100 Gecs are learning how to play with fire. Inside a Manhattan magic shop, Dylan Brady and Laura Les’ eyes pop as they flip open a trick wallet that bursts into flames and click a secret button on a coffee mug that shoots forth a bright blaze. The shop also doubles as a Harry Houdini museum and is filled with old artifacts: handcuffs, locks, posters, a coffin Houdini escaped from in 1907. In between tricks, Les recalls trying, and failing, to start a magic club in elementary school (no one else wanted to join), and she and Brady rave about the local magicians they’ve had open some of their concerts. One, Magic Nathaniel, wowed the crowd in Berkeley by solving a Rubik’s Cube blindfolded while standing on a balance beam.
Les and Brady beam when the proprietor asks if they’d like to try on a pair of Houdini’s custom handcuffs. The old shackles click around their wrists. Grinning, locked together, 100 Gecs stand on the tiny stage tucked into a corner of the shop, but they have one more request: Can they get a picture with the impossibly cute, Instagram-famous Pomeranian named Milk, who just happens to be here for his own photoshoot and is presently sitting inside a top hat, tongue lolling out, mugging for an iPhone? Milk and his owner happily oblige.
Getting photographed with a famous dog while handcuffed to each other is far from the most surprising thing to have happened to 100 Gecs in 2019. They began the year as virtual unknowns and ended it as mainstays on critics’ best-of lists and the opening act on Brockhampton’s current tour. In a span of five days in November, they played two nights at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden, then headlined their own sweaty, eardrum-busting show at the Brooklyn club Elsewhere. Neither Les nor Brady could’ve foreseen any of this when they released their wonderfully strange debut, 1000 Gecs, back in May. “I just knew that we liked it,” Brady says. “I didn’t really think this would happen, for sure.”
1000 Gecs has its roots in — of all places — two DJ sets Brady and Les put together for “virtual music festivals” hosted in the online game Minecraft in September 2018 and January 2019 (the events were dubbed “Coalchella” and “Fire Festival,” respectively). With Les in Chicago and Brady in Los Angeles, they built their sets, and later their album, over email, sending Logic files back and forth, tinkering with songs until they were satisfied.
The result is easily one of 2019’s most fun and fascinating albums, a 23-minute barrage of sticky-sweet hooks pulled from every far-flung corner of the musical spectrum, cranked well into the red. Its brevity belies its density. Ringtone rap bleeds into pop punk bleeds into trance pop bleeds into abstract sound structures, epic power ballads, sad boy rap, Top 40 EDM, dubstep drops with dog barks, death-metal breakdowns and straight-up ska. Lyrically, Brady and Les chronicle the intimacies and anxieties of the digital age with the perfect mix of humor and pathos, in Auto-Tune-drenched voices that enhance the emotion and the delirium.
For a band so young, with a discography of less than 20 songs, much has already been said about the extremely online allure of 100 Gecs — future pop for a brave new URL/IRL world, the promise of the universal jukebox realized outside the “chill” strictures of the streaming economy, music for LAN ports. Brady and Les don’t exactly rebuff such deep readings, but they can be a bit coy about their intentions and approach.
Take, for instance, the magician openers — they thought it would be fun — or their name, which Les previously said came about after she tried to order one gecko online, but received 100 instead. Or consider the first 100 Gecs project, a self-titled EP recorded in the winter of 2015 and released the following year. At the time, Les was living and going to school in Chicago, and Brady doing the same in St. Louis. He made the trip to visit her and try something they’d been talking about doing since high school: make some music together. But why then? What was the impetus? What burning creative desire were they finally acting upon?
“I wanted to do this when it was cold,” Brady says, perusing a menu at an Irish pub down the street from the magic shop. “I thought that’d be funny, interesting.”
He seems to be joking, sort of, but not really. He also seems to be totally serious, sort of, but not really.
Brady and Les grew up in Kirkwood and Webster Groves, neighboring suburbs just outside of St. Louis. Les took to guitar as a teenager, and the first thing she learned to play was a “music-box song” from Pirates of the Caribbean. But from the start, music other people wrote didn’t interest her. “I didn’t really like learning to play songs as much as learning how to play guitar,” she says. “I just wanted to make new stuff.” She played with a few bands around town and recalls her early guitar heroics with a laugh: “There was a fair that I played once, and I did every stupid guitar-solo cliché that I could — the gaudiest licks — doing it with my teeth and shit. I just tried to cram as many bullshit things as I could into one solo.”
Brady came to music later, enrolling in a high school choir class with more or less the same mentality that inspired that Chicago trip: “I was like, ‘I’ll take choir, that’ll be fun,’” he remembers. “But it was actually incredibly fun, life-changing.” The class and its teacher made music seem accessible, and soon Brady was singing, playing piano, messing around with ProTools, and producing tracks for some friends who rapped.
Brady’s and Les’ tastes were formed during the peak of the peer-to-peer era and the start of the YouTube renaissance. They rattle off old memories of Limewire files downloaded long ago — Blink-182, Dr. Dre, Zombie Nation’s stadium anthem “Kernkraft 400,” Jimi Hendrix songs that weren’t actually Jimi Hendrix songs. “I downloaded the Bill Clinton voice several times,” Les says, referring to the Limewire-era prank where purposely mislabeled files actually contained audio of Clinton’s “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” remarks.
Brady also tosses out a more unexpected source of discovery. “I feel like hearing Auto-Tune on the Now [That’s What I Call Music] commercials was more influential,” he says. “[Eiffel 65’s] ‘Blue,’ I was like, ‘Fucking hell, this shit is good!’”
“‘Hampster Dance,’” Les chimes in.
“‘Hampster Dance,’ ‘Blue,’ [Daft Punk’s] ‘One More Time’ — only three songs I need,” Brady says.
“School dances had soundtracks I wasn’t appreciating at the time,” Les says. “In sixth grade, I’m sure there was a dance that was like ‘Stanky Leg,’ ‘Every Time We Touch,’ and Fall Out Boy… Love ‘Cotton Eye Joe.’”
Much of this music would’ve been considered bottom-of-the-barrel stuff by the reigning critical class at the time, and even in the age of poptimism, it’s hard not to imagine a requisite wink accompanying a mention of Eiffel 65. But Les and Brad obviously don’t see it that way. Les remembers her teenage years as a constant churn of musical phases; what stuck was less Hendrix and more “Hampster Dance.”
“It doesn’t take itself too seriously,” she says of the appeal. “Not that it’s lol-type shit, but it’s just a good song.”
Brady and Les met as teens through mutual friends. As the story goes, Les was at a house party where Brady played a song he’d been working on. “It was a break-beat, sample [thing],” he says. “I was digging for records at the time, trying to do that grind.” Les thought it was so good that she got angry and left.
They continued to hang out more after that, bonding over nightcore — remix tracks sped up to chipmunk-level speeds — and avant-pop like Oneohtrix Point Never. At one point, Les was primed to join Brady’s punk band, but then she left St. Louis for Chicago.
Between 2015 and 2018, Brady and Les focused primarily on solo projects. It provided both the opportunity to branch out and improve — “sharpening the blade,” they say — and let their ambitions take hold. “High school, I was just making tracks for no reason,” Brady says. “Then in college I wanted to be a world-class producer.” He began to make a name for himself on SoundCloud, producing other artists and, in 2015, releasing an album, All I Ever Wanted, which featured Ravenna Golden, Night Lovell, and Brockhampton’s Kevin Abstract. Around 2016, Brady dropped out of college and relocated to Los Angeles. He kept producing for others, but also released several EPs that bounced around genres until he hit his stride with Peace and Love, released in October 2018 after he signed to Diplo’s Mad Decent.
Back in Chicago, songwriting offered Les a refuge: “I was just pissed off and feeling like my life was completely worthless, and I was like, ‘I wanna write some songs, do something, anything.’ It was therapy.” She released two EPs, hello kitty skates to the fuckin CEMETARY and i just don’t want to name it anything with “beach” in the title in October 2016 and August 2017, first under the name Osno1, then later relisted under her own name. She cites hello kitty as a breakthrough moment — “The first time I’d assembled some tracks myself that I was really fucking with.” The following year she released a remix album and a six-track project, BIG SUMMER JAMS 2018, mainly comprised of collaborations. One track, “feels good,” featured Brady, and it hints at the shape of Gecs to come with its mix of bubblegum pop, trop-house, and big-tent EDM speckled with a dog bark and some air horns for good measure.
During these years, Brady and Les stayed in touch, bounced songs off each other and regularly floated the idea of getting their band back together. But the right opportunity never presented itself, until Les received an invite to play Minecraft “Coalchella.” She immediately reached out to Brady, Brady immediately accepted, and the pair began to craft their set, files zipping between Chicago and Los Angeles.
“Coalchella” itself was the brainchild of a loose collective of Minecraft players and SoundCloud musicians known as Thwip Gang. Minecraft is a sandbox game centered around the idea of building whatever you want, with an online multiplayer mode that allows players to gather and play, or even launch their own servers where they can build as they please. Thwip Gang took advantage of all that to make “Coalchella,” building a big digital festival grounds where the blocky avatars of attendees could mingle while the performers’ own blocky avatars hit the stage and had their music played to everyone in attendance.
100 Gecs’ “Coalchella” set would produce a few new songs, including one, “Ringtone,” that would eventually end up on 1000 Gecs, but the album really started to come together when 100 Gecs were asked back for “Fire Festival” in January. That set — which can be heard starting at the 2:37:00 mark of this video — featured several songs that would end up on 1000 Gecs, including fan favorite “Money Machine.” In the video, when the song starts piping through the digital festival grounds, one user wonders: “what the fuck is this?”
For Brady and Les, making music over email was a necessity, but it was also easy, due to the trust they’d built up over the years. “If I send something to Dylan, there’s no fucking way it’s going to be worse when I get it back,” Les says.
“Same,” Brady adds. “We just go until we don’t know what to do with it anymore, and then we hand it off and the other person figures it out.”
For a song like “Money Machine” — a pop stomper that opens with the line “Hey lil piss baby…” — the process was simple: Brady sent a beat, Les added vocals, then Brady added more vocals. Other tracks required more tinkering, but the process was never arduous, and the aim was always to enjoy it. “Stupid Horse,” for instance, is a straight-up ska song, complete with gang vocals and a few expertly placed “pick it up” ad-libs. Les says Dylan sent her a voice memo of what the well-worn trope should sound like (“I’ve been saying ‘pick it up’ for a long time,” he says), so she simply dropped the recording he sent into the song.
Being funny was never expressly a goal on 1000 Gecs, but the shots of humor peppered throughout the album reflect a mindset Brady and Les cultivated during their early internet years: “We’re just not trying to be serious as hard as some people,” Les says. That refreshing levity aids them even on a song like “800db Cloud,” which grapples earnestly with the urge to drink and smoke away tough feelings and includes the refrain, “I might hit the weed, I might hit the boof.”
“There’s a YouTube video called ‘Yoda Hits the Boof Way Too Hard and Fucking Dies,’” Les says matter-of-factly. “That’s what I originally wanted the title to be.”
Les’ and Brady’s approach to vocals perfectly treads this line between heft and humor, with Brady calling the voice “the best instrument out of any instrument.” The melodies throughout the album are rich and memorable in their own right, but Brady and Les are devotees of Auto-Tune and wield it alongside a host of other effects. On “Hand Crushed by a Mallet,” Dylan chops his phrasing so it sounds like he’s trying to swallow his own words before they escape; and on “xXXi_wud_nvrstøp_ÜXXx” and the epic power-ballad finale of “gecgecgec,” Les’ voice rises to inhuman heights and fluctuates in impossible ways. But it doesn’t feel cold, alien, or uncanny — it bursts with a kind of feeling that almost feels novel, as if she’s giving shape to life’s most incomprehensible emotions. “As long as you’re conveying the emotion,” Les says, “I don’t think effects matter. It’s about the take, the delivery.”
In “Ringtone,” the one song from the first Minecraft festival to make the album, the narrator gives their crush a custom ringtone to help them stand out from the rest, but by the end, that same sound is a source of anguish. For Brady and Les, these songs aren’t some grand statement about how life is lived online and off-, they’re just about life and the tensions that arise when every moment seems mediated by a phone or screen.
“Everyone’s always there all the time, which is kind of strange,” Brady says.
“Phones being extremely overwhelming is something that we sing about a lot,” Les adds. “Being frustrated a lot comes from an overload.”
Has that changed at all in the wake of their success? “I feel like I’m not as frustrated anymore,” Les says. “I’m really good at turning [my phone] off now.”
Since the end of October, 100 Gecs have been opening for Brockhampton, bringing their music to plenty of suspecting and unsuspecting ears at large-scale arenas and amphitheaters around the country. They’ve scattered in a few headlining dates of their own at smaller clubs, leading to a surreal itinerary where they’ll play to crowds of more than 5,000 one night, then perform for about 200 the next.
Live, 100 Gecs are as joyfully unglued as their album suggests. While technical issues marred their first night at MSG, those in the pit who’d arrived early enough threw themselves around to “800db Cloud.” Their show at Elsewhere a few nights later was extremely sold-out and even rowdier. 100 Gecs fans are a devoted bunch: One of Elsewhere’s owners and bookers says that, after the show in the venue’s relatively cozy Zone One was announced, fans started emailing daily, demanding to know why 100 Gecs hadn’t been booked at their larger room. Those that did make it in spent the whole night moshing.
Onstage, Brady and Les seemed to relish the chaos, interspersing the hits with goofy instrumental interludes and deadpanning that they sold the rights to “Money Machine” and couldn’t play it anymore, right before launching into the song. Later, when the crowd demanded an encore, they played “Money Machine” again with the caveat, “We gotta write more songs.”
Since releasing 1000 Gecs, Brady and Les have added two more tracks to the 100 Gecs repertoire, “Came to My Show” and “Toothless (Home With You),” both of which were made for yet another Minecraft festival, “Mine Gala 2019,” in September. They’ve been tinkering with new material individually, but they’ve yet to swap files — not that they’ll necessarily stick with the email process going forward. Les may stay in Chicago and Brady in Los Angeles, but the band’s success will make it easier for the two to actually get in a studio together next time.
When asked what they’ve been listening to lately — digging for hints at what wild collage they may come up with next — Brady and Les throw out a fittingly scattershot assortment of artists: Taylor Swift, Sublime, 3OH!3, Guns ‘N Roses, some nu metal, some Primus, some My Chemical Romance, etc., etc. Few would know how to blend all that into something not just sensible, but euphoric or heartbreaking or clever. But for 100 Gecs, the core of the trick is simple, about as simple as clicking the arms on Harry Houdini’s custom handcuffs just right to release them.
“It centers around good songs,” Brady says.
Les agrees. “A good song is God.”