Checking In With 10 Buzz Bands From the Early 2000s Indie Rock Renaissance

by Zach Kelly
No matter what the context, the game of "Where Are They Now?" is a dangerous one to play. More often than not, people are looking to engage in the kind of cruel nostalgia that makes Dead or Alive? celebrity name games such a perennial favorite. But somewhere in between mean-spirited rubbernecking and doe-eyed sentimentality lives a genuine interest for people and things that went out of our lives too quickly -- or not quickly enough.

Ask music listeners of a certain age, and you'll no likely be directed back the early-to-mid-00s, a time when we seemed so confused by the idea of young people picking up guitars again and starting rock bands that we didn't know what to call it. So we called it everything: the new rock resurgence, the garage rock revival, the indie rock renaissance. There we offshoots like dance-punk, nu-rave and post post-punk, and our fascination with bullshit genre nicknaming persists to this day. It was exhausting, silly and terribly exciting. The era produced dozens upon dozens of bands off all different stripes, visionaries and posers and also-rans alike. Some died heroes, others lived long enough to see themselves become Kings of Leon. And while we all know what happened to the Strokes, Interpol, the Killers, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the White Stripes, so many others were forgotten, or slipped through the cracks, or went on to have surprisingly substantial careers. Featured here are 10 acts that you might not have crossed your mind very recently, but in their own little corners of the buzz-band boom of the new millennium were more noteworthy than time has given them credit for.


Art Brut
When Art Brut's debut was released in 2005, there was no shortage of guitar bands with Camel Light-throated dudes at the fore. But a shaggy haircut and a thrift store habit does not a great frontman make, and that lack of charisma was becoming increasingly felt. Enter Eddie Argos, who with his troupe of merry pranksters made a huge splash with Bang Bang Rock & Roll, a punk rock record as cheeky and virile as the band's leader himself. Despite Argos' plainspoken delivery, his magnetic presence was felt as much offstage as it was on (from begging the UK to let him represent them at the Eurovision song contest to having a Berlin university dedicate a lecture to his lyrics), and a decade later, that spark is still present. "We've always just sort of done what we wanted, with little or no thought towards our career," he says. "Not sure that's necessarily been a good thing, but it's definitely a defining feature of our band." Though Art Brut have only four proper albums to their name (plus the best-of compilation Top of the Pops), Argos has kept a pace that few of his peers can lay claim to. He's done stints in other bands (most notably Everybody Was in the French Resistance...Now!), written comic books ("superheroes and rhyming things" are Argos' "two greatest passions") and enjoyed a career as a painter. An art exhibition in Austin, a new comic and song work for films are all keeping him busy, as well as a fifth Art Brut album. "I'm really liking FIDLAR and Parquet Courts (or Parkay Quarts) at the moment. Those are the bands that are making me itch to get a new record out. I'm sure other people are hearing those records too and starting bands." When asked about Art Brut's role in the "new rock" resurgence, he's a little more ambivalent. "After being so many different things, being in any sort of scene just feels fabricated. Saying that, I suppose 'the indie renaissance' wasn't really a scene. We were just lucky to be starting out with our indie guitar band just as people were listening to indie guitar music again."


Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
When you name your band after the bike gang led by Marlon Brando in 1953's clinic-in-cool The Wild One, what you see is what you get: leather jackets, smokes, unruly 'dos. But San Francisco's Black Rebel Motorcycle Club did more than just look the part as their debut B.R.M.C. hit shelves in the US before the Strokes' galvanizing Is This It and the White Stripes' breakthrough White Blood Cells, putting them at the very front of the garage rock revival. But unlike a lot of their peers at the time, BRMC played to darker sensibilities, jocking the Jesus and Mary Chain a full two years before Sofia Coppola effectively brought them back to life. All shadows and depressive cool, B.R.M.C. is the kind of record that makes young people want to start a band, and it wasn't long before imitators both subpar (the Datsuns) and clownish (Jet, Louis XIV) followed in its wake. Unfortunately it meant that BRMC's legacy would remain somewhat unfairly tarnished, even though subsequent efforts, like their solid 2003 sophomore album, Take Them On, On Your Own, proved to be worthy of time and attention. Yet as with so many other rock revivalists of their stripe, BRMC fell prey to easy trappings of blooze-rawk (Howl) and abstract instrumentals (The Effects of 333). After their sixth studio release in 2013, the band are currently at work on a live album and accompanying DVD.


Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
There was a time, believe it or not, when Clap Your Hands Say Yeah were positioned to become indie rock's (umpteenth) last saving grace. Unlike a lot of the other bands lumped in with the early '00s rock resurgence, CYHSY had both the great benefit -- and later, the great misfortune -- of showing up at the tail end of it. By 2005, music blogs were popping up all over the web like so many Gremlins off the back of a wet Mogwai, which meant that, for a very short time, cream was rising to the top before too many smaller sites completely saturated the market and bigger names like Pitchfork and Stereogum became full-fledged institutions. CYHSY's jaunty, irreverent debut got a huge boost from sites big and small, whereas similar bands before them had to go about it the old fashion way to build a buzz (see: French Kicks, below). In what seemed like minutes, the Philadelphia five-piece went from self-releasing their own album to being the saviors of not just a genre, but of a whole new business strategy, with the likes of Byrne and Bowie watching from the wings. This likely didn't set well with Alec Ounsworth, the band's notoriously shy frontman, and when CYHSY began to show disinterest in being poster children for the blogosphere, the media all but abandoned them. "Online opinion is like a magnifying glass in sunlight: Whatever it admires too closely for too long is enlarged, then incinerated," wrote Pitchfork's Brian Howe. "There was truth in the emerging narrative, but it reflected longing more than reality; the band's story became the stuff of myth, and myths beg to be debunked." The band's subsequent output was slow but steady, but roundly dismissed by critics as not being strong as the debut. In 2014, they dropped their self-released fourth album, Only Run, to crickets.



French Kicks
From the start, it was unlikely that New York's French Kicks were ever destined to become the next big thing. Their rhythmic brand of indie rock was immediately likable and often compelling, and continued to be so over the course of four good-to-great albums. French Kicks' career more closely modeled that of other bands that didn't have the luxury of being swept up in a definitive scene. "We did a lot of... y'know, build the old fashioned way," vocalist and drummer Nick Stumpf explains on the phone from Los Angeles. "The first time we went out, we booked it all ourselves. We played to nobody. We used to talk about the ratio of hours driven to number of people watching. It was frequently 1:1." Though French Kicks never officially called it quits after 2008's Swimming, there aren't any current plans for new music. Stumpf has turned his focus to mixing and producing, working with the likes of New York's Caveman and Toronto upstarts Weaves. He also did work on the score for the art forgery documentary Art and Craft, which was shortlisted for an Academy Award. "I get to sort of bug out on my own, which I enjoy. And just play with sound in sort of a more solitary and home-based way, which I think is a different thing than being in a band," he says. "But it's not like a 'thank god I'm not doing that and I am doing this.' It's more like, 'that's great fun, and now let's try something else.'" Stumpf would be open to another French Kicks album if everything fell into place (the band are all still close with one another), but he's still happy with what his band was able to accomplish in their time together. "There's a lot of really interesting stuff, and to an extent, a kind of music that not that many people would know about -- not that many people would be exposed to or into -- is now... a lot more people do know about it. A band like Animal Collective or something, now a lot of people hear that music and like that music, and 15 years ago it would've been considered a relatively art house, fringe thing. So I'm proud to the point where if we contributed to any of that, I think that's cool."


Hot Hot Heat
In 2001, the garage rock revival was still going strong, but it didn't mean that things weren't heading in a different direction. With the world reeling from 9/11, a lot of the brashness and carefree cool was sucked out of the room, and a strong contingent of bands tried to hone in on those collective feelings of disbelief and grief that hung over the city. Though the songs had been written before the attacks, Interpol's debut album Turn On the Bright Lights is, for the post post-punk generation, the definitive snapshot of post-9/11 disquietude. But on the other end of the spectrum were young artists who saw the importance of re-establishing normalcy, which meant fun, which meant dancing, which meant drugs and friends and staying out all night. In New York, bands like !!! and The Rapture were already laying the groundwork for the wealth of dance-punk acts to follow, but it was Canada's Hot Hot Heat -- with their dancefloor-ready, pop-friendly first album Make Up the Breakdown in 2002 -- that made the biggest impression. Singles like "Bandages" and "Talk to Me, Dance With Me" wiggled their way onto modern rock radio playlists, and got the attention of major labels. That all lead to what should have been the band's mainstream breakthrough, Elevator, which was released on Sire in 2005. Despite a general lack of sharp, catchy songwriting that really made Breakdown pop, it managed to reach 34 on the Billboard 200. Six years to the day after the World Trade Center buildings fell, the band released their third album (and last on a major label) to very little fanfare, followed by a fourth on an indie in 2010. In 2013, Hot Hot Heat released the forgettable track "Mayor of the City," which may or may not have been inspired by Rob Ford.


Klaxons
In a weird way, "New Rave" actually kind of did happen, but not in the way that Klaxons probably ever envisioned it would. Though they brushed off the term and the NME practically drove it into the ground (they even went so far as to book the band to headline their "Indie Rave" tour), these three glowstick-toting, neon-friendly London kids helped predict trends that came to dominate musical youth culture, albeit a half-decade too soon. When their debut album Myths of the Near Future was released in 2007, the influence of dance music on indie rock wasn't anything new, but Klaxons seemed destined to take it to newer, weirder heights. Though much of Myths bears more of a resemblance to the great Madchester scene of the late 1980s and early 90s, it felt like a breath of fresh air, a welcome respite from the depressive, "angular" guitar music in fashion at the time. A so-so second album and last year's ignored Love Frequency pretty much killed the band's momentum, but Myths still holds up surprisingly well, despite the fact that 90% of today's molly-crushing, dayglo-drenched teens wouldn't give it a second pass.


Maxïmo Park
In the music world, "middle-of-the-road" is usually used in the pejorative sense, and often with good reason. But for a select number of bands that appeal to less challenging tastes, the resulting longevity and dedicated fan bases are far more important than a certain kind of critical prestige. For pop-centric British new wavers Maxïmo Park, crowd-leasing is an almost inborn value. "I think we've tried to evolve from album to album with some of the leaps in sound or style being more subtle than others," says frontman Paul Smith. "Since we all have the opportunity to make different kinds of music outside of the band, we've focused on retaining a pop core to our songwriting since that's one of the components that define us as a collective -- we all love a catchy melody and the opportunity to fill a song with hooks." This kind of attitude has kept Maxïmo Park afloat longer than many would have expected, with the band itself functioning as a comfy home base from which more varied musical exercises can spring from. At the end of last year, Smith released Frozen By Sight, a collaboration with Peter Brewis of Field Music based on Smith's travel diaries, while guitarist Duncan Lloyd has ventured out with a more ruminative solo EP titled Icelander. But it's Maxïmo Park's almost rigid consistency that has carried them -- their fourth album, 2012's The National Health, peaked at 13 on the UK Albums Chart. Their most recent effort, Too Much Information, was a more intimate excursion, and found the band trying new things, like linking up with Jessie Ware producer Dave Okumu. "Although we write pop songs, our music is unusual by mainstream standards so without a little leg-up our audience might never have had exposure to our records," says Smith. "By the same token, many people might not listen to our band now (who I think might like our music) because of the association with lots of dull, mediocre bands, so that's the downside." But the benefits seem to be outweighing the costs, as the band are planning to start writing a new album in their Newcastle studio as soon as possible.


Test Icicles
It's hard to believe that out of all the artists mentioned here, the greatest success story comes from the long-defunct UK trio Test Icicles. The band only recorded one album --  the grating, bratty For Screening Purposes Only -- which ranks as one of the most forgettable punk-funk entries of the era. But Test Icicles were young, and it showed. "I always remember interviews where they'd ask me and Sam [Mehran] what we were listening to and we would say Korn, and people would think we were joking, but we were 18 and I didn't understand what was funny," member Devonté Hynes told the Guardian in 2011. "They'd say, 'Of course, you were listening to Gang Of Four' and we'd be like, 'Who are Gang Of Four?'" Sam Mehran and Rory Atwell went onto form bands that you likely have never heard of, but Hynes --  who recorded more mellow, introspective music as Lightspeed Champion, and is now probably best known for his forward-thinking R&B project Blood Orange -- is now one of today's most sought-after songwriters and collaborators. From writing songs for the likes of Solange and Florence and the Machine, Hynes has gone on to work with everyone from Britney Spears to Sky Ferreira to Sampha to James Franco (he did the score for the actor/director's 2013 film Palo Alto). Blood Orange's excellent 2013 album Cupid Deluxe was heartily praised by critics, with Rolling Stone calling Hynes "a triple threat, a total original and a force to be reckoned  with."



The Vines
In a lot of ways, the Vines were much more self-aware than most people gave them credit for. Granted, it's kind of hard when your band is fronted by a guy like Craig Nicholls, the perma-baked, shag-headed muppet who seemed more interested in bong hits and Big Macs than becoming an actual rockstar. But it's very possible that Australia's Vines, unlike other competing "the" bands (see: Hives), saw their moment as one that was already cresting. Instead of trying to grab at "world's best garage rock band" straws, the Vines found their niche in diversity, harping on Beatle-esque psychedelia (rightly written-off a prefab stoner bait) and mainstream grunge (the still-awesome single "Get Free" was a certifiable hit) for their 2002 debut Highly Evolved. It clearly worked, for at least for a little while -- in 2002, the band covered Rolling Stone, with the words ROCK IS BACK! plastered across their image. Despite the insistence of the British press, the Vines were never going to be the next Nirvana (never mind how catchy rippers like "Ride" were), though they certainly could have played to that strength by keeping the amps cranked. But between Nicholls' increasingly erratic behavior onstage and off (he was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome in 2004) and a sophomore album that too closely resembled their previous effort, the Vines lost traction as quickly as they gained it. Despite suffering multiple lineup changes and resigning themselves to a more tasteful, tamer sound, they released their sixth album Wicked Nature last year, though it failed to drum up any real critical or commercial support (it debuted at 29 in their home country). It's rumored that Nicholls is currently at work on a solo album.


Franz Ferdinand
It's no wonder that the poppiest band on this list was also one of the most popular of the era. Despite the debonaire post-punk posing and art rock aspirations, Glasgow's Franz Ferdinand were always a dance band at heart, and a pretty damn good one at that. This much was evident from the get-go with tracks like the campy "Shopping for Blood" and the jittery titular single from their Darts of Pleasure EP, which Domino hastily scooped up in 2003. What followed was the hugely successful Franz Ferdinand the next year, which was both a critical and commercial success on both sides of the pond (it would eventually go platinum four times over), thanks in no small part to the starry-eyed disco of the eternal "Take Me Out." After taking home the Mercury Music Prize for their debut, two more albums followed, both more varied than Franz Ferdinand but forgettably "more mature." But as a live act, their rep remained unsurprisingly intact, becoming a festival circuit fixture and pumping out a few memorable singles ("No You Girls" and "Do You Want To" chiefly among them) along the way. 2013's Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action proved to be their least successful LP, but the band stays busy touring (and most recently curating a Late Night Tales mixtape). A fifth album is rumored to be in the works.

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