted the “no dancing” Cabaret Law with Radiohead.
In 1926, New York City unveiled the bizarre Cabaret Law, which was legislation passed with explicitly racist overtones, aiming to break up black jazz clubs in Harlem. Now there’s a strong movement to repeal the law, but back in the 2000s, at the height of Giuliani-era task-force raids intent on breaking up parties and clubs, the rule was strongly enforced. Dominique Keegan, co-founder of Plant Records, the bygone Plant Bar and a DJ, says that in light of the crackdowns, DJs initially started enforcing the no-dancing rule, but businesses suffered as a result. So DJs came up with a clever tactic that allowed them to keep the music going under the radar: When things got too hectic, they would play a Radiohead record that was impossible to dance to. “We had a little blue light switch at the front of the bar and all the DJs were instructed to put on a Radiohead record if that light went on,” Keegan says. “The idea was that because of the bottleneck, by the time anyone got from the front to the back of the bar, you could stop the dancing by playing Kid A.“
10. Vampire Weekend’s first practice ended early so Chris Baio could go home and watch 24.
Many new bands need some time to find their signature aesthetic, but that wasn’t the case for Vampire Weekend. “By the time we started Vampire Weekend, it’s not like we were just picking up instruments, like, ‘Let’s start a band,'” frontman Ezra Koenig says of the band’s beginnings at Columbia University. “It was like, ‘Let’s start a preppy band and make the guitars have this Johnny Marr African tone.’ We already had some pretty strong ideas going.” Koenig and the other members, Chris Tomson, Rostam Batmanglij and Chris Baio, set their own projects aside, and in early 2006, they came together for the very first Vampire Weekend practice. But as Tomson remembers, the band had to promptly stop playing at 8:45 because “Baio wanted to get back to his dorm to watch 24” – proof that not even the excitement of starting a new band can curb the urge to see what happens next on network TV.