There’s a song on the new So So Glos album where that opens with an interview a Bay Ridge native who claims he’s been in the neighborhood for 60 years but he’s never heard of them. The band is clearly having fun with this idea (the song is called “Fool on the Street,” after all): not only are they well established on the music scene, they’re not some transplant imports. They’re Bay Ridge natives (and die-hard Mets fans) who began playing together as kids in the ’90s. They’re also founding members of the DIY Brooklyn music scene: they’ve always supported DIY and all-ages venues, founding both beloved indie stalwarts Market Hotel and Shea Stadium. Their fifth album, Kamikaze, is out today via Shea Stadium/Votiv records. I got to speak to Alex Levine, who does vocals and bass, from their first leg of tour in Buffalo about what it’s like to go from kids messing around in a Bay Ridge basement to adults messing around in a venue they helped create.
The So So Glos started as a family affair. Brothers Ryan and Alex Levine grew up in Bay Ridge, as did Zach Staggers. The three met as kids when, as a result of divorce, remarriage, serendipity and happenstance, Staggers became their stepbrother. The year was 1991, and Alex was just a few years old. They started playing music together almost immediately. Kind of like the Brady Bunch, but with more power chords (and possibly better outfits; judge for yourself in the photo below).
The band is Ryan Levine on guitar and vocals, Alex Levine on vocals and bass, Zach Staggers on drums and Matt Elkin on guitar and vocals, but there’s a shadowy figure lurking on the edges. That’s a bit dramatic. But, this guy’s name is Adam Reich, and he’s often referred to as the fifth Glo. Reich also grew up in Bay Ridge, and some of the band’s earliest recordings were done on his karaoke recording machine. You can see home video of them playing together in their “Son of an American” video.
“We started playing music together immediately, we were always writing songs,” Levine said. “It was a subconscious reaction, and it was the easiest way we could think of to process the bullshit that was going on around us. Adam would come over with his little tape recorder, and we’d just sing and play into the recorder until the tape was full, then we’d start over. We recorded a shit ton of songs, and we just kept playing the same ones over and over. One of them made it onto our record Blowout as a secret track: I think some of the lyrics were like, ‘You know what to do/brush your teeth and go to bed/You know what to do/don’t go crazy in the head.’ I was probably, like, five. We felt like we were in our own little gang.”
The boys’ musical “gang” evolved into an actual band, but their attitude remained more or less the same. They’ve made their name as a punk band, but Levine classifies it as a sarcastic translation of the things happening around them. Plus, they were exposed to a bunch of different music from a young age as a result of picking through their parents’ record collection.
“I don’t know if we were aware of punk as a label, maybe we were just rough around the edges,” he said. “We were super influenced by our parents’ record collection: they had Buddy Holly, some punk stuff, some ’80s New Wave, and then, it was the ’90s. There was definitely an attitude that we gravitated towards, and a certain taste we liked, but I don’t know that we identified it as punk. I feel like our two biggest influences as kids were The Violent Femmes and The Jackson 5. There was a certain taste that we liked, but I don’t know if we were labeled as punk.”
I like the notion of a combination of Violent Femmes and Jackson 5. It seems appropriate for a bunch of angsty, musical kids in the early 1990s. Through the years, the boys played under other names, such as SPITT, Urban Eyze and Every Other Weekend. Levine says that it was essentially the same band under different names, but they officially became The So So Glos in 2007 with the addition of Matt Elkin on guitar and vocals.
Here’s a funny New York City thing that happened. A few years ago, I became friendly with a Christmas tree salesman in my neighborhood. I’d stop by on my way home and we’d talk, one time I brought my ukulele and played for him in the little ramshackle booth behind the stack of Christmas trees. Christmas Tree Guy had another friend there who told me about his cool band. That was drummer Zach Staggers. Christmas Tree Guy was named Yolli, who played guitar on their first record. That’s how I discovered some of the Brooklyn punk scene’s native sons.
Even though that was how I found out about them, The So So Glos had already been kicking ass all over Brooklyn’s DIY music scene. Kamikaze is the fifth album they’ve released, and they’ve played all over the place, even gracing the stage of David Letterman Late Show. But more importantly, the So So Glos founded Market Hotel: it was actually their home and practice space for a while, and it was named after one of their songs. While Market Hotel closed in 2010 (before finally reopening this year), they started Bushwick’s Shea Stadium‘s in 2009 as a live recording studio and music venue (and Mets tribute — that was the year after Shea Stadium closed). It was another effort with Adam Reich, who may have started as the kid with the tape recorder, but evolved into their producer and partner, producing some of the songs from Kamikaze. The record was recorded both at Big Fish in California and at the studio the ‘Glos built with Reich in Sunset Park.
These days, The So So Glos are touring to promote their rad new album. When I caught up with Alex, they were in Buffalo, and next they’re hitting Detroit and Chicago. Check their website for more tour details, and don’t miss their triumphant return to Market Hotel on June 25. Check out Kamikaze immediately — it rips.
Lilly Vanek covers music stuff for Brokelyn. For more about local music, and adventures in friendship with transient Christmas tree vendors, follow Lilly on Twitter. And to pitch her for New Music Friday, contact Lilly at lilly [at] brokelyn [dot] com.