On a sweaty afternoon in mid-September, three days into the new school year, 16-year-old Oliver Ignatius and 15-year-old Josh Barocas were holding court in the St. Ann’s School’s well-worn student center, surrounded by a gaggle of friends with adventurous-sounding names like Zeke and Milo. They were sprawled about in languid, teenagery lumps, their worn jeans and T-shirts blending into the ragged sofas and general dimness of the room since no one had bothered to turn on the light. On one graffiti’d wall, a clock sketched in fat black marker was permanently set to the stoner’s witching hour of 4:20.
In fact, it was shortly after 5:00 p.m., and most of the other students of Brooklyn’s premier artsy-angsty prep school had already departed for their afternoon regimen of sports, tutors or African dance lessons. On most other days, Josh and Oliver would probably have been long gone, too. But instead they’d agreed to chat with a reporter about their much-hyped rock band, Hysterics, since, as they explained, they had recently decided that maybe “exposure” wasn’t such a bad thing.
“Well, first of all, if you do an article, you should just like remember there’s no ‘the’ in our name,” said the band’s hyperkinetic lead singer and songwriter, Oliver, speed-speaking through a pair of chipped front teeth. “We just made that big conscious decision that our name is ‘Hysterics’ and not ‘the Hysterics,’ because there was this big stream of bands which were like ‘The Strokes’ and whatever, and we just decided we had no interest being a part of that shit. So we’re Hysterics.”
Josh gave his guitar a strum (he was holding a guitar, of course) and then, looking momentarily perplexed, added: “Yeah—how’d it happen again?”
“Charlie saw it on a shirt and decided it was our name,” Oliver said, referring to the band’s lead guitarist, Charlie Klarsfeld, who was away at his boarding school in Vermont; Geoff Turbeville, the band’s drummer, was busy in Manhattan. “[Before that,] we also had a few others [names] we’d been thinking of … like the Clap. We thought that was funny. And we were the Noise for like a month. But we were never the Funk. We’re not funky enough,” he concluded, unleashing a round of laughs from the assembled crowd.
Laydees and gents, boys and, oh yes, girls, girls, girls: This is Hysterics (or, at least, two-fourths of Hysterics), a Brooklyn-born, St. Ann’s–bred group of rockers-in-training who have been crooning their way to the hearts and iPods of young New York alternateens.
The bandmates are just teenagers, a quartet of skinny sophomores and juniors who are still too young to vote or to drink in the New York nightclubs where they play most of their concerts. But in just 18 months, they have already gone further and gotten luckier than many older bands (whose members have facial hair and driver’s licenses) get in several years. They have landed a feature story on MTV, attracted a small but avid harem of Internet groupies and even caught the hungry, roving eyes of major-league record labels like Sony and Epic. Now they’re entering the giddy final phase of recording their first CD—a compilation of songs with titles like “Radical Chic,” “Potato Famine” and “Uptight Staircase—which they plan to finish within the next two months.
“Obviously, for their age, they’re extraordinary,” said Ron Shapiro, a talent manager and former president of Atlantic Records who began advising the band informally after his son, a 13-year-old Horace Mann student, introduced him to their music. “Of course, there’s development to be done. But what Oliver is writing, and how they play as a unit and how Charlie plays onstage—there’s a lot of future for this band.”
Together, the four Hysterics are a precocious posse, simmering with a barely pent-up musical obsession and a combined 30 or so years of instrument-twanging between them. Oliver alone began plinking on the piano at age 5, taught himself guitar at 8, and has been scratching out Lester Bangs–inspired music reviews on Amazon.com since he was 12. (“Brothers and sisters, there’s a new sound rattling the streets of our beloved city. It’s the sound of punk-funk revolution, returning the indie crowd to the glory days of John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd. and Nick Cave’s The Birthday Party,” he proclaimed in a review of the band Liars’ debut album.)
But the story of Hysterics, with its heady highs and early successes, is not just about the dazzle of young talent. That’s certainly part of it. But it is also about time and place, era and access—or, more precisely, about growing up in New York’s fast sophisti-kid culture during the do-it-yourself era of iTunes and music blogs. After all, at what other time would a group of baby-faced boys have been able to record demo-tracks in their bedrooms, throw them onto the Internet and then coast their way to MTV on a sea of viral buzz—all before giving their first concert? And in what other city would these same boys have grown up not only, say, knowing who Jann Wenner is, but also taking lessons from his kid’s guitar teacher?
Certainly only here, in the professional urban theme park of New York, would their parents have the kind of hip, plugged-in careers that read like a kid’s own dream-job wish list: fashion photographer (Charlie’s mom, Pamela Hanson), downtown poet (Geoff’s mom, Vicki Hudspith) and globe-trotting foreign correspondents (Oliver’s parents, Adi Ignatius and Dorinda Elliott, who now hold top editorial posts at Time magazine).
“The thing about being in New York is, these children have the exposure,” said Hysterics manager Jeff Peretz, who also triples as the band’s producer, father-figure and all-around booster. “They’re connected to this whole thing …. It’s not like shooting in the dark in a garage, hoping that somebody finds them.”
Heck, none of the four band-sters even have a garage—they practice in Geoff’s parents’ TriBeCa bedroom. Which in no way minimizes the young Hysterics’ own ample, self-inflicted talents, of course. But it does help explain how the whiskerless quartet wound up on their present heady, promising, treacherous and still very uncertain trajectory towards—well, no one quite knows what.
“You know, if they hold it together and they don’t crash and burn, they could be the biggest thing that we’ve seen in a while,” said Mr. Peretz. “That is, if they hold it together. They’re only 15.”
And indeed, for all their hyper-advanced accomplishments, the four Hysterics are still rather teenish—reading Fielding, to be sure, but also impish, high on hormones and layered with enough emotional baby fat that the overall effect can be … vertiginous. One minute, for instance, they might be discussing Stanley Kubrick’s oeuvre, while the next they might be getting into a pizza-parlor brawl or pulling Dada-style pranks on Teen Vogue reporters. (Then again, who can really blame them for that?)
“We have a tendency to be kind of psychedelic,” Oliver explained.
At 16, Oliver is in many ways the front man of the Hysterics troupe, the wiry, blond music prodigy who digs Wilco and Madlib but worships at the shrine of Brian Wilson and the Beatles (earnest but true). In early 2004, he formed the band with Charlie, who is also 16 and holds down the multiple roles of lead guitarist, co-vocalist, sometime songwriter and resident pensive guy. A handsome kid with chunky glasses and a pseudo-mullet, Charlie began playing guitar when he was 11 and has already mastered such essential guitar-god tricks as the cannon-ball jump and the dying-ecstasy stance. (“Charlie is at least the most gifted unsigned teenage guitar player that I’ve seen,” said Mr. Shapiro after seeing him perform.)
The next to join the band was the mellow bassist Josh, who has hair as big as a Hanukkah bush and is “the future of the American bass guitar,” according to Oliver. He is best friends with Geoff, 15, the other half of the rhythm section. Longhaired and laconic, Geoff epitomizes the time-honored cliché of the silent drummer who speaks softly but plays loud.
“I think we complete each other,” said Oliver, referring to the motley foursome (and also, unexpectedly, channeling Tom Cruise). “And I think the fusion of the four of us is what makes us work.”
Or at least it does for now, when they’re still music-obsessed teenagers, still high on the newfound thrill of rocking out before a screaming audience.
On the last Saturday of September, Oliver stood on the stage of the nouveau-Bowery nightclub, Crash Mansion, shouting into the crackling bulb of a microphone. “Ready? One, two, three, four!” he yelled, unleashing a wave of sound as Charlie, Geoff and Josh struck into their instruments.
It was somewhere in the range of 8 p.m., and the bandmates were whirling about the stage, doing their best rock-star impressions: jumping, crouching, grinding with their instruments. They were playing a cheekily titled tune called “I Played Her Pet Sounds, She Showed Me Diff’rent Strokes,” which Oliver had written in simultaneous homage to his idol, Brian Wilson, and his girlfriend, Sofia. The song was a jaunty, jangled number, spiked with the necessary moody undercurrent, and as the band played, the girls wiggled and bounced in their ersatz-80’s ensembles (the entire audience was about 175 strong). Rumor had it that an executive from the indie label spinART might be coming to the show.
“Away from the city where the bee gets crowned,” Oliver sang rather cryptically in his ’60s-crooner voice, “Under the oak tree I can’t live without sound … ”
In Hysterics’ earnest-ironic lingo, this song is an A-side example of what might be called “neo-psychedelia made by boys”—the term the band came up with to describe its 60’s-influenced, harmony-laced sound. It’s the kind of sound that’s always been popular among the young-rocker crowd (what fledgling guitarist doesn’t want to be Jimi Hendrix?), but Hysterics have studied, analyzed and updated it with an almost Talmudic seriousness. “I mean, it’s hard for us to describe [our sound], because it’s constantly developing—but I guess we kind of twist ideas about rhythm and stuff, and sometimes we have these time signatures, but it all roots from pop,” said Charlie. “I’d say it’s like a psychedelic, twisted form of pop.”
Hysterics’ own brief, twisted and perhaps psychedelic tale begins during the spring of 2004, when Oliver and Charlie were mere scrubby freshmen, and Geoff and Josh were still slogging their way through eighth-grade anatomy classes. Charlie was new to St. Ann’s that year, Oliver was relatively new (he’d arrived in eighth grade), and the two had quickly bonded over a shared fondness for obscure rock bands and altered-state jam sessions. It was during one of these jam-fests, perhaps, that Oliver got “this hunch” that if he started a band with Charlie, “it would be like the greatest thing ever.”
“I wanted to be the Velvet Underground at that point, because I always listened to their stuff and thought it sounded so exciting,” recalled Oliver, vibrating with coiled energy. “And I just thought Charlie was somebody with whom I could do like really forward-thinking stuff.”
Of course, even the most forward-thinking rock band can only get so far without a rhythm section, and so the budding front men quickly began hunting for a bassist and drummer. They tried jamming with a red-headed kid from New Jersey for a time, but in the end they found what they were looking for closer to home, in their schoolmates, Josh and Geoff. When the foursome nailed a mean version of one of Oliver’s songs, “Uptight Staircase,” during their very first jam session, they knew they “clearly had something,” Oliver said.
“We were just so excited—we were like excited babies,” added Josh, cracking up at the image. “They were like jumping up with excitement, saying, ‘We’re going to be a good band! We just realized we can be a good band!’”
But, alas, this euphoria turned out to be short-lived (cue the VH1 Behind the Music soundtrack, please), because just as the fledgling band was getting its groove, two of its members were rather unceremoniously expelled from St. Ann’s: Geoff, for getting into fisticuffs with another student, and Charlie, for that age-old mischief, “intoxication on school premises.” Both students protested their expulsions—“they were looking to make an example of a kid,” said Charlie—but in the end, the iron hand of discipline won out over protest. When Charlie announced that he would be heading to the Putney boarding school in Vermont rather than a city school, the band considered throwing down their mics for good.
“We thought our band was finished,” said Josh, shaking his head.
Fortunately for their fans, however—for Lucy, Nickie and the dozens of other girls who regularly post love letters to Hysterics’ message board—the foursome decided not to call it quits. Oliver kept churning out songs, Charlie made it home for practice sessions, and in November 2004, the band had one of those magical mystery moments that all would-be rock stars dream of: They were discovered … by Oliver’s former science teacher.
Admittedly, this might not have been a thrilling turn of events at most other high schools, where teachers are “just” teachers and don’t go home to exciting hipster side-lives after a long day teaching the Krebs Cycle. But Oliver’s teacher, J.P. Connolly, also happens to co-edit a popular music blog called Music for Robots. And after stumbling across Oliver’s song “Mostly Untitled” on a mix-CD that he’d received from one of his students, he decided to post it to his blog. “I thought it was exceptional,” said Mr. Connolly of the Beatles-inflected love tune. “So I put it on the site and basically said, ‘Look, I don’t know what you guys were doing when you were 15, but I certainly wasn’t doing anything remotely similar to this.’”
Apparently the blog’s readers agreed, because they began churning out approving comments like “Wow! this is the shit…”
And then, several days later, MTV News came calling, anxious to feature the young band on a segment of You Hear It First. (Actually, MTV proposed featuring Oliver alone, but true to form, he said he had “no interest” in appearing without his bandmates, and “kicked and shoved” until MTV agreed. Later he described his mini-victory as a “cool precedent to your first dealing with the industry.”)
The You Hear It First episode aired on Jan. 21, 2005, giving the young rockers a potent jolt of exposure. Within days, a small fleet of Hysterics fans sprang up across the country, downloading the band’s music and declaring their devotion in amorous message-board posts. Then hungry A&R reps from Sony, Island, Epic and several smaller labels began sniffing around the band, curious to find out about the baby-faced foursome.
The early whirlwind of attention was simultaneously thrilling and dizzying, thrusting the band into the weird, exhilarating and scary position of having to weigh the merits of indie labels, the minuses of major labels and the dangers of being pigeonholed as a “teeny” band—all the while keeping up with their math homework. In an effort at oversight, the band’s parents began holding regular group caucuses, though Oliver insisted that “it’s pretty much understood they don’t have much of an effect at all.”
Thus far, none of the major labels have extended an offer, but the would-be rockers say they aren’t terribly disappointed, since it’s notoriously difficult for underaged bands to get signed (solo acts like the Brit-stress are one thing, groups of teens are another). And besides, they’re pretty sure they “don’t want to be in anybody’s control for a little while,” according to Josh. So instead, they have opted to keep plugging away on their album, The Book of Mice!, and to try to snag a distribution deal from an independent label—and if they don’t, well, they’ll just release it themselves. The goal, said Mr. Peretz, is to sell 30,000 copies and to keep building the buzz until they are old enough or big enough to call the shots.
Will the plan work? Certainly there have been untold scores of teen bands that have formed and died, unsung in their basements, without ever achieving the greatness they thought they were destined for. And how many teenage guys haven’t been in a band? But Hysterics believe they are different, have been told they are different, and perhaps because of alchemy, precocity, talent, access or the incalculable calculus of luck, they will be. That’s certainly their intent.
“I kind of just want to be a musician or like die in the attempt,” said Oliver as he sat in St. Ann’s student center, in the same building where the Beastie Boys’ Mike D took classes years ago. “That’s sort of like long been my plan.”