Local indie-folk band plays Knitting Factory
I’m walking down Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. It’s my first night in New York City, and it startles me to hear my name shouted. I turn to find This Story’s Justin Spring and Laura Relyea trailing me. Giant smiles stretch across their faces. “We just saw a film being made,” Relyea tells me.
“It’s Old Dogs with Robin Williams and John Travolta,” Spring explains. “All we got to do was look through a fence and watch someone get their hair done, though.”
I follow them into the Yippie Museum Coffee Shop as they continue to describe what they saw. Inside, two more members of the band sit against a wall on a red suede couch. Joey Morrow, the band’s drummer, reads a National Geographic, one of the many sitting on a glass coffee table top. Bassist Ian Duvall is checking MySpace on a laptop.
Minutes later, Gavin Wilkinson, the band’s leader, strides into the coffee shop with a bemused smile on his face. “We just got a parking ticket,” he laughs. “Sixty-five dollars for parking in a no parking zone before 6 p.m.”
The Indianapolis band This Story is in the midst of their second tour of the summer. Their first leg took them around the Midwest and into the South. This time around, they’re hitting the East. The tour has been called “Darling, It’s Tour II,” after their debut album Darling, It’s War, released by Indianapolis’ Standard Recording Company last November. The band will perform two shows in New York: the first at the Yippie Museum, a small coffee shop hidden among tiny restaurants and pastry shops and just a short walk from the Bowery, where CBGB’s once existed, followed by a show at Knitting Factory, one of the prestigious clubs in the city.
It will be their second performance at the venue, having been invited the summer before — an amazing accomplishment for a band whose age range is 18 to 22.
“We’re not expecting many people tonight,” Wilkinson says. “It’s a new place, but they said if we played loud people would come in off the street. Tomorrow is going to be great though.” He fidgets as his excitement grows. “There [are] going to be so many people. Not that it’s gonna sell out. But …” He trails off.
The story of This Story
Gavin Wilkinson is persistent. It’s a good thing. His will to succeed has pushed This Story to the success they’ve had and kept the band from crumbling during a tumultuous year. “This Story began as this awful sounding whiney attempt to craft pop hooks and poetic lyrics together,” Wilkinson says of his band’s origin. “I quickly became sick of the sound and feel of all the songs and realized I wasn’t making the music I wanted to at all.” Trying to flesh out his songs, he began to invite friends to perform with him, and in the fall of 2004, at the age of 16, he decided putting together a mini-orchestra was the way to go.
“I’ve become obsessed with finding friends who play an odd variety of instruments in an attempt to create an orchestra of some sort,” he says. “When I write, I always feel it takes a great deal of instruments to capture every intended bit of emotion put into the song. My parents wanted me to have a backup plan in case this music thing didn’t work out. But the way I see backup plans is you’re just planning for failure. I’d rather concentrate every second on my primary goal.”
In early 2006, Wilkinson’s primary goal included nine other teenaged musicians and one 21-year-old. With a lineup set, he began looking for a label with his sights set on Standard.
“Due to their age, we didn’t stake much time into planning something out,” says Kevin Phillips, who runs Standard along with Mark Latta. “More and more people would mention them in passing; mention how they wanted to release something with us.” It was Wilkinson’s persistence that sealed the deal. He sent e-mail after e-mail to Latta and Phillips, each correspondence ending with, “We love you guys so much.”
This Story joined Standard in April 2006, and they began working on their debut album. Everything was going Wilkinson’s way.
And then most of his band graduated from high school. For This Story, May 2006 ushered in a summer of change. His bandmates left for college or focused their attention on other projects. Undeterred, Wilkinson still had his band out on an East Coast tour, making their Knitting Factory debut. Throughout the remainder of the summer and into early fall, Wilkinson tinkered with the lineup. Members continued to leave, and new ones came in. Relyea and Morrow were among the changes.
A band that was full of chemistry and charisma now contained neither. Live performances looked like exercises in torture. Relyea stumbled around on stage with a tambourine, unsure of what to do, her backing vocals inaudible. Wilkinson, who only months before at Radio Radio had proclaimed he was having the best time of his life, now mumbled into the microphone, often apologizing to the audience for taking up their time. They were a confused group with zero confidence in their skills.
“I wasn’t about to give up,” Wilkinson says. “Nobody is going to stop me from achieving my goals.”
In November, after many delays, the band finally released Darling, It’s War. The album was a testament to what This Story had been, capturing the sound and energy of the previous lineup.
The next month the band, now just a six-piece, took the Locals Only stage during the Standard Christmas party. After months of frustration, they had a breakthrough.
Female backing vocals have always been the key to This Story’s music, entwining with Wilkinson’s gruff, anxious voice as if they are engrossed in performing a dramatic scene. Wilkinson adds urgency to each song, while the female tries to soothe and reassure him things will be OK. That night, Relyea, now seated behind a Wurlitzer, stole the show. Bathed in a blue spotlight, her voice rose above the many instruments, its beauty demanding attention. The other members fell into sync with her harmonies. Smiles crossed their faces as they played. This Story was having fun again.
Opportunities continued to pop up for the band — more so than for other groups on the Standard label. Last summer, they landed an opening slot for Cameron McGill right before he headed to Lollapalooza. This year, they’ve performed with Sufjan Stevens collaborator Denison Witmer and the Postmarks, another Lollapalooza-bound band that praised This Story as the perfect opening act. A second show between the two has already been booked.
Off to the record store
I meet This Story the next afternoon at the entrance to NBC Studios just down the block from 30 Rockefeller Plaza. “How was your night?” I ask.
“Great,” Relyea says. “We had the best falafels at 3 in the morning.”
“We got another ticket,” Wilkinson adds. “This time for parking too close to a fire hydrant.”
They huddle, making plans for the rest of the afternoon before they have to leave for the Knitting Factory. A decision is made to head to Times Square and visit the Virgin Megastore. Morrow raises his voice above the swarm of people swerving around the band, yelling, “One. Two. Three. This Story, break!” He claps his hands together once and the band breaks their huddle and takes off.
“There is an old saying in New York that people who live here look straight ahead, and tourists look up,” Wilkinson says as we weave through a growing throng of people. Soon the sides of skyscrapers are decorated with billboards and video screens, advertising everything from Target, Kodak and Discover Card to Broadway plays such as The Lion King and Wicked or Ultimate Fighting.
On one street corner stands the Naked Cowboy in his white cowboy hat, boots and underwear. His guitar rests against his chest, held in place by an American flag strap, while he poses for a picture with two women, his arms solidly wrapped around their bodies. “Want to get our picture taken with him?” Wilkinson asks. Nobody replies.
The band finds itself inside the Virgin Megastore. It’s full of music, movies and books, and as soon as the escalator hits the main floor the five musicians scatter. Wilkinson and Duvall move through rows of CDs, stopping at the letter “T.” They scour through the discs, hunting for Darling, It’s War. It’s a futile search. The store doesn’t carry the album. They shrug and head their separate ways: Duvall takes off for the metal section while Wilkinson peruses classic country music, stopping to examine the Hank Williams selections.
As they move around the store they pass John Lennon action figures dressed in the white New York City shirt. There are sections of Batman comics, which make Relyea pause and think of Justin Spring, a diehard Batman and comic book fan. One area of the floor has a digital image of Nirvana’s Nevermind album cover on it. The baby floats through the water and every time someone steps on the image, it bounces a different direction.
They soon head back onto the street. New Yorkers pass around them, many carrying the new Harry Potter book — released only hours before at midnight. Some walk with the book open, reading as they maneuver the city streets. The band is not immune to intrusions of Potter-mania. Wilkinson gets a text message that proclaims, “Shit is hitting the fan in the wizard world.” Morrow gets a phone call from his girlfriend and jokingly says, “Someone told me they looked at the last chapter and Harry dies.” Moments later he is frantically apologizing and explaining it was just a joke.
Wilkinson reflects on their time in Washington, D.C. — their previous stop on the tour. “Joey said everything was patriotic. There were patriotic statues of lions that leapt on people who weren’t patriotic enough. And patriotic piranhas in the water surrounding the Jefferson Memorial.”
“What’s patriotic in New York?” I ask.
“Whatever I decree as patriotic,” Morrow responds.
“I better call the Knitting Factory and see what time we need to be there,” Wilkinson says, taking out his cell phone and stepping away from the group. He’s back a moment later. “We need to go. We have to be there at 6 and it’s almost 5.”
The big gig
The Knitting Factory sits on Leonard Street, opposite an apartment complex that looks more like a warehouse. Part of the street is torn up by construction. The banks and businesses around it have closed down for the day. It is unusually quiet after walking through busy New York streets. Standing at the door is a bouncer who pleads for people to line up along the edge of the sidewalk. “You’ll keep the neighbors happy,” he says, leaning against the doorway and sighing. “This is a hard neighborhood for a rock club.”
A narrow brick hallway leads from the doorway into the bowels of the Knitting Factory. Posters line the walls and a chalkboard rests near a red staircase, presenting the lineup of bands and which of the three stages they perform on. This Story is heading to the basement, and for several minutes they lug their equipment from their retired black SWAT team bus down the narrow hall and the equally narrow, winding staircase — except for the drums. Morrow has been informed he must use the house set.
The basement is dark. The brick walls are painted red and the floor is concrete. The only light emits from the bar at the back of the room. The stage rises just a few inches off the ground. “The Knitting Factory” is written across the backdrop in swirling Willy Wonka-esque letters. The band situates their equipment along one wall.
This Story drifts in and out of the basement throughout the night. Duvall and Morrow head upstairs to check out the other stages while Wilkinson heads outside for frequent cigarette breaks. Relyea and Spring sit at a small circular table playing a card game called Speed.
It’s 11 p.m. when they perform. The band scrambles, hauling equipment onto the stage. Spring sets up his xylophone while behind him Duvall sound checks his bass. Relyea pulls wires out from a blue bag and begins plugging them into the Wurlitzer. Wilkinson strums his guitar while Morrow struggles with the drum set.
Minutes pass and the band doesn’t play. “What’s going on?” someone asks.
“We need a high-hat for the drum set,” Spring replies.
There is conversation on the stage. Spring suddenly leaps off and runs for the door. Wilkinson steps to the microphone and begins playing an acoustic solo number. As he sings, Spring runs back in, high-hat in hand. Morrow takes it from him and begins screwing it into place. With the drum set fixed, This Story is ready to officially begin.
They break out “Madeline, Get Your Gun” to open the set. Wilkinson is intense, his hand striking the guitar strings while Relyea’s voice overpowers everything on stage.
They slow down for “11 Hours.” As Wilkinson sings, Morrow grows frustrated. Something is wrong, this time with the snare. “It’s not me,” Morrow complains between songs. “It’s these drums.”
Relyea joins Wilkinson center stage for “Catherine.” Morrow tries to keep a steady beat on his cymbals while working on the drum set, giving each bronze sphere an angry blast. But just as Morrow thinks he’s finally ready to go, the drum set breaks down again.
Last February, This Story performed with Denison Witmer at the Harrison Center. There was a twist in the lineup, though. Witmer played second, followed by This Story. After Witmer was finished, the packed house began to drift out into the cold night, leaving This Story an audience of mostly empty seats. Their spirits crushed, they limped through several songs and then gave up.
It wasn’t the first time the band seemed to give up on stage. After the massive lineup changes, if something went wrong, This Story tended more to sulk on stage than rock.
But not tonight. Maybe it’s New York City, but This Story isn’t caving in.
The band pushes on despite the problems. Fans move up to the stage, dancing as Wilkinson and Spring stomp around, swinging their guitar and banjo, screaming into the microphone together. Relyea beams from her Wurlitzer as her fingers glide over the keyboard and she watches the intensity of her bandmates build. At the back of the stage is Morrow, who, faced with a malfunctioning drum set, does what he does best: pound the drums. Hard.
They close the night with “Alfie’s Blues in E Major,” a song inspired by Woody Allen’s character in Annie Hall. It’s an appropriate song to end with, not because they are in New York City, but because it’s an epic number that grows in scope and volume, ending with a chaotic explosion of noise.
When the music has stopped and the clapping subsides, the five bandmates begin clearing the stage of instruments. Audience members come up to them, shaking hands, congratulating them on a strong performance.
“They told us we had to use the house drum set, but then when we get here it’s in shambles,” Morrow complains as he bags up supplies. “I’m pissed.”
He forces his drumsticks into the bag. A girl saunters up beside him. “That was a really great set tonight,” she says. “What was your name again?”
“This Story,” he answers, and pride overpowers the frustration in his voice.
Role with band: singer-songwriter, guitarist
Influences: Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Robert Johnson, Sinning, Jefferson, Johnny Cash, Woody Allen, Wes Anderson, Ingmar Bergman
Favorite New York moment: “My conversations with A.J. Weberman.”
Role with band: Wurlitzer, backing vocalist, charmer
Influences: Innocence Mission, Kings of Convenience, Sufjan Stevens, Lemon Jelly, Regina Spektor, Devandra Barnhart, David Vendervelde
Favorite New York moment: “One morning Justin and I got up at 6 a.m. to go to church, which ended up not being until 6 p.m. So we went around adventuring all over New York. We walked eight miles that day and found hidden water parks, boats, ice rinks and amazing buildings. My sister came down from Boston. We hung out in Greenwich Village. It was glorious times 10,000.”
Role with band: bass, humor
Influences: metal and hardcore
Favorite New York moment: “Walking barefoot on the shore of Coney Island.”
Role with band: drummer, youth and vitality
Influences: Buddy Rich, Miles Davis, the drummer from My Morning Jacket, Danny Carey
Favorite New York moment: “Meeting A.J. Weberman was amazing.”
Role with band: banjo, mallets, beard
Influences: My Morning Jacket, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, Modest Mouse, Robert Johnson, Devendra Banhart, Jefferson
Favorite New York moment: “Pulling out of the Holland tunnel into Manhattan and realizing we would have three or four days to enjoy the city.”
Role with band: trumpet, saxophone, guitar
Influences: Scofield, Martin, and Wood, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Nickel Creek, Miles Davis
Favorite New York moment: Knox was unable to travel with the band this time around, but from previous New York touring experiences, he says he enjoys “the days off walking around and exploring the city.”
Label: Standard Recording Company
Album: Darling, It’s War, released November 2006
Sounds like: This Story, a six-piece indie-folk band, crafts songs with lyrical content that play out like short stories accompanied by a layered soundtrack of guitars, keyboards, drums and horns. Often compared to the Arcade Fire for their orchestral approach to songmaking, This Story’s closest modern music relative may be Portland, Ore.’s Norfolk and Western.
WHAT: 2007 IUPUI New Student Welcome with This Story and Real Game. Speakers include Chancellor Charles R. Bantz, Executive Vice Chancellor Uday Sukhatme and Spencer Harris
Where: behind University Library, IUPUI
WHEN: Tuesday, Aug. 21, 3-5 p.m., picnic starts at 3:30 p.m., free, all-ages, public welcome