They are still the World Trade Center
One year later, Athens duo I Am the World Trade Center stands tallWednesday September 4, 2002 12:04 am EDT
Three things you're not likely to ever hear inside the modest Athens bungalow shared by Dan Geller and his longtime girlfriend Amy Dykes:
1) "You know, honey, we don't spend enough time together."
2) "I'm bored."
3) "What's in a name?"
You won't hear the first, because, as a fast-rising pop duo promoting a charming new album, The Tight Connection, Geller and Dykes not only share a house, they spend large chunks of the year touring together. Side by side in a car for long stretches between cities, negotiating the multiple facets of their relationship as lovers, business partners and creative collaborators. Side by side on stage for an exhilarating hour or two, bringing a much-needed dose of irony-free enthusiasm and danceing-foolery to the indie-rock set. And when they finally return from a grueling road trip, they drop their bags in the same bedroom.
The two wouldn't have much reason to spend a moment apart, perhaps, if it weren't for their other lives — the ones that prevent them from ever uttering that second statement. When she's not on the road, Dykes is a full-time UGA grad student pursuing a degree in fabric design and consulting in feng shui. Geller, meanwhile, co-owns Athens' best-known record label, Kindercore, which, over the past six years, has put out some of the town's best acts, including Of Montreal and the Sunshine Fix. It's also the label behind Kincaid and The Agenda, Geller's former and current other bands, both featuring his Kindercore partner, Ryan Lewis. Oh, and when he's not on tour with Dykes or helping run his label, Geller puts his advanced chemical engineering degree to use doing research on alternative fuels at a UGA lab.
If you know the name of Geller and Dykes' group, then you can probably guess about statement No. 3. But let's recap anyway.
At first, the name was just the coolest thing Dan Geller could think up. There he was, still in his 20s, already the veteran of one modestly successful rock act, and with a label whose success had grown beyond its Georgia college town and led him to New York City, where he and Lewis moved Kindercore in 1999. With Kincaid dissolving, Geller had begun investigating the possibilities of making music on his computer. Soon he considered turning those experiments into a one-man group — taking the stage with only his laptop.
He needed a name for the act. For inspiration, he mined the excitement he felt being in New York and, perhaps, his drive for a moniker even more audacious and eccentric (and larger) than the other Brooklyn band with a sentence for a name, They Might Be Giants.
"I was thinking of Kindercore bands like Vermont and Of Montreal," Geller says. "I always liked their names because they were locations. So I started naming off all the landmarks in New York and I got to the World Trade Center. And I said, 'Yeah, I can go up on stage and say, "I am the World Trade Center."' And when those words came out of my mouth, it was like, 'Oh my God, I Am the World Trade Center — that's the best name!'"
But before Geller ever made it on stage as a solo act, Dykes — by then, his girlfriend of two years — came to New York to join him, and the two moved into a tiny duplex together. "We lived next door to a 24-hour car service, and they had a Ms. Pac-Man machine against the wall," Geller says. "So all night you'd hear people yelling and playing Ms. Pac-Man. We got used to sleeping through anything. When she would go to bed, I would sit in the corner and work on music."
Dykes initially took a job fetching coffee for the execs at girls' clothing designer Delia's, but she soon joined Geller and Lewis on the staff of Kindercore. At night, Geller continued to shape his beginner's electronica. One day, he hit a dead end while working on a track, and Dykes happened to be awake at the time.
"I was thinking I needed a new instrument on this song," he says. "I didn't have anything else to play, and I was getting sick of all the samples. So I said to Amy, 'Hey, can you sing on this for me?'"
Though Dykes had never sung before and had no particular interest in starting, she obliged her boyfriend. Her vocal for the song "Holland Tunnel" turned Geller's novice IDM looping into what sounded like catchy electro-pop. It worked well enough that her initial take — essentially her first lead vocal ever — ended up on I Am the World Trade Center's debut album, Out of the Loop.
"I'd play that song for people and they'd freak out," Geller says. "Everyone had heard my stuff, and they were not too into it until the vocals hit. I think that really made a difference."
"I saved him," Dykes says, satisfied at having spared the world yet another self-indulgent IDM laptop button-pusher.
But while Dykes was happy to add vocals here and there to Geller's tracks, she had no intention of joining a band. Then Kindercore's Lewis took the liberty of submitting IATWTC's application for a showcase at South By Southwest's 2000 music conference in Austin, Texas. By then, Gellar and Dykes had only two completed songs, and had never performed live. Dykes, in fact, had never performed in front of an audience. Regardless, when the music critics and industry folks attending the conference came across this unknown group with an extraordinarily odd name, they were intrigued.
"Everyone was talking about the name," Geller says. "We did so many interviews beforehand. I would send people this CD-R with two tracks on it because everyone wanted to hear our music once they heard the name. And they just freaked out over it. So we had the front page of every newspaper — and this is our first show ever. I didn't even know what I was doing."
By show time, some 400 people had packed the club, while Dykes took shelter in the bathroom in anticipation of puking her guts out. "But she did really well," Geller says of the performance. "She really knocked it out. And we were a band after that."
When there was no turning back for Dykes, IATWTC became a duo. With this set-up so far removed from Geller's initial vision, he wondered whether they should change the name. It didn't take long, though, for the name's new implications to become clear — the two figures, standing side by side; separate bodies but a single entity.
"We realized all these things about the name that make so much sense with this band," Geller says. "It was even better now."
The name worked great as IATWTC hit the road, a sampler and MIDI keyboard in tow to create the music, while Dykes sang and Geller pushed the buttons. Their newfound notoriety took them to Europe late in 2000, and led to the release of Out of the Loop in early 2001. A 14-track album of cool, New York-centric electronic pop, it included the song l track number 11, in fact l "September."
By then, the couple had left New York and moved back to Athens.
"It was just too expensive to live there," Geller says. "We were just wasting money. We realized we could do Kindercore anywhere. We'd met the people we were going to meet. Our roots were here and our bands were here. We were still signing bands from Athens when we were in New York. It was home, and we came back home."
Once settled back into Athens, Dykes enrolled in grad school and Geller took his research job. They were in Athens about a year when IATWTC was invited back to New York to perform at the 2001 CMJ music conference. They booked a flight for Sept. 11, to get to town two days before their showcase.
The day started pretty much like it did for everyone else lucky enough to be far away from the destruction in the Northeast.
"I was walking and thinking about how awesome it was going to be in New York in the fall," Dykes says. "And then I got to class and a friend told me, 'Did you hear what happened?'"
"I was asleep," Geller says, "and my phone kept ringing and ringing, and I just ignored it. And finally on the 20th ring, I was like, 'Something's going on; I'll answer the phone.' And our old landlady was like, 'Turn on the TV.'"
Fairly early in the day, it crossed their minds that their band name was the same as a sight were untold thousands were dead — but more as a matter of trivia than anything else. "People were making jokes, like 'Hey, you got hit by a plane!" Dykes says. Geller adds, "Nobody thought what happened was going to happen. People thought it was just like a small plane that was going to bounce off."
But before the day was over, the British music paper NME contacted them wanting an official statement. And shortly after, MTV. "That's when I realized, 'Oh, we're going to have to talk about this,'" Geller says.
Within a few days, a statement was posted to the front page of www.iamtheworldtradecenter.com, where it remains today:
"I Am the World Trade Center was named after a symbol of New York, the city where we got our start. The Twin Towers represented many things to us, their giant presence on the skyline reminded us every day of what an amazing and overwhelming place we were living in. Also, the two towers, equal and independent yet still one entity, are a metaphor for the relationship Amy and I have developed both professionally and personally."
The statement also indicated that the group would be shortening its name to I Am the World out of respect for the victims, though Geller and Dykes hoped it would only be temporary. And to head off any possible jump in sales they'd get as a result of the notoriety, the group quickly promised to donate a portion of the sales from Out of the Loop to the United Way's Sept. 11 fund.
Unfortunately, for many, the statement came too late. As of Sept. 11, 2001, there was no www.worldtradecenter.com URL in use, so a Google search for "World Trade Center" returned IATWTC's site first on the results list. Some who visited the site were shocked when, instead of finding information on the World Trade Center attacks, they found what looked to be an audaciously offensive pop band using a national tragedy to promote itself.
"It was almost as if they thought we had created the band and the album and the website that day," Geller says. "People were like, 'How could you do this?' — like, 'How could you have done this today?' People just didn't get it. And it wasn't music fans — it was just people."
An explanatory e-mail to angry Web surfers was, for the most part, enough to calm the fury — though Geller recalls, "The most offensive stuff came from overseas. And it wasn't from people who supported America. It was anti-American people. They didn't make any sense at all. There were e-mails we got that were almost on the side of the terrorists, basically, and they hated us too."
Meanwhile, the statement quickly circulated in the halls of American (and international) journalism. If there were many music writers and features editors in the country unaware of IATWTC before September 2001, virtually none existed afterward. With everyone on the lookout for some relevant 9-11 story to fill entertainment pages, news of the pop band with the unfortunate name spread from the alternative press to the largest and smallest of dailies, to the national magazine, Newsweek.
"We knew it was going to get us publicity, but it was not going to be the kind of publicity that we wanted," Geller says.
Because the news items invariably made no mention of IATWTC's music, Geller claims, with some relief, that the group saw no major spike in sales in the months following Sept. 11. Except, that is, for sales of what they dubbed the "collector's pack," a suspicious phenomenon where someone who'd never purchased music from Kindercore in the past suddenly bought one copy of every record on which IATWTC appears — compilations, singles, album, all of it. They sold about 100 of those, at $98 a pop.
"I ran the website at the time, and I would see a charge for $98 and was like, 'Oh, another collector's pack,'" Geller says. "We learned how to fit it in a box perfectly, because so many people ordered the collector's pack. But it'd be so frustrating sending them limited-edition singles you knew were never going to get listened to. We'd see a $98 order and we knew it was either a record collector or a World Trade Center collector."
When the rush of notoriety subsided, Geller and Dykes were left with a name whose meaning had once again changed entirely. "We had discussed the name when we first started, but we really kind of left it at that," Geller says. "Because, before the disaster, I still think it was one of the best band names ever. I was really proud of that name, and it kind of lived on its own because it had this lighthearted thing to it. But after that day, we had to really think about what it meant to us and whether it was worth keeping."
Ultimately, they decided to keep it, reverting back to the full name by the end of 2001. After all, it was hard to find anything offensive about the name. In light of a tragedy that seemed to touch all Americans (and beyond) personally, I Am the World Trade Center now sounds like a bold statement of solidarity — even vulnerability. Besides, what purpose would it serve to wipe the words "World Trade Center" out of use?
"Up until about a month ago, I still questioned our name — whether we did the right thing by keeping it," Dykes says. "Then we played in New York, and I was talking to the guy who worked the door. He was probably 50, 55 — and we were talking about the name. He wanted to know why we had it and where it came from. He was actually in the World Trade Center when the planes hit, and one of his friends died. And he was telling me all these stories, and he was like, 'You know, I'm glad you kept it. Because you can't pretend like it didn't exist — you just can't.' It's kind of a patriotic thing for some people. After that, I was just like, 'I don't care if there are people who don't understand it. He was there and he approves of it.'"
Last month, Dykes and Geller began seeing a new batch of press about I Am the World Trade Center. This time, however, it was of the sort sought out by the group.
Their second album, The Tight Connection, had just come out and they were in the midst of a national tour. More than the debut, The Tight Connection represents an organic, equitable collaboration between two pillars: an instrumentalist and a lyricist/singer. Thankfully, there's no song that explicitly references Sept. 11. It's loose, fun-loving synth-pop from a rock perspective — closer to Blondie (whom they acknowledge in a faithful cover of "Call Me") than today's blip-and-bleep electronica — and Dykes' unpretentious swoon fits the mood perfectly. And while she still holds out plans for a design career, she sounds more comfortable than ever in her role as budding (indie-)pop star.
By extension, I Am the World Trade Center has embraced its identity as a successor to the B-52's, another Athens/New York band that emerged out of a stoic rock scene to remind people that it's OK to have fun and dance. To compensate for what they admit is a mostly automated musical portion of their live show, Geller and Dykes have become particularly animated on stage. When he's not pushing buttons and playing basic keyboard parts, Geller is often seen breakdancing or climbing into a club's balcony to slap hands with fans.
"I always feel weird when people call us musicians," he says. "Our live show is becoming more and more about performance and less and less about playing the song ourselves. And as that happens, the reaction is better and better. The show is really hyper right now. Pretty much, the music starts and we start jumping up and down, and we don't stop until the end of the show. It got to the point where I was just ready to vomit at the end."
Adding a sense of relief and, perhaps, closure to their past year, Dykes and Geller finally see people responding to the group for the right reasons. While the name will no doubt haunt IATWTC forever, for the first time since last September, it hasn't overshadowed the attention paid to the group's music and performance.
They mention a piece that aired on NPR around the time The Tight Connection came out. The story featured clips from a bunch of album tracks, and the critic focused exclusively on the music. Geller says he saw a notable spike in sales from the piece.
"The story itself didn't mention our name at all," Geller says. "The anchor just introduced it, saying, 'Believe it or not, there was a band before Sept. 11 that had the name ...'"