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Long Island Sounds
The burbs are teeming with hot young rock bands, and the record companies are taking notice, big-time

Blake Ian Theory performing in Levittown
Blake Ian Theory performing in Levittown (Photo by Thomas A. Ferrara)

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By Rafer Guzmán

August 31, 2003

Name this musical hot spot: It's the last place you might look for new talent. Suddenly, however, it's producing a whole new breed of exciting young rock bands. And the region is quickly drawing attention from an ailing music industry that's hungry for anything that smells like a hit.

Seattle? Chapel Hill, N.C.? Athens, Ga.? Add another unlikely place to that list: Long Island.

"I think it's the hottest scene in the country," says Lou Plaia, vice president of marketing at Lava, an Atlantic Records affiliate that recently signed two bands from the region. "There's this new sound, this 'emo' sound, that looks like it's getting to be possibly the next big thing. And the biggest bands in that genre are coming from Long Island."

Riding a nationwide resurgence of punk rock, the suburbs of Long Island are teeming with bands, giving traditional music capitals such as Los Angeles and Manhattan a run for their money. Three bands - Taking Back Sunday, Brand New and Glassjaw - are leading the charge, building local followings into national fame. (All three headlined this year's Vans Warped Tour, the traveling punk festival.) Suddenly, Manhattan record executives are heading east, burrowing through the Long Island burbs in search of the next Nirvana.

For the first time, Long Island can boast the kind of grass-roots talent and fiercely loyal audiences that helped define past hot spots. Radio shows on FM and AM stations play local music ranging from rock to techno. Weekly band battles at nightclubs are proliferating. Open-mic nights have become so numerous that venue owners are offering cash prizes to compete. One local band recently set up a stage in the middle of a residential street and managed to draw a crowd of about 400 kids.

"It's like a mini-Seattle here," says Mike Watts, owner of VuDu Studios in South Freeport, one of several facilities where local bands cut demos. "Labels call me up, saying, 'What's going on out there? You got any bands?'" he says. "They hear of two or three bands coming from one place, they start thinking, 'Who's the next band we can develop?'"

The spotlight is bringing others out of the woodwork. At the Munchaba Lounge in Levittown, the Tuesday open-mic night has grown from a handful of performers to more than 40 in the last two years, says co-owner Bob Newman. "When we started our open mic, we were the only ones. Now there's nine on Tuesday, four on Wednesday, three on Thursday and two on Monday." What's more, he says, he suspects that at least five acts that regularly play at his club are on the verge of a record deal.

"These are all bands that will make music for their whole lives," Newman says. "It's not like they're just messing around anymore."

At The Downtown, the Farmingdale venue that serves as the crux of the local rock scene, the Monday night band battles have become one of the week's most popular attractions, especially when promoter Rick Eberle adds a couple of well-liked local acts to the bill. On a recent night, fans showed up to cheer on their favorite unknown act, then stayed for the popular local hard-core band Stretch Armstrong. By the end of the evening, audience members barely had room to breathe, let alone mosh.

"We figured 300, and we got more like 500," Eberle says of the crowd. That, despite the fact that the club Insomnia also was holding a Monday night band battle. "It's ridiculous," Eberle says. "But we laugh about it. There's plenty of bands to go around."

Traditionally, America's musical trends are born in big cities, from the hippie era of San Francisco to the birth of punk in Manhattan. As for suburban Long Island, it's been home to a handful of stars, including Billy Joel, Pat Benatar and all three Stray Cats. It also produced two of rap's most influential groups: De La Soul (Amityville) and Public Enemy (Roosevelt). But mostly, Long Island is mocked as a wasteland of hair-metal acts, and critics can point to plenty: Blue Oyster Cult, Zebra, Twisted Sister.

For years, "bands didn't want to say they were from Long Island, because there was no respect for that," says John Hampson, singer for the local rock band Nine Days, which released its debut album on Epic Records. "Everybody thought it was hipper to call us a New York City band."

But during the 1990s, while the rest of the country turned to hip-hop and teen pop, Long Island bands began forming their own sound. One pioneering act was Silent Majority, a Lindenhurst group that fused the brutality of punk with memorable tunes and soul-baring lyrics.

"Our lyrics were about, like, problems with your family," says former Silent Majority front man Tommy Corrigan, who now designs band T-shirts at the Bellmore company "Every song I wrote was about growing up in the suburbs. We were like the Billy Joel of punk rock."

Meantime, other bands around the country - such as 7 Seconds from Southern California and Fugazi from Washington, D.C. - were crafting a similar sound that soon earned the nickname "emo" for its emotional content. (It's further evolved into "screamo," but be warned: Fans hate the labels.) In the last few years there's been a veritable tsunami of such bands. Most are on tiny indie labels, but a few major-label acts (such as The Used from Utah and Finch from California) have pushed emo into the mainstream, mixing blood-curdling screams with catchy choruses.

No wonder, then, that one of the biggest suburbs in the nation is producing so many bands. Nassau and Suffolk counties together comprise about 1,200 square miles of mostly white, upper-middle- class households - a veritable band breeding ground, full of basements and garages that double as rehearsal studios. Children abound: Forty percent of households contain at least one kid younger than 18. Nearly one-quarter of the population is in that 15-to-34- year-old bracket - prime years for buying records and starting bands.

"We're all teenagers, so we're going through rough times," says Sage Bice, an 18-year-old from Westbury, trying to explain emo's appeal. "We all think we're depressed." Plus, she says, aside from shopping and seeing movies, there's little else to do on Long Island but go to concerts. Sometimes, she'll visit high schools where she's not even a student to check out band battles and talent shows. "People are bored," she says.

Disaffection also gave birth to Seattle's grunge scene, but times have changed. Whereas grunge-rockers railed against major labels and entertainment conglomerates, punk rock is becoming increasingly corporatized: After all, the biggest punk festival in the country is sponsored by a shoe company, Vans. Long Island bands are downright eager to climb up the music industry ladder: The Lawrence-based band Last Week, for instance, bragged about major-label deals even when it didn't have any.

"In high school we used to start rumors that we were getting signed," says Last Week singer Ido Zmishlany, 19. "If people think you're bigger than you really are, it helps."

Indeed: The band cut a demo at the West Babylon studio of Tomas Costanza, lead singer of the Hollywood Records band Diffuser, then submitted it to an AOL-sponsored talent search. The band won and is discussing deals with several labels.

"It's a different generation with a different attitude," says Greg Guzzetta, a concert booker and co-owner of the Ultrasound Lounge in Levittown. "These kids aren't into getting drunk and playing like crap. They're getting more refined, more skilled. There's no shame in selling out these days."

Long Island has yet to develop its own Sub-Pop, the homegrown record label that helped put Seattle and bands like Nirvana on the map, but it has a substantial musical infrastructure. At least a half-dozen professional- quality studios dot the region, and they frequently cut deals for cash-strapped bands. Venues such as The Downtown, The Munchaba Lounge and Mulcahy's in Wantagh devote half their nights or more to local music. WLIR/92.7 FM of Garden City is a crucial part of Long Island's music scene, devoting at least three hours of prime airtime per week to local music and regularly sponsoring live shows that give exposure to developing acts.

"When I go to Long Island, I see better shows than I do even in Manhattan," says Jason Jordan, an executive director at Hollywood Records. "Last time I was at a club, there was everyone from punk and emo kids to college kids. And that means people are supporting their scene because the bands are good."

Another way Long Islanders build their community: the Internet. Musicians announce concerts via The Long Island Music Coalition, a Web-based information-sharing network. On The Long Island Zoo message board, promoters post punk concerts at even the tiniest venues. (One recent show was at someone's house; hopeful attendees had to instant-message the organizer to receive the location and date.) Information travels so fast that after singer- keyboardist John Nolan and bassist Shaun Cooper split from Taking Back Sunday, fans set up a message board dedicated to them within days.

"I was surprised at how much support there was," Nolan says. "They didn't know anything about whether we were even making music anymore."

The first of Long Island's new crop of rockers to break out of the local loop was Glassjaw, formed nearly a decade ago by lead singer Daryl Palumbo. After years of playing Long Island clubs and financing its own tours, the band signed with Warner Bros. and released its debut album, "Worship and Tribute," in 2002.

Mainstream success has eluded the band, partly because its sophisticated, multilayered songs aren't exactly radio-friendly. (So far, the album has sold fewer than 100,000 copies, according to Warner Bros.) Still, Glassjaw "put all eyes on Long Island," says Christian McKnight, a local concert promoter. "Suddenly, I was getting all these calls from A&R guys, and label guys were coming to my shows."

In the past year, Taking Back Sunday and Brand New have become Long Island's bands to watch. Both formed in 2000; singer Jesse Lacey of Brand New once played bass in Taking Back Sunday. Within a year, both bands had become giants of Long Island's burgeoning music scene. And they were quickly signed to small labels: Brooklyn's Triple Crown Records snapped up Brand New after its second-ever concert, and Chicago-based Victory Records took Taking Back Sunday.

The bands represent two sides of the emo coin. Taking Back Sunday stunned audiences with its fierce live shows, in which singer- screamer Adam Lazzara expertly swings around his microphone and wraps the cord around his neck, nooselike. Brand New, by contrast, enjoys a reputation for tuneful songs and complex, literary lyrics. (Lacey cites the writer Raymond Carver as an influence.)

McKnight booked early shows for both bands. In June 2001, he says, Taking Back Sunday played at a West Babylon American Legion Hall and unexpectedly drew a crowd of hundreds. "Everybody knew the songs, everybody was ecstatic," McKnight recalls. "You could just kind of tell. I thought, 'This band is going to be big.'"

Earlier this year, Taking Back Sunday appeared on the cover of Alternative Press, the bible of mainstream punk, and has popped up in Rolling Stone and Spin. Its debut album, "Tell All Your Friends," has sold an estimated 250,000 copies. (Compare that to the major-label band Finch, which has sold about 350,000 copies of its debut, according to Nielsen SoundScan.) Taking Back Sunday's first network television appearance, on ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live," is scheduled for Sept. 9.

"We thought we were just going to be another staple of Long Island," says Ed Reyes, guitarist for Taking Back Sunday. "Instead, the whole world is watching us."

At the same time, the pressures of fame have taken their toll: When Nolan and Cooper quit the band in June, Taking Back Sunday's momentum stalled.

"That sudden and crazy rush of popularity affected the working relationship that everyone had," Nolan says. "In the beginning, things were a lot simpler." (Nolan and Cooper have since been replaced; they've started a new band, Straylight Run.)

Meantime, Brand New is making inroads into mainstream rock radio, MTV2 and the new video channel Fuse with its single "The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows," from its latest album, "Deja Entendu." The record marked the end of Brand New's contract with Triple Crown, and the band is now the object of a bidding war, one that insiders say is becoming increasingly expensive. ("It has become a situation I don't think I can win," says one major-label executive.)

Brand New drummer Brian Lane says he's still struggling to understand his newfound fame. "Only in the past week has it really hit me," he says, cooking up a chicken-flavored veggie-patty at his parents' house in Merrick on a recent Tuesday. "I'm home, doing the same things I've always done before, but now I'm watching myself on TV. It's the weirdest, most surreal thing ever."

Still, some worry that Long Island could become a victim of its own success. Seattle's grunge heyday lasted only a few years; in Chapel Hill, record executives shunned the city after bands such as Archers of Loaf and The Squirrel Nut Zippers failed to break into the mainstream. Now, with CD sales down 20 percent since 2000, labels are even more focused on the bottom line. One way they've tightened their belts is by dropping underperforming artists, a trend that may not bode well for young bands just emerging from the hometown womb. Last year, Epic Records dropped Nine Days even though the band had a hit single, "Absolutely (Story of a Girl)," and a gold album for its disc "The Madding Crowd."

"To put our next record out, they would have had to invest another few hunded thousand," Hampson says. "I guess we weren't a long-term commitment."

Reyes, for one, has concerns over Long Island's fate. "It's almost like a rain forest," says the Taking Back Sunday guitarist. "We have this fragile, existing life force here, and the littlest thing that disturbs it can ruin it. I'm hoping people can be here to support it and understand it - but not destroy it and ruin the special momentum that's going on."

Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.


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