What The Strokes, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and "Indie Sleaze" Meant To Small-Town Bands: A Review Of 'Meet Me In The Bathroom'

The Strokes

Watching "Meet Me In The Bathroom" was like looking through a window into my high school years. 

I've never been to NYC. Always wanted to, but of course money, life, and bad decisions kept me from going. What would it have been like to be twenty-something, playing in an up-and-coming rock and roll band in Brooklyn or Williamsburg at any time from 1999-2002?

For myself, and a million other kids at the turn of the century, it was a pipe dream. NYC was a far-off distant utopia, a city that never sleeps, bustling with artists, musicians, poets, hipsters...the centerpiece of America's rock and roll mythos. When you're a 16-year old dreamer, in a small town in the middle of nowhere, the kinds of people you read about in magazines who lived and breathed New York, and most importantly created there, were like demigods. In many ways, they still are, twenty years later. 

When I first heard the Strokes, it was the music video for 'Last Nite' and a bomb went off in my head. I was a teenager just learning guitar, barely learning how to string together a tune, and here were five guys in their twenties, embodying exactly what I wanted to become and do with my life, up there doing it for real on TV. The guitar solo to 'Last Nite' was the first guitar solo I ever learned on my cheap Squire Strat. 

Suddenly, I was saved from all of the contemporary music my schoolmates liked that I loathed. I couldn't get into pop punk, emo, metal, adult alternative, grunge, post-grunge...and being bombarded with those bands on American radio and MTV was excruciatingly mind-numbing. None of it was cool to me. It was all hokey, goofball shit. I didn't want the American small-town high school experience. I wanted to smoke cigarettes in 70s and 80s clothes I bought from the thrift store and talk about the Beat poets on Manhattan rooftops. I still do. 

The Strokes gave me a window into a world where I could do that, or at least replicate it. I did my damndest, and of course that led to me starting my band, Gorky. The reason why Gorky is 'Gorky' and not 'The Gork' or 'The Gorks' or something is because, inspired by the Strokes, I wanted to do my own thing, and everyone at that time who was cool was a 'The' band ripping off the Strokes. The press even called them '"the" bands' like having the word "the" at the beginning of your band name was a fad.   

The Strokes' music video for "Bad Decisions" is funny for that reason, because it pokes fun at the many, many bands over the past twenty years who've tried to emanate the same vibe and aesthetic the Strokes did when they first came out. "Strokes Clones," for lack of a better term. I'm guilty of copying the Strokes myself. In some ways, my favorite songs of Gorky's are just Strokes songs they never wrote.

So, watching "Meet Me In The Bathroom," seeing the Strokes being the Strokes in NYC at the turn of the century, seeing the actual footage of everything I was daydreaming about them doing when I read about it in Rolling Stone or the NME meant looking lovingly into my own past, and it is incredibly validating with regards to what my 16-year old self was trying to do.   

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs were the flip-side of the Strokes. The only people who knew who Karen O was in my town were all in my band, and she was a towering goddess to us. Her voice was so powerful, so sexy, that listening to that first record of theirs, Fever To Tell, was like having an inner pornographic experience. Mind-blowing to a 16 year old small town kid, but as a man in his thirties watching this documentary I was disturbed by how the press objectified and sexualized her. When I was in high school, I wanted her to beat me up. Now, I want to beat up all the people who did that shit to her. Life is weird.

Karen O

I never got into Interpol quite as much as I guess I could have, but watching them have similar struggles to Gorky was also validating. In one scene, they were booked at a rap metal festival, which of course they hated. In my mind, I thought "yep, been there!" because in the 2000's we'd get booked with the same kinds of bands, so we really struggled to find our audience. We'd be there playing music like the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to people who had no frame of reference to our scene, so we'd get compared to bands like Three Doors Down or Smash Mouth (gross). It is a terrible feeling to go out on stage and then come off of it feeling misunderstood and misrepresented. 

LCD Soundsystem was never on my radar either, but it was refreshing to see James Murphy, a guy who was then my age now, being in and of the scene making something new, which is what real artists always strive to do. You can't stop. You gotta keep doing it, and not even because you may or may not make it, but because it still means something whether or not you do. 

This kind of music and scene is referred to affectionately as "Indie Sleaze" now, which is both great and accurate. The coolest part about it for me, looking back on its evolution, is the realization that I was on my own wave, doing my own thing artistically with Gorky very much by the time the 2010's came around.

We formed at the same time as The 1975 and the Arctic Monkeys, who also thrived on the high that these NYC bands had made. I couldn't connect to Vampire Weekend, the Vaccines, or other bands that came out after we started rolling with our songs because we had what they were doing already. Did people notice? No, of course not, because Gorky are from rural Arizona and Vampire Weekend are from NYC.

And does that matter? Also no, because we got to be that NYC band to the kids here in our small town anyway, and we've been able to make our own path of success without piggybacking on anyone's scene or style. If we couldn't do it there, if we couldn't be there, we had to do it here. We just had to. So that's what we did. Us, and our small group of hipster friends. Instead of smoking and joking on Manhattan rooftops, we did it in the woods and at each other's houses. Instead of playing CBGB's or the Bowery, we played the local gyms and dive bars. I imagine it is the same situation for a thousand other bands in a thousand other small towns.  

Like I said before: it's validating, and for myself, as both a viewer, a fan, and as an artist, that's what makes "Meet Me In The Bathroom" so special. 

Thank you, Dylan and Will, for making this documentary.     

Thank you, Lizzy, for writing your book

And above all, thank you, Julian and Karen, for giving me a window out of my world so that I could daydream a way into yours.

Maybe one day I'll make it to NYC. 


20 years later, looking back at the silly cool kids we used to be, and still are...

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