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Meet Me In The Bathroom: The NYC '00s indie rock explosion could never happen again

On March 10, Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace, the filmmakers behind Blur documentary No Distance Left To Run and LCD Soundsystem concert film Shut Up And Play The Hits, release Meet Me In The Bathroom, a new documentary detailing the early ‘00s NYC indie rock scene. Headliner sat down with them to discuss one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most vibrant eras…

Set to the tumultuous social and cultural backdrop of the 9/11 atrocities, as well as the arrival of the internet and a file sharing phenomenon that would transform the music industry overnight, Meet Me In The Bathroom charts the origins of both the early ‘00s NYC indie rock scene as a whole, and the individual stories of those at its core.

Inspired by Lizzie Goodman’s book of the same name, which details the rise and fall of the movement over a 10-year period, the film focuses squarely on its formative years. Through extensive interviews with and archive footage of the likes of The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, LCD Soundsystem, The Rapture, Moldy Peaches, and many more, Southern and Lovelace’s film depicts the explosive events of the time from multiple perspectives. It also explores the artists’ personal experiences of the era, the highs and lows that punctuated it, and how they came out the other side.

Here, they open up on why they needed to tell this story, its most compelling characters, and the likelihood of anything similar ever happening again…

You can listen to the interview in full here or read on below.

How did you become involved in the project and how did you set about making sense of the extensive source material?

Dylan: It is quite a heavy tome so it was an interesting challenge, but in terms of how we first came across it, there was a serendipitous thing in that when Lizzie had the idea to write the book she was at the last LCD Soundsystem gig, which we were making the film of. Cut to 10 years later and we had a copy of the book, and we weren’t sure we were even going to do another music documentary at that point. There were other stories we were interested in telling, but we read it and it was such a rich time… and it’s scary that 20 years had passed. It felt like a good moment to reappraise that period in musical history. And it felt unlikely that anything like that could happen again, with how much the world has changed in the intervening years. From that perspective, it’s a time capsule for something that isn’t that long ago but the world has changed so much since then.

As for the process, it was long! The book covers a 10-year period which we knew we couldn’t put into a 90-minute film, and we knew we couldn’t be as forensic as the book. We couldn’t tell the stories beginning to end for every single one of these bands, so we thought we’d do the origins story. That’s probably the most exciting section of the book as well, that sense of people coming to the city and there being this sea change and a need for something to happen in the culture. And the fact it all happened while the whole world was looking at New York was fascinating to us.

What are your personal memories and experiences from that time? Were you fans of what was happening there?

Will: Dylan and I were both in Liverpool at that time filming bands. I remember very well all of this music coming into our consciousness. Dylan would often bring some of this music into the place we were working at, and it all suddenly felt very exciting. I can’t remember too much what was happening before that, but I remember hearing a lot of these bands, they were dominating the music press and it felt like this was a good story for us to tell in that respect.

Dylan: It also felt like it was happening in England. The success of all these bands involved England first. England was the first country to give The Strokes a record deal, they all toured over here, it was like there was this scene happening in New York but it was a rite of passage to come to England. Britpop had died its death and the music press in England loves a music scene to get behind. I remember going to New York in 2002 and I had a particular fondness for the anti-folk scene, the Moldy Peaches, the more DIY side of things.

It was the end of one thing and the beginning of another - culturally, technologically, everything. Dylan Southern

While sifting through the footage, did you pick up any sense of the scene being romanticised or mythologised with hindsight? 

Dylan: Yes and no. It wasn’t like the bands were all hanging out together, but it was definitely an exciting time to be young in New York. There was a degree of mythology, but that was something we wanted to explore, the notion of how individual lives become part of a city’s cultural mythology. So yes, I think there was a scene and it was exciting, but it wasn’t experienced as holistically as the British press made out. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t something vital happening. I like the fact there were lots of mini scenes happening. There was the Brooklyn art school vibe, then East Village rock'n'roll, the anti-folk scene, DFA making forays into dance music. It was the end of one thing and the beginning of another, culturally, technologically, everything.

Will: One thing that comes across in the footage is that it feels like a different time. No one has mobile phones and people aren’t being filmed all the time, so it feels a bit freer. Social media didn’t exists, so the energy feels different.

Dylan: Despite the drugs and the partying, it still feels more innocent in some ways. It feels like it was the last time that could happen.

You make a point of framing the scene culturally and socially. Can you contextualise the era for those who may not have been around at the time?

Will: In the film, lots of the characters talk about this sense of there being a void in the music they were into. Individually they were all searching for something different. That allowed these bands to make the music they made, they weren’t following whatever had come before. There was perhaps a lack of interesting stuff happening in this area of music.

Dylan: There was stuff happening in hip-hop and dance music and other genres, but for the characters in the film, they weren’t finding what they were looking for musically. There was that nu-metal, rap-rock, incredibly corny thing happening… that was the guitar music of the time, and there was a vacuum waiting to be filled. The music they were making obviously had its roots in New York music of the past, but it was new enough that it broke through.

But then James Murphy and DFA is really interesting, and there is a British infusion there with David Holmes and Tim Goldsworthy crossing paths with a drummer in a punk band turned engineer, and that kicked off a whole other thing. There was a feeling that the best part of this scene happened very quickly, and then there was all the usual cliches of bands falling out and excesses and all of that.

We looked at the film as a coming of age story for each of the bands, and some of them really fit into that genre. The idea of Karen O as quite a shy girl coming to a new city and transforming and almost having this split personality, and how long you can sustain being that wild. We looked for story arcs that fitted into that time and place and were also quite universal.

No one has phones, no one is being filmed. It felt freer. Will Lovelace

James Murphy’s story almost flies in opposition to the other characters, in that he is older than a lot of those breaking through and is almost at the point of giving up on music. Yet he takes off in a huge way with LCD Soundsystem after the initial buzz around the rest of the scene has peaked. What were your observations of his place in this story, and how did it feel to document the birth of LCD Soundsystem having so comprehensively documented [what we thought was] its farewell with Shut Up And Play The Hits?

Will: James’s story was happening at the same time but is very different for sure. He was trying to figure out what he was going to do and that’s what we really liked. There are two stories running alongside each other.

Dylan: There is an almost accidental nature to it. The Strokes arrive as this fully formed band and that’s all they have in their sights; Karen has this urge to perform; Interpol are workmanlike; and James just gets there through a series of failures in one thing or coming up in opposition against others. He creates in opposition to people. When David Holmes comes on the scene, he’s like, ‘this guy doesn’t know how to play instruments, I can do what he does’. We really liked his story as a story, because as hard as he is to work with for some people and single-minded as he can be, he is almost the underdog of the story. He is 10-15 years older than some of the other people in the story, and then suddenly he’s the last man standing when you look at popularity now.

In terms of revisiting LCD and doing the origins story, that was one thing at the beginning we were worried about, as we didn’t want to be treading the same ground. But Shut Up And Play The Hits is a concert film, and it’s a single moment. It’s not telling a protracted story of the band, other than James’s decision to end it. We saw it as a midlife crisis in reverse. Most people hit 40 and decide to start a band, he hit 40 and decided to end his. There was something psychologically interesting in that. But his story is one of the strongest parts of this film. And James recognised the changes in technology and the changes in how people consume music very early.

How do Interpol slot into the story for you? They are clearly a staple of the scene but they also feel somewhat at odds with the more obvious rock’n’roll aesthetic of Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Strokes, and the influences feel more British than NYC

Will: In a different way they were the underdogs of the guitar scene. They had a clear vision of what they wanted to do, and while everyone else was exploding they were a year or two behind but just carried on and did it.

Dylan: Very tortoise and the hare. They really worked at being a band, crafting the songs and doing the steps you had to do at that point. They just hit differently. The sound and aesthetic was completely different. And England also played an integral part in their development, in terms of the press getting behind them and putting them in with that scene. When you have journalists putting their name alongside The Strokes and the others, then they almost become a de facto part of the scene despite being so different.

Are you surprised at how many of the bands featured are still going strong 20 years later?

Will: Having got to know their characters a bit I’m not surprised. They are all creative forces and have all reinvented themselves as they’ve gone along. Usually, a scene finishes and that’s it, but I think it’s exciting that they are still making stuff.

Do you have any personal favourite records from that time?

Dylan: The first Strokes album still stands up. It’s probably one of the greatest debut albums ever.

Will: The first Yeah Yeah Yeahs album as well. It’s still an amazing record. They all are really. Going back to listen to all of that music again and hearing live versions we hadn’t heard before was really exciting.

Any thoughts on what your next project might be?

Dylan: If we do another music documentary it would have to take a different form. With the Blur documentary, that was a traditional story of a band, although we interweaved it with the story of their reunion and Graham and Damon becoming friends again. Shut Up And Play The Hits was a concert film, so if we did a another one we’d have to reinvent the form of it. And it would have to be the right story. We’re looking at other things for now, but never say never.