In my essay “What Happened to the Musical Acts That Defined the Art World in the Aughts?,” I outline a number of economic, cultural, and technological changes post-2000 that contributed to an aughts-era curatorial phenomenon: the art band.
Attempting a comprehensive who-was-who list of 2000s art bands would be a fool’s errand. There were scores of art-adjacent indie groups getting booked at museums and nonprofit galas, while countless artist-led bands were too proud (or too atonal) to perform for art audiences. And even with the connective power of MySpace, scenes remained semi-regional. You may consider a Bay Area group that I’ve never heard of to be particularly notable, and I can’t assume you’d know about this chaotic Arizona noise-punk band who smashed fax machines at live shows circa 2005. I think they called themselves Art Vandelay.
So instead, here’s a list of ten 2000s art bands that feel emblematic of that era when $400 asymmetrical haircuts with chunky Tom Ford frames could be seen at live shows alongside DIY asymmetrical haircuts with Rite Aid discount frames.
“Challenge,” from Skuffed Up My Huffy, 2007
If there was an archetypal 2000s art band, it was Japanther. They were from Brooklyn. They met as art students at Pratt Institute. They made their own microphones out of landline telephones. They didn’t have a guitar player. They played the Music Hall of Williamsburg but also legendary Denver DIY space Rhinoceropolis and the Whitney Museum. They got coverage not only in Flash Art and Artforum but also in Pitchfork and Thrasher. Members Ian Vanek and Matt Reilly produced fuzzed-out, shout-along pop punk that proved surprisingly versatile, leading to collaborations with Eileen Myles, Spank Rock, and Dan Graham. The music video for “Challenge” is a fun, if not mildly cringey, window into a highly specific, very V-necked version of mid-’00s Brooklyn. Japanther is no more, but Vanek’s latest project, Howardian—which played with Chou Yu-Cheng at Deitch Projects for Performa 19—has plenty of streaming tracks online.
Tracy + The Plastics
Based in Olympia, Washington, electropop band Tracy + the Plastics featured Tracy on vocals, Nikki on keys, and Cola on drums—all of whom were played, with Gen X lassitude, by artist Wynne Greenwood. During live shows, Tracy appeared in person and interacted with Nikki and Cola via prerecorded video projections. The band spent as much time riffing on cultural topics as they did on actual riffs, and Greenwood’s articulation of queer and feminist theory through cheeky stage banter injected critical reflection into male-dominated DIY spaces. Timing is everything in comedy, especially when two-thirds of your troupe cannot improvise or deviate from the script. Greenwood’s aesthetic feels prescient: consider the current wealth of multicharacter, front-facing camera solo comedy videos by young women on TikTok and Instagram.
Musician Warren Fischer and experimental theater performer Casey Spooner stumbled into a legitimate pop music career after their conceptual electroclash band Fischerspooner caught mainstream attention. The first single off their debut album #1 was “Emerge,” a rip-off of New Order’s “Blue Monday” shellacked with a monotone lyrical ennui that rivals Ethan Hawke’s vacuous slacker sermons in Reality Bites. The video for “Emerge,” which nods to Charles Atlas’s dances for camera, feels fantastically dated, less for its overwrought filmic grain and more for the prominent opening cameo by now-canceled photo creep Terry Richardson. Watch through to the “Special Thanks” credits for a roster of other extremely early-’00s New York hipster royalty.
For more than twenty-five years, the punishing Providence power-duo Lightning Bolt have been standard bearers for high-volume virtuosity. Bassist Brian Gibson and drummer-vocalist Brian Chippendale (yes, they’re both named Brian) met while studying at the Rhode Island School of Design in the mid-’90s and promptly forged a fast-fingered, Dada-drenched, speed-metal/free-jazz chimera. Despite a limited palette of distorted bass, breakbeat drums, and Wilhelm-scream vocals, Lightning Bolt’s sound is remarkably expansive, seamlessly blending elements of avant-garde Japanese noise groups, the Sun Ra Arkestra, jungle techno, and early Hüsker Dü. Chippendale was a cofounder of influential Providence art collective Fort Thunder in a warehouse where Lightning Bolt played its first shows. This 2003 Halloween set at Pink Rabbit—a now-defunct warehouse venue modeled after Fort Thunder—features “Halloween 3” (starting at 10:49), a catchy staple of their live shows finally released on last year’s Sonic Citadel (which features a song called “Hüsker Don’t”). From sweat-soaked shows on concrete floors in disused textile factories to being fawned over by NPR’s All Songs Considered, Lightning Bolt has become a veritable art band institution.
From the same RISD student warehouse trenches as Lightning Bolt emerged the chaotic hardcore spectacle called Black Dice. Hisham Bharoocha, cofounder of Black Dice and the band’s drummer from 1997 to 2004, even handled guitar and vocals in an early three-piece Lightning Bolt lineup. Black Dice relocated to New York in 1998 and began an ongoing process of redefining their aural aesthetic throughout the 2000s. After parting ways with Bharoocha in 2004, remaining members Aaron Warren and brothers Eric and Bjorn Copeland immersed themselves in a digital bath of buzzy blips and fuzzy loops, as evidenced in this live set from what appears to be an international televised music program called “Lado A.” Their last proper studio album, 2012’s Mr. Impossible, was effervescent, almost pleasant—a far cry from the adolescent aggression that was their foundation in Providence.
Olympia, Washington, proved as important a locale as Providence or Brooklyn for bands of the aughts. In 2001, performance artist and musician Khaela Maricich began releasing solo bedroom recordings as The Blow. Her songs caught the attention of local tastemaker label K Records, who signed Maricich. The Blow began touring music halls, house shows, and art spaces, notably playing the second iteration of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Time-Based Arts Festival in 2004. That same year, Maricich began collaborating with musician Jona Bechtolt, and relocated to Portland. “True Affection” was an infectious, enveloping product of that collaboration, included on the 2006 album Paper Television. Bechtolt left the band in 2007 to focus on his art pop project YACHT. Shortly thereafter, Maricich teamed up with sound and installation artist Melissa Dyne, who added elaborate conceptual frameworks to The Blow’s live performances. The Blow relocated to Brooklyn in 2008, and Maricich and Dyne have since spoken regularly of their musical collaboration as a vehicle for performance art. Across geographical distances and shifting lineups, The Blow’s greatest strength has been consistency: a careful melodic minimalism made warm and inviting by Maricich’s whirring vocal hooks.
Artist Anna Huff also cut her teeth in Olympia, contributing to albums by The Blow and Phil Elverum’s influential band, the Microphones. After moving to Seattle, Huff began releasing synth-pop records as Anna Oxygen, a one-woman performance art band that was often compared to Tracy + the Plastics in terms of geography, sound, and look. But Anna Oxygen had a more interstellar, atmospheric energy influenced by B-movie science fiction. In “Spectacle,” from her 2003 debut album All Your Faded Things, Huff channels Devo, Peaches, and Linda Perry in equal measure. In 2007, while a graduate student at CalArts, Huff cofounded the experimental theater collective Cloud Eye Control with Miwa Matreyek and Chi-wang Yang. Their highly ambitious productions synced live Anna Oxygen sets with multichannel projections and elaborate animations, garnering the group deserved fame in the contemporary performance art community. Conveniently, full documentation of their 2015 performance “Half-Life” went online in May
Established in 1999, the Los Angeles electronic act Lucky Dragons makes music on a spectrum between the clinical, glitchy loops of Black Dice and the openhearted vibes of The Blow. Across more than a dozen albums, members Luke Fischbeck and Sarah Rara have made playful use of Shepard tones, pitched percussion, sweeping arpeggios, modular synths, and yips and yaps to push the boundaries of songwriting, sometimes to the dismay of music critics looking for more resolution. Lucky Dragons live shows are equally amorphous, frequently involving audience participation, and they’ve always seemed more at home in museums or galleries than in rock clubs. Bordering on cloying, ritualistic twee, their interactive music veers into the toothless relational aesthetics that bedeviled West Coast art throughout the 2000s.
Launched on Halloween in 2001, BARR was the post-emo brainchild of Los Angeles musician, performance artist, and art handler Brendan Fowler. Early shows at premier LA underground venue The Smell introduced BARR’s cerebral, spoken-word pop jingles to punk and indie audiences. Throughout the 2000s Fowler also curated visual art exhibitions and co-ran a music label called Doggpony Records. “The Song is the Single,” which appeared on the 2007 album Summary, is arguably BARR’s catchiest tune. It’s a blast from the recent past when the act of recording a meta-meditation on the aura of popular music singles itself still qualified as heavy meta behavior. BARR performed frequently alongside plenty of artsy acts like Battles, The Locust, and TV on the Radio, plus the aforementioned Japanther, Lucky Dragons, The Blow, and Tracy + the Plastics. By the late 2000s, Fowler transitioned away from music and into art objects. But his sculptures and installations employ the same flair and introspection that charmed BARR’s fans. For a melancholic pairing, check out BARR’s music video for “The B-Side is Silent,” which stars Fowler alongside the late Dash Snow.
Fabled art collective Paper Rad uploaded this ecstatic Providence document to their YouTube channel in 2007, explaining that it was the final live show at Pink Rabbit, the night before the venue was shut down. The band ripping it up is Extreme Animals, a collaborative duo comprising Paper Rad cofounder Jacob Ciocci on vocals and knobs, and musician David Wightman—who holds a PhD in music composition from the University of California, San Diego—pounding the drums. Extreme Animals are, in my humble estimation, the gnarliest art band that ever was. Ciocci’s opening line in the video that “there is absolutely no moment like this moment right now” encapsulates the reckless abandon with which Extreme Animals alloy internet videos, djent guitar, psychedelic animation, and hardcore techno into joyously catchy trap metal. Over the years, Ciocci’s visuals have become as important as Wightman’s music, as seen in the video for “Am I Evil?” Wightman has swapped out the drum kit in favor of heavy shredding on a BC Rich guitar. Extreme Animals is last on this list not because they come in tenth place, but because after you start listening to them you won’t have time for anything else.