It was a world where anyone could stake their claim and make a mark, where ingenuity flourished in the face of hardship, and where rules didn’t quite apply. Ultimately the Wild West typified an ideal of cooperation and coexistence within a disparate population.
150 years later, a cactus grows in Brooklyn. More specifically, a bourgeoning music scene has exploded like a vibrant oasis in Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Bushwick. What was formally nothing beyond industrial no-man’s land and tightly knit ethnic enclaves has changed drastically. And for good or bad, the new North Brooklyn and its relentless expansion is here to stay.
Even as corporations and big developers move in, the feeling of manifest destiny isn’t monopolized by such heavy hands; its instead encapsulated by every musician, performer, composer, and enthusiast who are drawn like charged particles to this Mecca of art and sound. There are at least 28 venues for live music, not to mention countless record stores, publications, blogs, rehearsal spaces, and studios situated in these three conjoined neighborhoods. From the street vendors who sell vinyl on the street illegally to the DIY venues that constantly emerge from nowhere (or more specifically from residential apartments and lofts) like tumbleweeds, there’s just as much flag planting here as there was during the time of the OK Corral. And best of all, no six shooters or shotguns are necessary. Just roll up with your beat up Tele or analog drum machine, and get to work on that first remix or EP.
The wealth of stylistic quality and variety coming from Williamsburg and its surroundings are astounding. Magazines and analysts have tried to categorize the New Brooklyn sound, but with thrash metal, chillwave, neo-baroque chamber pop and intelligent post punk groups (among many others) all coexisting together, or more importantly influencing each other as peers, there is no true Williamsburg sound. Perhaps its more of a state of mind that typifies an area that was built up from scratch as an artistic haven to become a influential force in the still commercialized music industry. The common impetus to make music with no stylistic limitations, to reach for the stars creatively while standing on the shoulders of neighbors, that’s perhaps the only appropriate definition of Williamsburg music.
In addition to highlighting the best places to hear, buy, and learn about music in Williamsburg and its environs, we’ve dedicated features to several examples of musicians taking risks and working hard, thus exemplifying the Williamsburg aesthetic. There’s Brahms, a new band with a long pedigree starting from scratch. There’s Mon Khmer, a band with one ear to the Williamsburg streets and one far off in uncharted creative waters. There’s Steven Vega, a musician intent on channeling a rich musical community into a never-ending collective. There’s Mahavatar and their enlightenment on the path of alt heavy metal.
Each band or musician owns a unique approach, but they all share the same train line. Here’s to hoping that their cumbersome L train commute home might just be a long ride into the sunset.
Mon Khmer might have a Quixote complex. Not that the rising Williamsburg quintet spends their days searching out imaginary windmills and fierce battles, but musically, the group has been engaged in just such an adventure.
“Every band has a fantasy to fulfill, some sort of other world that they’re supposed to convey,” said bassist/synth player Matt Scheiner over the din of a roaring amateur comedy show on the Williamsburg waterfront. “I think ours is riding around in a horse in some exotic part of the world with swords.”
Founding member, lead vocalist and guitarist Hammarsing Kharhmar is quick to finish the thought. “In Mongolia…or riding on a white pony” shouts Kharhmar, as if the picture is as vivid in his head as it is on the record.
Their vision is an astute one. With a wide range of influences that blend into a largely uncategorizable mix of steamy prog, churning kraut, and lush, circuitous instrumentation, Mon Khmer’s unique sound definitely feels like a rollicking escapade. Add to that the haunting pedal steel guitar work of Dave Kaye, and you have an otherworldly sound that still hovers just above the pavement of indie sensibilities.
Such an exclusive approach might seem to be a creative boon, but for Kharhmar, it’s also been a hindrance. “I don’t know any band that we could fit in with, which kind of sucks,” said Kharhmar.
Not fitting into current musical trends hasn’t prevented the band from garnering critical acclaim and landing a month long residency at Manhattan venue Pianos last fall. And with a new self-titled album out now on vinyl and digital download that adds an aggressiveness and post-punk attitude in songs with tighter structures, Mon Khmer might still have a chance at being pigeonholed.
Where once they took inspiration from the plethora of music brewing in Williamsburg, now they care less about what’s going on. Instead, the subtle changes to the band’s approach were ultimately for progress’ sake. It’s a huge challenge to write with simple ideas and a simple format,” said Kharhmar. We don’t want to repeat ourselves, so we’ll work with really clear ideas and see where that goes.”
Fans shouldn’t be too alarmed of the changes the band plans though. “I think it’s more trying to write a good chorus, because everything else is staying the same,” said Kharhmar.
Which is great news for music audiences, but not so good for windmills and white ponies.
Cale Parks is a hard-working man. As the talented percussionist and multi-instrumentalist for Aloha and White Williams, as well as a studio and touring workhorse for a laundry list of indie stars, it would seem like a tough feat to find time to work on personal projects. Not for Parks though. He has released two albums and one EP since 2006, the latest of which he garnered acclaim for during a successful 2009 CMJ.
That’s when Parks met guitarist Drew Montag Robinson and bassist/synth player Eric Lyle Lodwick, and a musical relationship that began with Robinson and Lodwick adding live instrumentation to Parks’ solo work quickly blossomed into a like-minded conglomeration on yet another project.
Enter Brahms, a new group with a re-envisioned musical aesthetic. It’s one where all three members contribute equally, pushing the others to challenging new places while providing equal support for growth. Or as Lodwick slyly puts it, “it’s like your mom becoming your sister.”
The new vibe is heavy on hooks and plaintive but endearing vocal melodies, all wrapped in a sinister dance floor pulse. “This is the poppiest music I’ve ever made in my life, and I’m totally happy about that,” said Parks at his dimly lit Greenpoint studio.
For Parks, feeling at ease singing with clarity and without the shroud of delay pedals has been the biggest challenge. “It helps having two other guys singing with you, and writing lyrics,” admitted Parks. “Being three voices, that makes me more comfortable.”
In balancing such darkness with a lyrical melodicism and sincerity, Brahms might even echo the musical style of its illustrious namesake. Minus the club thump and feverish electro polyrhythms of course. “We just want a visceral reaction,” Robinson said.
As they hit the road with fellow electronic groovers Passion Pit, they should have plenty of opportunities for just that.
Traveling around Williamsburg and Bushwick, passing converted lofts with patchwork constructed second levels turned into living rooms, outward jutting ferns and hanging bicycles all visible through wide windows, the non-loft population has to wonder what the hell actually goes down in these wild juxtapositions of fallen industry and modern living.
Wild parties, adult film ventures, paint-splattered art studios, drug rings, all a given. Musician and artist Steven Vega has a different idea for his towering Bushwick abode though. Since moving into the lofts at 345 Eldert St. a year ago, the five-year New York resident and graduate of Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts has had an open door policy with his large four-bedroom apartment. If there was a guest mat, it would read: “All Musicians Welcome.”
Until recently, Vega had been leading Brooklyn trio Lagoon. Just as their take on the extraordinarily unusual combination of psychedelia, sludge, noise, jazz, and opera, of all things, had begun to take off though, Vega reexamined his artistic impetus. “In Lagoon, there was so much focus on our individual person, and not thinking of us as a band,” said Vega in his appropriately bike and fern heavy living room/rehearsal space. “I want to show more the fruits of creation, eating those fruits and sharing those fruits, rather than having those fruits simply be put on a mantle.”
If it sounds confusing and deeply philosophical it is (when asked for a clarification, Vega launched into a tangent about the Bhagavad Gita), but there’s a clear message. For Vega to fully realize the potential of his music, his plan is to utilize the bustling community of musicians already living in his building. Along with Lagoon drummer Mason Remel, Vega hopes to assemble a veritable army of like- (or unlike-) minded performers to elaborate on Lagoon’s previous work, while also making new music strictly for its own sake—his own Bushwick Philharmonic.
Balancing the duality of a dreamer and an astute thinker, Vega still plans on recording and touring in the near future, even if the group line-up and material are still undecided. So for all the glockenspiel or marimba or bassoon players east of Manhattan, or just any plain old open-minded musician for that matter, auditions for the Eldert Ensemble are still being held.
Williamsburg heavy metal band Mahavatar, number 5 on ReverbNation.com radio charts for New York in the heavy metal category: “A unique act on the alternative metal scene due to it’s leading female lineup Mahavatar’s strains reveal a singular ability to deliver tense and anquished themes, pulled tumultuous guitars and ponderous rock features. The band’s mission is also defined by the meaning of their designation. The word itself, Mahavatar, has an Indian origin significance of immortality, and the incarnation of God within the self.”