The New, The Hyped, The Totally Random: Every Band We Saw at CMJ 2015

When we set out to cover the 2015 edition of the CMJ Music Marathon, we had a pretty good idea of what we didn’t want to do: see more of the same. The festival summons the disciples of college radio from across the country to New York City for several days of panels, shows, and sponsored parties. It’s essentially a giant mixer for college radio staffers, A&Rs, publicists and journalists to find new music and musicians to stock their playlists and rosters for the year to come.

Talk to anyone working CMJ and the tone is likely to be cynical; the narrative around the fest has been reduced to goals of “surviving CMJ” rather than enjoying the bounty of live music that descends upon the city. Who’s got time to sift through the BS to find hidden gems amongst the teeming masses? Just pick the buzz band du jour, write it up, collect the clicks, and move on.

Tired of redundant previews that highlighted bands with the most blog juice, our aim was to recapture the elation of discovery; being blown away by something totally fresh, the sweet satisfaction of hearing your new favorite song played live for the first time. So how does one find that fleeting feeling?

You can wander around the streets of the Lower East Side or north Brooklyn, listening for sweet sounds to waft into the street and wander in, but you’d likely spend more time wandering than listening. An alternative? Use the excellent CMJ app’s location-based features to guide you; if you’re bored with the set you’re watching, just click the GPS button to see the other sets happening closest to your location. Or you could pick your favorite indie label and spend all day at their showcase, from the anonymous openers to the flagship headlining bands. Or you could seek out our favorite bands, showing up early and leaving late for their set and catching the preceding and following bands, in hopes of connecting the dots drawn by whoever booked the show (shoutout to all the talent buyers working OT the last few weeks).

Piers at The Wick, Brooklyn © Matthew Ismael Ruiz
Piers at The Wick, Brooklyn © Matthew Ismael Ruiz

We chose a combination of all of those, in an attempt to mix serendipity with logical associations. The way CMJ is structured, it’s the only rational means of attempting such aggressive discovery. If you’re not interested in panels, you’ll find little use for your badge; the day parties that have the most risky, obscure lineups are all free and require no badge, and the most popular shows have very limited space for badge holders. If you want to guarantee you’ll get in, you’ll have to buy a ticket or get on the guest list. And don’t forget the unofficial showcases; DIY affairs with low ticket prices that don’t take badges but can often have the most inspired lineups of the week.

Despite the challenges, we still saw an absurd amount of great performances, and while we’ll likely need all 12 months to recover for next year’s edition, it was certainly worth it. Here’s a rundown of everything we saw last week, starting with the obvious, on to the newer acts starting to make some noise, and on down to the truly obscure bands desperate for eardrums and eyeballs. With a little luck and an open mind, maybe there’s something for you in there.

THE OBVIOUS

One of the first sets we caught at this year’s Marathon was Eternal Summers, who played the packed upstairs room at Pianos as part of the Kanine Records showcase. A nice warmup for the week, they’ve been touring behind their June 2015 release Gold and Stone, which is pleasant enough and lines up with their energetic jangle pop aesthetic.

In the wake of the scandal that followed Martin Shkreli’s AIDS-drug price gouging and the revelation that he was the silent bankroll behind Geoff Rickly’s Collect Records, the handful of bands on the label’s roster were left with palpable uncertainty. At the label’s CMJ showcase at Baby’s All Right, we caught Philadelphia’s Creepoid play a raucous set belying their more mellow 2015 Collect Records LP, Cemetery Highrise Slum, before Hether Fortune’s Wax Idols took the stage. Fortune’s presence is formidable and her new songs are excellent, but the usually solid sound at Baby’s All Right made them sound a little thinner than they do on record. Geoff Rickly’s No Devotion, which consists of the former members of the U.K.’s scandal-ridden lostprophets, had their latest LP come out the same week as the Shrkeli scandal broke, but Fortune’s latest LP, American Tragic, is the last one to be released for the foreseeable future. (Philadelphia’s Nothing was a late scratch from the bill, and has voiced their desire to cut ties with all things Shrkeli).

Across the river in Manhattan, the NME hosted one of the more exciting official showcases at Santos Party House, with bands playing both upstairs and downstairs stages in quick succession. We arrived late but early enough to catch Protomartyr and Dilly Dally, two Great Lakes-region bands that have been making a splash in 2015. Detroit’s Protomartyr are somewhat stoic as performers, with none of the band members moving much from their spots, and vocalist Joe Casey channeling most of his energy into the microphone rather than the rest of his body. The music still sounded heavy, but if you’re expecting a lot of movement on stage at a Protomartyr show, you’re bound to be disappointed. Toronto’s Dilly Dally suffered from no such affliction, however; the four-piece jumped right into a track off their debut LP Sore and got the downstairs crowd at Santos jumping almost immediately. The band plays a familiar version of alt-rock pop-punk, and guitarist Liz Ball’s riffs are both dextrous and searing. But it’s Katie Monks’ voice that sets them apart; a scowling moan that often sounds more distorted than the guitars. Watching her manipulate the vocal affectations live is a sight to behold; her tongue spends almost as much time out of her mouth as it does inside.

2013 buzz band Perfect Pussy is still playing the same 10 songs from that year’s Say Yes To Love. But they debuted their first new track in two years at Santos on Wednesday night, tentatively called “The Women,” an ode to the lonely women in the waiting room at Planned Parenthood. The song’s hardcore mosh rhythms were refreshing (and more danceable than their earlier output), and while the washed out noise from absent keyboard/snyth player Shaun Sutkus was certainly missed, it made singer Meredith Graves’ vocals more discernible than usual.

Arizona’s Destruction Unit played a few sets last week, but we weren’t able to catch them until their closing set at the AdHoc Car Wash, an unofficial CMJ showcase on Saturday at a former hand car wash in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (more on this later). They hit the stage around dusk, killed most of the lights and then destroyed the room. Loud, punishing and brutal, theirs was by far the heaviest set we caught all week, and made us wonder yet again why more bands don’t use three (or more!) guitars.

THE RISING

We stumbled onto Weaves’ Wednesday set in the back room at Pianos on a whim, but they’ve already been anointed by the likes of Rolling Stone and the Windish Agency. Their off-kilter rhythms and quirky riffs certainly weren’t boring (“Motorcycle” sounds like a bonafide hit), and singer Jasmyn Burke’s vocals and lyrics held a charming quality. But they failed to make as much of an impression on us as they did for the New York Times’ Jon Pareles.

Before Dilly Dally hit the stage downstairs at Santos on Wednesday night, the room was treated to a one-two punch of politically-drenched punk in the form of London’s Shopping and Providence, Rhode Island’s Downtown Boys, a highlight of the week. Shopping is a bouncy, angular three-piece that recalls the ghosts of Wire and Gang of Four, but lyrically often focuses on the West’s culture of conspicuous consumption. But mostly, they’re just fun, running in place as they tear through pop jams, all three members providing vocals that can at times feel conversational. They haven’t been a band for very long but, as evidenced by the reception at CMJ and a recent writeup in The New Yorker, they’re not long for obscurity.

Downtown Boys have a short enough drive to NYC that they’ve permeated the New York DIY scene — we caught them twice at Brooklyn’s Silent Barn in just a few months — and the music sounds as urgent as ever. They bill themselves as a “Bi bilingual political dance sax punk party from Providence,” and no more concise description of what they are is possible. Melodies are driven mostly by the sax, handled deftly on Wednesday by Adrienne Berry. But it’s Victoria Ruiz’s firebrand rhetoric, both in song and in between songs, that defines the Downtown Boys aesthetic. Her freestyle rants touch on contemporary issues of white supremacy and post-colonial oppression, but galvanize audiences with appeals to self-confidence and triumph over the forces that seek to silence us. They might just be the most important band in the world right now. Or at least Rhode Island.

Makthaverskan's Gustav Data Andersson © Matthew Ismael Ruiz
Makthaverskan’s Gustav Data Andersson © Matthew Ismael Ruiz

On Friday, we caught Swedish indie-poppers Makthaverskan play an early-evening set at Baby’s All Right, and felt privileged to do so. You can probably count the number of U.S. shows the band has played on two hands, and the tight, jangly pop songs they write toe the line between sneering and endearing (“Fuck you for fucking me/ When I was seventeen”), but are always beautiful. Lead singer Maja Milner’s soaring voice seemed more vulnerable than usual, adding new inflections as her voice cracked during the longest notes. For a hint of its power on record, be sure to check out “Asleep,” from their Run For Cover-reissued LP II. New York City’s own Porches followed, playing like the soundtrack to a Huntington Beach bicycle montage from 1987. Pleasant, pretty, and mostly unremarkable, we caught them twice in between other sets, and while it sounds lovely, it failed to hold our attention for a whole set. Late on Friday, we saw Mothers at Rough Trade; the Athens, Georgia project has evolved from a Kristine Leschper solo project into a full-fledged band, set to release its debut LP in 2016. The debut single “No Crying in Baseball” is indicative of Leschper’s style — if not what the new record will sound like — with her occasional warble and the second guitar’s sweet Tele tones framing heartfelt, earnest lyrics.

Protomartyr plays the AdHoc Car Wash in Brooklyn © Matthew Ismael Ruiz
Protomartyr plays the AdHoc Car Wash in Brooklyn © Matthew Ismael Ruiz

At the AdHoc Car Wash on Saturday, the first band we saw was Sheer Mag, a gang of classic-rock-friendly punks from Philadelphia that was understandably pegged as a band to watch by Rolling Stone earlier this year. They had plenty of energy on stage, but there was something about Tina Halladay’s vocals that seethed live; it sounded meaner, angrier, and frankly, better than it does on record. Northampton, Massachussetts’ Potty Mouth has been making noise in New York even before they self-released their debut LP Hell Bent, and has been recently touring behind their new self-titled EP. Of late they’ve had a rotating cast of second guitar players, but their set was fun and the crowd at the car wash was receptive. The loudest applause came in response to their sarcastic cover of Weezer’s “No One Else,” delivered in Abby Weems’ dry deadpan. Reps for the band tell us that their distribution deal with the Alternative Distribution Alliance helped them catch the eye of Atlantic Records, who plans to release their next full-length.

The last time we saw Pity Sex was in a Fred Perry store, playing an acoustic set during last year’s Marathon. This was better; a lot of what we like about their aesthetic is in its texture, which is hard to translate acoustically. They sounded great at their mid afternoon set at the car wash, with Brennan Greaves and Britty Drake’s dual vocals blending beautifully with the fuzz. North Brooklyn scenesters LVL UP followed, sounding every bit like the Merge & K Records lovechild that they are. While LVL UP’s Dave Benton and Mike Caridi run their record label Double Double Whammy out of the Silent Barn in Brooklyn, they started it at SUNY Purchase, whose arts scene has produced its fair share of musicians, including the aforementioned Sheer Mag.

Cloud Castle Lake's Daniel McAuley © Matthew Ismael Ruiz
Cloud Castle Lake’s Daniel McAuley at Silent Barn, Brooklyn © Matthew Ismael Ruiz

Silent Barn is also where we caught Dublin, Ireland’s Cloud Castle Lake, late on Saturday night at Meredith Graves’ Honor Press showcase. They’ve gotten a little love in the U.S., but we’d never heard their music before, and were blown away. The Nabokov lovers somehow manage to evoke the best parts of Radiohead and Sigur Rós without feeling derivative; Daniel McAuley’s falsetto sounds as alien as Inva Mula’s, and the band’s layered, sample-and-synth textures are given a shot in the arm by the live drums.

While CMJ was technically over by Sunday, we couldn’t keep ourselves from catching Diet Cig, SPORTS, and PWR BTTM at Palisades for end of the Father/Daughter & Miscreant Records showcase. We loved the energy of Diet Cig’s Alex Luciano, bopping around in a prom dress (the party had a “Homecoming” theme”). Her aspartame wail and tart tunes like “Harvard” (“Fuck your ivy league sweater/ You know I was better) and “Scene Sick” (“I’m sick of hearing about your band”) may have given us diabetes, however. And Diet Cig definitely wins the “most adorable portable merch stand” award. The crowd swelled for the set from Ohio’s SPORTS, who were down a member but no worse for the wear. They ripped through some cuts from their upcoming full length All of Something (out October 30 on Father/Daughter, including “Get Bummed Out,” which might be our favorite song right now. Queer garage rock duo PWR BTTM closed, with guitarist Ben Hopkins taking the stage in a pink dress, with a flower bouquet and about a pound of makeup. He radiated cheer, reminding the crowd it was his birthday before tearing through tracks from new LP Ugly Cherries, including “1994,” a total throwback jam.

Diet Cig's merch suitcase at Palisades, Brooklyn © Matthew Ismael Ruiz
Diet Cig’s merch suitcase at Palisades, Brooklyn © Matthew Ismael Ruiz

THE ANONYMOUS

It’s likely a testament to the relentlessness of the field hands on the content farms, but there were very few acts we saw at this year’s Marathon that hadn’t already at least been acknowledged by the blogosphere at large. One was Baby Acid, a Brooklyn-based punk trio that preceded a set by Acid Dad. The pairing was enough to pique our interest, and while Acid Dad found a way to make psych punk sound generic, Baby Acid’s only official CMJ show was worth the trip to East Williamsburg’s Our Wicked Lady.

Morningsiders at the Knitting Factory, Brooklyn © Matthew Ismael Ruiz
Morningsiders at the Knitting Factory, Brooklyn © Matthew Ismael Ruiz

We saw Morningsiders play an early set at the Knitting Factory to a sparsely populated venue; after a few songs, they decided that the PA was too loud for such a quiet room, jumped down off the stage, and finished the set acoustically, to the delight of everyone in attendance. It was a touching moment; they’re a band that realizes their strength lies in the intimacy of their performances. The room at the Knitting Factory was outsized — the music feels more suited to a house party at a loft on N 5th St. & Bedford Avenue.

Piers also played to a too-large room, but their set was at The Wick, opening The Wild Honey Pie’s Beehive on Friday afternoon. Ricci Swift powered through, leading his band through the set despite the low turnout, and it was fun to watch Opal Hoyt play her keytar, if only because we can’t remember the last time we actually saw one in person. But the champion of the randoms was definitely Montreal’s Sigh Down One, who brought their brand of shoegazing fuzz to Muchmore’s on Friday. The three-piece sounded great in the bar’s tiny performance space, and even though we had to wait a bit in an empty room for them to finish drinking at the bar, when they did play, they brought it — the drummer played with such intensity it only took him one song to break a stick.

THE HYPE BEAST

Car Seat Headrest's Will Toledo at Rough Trade, Brooklyn © Matthew Ismael Ruiz
Car Seat Headrest’s Will Toledo at Rough Trade, Brooklyn © Matthew Ismael Ruiz

Even in such progressive times as 2015, there’s still at least one band at every CMJ that achieves a critical mass of hype, with lots of attention around each of their several shows. This year’s model is Will Toledo’s Car Seat Headrest, a 23-year-old Bandcamp bard with more than 10 albums under his belt, and a freshly inked contract with Matador Records. As the story goes, Matador head Chris Lombardi flew out West to see Toledo play in some Seattle dive, signing him on the spot. The group’s name is derived from the minivan his parents owned, one to which he would retreat to write songs. His set at Rough Trade on Friday night was his sixth of the week, and he was apparently under the influence of a bad burrito or some other digestive issue — he angled the mic towards the floor and played the first half of his set lying down. It still sounded good, and he was apparently going hard enough on the ground that he broke a string, limiting the set list to songs that could convincingly be played with only five. We’re not sure that’s enough with which to judge the young man, but his Matador debut, Teens of Style, is fun, and his lyrics are clever. It’s likely not the last we’ll be hearing form him.

MISSED CONNECTIONS

Despite the solid 15 hours of sets we caught last week, there was enough great music we missed to give us an intense case of FOMO. Kamasi Washington played Le Poisson Rouge, and even shared the stage with his dad. Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard debuted her new project Thunderbitch at the Knitting Factory on Friday at the ATO Records showcase. We hear there was a motorcycle, whiteface, and a whole lot of shredding. Jay Electronica emerged from hibernation to bless the stage at Santos Party House on Tuesday night. And we kinda wish we had seen Hockey Dad, if only for the absurd name.

But to be honest, when it came to hip-hop at CMJ, we totally blew it. College radio has long been fertile grounds for white people with guitars, but there were still hip-hop acts at CMJ, and we missed all of them. We certainly did some exploring, but the ratio of hip-hop to guitar music was so out of whack that we never even stumbled upon any. We’ll be reading up on CMJ’s list of “Top Hip-Hop Acts To See” as penance, but finding different kinds of music shouldn’t require such careful planning. Maybe next year, it won’t be so hard.