Dance -pop quintet Friends might be the luckiest band in New York. It would seem that Friends hails from a world without the problems that afflict most new groups, a world where crowds dance the moment they hear music and an exploding tour van is a punchline, not an obituary.
According to singer Samantha Urbani, what makes Friends special is not in the things the band does, but how it does them. “I really appreciate the art of the pop song,” she says. “You can take any pop music that’s shitty and plastic and have a real band play it with intuition and passion and make it sound good.“ Still, even the band’s origins seem convenient. Urbani had been experimenting with music, making vocal and drum loop recordings on her computer, until a night in September when her East Williamsburg apartment was crammed with three other musicians. Drummer Oliver Duncan and multiinstrumentalist Lesley Hann had both moved in following a bedbug infestation, and guitarist and keyboardist Matt Molnar, formerly of Soft Black, had listened to Urbani’s demos and wanted to collaborate. That night the quartet jammed for four hours—and repeated the rehearsal every night after that for a week straight. On the seventh day, the band held its first show in Urbani’s backyard.
Initially dubbed Perpetual Crush, the four-piece played the few songs it had come up with that week. “We played what we’d written and then partied for a while.
A few hours later a new group of about 10 people showed up, so we played again,” Urbani says.
Each member of Friends uses the word “organic” to describe the band’s beginning. Urbani explains, “It wasn’t like boot camp—we just had a lot of fun playing together and hanging out.” The band soon added a fifth member, Nikki Shapiro, who had worked with both Molnar and Urbani at Angelica Kitchen. Shapiro added his expertise to the lineup of revolving instrumentalists, giving the band a fuller sound. Molnar, Shapiro and Hann switch between guitars, keys and hand percussion, while Duncan sticks to the drums and Urbani sings. At shows, Urbani’s showmanship, along with the band’s communal and celebratory disposition, proved infectious.
What differentiates Friends from its peers is that tropical-sounding percussion. According to Urbani, music by an African Burundi tribe called Burundi Black greatly influenced the sound. Molnar claims also to have picked up salsa music influences from his Bushwick neighborhood. Either way, the fusion that formed Friends’ Island Pop style struck a chord with local audiences, resulting in shows at nonbackyard venues like Death By Audio and Shea Stadium, as well as interest from record labels. Soon, indie pop act Darwin Deez invited Friends to open on a nationwide tour.
Talking from the road, the band says the shows with Darwin Deez have had the same electricity as gigs back home.
According to Hann, people approach the band after almost every show with the same sentiment: “People have been saying, ‘You guys are going to blow up.’” And they almost did. Driving through Wyoming in a blizzard, the band noticed a cop car flashing its lights and blaring its sirens. Confused, the group pulled over.
“The cop runs up to the window and yells, ‘Everybody out! The vehicle’s on fire!’ We had to run down this snowy ditch on the side of the highway with no time to get our stuff. Then we just stood there watching it all burn for 20 minutes,” Urbani recounts.
Having just filled the gas tank, Friends was positive that the van, and everything inside, would blow up, but a fire truck arrived just in time.
“Now we have these singed instruments that look really cool!” Hann exclaims.
With such enchanted beginnings, it’s as if Friends is somehow immune to the beginner’s problems that afflict its peers, or, you know, other people whose cars catch fire.
“I’ve been in bands where it’s been like that. But with this band it’s different,” says Hann. “Everybody is dedicated to doing whatever we have to do to keep being a band.”
And if that doesn’t catch fire, what can?
Bowery Ballroom, 6 Delancey St. (betw. Chrystie & Bowery Sts.), 212-533- 2111; 8, $15.