The Beets are quick to tell you that they're from Jackson Heights, Queens and play stripped-down rock 'n' roll, which they continue to do on their new album, Stay Home, thanks to a string of happy accidents and obliviousness to current music trends. We sat down with singer-guitarist Juan Wauters and bassist Jose Garcia to find out more about the new album and what's up next.
The L: What would you say is the biggest difference between Spit in the Face of People Who Don’t Want to Be Cool and Stay Home?
Juan Wauters: On a lot of the songs, I sing main vocals now; before it was mostly all three of us singing. I don’t know why — maybe because they’re more narrated songs?
Jose Garcia: I feel like what carries a lot of the newer songs is the way that [Juan] sings them; [his] voice in general. And [he’s] always changing when we play live. A lot of the newer songs leave more room to mess around with how [he] sings them.
Juan: The last year and an half, I feel like we’ve experimented a lot. That’s something I really admire about our band. Even though we have songs written, we always try to come up with different versions for every show, do something at least a little different. I’ve been listening to this Uruguayan musician whose guitar playing and vocal delivery is really loose — like floating almost — and it’s driven me away from that really strict Ramones setup, at least in how we perform live.
The thing about this album is that when we recorded it, we weren’t communicating well with our drummer at the time and didn’t really talk about how we were going to do the album. We just sort of went and did it. We knew the songs by heart, we could play them with our eyes closed, so it was more like we just did it without much thought. I think if you would’ve recorded it during a live show, it would be a much better album. Our first album too. I think they’re really good albums, and the songs are really good, but…
The L: So you think your live shows are better than your recordings?
Juan: Well, yeah, sometimes. Or when we practice, sometimes I can’t believe my ears.
Jose: Everything sounds good at the practice space…
Juan:: Or when we’re just hanging out, jamming, or when we do radio sessions — I listen back to them and wish that they were the album.
The L: Is it how you guys play the songs or the production that you like better live?
Juan: The production, I guess. Now we met this guy, Gary Olson — he’s in the Ladybug Transistor — who has a really, really nice studio and records in high definition with big tape. He’s got a huge board, all analog equipment in the basement — the way bands in the 50s, 60s and 70s used to record. So that’s where we’re going to record the third one, just to get that big sound. I feel like when bands record through a computer, a lot of the soul, the feelings — the what do you call it? — the sentimental part of the song gets lost in the way the computer records the sound.
The L: Did you record your first two albums yourselves?
Juan: The first one we did ourselves at home. We were really naïve about everything — even today, still.
Jose: The reason we even recorded a record is because somehow we got booked to play with Vivian Girls, who I guess at the time were huge, but we didn’t know there was anything happening in Brooklyn. I remembered hearing somewhere of the Vivian Girls though, and people we calling us, telling us this show was going to be huge, and that there was a buzz about us.
The L: Seriously? You didn’t know about all the bands coming out of Brooklyn?
Juan: If we were never picked up by the Brooklyn scene, we would never had even heard of the Brooklyn scene. [Jose] has to check our e-mail every day to book shows and stuff, so now he kind of knows what’s going on, but I’m still completely out of it.
Jose: We had even talked about starting our own scene. We were like, we have to find bands like us and start a scene.
The L: How did you get hooked up with Captured Tracks then?
Juan: Same thing. At the time, [Mike Sniper, founder] was dating Cassie, the singer of Vivian Girls — it was even before Captured Tracks started — and he said he was going to put out a single of ours. We had recorded the album already, so we said, “Put out the whole album.” And he said, “Yeah? Ok.” We had it on tape [at the time]. We just didn’t put it on CD because I didn’t have a computer, so we couldn’t burn CDs. Then we found out that putting out tapes was a cool thing.
Jose: Yeah, I didn’t even know they made records for current bands. Even with this whole lo-fi thing, it had nothing to do with that being the way we wanted to sound, it was more like the means of it. We could only record on tape, so that’s the way we did it, and the quality of the songs, that’s all we knew. That’s how it was with everything.
Juan: Everything that’s happened with us has happened by experimenting and accidents. We used to run the vocals through an amplifier, and people used to think that that was the coolest thing, but we did it because we never had a PA.
The L: The first time I heard of you guys, you were playing a show with The Pains of Being Pure at Heart at Glasslands. [Jeff Klingman] booked it, back in the day, maybe three years ago. And all of a sudden after that show, so many bands seemed to be doing this lo-fi/standing drummer/heavy reverb thing.
Jose: I know! It is really weird. We think about that too. I mean, we didn’t make it up.
Juan: Yeah, we just ripped it off from The Jesus & Mary Chain and The Velvet Underground. But we were doing it for maybe two years here in Queens without having seen anyone else do it.
Jose: I really do believe in a collective subconscious, you know? There’s so many people, I’m sure someone is going to come up with the same thing you come up with at some point.
The L: When people describe you as part of the “Brooklyn sound” or the “Brooklyn scene,” does that bug you?
Jose: It doesn’t bother me, ‘cause all we do is play in Brooklyn. It does bother me when people say that we’re a “Brooklyn band” because we’re not; we’re from Queens. And I’ve seen people complain that we always say [at shows], “We’re The Beets, we’re from Jackson Heights,” but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying where you’re from. I love the stuff that’s going on [in Brooklyn], and if it weren’t for the Brooklyn scene, we’d still just be playing in Queens and no one would know of us. Now there are people in Australia who know about us. That’s insane. That’s crazy. So I’m all for the Brooklyn scene and being lumped into it.
The L Mag: So after the Vivian Girls show happened, what came next?
Juan: Then everybody wanted to play with us.
Jose: For a couple of years, we were doing, like, three shows a week. And Todd P got a hold of us...
Juan: Yeah, but he would hate on us.
The L Mag: He would hate on you?
Juan: He'd hate on us 'cause we kind of have this bad thing where we always show up to things late. Like, this. If we would've done this [interview] at 3pm at Kellogg's, it would have been bad news. [ed. note: I got a last-minute phone call asking if we could switch the interview to 4:30 in Queens.] So we would be the first band, and we would show up at 9, thinking we'd play at 10, but we were suppose to play at 7. And sometimes we would want to leave 'cause we didn't want to watch the other bands, and he wouldn't want us to leave because he wouldn't pay us until the end. And then one time I called him and he kinda, like, yelled at me because I called him at 11:30 at night, and I screamed back at him over the phone. But he finally paid me that money; it was like 70 bucks.
The L Mag: Well, he seems to like you. You seem to always be playing shows he's booked.
Jose: Yeah, now we're cool.
Juan: I think we have a reputation that we're a hard-working band. I mean, we'll do whatever you want. We'll go and do it, we just don't want to have to deal with that other stuff. Now that we have worked a lot with him and I see him organize these crazy things, I give him lots of props because if it wasn't for him, our thing wouldn't have happened. Not just for us — like I said, we would still be playing here in Queens — but I mean for other bands. All of those shows that go on every weekend are places that he set up. Well, not all of them, but a lot of them.
Jose: A lot of them were able to start because he started the trend.
The L: I was listening to an in-studio session you guys did on Newtown Radio where you were playing a lot of songs from Stay Home, but it was from last January. How long have you been working on it?
Juan: The album is really old. It was supposed to come out maybe last January, but never did.
The L: Why was that?
Juan: Well, we were just really slow. We recorded it but never mixed it, and then we were going to release it in October ‘cause we were going to go to Europe.
Jose: Yeah, we were talking about doing a record deal with a European label, and they wanted us to put it out then. Then they wanted to do press for it a couple months before and were like, “Push it to January.” But then that whole thing fell through, so we kind of waited for no reason.
The L: So are you writing the third record now?
Jose: The third record is ready to go.
The L: Is that annoying for you, to be sitting on all these songs?
Jose: It’s a little weird. We just had a show, a kind of unofficial record release show at Glasslands, and we played maybe just two songs off Stay Home, ‘cause we don’t even really play those anymore. I mean, normally a band would’ve been playing the whole record.
Juan: We probably did that two years ago.
Jose: We’re trying to catch up to ourselves. Hopefully, our third record will be out by the middle of the year, I hope.
The L: Do you have a title for that one yet?
Juan: I have a lot. I like a lot of titles.
The L: Is there a theme like on these last two — “staying home,” “being cool"…
Jose: Well, that’s the thing. Everybody keeps saying how the record is about staying home, which I guess some of the songs are.
The L: Well, it does say on the album cover, “A collection of 13 new songs about staying home”…
Juan: Our album titles are always “The Beets… something,” like a sentence: The Beets Spit in the Face, The Beets Stay Home, The Beets Do the Locomotion. So we’ll keep with that. I want to do The Beets Hate Weezer, though [Jose] doesn’t want to.
Jose: ‘Cause I like Weezer. I’m thinking about it though. It’s growing on me.
Juan: I hate them. And you talk about cred; that’s a lot of cred. You name your album that, people go wild.
Jose: I understand Juan’s thing though. They look really, really bad. But the music’s mad good.
Juan: I just don’t think it’s rock music.
The L: So what kind of music did you grow up with then?
Juan: I just listened to the Stones and The Ramones, nonstop. That’s the only thing I listen to even today. I never got out of it. Well, and The Beatles. The Beatles I started listening to here, in New York. I’m from Uruguay, and in Uruguay, you’re not allowed to listen to The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. I mean, you’re allowed, but you’re a fucking wimp if you listen to The Beatles out there, so I never gave them the time of day. Over there, people like things that are a little closer to reality. The Rolling Stones are always talking about partying and bad things to get into, whereas The Beatles are the good guys, and you don’t relate that to rock music. My friends and I would never sit down and rock out to The Beatles; we’d get pumped listening to other stuff.
Jose: I feel like I was really sheltered, especially for growing up in New York, kind of because of my parents but also just because where I was from. So I listened to Hot 97 and Z100 and KROQ for a number of years. I wasn’t really into music. Like, I would never buy records or anything. And then I met a friend who had an older brother who went to NYU who got really into music. Then CDs came, and I started listening to pop-punk and ska and all that.
It’s weird, I didn’t know that local bands existed, really. I was almost totally oblivious to that growing up. You were either huge and on the radio, or, I didn’t know there was any other kind of music. I never had a job, so I couldn’t ever buy CDs, but then Napster came out, and Audiogalaxy — I don’t know if anyone ever got in to Audiogalaxy, but you could get anything on there — and so I started to get in to Polyvinyl and Rainer Maria and all that sort of stuff that was considered “indie rock.” You know, emo. The Get Up Kids. It’s funny, ‘cause I think all that stuff really sucks now, but I like that I had [it] growing up. It was fun. Good to sing along to.
The L: At what point did you two meet each other?
Jose: 2003 or 2004. I was taking classes at LaGuardia Community College, and he was taking an art class. I actually never spoke to him, and then one day, I did. I immediately asked him if he played guitar. I don’t know why, it was really weird. It was fate, kind of.
Juan: I looked like a guitarist.
Jose: Yeah, I remember you had “Adam Green” on your sneakers, and I knew The Moldy Peaches. The school is the biggest international school in the city or something like that, so no one really looked like they were in to the stuff that I was in to. Even in the art classes I would take, it would just be nursing students taking a random art class.
The L: Your sound is a little hard to pin down I think, between its 60s psych-rock and an almost-throwback to 50s greaser-type stuff. How do you guys describe it?
Juan: I think it’s because of Weezer and bands like that, that everybody in our generation listened to growing up, sort of ruined the roots of rock music. And I think our band is more linked to the roots of rock music. I feel like that we’re one of the few bands, that I know of anyways, who play more traditional rock, in a modern way. The Ramones did it in their day, Nirvana did it in theirs, you know? I guess they put names on it after – “punk,” “grunge,” you know, but I think it’s just stripped down rock ‘n’ roll. If you listen to Weezer, that’s not rock music at all. The melodies aren’t rock. Or the emotion put into it. The melodies are just some wacky shit. I mean, I don’t mean to give them shit. I get that they’re famous and people like them. Everybody liked that growing up, so it’s hard for people to get it out of their heads.
And it doesn’t have to be “rocking” to be “rock ‘n’ roll.” People don’t have to be breaking instruments and jumping around. Some people are really folky and groovy and still really rocking, you know? I recently got into Leonard Cohen, and he’s just one guy playing the guitar, but he’s the most rocking guy ever. The delivery and the melody, you can trace it back to rock, whereas when you listen to most of the popular bands in Brooklyn, I don’t think they can be traced back to that.
The L: Yeah, I think you can definitely hear that in your music. I would call it “garage rock.” And now there’s the whole lo-fi thing.
Jose: Yeah, that’s the thing we now kind of realize. Because the recordings are so lo-fi, we get lumped into a certain category. I mean, it’s not a problem, I like that kind of music anyway, but it’s just kind of weird that the way you record can change the kind of music you play — and it’s just the recording, rather than the actual songs. I feel like the songs are really just rock.
Juan: They can also just be stripped down into a folk song if they needed to. Some dude could play it on a piano and it’d be cool. The most important thing should just be the actual songs, whether you play it on the guitar, or the bass or whatever, the actual song should have some sort of value by itself. I wish a lot of bands would do that, but they’re worried about intricacy and stuff.
The L: What do you think of Animal Collective and stuff like that?
Jose: I loved those first few records, but, yeah -- I feel like now that they’re popular, they’re trying to overthink things. I just don’t think they sound the same. On some songs before, it would just be an acoustic guitar and them banging on things, and that was really, really good. I’m not really into all that sort of electronic-y stuff. I understand why people would like it and recognize that’s it’s good; it’s just not the stuff that I’m really in to.
The L:How did opening for Pavement this summer come about? Did the band personally ask you?
Jose: It was so weird. We were on tour, and we got an e-mail from their booking agent, I guess, and he was like, “Hey, I was curious if we were able to offer you a spot opening up for Pavement at Central Park, would you do it?” I was like, “Yeah, I think we could do that, no problem.”
Juan: We had never heard of Pavement…
Jose: I knew a couple of their songs, but they’re, like, huge. It’s so interesting though, and probably every band has stories about all these little connections and stuff, but it started with this guy who writes a blog for The New York Times — he’s a food critic and bought our record because the name of our band is The Beets — and he really like the art work. So he e-mailed [Matt Volz], who does all of our art, and bought a t-shirt from him. But it took Matt a year to design it or something, so I went with him finally to drop it off at his house and ended up hanging out for a little bit. He was super nice and just had a baby. And I guess he’s friends with the bassist of Pavement, who lives in Woodside.
Juan: Yeah, he bartends at a bar on Queens Boulevard. And I think each [member] got to pick a band to open.
The L: I was at that show, actually. I remember someone made a comment that the best line of the night was, “Hey, we’re The Beets. Be sure to stick around for Pavement,” which is kinda funny…
Juan: I think it’s best for a band to do things like that. I say things like that on purpose. I love bands that make people think, “These guys are such assholes.” I don’t think I’m an asshole, but I love when bands do it, so I do it too. We tell people that we’re the best band ever ‘cause if we don’t think that way we can’t go any further. I mean, I really like Tyvek, and the German Measles and the Beachniks, but I’d rather be us.
The L: You do have this sort of slacker, jokey image to a certain degree, but then some of your lyrics are really sweet and soft. They’re not all party, party, party.
Juan: Right, right. None of the songs are about partying, and I make sure I never say “fuck” or “shit.” I mean, it’d be crazy, why would I ever want to say that in a song? Well, except for maybe one song. But it’s all pretty much about feelings and stuff.
Jose: I do really feel that we’re one of the best bands, and if somehow we could get people to listen to the lyrics and what we’re doing…
Juan: And also the message of the band. It’s a really soulful message and healthy for people to hear.
The L: What is the message, if you had to sum it up in a sentence?
Juan: The message of the band, to me, is to make sure what you’re doing is sincerely yourself. And if you do it with your heart, then I don’t think any of the lyrics will be bullshit.