Hidden in the maze of smudged brownstones and sickly grey-and-white storefronts lining the streets of Brooklyn's East Williamsburg, Shea Stadium sits atop a dreary, two-story warehouse. It isn't the baseball park that was once home to the New York Mets, but a dingy rock club that co-opted the stadium's hallowed name after it was demolished in 2009.
It's the epitome of a DIY music dive, only dirtier. Scribbled in Sharpie on nearly every wall, chicken-scratch graffiti slings mud at bands ranging from electro-posers Crystal Castles to lesser-known groups with names like Bagel and Good Sex. The main room is lined with dilapidated couches that look as if they're teeming with toxic allergens. The acrid smell of sewage and scorched motor oil taints the air. A glass retail counter that probably used to display lipstick serves as a makeshift bar beneath the club's name, which is painted on the wall and framed in a string of Christmas lights.
This is where Balkans drummer Stanley Vergilis, bassist Woody Shortridge, guitarist Brett Miller, and vocalist/guitarist Frankie Broyles have landed after flying 800 miles from Atlanta to make or break their dreams of indie rock stardom.
The polite disposition of the four fresh-faced lads belies their ability to crank out wiry and complex yet melancholy post-punk numbers that are sophisticated beyond their years.
While most bands at this career juncture work to gain stardom by slogging it out on the road, Balkans aim to bypass that route. In the weeks leading up to their trek, the band has been heralded by tastemakers such as Altered Zones, the Needle Drop, BrooklynVegan, Vice and the distinguished NPR, which called Balkans' self-titled debut album (due May 10 via local label Double Phantom) "a rollicking party record washed in harmless self-indulgence." But it was Fader that most poignantly surmised the band's potential when reviewing the song "Troubled and Done": "A chord change or two and you could almost see this in an iPod commercial? That's a compliment guys!"
It's one thing for a young band to garner some Internet buzz before fading into the daily blizzard of videos and MP3s. It's another to transcend the blog hype and turn that rash of attention into real-world success. But because the group's members have decided to stay in college they simply can't constantly be on the road. So they've come to New York for a weekend mission of shock and awe. It's a calculated attempt to work smarter, not harder, at attaining their aspirations by getting the attention of a career-making booking agent or two — all without missing a day of class.
"Frankie wants to make a career out of this band, that's his minimalist vision," says bandleader Vergilis. "Woody wants to be in the coolest band ever. Brett is in this to have fun. Me, I want to be in the biggest band in the world."
This confluence of fun-loving and goal-oriented personalities lies at the heart of Balkans' drive. They have no manager and little experience, but they envision themselves as more than just another rowdy indie rock band.
"We're not just a bunch of dudes who are fun to be around and who do crazy shit at our shows," says Vergilis. "Anyone can make an ass out of themselves on stage, and we love that, but we're recording artists and we're capable of doing so much more."
Like many upstarts, the group has drawn criticism for wearing its influences on its sleeve. But compared to most local bands, Balkans remain two steps ahead, gaining their lead by refining their sound and pushing themselves in inventive ways.
After a two-year incubation period, the band has conjured an unexpectedly crisp and mature sound that defies both its inexperience and Atlanta's simplistic, lo-fi rock reputation. On the eve of releasing its debut full-length, the sudden burst of attention is unusual for such a young band. If ever there was a time for Balkans to step up, it's now.
Still, one can't help but look at them and wonder: Are they ready?
Outside of Shea Stadium, the only landmark is a banged-up Dumpster that's been pushed against the building to catch bags of trash being heaved off of the balcony. Most cab drivers can't even find the place. One of the club's disarmingly hospitable managers/tenants, Zach Staggers, who also plays drums for the night's headliners, So So Glos, greets each member of the group with a can of Miller High Life. "Take one, they're cold," he offers with a thick New York accent. "Does anyone have a cigarette from the South that I can smoke?"
When most bands arrive here, they're tired, crusty and weathered by weeks of touring. But all four Balkans members are glowing with excitement and youthful energy. As the place fills up with about 250 people, the scene starts to resemble their hometown shows, only slightly more fashionable. Being that the club is in the hipster hub of Williamsburg — a college town without a college — tight ankle pants own the dance floor. The members of Balkans are similarly outfitted, but their downplayed attempts at indie rock fashion look like workaday threads in comparison. They fit in, but they don't stand out.
The gruff surroundings test their boyish demeanor, but they all remain tight-lipped when a persistent stranger outside the venue offers them some urban hospitality: "If you guys want some blow, just lemme know. I got a guy comin' ovah."
Not until the next morning does Vergilis' innocence reveal itself when he asks, "Does 'blow' mean heroin or cocaine?"
With his outgoing personality, Vergilis has naturally assumed the band's leadership role. The frontman, Broyles, is the shy guy of the group; he doesn't speak unless spoken to. Guitarist Miller is the hardiest of the bunch. During a recent show at Star Bar, he leapt off the stage midsong to clock a heckler — an incident he's been embarrassed about ever since. Bassist Shortridge, another quiet one, does the legwork, booking shows and lining up interviews for the group.
Despite their youth (at 19, Vergilis is the youngest, Shortridge and Miller are both 20, and the oldest, Broyles, turned 21 in April) and their commitments to school (Vergilis and Shortridge attend Georgia Tech; Broyles and Miller attend Georgia State), this is the third time Balkans have played New York City. But unlike previous visits, there's a sense that people are paying attention this time.
Before flying out of Atlanta, the band began chatting up three concert booking agents — reps from Panache (behind such bands as Jeff the Brotherhood, Health and Quintron), ICM (Strokes, Neil Young, Beyoncé), and the Windish Agency (Deerhunter, Peter Bjorn and John, Diplo). Signing with one of them could mean the difference between being momentary blog darlings and kicking off a career that could justify dropping out of college.
To go about it this way could be construed as taking the path of least resistance. "Touring can be a real drag," Vergilis says. "In retrospect you remember the good times, but when you're doing it, it can be horrible. After every show all you can think about is how you want to be in your bed, but instead you have to sweep cigarette butts aside and make room on a hardwood floor and deal with people partying around you for hours while you're trying to sleep. Nobody wants to do that."
The bill at Shea is rounded out by the Flesh Lights from Austin, Texas, and New York bands Night Collectors and Grand Rapids. With standard sets of garage, '60s rock and pop fare, each band underscores just how different and fresh and effortless the new band from Atlanta sounds. So So Glos closes out the night with a bold proto-punk swagger that's equal parts the Clash and MC5 served up with an unmistakable Brooklyn style.
In the midst of it all, Balkans play for the biggest crowd of the night as they peel through a frenzied set. By the end of the show both Vergilis and Miller appear to be bleeding: Brett's squishing blood out of a gash on his thumb, and Stanley has a dark red splotch smeared across his cheek but he can't seem to find where it came from. "Maybe it's Brett's blood," he laughs.
Walking down the street after the show in search of a 24-hour deli, Miller makes trumpet noises with his mouth while Vergilis asks absurd questions: "What was it that Bugs Bunny used to say? 'How's it going, doctor?'"
Like kids at recess, they shout, chase each other and jump over fire hydrants and stoops before Miller hits the ground with a splat. Without missing a beat he's back on his feet admiring the new raspberry on his elbow while laughing it off.
This comedy routine is in stark contrast to the profound change that comes over them when they step on stage. Their heads are completely in the music, as guitarists Broyles and Miller churn out chiming tones, chords and melodies. Bassist Shortridge and drummer Vergilis lock into precise rhythms with mathematical precision. But such complexities barely contain the energy bursting from such songs as "I Can't Compete" and "Let You Have It."
The four members of Balkans started playing together in the spring of 2008 when they were juniors at Riverwood High School in Sandy Springs. They'd been playing music together since they were kids, but formed Balkans to compete in their high school Battle of the Bands. To their surprise, they won.
Before long they began playing shows at Marietta teen punk hangout Swayze's, but they were banned for life after a particularly rowdy set ended with them blowing up a piñata stuffed with raw meat and fireworks.
After befriending local label Die Indy on MySpace, owner John Breedlove offered to release a split 7-inch with his punk/metal group, Trial By Fire, which materialized in August '08 with two Balkans cuts, "C++" and "F3."
Almost immediately, the songs earned comparisons to the Strokes and the Walkmen, mostly because of their intricate guitar interplay and Broyles' frazzled pinning. The comparisons weren't unfounded, even if Balkans didn't possess the Strokes cocksure strut or simplistic sense of rock 'n' roll revivalism. "People say it all the time," laughs Vergilis. "We sound like the Strokes, but I hate the Strokes!"
They soon struck a partnership with Double Phantom and joined a roster of playfully experimental art-pop and rock bands, including Carnivores, Selmanaires, the Clap and Mood Rings.
Released as a 7-inch in '09, "Zebra Print" kicked off an era of expansion for Balkans. Although follow-up single "Georganne" wasn't as strong of a stand-alone single, there was visible growth in the group's performance and songwriting.
In January, they leaked the "Edita V" b/w "Cave" 7-inch to a handful of higher caliber national music blogs. My Old Kentucky Blog was the first to take notice, commenting on the "delicious fuzz and drone" of "Cave." Within a few days of hitting the Internet, the 7-inch pushed Balkans into the indie music blog aggregator Hype Machine's top 20 artists.
The band also achieved an increased level of sophistication with its release. Broyles' remorse-filled yelps had become more pronounced, even confident, and the production was clean and loud, hinting at a new pop aesthetic.
But there's an odd dichotomy driving Balkans' vision of indie rock acclaim. On one hand, Shortridge sees success in punk rock terms and speaks fondly of records by Hüsker Dü and Sonic Youth. Vergilis, meanwhile, gets excited when he talks about J-Lo and Kanye West. Not surprisingly, his favorite Beatle is Paul McCartney. "John Lennon had too many political affiliations and McCartney effortlessly created the best music ever," Vergilis says. "Effortlessness is critical when making music."
Vergilis' obsession with clean, high-fidelity production and focused songwriting gives life to the group's debut album, which stands apart from the willfully messy clichés of the low-fi and garage punk scenes that weaned Balkans.
"I got fed up with how a lot of Atlanta bands were preoccupied with what didn't sell," he adds. "I wanted to figure out why something does sell — why something that seems like it wouldn't be popular, like Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP became the fastest-selling solo album in U.S. history."
Sometime around noon on their second day in New York, the members of Balkans awake amid nearly 20 other floor-crashers after sleeping scattershot across two loft apartments inside Shea Stadium, where Staggers and his stepbrother live.
Soon after, the four of them head across Brooklyn to record a video at a bar called Veronica's Peoples Club. The week of their trip, "Troubled and Done," the third song to leak from Balkans' forthcoming album, premiered on Fader.com and earned them an invitation to record an acoustic version for Fader TV.
The acoustic run through "Troubled and Done" doesn't quite work without electricity. The group plugs in but keeps the amps turned down low. Broyles sings without a mic, which is about as acoustic as Balkans get. Since the shoot doesn't call for drums, they borrow a boom box from a friend to play a CD of percussion tracks. In the resulting video, Vergilis looks painfully awkward sitting around with nothing to do.
The son of Russian immigrants who fled to the U.S. to escape social and political turmoil following the collapse of the former Soviet Union, Vergilis harbors no romanticized view of the hardships of a DIY lifestyle. "It's hard to tell your parents that you're going to drop out of school to go play in this rock 'n' roll band, especially when they left their home to give you a better life," he says.
For Vergilis, playing shows like the two gigs they have booked in New York are a stepping-stone to something greater down the line.
The venue for their second night's show in New York is a warehouse called 285 Kent Ave. It's been booked by revered NYC promoter Todd Patrick, or Todd P, as he's best known. On the plane to New York, Shortridge seemed nervous about meeting him — mainly because he pretty much runs the indie music scene in Brooklyn. He's helped nurture bands ranging from Animal Collective and Deerhunter to Matt & Kim. If things don't go well, booking future shows in New York could be difficult.
Veronica's is also on Kent Avenue, and everyone at the bar says the club is just down the road. But as soon as Balkans step outside, rain starts to fall. They successfully hail a taxi but the driver curses in a Middle Eastern dialect before driving away. "He said something about not allowing five people in the cab," Vergilis says, looking bewildered.
Time is running out, so the group walks in the rain with guitars in hand. After nearly half an hour of counting down the street numbers on every door along the way, they finally come to 285.
Inside, the venue is an 800-capacity concrete room with a small stage and a nicer bar than the night before. There is no backstage, and the bathrooms are essentially two toilets that have been partitioned off by thin, plywood walls.
Along the way, Shortridge has learned that the booking agent he's been talking with from Windish had to leave town, but someone from Ground Control Touring should be coming instead.
Balkans are the first act on a bill with the Flesh Lights again, Pop. 1280 from Brooklyn, and an '80s hardcore cover band called, what else, '80s Hardcore, which is fronted by Vice magazine co-founder Gavin McInnes. Another turnout of about 200 to 250 people files in despite the rain.
Meeting Todd P before they play feels like a rite of passage for the group. He's all business, but they seem to hit it off. He even throws Balkans a compliment, saying they sound pretty tight after laughing about how they look like a bunch of 12-year-olds.
Because of the group's quiet demeanor, it's easy to forget that the pressure is on. This is the night they've been planning for weeks while stacking up meetings with potential booking agents.
When they play, they're on their best behavior and the show goes off without a hitch. Afterward Miller complains that he just wasn't able to pull it together, but no one else noticed any problems. Earlier in the evening they were each given a couple of drink tickets, but nobody touches a drop until the next band is well underway.
After the show only one of the prearranged meetings takes place — Daniel Traci from ICM shows up and shakes hands. It's a casual stop-and-chat and he talks sports with Miller, mostly boxing, and after hanging out for a few minutes he's gone. No deal is struck, and if Panache or Ground Control showed up, they keep to themselves.
With that the moment of reckoning — the whole reason behind the sprint to New York — has come and gone. Until then, expectations were high. But in the grand scheme of things, meeting with booking agents became just another detail of the trip.
What they'd expected to be the climax for the weekend didn't pan out as the shortcut to fame and fortune that they'd hoped for. At this moment, it's hard not to recognize their hope going into the trek as naiveté. Rock star dreams that last rarely materialize overnight, which is something Balkans might have learned on tour if they'd had much experience there. But the trip wasn't exactly a bust. In just two days they laid the groundwork for the obvious next step: hitting the road for real.
While making their way through the twisted maze of Brooklyn streets back to the airport the following morning, all four members of the group consider the weekend a victory. "Look at what we accomplished," Shortridge says. "We got a ton of great press, played two really fun shows and met some great people that we'll see again when we do go on tour."
Vergilis concurs, but with an air of caution. "It was a success, but nothing to dwell on," he says. "It was just one small step to the peak of our career."
While boarding the plane back to Atlanta, Shortridge is texting with promoters — booking shows that'll take them from the South to the Midwest and back to the East Coast as soon as the semester comes to an end in May.
Sometimes you have to do what you have to do.
Stream Balkans' new self-titled album below
I'm pretty sure he was 19.
3 people apparently love handing over an extra 40% in fees for nothing in return…
Dang. I thought they would name some actual headliners.
Forgot to mention that Iggy did a stellar show @ the Agora in the spring…
Their fees were onerous, to say the least. $16 per ticket for "convenience," and it's…