Film

Meet Me In The Bathroom: nostalgic retelling of a New York moment

This new film is a fascinating snapshot of late-nineties New York cool, and the bands that came to define the era

The Strokes band

The Strokes, who feature in Meet Me In The Bathroom. Image: Colin Lane

Rock and roll was not dead as it approached the new Millennium. But it was having one of its semi-regular power naps. Then The Strokes came along. All skinny jeans, New York cool, clanging guitars and perfect pop choruses. And, as documented in new film Meet Me In The Bathroom, almost overnight –with barely enough songs to fill an LP let alone a live set – they were hailed as saviours.

The NME loudly (and with huge relief) proclaimed a new New York scene. That these disparate musicians had geography and little else in common was moot. The music press needed new heroes. And in The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, plus The Moldy Peaches and later LCD Soundsystem, they found them.

Meet Me In The Bathroom is directed by Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace, and based on Lizzy Goodman’s exhaustive 2017 book of the same name. It collects stories from all sides of this sprawling scene with energetic, exciting archive footage and incisive new audio interviews.

Karen O records on the floor
Image: Emily Wilson Photography

“This might be a weird analogy, but I’m not a superhero film fan. I always like the origin story more than battling the big space aliens,” says Southern, who previously worked with Lovelace on Blur film No Distance Left To Run, LCD Soundsystem farewell concert film Shut Up and Play The Hits plus videos for Bjork and Arctic Monkeys. So it is that we see so much of the pre-fame New York moments, full of joy, excitement and possibility. Karen O recording on an old four-track tape machine on her Lower East Side bedsit floor – a smart songwriter in search of a sense of belonging. She found it across the road at the Sidewalk Cafe, forming Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

Kimya Dawson and Adam Green of the Moldy Peaches arrive in New York in search of musical comrades, becoming key players in the anti-folk scene before joining The Strokes on their early tours. Interpol are plugging away below the radar, full of ambition and drive. By contrast, The Strokes emerge fully formed, looking and sounding the epitome of rock and roll – the spirit of the late 1970s New York CBGBs New Wave scene flowing through every vein and every chorus. Future LCD Soundsystem singer and DFA Records co-founder James Murphy was about to get turned on to dance culture with a little help from David Holmes and ecstasy, pushing guitar bands into the clubs both sides of the Atlantic.

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“We wanted to show it wasn’t just skinny jeans and Converse. There was lots happening.” continues Southern. “But the main reason we chose those bands is because each of our characters has a coming-of-age arc. So Karen O was the shy girl who comes to the city, discovers an exciting scene, develops this alter ego – but then what are the ramifications of that? Moldy Peaches were doing their idiosyncratic thing but somehow became linked with this scene. The Strokes thought they’d made it when they played the Mercury Lounge – that was the limit of their ambition. So what happened next was challenging. And James Murphy has his coming-of-age moment in his 30s, by accident. We were interested in how we could make it universal, as well as a music film.”

These origin stories are smartly set against the cultural moment. It was a moment of great technological and political change. There is jeopardy throughout. The perceived threat of Y2K and fears it would bring our computer age to a sudden halt, the arrival of Napster and its impact on the music business, the spiralling cost of housing in Manhattan that led to an artistic exodus to Brooklyn. Then, of course, there is the horror of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre. Footage of a shellshocked Paul Banks from Interpol, walking through the ashes of downtown Manhattan literally places the musicians in the historical context.

“We wanted to tell a story of the city through the eyes of these people, through this creative community,” says Lovelace.

Karen O belting out Our Time – “It’s our year to be hated / So glad we made it” – in a Williamsburg parking lot, the following year, looking over a sea of fans feels like the scene’s peak, though they would play to bigger crowds in the future. This was a day of celebration, of arrival, of belonging. But after the thrill of the musical misfits finding their people comes the reality check, the come down. The music industry, the rampant misogyny, the pressures of fame take their toll. Suddenly being in these bands no longer looks fun.

“The Strokes, at the beginning, listed a bunch of cliches that they didn’t want to end up doing – drugs, falling out with each other, dating models,” says Southern. “Then they seemed to go through that like a checklist. Karen O created this persona on stage that was freeing for her. But ultimately it was the cause of real physical and emotional damage. They all go through this process of having to reckon with the reality of the thing they were working towards. Be careful what you wish for.”

A crowded dancefloor in New York
A DFA Records party. Image: Ruvan Wijesooriya

Two decades on, The Strokes have recorded a new LP, Yeah Yeah Yeahs released Cool It Down to rave reviews last year, and both play All Points East in London this summer. Moldy Peaches, meanwhile, play their first UK dates since the 2002 Reading Festival this March. LCD Soundsystem did not stay retired long following their last ever concert at Madison Square Garden in 2011.

That original creative spirit, captured so brilliantly in Meet Me In The Bathroom, still finding a way through despite everything.

Meet Me In The Bathroom is in cinemas from 10 March

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