Wednesday, December 01, 2004
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A chat with Dan Geller of electronic pop geniuses
I Am The World Trade Center
By Mike Cimicata
Life is bigger, and R.E.M. is not the only band from Athens, Georgia that knows it. Through a battle with cancer, ill-timed romantic angst, the disintegration of a record label, and dogged controversy about their band’s name, I Am The World Trade Center has risen above it all with one of the most consistently rewarding albums of 2004.
Boasting a dozen glittering synth-pop gems that bounce with bright, danceable beats and melancholy lyrics, The Cover Up (Gammon), released earlier this year, is a major step forward for the dynamic duo of singer Amy Dykes and keyboardist/programmer Dan Geller. On this, their third album, the band’s sound coalesces. Ms. Dykes’ impassioned vocals stand in sharp contrast to the monotone likes of many of her electro-pop contemporaries, and Mr. Geller’s beats are similarly striking, exhibiting a relentless pop sensibility and a plethora of memorable hooks.
Upon relocating from Athens to Brooklyn in 1999, Amy and Dan took inspiration in their view of the Manhattan skyline and invoked its most prominent symbol when they named their band. The couple began recording their debut album Out Of The Loop on a laptop computer, then moved back to Athens before the record’s July 2001 release. Despite the confused and sometimes negative reaction the World Trade Center moniker came to provoke, they stuck with the name when it came time for their 2002 album, The Tight Connection.
Amidst all this, Dan’s boutique record label, Kindercore, fell apart in 2003. Outside investors, brought in to provide financial backing and free up Dan to concentrate on A&R and his own band, staged what amounted to a hostile takeover of the business. While the legal wrangling continues, the well-respected label that was a home for beloved indie artists such as Dressy Bessy, Palomar, Kitty Craft, Japancakes, and World Trade has been permanently shuttered.
Amy faced the biggest challenge of her life when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma this April. After months of chemotherapy, and despite complications like a severe lung infection and a freak accident in which she was bitten by a rabid cat, Amy’s cancer is in remission and she is in good health. All this took place in the wake of a drama in which Amy and Dan, who have been involved romantically for some time, temporarily broke up while on tour earlier this year.
In recent weeks, the band played some well-received shows in Georgia, and they plan to do some regional touring in February. Billed as The Twin Powers, the pair also DJs on Wednesday nights at The Go Bar in Athens. Dan even has launched a side project, Baryshnikov, to explore the more guitar-oriented side of his music.
And those are just their musical pursuits. Amy teaches a course on the history of textiles; Dan, who has a graduate degree in biological engineering, is writing a book on the emerging technology of biodiesel. Get the feeling that these two are kind of busy?
Calling in from Athens earlier this fall, Dan Geller was an upbeat presence, full of charm. Though it's not easy to tell over the phone, I thought that I heard him laughing, I thought that I heard him sing, and if I'd squinted hard enough into the speaker, I think I would've thought I saw him try.
Mike C.: I have to start by asking how Amy is doing this week.
Dan Geller: She’s doing good. She had a CAT scan recently and her tumors are gone. So from now on it’s just recovery. She had chemo last Friday and she’s doing better already. Usually a day or two after chemo she starts to get better. She has two more treatments and then that’s it. So we’re very happy about that.
Mike: How is her mood?
Dan: Good. She’s a very up person, always. She really was a fighter on this thing and just took it in stride. I mean, she had such a positive attitude through this whole thing I don’t really know how she did it.
Mike: And she was bitten by a rabid cat a couple weeks back?
Dan: [laughs] Yeah, and we just laughed. It was so ridiculous. If it was a movie, no one would ever believe the plot. We took her to the hospital and we had to DJ that night. So I dropped her off with some friends, they got her stitched up, and she came back down and she DJed that night.
Mike: Do you just throw up your hands at that point, when something crazy like that happens on top of everything else?
Dan: Yeah, it’s like, whatever they throw at us. [laughs] You know, if it doesn’t kill us it only makes us stronger.
Mike: Well, you must be the strongest band in rock and roll at this point.
Dan: Exactly. Don’t forget it! [laughs] Our combined weight is maybe 210 pounds.
Mike: You have this benefit show, and it’s part of a Cure vs. Smiths theme?
Dan: Yeah, we’re playing our first show since this all happened. And we’re doing "Boys Don’t Cry" and "Suedehead." The last tour we went on, we went out with this arsenal of covers, and those were were probably our two favorites among the batch that we did. And we put this all together in the past couple weeks. Amy said, "Well, I could probably play a set." For months we’ve been promoting this as an event that was a benefit for Amy, and now all of a sudden we have to change our promotions because we’re actually going to play.
Mike: It makes sense that you’re doing a show like that, since you’ve chosen such great covers on your albums. You had Blondie and The Stone Roses on the last one, and you have The Jam’s "Going Underground" on the new one. Is it just love that makes you pick a song to cover?
Dan: Yeah. Every song that we cover is one of our favorite songs. We do a lot of covers. We were contemplating at one point doing a covers album because we’re usually taking guitar-based songs and taking all the guitars out of them, essentially. Though the Jam cover I actually played guitar on.
Mike: But it’s not really that prominent on the track.
Dan: It’s more the beats that carry the songs, usually. Although, it’s funny, "Going Underground" is one of our most guitar-heavy songs. But the guitar is still under-mixed.
Mike: I guess that and the last track on the album, "Rock It," which starts with that guitar riff...
Dan: Yeah, that’s definitely the most guitar-based one. That’s what Amy likes to call my song. That was entirely me, basically, and then I forced her to sing on that. She’s not a big fan of that one. But I love closing with that song because it kind of brings down the house. And because I’m in control of the beats, I’ll throw that out at her and she’ll be like, "Oh boy, here we go." [laughs] That song is basically the blueprint for a new band I started that I sing in, where I can get all that out of my system. It’s called Baryshnikov. It’s me and a guy that was in this other band called The Breakheart Beat. We’re recording in the next couple weeks, and we’re probably going to start out with a seven-inch.
Mike: Cool. So catch me up on the chronology here. Did you grow up in Georgia?
Dan: No. Amy grew up in Alabama, and I grew up in Milwaukee. I came to Athens in ’91 to go to college and Amy came here in ’93, also for college. She did one year of college in Alabama and then came here. In 1999, after I got my graduate degree, I moved to New York. Then about a month and a half later, Amy moved to New York. In 2000, we moved back to Athens.
Mike: So the new album was recorded in Athens.
Dan: Yeah, actually almost all the albums were recorded in Athens. Out Of The Loop was started in New York, completed in Athens. And everything else was recorded here.
Mike: How has the recording process changed for you over the years? I know the first album was recorded using a laptop.
Dan: Yeah, it was almost your basic bedroom electronic record, as if it were made on a four-track, but it happened to be made on a computer. And it was just the knowledge that someone would need to work on a four-track. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I just threw it together. It has a certain charm that a lot of people really like. Through the years I’ve learned what to do. On the second record, I definitely went at it with a more educated base, and that was still 100 percent on the computer. But the new one, I did all the tracks on the computer and then we wrote the songs in the car while we were on tour. Then when we got back I took all the tracks off the computer and went to a real studio with a vintage analog console and ran everything through that. So we brought in the whole analog thing that we had never explored before, and I think it really cleaned up the sound and made it a lot more polished than the last two records. We also had an engineer and a producer who were very active in working on it with us. We spent a lot more time on this than anything we’ve done in the past. We wanted to make a professional record this time, just to see if we could do it, basically. [laughs] To do it our own way, having no knowledge of what we’re doing. It’s kind of nice to have other people give opinions on things. I learned a lot through the whole process.
Mike: So you said you wrote the songs in the car—you mean the lyrics?
Dan: When we were on tour I would have the laptop with me and we would stream it through the car stereo, just sit there, and rearrange songs and sing. Because we had eight- to thirteen-hour drives, so we’d just kill time by writing the record. And when we got back, the record was written.
Mike: You said before that Amy calls "Rock It" your song, but the songs are mostly written together?
Dan: Yeah, they’re always written together. Well, that one, I must have written Amy’s lyrics, because I don’t think she likes them. It was kind of spontaneous. I had this track, and started singing that "rock it" part messing around with a vocoder. Then the song was done and it didn’t have any Amy parts on it, so I thought, I have to make sure she has something to do on this song.
Mike: "Future Sightings" deserves to be the big hit single.
Dan: We kind of thought of it that way too. We were so happy with how so many of the tracks turned out that my favorite on this record changes all the time.
Mike: "Future Sightings" was the first one that jumped out at me. What do the lyrics mean?
Dan: Most of the songs on this record are about our breakup, because we broke up during the writing of the record. That one, I think, was Amy’s realization that she didn’t think our relationship was going to work out, like she was waiting around for something to happen that was never going to happen. And that thing was me wanting to get married eventually, which I do. And we’re sort of engaged. We’re sort of back together now. It’s very ambiguous at this point. But certainly through her whole treatment I’ve been by her side holding her hand. For this time, we are definitely together, and I would never let her go through this alone. And we actually got back together two weeks before she was diagnosed. We went on tour together. At South By Southwest, we broke up. And then at the end of the tour we decided to get back together, and then she was diagnosed with cancer. No matter what happens, we’re going to be best friends forever. We’ve traveled the world together, but we’ve also been through hell and back together.
Mike: Since we’re talking about bad things, the one other I know of is the Kindercore situation. What can you say about that at this point?
Dan: It’s in litigation. I hadn’t heard from our attorney on it in a while, and then this week she started calling me again. She’s definitely still pursuing this. Ultimately, though, it was a really big era in my life and I was sad to see it go. But also when we started collaborating with the people we are now suing, at that point in time we had considered letting it go. So it just came a year later than it should have, and we probably should have just let go.
Mike: But it must be a nightmare not to be able to end it on your own terms.
Dan: Yeah, it didn’t end with us giving ourselves the terms. But what we want to see is the bands get the rights to their records back. That’s all we want to do, because everybody that was on the label was our friend. And now some of their records are in limbo and we feel pretty bad about it. Plus there’s the matter of a gigantic debt that I’ve incurred over this whole thing that I’d like to see go away.
Mike: Do you miss the business end of the music business at all?
Dan: [laughs] No. It was so nice signing to Gammon and having someone else take care of all the bullshit. And being able to call somebody else, instead of having somebody call me. I can call somebody and complain, for once, which is really cool. It was a totally different experience that was so much less stressful and so much less work. When the first two World Trade records came out, I was working full time on them because not only was I the band member, but I was essentially the head of marketing on it, the head of manufacturing, of everything, and it was overwhelming. A World Trade release would really beat me down. A normal release I would just do my normal duties. But having to be the band out there doing the interviews and supporting it by touring was just crazy combined with trying to run the business. So it was nice this time to let somebody else take care of the bullshit. And they did a fine job taking care of the bullshit.
Mike: Before Amy got sick, was there supposed to be a full tour to support this record?
Dan: Right now was supposed to be six months of touring. We were really psyched to do that, because this album was written 100 percent with the live show in mind. On the tour we were on when she got sick, we were playing five of these songs every night. But unfortunately, no one had ever heard them before. It’s going to be exciting to go out and play songs off of The Cover Up and have people actually know them. That’s what I’m looking forward to, to play one of the new songs and have people freak out like they do on the old songs.
Mike: It seems like a great time for the kind of music you’re doing, with so much buzz about things that have a new wave and post-punk bent.
Dan: Well, good, I’m glad you think that. You never know on the other side. You think it, but then you think, is that reality? But this album is doing really well despite the fact that we’re not touring. And I don’t know if that’s a consequence of Gammon running the show and them knowing what they’re doing better than I did. But also, the really great thing about Gammon is that this is the only record they’re working right now. So all their resources have been put behind this record. Plus, I think we made a record ten times better than what we made in the past. I hope that helps.
Mike: The beauty of being on an indie.
Dan: Yeah, there were other offers out there that we entertained, but this is the one where we knew we’d get the attention that we wanted. On Kindercore, I had to say ok, this is my band, I can’t put this as a priority because it’s going to put the other acts off. There are opportunities that World Trade passed up in the past because of Kindercore, and now we don’t have to do that anymore.
Mike: When I DJ, I play a mix of the familiar and the obscure, basically...
Dan: That’s exactly what we do when we DJ, too.
Mike: ...and when I started spinning songs from The Cover Up at my gigs in Hoboken, I had one person who had never heard the new record before come up out of nowhere and ask if it was you. She said she’d seen you play in Austin.
Dan: Awesome. A lot of people have seen us at South By Southwest. But when we go there anytime, it’s a gigantic reception. In fact, I would probably say that’s our biggest market. And I don’t really know why, but we’re really happy about it because we love Austin. Unfortunately, we usually end up playing there during South By Southwest. It’s great, but we don’t get to play for people who live there, you know, our real fans. It usually sells out with all the industry people.
Mike: What do you spin at your DJ gigs?
Dan: Obviously, The Smiths and The Cure. Pulp is another huge one for us. And, you know, The Rapture, and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and all that kind of stuff. My favorites are The Stone Roses, The Happy Mondays, The Charlatans.
Dan: Yeah, that’s my thing. Amy’s thing is Blondie and Saint Etienne. We do a Wednesday night every week here at The Go Bar. Recently I’ve been doing what I like to call my 120 Minutes set. Cause if you DJ for four hours it gets kind of ridiculous. I’ll do an hour of only stuff they would have played on 120 Minutes. And people go crazy for that stuff. Even kids who were too young the first time still seem to know. The one that really shocked me is I played "Mandinka" by Sinead O’Connor and people went crazy. I don’t know if it’s the guitar riff or what. Why an 18-year-old kid would know that song is kind of weird to me, but they seem to really like it.
Mike: It’s always interesting to see what "the kids" know.
Dan: Yeah, I mean, sometimes you think they’re going to know something and they totally don’t, I don’t know if that’s happened to you.
Mike: Oh, absolutely. Do you spin vinyl, CDs, or what?
Dan: iPods. That way I can walk to work, get drunk, and walk home. I don’t have to worry about driving down there with two turntables. We were originally CDs and vinyl, and then we went to just CDs, because I put everything that we had on vinyl onto CDs. And then I finally put everything onto the iPod.
Mike: The one thing I’m concerned about with DJing using an iPod is the experience of looking for a song. Is it totally different because you’re not looking through physical CDs, you’re flipping through a menu?
Dan: Well, you’re right, because you can look at the side of the CD and they’ll jump out at you. And you’ll be like, "That’s next." I kind of miss that part where you see a cover and you’re like, "Yes." At first, that was difficult. Now I don’t even think about that anymore, really. At first that was an issue, but you get over it after doing it five or six times. It is better, though, because you can scroll through all the names of the bands. Sometimes, when you’re doing the spine thing, you’re just flipping and you’re not really thinking. But on the iPod these names are all going by, and the one that you want will jump out at you. I’ve gotten to the point now where I know what my next five songs are going to be anyway. So I just play it that way. I do a search for the exact song I want, and it comes right up, and I don’t have to worry about tons of CDs. And I don’t have to worry about putting the CD or the record in the wrong place anymore. I use an iPod and a Dell jukebox. On the Dell, you can make a playlist on the fly, and change the order of it, and they play one right after another, where on the iPod they kind of take a while to go to the next song. At the end of the night, I’ll put on Franz Ferdinand, followed by The Rapture, followed by The Killers or whatever, and go out and dance with everybody. [laughs] And that’s what they want; when it’s the last 20 minutes of the night, I know exactly what to play. So I just go out, and by that time I’m blitzed so I just go out and dance with everyone. As the DJ, when you go dance with the people at the club, they love it. It’s awesome.
Mike: In some ways, I feel like DJing is the biggest scam in the world.
Dan: It totally is. I get paid, I get drunk for free, and for the first hour, the bar doesn’t really fill up until 11, and the night starts at 10. So for the first hour, I literally just listen to all my favorite songs on a really great sound system with free drinks non-stop. What could be better? But I love dancing. So for me, the frustrating part is that you have to stand behind the booth and play all the songs I really want to be dancing to. There is that side. The guy that’s in my new band DJs also. He’s DJing tonight, so I’ll be there dancing all night, and he’ll be the one making the money and getting the free drinks.
Mike: For the uninitiated, which would include me, what is biodiesel?
Dan: It’s one of those hot topics right now. Willie Nelson uses it, and Jonathan Richman just toured on it. It’s diesel fuel that you can use in a regular diesel engine, but it’s derived from vegetable oil or waste animal fats, or cooking grease, or whatever. The book’s not going to be called this, but the working title is Biodiesel For Dummies. But it’s not going to be totally like the yellow Dummies books. If you don’t know anything about it you can pick it up and read it, and if you’re an engineer and you need to get some information, that information’s also going to be in there. What I want is a book that legislators can pick up and use, because we’re trying to get tougher legislation passed on this. And also if Joe Normal wants to go make it in his backyard, we want him to be able to get some ideas too.
Mike: Is this legislation something that would require auto manufacturers to implement biodiesel technology?
Dan: That part was already tackled. It’s at the point where you can put it in any diesel engine in America, the warranty is good, it’s not going to break the engine, it just works. So now the problem is price. And because oil prices are going through the roof, we’re becoming very competitive. Right now, if you make it out of used cooking oil, it’s competitive with petroleum diesel. But there’s such a limited amount of that that if we used all the cooking grease in America we wouldn’t even put a dent in the amount of diesel that’s burned. So what we really need is for people to be growing soybeans, or peanuts, or any oil seed, or a new oil seed that we haven’t found yet, that makes tons of oil. And making these crops specifically as energy crops to convert into biodiesel and use it in trucks. We’re trying to get subsidies for the people who want to be the first to do this, to make it so that the little guy, the farmer, can start making this stuff and actually make money off of it. Eventually, once it goes large-scale, it will be profitable. [laughs] Is that too much?
Mike: No, it’s interesting. It might not be the sexiest thing in the world, but it’s important.
Dan: Musicians really seem to like this field because of the touring aspect of it. Lollapalooza was going to be fueled on it, had Lollapalooza materialized this year. Because the tour vans are diesel vans, the tour buses are diesel buses, generally.
Mike: Any political thoughts in this political season?
Dan: Obviously, being an artist and someone who’s working to try to improve the environment, I certainly am behind this Democratic ticket. "Going Underground" is basically our song to Bush.
Mike: How so?
Dan: It was written at a time when Thatcher was in office. The Jam didn’t want to be a part of that world they were living in. And we feel the same exact way. It’s pretty much how we feel about Bush right now. If he’s re-elected, we don’t even want to be here anymore. My other band just did a moveon.org benefit and I DJed Monday at a voter registration thing. We’re very active because locally we have a lot of important races here too. The town commissioner is a pretty important race. Athens is a very small town, and there are a lot of issues here, because it’s basically divided between students and the people that live here year-round. And unfortunately, the students don’t get to vote because most of them are from Atlanta, so they kind of get walked all over, and it’s kind of weird. I live here and I own a house here, but I really feel for the students because if it weren’t for them, there wouldn’t be a town. So I’m kind of standing up for their rights, even though they have no idea I’m doing that. [laughs]