The Two Towers
Writing about band names is one of the great clichés in rock journalism. Every group with an off-kilter appellation has an allegedly amusing or revealing (and often lengthy) story about how its stage alias was invented, but the majority of these tales are about as fascinating as a day spent cleaning heavily mildewed bathroom tile with a worn-out toothbrush.
Sometimes, though, discussing an act's moniker is unavoidable--as Dan Geller, half of the electro-pop duo dubbed I Am the World Trade Center, knows all too well.
Geller--who's also the co-founder of the excellent indie label Kindercore, not to mention a biological engineer working for the University of Georgia--understands why he and Center cohort/significant other Amy Dykes became the focus of items in Newsweek and other national publications after the New York landmark that inspired their handle collapsed last year. Likewise, he sees the news value in detailing the threatening messages and hate-filled e-mails sent to the twosome by ignorant Web surfers, who likely stumbled upon references to the outfit while searching the Internet for information about the attacks. (For some reason, he says, the worst of them came from Germany, not the United States.) And he feels some obligation to explain why he and Dykes let their designation be shortened to I Am the World when their fine debut album, Out of the Loop, was issued overseas in late September, two months after its domestic release, but chose to stick the original tag on The Tight Connection, their thoroughly enjoyable second disc.
"The company that was putting Loop out in England decided to be conservative," Geller notes. "But even in the beginning, there were people who were supportive of us and who didn't see the name as a bad thing. And one of them said to us that the world has a three-month memory and that we should wait three months to see what happened before we made a decision. And sure enough, after three months the responses were all really positive."
By staying with it, Geller and Dykes guaranteed that name questions would keep coming despite the apolitical nature of their music. ("We have points of view about politics and things like that," Geller says, "but it's never been our intention to express them in the band.") In the beginning--or, to be more specific, in 1996--Geller didn't have to carry this kind of baggage. He was simply a biochemistry student at the University of Georgia in Athens who spent his off-hours performing with a group called Kincaid. He and his mates, including future Kindercore colleague Ryan Lewis, realized that they needed someone to press and distribute the songs they'd recorded, and when no outside party volunteered, they chose to do it themselves.
"We started the label because it seemed like the thing to do," Geller says, laughing. "There was this record that needed to come out, so we made up the Kindercore name, because it gave it some legitimacy, and put it out. And I guess we were kind of good at it, because we sold all 500 of them we made. And then we made a compilation tape that did really well, and then an album, and it just kind of mushroomed from there."
Along the way, he says, "we created an infrastructure--and it didn't take a genius to figure out that if you have an infrastructure, you can put out more records than just yours. And since we had all these friends who were in good bands and they were in similar situations to us, we thought, 'This could really be a scene, so let's see what we can do with it.' And we kind of rode that to where we are now."
Today, Kindercore is home to around a dozen mostly pop-oriented acts, and there's not a stiff in the bunch. The firm has maintained an impressively high level of quality throughout its existence, thanks to releases from Call and Response, the Essex Green, the Real Tuesday Weld, Ashley Park and Dressy Bessy. Of course, Kindercore's standard of success is far different from that of major labels. Geller says he's happy if a CD cracks the 5,000-unit barrier and is over the moon when a disc sells 20,000 copies or more.
As a result, returns are modest--but Geller makes sure they're distributed evenhandedly. Like most indies, "we do a profit split instead of royalties," he points out. "That means the label spends X amount of money on the band, and once that money comes back in, everything else gets split between the label and the band. So they don't make money unless we do, and vice versa. To me, that's the only way to do it if you think about it, because you need the band to work as hard as you do. We try to make the contracts as fair as we can, too. Everybody signs the same contract--even World Trade. However we treat the other bands, we get treated the same way. That's what keeps us honest, keeps us connected to the bands."
Though the couple is back in Athens now, appropriately, I Am the World Trade Center's first record got its start in New York City, where Geller and Dykes moved in 1999 in an attempt to coordinate Kindercore's activities with those of another indie, Emperor Norton, with which it had formed a partnership. (This deal ended amicably a couple of years later.) Around then, Geller became intrigued by the possibilities of making music entirely on computer and spent months pouring all of his ideas into a Gateway laptop that's presently being used by the Kindercore accounting department.
"Doing it that way made sense to me," he says, "because if I wanted to, I could make it into almost a mathematical process. I could break things down to simply numbers and pictures as opposed to music, and a lot of times that worked better for me. I think I have great ideas musically, but my skills playing instruments aren't that great, so it allowed me to realize my ideas in ways that I don't know I could have with drums, bass and guitars."
Still, something was missing. "I got halfway through trying to realize this idea, and it became clear that there was no humanity to it and it wasn't really musical in the way I wanted it to be. At first I thought I needed another instrument on the record, but I played some guitar, and that didn't really work. And Amy was sitting in the room--we lived in this tiny apartment in Brooklyn--and I said, 'Come sing.' And she sang two lines on 'Holland Tunnel,' and that's how it all started."
Dykes isn't a trained vocalist, but that turned out to be a good thing. Her untutored enthusiasm contrasted charmingly with the "Holland Tunnel" backing track, instantly transforming it into something altogether fresh and unexpected. Excited, Geller began tweaking his other compositions to clear room for Dykes, and before she knew it, she was in the band. "It was weird," Geller admits. "When I was in Kincaid, I would have never, ever thought I'd be in a band with my girlfriend. But it's actually worked out OK, because there are definitely two sides to our relationship. People know we're together, and that's cute and nice. But when we're in public, we're a band, and when we're in private, we're a couple."
That said, despite the spark that Dykes brought to tunes such as "Metro," "Sounds So Crazy" and "Aurora Borealis," Out of the Loop was mostly Geller's show--a fact that he was determined to change the second time around. While the first album's title suggests a certain detachment that Geller ascribes to their outsider status in New York, The Tight Connection, made after they moved back to Athens, speaks to the growing closeness of their musical bond.
"There's a lot more Amy on this record," he says. "I think everything's much more balanced this time, and you can hear a lot of her influences. For one thing, she's a fan of '80s music, and I'm really not. I like bands like New Order, and obviously there's some of that sound. But my big thing is '90s Brit pop; that's where I'm coming from. And since everybody tells us that we sound really '80s, that's got to be Amy's influence."
The most overt salute to the Ronald Reagan decade on Connection is a stripped-down cover of the 1980 Blondie-Giorgio Moroder stomper "Call Me," but it's far from the only one. Instead of pouring on the pretense or polishing the rhythms until no fingerprints remain, as is fairly common in computer-driven music, Geller keeps his arrangements light, witty and delightfully simple, relying most often on bouncy, occasionally cheesy beats and space-age burbles that alternately recall Erasure's synth pop and the pogo-friendly population of early new wave. The settings employed throughout the ultra-danceable "Believe in Me" and the chunky "Hold on to My Lines" are ideal for Dykes, who carries tunes casually rather than belting them out. She's a vocal everywoman, and her bliss is contagious even on "Soirée," a song that tangentially addresses the post-9/11 name controversy. Lines such as, "Always someone so easy to blame," may seem accusatory in print, but by delivering them languidly over a chipper melody, she strips them of angst.
"I think that's the only way we could have done it," Geller says. "If we'd tried to do it the other way, it would have been ridiculous, because it's not who we are. I mean, this is a really hard time for the world right now, but we can't forget that there's still time to enjoy life."
This comment shouldn't imply that Geller lacks seriousness. In addition to everything else on his plate, he's involved in a University of Georgia effort to develop alternative fuels. ("It's very promising," he says. "We've found that you can use vegetable oil and grease and things that we use in other ways to fuel diesel engines--and the technology's already here.")
Meanwhile, Geller has another musical project: the Agenda, a group featuring him and Lewis that he describes as "Stooges-era punk rock." He feels that the Agenda's bow, Start the Panic, plus the recent The Language of Cities by Athens' Maserati, a post-rock instrumental act, will help broaden Kindercore's reputation. "We're really at a transitional point," he says. "Indie pop is what we're most associated with, and we still love it. But after five years of doing it, we're like, 'Let's try something different.'"
With so much happening, Geller can't help but fantasize about the day when I Am the World Trade Center's name doesn't even come up in conversation.
"I'd love to do an interview where I wouldn't have to talk about that," he says. "But I think it's going to be awhile."
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