“Without 40 ounces of social skills, I’m just an ass in the crack of humanity,” sang the big woman with the blond Afro. “I’m just a huge manatee. A huge manatee.” Kimya Dawson, 28, a black nose and whiskers painted on her face, her bloomers sagging over platform high-tops, was killing the crowd at Bowery Ballroom on a recent Thursday with her band, the Moldy Peaches. Next to her was fellow Westchester native Adam Green, a scrawny 19-year-old in a homemade felt Peter Pan outfit, who was strumming along to the song, titled “Nothing Came Out,” a tribute to shy, self-doubting heavy girls.
It was an hour before the night’s hot-pants-wearing headliner, Peaches, was due to go on to rap about sex. But it was clear that a good portion of the hipsters and music geeks gathered around the stage were there to see the goofy kids in the costumes, because they had been shouting for the manatee song all night, clapping every time Ms. Dawson sang, “And besides, you’re probably holding hands / With some skinny, pretty girl that likes to talk about bands.” When they switched gears to their catchiest song, “Who’s Got the Crack,” almost everyone started grinning and sing-ing along: “I like it when my hair is poufy / I like it when you slip me a roofie / … Who-ooo-oooooo’s got the crack?”
While it hasn’t yet produced enough bands to fill a compilation CD, the downtown New York music scene is having something of a renaissance. The Strokes are the darlings of the scene, having spent the summer conquering the U.K., but there has also been considerable interest in groups like Clem Snide, the Walkmen and A.R.E. Weapons. The Moldy Peaches are the least sexy and sellable of the lot. They wear costumes inspired by their favorite video games. They aren’t very good singers. They have lyrics about turds. But they remain favorites of local artists, venue bookers and music lovers in the know, who find their sheer goofiness and honesty refreshing. Last year, they opened for Cibo Matto, Girls Against Boys and Matthew Sweet, and they’ve opened for the Strokes in England and Japan. This fall, they’ll tour the U.S. with the Strokes, stunning the poseurs in the audience with loose, semi-acoustic songs about cartoons, sailing and Little Bunny Foo Foo.
“They are not sort of amateur, lo-fi indie,” said Geoff Travis, the founder and president of Rough Trade, an English independent label that once signed the Smiths and the Violent Femmes, and has recently signed both the Strokes and the Moldy Peaches. “If Lou Reed was writing these songs at this age, he would be absolutely jealous. This is really serious, world-class songwriting … and the performance is so unusual, and it is so naked emotionally. It is very, very brave.”
On a rainy Friday two weeks after the Bowery Ballroom show, Ms. Dawson and Mr. Green were sitting at a corner table at one of their hangouts, the Sidewalk Cafe on Avenue A and Sixth Street. They had just finished a photo shoot for Paper magazine and were both eating omelets.
Mr. Green, dressed in a red shirt, brown corduroys and a shell necklace, was talking about a recent shoot they did for Gear, which ended in his defecating in front of the photographer. The photographer had wanted to shoot the band doing something “ironic,” like sitting on toilets. “I just had to squeeze a turd out,” said Mr. Green. “And it occurred to me at that moment that somebody was taking a picture of me shitting and, like, wanting to publish it.”
Ms. Dawson, dressed in a ratty gray T-shirt, baggy shorts and platform sneakers, was not impressed. “I think that people freak out a lot about stuff that is natural.”
“Me and Kimya are both really into breaking taboos that we think are stupid, and keeping taboos we think are bad,” said Mr. Green. “We’re both pretty moralistic.”
“I can stand in front of a group of people and pee my pants and go home and take a shower, and it is not a big deal, but I also try really hard not to be a mean person,” said Ms. Dawson, her massive puff of hair making her look like a particularly nice clown.
Taboos and niceness drive their work. Some of the lyrics on their eponymous debut album, due out on Sept. 11, is gross-out for gross-out’s sake–which has something to do with the fact that some of the songs were recorded six years ago, when a 14-year-old Mr. Green was given a four-track recorder for his birthday. (He and Ms. Dawson met when he was working at Pizza Pizzazz in Mt. Kisco and she was working at the record store down the street.) On “Downloading Porn With Davo,” they sing in their deadpan style: “Sleepin’ in a van between A & B / Suckin’ dick for Ecstasy / Paid a 70-year-old hooker to make out with me.” Et cetera. But on the preceding song, Ms. Dawson sings in her flat, husky voice, “All I want to do is ride bikes with you / And stay up late and maybe spoon,” offering an original alternative to that other Peaches.
This is the kind of music that New York needs right now, septuagenarian hookers and all. There’s nothing really cool about the Moldy Peaches. If you put this music on at a party, it might lower your hipness quotient. It’s catchy and funny and the recorder solos are a nice touch, but the beat can get messy and you definitely can’t dance to it. The songs are honest, but honest about things most people don’t want to admit to. (“I smell myself to make sure I’m still there,” Mr. Green sings on “Goodbye Song.” “I don’t want to talk when my thoughts are true.”) In the end, the Moldy Peaches sound like what they are: two kind of shy, kind of weird kids fucking around with a four-track. The beautiful people can turn their ears elsewhere–as they did when the Moldy Peaches opened for Matthew Sweet in March. Matt Hickey, who booked them for the slot, recalled: “That went terribly. Half the room was for them, half the room was confused and the other half wanted to throw things at them.”
‘We’re Really Real’
“I think we sing the way people think,” said Ms. Dawson. “We don’t censor ourselves, and the songs are just like this real youthful innocence clashing with dirty fantasy.” (On “Steak for Chicken,” Mr. Green sings, “Who mistook the steak for chicken?” To which Ms. Dawson responds, “Who’m I gonna stick my dick in?”)
“I think a lot of people really like the music because it is imaginative,” said Mr. Green. “I think that they like going on a little head trip. I think that most songwriters don’t really do that to you unless they spend their time writing really clever lyrics. And unfortunately–but maybe fortunately for us, but unfortunately for the rest of the world right now–there just isn’t that many people that go up onstage and do that for you.”
When talking about their social set in New York–a group of singer-songwriters who hang out at the Sidewalk Cafe in the East Village on Monday nights for the “anti-folk” open-mike night that launched Beck over a decade ago–Ms. Dawson raved about how supportive the scene is, with its cozy “chamomile campfire” chats, while Mr. Green noted that it isn’t the epicenter of hipness. “A lot of people feel like it isn’t James Dean enough,” he said. “Like because it isn’t mean, it isn’t cool.”
Standing apart from the hip crowd seems to come a little more naturally to Ms. Dawson than Mr. Green. On “D.2. Boyfriend,” a hyper song about a lonely middle-school girl who doesn’t have a boyfriend in Duran Duran, she sings, “If you are a kid and no one will play with you / Stick it out, stay tough and you’ll turn out super-cool.”
When not flying around the world with the Strokes (“We’re really big into hugging and so are they,” said Ms. Dawson), Mr. Green, who dropped out of film school after one semester, lives in a parent-subsidized apartment on West 58th Street and occasionally sells T-shirts at the Bowery Ballroom for $50 a night. Ms. Dawson lives in Bedford Hills with her parents, who run a day-care center out of their house (which explains her collection of costumes). “I love living in a place where I wake up at 7 o’clock in the morning and there are 12 little kids in my house who want to play,” said Ms. Dawson. “Yesterday, for 30 bucks, I drove this 8-year-old to his play-therapy group out in Croton, and he had, like, an amazing imagination: He and I would make up stories and songs in the car and stuff.”
Which is basically how the Moldy Peaches were formed. “I wanted to go see shows when I was 13, and I was too young to go to the city by myself,” said Mr. Green. “And Kimya was the only person in town who was interested in the same kind of music. The first show we saw was the Make Up and Dub Narcotic [Sound System]. So Kimya kind of started off more like baby-sitting me, and when she was baby-sitting me we would come up with ideas for songs and jingles that we would sing to each other …. There was a middle period when we wrote ‘Steak for Chicken,’ ‘Who’s Got the Crack,’ ‘Lazy Confessions’ and ‘Lucky Charms …. “
And that’s the Moldy Peaches: two kids who vacillate between sweetness and crudeness, singing songs more for each other than for anyone else. Their fan base relates to both sides of the band. “Of course, we get people who are like, ‘Yeah dude, sucking dick! Woo-hoo!'” said Ms. Dawson. “And then we also get a lot of people who have been really isolated in their lives and left out. A lot of people really relate to being a misfit. I think we’re really real.”
“I think people really connect with the sheer emotional honesty of it,” said Mr. Travis. “The fact that they are talking about stuff that doesn’t get talked about, and they do it in such a good way. And the musicianship–it looks pretty artless but it’s actually not, in a way that people do a painting that sometimes looks just like a few squiggles, but they can really paint if they want to.”