Punk Planet 64

I Am The World Trade Center
9/11, heartbreak and cancer...is IATWTC cursed?

In their five years of existence, Athens, Ga., electropop duo I Am The World Trade Center have found their music continually overshadowed by life-altering events. Even though their 2001 debut, Out Of The Loop (featuring an 11th tracked called "September"), was released before the 9/11 attacks, the band's name became inextricably tied to one of the most devastating events in their country's history.

IATWTC instrumentalist Dan Geller and singer Amy Dykes realize that will never go away. It's not like people think of a tranquil Hawaiian port when they hear the words "Pearl Harbor." So it's no surprise that I Am The World Trade Center's 2002 record, The Tight Connection, still suffered a bit from the association.

As 2003 progressed, and time inched away from a topic everyone (especially the band) was tired of talking about, Dykes and Geller faced another challenge when their romantic relationship disintegrated. As a band, the couple continued, and their interpersonal issues provided inspiration for new material.

The result, 2004's The Cover Up (Gammon Records), was the band's darkest album. Although replete with bouncy beats and dance-pop melodies, the lyrics spoke of heartbreak with forceful directness—heartbreak IATWTC relived every night as Geller and Dykes toured.

2004 found the pair reuniting as a couple, this time for good with a wedding planned for next May. When it seemed 2004 would be a tranquil year, one where interviewers' questions would focus not on 9/11 but on how the pair's short-lived breakup affected the band, Geller took Dykes to the emergency room in Fairfax, Va., during a tour stop in April.

There, doctors found tumors in Dykes' chest and diagnosed them as stage IIIb Hodgkin's Disease (IV is the most severe), a cancer of the lymphatic system. The disease typically strikes young people, though it has a high survival rate.

Geller and Dykes immediately returned to Athens, where Dykes began a regimen of chemotherapy every two weeks. Life, for the most part, was normal. Geller works as a biological engineer doing bio-fuel research and started a side project called Baryshnikov. His label, Kindercore, is currently dormant due to a lawsuit. Dykes started a new lifestyle company with a friend called Favorite Life and recently began teaching a textiles class at the University of Georgia.

A PT scan in July revealed that, after completing about half of her chemotherapy treatments, the tumors in Dykes' chest had mostly disappeared and were now noncancerous. After completing her chemotherapy in October, she will be considered recovered, though she will need regular checkups for the rest of her life.

The joy of the good news was short-lived, though, when Dykes came down with pneumonia only a couple of weeks later. She spent two weeks in the hospital, one of them on a ventilator in intensive care.

Although she has declined interviews since her sickness began, Dykes joined Geller and spoke to Punk Planet about when—and if—I Am The World Trade Center will ever catch a break.

OK, so you get this great news, then you end up in ICU. Could you talk about that for minute?
I was feeling really good, and I was going out a again and DJing and trying to be normal, but I think I overdid it. … I guess it's just to keep me in check to remember that I am sick and I've got to take care of myself.

Does it seem that IAWTC's music has been constantly overshadowed by something, at least since shortly after the first record came out?
I guess so. The way we figure it, we're one for three. We've had one album that doesn't have some human-interest story.

Dykes: I don't know if it helps record sales very much.

When you went to the hospital while you were on tour, did you have any idea that something was seriously wrong?
No. I was thinking it was allergies because every morning I would wake up, and [my face] was puffy, but would go down. Then we had done like seven weeks of the tour, and [when] we were in Boston and New York, it continued to stay puffy.

I had some muscle pains too, but I thought maybe I had pulled a muscle, and I was out of breath a lot when I was carrying stuff. You just think like "I'm tired," "I'm hung over," you know? I'm on tour; of course I don't feel 100 percent. My face was really puffy, and that day I went in, my lips were really blue.

They did a CT scan. I never thought about cancer, and the woman asked, "Do you have cancer in your family?" And I was like "No…" and she was like, [perky voice] "OK!" She puts the dye in me and puts me in for the CT scan, and I'm just laying there going, "OH MY GOD! What did she just say to me?"
Then she comes in and shuts the door, and she starts crying. And we're just like,

"What?" Then she's like, "I think it's lymphoma." And we're just like, "Wait, what's that?" Like you know what it is, but then you're like, "Can you just say it to me? I don't understand."

I was looking around and I found that the general survival rate, even at stage IV, is like 80 percent.
Yeah, it's still very high, so they were very optimistic from the beginning. And she's looking great. Even being this close to her, the only thing that I notice is that she's a little more tired, and she sleeps a lot more. Other than that, everything's pretty much the same.

Dykes: Everyone said [laughs] if I was gonna get cancer, I picked the right one, which is a weird thing to say. … I had so many people write me letters saying "My friend had Hodgkin's," "I had Hodgkin's, and now I'm fine." So that's comforting to know, some light at the end of the tunnel. I've been really, really positive about it and just knowing I can't be upset about it—it's not going to help make me feel any better. I was fine until I got sick at the hospital because that made me remember.

It sounds like you're not too focused on that 20 percent that doesn't make it.
I try not to be [laughs warily]. I have my moments when I'm petting the dog or talking to you about it: "I could be that 20 percent."

Do you have insurance? I know you had a couple of fund-raiser shows.
We have slight insurance, as we like to call it. [laughs] We do have some insurance, but it's not really paying the bills.

So how are you paying the bills?
We're basically just eking by and paying as much as we can to the hospital. We're going to be paying for this the rest of our lives.
Even after insurance pays, you get the bill, and you laugh. You're like, "Yeah right, like that's ever gonna happen!" [laughs] After it gets to a certain level, you're just like, "Oh well, I can't really worry about that right now."

Dykes: It's kind of like Monopoly money. … It really freaks me out. I can't really think about the fact that it's money. I have to take of myself because I can get really upset about it.

What changes have you guys made lifestyle-wise?
My oncologist isn't really into this, but I'm going to a cancer nutritionist. I just take tons of supplements. It's totally ridiculous; I probably take like 40 pills a day. … Just, I don't know, just try to do things that make you happy instead of focusing on trivial things—like just making sure that I do something fun that day, or I don't like spend the day like worrying about bills or running errands or something. Like go to a movie or go have dinner with a friend. Make sure the people you care about know you care about them.

So what are you guys up to now?
We DJ once or twice a week, and that's about it. It's been pretty low-key. We're usually on the road nine months out of the year, so it's been kind of a weird adjustment period for us to get used to not being on the road, but we'll be back.

Dykes: I'm getting so antsy wanting to sing. A friend had a birthday party at this Chinese restaurant with karaoke. It was just like all of us in our party; it wasn't the whole restaurant. I was totally hogging the mic. I did like seven songs or something. [laughs]

So what are you doing in lieu of touring to promote this record?
I'm going out in September and doing a DJing tour, starting out in Atlanta and branching out into some other places. … Then we just finished a video that will be out there for "No Expectations." It's tough because the album did just come out, and I'm just totally wanting to get on the road, and that's obviously not a possibility. The plan with the label has been always to push this over a long time, so hopefully by the time Amy gets better, we can continue in the place we started before the problems.

Dykes: I'm really missing it, but I don't want to play until I can give 100 percent to the performance. The last time we played was in May. We had just gotten back from tour, but I really wanted to play a show—and then everyone's all concerned about it and just staring at me. … I wanted to be normal. I don't want people to watch me and be like, "She has cancer."

I've definitely picked up on that, having lost my mom to Inflammatory Breast Cancer. People want to be really helpful, but all that concern can be too much.
Right. It's weird. I'll go places and people will stare at me. It's almost like, "That's Amy—she has cancer!" It's like, stop staring at me. I'm fine.

It seems like you guys have been busy during this hiatus.
I'm someone who's always completely busy. I'll probably write a song every two or three days, at least the music. I had a huge catalogue built up before Amy and I left for tour. And then we kind of pared them down to 35 tracks for the album; there were still another 20 or 30 that weren't good enough to make final cut. Then I got home and started writing songs, so I had to do something with them. There's still another two or three World Trade records sitting there ready to go.

The Cover Up was written while you were breaking up—what was it like writing, recording & playing those songs, knowing what they were about, with the person you broke up with? That sounds so hellish.
We're really good at, not hiding or burying things, but just dealing with them: "We're just gonna have to do this and not let this affect me."

Geller: I think the most significant point in the evolution of the record was when I realized that it was becoming a breakup record, and I really had no voice on it. My parts were added sort of in response to what Amy had written. But my vocals are a lot more prominent on this record because I was responding to her initial statements.

How did she react?
I think she thought it was funnier than anything else because I've always been really shy about singing. I always hid behind the vocoder. On that CD, I'm actually singing with my real voice.

How on earth did you tour together? It's not like you have other band members there to help defuse the tension—it's just you and her in a car.
We faked it. We were in the car together all day, and you get comfortable, and you feel like you're together again, and you kind of ignore the fact you have these problems. We'd fight, but it was pretty good for the most part.
I think being on tour is what brought us back together ultimately. We were just by each other all the time, and when we got home, and we weren't with each other, we'd miss each other. I think that helps a lot. And writing the record was really kind of cathartic. It all kind of worked itself out [laughs], and it worked itself out about two weeks before we found out that Amy was sick.

They say frustration and dire situations breed creativity—like breaking up did with The Cover Up. What do you think is in store for the next record?
It's going to be interesting for the next record. Like I said, now I'm singing and writings songs too, so I think there's going to be more crossover in that direction. And we're both going through very different processes. … She hasn't started writing yet again. She's been keeping a journal, but she hasn't started putting the words together yet.

All the reviews of this record talk about how dark it is. Do you think the next one's going to be darker or more optimistic?
Maybe a little bit of both. I'm trying to be positive, but I can be pretty dark now. It just comes out.

Given the style of music you play, it seems like people kind of dismiss you as a novelty/retro act.
That's really weird because it's so not based in '80s retro at all. It's coming from '90s Britpop so much that it's ridiculous. It's just the instruments on the album and just the way we chose to record the record, I guess.

But it seems like the longer you persist, the harder it is to dismiss a band as a novelty act.
I think the first record didn't even sound like that at all. At the time, there was no retro '80s movement or whatever going on, so nobody even thought about it. The Tight Connection came out right at the beginning of that whole '80s retro thing when bands were doing it.

Your previous records were on Kindercore, but I read that a lawsuit had shut down the label. You're never running low on drama, are you?
Someday, man, this is gonna be a good story. The whole Kindercore saga, including Amy's and my breakup, the cancer—this is like a miniseries. This isn't even going to be a movie. This is going to be quality entertainment. I mean, the way our lives unfold, you couldn't write better drama than our actual lives. And this past year, it's been amped up about 100 times. The story's going to have a really intense ending. > Page 1