Eric Elterman would have brought Oceanographer's new CD tonight, but he got mugged last week. The band's violist and synth player, Elterman was on the sidewalk outside the bar we're sitting at now, a railroad pub in Williamsburg, Brooklyn called Clem's. Some dudes took his wallet, which meant he had to cancel his credit card, which meant he couldn't charge the CDs, which means that tonight, the only thing he can bring to the table is a few cold pints. These days, that kind of bad luck is practically par for the course.
"Sometimes it feels like the Fates are against this CD," says lead singer and guitarist Jeremy Yocum. The CD, a melancholy shoegazer album of bruised ego and meandering melody called On Leaping From Airplanes, began nearly three years ago when the five-piece was still recording in Denton garages. (The album finally sees release this week; it is available now at Good Records.)
Bassist Ryan Goolsby takes a sip of his beer. "Finishing the album was as much a struggle as moving to New York."
Adds Yocum, "And by 'struggle,' he means pain in the ass."
At some point, every band confronts the thorny question of whether or not to move to New York (or Los Angeles, although in the war between coasts, New York is winning the battle of the white indie rockers). Most bands I know around Dallas feel comfortable headlining local clubs, touring on occasion and coming home to their wives and their comfy backyards. I suspect they'd do anything to avoid the shitstorm of couch-crashing, bad weather and stubborn anonymity that a move to New York demands.
But if you're young, single and ballsy enough to make a run for it, New York can mean the difference between buying Spin magazine and being in it. Just ask the Secret Machines, whose move from Dallas to Brooklyn catapulted them into a national spotlight that hasn't been matched in the metroplex since the days when major-label reps actually came to Deep Ellum. The technology age has made it easier to live and work from pretty much anywhere in the world, but there is still no substitute for living in New York.
Despite Eric's mugging, Williamsburg isn't a scary part of town--well, that depends on how you feel about hipsters and babies in ironic onesies--but it is ground zero for scruffy indie rockers in the city. Weeks after I moved to the neighborhood I ran into Kyp Malone from TV on the Radio outside my apartment. The Secret Machines' Brandon Curtis used to work at a nearby café. And, at various times, the neighborhood has been home to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Enon, Animal Collective and the Hold Steady. These days, Billyburg counts one more band among its ranks: Oceanographer.
Informally, the band began when Elterman and Yocum played in high school bands together at Newman-Smith. Three years ago, while all five were at UNT (not one of them majored in music), they formed the lineup that would become Oceanographer. With their dreamy, post-rock instrumentation and Jeremy Yocum's languorous voice, Oceanographer (initially known as Panda) was a hit with the press, receiving raves in this publication and rotation on Josh Venable's Adventure Club. In 2004, they were nominated for a Dallas Observer Music Award for Best New Act. Unfortunately, they'd already moved to New York.
For most people, the decision to move is a pained one, borne of late-night hand-wringing and checking-account scrutiny. For Oceanographer, it was more like a quick game of dominoes. "Ryan and [drummer Bradly Brown] wanted to move," says Jeremy. "At that point, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion the whole band would go."
But the city wears you down in different ways. Goolsby had a job he hated. Brown was so broke he had to scrape together money to eat. Yocum landed a bartending gig almost immediately (at Clem's), but he was twitching to play music. For eight months, the band never practiced, never played.
"I thought about quitting every day," says guitarist Steven Kimbrell, who had been the most reluctant to move. Months of sleeping on floors and scrounging for work made him long for the suburban bliss of drive-thru fast-food restaurants and open spaces. "I said I'd give it six months, and after six months I said I'd give it another six months, and after a year, I said I'll stay."
Things eased up when the band finally found a practice space. Then, last June, with the help of their friends the Malarkies, they started playing gigs. Nothing major--they don't have near the audience they had back in Denton. But at last, they could do what they came here to do: make music.
The band's practice space is in a sketchy section of south Williamsburg better known for carjackings and break-ins than trendy visual arts students. It's a Hasidic neighborhood, which means the kosher grocery stores don't sell beer, so we stop on the way for a couple of six-packs.
The space is used by several Brooklyn bands, including hard-core favorites Black Dice, but it's musty, dilapidated and utterly spare, a Martha Stewart nightmare. The toilet alone could get the place condemned. To get there, you walk along a narrow sliver of driftwood slapped atop a shallow, murky puddle. But at $450 a month, "it's pretty much a miracle," Yocum says.
"I'm afraid I'm gonna get my ears blown out," I say, cramming into the nine-by-nine space as the boys strap on their instruments.
"You forget," says Yocum, "we're one of the quietest bands in the world."
They are, in fact, almost lulling, even at this close range, although songs off their as-yet-unrecorded third album have a thrilling crescendo Yocum says is "three times louder than we've played before." I ask them to play something off On Leaping From Airplanes, but Yocum stalls, saying he needs an acoustic guitar (he has since switched to electric), complaining he can't remember the words. After beer has been replaced by bourbon, he admits the process of making the album was so difficult he kind of resents it.
"I can't stand listening to that album, to be honest," he says.
The songs, not surprisingly, are about the risk and vulnerability required to make a leap of faith. As Yocum sings on the album opener, "It's always hard to let go the first dozen or so times until you realize you'll fly instead of fall."
Kimbrell bristles at Yocum's comment. "I think it's a great album," he says. "I mean, you come here below your means and you scratch your way through it. We had no money and we had no equipment, but we made a time capsule of our experience." They have a lot of conversations like this, inward-looking and deeply critical, like they are trying to excavate some deeper truth about their music. It stems from being in New York, a place where compliments are never handed out like lollipops at the doctor's office, where experience wears you down, hopefully to a sharp, glinty edge.
"Denton is so comfortable," says Brown, playing drums in his socks. "But I could see us being 38 years old and playing Rubber Gloves."
"Denton was so good to us," says Yocum. "But we moved up here and thought, 'Maybe we should be making better music.'" And they are.
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