Interview: Rebecca Odes from Love Child and Odes

Photo courtesy of Rebecca Odes

As unofficial documenters of the New York City independent music scene, we should have interviewed Rebecca Odes long ago. Back when we started our zine, she was playing in Love Child, a trio she joined while at Vassar with Alan Licht and Will Baum (and later Brendan O’Malley), along with her band Odes. In the decades since then, she has been a prolific media creator, writing books and creating outlets such as, and CherryPicks (a feminist-slanted improvement on Rotten Tomatoes). She’s also a multimedia artist and a parent! To celebrate the release of a just-released Love Child compilation, Never Meant to Be: 1988–1993, on 12XU Records, Rebecca chatted with chickfactor about her background, the olden days, her present and other important issues. Listen to the compilation here. (Thanks to Michael Galinsky and Michael Macioce for sharing their photographs)

Love Child. Photo: Michael Galinsky

chickfactor: Tell us a bit about your background: Where did you grow up? Was your family into music? What were you like as a kid? A teen?
Rebecca Odes: I grew up in West Orange, New Jersey. I share an alma mater with Tony and Carmela Soprano. I was a dozen years later, but the vibe tracks. It was a sports and big hair situation. I was generally considered a weirdo, sensitive and not very socially adept. I wrote poems and made art and installations with my dolls.

My father was an incredible pianist—the lore was he could have gone to Juilliard but had to take over the family electrical supply business. I was not good at practicing, but I made up songs and conceptual rock bands. When I was 12 I went to an art camp, where I discovered most artists were weirdos. It saved me. The counselors were all the coolest people I had ever met. This may still be true. The theater director was Ondine from the Factory, though he used his real name there, and I didn’t discover this until I looked him up 20 years later. He wrote a musical version of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe with James Irsay, a cult classical WBAI DJ. I was Susan, and sang the song they wrote for me on the roof of a building—kind of my first public performance. The art counselor was Michael Stipe’s roommate. She did my hair and makeup for a B-52s airband, which is how I learned I liked this particular way of being on stage. I learned to play bass there, the summer after my freshman year, when I was a counselor. My boyfriend was the guitar teacher; he got the camp to rent a bass which was ostensibly for the campers, but I’d take it back to my bunk every day and play along to ’60s pop songs. We formed a conceptual band called I AM A BUNNY. It was me playing the riff to “Li’l Bit o’ Soul,” a noise box, and my friend Max shrieking the lyrics to the Richard Scarry book. We played once.

How did Love Child come together and how long did it last?
A couple of months later, fall 1987, we were all back at Vassar for Sophomore year. I had seen Alan and Will around but hadn’t met them. Some mutual friends said they were starting a band and looking for a bass player. We got together to play and they decided I was a better bet than the guy they had been playing with. I had only been playing for six weeks, so it was a steep learning curve. We started playing at school fairly soon after that (see photo of our first show below) We were a band for the next fiveish years—until 1993, though there were two incarnations. Love Child was Will Baum’s brainchild—he had come up with the name and most of the songs played at the beginning. There was a lot of instrument-switching in that lineup; Alan would play drums on Will’s songs and they’d switch when Alan sang. Alan and I slowly started filling our songs around the edges, and then that coalesced into something that didn’t fit quite as well with what Will was doing. Will went away for a semester. Brendan O’Malley filled in while he was gone, and by the time he came back we had gelled into something different.

Love Child, first show, Vassar College. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Odes

Any memorable stories about live shows, recording or touring?
We did a European tour with Codeine, which included what seemed like every single town in Germany and a few other places. I had a somewhat contrarian impulse to put Jaegermeister on our rider (I’d heard the Euro version had some kind of magical powers). This always struck people as gross because of its frat boy rep, but I realize now I was just an early Amaro adopter. Also maybe subconsciously trying to treat my nervous stomach? When we were first playing, I used to swig so much Pepto Bismol at shows, I kept a bottle on my amp.

Got any tour horror stories?
Once we played in Denver during a snowstorm. Someone came in and said a woman had been hit by a car outside. We never found out if she was okay. This kicked up some childhood car trauma which manifested in an unhealthy unlucky association with the lipstick I was wearing (MAC Viva Glam III), which, while not at all as sad as being hit by a car, is a little sad, because it’s a really good color.

What was the independent music scene like in NYC in the Love Child era?
I used to imagine the early ’90s NYC indie scene as a land of two kingdoms: Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo. This was a made-up thing, obviously—those were not at all two sides, and they overlap in lots of ways. But it felt like there were two energies, warm and friendly, and cool and gritty. We were sort of straddling that, or maybe in many places at once, because we had so many different songs and sounds.

The scene was generally friendly and supportive all around—I don’t remember any real competitive energy. Inside CBs was the music, but the party was on the street. It definitely felt like a community, and there was a sense that we were sharing something not everyone got. I feel lucky to have been a part of it.

Love Child by Michael Galinsky

What was Love Child’s dynamic like?
Fraught, but fun. We got along pretty well personally; our sensibilities and senses of humor are very aligned. We were all into the same art, movies, obscure whatevers. There was a kind of built-in tension to having three different songwriters and styles. In the beginning, Alan and Will had a lot of knowledge and skills I didn’t have. I was learning on the fly—they were teaching me, really, with varying degrees of tolerance. Will had very strong ideas about how he wanted things to be. He was always trying to improve me, which I appreciated in theory but found annoyingly controlling in practice. He once insisted I learn the bass part of every song on Are You Experienced? in one afternoon, which may have stretched the boundaries of consent as well as the reach of my fret hand. I wrote “Willpower” as a sort of bratty reaction to that feeling. Alan was less bossy but sometimes more intimidating. It took me a long time to feel really confident in the shadow of his expertise. I had the feeling that my contribution was somehow less valid because it was less about musicianship. And there was definitely some weirdness about me being The Girl and the attention this brought.

By the second album, I was much more self-assured as a player and songwriter. But then there was a new problem: I got tinnitus. Noise was a really integral part of Alan’s guitar sound. We played loud, long noisy jams. I definitely clocked some hours on the floor with my ears close to the amp. I love noise, and have a real visceral craving for it, still. But my ears have always been sensitive, so I guess I should not have been surprised they were sensitive to damage. Volume became the subject of many fights (I remember one soundcheck in Rotterdam that got particularly ugly). This was a real factor in the band’s breakup. I think I was experiencing a kind of grief about the permanence of the injury, and it felt like the noise level had done the damage. But it was hard to imagine how this band could exist without it.

If you had a theme song, what would it be?
I feel like too many things to identify with one song, but I’ll go with “A Plan, Revised” by The Trypes.

Love Child. Photo: Michael Galinsky

What kind of bands did you play with then? What were you inspired by/listening to?
We played a lot with NYC bands: Yo La Tengo, Dust Devils, and Homestead bands like The Mad Scene and Truman’s Water. We often did shows with Antietam and Sleepyhead as we were buddies. We also played with Galaxie 500, Pavement, Sonic Youth and The Feelies in various capacities (recall being bummed that The Feelies were not at all as friendly as their music).

We were definitely nursing a Velvet Underground fixation, as well as early Modern Lovers, and drony noisy stuff like Stooges and Spacemen 3. I am also drawn to minimalist music, maybe for therapeutic reasons. But I have always loved a good sing-song situation. I listened to a lot of Shangri-Las, and then some of the bands that took some of that sound/vibe and ran with it. Young Marble Giants were a huge favorite. We were going to record a song for the YMG tribute in the early ’90s, but that fell apart for some reason.

Did you experience a lot of sexism or misogyny back then? Nasty soundmen? Stories please.
I’ve been hung up for a long time on how to answer this question. I had some profoundly disturbing experiences during this time. Yeah, there were nasty soundmen, though to be honest, mixing a loud band with a not-so-loud voice is a recipe for frustration on all sides.

The more meaningful stuff was elsewhere in the scene. There was a kind of reverence for transgression and a lack of boundaries around substances and sexuality, which felt cool and empowering…until it didn’t. I was very trusting and game. I accepted that being willing to be packaged sexually was part of “the business,” that being packaged sexually came with being perceived sexually, and that it was up to me to figure out how to manage the results of this perception. I understood this as part of being transgressive, which I was very interested in, in theory. In practice, this did not always work out well for me.

German flyer (photo: Michael Galinsky)

We had some major label interest for a second. The guy took us out to a fancy dinner, and asked us if we were “willing to do what it takes.” I thought about that whenever something happened that felt wrong. There was a very explicit Lolita thing happening in Europe (see clip below.) This was very confusing to me—I mean, Christiane F was a cool movie, but being identified with a 12-year-old girl who turned to sex work to support her heroin addiction felt super gross. There was also press playing on this teen thing, a lot of it entirely made up (even the supposed direct quotes). There were some pretty terrible interactions with men around this, on many levels.

If I were doing it again, I would have approached some things differently. I think it helps to keep some distance when you’re putting yourself out there. I was not doing that, and it made me really vulnerable. I wish I could say I would be more confident and push back when things felt weird. But while I was not at all a teenager, I was still young enough to think these people knew better—there was a part of me that believed this was how it all worked.

Tell us about the new collection: What’s on it? How did it come together?
Never Meant To Be is a double album anthology. It’s a lot of the stuff we’re proudest of, all of which hasn’t been officially available online, and some of which has never been available anywhere. There are two songs from our Peel Session, which was never released—“Greedy,” which was the last song we wrote together, and a version of “Asking For It,” the first song I ever wrote (as a too-late act of self-defense against harassment, street and otherwise). Also Erotomania,” which was on a Spanish compilation 7-inch called THIS IS ART (Love Child, Yo La Tengo, Cell, Vineland), and some stuff from live radio shows, as well as our picks from our various releases. We’ve been talking about doing this for a while, and were really happy when Gerard wanted to put it out.

What other bands/projects have you been in then and now?
After Love Child broke up, I started a band called Odes. I was excited about the idea of liberating my songs from the tyranny of two-minute guitar solos. I also wanted to play with some people who weren’t guys. Brendan had a friend named Ari Vena who played guitar. Jesse Hartman played bass at first (I had played bass in his band, Sammy, briefly). When he left, Ari suggested her friend John Gold. John had played in 9-Iron, Will Baum’s post-Love Child band. We put out a single and an EP on Merge.

I took a long break from music while breeding, etc. The idea of getting on stage and singing to people seemed absurd to me. Then it came roaring back in a new form—I didn’t want to be on stage or communicate anything—I just wanted to be near the noise. Ma’am was formed in 2010, with Charlie Gansa from Guv’ner, and Lyle Hysen, who had produced the second Love Child album (and played in Das Damen, among other bands). The name was kind of a perfect intersection of all our prior bands, post-child, female, apostrophe. We played together for a few years and actually recorded a handful of songs—a few are up on Soundcloud. I really loved that project—I was sad when it got waylaid by grown-up stuff.

Are you doing music now?
During the pandemic I re-upped my love of drone music and put together a long-distance noise collaboration with Alan, Gretchen Gonzales, and the guys from Wolf Eyes. Warren Defever (His Name Is Alive) produced it and it turned into Threshing Floor—I also made a video piece to accompany the release.

Back Pages (mixed media on silk, wood and canvas) Photo courtesy of Rebecca Odes

I know you are a visual artist as well; have you done that your whole life?
It’s taken me a while to realize what I really am is a multidisciplinary (sometimes interdisciplinary) artist. For a long time I saw different media as evidence that I was unfocused. And having many ways of working can definitely affect momentum, which can be frustrating. But I have come to see that this is just how my brain works. There are thematic threads that weave through and across the projects and media. My web projects, like and, were coming from the same place that inspired the songs I wrote for Love Child, just approaching from a different angle in a different format. My paintings are exploring a lot of the same stuff as well, just visually.

What else are you up to these days? Jobs, kids, pets, hobbies?
Since co-founding in the ’90s, I’ve been working on various media projects—From the Hips!, a pregnancy/birth/parenting book, Wifey.TV (with Joey Soloway pre-Transparent) and CherryPicks, which is still going strong, though I’m not in it day-to-day at this point. I have some other book projects brewing, and am also really trying to return to making art as much as I can. I am really painting again for the first time in many years, and doing new kinds of work as well: constructions that meld different media—painting, video, sculpture, light. Feeling really liberated about the possibilities of combination vs. choice. Also, rediscovering knitting, which makes me so much more tolerant of things I might otherwise find annoying or boring.

Are your kids into music? What do they like?
I was always told that kids rebel against their parents’ tastes, so I was prepared for that. But it hasn’t happened (yet?). My kids are about the same age I was when I was in Love Child, so we’re probably past the rebellion phase. From the beginning they’ve been pretty aligned. When they were little, we lived near Other Music, and I let them each choose an album there before it closed. My daughter got Revolution Girl Style Now. My son got Pink Moon. He plays Thurston Moore and Yo La Tengo on his college radio show. They both love Horsegirl. My daughter is into early Girlpool, Adrienne Lenker (and Taylor Swift, obviously). They both play guitar and write songs too, though haven’t done much of it in public since their own art camp experiences.

Love Child by Michael Galinsky

What are you watching, reading, listening to?
I don’t watch a lot of TV, mostly because I don’t think of it until I’m already too tired to get into anything.

I just saw Problemista, which I loved, and finally watched Kelly Reichardt’s Showing Up, which really got under my skin. I loved how she got at both the boring and shitty parts of being an artist (and a person) and the beauty and drive that compels.

I am trying really hard to get back into reading books, though I have a much easier time listening to them lately.

I just happened upon Brother of the More Famous Jack, a very fun ’80s coming of age book which was apparently well-loved in the UK but was only recently released in the US, thanks to Maria Semple, who found it in a bin somewhere. Tip: don’t read her intro. For some inexplicable (IMO inexcusable) reason, she gives away the plot.

I also love Dora: A Headcase, Lidia Yuknavitch’s punk feminist reframe of Freud’s case study. It is twisted, but incredibly compelling.

Music-wise, I’ve been leaning into my repressed dance impulses—I’m a little obsessed with Dembow. I have been doing this thing called Dance Walk, where we walk the loop in Prospect Park on weekend mornings, each listening to our own playlists on headphones. It’s kind of a crazy experience, being in your own sound world while everyone gawks at the parade of weirdos. It’s a real challenge to the impulse to feel cool and avoid being seen as a dork. But by the end of my first Ioop I was wondering why it’s so normal for everyone to work out by running in the same straight line.

Love Child by Michael Macioce

How do you find out about music these days?
I admit I’ve learned about a lot of cool shit from the algorithms. But I still prefer human curators. I am fortunate to have a partner who is a voracious music seeker, which inspires me to always go looking for new things to share. Many of my friends and people I am in touch with online are effusive about their musical findings. I’m part of a facebook group called “Now Playing” where people post LPs they’re spinning, and it’s a gold mine. Mikael Jorgensen runs a cool listening club in Ojai where people play songs they love, and everyone sits and listens like it’s church. I have definitely found some new favorites there.

Where are you living? How has NYC changed over the years?
I’m mostly in Brooklyn, and sometimes in Ojai, CA. I have been in Brooklyn for about three years. I was in various parts of downtown Manhattan before that, and after growing up dreaming of living in the center of everything, I was very hesitant to leave. But now I feel like an idiot. I like Brooklyn so much better! New York is always changing. The cost of living is insane. It does feel like the creative energy is being pushed out, or into small pockets. But it also feels like there is some fun, loose, cool stuff happening. I don’t know if this is new or reborn, or if I just wasn’t paying enough attention before. But things like the Every Woman Biennial, which I have a piece in right now, give me hope for the continuing mulch of the city for art and creative growth.

The ecosystem in terms of making money (if not a living) from music has changed; I remember seeing Love Child at the Terrace Club at Princeton, and those gigs paid pretty well. What can fans do to make sure bands get paid better? How would you change the system?
The whole system is pretty flummoxing to me at this point. I do not know why this world rewards the things it does and ignores so much of what is fundamental to human okayness. I do not know how we change this in a world that seems only interested in siphoning dollars to the top. I think the Living Wage for Musicians Act is a good start. Ideally I would like to see UBI for artists (and others). Art—of all kinds—is not bonus content to human existence. It is a necessity that is becoming increasingly hard to make. If I were changing the system, I would also do something about the fact that being an artist at this point is 10% inspiration and 90% social media promotion. Obviously, it has ever been thus—the thing itself a relatively small portion of the work. But I don’t know if there’s ever been a time when artists have been asked to continually produce public-facing material apart from their actual work. My public-facing brain is very separate from my creating brain, and I find switching back and forth to be really distracting and not very creatively constructive. I would love to see artists have more time to make art, period.

Love Child. Photo: Michael Galinsky

The folding of media outlets like Pitchfork (well, kind of) mean that there are even fewer gatekeepers controlling what music gets attention. What music do you adore that has been ignored by gatekeepers?
I’ve mostly been ignoring the gatekeepers. Is that how people find out about things now? I am not sure my kids have ever read a music magazine. I think they find everything on streaming or social. The stuff I love has always been sort of marginal- though obviously so much of what was marginal isn’t anymore. I’ve been listening to a lot of Zamrock and Krautrock, and Krautrock-adjacent stuff, like Slapp Happy. I would love to see The Shams (Sue Garner, Amy Rigby, Amanda Uprichard) back on the map. I can still sing those songs by heart even though I haven’t heard them since my cassette went missing in the ’90s.

Let’s talk about ageism. Some people are shocked that Kim Gordon could be 70 and also cool and modern, but there are loads of older people doing creative things (Yoko Ono, Bridget St John, ESG, etc.) Why is there an assumption that people stop doing things as they age? How have you experienced ageism, if you have? How can we as a culture stop allowing it to be normalized?
This is something I’ve been writing about and working through over the past few years. Ageism is pretty ubiquitous. People don’t even feel like it’s something they need to feel bad about.

This is a generalization, but it’s often the way it goes: Women spend half their youth navigating sexual attention or worrying they’re not good enough to earn it, then spend half their adult lives taking care of people. When they finally have time and confidence, people say they’re past their prime. It’s just another tool to try to get them out of the way.

On a larger scale, I don’t think there’s a lot of incentive to stop seeing older women as useless. Centering women’s power on sex and reproduction serves a lot of purposes. It keeps them busy and makes them buy things. To decide to value women outside of this swath would require knocking the whole thing down, recognizing power that’s lived instead of bought and worn like a mask. I am not super hopeful about dismantling the locked arms of patriarchy and capitalism anytime soon (though hey, there’s always the apocalypse) so it’s on us to redefine the way we see ourselves. Maybe this will lead to people seeing us differently. Maybe it won’t. Either way, it’s the best shot at an unshitty unyoung life.

I think the best way to deal is to just say fuck it. Enough already. I want to see a million old lady punk bands.

Love Child at Vassar, nicked from their FBK page

Can you cook? What’s your specialty?
I grew up cooking. My ex had some professional cooking experience and was great at it, so I detoured into desserts and drinks. I didn’t have the time or focus to make much art when my kids were little, and baking became a medium. I made elaborate pies, cakes, cupcakes, curds, and brulees. Part of my adjustment to single momhood was reconnecting with my savory skills. I am partial to stewy braisy things that don’t require me to pay attention to them. I still love baking, though since I am usually making other food as well. I am more inclined to make simple things like galettes or granola. I definitely like to go all out sometimes, though. I have a book club where we try to cook thematically. When we read Gertrude and Alice, I cooked from the Alice B. Toklas cookbook—aspic was involved. It was a lot. But I do enjoy a high-concept project.

What’s in your fridge?
Many therapeutic beverages that promise and do not deliver. Also many condiments. Coriander chutney, harissa, various hot sauces. Goat Kefir. Lacto fermented ginger carrots. Multicolored produce: fennel, lacinato kale, arugula, cilantro, parsley, chioggia beets, watermelon radishes, purple Japanese turnips, blueberries. These may or may not be rotting. I am a newish and very enthusiastic member of the Park Slope Food Coop, and sometimes fail to deliver on my shopped promises.

What’s making you really happy these days?
Color. Especially pink. Extra-especially fluorescent pink. I have a persistent obsession with pink plexiglass. I thought this was new wave damage but my daughter has it too, so it might be genetic. Or maybe just human. I have a theory about this color and why we love it so much. We think of it as so unnatural, but it’s the exact color of light when you look at it through your fingers.

Pipilotti Rist installations. I might live in one if I could.

-Flâneuring. I’ve been able to travel a bit again for the first time in a while, and it is so good to get this part of myself out of hiding.

What makes you really mad?
I am trying to get less mad, at least at things that don’t matter. But a lot of things do matter a lot and it is hard for me to compartmentalize. I can easily get upset enough to cause major interference. I try to be sparing with social media to not feed the beast.

If you were president, what would you do differently?
I should never be president. I have the wrong disposition. I am horrified by everything that is happening and have no answers.

What are you looking forward to this year? How do we stay sane in this election year?
I am eager to get on stage for sure. Alan and I played a noise show in February which was super fun, but made me want to do more, and sing some songs.

I am definitely not looking forward to the election. We are going to need some boundaries. Also reminders that the story we’re hearing is a narrative intended to freak us out. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t real. But it’s being told in the most outrage-inducing way so we are compelled to watch/read/click/give/vote. Some of those things are more important than others.

Will Love Child be playing shows?
We’re playing at Union Pool on June 9!!

Flier by Michael Galinsky

Records Rebecca Cannot Live Without
BRIAN ENO Here Come the Warm Jets
FAUST Rainy Day Sunshine Girl
CAN You Doo Right
THE BEATLES It’s All Too Much
DUMP Superpowerless
RICHARD AND LINDA THOMPSON I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight FAIRPORT CONVENTION Tale in Hard Time
LEONARD COHEN Famous Blue Raincoat
IRON AND WINE Upward Over the Mountain
SPACEMEN 3 Honey (Forced Exposure Single Version)
THE TRYPES A Plan Revised


Threadwaxing Space & Steve Keene

By Sam Brumbaugh

An exclusive excerpt from the forthcoming Steve Keene Art Book (Hat & Beard Press)

Any old record could be beautiful. Brazil ’66. The Frost. UFO. Orpheus. O.C. Smith. Tom Ghent. The Buckinghams. Renaissance. Johnny Rivers. Wishbone Ash. Danny O’Keefe. Melanie. Glass Harp. For a dollar or two, Steve Keene and his wife, Star, found the most amazing songs on cut-out bin albums. Breezy tunes with a creepy edge, heartfelt pop injected with dark hooks, equally joyful and awkward. The easy price and diamond-in-the-rough vibe mirrored the wide-eyed humor, sly depth, and openness of Steve’s art. Records like his paintings on the Threadwaxing Space walls, great stuff right there, cheap and within reach. We used to play Steve’s music at Threadwaxing shows, and I remember suddenly feeling like we were doing something right when a couple of kids came into the room one night while the Left Banke’s “And Suddenly” played over the PA. They were singing along in such a good mood, bouncing on their heels like the floor was made out of Jell-O. Getting a Brooklyn Lager from a keg for a dollar a cup, hundreds of bargain-basement paintings coating the walls in red glow as far down the impossibly long space as you could see. The room felt like it could go on forever, walls as full of color, motion and shadow as the crowd. The paintings not quite exact replicas of each other, hurried brushstrokes and comments across the images as if somehow the art was heckling itself. Or heckling the idea of prints, and somehow at the same time, of unique “pieces.” $1. $2. $5. $10. $20. Signs stapled to the walls: Art for Sale. Cheap!

Image courtesy Threadwaxing Space.

To claim a painting, half the time you had to get a ladder, and (probably) drunkenly climb it in the middle of a dense crowd watching intense bands such as Shellac, Slant 6 or Boredoms. You’d balance there while writing your initials on a strip of masking tape, stick it on the painting, and then descend. We didn’t know enough at the time to fret over slip-and-fall lawsuits. We didn’t really know much of how to do anything. I’d worked at a magazine and a restaurant, knew Keene and a couple of the Pavement guys, and that they wanted to do a show together. I vaguely knew Tim, the owner of Threadwaxing, a long second-floor loft space on lower Broadway, so I called him up, and we just jumped into doing live shows one night in 1993, completely without a clue. We were always running out at the last minute to buy cups, fans, bags of ice. Late on soundchecks, behind on doors—a long line always snaked out the building, down past Broadway’s gated textile shops and around to Broome Street. Neglecting to introduce bands or introducing them when they didn’t want that, forgetting to put up the city-mandated “No Dancing” signs, overloading guest lists, running late on the run-of-show, our capacity always in mysterious flux. It was all part of the charm of the place, I’d try to tell myself. But Steve was on time from day one, there two days before a weekend of shows to begin his hard labor, double all-nighter installs (painstaking wiring in hooks to hundreds of freshly painted and sawed plywood, hanging them by the dozens on makeshift wires he’d stretched across the walls).

Image courtesy Threadwaxing Space.

With the sudden success of the shows, the big crowds, the agents calling, the press coverage and MTV crews, things quickly felt precariously close to overwhelming. But Steve had a work ethic and self-assurance I took careful note of. And soon enough, I saw that behind Steve’s slapstick lines and slapdash surfaces was a rigor of theory, skill and a method of original process so atmospherically definable that all I had to do was book good shows and make sure there was plenty of beer and booze.

Image courtesy Threadwaxing Space.

Fortuitously for booking shows, the early ’90s indie scene was finally beginning to get going in the city, gelling around record stores such as Kim’s Underground (soon to morph into Other Music) in Manhattan and Pier Platters in Hoboken, the Lower East Side bar Max Fish, college radio stations WFMU and WNYU, and venues such as Maxwell’s, the Knitting Factory and Irving Plaza. Art students in ski sweaters. Scrawny musicians in corduroys and T-shirts. Zine girls in pigtails. Pale, bearded dudes looking like they hadn’t crawled out of their rent-controlled apartments since 1978. Dame Darcy in her wicked witch shoes, white makeup and flowing black Victorian gear. The kid who dressed like a Don’t Look Back–era Dylan, complete with peg pants, dark Wayfarers, fuzzed-out hair and a kinetic bop to his stride. Leonardo Drew. Tinuviel. Rita Ackermann. Grasshopper. Jacqueline Humphries. Stewart Lupton. A lot of these artists and musicians coalesced at Threadwaxing.

Image courtesy Threadwaxing Space.

Until then—outside of the Sonic Youth crowd—there hadn’t been much natural comingling between the downtown art and music worlds. Bands out of the New York art scene were categorically self-conscious and usually pretty bad, and there wasn’t any decent kind of local indie scene. A lot of aging rockers and art denizens had a pinched vibe, seemed “pickled” with coolness, as Steve liked to say, with a collector kind of possessiveness about who you were seen with, where you were seen, and when. Superficially and in conversation, art world people were pretty self-confident, while the indie kids didn’t take themselves so seriously. Steve bridged the worlds by being both those things, and by also being both instinctively enthusiastic and sharp-tongued. He was a relief with his alert cackle, oddly hunched amble, and anything-goes tuneage, with his hectic art-covered walls that gave Threadwaxing a loose, carnival-like atmosphere. Steve brought humor and accessibility to the scene, and these were an essential part of the community.

Image courtesy Threadwaxing Space.

Community is a word that can sound kind of corny, but in the early ’90s there was a (necessary) cold standoffishness to living downtown—a lot of the Lower East Side was perpetually shitty, getting worse, and at night you had to know how to traverse certain patterns of blocks to avoid gun-toting dealers and agitated crack crazies. People seemed angrier back then, more alone, and there was often some kind of confrontational vibe in the air. I, for one, was never too psyched to be walking into some isolated bar full of hard stares and a jukebox’s brittle sounds of Helmet or Alterations. Community was needed, and suddenly there were all these indie bands coming through that crackled with new forms of delivery, who were somehow—like punk—needling the sacrosanct. Steve was able to frame them in a room with an equally bright kind of energy. His art aligned perfectly with the scene, was a focal point even, in both subject matter and method. Hard work not appearing to be hard work, a loose cleverness and warmth of judgment. There was a charm to the serious intent of the amateurism. Nobody was in any kind of hurry, to paraphrase Stephen Malkmus, and—taking another cue from punk—if you imitated a good sound well enough, had something to say or a certain way of dressing, you’d get your shot.

Steve Keene by Daniel Efram

Steve was one of those artists, like Chris Johanson, whose work has the illusion of self-taught naivete. At a cursory first glance you’d think, Oh, I could maybe do that… Which, of course, was not true. But I remember the thousands of people going through Threadwaxing in those years staring at the incredibly vast array of images, and how it might have stoked belief in the possibility of their own attempts. The scene was good that way. It was fine to try. This guy was flinging it out there. Why shouldn’t I? And you could. You’d get an airing, a listen or a look. I mean, most of the people who worked at Threadwaxing were either artists or had bands. I’d just throw their band on one of the opening slots. A practitioner of junkie boogie schtick, a reedy and hesitant singer-songwriter, a Mudhoney-style grunger, it didn’t matter. Some were okay, but even if a band wasn’t good, their friends would come and watch and have a good time, and the set would be fine. James Murphy was our soundguy, and had a band named Pony. Sure, you can open for Railroad Jerk, or whoever it was. Why not? He worked hard, did a good job. Help your friends. Trust people a bit to get on with what they are doing. Give them time to find their way to LCD Soundsystem. The trust and tolerance in the scene, at least early on, was partly a reaction to all the sleaze and fuckery in both the art world and the music biz, and it was exemplified by Steve’s honor system. He’d bring a couple giant, brightly painted plywood boxes and you’d shove one or two or five or ten bucks into the slot at the top of the box when you’d take your painting off the wall.

But all this trust, this polite patience, could also be a problem. I remember the guy from Bitch Magnet complaining about how so many indie bands couldn’t play anything even remotely capably on stage, and what did they think they were doing, putting people through that shit? He got a lot of blowback, but he was right in some ways. There was way too much grating amateurism to endure. Also, the early indie scene was rife with preciously intense fans, and certain shows had a hushed, serious vibe verging on cultish. Reference points could be ridiculously studied. God help you if you looked too preppy or too fashionable or wore a Lemonheads T-shirt to a Bratmobile or Royal Trux show. When Royal Trux signed to Virgin Records, they supposedly bought a purple Jaguar and cruised up and down Avenue A. This was considered pretty cool. This reaction was unusual. Success, money even, was distrusted. Most bands going to majors, their rep dropped a peg. Indie bands at the time didn’t believe in the established methods of a career path and—initially at least, avoided music-biz marketing characterization or the temporary attentions of major labels. Just like those bands, Steve was looking for another way. He seemed to distrust success—or, more particularly, the success of art world acceptance. Threadwaxing was a different kind of opening.

Everything was the process, a system lived night and day, and there were almost no exceptions. At one of the early Threadwaxing shows, Steve came out with the first series of United States presidents. They looked great, popping off the walls. I went up to him while he was hanging. “Wow, Steve, those are amazing. Can I put my name on one of the James Garfields before doors?” “You have to wait,” he said, shaking his head and frowning disapprovingly. No insider access. No exclusivity. Which was okay, I respected this attitude. At doors, I was immediately busy running around doing whatever, and by the time I turned around the presidents had all been claimed. I was pissed, but then felt bad about the instinct to possess. It was the kind of thing Steve hated. (And in a way, he was much more responsible for the shows than I was.)

All art by Steve Keene

Later that year, he sent me a painting as a Christmas card. Really nicely done with care. Chinese food cartons and a plate and chopsticks. “Chinese Takeout. Merry Christmas from Star and Steve.” I had it up in my Bleecker Street apartment for years until some skater kid friend of a friend stole it along with a bunch of records. Skater kids steal with such ease. There was a skate shop on Lafayette a couple blocks away from my apartment. One time after the painting had disappeared, I went in there to look at shoes. They used to play a lot of Beatles and Scott Joplin (pretty contrary taste for what you’d assume their clientele was into), and Magical Mystery Tour was going around on the turntable. The cover was propped up, and I looked at the faded discount sticker across the mustard yellow and realized it was my record. I was pretty sure the Chinese takeout painting was back there behind the closed office door but Steve’s paintings were always winding their way into random places. This was crucial to him. He loved hearing about the strange locations his paintings would pop up in; someone’s grandmother’s apartment in San Antonio, Dennis Hopper’s L.A. bathroom, on the wall of a bail bonds place in Queens. “Wow, that’s so amazing, that’s so great,” he’d respond with genuine glow. His cheerful feeling of randomness, you see it all in the humor and demystification in his images. An old-school classical view of Venice with “Heavy Dub” written along the bottom. A tossed-off Here Come the Warm Jets or some other fetishized album, where he wouldn’t even bother to write the entire record title. Or Made in the Shade, with Mick and Keith as stick figures with yellow blobs for heads. It was still somehow obvious he loved these records, even though the plywood he used would often warp and paintings would balloon out and wind up un-hangable. Essential demise: probably just another part of Steve’s intent. Like the better indie rock back then, he always had such an ease in his ability to demystify things. And while his work ethic was completely methodical, there was something to the whole ethos of randomness he loved, and that exists not only in the surface of his painting, but deep in his core philosophy. Whether it’s an unpainted plywood edge, dots of unrelated color, a crimped word or a slightly off-kilter hook so you can’t ever hang the painting evenly, there are flaws right there contentedly in plain view. Like the city back then, like the way we ran things at Threadwaxing.

At the end of any given night, the Threadwaxing walls would be pretty ragged and bare, most of the crowd heading out the door and down the steps with a painting or two under their arm. The floor would be strewn with red plastic cups, sticky bits of masking tape, and torn ticket stubs. Clouds of weed smoke evaporating in the air with the sweat, the bands hanging around having a drink before load-out. Steve, wired and tired, drinking beer and chatting to lingerers, but looking around with a mixture of contentment and anxiousness, ready to get going dismantling. When we’d finally clear everybody and lock the front entrance, Steve would take the big plywood box, pry off the top, and dump all the money out. Hundreds of bills swirling in the air, floating to the floor as Star and Steve sat down to begin counting. Mostly all one-dollar bills, but at that moment it seemed like a fortune.

Sam Brumbaugh is a D.C.-based novelist (Goodbye, Goodness) who has written for Open City, Chickfactor, The Minus Times and Vice. He coproduced the documentary Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt. He is a music producer and programmer who booked shows in NYC in the ’90s, and has worked for the Guggenheim Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

All photos and flyers courtesy Threadwaxing Space except where noted.

This is an excerpt from The Steve Keene Art Book (Copyright 2022 Daniel Efram, All rights reserved). Order a copy of the book here. Follow the artist Steve Keene, book producer Dan Efram and Hat & Beard on instagram. The book was designed by Henry Owings from Chunklet. Conflict-of-interest alert: The Steve Keene Art Book was edited by CF’s Gail O’Hara.

Containe: An Oral History

Containe at the Old Town Bar, 1994. Photo: Gail O’Hara

All the way back in September 1993, chickfactor had its first ever live show at Under Acme. Something like 11 bands played (with a few others jumping on the mike), all sharing the backline. The show was $5. Versus were originally meant to play but couldn’t so I asked Fontaine Toups to play solo; she asked Connie Lovatt to join her and they played a few songs: Containe was born. I was so chuffed that I asked if I could put out their debut 7-inch. They were people I saw all the time, we all became friends, the rest is history. In honor of the band putting their records on Bandcamp this week, we asked a few friends, fans and collaborators to try to remember the details… —Gail O’Hara, Enchanté Records & chickfactor

When did you first meet each other?
Connie Lovatt (Containe, The Pacific Ocean):
In the early ’90s? We met through Richard. Her approach to awkward social situations and her humor are often wonderfully otherworldly so of course I liked her. 

Tell us about writing songs and recording. 
Fontaine Toups (Containe, Versus):
 It’s difficult to remember the details but what I can say is that writing music with Connie was inspiring and a lot of fun. She is one of the best lyricists I know. Our recording and writing process was done quickly. We never spent much time on either, at least this is what I remember. The less-is-more attitude was definitely at play. We will all have different versions of the same story and I’d love to hear Ed and Connie’s. If I could go back in time, I’d do the same thing all over again. 
Connie Lovatt: We both wrote songs in guitar and/or bass and shared them. The other would write bass or another guitar part and some vocals. Fontaine had a much stronger sense of what she wanted arrangement wise. 

Do you remember the first Containe show? What was it like?  
Fontaine Toups: Yes, terrifying and amusing. Where was it? You must have that answer because I certainly can’t remember. (September 10, 1993 at Under Acme)
Connie Lovatt: Gail put together our first show. Fontaine was going to play solo to fill in for Versus? Something like that. She asked me to join her. I remember it sounding really really good. It was memorable in that I was aware of every note and our voices and I loved it. 

Containe in NYC, 1995. Photo by Gail O’Hara

What was the biggest inspiration for the songs you wrote? 
Connie Lovatt: Playing a guitar for the first time. It was a whole new thing. 

What do you remember about making the records?
Connie Lovatt:
We made I Want It All with Adam Lasus (Studio Red) and he was always up and always energetic. He added so much levity to the process. If anything went wrong his first instinct is to laugh which was a big help. It was just Fontaine, me and Dave Frank on drums. We were a low-key crew. Fontaine had more experience, so I followed her lead. But I remember being so happy to be doing a full record of just our songs. 
We made Cowards with Nicolas Vernhes (Rare Book Room) and a whole host of characters. We had a lot of supportive input around us. There was much more jumping around between instruments and sounds but Nicolas kept all the trains running. He was great. It had momentum. I remember Fontaine had a bunch of good songs ready to go so the sense of direction was strong. I love all her guitar playing on that record. Spike Priggen deserves a note here. He took time out to help record some songs I was working on and Cowards came out sounding good enough to put on the record. 

When did you first meet/see/hear Containe? The Pacific Ocean? 
Gail O’Hara (Enchanté Records, chickfactor): 
chickfactor used to have parties where we would give out our new issue. Versus was scheduled to play at our first ever party with live music, but Richard had to bail for some reason. I suggested to Fontaine that she just play anyway: She asked Connie and Containe was born. I loved them so much I suggested putting out a 7-inch single and then Enchanté was born. 
Patrick Ramos (Versus, +/-): I heard both bands for the first time in ’96 when I joined Versus on drums. I liked both bands immediately. 
Mark Robinson (Teen-Beat Records):
 I actually can’t remember. This was so long ago! I first met Fontaine and Ed at a Versus show when my band played with them in 1991. Chickfactor was one of the most important (THE most?) zines of that era, and Containe and TPO were covered pretty regularly, if not in the interviews/record reviews, then in the ads for their records, so I think pretty much every Chickfactor reader was pretty well informed about them.
John Lindaman (True Love Always): 
I can’t remember exactly when we met, but it was around when we joined the Teen-Beat cavalcade of stars in 1997. I never got to see Containe live, but we did a few Pacific Ocean/ TLA/Versus shows in 1998.
James McNew (Yo La Tengo/Dump):
 I honestly can’t remember. I just feel like I saw them whenever I could.
Bob Bannister (Fire in the Kitchen): Having been a fan of Versus since their early days (wearing out the demo cassette that preceded the first couple of 7″ singles), I can’t remember exactly when, but I surely heard of Containe almost as soon as they came into existence. Same for TPO.
Alan Licht:
 I don’t remember seeing Containe or the Pacific Ocean playing live (before I played with them). I knew Fontaine from Versus, and then Connie just socially from knowing those guys. I remember bumping into Connie and Fontaine in the elevator at the Music Building when I was on my way to Run On practice and they were going to Containe practice…if Containe played Chickfactor nights then I would have seen them then, but I don’t have a clear memory of it.
Heather Larimer (Corvair, Eux Autres):
 I saw Fontaine play for the first time with Versus at The Crocodile and I was so mesmerized and thought she was the coolest girl in the world. I was obsessed enough that I very much wanted to name my firstborn Fontaine but he was a boy so I had to name him Lewis instead. The first chickfactor I ever read had a bunch of quotes from Containe and I just thought they were impossibly cool. In all the photos they looked like they were having the best time and just didn’t give a shit about what anyone else was doing.

Containe in NYC, 1995. Photo by Gail O’Hara

Are you a fan? 
Patrick Ramos:
I am. And not only because I like all the members as people, though that does help. And no, they aren’t paying me to say this.
James McNew:
Oh yes.
John Lindaman: OMG YES.
Bob Bannister: Yes!

What made you want to cover “Shy Song”? 
John Lindaman: I love “Shy Song” so much. Sometimes when you hear a song you think, “I could really add something unique to this with the singular power of my artistry” and sometimes you think, “man that would be fun to play, and I can probably just coast on what a great song the original is.” This was definitely the latter! Also I thought it would be good as a man singing it to change the lyric from “I want to fuck you like you’ve never been before” to “I want to thank you like you’ve never been before” because that seems like a more realistic attitude for a guy in a pop band.

Describe any memories you have of Containe, especially any live show experiences. 
Stephin Merritt: 
Yes! Containe is the worst band name in history, and The Pacific Ocean is the best band name in history!
James McNew:
 I saw Containe at Brownie’s (?) early on and was blown away. It was amazing to see Fontaine, a goddamn powerhouse, in such a vulnerable light. Connie seemed freaked out to be onstage in front of people, but once the music would start she had this instantly soothing, wise presence. The onstage banter between them was pretty priceless, too.
Gail O’Hara: I loved the East Coast tour we did in summer 1995; they had a great show at the Middle East. Also Stevie Jackson from Belle and Sebastian was a Containe fan, and B&S invited them to open on some shows in 1998. Georgia Hubley came along on drums. Seeing Containe, who were by this point my BFFs, open for Belle & Sebastian at Town Hall was a dream. Then hearing Belle & Sebastian play “chickfactor” live for the first time that night, well, I was in heaven. 
Richard Baluyut (Versus): All three bands did a set together at CF21. I was thrilled to finally get to join the club!
Patrick Ramos: I have a vague memory of playing drums for Containe and looking up from behind the drum set at Connie and Fontaine stage right and left, but maybe that was just a wishful dream.
James Baluyut: The only times I saw Containe live, I was in the band. Does that count? I think it only happened a couple times. At any rate, the first time, in particular, I was thrilled, not only because Containe was excellent, but also because we were opening for Belle & Sebastian on one of their super early tours. It was super fun. I wish I’d taken some photos.

How would you describe Containe? 
James Baluyut: Effervescent, hooky and brilliant—what you want to hear on a spring day.
Richard Baluyut: To me, Containe is all about the confluence/collision of Fontaine and Connie’s beautiful voices and quirks (they’re both kinda weird). 
Bob Bannister: Some bands mostly write the songs together in their rehearsals while Containe sounds more like Fontaine and Connie wrote them at home with just guitars and voices and then fleshed out the other parts in rehearsals or recordings. (Of course, I don’t really know their working methods.) Connie started adding keyboard parts on the second Containe record, which was a great addition. Containe songs remind me of Marine Girls, early Tracey Thorn solo, and late ’80s New Zealand bands like Look Blue Go Purple and The Bats (and I’d be surprised if they weren’t fans of those bands). One thing that strikes me relistening to Containe is the number of different vocal approaches Connie and Fontaine used. Sometimes they’d do straight harmonies (different notes, same syllable, same beat), sometimes they’d have one holding sustained oohs and ahhs, while other sang the main melody, sometimes (and I think this is underrated in general), they sang in unison, which gives a really rich timbre. Finally, there is whatever they are doing on “Say Please,” which sounds like two people singing four parts without doing it via overdubs. Although Ed Baluyut contributed to the Containe records, I’m thinking his role as a leader in the Pacific Ocean brought a more art-rock sound: more dropped beats, angular guitar parts, etc.
James McNew: Kinda like Fleetwood Mac with Peter Prescott on drums, or like 100 Flowers led by two Denise Roughans.
Gail O’Hara: The sound of a dozen exes being exorcised. Perfectly balanced: Fontaine is pop. Connie is art. Loud, quiet. Containe was tailor made for fans of Helium, Cat Power, the Spinanes, Barbara Manning, Scrawl, etc. 
John Lindaman: Apart from basic genre descriptions and the level of quality of the work, both Containe and TPO had a similar uniqueness to them, which came from a successful combining of two distinct strong musical personalities. It’s pretty unusual for bands to be able to do that instead of “one of X’s songs, one of Y’s songs” or “Neil writes the lyrics but Geddy sings.” And maybe that’s how it actually was and it just didn’t come across that way—either way it worked!

Containe in NYC, 1994. Photo by Gail O’Hara

Containe and the Pacific Ocean were often described (dismissed?) as a Versus side project. Do you think they should have been bigger? 
James McNew: Everybody in that band is so talented, how could that be a bad thing. I wish they would/ could have released more music and played out more. 
John Lindaman: Both Containe and TPO were bands that should have been as big as whatever the biggest bands were at the time—the music was just light years ahead of what other people were doing. And the music is so different from Versus that I don’t see it as a valid point of comparison.

How are they different from Versus?
James McNew:
Similar in some ways, but it gave me an even finer appreciation for Fontaine’s perspective, as well as her power and creativity. Also, they cuss more in their songs, and cut down the guitar solos.
Gail O’Hara: More lyrically raw. They were playful and fun but also heartbreaking, devastating. Connie and Fontaine seemed to revel in the freedom to be in charge of their own thing. 

Is there a particular Containe/The Pacific Ocean song/album/era that resonated with you? 
John Lindaman: Only Cowards Walk Like Cowards is really one of the most perfect records of that decade, and really achieved what a lot of people were going for but failed to come close to! But those four records together represent a real body of work, and I’m glad to see them being brought back out together.
James McNew: The feelings that are bluntly revealed on those first EPs make them pretty magical. You sort of hear the sound of them deciding to be a band, or if they even want to bother with that route.
Gail O’Hara: For me it’s the second records from both: Containe really kills it on “Say Please” and “Summer”—I feel like it’s the most fully realized version of them. My favorite TPO songs are on Less Than the Needle: “Five” and “All the Better Luck.” All of these songs should have been on the Clueless soundtrack or in some teen film. 
Richard Baluyut: I’m terrible at song titles, so I’ll have to default to the hit, “Shy Song.” Surprising and joyous.
Mark Robinson: My favorite Containe song is probably “Shy Song”. It’s a hit and it has a bad word in it, which was oddly not super common at the time.
Bob Bannister: It has been a couple of years since I listened to the records, but returning to Only Cowards… over the weekend, I was reminded just how much I listened to it at the time. There was probably no mixtape I made in that era that did not include “Say Please,” “Why Why Why” or your “Your Brother’s a Star.” The same was true a few years later with “All the Better Luck” on the second Pacific Ocean record.

How do you see these records and the bands’ legacies at this point? 
Patrick Ramos: Both bands are grossly underappreciated. The songs are complex, catchy, honest and still refreshing to listen to 20+ years on. FYI:  I’ve added them both to my Spring 2021 Playlist. I want to believe that one day they’ll both get their due credit in the lineage of rock history but who decides these things? Cleveland?
John Lindaman: I don’t know how much of a legacy anyone has at this point, but if you heard them then you tried to rip them off, and if you hear them now for the first time you’ll understand where some other bands you liked were getting their ideas from!

What other bands/musicians spring to mind when you listen to Containe? And the Pacific Ocean? 
James McNew:
I think fans of music from New Zealand in the ’80s and or NYC/Chicago/ Louisville etc. in the ’90s would be moved by it. I don’t really see them fitting squarely into anything or any time, which I think is a plus. They were able to be themselves, together.

Tell us any other stories you remember about Containe and the Pacific Ocean. 
James McNew:
I remember they were really nice people who made special music together. I consider myself lucky to have seen them play.
Patrick Ramos: Versus, Containe and the Pacific Ocean when not playing the same shows were always at each other’s shows so we had a lot of fun together. The problem again—and I’m really not trying to make this about me—is that all of the details and nuance of those times that make for a good story and should have been put to paper are now lost to me. But answering these questions made me dig out the CDs and I’m blasting them now. If I remember anything, it’s that it feels just as compelling and exciting as it did when I first heard them, like the gift someone gives you that you didn’t realize you really needed.

What was it like being on Enchanté?
Connie Lovatt:
Being on Enchanté is exactly what you think being on it would be like. Gail is a fierce defender of artists. And once we became great friends, it also felt like famIly. And a place I could cook. And a place I could sleep. CF