More than 200 miles and a world away from Williamsburg, I stood in a dim venue in Washington D.C. as the Brooklyn band Slowdance slid through their set of haunting, yet still hummable pop. It was the first stop on their first-ever tour; the first time the five member crew had flew the nest of their hometown scene. Last night, I'd caught their tour-launch concert at Glasslands Gallery, where they opened for none other than the insistently original Gary Wilson.
Back home, the year-and-half-old band has gained a word-of-mouth following among music tastemakers. Their concerts are swiftly becoming as crowded with their fellow Brooklyn musicians as the Saturday night L train, and the gig at Glasslands was no exception.
The Kent Avenue venue steamed with the breath of several hundred audience members, there to hear Quay Quinn-Settel, 26, the oddly named and unconventionally beautiful frontwoman of the all-male band. Their music is somehow a mix of the familiar, a Blondie-esque catchiness, and a whiff of a Bjork-like exoticism.
I accompanied Slowdance on their tour to see what happens when Brooklyn darlings leave the safety of their peers and fans; to see if a buzzed-about sound can transcend locale. I'd known Quinn-Settel for several years, and over the last few, the band had found each other, and she'd blossomed into a musician. They work collaboratively, each member bringing a shred of an idea, a stanza of notes, or whistled riff to the group. Together, they then tease out each song from these scraps in marathon brainstorming sessions in their Bushwick practice space. Could Slowdance "work" outside of the town that not only made them, but seems to be lapping up their every note?
After the Glasslands gig, they piled into a borrowed van, Quinn-Settel lugging a sparkle-covered kickdrum across Kent at 1am, as fans smoking in the dark wished the band a safe trip. The journey began. But here in D.C., the concertgoers didn't press up against the stage like the Brooklyn kids did the night before. At the Rock and Roll Hotel on H Street—D.C.'s answer to Bushwick, all dicey joints —the sparse crowd gave the stage a wide berth.
“I would be totally fine playing for three people,” Quinn-Settel told me later. Shows may be packed in New York, but elsewhere crowds have to be earned, she says. “You have to build your presence in other cities because it makes you more real.” The audience of dozens hardly danced at first, something difficult to do when you're listening to tracks like "You're Not My Boyfriend," a sun-splashed and mischievous message from a lover, or "Slashed Tires," a rock-flecked track, in which Quinn-Settel makes anguish beautiful, and drummer Sam Koppelman, a veteran musician who toured Europe and Asia when he was just a teenager, slams out syncopated beats straight to the spine.
But around the sixth song, something happened. Quinn-Settel seemed uncharacteristically flustered for a moment, and turned to the audience. "You know what? I could really use a glass of house bourbon," the French-born singer said. Finding my familiar face in the unfamiliar crowd, she asked me to grab it, and tipped it back.
It was as if the entire crowd had a drink along with her.
A gaggle of girls surged to the front. The D.C. stiffs hanging in the back waiting for the headlining band, Dom, pressed forward. And Kyle McKeveny, the quietly electrifying guitar player, doubled over his instrument, sweat glossing his forearm, and suddenly the band was jamming in earnest. That was when the deja vu hit me like a physical force. From the newly-minted vibe alone, it was as if I were back at the gig in Brooklyn the night before. To my right, a Congressional staffer and a Department of Defense analyst began to rock out as Quinn-Settel flung the mic chord over her shoulders and tipped back her throat, her brown shag cascading behind her. She belted out their newest song, "Radio." Whoops rang out. The band had turned D.C. into Brooklyn.
"You really have to be incredibly talented to win over the crowd" in D.C., said Amanda Pittman, a writer for the music blog Vinyl District, who was there that night. "The D.C. crowd can be uptight; they go to work at the State Department and then home to their beds," she said. "It's like, 'So you're a Brooklyn band, that's great, but are you better than all the other bands that come through?'"
After the set, a girl around Quinn-Settel's age stepped up to the stage. "I want to be you like you when I grow up," she said, as Quinn-Settel blushed crimson at the decidedly un-Wiliamsburg public display of affection. “It helps to play in front of a sympathetic audience,” says Quigley, “But going on tour and playing in different places and having curveballs thrown at you—because this is an unknown place and a very unfamiliar audience—those are good thing to learn to be comfortable with.”
Post-show, there was no time to rest on their laurels. Like most bands, Slowdance's members also have day jobs. They are filmmakers, online marketers, and computer programmers. Koppelman had rigged a hotspot to pulse out of their borrowed van so he, McKeveny, and Quinn-Settel can work en route to shows. They swiftly left D.C. to zip to Chicago early the next morning for the second leg of the tour, a gig at the Empty Bottle, followed by Detroit.
Despite juggling their lives and jobs on the road, “this is like a dream come true,” said Quigley via cellphone, speeding down Highway 90 to the next show, “to just be able to take it all in and have fun.” In the background, the rest of the band erupted in laughter, ribbing him for his sudden earnestness. “That could be perceived as a little naive, but I don’t want to forget about that, the pure enjoyment of being with good friends and creative collaborators. It’s great.” He raised his voice to be heard over more of his bandmates’ laughter. “Creative collaborators who are all making fun of me right now,” he said.
The day after the D.C. gig, Quinn-Settel pinged me a shot of her driving the giant van towards Illinois, the boys in back. She was startled to be piloting such a behemoth for the first time, she said. And yet, it seems the entire band is even more startled to be on tour, away from the affectionate embrace of Brooklyn—and somehow making it. In the picture, she's peering out from under her long bangs over the giant steering wheel. Slowdance seems ready for the road.