World Wide Gecs

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About three years ago, I came across a YouTube video of a band I hadn’t heard of before. My ignorance wasn’t totally surprising: as a mom in my mid-forties, I’m hardly positioned anywhere near the cutting edge of contemporary music. What was surprising, though, was the immediacy with which I became gripped by what I was listening to and looking at. The song was “money machine,” from the experimental electronic duo 100 gecs, who had released the track in mid-2019, as the début single off their first full-length studio album. In the video, Laura Les and Dylan Brady, the pair who make up the band, swagger around a parking lot. Standing next to a GMC Sierra, they headbang their matching platinum-dyed mops to a tinny, accelerated beat. “Hey, you little piss baby,” Les begins, her voice contorted into a squealing, falsetto Auto-Tune. “You think you’re so fucking cool? Huh? You think you’re so fucking tough? You talk a lotta big game for someone with such a small truck!”

After some more furiously inventive shit-talking (“Your arms look so fucking cute, they look like lil’ cigarettes / I bet I could smoke you, I could roast you / And then you’d love it and you’d text me ‘I love you’ / And then I’d fucking ghost you!”), the track proceeds into a driving power riff that gives way to the chorus, with its repeating, high-pitched intonation (“Feel so clean like a money machine”), before, finally, exhausting itself in a longish stretch of garbled, downed-out distortion. (At this point in the video, Les and Brady slowly lunge-walk in a circle beside a cluster of parked eighteen-wheelers, as if partaking in some obscure neolithic ritual.) Listening to this whirlwind of a song, which clocks in at just under two minutes, I didn’t exactly know what feeling clean like a money machine meant, but I thought I could intuitively grasp it—how sludgy disgruntlement can, in an Opposite Day kind of way, yield something tight and bright and catchy. (“Maybe I’m the money machine,” Les said, in a video for the Web site Genius, before invoking her own clean-dirty dichotomy: “I’m printing money out of my ass!”) The song was grimy, funny, and wholly exhilarating: an incensed anthem for a landscape of monster beats, monster trucks, and Monster Energy drinks.

“Money machine,” in the words of my colleague Carrie Battan, was “a disorienting blizzard of noise,” and yet, its poppy-earworm quality has garnered it eighteen million YouTube views, to date. (One comment, “This song grows on people more than any other song ive ever heard,” received twenty-five hundred upvotes.) The rest of 100 gecs’s first studio album—which they named “1000 gecs”—was just as thrilling: an addictive, magisterial blend of cultural echoes, combining corny Europop trance à la Alice Deejay with primitive drum-machine electro-pop, and riff-heavy nu metal with vulnerable emo-style vocals. (In “ringtone,” a song about a girl and the object of her affection, Atari-esque bleeps and bloops become a canvas for Les’s sudden urgency on the song’s bridge—“I’ve got a little thing for you / I’ve got a little crush or somethin’ / Maybe I’m just drunk as fuck / I customize my ringtone / But it’s always you / It’s always you / It’s always you”—an entreaty nearly poignant enough to bring a tear to one’s eye.) More than anything, though, the album was just a very good time, a thing increasingly hard to come by these days. In early 2020, I tweeted that listening to 100 gecs makes me feel like a “bard junior waking up wearing only one sock in a stranger’s apartment in condesa over winter break.”

I was hardly the only person to experience gecs fever. The band had often been grouped under the umbrella of hyperpop—a glitchy, omnivorously sourced electronic subgenre fostered by the L.A.-based British producer A. G. Cook’s label, PC Music—but its growing renown would soon transcend categorizing. As the Times pop reporter Joe Coscarelli wrote this winter, once 100 gecs’s first album débuted, the duo became “instant cult favorites”—as beloved by critics as they were by extremely online kids—setting the band on “the steepest of career trajectories.” In 2020, Les and Brady signed a major-label deal, with Atlantic, and put out a remix album, “1000 gecs and the Tree of Clues,” featuring a new version of “ringtone” with Charli XCX, the trio Kero Kero Bonito, and the rapper Rico Nasty, and another remix, of a song called “hand crushed by a mallet,” with the pop-punk band Fall Out Boy and the Canadian goth-folk singer Nicole Dollanganger. This past March, the band released their sophomore effort, “10,000 gecs,” and, in April, embarked on a tour across North America.

“This tour is cool, playing for so many people,” Laura Les said, “but it stresses me the fuck out.”

One morning in late spring, I met up with Les and Brady in New York, where they had just arrived after spending the night on their bus en route from Philadelphia, the previous stop on their tour. They were in town to play two sold-out shows at Bushwick’s thirty-four-hundred-person-capacity Avant Gardner Great Hall venue. This was a leap for the pair, whose first show, in 2018, was performed on the Internet as part of a Minecraft festival.

Les and Brady were in the downtown Manhattan offices of Interview magazine, where they were preparing to do a photo shoot. A stylist had dressed them in exaggeratedly proportioned, deceptively streamlined black garments from the Balenciaga designer Demna. (Brady’s JNCO-style pants actually had a skirt option attached to the back.) Punctuated by comically large thermoplastic polyurethane clogs, which Brady said he had a pair of at home, the looks made the duo, with their scraggly Duff McKagan hair, look like woodland-creatures-gone-dirtbag goth. (Underneath the hoodie she was given, Les was wearing her own vintage Budweiser T-shirt.)

“I really like this outfit,” Les said, plucking at her baggy shorts. “It’s probably like ten thousand dollars. Too bad I’m trying to buy a house.”

“Do you think it’d be hard to steal?” Brady asked, neutrally.

“We’re about to see how hard it is,” Les said, equally deadpan. She wondered if she might try parkouring off the side of the building with the borrowed clothes on her back.

In person, the duo’s affect is lovable, if wry. Les, who is twenty-eight, is the voluble one of the pair, and is given to occasional comic riffing (quoting Eric André on music school: “You can handcuff a chimpanzee to a saxophone and it’ll graduate with straight A’s.”) Brady, who is twenty-nine, has a more relaxed stoner’s energy and an affection for cryptic pronouncements. (When I asked him why the band chooses to wear wizard-style capes onstage, he paused to think, and then responded: “Magic-type vibes.”) Both grew up in suburban St. Louis where, in the early two-thousand-and-tens, they met at a house party and hit it off thanks to their shared desire to make music. “We were, like, ‘Let’s make a producer-type band together,’ ” Les recalled. That plan came to fruition a couple of years later, after Les had moved to Chicago to pursue a degree in acoustics at Columbia College, and Brady visited. He had become involved in the burgeoning SoundCloud-rap scene, decamped from St. Louis, where he’d been studying music engineering, to Los Angeles, “to sleep on this dude’s couch and produce.” They began sending each other demos that they were excited about, and eventually collaborated on tracks long-distance, sharing Logic Pro files, and tweaking and adding to each other’s offerings in what Les calls an “iterative” process.

Both had an affinity for the experimental compositions of the avant-garde New York polymath John Zorn, and the layered, abstract work of the electronic musician Daniel Lopatin (known by the name Oneohtrix Point Never). But their love of difficult soundscapes was matched by their appetite for commercial hits. Though they didn’t know each other at the time, the first show that they both attended, in seventh grade, was on the 2004 reunion tour of Van Halen, whose music is as much sexy, melodic pop as it is metal. (Brady: “I wasn’t yet privy to how good Eddie was at that time.” Les: “Oh, I was privy as fuck.”) Growing up, Brady liked pop-punk savants Blink-182 and the ska-punk Long Beach chillers Sublime. (While he was changing clothes during the photo shoot, he showed me a tattoo on his bicep of the Sublime logo.) Les had the rappers Eminem and Nelly on her iPod Shuffle and tried to mimic and modify Black Sabbath riffs when she learned to play guitar in middle school. “I was always a pretentious little shit,” she told me. “But you can’t deny when something is just super-duper catchy and sounds really fucking good and makes people happy.” In high school, she’d imagine how great it would be to write like Max Martin, the Swedish mega-producer, who has worked with Britney Spears and Taylor Swift.

The move from the alternative margins to the mainstream has been a paradigmatic model in the world of popular music, at least since the rise of Nirvana in the early nineteen-nineties, and one way to think about 100 gecs’s ascent is along these now familiar lines: Les and Brady, two unknown kids from the middle of the country noodling on their computers, in their respective teen bedrooms, reaching unforeseen commercial success, give or take a decade later, through talent, hard work, and, crucially, corporate support. In “Hollywood Baby,” the third single from their new album, the pair seem to refer to their newfound fame and its potential pitfalls. “I’m going crazy / Little tiny Hollywood baby / Brand new Mercedes / I’ve been at the crib going crazy,” Brady sings, before reaching the bridge, with its explosive refrain—“You’ll never make it in Hollywood, baby!”—which Les repeats, her voice taking on an increasingly aggressive edge.

When I first listened to “Hollywood Baby,” it brought to mind Mudhoney’s sneering anti-sellout 1991 anthem, “Overblown,” written in response to the major-label gold rush on Seattle in the wake of Nirvana’s popularity. (“Everybody loves us / Everybody loves our town / That’s why I’m thinking lately / The time for leaving is now.”) And yet “Hollywood” is as much a knowing revisitation of such sentiment as it is an articulation of it. In a 2020 interview with the British publication NME, Les said that she celebrated the band’s contract signing with Atlantic by ordering champagne and caviar—describing it as “the perfect time” to do that sort of thing—which felt like a similar, self-conscious reusing of a cultural trope.

The space in which 100 gecs has emerged and operates in is vastly different than that which they would have encountered thirty years ago. Now there is nowhere to leave to, so one might as well just stick around where one is and make things lively. Les and Brady might be from St. Louis, but like so many of their young millennial and Gen Z listeners, their true home town is the nebulous world of the Internet, which offered the children who grew up with it a seemingly divisionless array of musical, aesthetic, and ideological influences. This world—a brimming grab bag of trash and tinsel—is the one that 100 gecs embodies, and it’s where the genre-spanning A.D.H.D. quality of their music emerges from, making its listeners feel, as a friend put it to me, “like a victim of the national Adderall shortage.”

Les and Brady don’t seem interested in keeping an ironic distance from the ear-popping hodgepodge that they create; instead, they sincerely and energetically embrace it. In conversation, the pair ping-pong rapidly from reference to reference, with Les quoting the trans feminist hardcore band G.L.O.S.S., when she says that she and her girlfriend, the writer and producer May Leitz, are “Girls Living Outside Society’s Shit,” before seamlessly moving on to enthusiastically discuss the Atlanta rapper Gucci Mane’s late-two-thousands mixtape run. “I don’t think there’s, full stop, something we won’t listen to,” Brady told me. Les paused for a moment to consider. “I guess I don’t listen to so much symphonic metal,” she finally said, before adding, “but I’m sure there’s a symphonic-metal album that I’d really like!” It struck me that the gecs’s affinity for the clothes designed by Balenciaga’s Demna seemed apropos in this respect. This is a man, after all, who has famously made a stiletto Croc—a gesture not unlike Les and Brady’s own musical remixing of cultural artifacts, which leaves nothing off the table.

This copiousness can certainly overwhelm. Les, who had moved to Los Angeles during the pandemic to be closer to Brady as they worked on “10,000 gecs,” recently relocated to rural Colorado to live with Leitz, where the two have adopted a pitbull. L.A., with its constant schmoozing, made Les feel as if she was always at work, and the decision to move away was “like an inspiration from God,” she said. “I love the mountains. I love the air. I love not being so much in the fray of things.” It was the day after the Interview photo shoot, in the hours before 100 gecs’s performance in Bushwick, and, although it was only 6 P.M. and rainy, a long line of fans, mostly in their teens and twenties, had already formed outside the venue. “This tour is cool, playing for so many people,” Les went on, “but it stresses me the fuck out.” She laughed a little uncertainly. “The show is going to be sick, though.”

A couple of hours later, Les and Brady, wearing their regulation matching magician capes—hers purple, his yellow—stood in a stairwell a few short steps from the stage, waiting to go on. Les took a hit off her Juul as the THX Deep Note sample—that familiar audiovisual nineteen-eighties cue—played to signal the opening of “Dumbest Girl Alive,” the popular first track off “10,000 gecs.” Les and Brady ran to the stage as the crowd roared, a gunshot sound effect leading to a ripping guitar riff. “If you think I’m stupid now, you should see me when I’m high / And I’m smarter than I look, I’m the dumbest girl alive,” Les sang, tossing her head back and forth, as Brady danced behind his computer, which was balanced on a trash can. “I took ten Advils today, I’ve got bruises on my thighs / Plus I gave away my brain, I’m the dumbest girl alive.” The audience, who knew every word, chanted along, surging toward the stage. In just over two minutes, the song was done, and the gecs were on to more tracks, more genres, more dazzling jumbles. ♦

Laura Les performing and diving into the crowd at a concert.


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