During the third week of October, College Music Journal, a weekly publication specifically targeted to the music industry, hosted the 31st annual CMJ Music Marathon & Film Festival in New York City. I arrived at CMJ not knowing what to expect, but quickly realized it was unfair to keep using Austin’s SXSW as my reference point. Although the two week-long music conferences are run in a similar format and serve a similar purpose—exposing emerging, unknown and more established indie artists to publicity representatives, music journalists and other industry types—the experiences are polar opposites. SXSW feels like a cake walk compared to the grueling five days I spent in New York, bouncing from venues that stretched across three of the city’s five boroughs and attempting to navigate subway systems late at night.
In some ways, CMJ Music Marathon is similar to the athletic competition that it shares a name with. Five days of non-stop music requires endurance—a good set of earplugs helps, too. There are a plethora of day parties, industry panels and nighttime showcases crammed into these five days. It’s utterly impossible to experience everything that you want and equally as difficult not to wear yourself down with days that can span from 12 p.m. to as late as 4 or 5 in the morning.
Multiple times throughout CMJ I found myself conflicted over which event to attend, and wasn’t always pleased with my decision. I was only able to catch one of the four sets that the locally adored Spell Talk played during the music conference—a ratio made even stranger by the fact that their drummer is my boyfriend. The night I caught them, they followed a terrible electronic artist and didn’t take the stage until nearly 3:30 a.m. By that time, the crowd had thinned considerably and most of the folks who were left were already familiar with the band. The show was still fun, but in retrospect, I wish I could have caught one of the earlier sets they played during the week. The artists below only represent a sliver of what I saw during CMJ. For full coverage, visit slugmag.com.
Afro Punk Presents Death to Hip Hop Showcase
Music Hall of Williamsburg
Ninjasonik was the first group that I saw during CMJ and I instantly dug their high-energy collision of punk rock and hip hop. MCs Reverend McFly and Telli Gramz jumped around the stage with a style that was reminiscent of Run-D.M.C. Being backed by a live drummer and an erratic guitar player made their sound and stage presence huge. It took me a few songs to realize I had actually seen Ninjasonik in Salt Lake last April at an under-populated show at The Complex. At that performance, I was unimpressed by what was going on onstage and they seemed like a flash-in-the-pan gimmick. Seeing them play Brooklyn, their home turf, refreshed my outlook on the group. With a packed, enthusiastic house, these two killed it. Performances of “Somebody Gonna Get Pregnant” and “Bars” ignited the crowd the fastest that night.
Cerebral Ballzy is one of my favorite bands of 2011. They’ve breathed life back into hardcore for me. I’d seen them twice in Salt Lake before their CMJ performances—once opening for Black Lips in June, and approximately a month later opening for H.R. of Bad Brains. I couldn’t wait to see them play in their stomping grounds of Brooklyn. I immediately got the feeling that the majority of the crowd had been fans of Cerebral Ballzy before they ever scored a tour with Black Lips or released their album through Adult Swim. As I expected they would, these guys killed it in Brooklyn. Cerebral Ballzy possess a rare unbridled aggression, reminiscent of early hardcore bands like Circle Jerks, Black Flag and early punk bands like Dead Boys. They blasted through a set of light-hearted hardcore songs, with topics like pizza, skateboarding, drug use and having “Insufficient Fare” to ride the train. The clearly intoxicated front man Honor Titus demanded that the lights be turned off on stage. While it was sometimes difficult to tell what was happening, their raw energy filled the room and the show didn’t suffer from the lack of stage lights.
Official CMJ Showcase
The Knitting Factory
This six-piece, Puerto Rican rock n’ roll group were some of the first artists announced to play CMJ. I listened to a few of their tracks before arriving in New York, but other than that, I was unfamiliar with their material. Their performance blew me away. They have an onstage energy similar to Black Lips, and although I’m pretty sure everything they sang was in Spanish, the songs were still instantly infectious. I particularly enjoyed watching their flamboyant, hip-shaking tambourine player and their bouncy bass player.
I didn’t plan to see Doomtree during CMJ, but when I realized they were playing Knitting Factory, I figured I might as well stay. It was the right decision. The entire Doomtree collective was once again performing together that night, which is a rare occurrence. Producers and DJs for the collective—Lazerbeak and Paper Tiger—held things together with their creative beats as Dessa, Mike Mictlan, P.O.S., Sims and Cecil Otter took turns on the mic, occasionally spitting beats in unison. Their onstage energy and the collaborative nature of the group was incredible to watch. Although all members of Doomtree were talented, my favorite parts of the set were when Dessa or Mike Mictlan stepped up to the mic.
Sub Pop/Hardly Art Showcase
When Brooklyn-based Xray Eyeballs released their debut album, Not Nothing, I liked it, but found many of its 11 tracks so similar sounding that it became monotonous. Although their recorded material was a bit mashed together, in a live setting they shine. Guitar player and mastermind behind the group, O.J. San Felipe, has a rabid style on stage—a style shared by their drummer Allison Press. While their set suffered from some muddy sound issues, their melodic garage pop, sometimes reminiscent of The Velvet Underground, was well executed and kept me captivated.
I instantly fell in love with this three-piece’s lo-fi style reminiscent of groups like King Khan and the Shrines, Nobunny and Ty Segall, and a stage presence like a day-glow version of Ramones. After doing a bit more research on Jacuzzi Boys, I felt silly that I hadn’t heard of them sooner—they played the inaugural Bruise Cruise festival, which I spent a number of weeks salivating over last February with groups such as Surfer Blood and Thee Oh Sees. I’m thankful that I randomly caught one of their sets in NYC and plan to pick up a copy of their recently released Glazin’ ASAP.
Dum Dum Girls
I’ve had Dum Dum Girls’ newest release, Only in Dreams, on repeat since it arrived at the SLUG office in September. I was thrilled that I was going to see this all-female, garage pop group during CMJ. You might remember them as a Twilight Concert Series opener from 2010, but forget everything you saw there. Dum Dum Girls are a band best experienced late at night in a dark, intimate venue. Although there were some sound issues during their set, it was one of the strongest I saw at CMJ. Dressed in all black, these four women were as beautiful as they were talented. I believe they opened with “Always Looking” before ripping through many of the other tracks on Only in Dreams.
Fanatic/Chicken Ranch Showcase
Bowery Poetry Club
Peelander-Z was the final performance I saw as part of CMJ and they saved the evening from being a total musical bust. This Japanese comic book punk rock group’s performance was otherworldly. From the moment the brightly colored Peelanders (Red, Green, Yellow and Pink, respectively) took the stage, an exuberant smile stretched across my face. As the balding Yellow (who had terrible teeth) began screaming into the mic, that smile got even bigger. Unlike many groups, Peelander-Z’s show is interactive. Just having you watch their performance isn’t enough. Throughout their set they encouraged the crowd to sing along with their simple punk rock songs, such as “So Many Mike” and “Mad Tiger,” by holding up large poster boards with lyrics hand-scrawled on them. They also passed out small metal drums to the crowd so they could participate by smashing against them with drumsticks. Multiple times they moved the show from the stage and into the crowd—starting games of baseball, bowling and limbo. Their set also included a plethora of accessories—plush monster masks, colorful wigs and a giant spotlight operated by Pink. The interactive elements of their show elevate them to a new level of entertainer in my mind.
I didn’t get what I expected from CMJ, but my original expectations might have been unrealistic. CMJ isn’t its younger distant cousin from the South, but it doesn’t want to be. If I could do it all over again, I would like a clone. In the days spent scouring through blogs, YouTube footage and emails that were lost in the CMJ haze, it’s shocking to realize how much I missed—sometimes even by walking into a venue a few minutes too late. I only saw a portion of what this marathon had to offer, but sometimes sitting through the god-awful makes you appreciate the gems that you find.