Trans-Decade Express

NYC Rocks Down to Electro Avenue

The crowd at Kitsch Inn, a weekly party held every Friday at True, looks like it's in various stages of an '80s time warp. Perfectly coiffed goth boys donning velvet jackets, frilly white shirts, and gobs of eyeliner mingle with rocker boys wearing muscle tees and the ubiquitous mullet. A girl with blue shadow smeared on her lids and bright blond hair framing her face like wings pouts her glossy lips and gives air kisses to her friends. Later, she will be onstage as part of W.I.T., a girl group concocted by New York nightlife's man of the moment, Larry Tee.

DJ Adam spins New Order's "Blue Monday," before Soviet—the most eagerly awaited band of the evening—take the stage. The local act, which sounds as if Depeche Mode mated with the Psychedelic Furs and hatched A Flock of Seagulls, already has an impressive following: A woman introduces them saying, "I see Saturday Night Live in the future," and the audience sings along to Keith Ruggiero's smooth, fey vocals.

Exactly two decades after Arthur Baker and Afrika Bambaataa teamed up and stole the riff off Kraftwerk's "Trans-Europe Express," an electro revival is hitting New York's club scene, spawning a new wave of DJs, producers, and bands. Since "Planet Rock" put Bambaataa on the map, electro has indelibly stamped modern dance music, from Detroit techno to ghetto tech to Timbaland's popping beats. Electro's hallmarks—a harsh, synthetic backbeat, detached vocals ground through a vocoder, lyrics about cyborgs—came to embody the musical future. "I knew it was going to be a record to bust some butt," Bambaataa told this reporter a few years ago. "But I'm amazed at how long it has lasted."

Soviet at Kitsch Inn.
Photos by Cary Conover and Shulamit
Soviet at Kitsch Inn.


Goth Banshees

New York's nu electro's been bubbling for several years now, mostly at underground, decidedly nerdy parties like Static (hosted by Satamile, né Andrew Price) or at DJ Ulysses's (a/k/a Elliot Taub) Regressive Technologies series, which has featured Detroit artists like Adult and Ectomorph, as well as I-F, the man who arguably triggered the new wave revival in 1998 with the club hit "Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass."

Local producers John Selway and DJ Silver let their electro freak flag fly when no one else cared. Selway started Serotonin Records with Jason Szostek in 1995, playing darker tracks at clubs around the city; his new label, Memory Boy, is dedicated to electro's kookier side. Silver, who moved to New York from Italy in the early '80s, has a new project with singer Sunny Suits called Nude, but first hit the electro-new wave button on the head in 1999 when he covered the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)."

The latest crop of artists—the Hungry Wives, A.R.E. Weapons, Soviet—and the music featured on comps like Disco Nouveau look back to the future for inspiration. But there is much fretting that the resurgence is just a rehash.

"The original electro meant people pushing technology and really innovating with the few tools they had," says techno producer Morgan Geist, whose house outfit, Metro Area, has also been lumped into this revival. "Whereas today it's people with easy, advanced, and cheap technology cashing in on what in retrospect sounds like '80s simplicity and naïveté. They think it was all Atari and robots, when in fact the early stuff was people like Arthur Baker pushing limits in what were then some high-tech studios."


Drag Queen Brandon

"We don't do lyrics that refer to computers or robots," says Warren Fischer of performance art duo Fischerspooner. "That's just too fucking easy." Selway agrees: "I don't want to get too bogged down in the retro."

"It's almost like a modernist revival looking at the beginning of dance music again, seeing what can be done differently, which I think is a perfectly legitimate thing," says Elliot Taub. "And there are some who are looking at it more as cool, quirky, and fashionable, because a lot of them are too young to remember what it was like the first time. I am old enough to remember when having feathered hair was embarrassing."

People are tired of bland, faceless music, spun by bland, faceless DJs in bland, faceless clubs, and Larry Tee has capitalized on this displeasure with not one but three electro parties at Club Luxx in Williamsburg. "Electro is dance music for people that are sick of house, trance, drum'n'bass—all the abused formats," says Tee. An old-school New York promoter and DJ, Tee crawled out from the abyss of the Disco 2000/Michael Alig era, gave up narcotics and alcohol, then rediscovered his old collection of Italo-disco and electro-funk. Before his current incarnation, he was most famous for producing RuPaul's "Supermodel."


Larry Tee

The festival Tee produced with Gigolo Records' DJ Hell last fall, Electroclash, brought together disparate artists—porn-techno by Peaches, karaoke punk by Chicks on Speed, Fischerspooner's weird theatrics—under one roof, and spawned a CD of the same name. Tee claims he doesn't spin electro; he calls it "electroclash," a tag most purists scoff at. But at his club nights—Mutants, Berliniansburg, and NYFC (as in New York Fucking City)—the indie rock kids dancing to Le Tigre aren't familiar with most techno subgenres, let alone "Planet Rock." "Most of the kids have never heard of Nitzer Ebb," says Tee. "They're lucky if they know Kraftwerk. The majority of the kids don't know anything about the sound, they just like it." Like the narrator in the Hungry Wives' hilarious "It's Over" says: "2step garage? Never heard of it."

"Larry Tee is the P.T. Barnum of New York," says Fischer. "He manufactured something out of thin air."

"Honestly," says Fischerspooner's Casey Spooner, "I am thankful. There was nowhere to go out three years ago. Now it's so crowded, you don't want to go there!"

Chronically boring Top 40 America could also use a jolt of these body-rocking beats. The city's electro revival could easily spark a long, national wave of white ankle boots, asymmetrical haircuts, and synthesizers. "From beginning to burnout, we have a good four more years," predicts Tee. "We haven't hit mainstream America yet."

Electro isn't alienating or alien like techno or drum'n'bass. It's sexy and radio-friendly and could be ripe for a crossover hit. "I think the biggest single reason why electro is getting big now is that people with guitars are starting to accept synthesizers again and people with synthesizers are starting to accept melodies, vocals, and pop arrangement," says Selway. "Before, generally if you mixed vocals with techno it turned into something commercial. It was considered cheesy to have anything more than a few vocals."

"The new generation has nothing to do with raves and techno," agrees Silver. "They are more open in a way because they come from rock and roll."


W.I.T. at Kitsch Inn

Apparently, the bidding wars have already begun. Fischerspooner have signed to Ministry of Sound, reportedly for $2 million (they were mum on the price). And Soviet and W.I.T. are being trailed by a&r reps.

"It's very reminiscent of grunge and Nirvana," says Fischer. "All those multi-album deals happened in the middle of that hype. It's very similar."

And it doesn't hurt that some of these groups have attractive members, like Soviet's lead singer Keith Ruggiero and the girls of W.I.T., a trio dolled up in short skirts, nipple-baring blazers, fishnets, and gravity-defying stilettos, coolly lip-synching over DAT recordings that snap and crackle. "The stars of the genre, you can look at them and think, 'Yeah, I want to fuck them.' They all have really distinct identities," says Tee.

"The clothes, the makeup, the whole thing. It's a little youth movement," says Silver. Suddenly, he says, "everyone's looking to New York for the first time in a long time."


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