and the Sound
Obies Rock the NYC Music Scene
Photos by Brad De Cecco '98
Or about the New York film festival director who
met an Oberlin grad in a nightclub? Upon learning of his alma mater,
the director laughed, "Oh, so you're part of the faction that's
taking over this city!"
In the rock music world, New York City's star is ascendant, churning
out "Next Big Thing" bands at a rate unheard of since
the city's last big rock moment in the early '80s. And within the
New York scene, Oberlin musicians are highly overrepresented.
Is Oberlin College to rock stars as Yale is to politicians? People
have long pointed to singer Liz Phair '89 as proof of this proposition.
More intent scene watchers add minor legends Sooyoung Park '89 of
the indie band Seam and John McEntire '91, who found fame in Chicago
post-rock outfits Tortoise and The Sea and Cake, to their lists
of alums who have made good. By mid-1999, enough Obies were doing
time in reputable indie projects that the national rock magazine
Alternative Press ran a full-page article celebrating some
of the College's musical alums.
The current explosion in New York City rock music leaves all of
that in the dust. Five years ago, Obies occupied spots in bands
that were just footnotes and sidebars in mainstream music publications;
this year, Oberlin bands are headline material worldwide. They're
performing on network television, airing videos on MTV, and landing
major-label record deals.
There are so many successful bands, in fact, that we limited the
purview of this piece to New York-based bands with at least two
Yeomembers. Otherwise this article would be as long as a Manhattan
phone book and would include the "where are they now"
on ex-bandmates Dave Lerner '98 and Andy Comer '97. (Lerner plays
bass full time for Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, a highly acclaimed
indie group that's toured incessantly for the past year and a half,
appeared on the Conan O'Brien show, and released two of the
best albums of the past two years. Comer's fast-rising, post-punk-meets-new
wave trio, Prosaics, is about to tour Europe a scant eight months
after its debut show.)
A longer article would also give Chicago-based Jason Molina '97
his proper due as the visionary songwriter at the front of indie-twang
project "Songs: Ohia," and would tip a hat to Jennie Benson
'96, who heads up the bluegrass-rock crossover Jim & Jennie
& the Pinetops. Spring 2003 21 first sensed this overabundance
of Obie rockers in the summer of 2001, when I moved to New York
to be a rock critic. Brian Chase '00, an old friend and drum teacher,
was the first acquaintance to contact me in my new capacity as a
freelancer for Time Out New York.
"I've got two projects going on that I want you to know about,"
he said. One was the Seconds, a continuation of a band that had
its beginnings on East College Street. The other project, Chase
said, was called the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. "Do you remember Karen
Sure, I remembered Karen. I'd seen her whisper her way through a
set of fragile songs in the Keep Cottage lounge one night years
"She's the singer. She does this crazy performance-y thing--you'll
have to see it to understand. Come check us out in Brooklyn next
Friday. We're just starting out, but there's already a lot of interest."
"A lot of interest" was an understatement. Over the next
year, it seemed like I couldn't open a magazine without seeing the
YYYs mentioned. The New Yorker ran a whimsical line drawing
of the band. The New York Times took notice whenever any
member made an appearance at a nightclub.
But they weren't the only ones making waves. Suddenly I was receiving
several e-mails a week about concerts featuring Oberlin people.
Friends who'd gone to Harvard and Yale started speaking enviously
of the "Oberlin rock mafia."
The city certainly seemed to be a hotbed of Oberlin folks making
good, but I didn't trust my own judgment. Surely, I thought, this
is just the myopic pride of a music fanatic whose love for her alma
mater had the grateful, amplified devotion of a twice-married divorcee
with a honey of a second spouse.
Then, in September 2002, New York magazine ran an effusive
cover story on the town's musical renaissance, and I knew I wasn't
just imagining things. Titled "New Rock City," the article
bore an eerie resemblance to my college yearbook. More than a half-dozen
alumni-peopled projects were featured and namechecked in the piece.
This was clearly a story that needed to be told.
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