Capturing the Vibe

'Meet Me in the Bathroom' and the feeling of indie New York

Nicholas Russell

I’ve been thinking about early aughts New York lately, more than I usually am anyway, and mostly because of a documentary I watched this past Sundance called Meet Me in the Bathroom. The film is an adaptation of Lizzie Goodman’s account of the New York music scene from 2001 to 2011 as told by the people who made it. In refreshing, mesmerizing fashion, the whole documentary is built from archival footage of the time and audio from interviews — no talking heads and sometimes no title markers telling you who’s talking. It’s a little like watching a collective memory: a memory of the time before Napster and file sharing, before Brooklyn got fully gentrified, when people moved to the city because it was still cheap.

Before seeing the movie, I’d been thinking of early aughts New York because I’d been reading Meet Me in the Bathroom — a staple of my downtime as a bookseller, one of the handful of titles I’ve never bought but flip through consistently whenever I get the chance. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Strokes, Interpol, LCD Soundsystem, Franz Ferdinand, Moldy Peaches, the Walkmen, Jonathan Fire*Eater are all avatars of a certain mood, a time and place in history, sure, but also a big part of my life.

Which means that, before watching or reading Meet Me in the Bathroom, I’d been thinking about early aughts New York because both projects are really about indie rock, the genre I built my personality around for the better part of high school. I’ve been wanting to write about why so much of that music still matters to me, why it’s funny to see some of those bands come back around into the cultural consciousness as relevant or “actually still good,” when they never really left any of the conversations I tend to have. Then, last week, everyone started talking about “vibe shifts” and the comeback of “indie sleaze.”

Most of that conversation was incomprehensible to me, especially because so much of it was dominated by people who lay claim to notions of what it meant to really understand trends, or fashion, or New York, or cultural moments predicted like a witch scrying bones. The focus seemed to be mostly on social currency and what was en vogue, on the aesthetic elements that make up a scene, or someone’s personal style, or an industry’s demographic bread-and-butter depending on what the kids on TikTok are talking about. That’s how it seemed to me, anyway. Ostensibly, being 25, I’m (near) the target audience for developing fads and what’s “in.” Still, I can’t pretend that I’m all that interested in this kind of thing. It’s a little like that part in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World where a guy asks why the villain is dressed like a pirate (he’s not, but he looks like it) and then Scott asks if the villain is a pirate and the villain gets angry, saying, “Pirates are in this year?!” What does interest me is the shrewdness of how people talked about culture and the way it moves, and the slightly obsessive, or at least playfully frenzied, way people were talking about keeping up with the times and how COVID messed up everyone’s understanding of what was cool.

In The Cut’s viral piece that kicked off this whole thing, writer Allison P. Davis talks to a guy named Sean Monahan, who does something called “trend forecasting.” His seasoned eyes made him privy to this assessment of where we are, post-quarantine: “I feel like the trajectory of the 2010s has been exhausted in a lot of ways. The culture-war topic no longer seems quite as interesting to people. Social media isn’t a place where you can be as creative anymore; all the angles are figured out.” Not exactly a revelatory observation. But his word counts for a lot apparently, largely because of his prediction that indie sleaze would be making a comeback:“American Apparel, flash photography at parties, and messy hair and messy makeup.”

What was strange to me was that, in the midst of all this, the big talking heads weren’t really mentioning the music from that era. Sure, they name-checked Bloc Party and Arcade Fire like some sort of hipster legend on a cultural map, but I got the sense that all this stuff was considered passé, in poor taste, a little cringe. Who still listens to those guys? Maybe I’m being sensitive because Interpol is still one of my favorite bands and a lot of these groups are touring again and coming out with new music that’s either still awesome or just okay and for some of them, it is genuinely a little depressing to watch. Mostly, I don’t understand how you can have indie sleaze without the requisite circumstances, which are so perfectly detailed by Meet Me in the Bathroom.

The Strokes were a bunch of prep school kids running around New York causing all sorts of trouble while listening to Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs were art kids led by a singer-songwriter who could have easily gone the anti-folk route, but ended up putting together an unwieldy, loud, shredding rock band. Hell, even James Murphy from LCD Soundsystem had to open his mind and trip a little bit before realizing his overzealous producing tactics for the Rapture and David Holmes at DFA Records, amidst all the partying and drugs and Manhattan glitz, was probably better channeled into his own intricate little project. 9/11 happens and everyone’s trying to figure out where music fits. You’ve got the last dregs of record company excess trying to court a bunch of sweaty, stinky nobodies into producing a new rock trend because Kurt Cobain’s been dead for the last five years and Eminem and Limp Bizkit are on the cover of Spin. The flash photography and the messy hair and the American Apparel seem like the least interesting parts of what was happening then.

I don’t remember being conscious of vibe shifts big or small back when I lived in New York, mostly because I was either broke, depressed, late for class, in band practice, working, or some combination of all of those things, which, to be fair, is its own very New York kind of vibe. Still, people were wearing leather jackets and Converse and smoking cigarettes and telling me to listen to the Velvet Underground and complaining about how much good music used to be made in the city, which, according to the musicians and producers and comedians interviewed in Meet Me in the Bathroom, were all hallmarks of pre-indie New York too. In Vegas, I see the ’90s around me more than I see 2002, its fashions and music and “vibe,” whatever that could mean for longer than a day or two. But I was never a fashion forward person, so, fairness and all, this conversation doesn’t really apply to people like me.

So, the glib questions wondering if people really still listen to the Klaxons or care all that much about the Kills anymore felt a little uninspired. If we’re talking about sleaze as a way of describing people not caring about fitting within a certain view of style or what’s cool, sure. There’s nothing indie about that though. Jake Denton at Vice wrote a smug “investigation” of the vibe shift that set my teeth on edge, but he came to a decent conclusion. “So, does any kind of indie revival exist outside the internet? I’ve stalked Camden Market for the spirit of Johnny Borrell, dug through indie pop records at Rough Trade East, even danced myself clean at an iconic indie club night — but I’m still not convinced.” I asked my high school best friend who lives in New York if he’d heard about it. His girlfriend is a model so I figured maybe he’d be privy to some of the talk on the street. He had no idea what I was talking about then asked if I was seeing Interpol for their upcoming tour.

Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.