The Lyriqs, an unknown rock band that aspire to someday become famous, played their first gig on a rainy Saturday night at the Yippie Café in the Bowery. The Yippie is a hippie holdout from the 1960s. Poets and songwriters used to gather there to talk revolution over coffee. One wall holds a mural of Abbie Hoffman. Another wall, a painting of a giant mushroom. Bob Dylan used to play the Yippie when he was starting out, his small audiences clueless he would become the voice of their generation. Turnout is low is at the Yippie on this rainy night as well.
The large majority of the audience is Quatrone family members who have driven in from New Jersey to catch the group's first live set. John and Eric Quatrone—half brothers, 22 and 21—play guitar and drums respectively. They hail from Lyndhurst, New Jersey, the town where much of The Sopranos was filmed and where they claim actual mob activity takes place. The third member, a 22-year old from Los Angeles named Alex Amini, plays bass. He is treated like a Quatrone. An aunt he has only met once foists a foil-wrapped tray of home cooked lasagna upon him. The excitable polish woman who can hardy sit in her seat is Lorraine Quatrone, John's mother. "Oh, these guys are going to be big," she squeaks. "I know it!"
The band look fatigued setting up. The past few days have consisted of rigorous practice sessions: constant rehearsals of their simple five-song set. If asked, they could probably play the tunes backwards. There have been fights, mini coups, and rebellions. They finish setting up and face the audience with their instruments.
John thanks the audience for coming out on a rainy night. Silence. He turns to the band and nods. The Lyriqs jump into a feisty version of Chuck Berry's "Jonny B Good" and the dour Yippie transforms into a lively place; to pedestrians outside it's taken on the temporary semblance of a rowdy bar. Audience members tap their feet and clap. Family members who trekked to Manhattan simply to show support, but weren't expecting much, are genuinely impressed. "That's my son!" Lorraine squeaks.
"Take it!" John shouts to Eric during a solo break. Eric batters out an aggressive pattern. Alex solos next, thumping the song's bass line. The band leaps in again after him. The Lyriqs are treated to their first-ever roaring applause.
Next is a Beatles tune: "All My Loving." It's shaky, like someone accidentally tripping through a clutter of pots and pans, but it's got heart. After all, the Lyriqs adore the Beatles, a band that has probably had more influence on them than any other group. The three young men disagree on many things, quarrels aren't uncommon, and they live different lifestyles—but they unanimously agree that the Beatles were the singular musical act. As a consequence their music is inevitably compared that of the Beatles', a source of ribbing frustration for the band.
Their first original of the night, "Too Much," is a slow bittersweet ballad introduced by steady acoustic strumming accented by groaning bass. No drums. John's soothing croons travel through the audience like an enveloping mist. His words arrest them. At last, the audience is mesmerized by the scrappy three-piece before them.
"When she comes to me in the night, I know that no one can treat her right," he sings reassuringly. "When she comes to me in a dream, I see her sorrow. I know her pain." Then his dramatic stand-alone chorus: "Isn't it too much? Isn't it too much? Oh, isn't it too much?" Eric enters with a simple backbeat and the song begins its travel.
Several people shout for an encore. It's not out of pity. The band deliberates what to play. They turn towards the audience. John nods to the band. They leap into another Beatles tune, "I Saw Her Standing There."
* * * * *
The Lyriqs are living one of New York City's most beloved tales: three young men who would have probably never met otherwise come to New York City, meet, and then decide to start a rock band. It happened this way for the Stooges, The Velvet Underground, Blondie, The Talking Heads, The Strokes, Vampire Weekend, and countless others. Oftentimes the members of these bands met serendipitously, trading needles, beers, joints and jokes before a note was ever played, and they were often only merely proficient on an instrument before coming up with the zany idea to start a rock band. But some of these groups went onto make rock history. The question is, will the Lyriqs go on to do the same?
The possible future of rock and roll can be heard daily coming out of the band's apartment window on 103rd Street and West Broadway. The sound is loud and rudimentary but pleasant, occasionally skipping a beat or tripping over a note. John, who has shaggy blonde hair that spools his face, is graced with a warm velvet voice. He goes inward when he sings. Even during casual band practices he closes his eyes to sing, carefully producing each lyric with respect for its words. But his voice sometimes cracks on high notes. Alex's bass is sometimes too loud, distorting the amp. He fumbles every so often. Eric is an impressive drummer (the most technically able musician in the band) but he's sometimes constrained by the repetitive tempos of the tunes and starts outplaying the group.
But their sound gets finer with every passing day. It flows from a living room converted practice room. Walls are amateurly sound-proofed with blankets and pillows. There's a broken window from when an irritated neighbor threw a jar of jam through it. Eric is a quiet young man who believes actions speak louder than words. Of medium height and muscular, he sports a devilish goatee. Several days after the window incident he took a bottle of wine and threw it back through the aggressor's window.
Alex Amini's room is covered with tie-dye cloths and Jimi Hendrix posters. On his windowsill are two plants named Mick and Paul. Amini is tall and handsome, half Iranian and half Jewish, possessing thick eyebrows, big lips and a mane of rich black hair. He studies at the New School University, which is where he met John. He says his biggest fear is to work a 9 to 5 job one day and he claims he can't go to sleep without smoking a joint.
John spends much of his time in his room, an untidy space littered with poetry books, hand-written lyrics, and Beatles records. He is 22, older than both his bandmates, and unlike them he doesn't work a job. This irritates them. While they are out studying or working he sits in his bed wearing his favorite leather jacket practicing, writing, and fantasizing. They've tried to delicately push the matter on him, but to no avail. Writing good music, he insists, requires time.
Quatrone decided he wanted to be a musician precisely one year ago after he wrote "Too Much," which is about how love can be an overwhelming feeling. He wrote it about his mother. "I knew I was a songwriter after 'Too Much,'" he says. "Everything before that was sweet and cutesy. This was inspired. That had never happened to me before."
Quatrone was a senior studying literature at the New School at the time, only weeks away from graduation. But after composing "Too Much" on a scrappy piece of yellow paper he found himself falling deeper into the creative process, so much so that he had to ask for an extension on his senior work (which he finished the following year). He asked Eric, a casual drummer, if he wanted to form a band. He then asked Alex, whom he'd acted with in a university production of the Tempest, if he wanted in. They'd both had only two lines in the entire play. They'd gotten to know each other in large gaps of time together backstage. Coincidentally, Alex had recently toyed with a bass for the first time at a friend's house party, and he'd enjoyed the experience, so he said yes.
"Wanna be in my band?'" Quatrone remembers asking Amini. He laughs. "There was no band!"
* * * * *
The past few weeks have been grueling for the Lyriqs. They are preparing for a rite of passage: the first recording session. If all goes well they'll have a three-track demo CD that can be used to get gigs. It's a vital calling card they don't yet have. But preparation has been taxing. They are tired, mind-numbed from playing the same songs over and over again. "Too Much" now sounds like an exercise more than it does a passionate ballad. "I hear the songs in my sleep now," says Eric.
They have booked four hours at the Royal Blue Studio in Bedford Stuyvesant, a far from gentrified neighborhood deep into Brooklyn often patrolled by police cars. The session is a major monetary investment for them. Amini is left practically broke. The band looks out of place as they haul their gear up a dirty littered street on April 10th. On arrival they stare awestruck at the dozens of framed gold records that the studio's owner, Robert Honablue, has engineered: Santana's "Abraxas," Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew," Dave Brubeck's "Take Five," and the "Woodstock" album. Their jaws drop again when they enter the main studio. Larger than their apartment, it's equipped with a grand piano, a large drum kit, expensive vintage amplifiers, a Hammond Organ, and a Leslie Rotary Speaker—a large wooden box responsible for creating the swirling organ sound found on many classic rock recordings, notably in the Beatles' more psychedelic work. Eric notes that the band is on the clock and gets to work adjusting the kit. Alex marvels at the studio. He turns to John. "Are we maybe a little in over our heads?" he asks. "No," John replies tersely. "We can't think like that."
Robert Honablue opens the heavily soundproofed door wearing snakeskin shoes, a shirt opened four buttons down, and a gold chain around his neck. There's a scar across his face. He is kind but distant, seeming slightly perturbed by the young band in front of him. After introductions and employ of his firm handshake he shuts the door and enters the engineering room. From the other side of a wide soundproof windowpane he observes the band with his recording assistant. A crackle comes from a speaker overhead. Honablue's voice: "Ok, we have to take levels."
The band, not entirely sure what is happening, begin taking turns playing their instruments. Simple instructions emit from the speaker. "Louder." "Quieter." "Move away from the mike." "Please move away from the mike." After twenty minutes of tune ups, tune downs, cable switches, and volume adjustments, the speaker crackles: "We're ready when you're ready." The studio lights go dim.
The Lyriqs makes seven false starts on "Too Much" before they finally get a take going. Playing is tense and awkward. John misses a few verses and Eric switches tempo several times. The song finishes to a quiet humming room with no family members' roaring applause. The speaker crackles: "Ok. Come in and listen."
The band sits in the dark engineering room where tape decks, spinning spools, and large blinking machines surround them. In front of Honablue lies a long soundboard spanning the width of the room. The band is ecstatic to hear itself for the first time on record. Honablue flicks a button, reclines into his seat, and the recording begins.
The band slap each other High Fives as the song starts to play, but they soon begin to cringe and sweat quietly. John's voice is weak and unconfident. Alex plays too fast. Eric switches tempo several times. "It sounds like amateurs," Eric mumbles. When the recording finishes the band is slightly red in the face. They shake their heads quietly. No one offers to review or analyze. "Now you've heard what it sounds like," Honablue says flatly.
The band tries more takes in the studio. Some sound worse than the last batch. It turns torturous. Each time the red light comes on the band prepares itself for another lashing, another struggle through a normally beloved song. They start to play cautiously. An air of stress pervades the room.
"You guys are out of tune," the speaker crackles. The members, beaded with sweat, look at each other cluelessly. "I thought we were in tune," Alex says. "Me too," John agrees. Eric nods his head from behind the drum kit.
The soundproof door opens and Honablue strides over to the grand piano at the other end of the room to sound a resonant chord. "This is an E," he says. "I want you guys to tune to it." He takes turns with Alex and John, playing chords as they tune to them. The process takes several minutes. "This is called 'concert pitch,'" he explains. "Concert pitch is standard tuning, and you can always get it from a piano." John and Alex tune up and ready for the next take. The lights go dim. "We can't start without you Robert," the recording assistant says through the speaker. Honablue yells towards the windowpane: "I'm not coming back."
He stands in front of the band as they restart their uncertain wade through more takes of "Too Much." He stiffly waves his hand up and down, mouthing meter, to help them keep tempo. He provides advice at the end of each take. "You want to accent the chords," he tells John. "Maybe you should try it slower," he suggests to Eric. He gives Alex advice on volume.
Smiles emerge on the countenances of the Lyriqs. They start looking at each other instead of towards the floor. Affirmative head bobs are exchanged mid-song. Struts are present. A focused harmony arises, a determination to create. When the final take ends—and the band is asked to remain silent for the recording reel—they can't hold their chuckles and sniggers.
Honablue sets up the playback in the recording room as the band sit bobbling with energy, exchanging gracious compliments and innumerable back slaps. But a moment of tension quickly arrives, the start of a sinking gut drop that could potentially land on the suffocating realization that the Lyriqs suck. The tape starts.
The first takes are average and not entirely heartening. The last take, however, shines from its start. It echoes but supersedes their performance at the Yippie: John's misty-enveloping introduction, Eric's confident establishment of tempo, Alex's moody grooving bass; then a measured coruscating guitar solo and finally a harmonious close led forth by John's tearful whistling of the melody. In this dim studio so far from Lyndhurst, New Jersey, however, John's whistling only sounds triumphant. The tape ends. Honablue swivels to face the band. He is not entirely able to disguise his grin. "What do you guys think?" John asks the band. "Do we want to keep that one?"
This piece was originally reported and written in the spring of 2010. The goal was to profile a young band in its earliest stages, warts and all. The Lyriqs have so far progressed favorably, becoming one of the most successful rock and pop outfits in New Jersey. They play weekly at Cecil's Jazz Club in West Orange and at Pianos in Bloomfield. Alex Amini has since left the band due to creative differences. They are currently recording their first album.