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Deenah Vollmer: Anatomy of an Anti-Scene

August 12, 2013

Tracing Antifolk’s aesthetics and community, from the Lower East Side to Berlin.

http://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/sidewalkcaferesized.jpg
Image courtesy of Yoko Kikuchi

By Deenah Vollmer

In the summer of 2005, four Germans living in Berlin came to New York on a musical pilgrimage to find Antifolk, a DIY community of musicians connected by shows and open-mics in the backroom of the Sidewalk Cafe in the East Village, where the restaurant/bar’s patrons often don’t know they are dining at what a sign hanging over the red curtain in the backroom proclaims as the “Home of Antifolk.”

The Germans were surprised to find these musicians playing only to handfuls of people, all of them other musicians. “It felt like we were the only members of the audience,” said Sebastian Hoffmann, a student from Southern Germany, who was twenty-one years old at the time and starting to book shows of his own in Berlin.

Seeing as the musicians were open and friendly, or seeing as the musicians did not quite know how to have fans, the Germans immediately befriended them. And they became musicians too, joining the Antifolk artists on stage, recording their own songs on cassette tapes, and performing at Sidewalk as well.

In the US, Antifolk was an occasional blip on the radar, negatively reviewed by the tastemakers at Pitchfork and sometimes mentioned in passing as the scene where superstar Regina Spektor got her start, and possibly Beck, too. Antifolk remained a mostly unknown group of songwriters, recording and distributing handmade CDs and cassettes and performing regularly to each other at Sidewalk and a couple other venues in New York.

There are stand-up comedians, comic book artists, and poets too. With firm roots in New York’s Lower East Side, the scene breathes the neighborhood’s history: part punk rock, part Yiddish theater.

But meanwhile, back in Germany, Antifolk artist Adam Green was on the cover of German Rolling Stone. Writer Martin Büsser had recently published a book called Antifolk: von Beck bis Adam Green (from Beck to Adam Green) and high culture publications, music magazines, and academics were praising the scene’s amateur aesthetic for creating a safe space for musical experimentation. In Berlin, these Germans facilitated an Antifolk satellite community, organizing a monthly concert series called Four Track on Stage, hosting musicians from the New York scene and local songwriters who were inspired by the community. This year marks the 20th anniversary of Antifolk at the Sidewalk Café and the Summer Antifolk Festival is happening right now (August 6-16.) The term “Antifolk” came around in the ‘80s when a songwriter named Lach was kicked out of West Village folk establishments for playing songs too rough and punky. Though played on the acoustic guitar, he was told his music was not folk and did not belong at their hootenannies. If I’m not folk, he said, I’ll be antifolk. After moving around to a couple of places in the East Village, Lach set up shop in the Sidewalk Café and organized Anti-hootenannies or Antihoots, a weekly open-mic night, which grew to be the biggest open mic night in the city, often attracting more than seventy performers at sign-up and lasting into the wee hours of the morning. He also started the Antifolk Festival in reaction to the New York Folk Festival. The names stuck even when the reactionary sentiment became outdated. While the Antifolk Festival goes strong today, the New York Folk Festival hasn’t been held in years.

Antifolk shows are friendly affairs where hugs are doled out on arrivals and exits and performers on stage will sometimes interrupt themselves to welcome an old friend to the show. Acts cover each other’s songs and often hold tribute nights celebrating other members of the community. There have been newspapers by and for the scene such as Anti-Matters and Urban Folk. Many members play in several bands and some will invite choirs of audience members to come on stage and sing. Some people have good voices and some have a more idiosyncratic sound. People who don’t play guitar well are welcome to play it poorly, or play the kazoo. There is a book club where musicians write songs inspired by books. There are stand-up comedians, comic book artists, and poets too. With firm roots in New York’s Lower East Side, the scene breathes the neighborhood’s history: part punk rock, part Yiddish theater.

Some regulars have been coming for most of the twenty years that Antifolk has had a home at Sidewalk. There’s Bernard, who lives on Staten Island and collects, photographs, posters, and audio from the scene. There’s Debe Dalton, a rainbow-haired banjo player and Jon Berger, a bald poet. There are new arrivals, people who show up to New York with a guitar and not much else eventually find their way to the Sidewalk Café. Like the music itself, many of the musicians are a little rough around the edges. The people who want to make it in the music business, to be part of whatever buzzy Brooklyn scene is hip at the moment, usually don’t stick around. Affiliating with Antifolk is sometimes known as career suicide.

“If you told your parents you were staying in a guy’s backyard in Harlem for a week they would say you were insane.”

So people have day jobs. They’re teachers, social workers, waiters, and web designers. Over the years, most have moved to Brooklyn, and many have moved from New York because it’s gotten too expensive, or because they want to have families. Sometimes it feels that the scene has disbanded, but then a Summer or Winter Antifolk Festival will bring people out of the woodwork and back together.

Antifolk is still a small scene, still unheard of by most, and still difficult to define. Musician Jeffrey Lewis called it “Acoustic oriented music that is too weird or unclassifiable to fit in with what you’d ordinarily call folk” and his brother and former bandmate Jack said it is “doing what you can no matter what” in a 2005 short documentary on Antifolk. In Germany, however, though no longer in the spotlight, many Antifolk acts continue to tour successfully and feel welcomed in Berlin, including myself. I moved to Germany for a Fulbright grant in journalism last year, and chose Berlin because I had friends there, the same Germans who came to New York as fans in 2005.

“It was astonishing how quickly we became part of the friendship circle,” Hoffmann said. The Germans were surprised to have access to their musical heroes and to be hosted by members of the scene they didn’t know very well, like Dashan Coram from the band Huggabroomstik who had a basement studio in his father’s house in Harlem called Luv-a-lot Records. A provocateur who often performed in his underpants, Coram enjoyed the absurd and in 2004, it was absurd for an Antifolk musician to go to Berlin. At the same time it was no less strange for Germans to come to New York to visit Antifolkers. “If you told your parents you were staying in a guy’s backyard in Harlem for a week they would say you were insane,” Hoffmann said.

Heiko Gabriel wrote many new songs in Dashan’s backyard, inspired by Dashan and his just-do-it attitude towards songwriting and recording. “It just came and came and I wanted to write more songs,” he said. “The whole scene was very inspiring to me and I wanted to be part of it.”

One of these new songs, “The Barcade Song,” became an instant Antifolk classic. Written, recorded and performed within a single week, the song, its production and sensibility encompassed Antifolk. With energetic strumming on an acoustic guitar, it’s a story about a German named Heiko who meets a girl named Cindy at the Barcade, “a bar with an arcade” in Williamsburg, but decides to play a video game instead of talking to her. He fantasizes she is falling in love with him as she watches him shoot spiders and snakes, and when he gets a high score, he turns around to find that Cindy has left. Though the song is about a missed opportunity, with its catchy sing-along melody, it is also a celebration. A chorus joins in at the end for a Velvet Underground parody, “I’m waiting for Pac Man, 26 quarters in my hand.”

***

Almost every German I talked to told me their awareness of Antifolk started with the Moldy Peaches around 2002. The Moldy Peaches toured internationally with The Strokes, who, looking like rock stars in leather jackets with mussed-up hair, told the world that rock was not dead. The Moldy Peaches, clad in colorful animal costumes, told the world something else. Their self-titled debut album was released on September 11, 2001, and included a track called “NYC’s Like a Graveyard.” Though it was clearly bad timing to release that song on 9/11, it might have actually been good timing for its appraisal in Germany, where key players would interpret the collisions of events in a surprisingly political and intellectual way.

Whereas Antifolk remains a misnomer in the US, Germans could read Antifolk as anti-Volk, against Hitler’s notion of Volksgemeinschaft, a racially unified German population.

The Moldy Peaches were signed to UK’s previously defunct Rough Trade Records. The label went bankrupt in 1989 due to uncollected debts and overdue taxes, but reemerged in 2000 with financial backing from Sanctuary Records, the largest independent music management company in the world. The Moldy Peaches helped get their friend, Jeffrey Lewis, signed to the label too. He believes that Antifolk became more known in Germany because Sanctuary had big offices there. This meant that press and distribution were more present in Germany than countries where they had fewer employees. For example, in the US there was almost no distribution and press for these Antifolk albums, which were hyped in Germany and other parts of Europe.

The Sanctuary connection is a good industry argument for why Antifolk became big in Germany, but Sebastian Hoffmann, who would go on to write his Masters Thesis in North American Studies on Antifolk and become a professional booker of Antifolk bands, helped me understand why Germans might have been so enthusiastic about Antifolk on an intellectual level too. Many of the journalists who liked Antifolk when it first appeared, including Martin Büsser, who wrote the eponymous book on Antifolk, were part of a leftist German independent community. With the war in Iraq, anti-Bush sentiments in Germany were high. In a bold move from a Left government, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) Chancellor of Germany, Gerhard Schröder, used his opposition of the War in Iraq to win 2002 reelection, creating tension with the US, which has military bases in Germany as well as fly-over rights. Schröder created a country-wide ad campaign for the German national soccer team culminating in the 2006 World Cup held in Germany where German flags were raised publicly for the first time since World War II. Both the Bush administration and the SPD/Green party coalition triggered anti-Americanism in Germany, including a controversial national identity marketing campaign called “Du bist Deutschland” (“You are Germany”) hoped to create a positive German national identity.

But Büsser and his publishing company (as well as other pop-culture counter-initiatives including “I Can’t Relax in Deutschland”) feared that the non-reflective nationalistic pop discourse could easily lead to neo-nazism and looked for anti-conservative alternatives to redeem America’s image in the German pop world. They found Antifolk, probably because of Sanctuary Records and Adam Green’s popularity and the fact the name had a very different connotation to Germans couldn’t hurt. Whereas Antifolk remains a misnomer in the US, some Germans could read Antifolk as anti-Volk, against Hitler’s notion of Volksgemeinschaft, a racially unified German population. Celebrating the German national state could be a dangerous path towards fascism, they thought.

This would never happen in the US: for something to have mainstream success because a queer-theory intellectual wrote a book about it!

But is Antifolk really antifascist? How? Antifolk songs are not protest songs. They are often stories of daily life, with a healthy dose of self-deprecation, playful humor, and references to pop-culture, childhood, and poop. Büsser celebrated Antifolk because it was radical in what it was missing: no glorification of the nation, the family, or heterosexual love. But more than lyrical content, Büsser believed the way in which these artists produced, distributed, and performed their work also sent an anti-fascist message. Though a few acts were signed to Rough Trade, the vast majority were on tiny independent DIY labels that serviced the community, like Coram’s Luv-a-lot Records or Matt Roth’s Olive Juice Music. Of course other DIY labels exist all over the US and they could just as easily be interpreted as antifascist, but Antifolk was the most available example and the term became synonymous in Germany for any music that sounded a little bit quirky, lo-fi, or “authentic.”

When I asked Rita Rommerskirchen, who works for Rough Trade distribution in Cologne about why Antifolk became popular in Germany, she said because someone wrote a book about it. This would never happen in the US: for something to have mainstream success because a queer-theory intellectual wrote a book about it! In Germany, however, many music journalists have academic backgrounds. In addition to writing for his own publishing house, Büsser wrote for the mainstream music magazine Intro, and tens of thousands of young people and concert promoters in Germany read his Antifolk reviews and articles.

Because of positive press in music magazines and high culture publications, and because of political alignment with intellectuals like Büsser, independent promoters were happy to book shows for lesser-known Antifolk musicians. Since many music promoters in Germany book shows as a hobby, they have the privilege of bringing acts they believe in and not necessarily ones that will make them much money, another revolutionary cultural difference for Americans to wrap their heads around. This meant that unsigned acts from New York like Phoebe Kreutz, Schwervon!, Toby Goodshank, and Huggabroomstik could tour in Germany as often as they liked and sustain decade-long relationships with German fans and promoters.

In Berlin, Heiko Gabriel hosts a Lach-inspired open mic night called the Open Mic L. J. Fox, Sebastian Hoffmann continues to book Antifolk acts professionally, and Four Track on Stage showcases are going strong. Bands from the New York scene continue to visit their fans-turned-friends in Berlin (myself included) while German Antifolk enthusiasts continue to make trips the legendary Sidewalk Café. The Fulbright program is about cultural exchange, but not until I came to Germany did I realize I had been involved in one all along.

The Summer Antifolk Festival runs until August 16th. For more information visit http://www.sidewalkny.com

Deenah Vollmer is a Fulbright Journalist in Berlin this year, working for NPR’s Berlin Stories, and for The New Yorker. She’s been involved with New York’s Antifolk scene since 2005, and currently plays in the band L.A. Boobs.

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One comment for Deenah Vollmer: Anatomy of an Anti-Scene

  1. Comment by Kat on August 25, 2013 at 8:38 am

    You articulated the Berlin/NY subtle/direct connections so well in this. Great article, Deenah!

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