Building a band outside the cloud

new-york-city-aerial-5By Jason Orlovich, from Lappland Zine II

It was about time David Byrne made the case against New York City. “Middle-class people can barely afford to live here anymore,” he wrote in an op-ed reprinted by the Guardian last year.”So forget about emerging artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers, journalists and small business people. Bit by bit, the resources that keep the city vibrant are being eliminated.”

I’d argue the longtime home I shared with Byrne hasn’t been the place to be for a while now. The Dutch port was founded (and remains) a hub of unprecedented potential for reinvention and global appeal; it’s also a stifling mess for anyone inspired by the memoirs and myths that bought them. In fact, the most telling line from a journeyman like Byrne was probably the one introducing the whole treatise: “I’m writing this from Venice, Italy.”

In other words: If the epicenter is collapsing find a new one.

I can definitely relate. I’m one in a growing number of American ex-pats—touring musicians making it work by living illegally, or at least under the radar, outside the country and barely beneath an industry complex scaling in unprecedented ways. Who knew I’d stumble into a local scene having its own international moment? I’ll be on tour in Europe this fall and recording in Los Angeles this winter. I still get my mail in New York. It’s never simple bar talk.

I made that choice years ago and haven’t looked back. I’m also not alone: Stephen Malkmus, Matthew Friedberger, Alex Zhang Hungtai (Dirty Beaches), Dylan Baldi (Cloud Nothings) and Holly Herndon are all living proof that time outside the bubble can be a rewarding, obligatory, and these days maybe even necessary step in the artistic process. And those are just some of the names you might recognize.

“People always asked why?” Angus Andrew of Liars explained to me when asked about the band’s storied time in Berlin. “Why not? we said.”

The trio, now based in Los Angeles, decamped from New Jersey in 2003, after turning its back on the New York-centric dance-punk craze it arguably helped spawn. “I never had a visa to live in Germany,” he admits. “Once in a while I’d get stopped at the airport, but I’d just say I was visiting friends. Basically I’d be going in and out of the country so often (every one or two months) that it was never clear to the authorities that I was actually living there.”

European immigration since 9/11 is simple—U.S. citizens can travel up to 90 days under a tourist visa—though you do hear stories, of course. Someone followed a girlfriend into the Schengen Zone and was denied re-entry. Some club kid got deported while taking a piss without his passport. But I’ve done enough research to know that research doesn’t matter. The only truth says laws change from border to border, agent to agent. Finding the cracks or simply not caring for the consequences takes moxie and sacrifice, but so does living in New York, dealing with, say, a single-party state, crappy commutes, and just about everything else.

“It was also an interesting time to move to Europe in general,” Andrew says, recalling how the European Union was expanding in the mid-aughts to include ten more countries in the East. The band finally left Germany by the time sessions for Sisterworld started in 2009. “We wanted to tour there and Berlin was positioned so centrally that we were able to just jump in a van and play in a place like Poland or the Czech Republic whenever we pleased.”

Sometimes that U.S. passport isn’t quite the most welcoming turnstile, though. Shanghai promoter Daniel Zimmerman followed a girl to China around the time Liars were landing stateside. The Bay Area impresario never left, eventually meeting his business partner, Jack Chen, who says he’s still half-convinced his American friend got on the wrong plane.

The 33-year old Zimmerman left San Francisco in 2008 where he was building underground communities around pirate radio and its publishing offshoots from apartments in the Western Addition and Mission Districts, where we both lived at the time. Despite the initial blackout (Facebook, Youtube and Twitter were all banned), the California native managed to bring acts like Thee Oh Sees, How to Dress Well, Wye Oak, Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Night Jewel, Tim Sweeney, and Moon Duo to his small club 390 Shanghai in the last year alone.

“The biggest adversary to Chinese DIY growth has nothing to do with government,” the ex-pat tells me, surprisingly. “It’s literally the land rush of Red Bull and KFC to corner the youth market.”

Zimmerman spins a great story about finding himself in the Chinese countryside on a tip, negotiating with a recycling factory for crates of discarded Paula Abdul and K-rec vinyl to stock his first venture. Uptown Records opened in 2010 and remains one of only four shops on the mainland specializing in Western vinyl and Chinese indie. Since deciding to stay he’s built one of the only vinyl outlets in a country over two billion, helped publish over twenty records of independent music, and stays involved with the emerging LGBT rights scene. (Chen owns the longest running gay club in Shanghai.)

“People here go to work Monday through Friday, sometimes Saturday. After that they try to carve out a little piece of individuality on their spare time,” he says.

It’s also what gave Liars one of the most tactile sonic narratives over the last decade. “[L]iving in Berlin [felt] dream-like, surreal,” Andrew remembers. “We were isolated in the middle of a metropolis. You’d ride the U-Bahn surrounded by chattering voices but those sounds just washed over you, ineffectual. We floated in a bubble impervious to unwanted details, imagery or ideas. No newspapers, TV or magazines. If you needed information you could seek it out but nothing was thrust into your train of thought, grappling for your attention. It made focusing on our work and music easy and all-consuming.”

“No one here is aware they are the next America or world super power,” Zimmerman says of Shanghai today. “But I can’t help but be thankful to be on the ground floor of a scene that they can only write for themselves.”

Andrew said as much looking back at the former GDR: “It was an incredibly inspiring and productive time.” I also remember touring when Berlin was still a strange outpost in the East. Definitely not the Continental Williamsburg a generation knows today. To Liars, the move was obvious if untenable. For me, the touring and travel and displacement and long-winded explanations remain fundamental to just about everything I do.

Our shared reality is far less nostalgic than it probably sounds, yet undoubtedly inspired by the fact that social media obliterates what it means to be – and create — anywhere. Our physical environment, however, the code and syntax of that fluffy thing called inspiration, remains a transient, fluid tool for musicians to mine. I just wish someone told me sooner. Be your own epicenter.

Stepping outside Big American Media, the industry bubble, the outer boroughs, for that experiential freedom is partly Byrne’s fear, partly the message, and mostly an ironic proposition for just about anyone to consider. So, in the the words of my hometown’s favorite Talking Head: I’m writing this from Copenhagen, Denmark.

From Lappland Zine #2, write to lapplandblog(a) for a copy

Jason Orlovich is currently playing in Total Heels.


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