Cult indie band the Moldy Peaches return: ‘We were misfits who didn’t feel accepted’
Cult indie band the Moldy Peaches return: ‘We were misfits who didn’t feel accepted’ –
The Moldy Peaches’ founding members are reminiscing about their flair for fancy dress. “I bought my bunny suit at a yard sale outside of a costume shop that had burned down,” says Kimya Dawson of the outfit she wore on the cover of their only studio album, in 2001. “Technically it was a snowman costume that had a bunch of smoke stains on it.”
“I remember putting on my Robin Hood outfit and being like: ‘Perfect!’” says Adam Green. “It’s funny, the Strokes decided that they were going to dress like they did for their shows all the time, which is how they ended up with their cool-looking clothes. But we did that too. We just did our version of it.”
Dressed as such, releasing cute-but-not songs that sounded as if they were recorded in a dustbin, the Moldy Peaches stood out from their cool leather-jacketed peers in New York’s 00s indie-rock explosion: “A couple of misfit people who didn’t feel accepted in the world,” says Dawson.
Dawson had grown up in a day centre where her parents worked, a self-described “Black weirdo” whose costumes were her armour. “I had a superhero identity,” she says. “The world felt safer to me if I could create these fantasy characters.” She was 20 when she met outgoing 13-year-old Green in a record shop in Mount Kisco, a town 45 minutes north of Manhattan, and they started writing songs that used childlike simplicity (and crudeness) to convey a complex interior world. Years later, they moved to New York City, assembled a group, and released an eponymous debut that encapsulated teenage outsiderdom, with its video game and cartoon references, social awkwardness, gleeful energy, playground-like chants, stoner nonsense and – on the song Nothing Came Out – alienation from “skinny pretty girls who like to talk about bands”.
The Moldy Peaches are “older and mouldier” they say now and have reformed for their first official headline shows in 20 years. Their cult album continues to be “passed from locker room to locker room”, says Green. “It’s been a high school record this whole time.” But they’ve returned, like a few other early-00s New York bands, following the recent release of the Meet Me in the Bathroom documentary (based on Lizzy Goodman’s 2017 book of the same name). When Dawson and Green performed at the premiere in LA last October, they were offered shows within a week.
In the doc, those bunny and Robin Hood costumes appear in shaky, grainy clips of the pair onstage. Dawson and Green were surprised to discover that footage of them opens the film. Dawson hoped viewers wouldn’t interpret it as the Moldy Peaches laying the groundwork for a movement that gave the world the Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol and LCD Soundsystem. The anti-folk scene to which they belonged, a loose collective of outsider musicians who had been congregating at a venue called the SideWalk Cafe, had begun a decade before the Peaches arrived.
The cafe, which shut in 2019, cameos in the film. We see a young Paul Banks of Interpol performing there, as did Karen O, who lived across the street. But “it should have had more of a role”, says Dawson. “It was the central part of New York City music,” agrees Green.
“I was in early recovery from alcohol [addiction] ,” Dawson continues, “and this was a place where you could do your own thing without being judged.” She felt embraced by “creative geniuses” including Jeffrey Lewis, Rick Shapiro, Regina Spektor, Spektor’s husband Jack Dishel and Toby Goodshank (both of whom are in the Moldy Peaches) and Prewar Yardsale. “It became this accelerated petri dish for new art and ideas,” says Green. “We created our own class of anti-folk.”
Being friends with the Strokes helped them graduate. The Moldy Peaches signed to the same label as them in the UK, Rough Trade, and supported them on tour as NYC fever erupted on this side of the Atlantic. “It was total mayhem,” says Dawson. “At the Liverpool show, we met the Libertines and they gave us their demo,” says Green. “We understood that New York was part of a zeitgeist and we got caught in this whirlwind.”
Their album came out in the UK first but when it was released in the States, it coincided with 9/11. In the aftermath, they went out on tour with the Strokes and had to cull a song from their setlist. “We played NYC’s Like a Graveyard for the first date of the American tour,” says Dawson. It was a song written long before the attacks and yet its lyrics about “all the tombstones skyscraping” sat uncomfortably. “When we finished, people were silent,” she says. “We didn’t play that song again for 20 years.”
The Moldy Peaches parted ways in 2002, when Green was 21. From the outside it looked like it was over before it had begun, but by then their songs were 10 years old. “It felt like we all needed to do our own thing,” says Dawson. “There is a big age difference between Adam and I. He wanted to be a part of rock’n’roll, and I had already been sober for a couple years.” It was frightening for Dawson, “the eternal babysitter”, to stand by as her peers partied hard or even lost their way – original band member, Aaron Wilkinson, died of an overdose in 2003.
“There were some dark times,” says Green, and Dawson admits: “I had a lot of worry for a lot of people.”
Both musicians went on to have fruitful careers: Dawson has put out eight punky, lo-fi solo albums, including a children’s one (2008’s Alphabutt), while Green has released 11, made visual art, and directed 2011’s The Wrong Ferarri, a bizarre screwball film that he wrote while high on ketamine. “We were definitely going in some opposite directions,” he notes.
The Moldy Peaches’ big breakthrough actually came years after their split, when Dawson was tapped for the soundtrack of 2007’s smash-hit romantic comedy Juno. Anyone Else But You got a second wind as the de facto odd-couple love song; a version sung by the film’s stars, Elliot Page and Michael Cera, charted on the Billboard Hot 100 and it was even covered by Carla Bruni – then France’s first lady – on French TV. Green was surprised at first that so many people could relate to their oddball universe, most of which was recorded when he was still a teenager. “It’s a bit stinkier and gross and inaccessible than, for example, the world of [the Strokes’ debut album] Is This It?, which is really easy to like,” he says.
But that’s exactly why it has such universality: it’s a quintessential teenage album, sticky and crammed with the kinds of hyperspecific lyrics that are so commonplace in pop music today, but with deep feelings that cut through the detail. Often they’d sing different lines over the top of each other, introspection going toe-to-toe with ego, or they’d try to make you laugh during poignant, painful moments, like when the phone goes off in Nothing Came Out. It’s a wolf in rabbit’s clothing. “We showed contradictory ideas rubbing against each other to disarm people,” says Green. “Some parts of the lyrics are tender and the other parts are pretty psychedelic, and brutal.”
They are sensitive to how those lyrics could be perceived today, and for their 20-year anniversary reissue in 2018, edited out an ableist slur on NYC’s Like a Graveyard. “We weren’t trying to intentionally cause harm to any marginalised communities, it was just a different time,” says Dawson. Another of their songs – and one of their best – is a gleeful singalong called Who’s Got the Crack, featuring the couplet: “I like it when my hair is poofy / I like it when you slip me a roofie”. “Things were joked about that wouldn’t be joked about now, and that doesn’t make it OK. But I do think that we could still write songs that are crass. I can be pretty gross without being offensive.”
“I don’t know what it would be like to be starting the Moldy Peaches now,” says Green. They existed in an unselfconscious era, pre internet, where they “got to tour and not feel like we were under surveillance” and where social media hadn’t steamrolled individualism into one “traditional” and more uniform mass. They didn’t think about how they would be perceived at the time, but there weren’t many visible Black female punks in music back then, and Dawson says now that countless people tell her she gave them “permission to be a weird kid”.
Singing their teenage ditties again, back on stage in a few weeks, will be like “emotional time travel,” says Green. And yet while those DIY costumes might be a touch upgraded – there is talk of 3D printing and vehicular outfits – their songs have stood the test of time. “They feel very much the same to me,” says Dawson, “they’re special little gems that I love. The only difference is that I don’t give a shit what some indie boy thinks of me.” She laughs. “Now I’m like, God, those guys are such creeps.”