L-R: Lesley Hann, Samantha Urbani, Nikki Shapiro, Oliver Duncan, Matthew Molnar (via Facebook)
On a frosty Thursday in October, Friends entered the CMJ vortex.
The quintet - singer Samantha Urbani, Lesley Hann, Nikki Shapiro, Oliver Duncan and Matthew Molnar - had only been a band for about six weeks, formed after members worked together at Angelica’s Kitchen, a vegan restaurant in the East Village.
The gig came about, like much of their development, from a branching network of, well, friends. Molnar had an acquaintance who booked shows at the Delancey, and on the Sunday beforehand, they were slotted into the showcase. The band rushed down in a car after playing in Connecticut, getting lost in the process, but eventually arriving a few steps from the Williamsburg Bridge in the Lower East Side.
Under a glaring red light, they played their self-described “weird pop,” with what Urbani calls African-inspired rhythms and a tropical dash (“We nicknamed it Tropicool,” she says with a laugh). Some bands members swapped between instruments from song-to-song, a result of their expertise with different instruments, and underscoring the communal style of the group.
“It’s just another aspect of our performance that makes it more interesting and more dynamic,” says Hann, who plays bass and keyboard.
While many see the annual CMJ festival as a platform for quick publicity, it was more of a first step for Friends, which has since played throughout the city’s D.I.Y. circuit. They opened for Darwin Deez last week at Mercury Lounge, and played hotspots like Silent Barn and Death By Audio. They will return to Death By Audio on Dec. 9, followed by Shea Stadium on Dec 11, and then hit the road for an national tour with Darwin Deez in January, finishing at the Bowery Ballroom in Feb. 19.
Lesley Hann at the Delancey
Urbani is the vivacious leader of the group, as likely to be seen performing her own material as dancing furiously at another band’s gig - an example that she hopes inspires others. “There’s nothing worse than playing to people with their arms crossed,” she says. “Apathy is not that cool.”
Like many of her peers, she’s embraced the free-spirited enthusiasm of the Brooklyn of recent years, having moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant when she was 20, and recently to artist commune Market Hotel. On the other hand, Urbanski is driven and focused. She recently quit her videography studies at Lang College, the New School's liberal arts school, to focus entirely on the band.
“I always have to live in a way that feels right to me,” she says, describing education as something that she could return to.
So far, Friends has established itself quickly, amassing over 500 fans on Facebook, despite having just six songs. At the Delancey, the band didn’t have any music to sell, and instead handed out buttons. The band is currently unsigned, but has a deal in the works with an "mystery label."
Although it’s still early, Urbani is wary of compromising artistic integrity for profit. But in a licensing-happy music industry, where a group can be plucked out of obscurity and into the next iPod commercial, it’s a delicate balancing act.
“I have a lot of serious ethical issues with giant, evil corporations,” she says, but doesn’t entirely dismiss a commercial use of music. She has a bit of experience in that world, having modeled for a Best Buy ad campaign.
Kopi, Berlin (via Flickr)
Friends started as a solo project from Urbani, who had been writing songs since childhood, but she only recently summoned the poise to perform in front of intimate crowds.
“In the springtime, I had all these songs that were bubbling out of my brain,” says Urbani, who recorded demos on GarageBand in the early part of this year.
Over the summer, Urbanski spent two months studying in Berlin, living in Kopi, a graffiti-etched commune that has housed around 50 legalized squatters since the early 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In addition to the residents, Kopi has regular cultural events in its two concert halls and a free cinema - making it a sort of Deutsch Market Hotel.
It was an experience that Urbani describes as a “fertile living situation,” and as her first trip to a foreign country, one that expanded her horizons. Eating at a communal table and experiencing new subcultures instilled a sense of sharing and creativity in her, one that seems to inform her current project.
After returning from Germany, Urbani and her soon-to-be-bandmates were stuck in her apartment following a bedbug infestation, a situation that turned into their first band practice. The group was briefly called Perpetual Crush, but they eventually settled on Friends.
“I am hoping we will dominate the search engine,” says Urbanski.
Following a few more practices and the memorizing of six songs, their first real gig was in front of around 30 people, right before Urbanski moved out of her old apartment.
The band's activity in the last couple months is indicative of the velocity of today's music industry, as well as the vibrancy of the city's D.I.Y. rock scene. And with any luck, this is just the beginning.
“I have a lot of confidence that we can take this pretty far,” says Urbanski. “There’s definitely space in pop music right now for something more genuine.”
Check out Friends on MySpace, Bandcamp and Facebook.