The Strokes, Karen O, Interpol: What happened to noughties indie rock?

It was July 2001 and I was sitting in a van with The Strokes, driving through Sydney. We’d just done an interview in a Surry Hills pub, accompanied by a flotilla of beers. And although they were yet to release an album, you could already sense that this gang of drop-dead cool New Yorkers was going to be something big.

As we cruised along King Street in Newtown on the way to their Sydney show – where they were supporting You Am I – I pointed out Fish Records, as the entire window was taken up with a display for their upcoming debut album, Is This It. They laughed and high-fived and hugged each other, genuinely excited by the sight. In my memory, a couple of them kissed.

Julian Casablancas of The Strokes performing at the Hordern Pavilion in 2006.Credit:Domino Postiglione

Within a year or two, it seems that sense of camaraderie, naivety and enthusiasm had drained away, replaced with the familiar cocktail of outside pressures, internal tensions, tour fatigue, and the onset of booze and drug habits, traps that befall so many bands who become popular so quickly.

And that story is my little personal window on the story arc followed by the new documentary, Meet Me In The Bathroom, based on Lizzy Goodman’s 2017 book of the same name. The book was an oral history that did for the New York rock revival of the 2000s what Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me did for the New York punk scene of the ’70s.

For Goodman, who moved to the city in 1999, when she was 19, the revelation that she needed to document that era came in a flash 12 years ago.

“It was one week in 2011 when The Strokes played Madison Square Garden and the following night LCD Soundsystem played there, in what we thought would be their last ever show,” she says. “As someone who had participated in that scene and wrote about it, it seemed crazy they would be playing a venue where people see Madonna or big basketball games.

“I looked at that as a journalist and felt like it was a line in the sand, a demarcation between one era and another. I also wanted to understand what happened back then to me and my friends and this micro-generation between the very defined cultural groups of Gen X and Millennials.”

Singer Karen O from New York punk band the Yeah Yeah Yeahs at the Metro Theatre in 2002.Credit:Domino Postiglione

When directors Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace approached her about adapting the book into a documentary, she knew they would be a good fit, not only because they’d made Shut Up And Play The Hits, a 2012 film about the final days of New York’s LCD Soundsystem, but because they were English and had some distance from the source material.

Indeed, the film, which Goodman executive produced, ditches many of the tired tropes that beset so many music documentaries. None of the major players are filmed today as fortysomethings, there are no talking heads giving us their opinions, and the documentary is bookended by readings from Walt Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass (“Give me the streets of Manhattan”) and includes a montage of the scene’s young glory years, soundtracked by Frank Sinatra’s When I Was 17.

The extensive use of archival footage allows the viewer to fully inhabit the times, from the dynamic Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ frontwoman Karen O as a young aspiring songwriter playing acoustic guitar at an open mic night, to Interpol singer Paul Banks wandering the ash-covered streets of downtown Manhattan on September 11, 2001, in a daze.

Daniel Kessler on guitar, Sam Fogarino on drums and Paul Banks on vocals and guitar, from Interpol, playing at The Enmore Theatre in 2005.Credit:Domino Postiglione

In fact, the film zeroes in on 9/11 as a galvanising moment for the scene and the people within it. Many musicians moved from Manhattan to Williamsburg and other parts of Brooklyn in the wake of that day and committed themselves to their art.

“Everyone has that emotional pinballing mass of emotions that happens in their early twenties,” says Goodman. “And although that’s universal, not everyone goes through it at a historical moment where one century is ending and another is beginning. And then of course, if you lived in New York, there’s 9/11 as well.”

What comes through painfully clearly as we follow key characters such as Karen O, Paul Banks and The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas, is that these were shy, awkward, insecure misfits who had burning ambition and a desire to connect with other people through music. But when adulation and fame came, they were ill-equipped to deal with it.

Casablancas only felt in control of the narrative when he was writing songs; Banks still felt like he was outside the club even as his band started becoming successful.

But perhaps the most powerful story, and the one Goodman relates to the most, is that of Karen O. As the most visible woman in the scene, she experienced misogyny and sexism, and combined with her profound shyness, she channelled her frustrations and anger into her manic performances every night, injuring herself on a regular basis. I witnessed the climax of this when the band played in Sydney in 2003. After only a few songs, she spun right over the lip of the stage, landed on her head and – after getting back up and somehow managing to perform another song – was carted off to hospital with concussion.

Author Lizzy Goodman. Credit:Getty Images

“I knew all of these people to some degree or another, and they all had insecurities mixed with talent and unrelenting drive,” says Goodman. “I never felt like I could be Madonna, but I felt like I could be these people. That didn’t mean I wanted to be a rockstar, but seeing Karen onstage made me feel like things I wanted to do in my life were possible. Watching her made me feel brave, it made me feel motivated, it made me feel inspired. It lit me up.”

Of course, we know the ending to this story. After all, both music and New York are in a constant state of flux. Just as this music scene rose and fell, New York morphed radically over the Noughties. Williamsburg, where so many of those musicians moved for cheap rent, was still largely a post-industrial wasteland of semi-abandoned buildings in the late-’90s. Within a decade it became hyper-gentrified and is now one of New York’s most salubrious neighbourhoods.

Towards the beginning of the film, Kimya Dawson, of anti-folk duo Moldy Peaches, talks about 1999, and how she felt she was two decades too late for New York, that nothing was happening musically and nothing ever would again. Of course, it turned out she was on the cusp of a golden era.

But the question has to be asked: Was this New York’s last gasp at creating a vibrant and far-reaching rock scene, or will something rise again in the future?

“One of the most consistent things about New York is that question being asked about every scene that it creates,” says Goodman. “The technological changes in music, in creative industries and in the way we consume media are massive. Everything’s different now. The book and the film document the end of an analogue existence.

“But the idea of moving to a city and finding people who give you permission to become a version of yourself that you can’t access on your own? That’s profound and evergreen and eternal, and I’m confident New York will always be a place for reinvention. That’s never going to die. Betting on New York not coming back is a losing bet.”

Meet Me In The Bathroom opens in cinemas on March 16.

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