God is an indie rock fan. Why else would he (or she) keep college radio—the ultimate outlet for new sounds like Holyoke indie rockers NYC UFOs—alive and kicking, seemingly against all odds?
Before the Internet's noisy attempts to announce the next greatest thing in music every minute of every day, we had locally broadcast, non-commercial college radio stations whose raison d'etre was to introduce hot tracks from bands who might have only been together since winter—and who might just be gone by fall.
These days you can still be assured of some single catching your ear, prompting you to strain your ears for the DJ's callback, or to check out the program's playlist if you've missed the details. And now, thanks to streaming and podcasting, it's even easier to stumble across that tune that reminds you why you fell in love with rock and roll in the first place.
On a recent summer night, I was listening to one of my favorite college radio programs: Erika Elizabeth's Expressway To Yr Skull on WMUA (91.1 FM; Tuesdays, 8-10 p.m.). Elizabeth's show is chock full of classic college rock cuts from the likes of The Vaselines, Versus, Swirlies and Wire.
She's also not afraid to bring a healthy dose of the new, and when I heard the fuzzed-out bliss of "I Want To Fall In Love," I needed to know more. Like a good DJ, Elizabeth told me. The band was NYC UFOs, a local outfit no less, previously known as Neighbors.
Elizabeth also made note of the fact that they'd be playing Sept. 24 at Flywheel with locals Sitting Next to Brian and another band she's fond of playing (and I'm fond of hearing): "female-fronted garage-country" band Banditas.
Chris Auger and Joe Haller met in the fall of 2008 during their senior year of college at the University of Connecticut, and bonded instantly. The night of their first encounter, Auger was jamming on Pavement's "Gold Soundz," having just learned it on guitar. Haller began singing along, and Auger was impressed.
From that moment on, the schoolmates started hanging out and collaborating on songs, quickly laying down demos on their computers. The summer after graduation, the duo decided to form a proper band, and moved to a house in Holyoke to rehearse and record.
Haller invited Chris Duran and Andrew Tourigny—two high school chums and former bandmates—to join in on drums and bass, respectively. The fleshed-out lineup has been working in earnest since early last winter with an ongoing mission: to craft guitar rock gems, irrespective of genre or style.
"A good song is a good song, no matter what genre it's being performed in," says Auger. "I think the best songs can be played in almost any style or arrangement and still hold up. In my opinion, it basically comes down to trying to recreate a certain feeling or state of mind through music, something that an artist can share with their audience. Indie music is more about being a musician than a performer—there has to be an honesty behind it, and the more a song relies on being a part of the newest fashionable style of music to be interesting, the less likely it will actually be a good song."
For the first two songs Auger and Haller wrote together—which ultimately ended up on their 10-track "demo" album, Newer Stations—Auger wrote the music, then bounced ideas around with Haller to come up with vocals. Often, as with many songwriting duos, one of the two brings an unfinished idea to the other for help on fleshing the concept out.
"A lot of times we find out that we've been writing around a similar riff or melody, so we arrange the parts of each song and make something new," Auger says. "Now that we have a space to rehearse in, a lot of our writing is done by playing and arranging together as a band."
Elizabeth says that the group sent her a two-song demo last spring, when they were still operating under the name Neighbors. (That name was discovered to be in use by several bands, so it was dropped. Auger, a self-professed Beatles nerd, remembered a story about John Lennon seeing some UFOs over New York City. The phrase "NYC UFOs" became a song title, then the band's new moniker.)
"I Want to Fall in Love" was the lead track on the demo.
"I was so excited that a band from Northampton was making music like that," Elizabeth says of the song. "It reminded me of Galaxie 500 when they rocked out—always a good thing."
When she later got hold of Newer Stations and saw a version of that cut on it, she says she immediately put it into heavy rotation in her playlist.
What makes the track such a good radio single?
"Those chiming guitars right at the beginning," she says. "So late '80s-early '90s shoegaze dream-pop. I love it. It's got this great, fuzzy, melodic sensibility that reminds me of so many of my favorite records from that era"—like Yo La Tengo, and the aforementioned Galaxie 500.
Plus, like all good singles, she says, it's "catchier than a cold."
Like many bands before them, NYC UFOs' migration northward was precipitated by the Valley's reputation as a fertile rock breeding ground, and its role as launching pad for college rock legends like The Pixies and Dinosaur Jr.—groups that continually inspire and influence the UFOs.
"The Western Mass scene has been perfect for us," says Auger. "It's small, the people are friendly, and we're still close to New York and Boston. If we had moved to New York City, it would be much more difficult for us to be able to practice, record and get shows. We've met so many nice people here who've helped us along the way with shows and radio play, especially Erika Elizabeth at WMUA and Brandon [Leith], who does booking at IHEG."
The band Dom also recently moved here from Worcester, and were quickly introduced to NYC UFOs through some mutual friends. The two groups hit it off, and are hoping to get together when Dom are back from tour "to put on some crazy shows for the Valley."
"There's also a band called Whirl from Amherst that's really good; we'd like to play a show with them sometime too," says Auger. "There's plenty of good music here. It's only a matter of time before it gets the recognition it deserves."
NYC UFOs made Newer Stations available for free download on Bandcamp.com in an effort to get their sounds out to the wider world. (They've subsequently moved to a Radiohead-esque pay-what-you'd-like model, due to Bandcamp's limit on free downloads.)
"We just want people to listen to it," says Auger. "If we're lucky enough to get somebody on our page, we're fine if they download our music for free. Hearing that people like it is enough reward for us to keep making music right now."
Auger says the move was partially motivated by his feeling that it's difficult to get people to listen to your music when they've never heard of you, and that he personally does not seek out and listen to many new bands online. Better to get them to you by any means necessary.
At least one label has liked what they've heard enough to throw some support behind their inaugural effort: Real Butter Record Club is releasing the 10-song demo on cassette, giving the gents some merchandise as they perform an upcoming string of shows that will take them all over the Northeast.
And they're not resting there. They're currently in discussions about obtaining wider distribution for Newer Stations, and securing a booking agent to take them across the rest of the country. Add to that a whole slew of new material ready to record and release with the label that fits best.
They have a lot going on, and enough elements in their music to interest a wide swath of the disparate indie rock universe.
"In a lot of ways, it's like a mixtape of the last 20 years or so of indie rock," says Elizabeth of the band's music. "There's some dreamy shoegaze, some guitar-heavy rock workouts, a little post-punk influence, a little spaced-out ambience, a hint of jangle-pop."
Have they named their melange of guitar pop?
"No, we're just four 20-somethings who love fuzz pedals, pop music and partying," says Auger. "People have repeatedly called us 'hazy,' so maybe 'haze-pop'? That might have something to do with the partying."
Auger states that the group is also looking forward to joining the ranks of past, present, and future Grand Band Slammers, should they be so honored: "We're looking forward to challenging any potential competition for our future Valley Advocate Grand Band Slam titles to winner-takes-all games of ping-pong."
Nothing wrong with a little friendly competition.
NYC UFOs join Banditas, Sitting Next to Brian and Baby Teeth at Flywheel in Easthampton Sept. 24. For songs and more info, visit www.myspace.com/nycufos. For more on Erika Elizabeth's Expressway To Yr Skull program, visit http://awkward-noise.blogspot.com.