Coverage and photographs by Parisa Mahdad
Bordering Chinatown and the Lower East Side is Projective Space, a co-working space on 72 Grand Street. Settled on the third floor above a TD bank, its sign in Chinese, and long-time tenant, Zarin Fabrics, the building pays homage to the neighborhood’s past, witness to mass movements of new tenants since 1936.
Projective Space is also Sofar Sounds NYC’s home base, local musicians and local listeners passing through the open space, which is framed by large windowed walls and dark wooden floor panels.
Saturday’s line-up consisted of three acts that played for a crowd of about 120 cultured listeners. In standard Sofar fashion, each set consisted of four songs with a ten-minute break to stretch the legs, keep drinkin the beer they brought, and/or pee it out.
Pants Velour, an 8-member band, took to the floor first. It was a moment of suspense really- that moment when the music is about to start and you think to yourself, “Eight people? This is going to be interesting.” The drummer sat down at his cajon and took a swig from his flask. A guy with a mic was wearing his sweatshirt inside out. A young woman fitted in a backless, tight black dress and black boots strutted from her seat on the couch to the stage. Then there was a man in a leather jacket, an upright bass, an acoustic guitar, a keyboard, a backup vocalist. What could this sound like?
Refreshing. Pants Velour is high energy. A hip-hop, pop, and R&B hybrid, the New York based band is led by front woman, Niki Darling, who was joined by two emcees, Josh Raff and Eli Northrup at the forefront of the performing space. The band introduced their signature humor in their first song, High in the City, prefacing “We could say that this song is about climbing the social ladder, but really it’s about taking hard drugs in New York City.”
The audience was hit by two impressive emcees, a strong lead vocalist who could easily join the ranks of any pop diva, R&B style backing vocals, and acoustic guitar with a classical Spanish flair- all while lyrics of crushing OxyCoton and contemplating cocaine stream through intermittent rap and melody. It left the senses pretty stimulated.
“We’re not the close your eyes and snap your fingers kind of band. We’re gonna make you move,” Darling asserted.
And the audience moved, clapping when they were prompted to clap, even waving their arms side to side.
But It’s Us Though offered the most shocking lyrics of the evening and maybe of any live performance I’ve heard from a local band in the past year, teetering between flirtatious and hardcore- getting drunk over brunch cocktails and wanting the hostess alongside the vivid depiction of female ejaculation.
The drums and bass shine, their presence strongest in this song. The keyboardist also makes his versatile talents known as he took a momentary pause from keeping rhythm on the keyboard and broke out into falsetto for a vocal solo. Consistent with a draw towards sounds from far away, the guitarist included some Middle Eastern motifs, emulating iconic sitar scales.
The complexity of this band derives from hilarious, audacious lyrics that are packaged by extremely talented musicians, leaving the audience not only smiling but in awe. With so many moving parts, the band is well blended and well arranged.
And though the band can joke and introduce songs with far-fetched stories of a sexy night with a beautiful girl on a children’s beach in Monaco, or unknowingly spending the evening with a call girl in Las Vegas, the band does offer heart-felt emotions as they did in their final song, Candy, with lyrics taking a relatively heavier turn, “Who says you gotta be lonely…Somebody to love me is all I need.” All instruments were carefully interlaced in this ballad. The lead vocalist ended the set in full intensity by sustaining the last note of the song for at least 20 seconds, gaining much deserved woos and applause from the audience.
Pants Velour left me skeptical of who could top a band that aroused an audience to such an extent, until John Splithoff, a singer-songwriter from Chicago, began his set with his greatest strength, his falsetto, which silenced the audience and left me with a “Hmm” in reverence for this man’s voice. He didn’t even get fifteen seconds into his first song before the audience broke out into cheers and applause.
Though his personable nature exposes his Mid-western roots, Splithoff is currently based in New York as he gears up for his Northeastern tour this spring. His acoustic guitar in hand, he sat between saxophonist, Jake from Connecticut, and percussionist, Mike from Philly, on the cajon and djembe.
His songs are sexy. R&B sexy. Slow jam sexy. James Blake sexy. You get it. The cajon is sharp and precise. The saxophone is the only instrument that can keep up with suggestive lyrics like “I don’t know where you go after you get out of my bed.” Splithoff’s voice is soulful.
Genuinely surprised by the overwhelming applause and approval of his first song, Love Affair, Splithoff emanates a humility and groundedness that most musicians don’t expose to an audience.
If his first song felt like the soundtrack that you want to get down to, What If She Wants You is the song that would set the mood for such an evening to unfold. Soft backup vocals grounding John’s falsetto and jazz inspired saxophone make you feel like you’re listening to him in a swanky East Side high-rise penthouse paired with low lighting and a classic view of the city at night. The song ended in a cappella and snapping with a hint of gospel feels. “It feels good to snap,” Splithoff joked, a nudge to Pants Velour’s earlier comments. The crowd laughed and so did nearby Pants Velour.
Splithoff is equally primed at expressing sensual encounters as he is the vulnerability of love. In Leave It All Behind, Splithoff sang, “I’m starting to feel like I’m losing myself to these lonely days and this empty space in my heart.” He described the song as a situation in which having “been through a great deal with a person, it takes a lot to move forward and be positive about the relationship.” Fittingly, Splithoff stripped down the supporting instrumentation on this song, save for his strumming and soft backing vocals.
Splithoff rounded out his set like the upbeat Saturday that it was with an unreleased song called Sing To You, returning to the sharp, fast-paced percussion and staying mainly in his strong, mid-range vocals. Though he did sprinkle the second verse with his falsetto, Splithoff showed the vast range of his voice by emulating a bass as the song broke down and layers of backup vocals and percussion joined him. As the end of the song sped up, the trio sang, “You don’t have to worry. Just let me sing to you” on repeat.
The night couldn’t have ended without some Brooklyn love. Iris Lune was represented by three of their four players: Ella Joy Meir on vocals and keyboard, Asher Kurtz on electric guitar, and Angelo Spampinato on mini keyboard and electric drum. Their first song was a thorough introduction of what this indie alternative band feels like- poetry entangled in the sounds of the dream state. Ella sang, “I stumble on your happiness like a fist full of thorns.” Unconventional, she heavily breathed into the mic for some time, serving as an instrument itself at one point in the song.
Iris Lune’s songs are short and sweet, yet they leave a deep impact on the listener. Their ambient sound creates space to be pensive, a lift from the muddled feelings of our feet on the ground. Ella draws her influences from Bjork, Radiohead, and Israeli music, while the band as a whole has garnered inspiration from Bon Iver, Radiohead, and James Blake.
It’s hard not to focus on Ella’s vocals, ethereal and unconfined, qualities at times in contrast to the darker undertones of her lyrics. In the band’s unreleased song, Paper Mache, she sang, “Save me from myself. I’ve been in the dark too long. Paper Mache love, make me believe I can change.” The electric guitarist trascended with tingling motifs throughout while he sang back up harmonies unmic-ed, a small detail, potentially spontaneous, that added a sound quality that has yet to leave my mind.
The band doesn’t deny their darker subject matter. “This next song is a happy one. It’s about a man killing himself. We hope you like it,” Ella prefaced nonchalantly. The crowd laughed. The song was dreamy, ambient, and again, poetic, fluctuating between high and low. Though Ella embellishes the song with great keyboard fills, the song is subtle, almost minimalist.
The night ended with Triplets from their first EP. “I want to finish this set on my own,” Ella subtly announced. Some female woos followed. I may have been the first to begin those signs of solidarity. The air in her voice was wispy but the performance as a whole was serious and dramatic. Allowing the physical to come into sound, she vocalized the sound of racing heartbeats several times during the song amidst lyrics such as, “Like leaves craving for a solid ground, you will never again look me in the eye. My heart beats in triplets.”
The band is in the process of recording their second EP and has a show on April 1st at Brooklyn’s C’mon Everybody.
The night was beautifully diverse, each band contributing sound and content unlike that of the other. As the building in which we sat perched above a neighborhood of intermingling cultures and history, so too did the evening exhibit artists that cross genres and create hybrids, upholding the unpredictability of local culture in New York City and its ever evolving music scene.
Sofar Sounds began in North London when two friends, Rafe and Rocky were tired of watching bands play in bars where clinking glass and noisy patrons drowned out the musicians performing. The pair began hosting small shows at a friend’s apartment with local musician friends. Since its inception in 2009, Sofar Sounds has operated primarily through volunteers and local hosts across 236 cities across the globe. Its aim is to bring local culture and local music to intimate settings and attentive, respectful listeners.