Spring 2003 Contents OAM Home Oberlin Online Home
Feature Stories
Money Matters
Family Tree, Oberlin roots
Operation Internship
[cover story] Fury and the Sound
David Rees Gets His (Bleep) On
Around Tappan Square
Alumni Profiles
The Last Word
One More Thing
Inside Oberlin
Staff Box

Fury and the Sound
Obies Rock the NYC Music Scene

by Sara Marcus '99
Photos by Brad De Cecco '98



Have you heard about the article in a major British music magazine that refers to Oberlin as "art-rock university?"

Or about the New York film festival director who met an Oberlin grad in a nightclub? Upon learning of his alma mater, the director laughed, "Oh, so you're part of the faction that's taking over this city!"

In the rock music world, New York City's star is ascendant, churning out "Next Big Thing" bands at a rate unheard of since the city's last big rock moment in the early '80s. And within the New York scene, Oberlin musicians are highly overrepresented.

Is Oberlin College to rock stars as Yale is to politicians? People have long pointed to singer Liz Phair '89 as proof of this proposition. More intent scene watchers add minor legends Sooyoung Park '89 of the indie band Seam and John McEntire '91, who found fame in Chicago post-rock outfits Tortoise and The Sea and Cake, to their lists of alums who have made good. By mid-1999, enough Obies were doing time in reputable indie projects that the national rock magazine Alternative Press ran a full-page article celebrating some of the College's musical alums.

The current explosion in New York City rock music leaves all of that in the dust. Five years ago, Obies occupied spots in bands that were just footnotes and sidebars in mainstream music publications; this year, Oberlin bands are headline material worldwide. They're performing on network television, airing videos on MTV, and landing major-label record deals.

There are so many successful bands, in fact, that we limited the purview of this piece to New York-based bands with at least two Yeomembers. Otherwise this article would be as long as a Manhattan phone book and would include the "where are they now" on ex-bandmates Dave Lerner '98 and Andy Comer '97. (Lerner plays bass full time for Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, a highly acclaimed indie group that's toured incessantly for the past year and a half, appeared on the Conan O'Brien show, and released two of the best albums of the past two years. Comer's fast-rising, post-punk-meets-new wave trio, Prosaics, is about to tour Europe a scant eight months after its debut show.)

A longer article would also give Chicago-based Jason Molina '97 his proper due as the visionary songwriter at the front of indie-twang project "Songs: Ohia," and would tip a hat to Jennie Benson '96, who heads up the bluegrass-rock crossover Jim & Jennie & the Pinetops. Spring 2003 21 first sensed this overabundance of Obie rockers in the summer of 2001, when I moved to New York to be a rock critic. Brian Chase '00, an old friend and drum teacher, was the first acquaintance to contact me in my new capacity as a freelancer for Time Out New York.

"I've got two projects going on that I want you to know about," he said. One was the Seconds, a continuation of a band that had its beginnings on East College Street. The other project, Chase said, was called the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. "Do you remember Karen from Oberlin?"

Sure, I remembered Karen. I'd seen her whisper her way through a set of fragile songs in the Keep Cottage lounge one night years ago.

"She's the singer. She does this crazy performance-y thing--you'll have to see it to understand. Come check us out in Brooklyn next Friday. We're just starting out, but there's already a lot of interest."

"A lot of interest" was an understatement. Over the next year, it seemed like I couldn't open a magazine without seeing the YYYs mentioned. The New Yorker ran a whimsical line drawing of the band. The New York Times took notice whenever any member made an appearance at a nightclub.

But they weren't the only ones making waves. Suddenly I was receiving several e-mails a week about concerts featuring Oberlin people. Friends who'd gone to Harvard and Yale started speaking enviously of the "Oberlin rock mafia."

The city certainly seemed to be a hotbed of Oberlin folks making good, but I didn't trust my own judgment. Surely, I thought, this is just the myopic pride of a music fanatic whose love for her alma mater had the grateful, amplified devotion of a twice-married divorcee with a honey of a second spouse.

Then, in September 2002, New York magazine ran an effusive cover story on the town's musical renaissance, and I knew I wasn't just imagining things. Titled "New Rock City," the article bore an eerie resemblance to my college yearbook. More than a half-dozen alumni-peopled projects were featured and namechecked in the piece. This was clearly a story that needed to be told.

Is there really an Oberlin rock mafia in New York City? Do we, in fact, constitute a "faction taking over the city?" If so, how on earth did this happen?


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