Thu, Dec 17, 2009
By Miranda Lin
The first time I went to the Market Hotel was in October. I was looking for a band. I didn’t know which band, only that it had to be a one from Brooklyn that people were talking about, that was on the verge of stardom and that somehow captured the underground indie spirit people associated with Brooklyn.
I found a lot of bands – Oneida, Mt. Eerie, North Highlands, to name a few – and while they each had a very different sound, what they all had in common was that they were playing at the Market Hotel. I Googled and Yelped and discovered that the Hotel was not a hotel but a concert venue. It sounded like some secret hideout because the first comments on every site were invariably about how difficult it was to find, followed by directions: look for the Mr. Kiwi bodega, look for the green awning, look for the little piece of paper on the door.
And so I went. I took the JMZ train to Myrtle-Broadway station. After going the wrong direction twice, I eventually found the crumpled up sign taped to the door that marked the entrance to the Market Hotel. The door was locked. There was a cosmic yoga event scheduled for that evening, arranged, I’d later learn, by one of the five people who live at the Market. But he’d forgotten to open the door.
A few nights later, I came back and this time there was a hooded man slumped by the door who I assumed to be homeless but whom I quickly learned was the bouncer. His chief responsibility was to limit the loitering and the drinking but not to keep people away.
I pulled open the metal door, walked in and slammed head first into a wall of sound. Fuzzy guitars, frenetic drumming and shrieking synthesizers filled the dark stairwell. As I clanked up the iron steps, I could actually feel my eardrums tingle, my heart beginning to race.
When I made it to the top, I found myself in a brightly lit room with high ceilings and mirrored walls. Two smiling young women were standing over a cashbox and shouted out to me over the blaring music, “Hey there, it’s seven bucks for the show tonight.” After I handed her some cash and flashed my ID, she took a green Sharpie marker to my hand: one stripe to show I’d paid, another to prove I could drink, legally.
There were a few band t-shirts strung up on the wall and a group of teenaged kids in tight denim and mixed plaid smoking in a circle. I headed straight past them and towards the adjoining room where the music was coming from. It was a triangle-shaped space, with the stage, bar and benches each occupying a corner and about 30 people idling around the middle. In the back, a psychedelic three-piece band was bobbing around on the stage, which itself looked like nothing more than a few sheets of plywood and a floral bed sheet as backdrop.
In between acts I sat on a shabby antique couch that looked like it had just been picked off the curb and chatted with a guy named Ted. Ted told me how he was taking the year off before going to college, liked wearing “vintage not thrift” and had been introduced to the Market over the summertime by some friends of friends. “I just like to come and chill,” he said, slowly drawing out each vowel.
The next band, a trio called Prince Rama of Ayodhya, began to play. Ted shot-gunned the rest of his Pabst Blue Ribbon and raced to the front of the crowd. The lead singer, an elfin girl with a thick tangle of brown curls wrapped up in a braided headband, alternated between dancing barefoot on the floor, wailing on the mic and pounding on her guitar and synth. Midway through the set, the singer and her bandmates pulled out a bag of homemade noisemakers and began handing them out to the audience. Painted tin cans filled with rice. Feathered tambourines. Makeshift maracas. I felt like I was back at Camp. But without prompting, we all took up our instruments and began to play. Loose wires were hanging from the ceiling. The air was suffocating from the sweat and smoke. The music was so loud you could feel it against your skin. But neither Ted nor I nor anyone else in the room seemed to mind. We swayed along together and rattled our cans.
At this point it became clear that, in addition to not being a market or a hotel, the Market Hotel was not a conventional music club either. It was more like a rabbit hole into a different world. It was opened roughly three years ago by legendary concert promoter Todd P and members of the Brooklyn-based punk band The So So Glos who were frustrated by the lack of opportunities and recognition given to up-and-coming local bands. They bought a cheap loft space in Bushwick rumored to have once been a Dominican speakeasy (and where scenes from the movie Ghost were supposedly shot), outfitted it with a sound system and began inviting over friends.
Since then, it has hosted the likes of the Dirty Projectors, Japanther, Javelin, Teengirl Fantasy and Real Estate. Never heard of any of these bands? That’s somewhat the point. The Market Hotel is part of a tight-knit community of artists, promoters and fans that together form what has become known as Brooklyn’s “Do-It-Yourself” scene. The concept involves stripping down music and concerts to their bare essentials. Venues are often improvised and/or derelict and/or illegal. Audiences usually find out about shows through word-of-mouth. The music is raw and sincere, but even some of the biggest names in the DIY scene can only be described as well-known unknowns. In the words of Matt Mondanile, lead guitarist for the band Real Estate, “It’s just about having a place to drink, hang out and listen to good music.”
Lately there has been plenty of attention on the good music coming out of Brooklyn. New York Magazine ran a cover proclaiming the borough to be “America’s music capital.” Home-grown bands like Grizzly Bear, MGMT and TV On the Radio have all scored mainstream radio hits in the past year. But when you ask Ric Leichtung what he thinks of these local bands hitting it big, there is a moment of confused silence. “Oh yeah,” he suddenly replies. “I didn’t know who you were talking about for a second.”
Leichtung moved from San Francisco four years ago to study music technology at NYU’s Steinhardt School. While perfecting his scruffy college boy look – think black-framed glasses, beat-up Converse sneakers, lots of band t-shirts and a permanent five o’clock shadow – Leichtung also found himself getting sucked into the DIY scene. He started out interning for Todd P, but now lives and works at the Market Hotel along with four friends and a revolving door of artists who rent out storage and rehearsal space for $394 a month. Though the Warhol’s Factory aura of the Market is creatively appealing, Leichtung confesses, “Trying to go to bed before 4 a.m. around here can be a problem.”
In addition to sharing living quarters, all of the Market’s tenants split management and concert booking duties. And rather than looking for the biggest stars they can find, Leichtung and his housemates have kept their ears to the ground trying to find young experimental artists who can’t find a stage anywhere else. “We decided at the beginning,” said Leichtung, “that we were going to help bring out potential rather than have bands who’d already made it.”
The Market hosts anywhere from two to four shows a week and every member of the house takes a curatorial role in deciding which artists play each night. The line-ups are famously eclectic. After doors open at 8 p.m., a new band and different sound hit the stage every hour. It’s not uncommon to hear shoegazing electronica, thrashing black metal and up-tempo surf pop all on the same bill. “We don’t really look for any sound in particular,” Leichtung said. “We just try to foster talent that we’re enthusiastic about.”
And winning the Market’s support can be a huge boon for aspiring young bands. “If you think about it, what we did with the Vivian Girls was a dumb move,” said Leichtung, referring to the all-girl trio that won their place in the indie soundscape practically by sheer will on the part of the Market’s promoters. “When they first started, we didn’t know how they were going to perform, we didn’t know if anyone was going to like them, but we took a chance. We kept putting them on the bill until other people got it, too.” Since then, the Vivian Girls have been signed by In the Red record label and released two studio albums, both to strong reviews by Pitchfork.com, an online music site that has become the de facto arbiter of indie cool.
While Leichtung recognizes the risk of pushing a band that might never catch on, he also sees it as a responsibility. “A lot of DIYs are flaky. They book a band and then don’t do anything about it. But we use our Facebook page, we have a Twitter account (we don’t use it, but we have it), we have a production assistant, we have a sound system, we pay the bands properly – which are all good things,” he said, clutching at the air to emphasize each word. “We work hard to make sure people have a chance in the DIY scene.”
At the end of their set, the members of Prince Rama began cleaning up their own gear, gathering back their noisemakers and putting on their shoes. A few people in the crowd stayed to chat with the band and offer a word of praise. Others headed to the bar or returned to the couches in the back. Once their equipment was packed and pushed to the side, the next band took to the stage and Prince Rama – now known just as Michael, Taraka and Mimai – joined the rest of the audience. They danced and shimmied and stomped their feet just as their fans had done for them a few moments earlier.