Nice as F**k Will Make You Get Off Your Ass and Do Something
Jenny Lewis, Tennessee Thomas, and Erika Spring formed a band out of the friendship, and in doing so realized the power of community giving a damn.
It's a sticky Friday in late July and something is afoot on 1st Avenue, in New York's East Village. Next to the higgledy-piggledy vintage store, A Repeat Performance, stands The Deep End Club, the storefront window filled with balloons, a small keyboard, and an enormous peace sign lit with bare bulbs. But this front store façade—with its corrugated shutter graffitied with the word COOL, in pink bubble letters—is largely obscured by an orderly line of well-dressed music fans from their teens to late 30s. They're standing three or four deep, filing down the block towards 9th Street and round the corner.
Inside the narrow store everything is for sale, totes and t-shirts emblazoned with Give a Damn, friendship bracelets and petite watercolor portraits. The bookshelves are stacked. Warhol, Howard L Bingham's The Black Panthers, Radical Prototypes: Allan Kaprow and the Invention of Happenings, stand alongside choice LPs—Nina Simone's Gifted & Black, The Ronettes. Cutouts of Bob Dylan and Patti Smith oversee the swiftly filling space, soon to be sardined with friends and fans of Nice As Fuck—or NAF for primetime TV—the band made up of Jenny Lewis, Erika Spring, and Tennessee Thomas. Beers are passed around, no one knows who bought them.
Decked out in matching berets, NAF tees, and camo, the trio kick into "Runaway": Tennessee on the store floor kicking out a skippy beat, Erika working the descending bass line, the guitar resting on her blooming baby bump, and then there's Jenny in her silver booties, shoulder-shimmying on the tiny elevated storefront-turned-stage. She flips between addressing the fans in front of her and those on the street, hand pressed to the pane that separates them. NAF's songs are deliciously unfettered—you can catch the hook and sing-along by the second verse. It's a step and half away from the kind of music each artist has made elsewhere. Surprisingly, Jenny sites an early love of hip-hop as an influence, eventually tracing some samples back to bands like New York post-punk act ESG. "I didn't even know I loved ESG and then when I found them in the early 2000s it was like, wow this is the kind of music I want to make," she explains. "But I was making emo indie rock at the time with a lot of guitars. So now I find myself, at almost 40 years old, embracing my inner hip-hop spirit. It was the perfect opportunity to ditch the guitar and dub out my vocals."
Tennessee relays a too true tale of the modern date flake and the crowd titters with the recognition of shared experience, as Jenny slinks: "Are you even still alive? / I think I just got ghosted by cookie lips." She doesn't sound like the Jenny we know from her solo records, or Rilo Kiley, rather, her honeyed tones are heavily echoed and wonderfully warped throughout. NAF's tunes are personal, but their self-titled album—nine songs that whiz by in under 25-minutes—are also marked by rabble rousing political undertones. As the set draws to a close those assembled are soon chanting along: "I don't wanna be afraid / Put your guns away." The whole performance is joyous and loose, intimate and inclusive.
Outside the orderly line has morphed into a sprawl that spills off the sidewalk and obstructs passersby (and the occasional bus). Friends of NAF loiter and exchange hellos—there's Alexa Chung and her boyfriend, actor AlexanderSkarsgård, singer Thomas Cohen (formerly of the band SCUM), Luke Rathborne, members of Mother, and Public Access TV. "It feels like the East Village back in the day," notes Rathborne. The singer directed their recent video for "Guns." That's back in the day before, as locals like to complain, this formerly gritty enclave turned into a giant NYU campus.
The Deep End Club is the brainchild of Tennessee Thomas, who became a cool kid on the block back in the early aughts, when she was still a teenager, playing drums in her 60s girl group-inspired band The Like. Born in London, Tennessee relocated to LA while she was still in school, so her accent is British softened with transatlanticism. Her father is Pete Thomas, Elvis Costello's longtime drummer, who also contributed beats to Jenny's 2008 LP Acid Tongue. Tennessee first met Jenny years earlier when their respective bands were playing local shows with the likes of Phantom Planet. "At one point she said, 'I like you, you remind me of me,'" laughs Tennessee. "And then we were mani-pedi friends."
The Like split in 2011 and not long after, Tennessee made a break for New York, leaving her drum kit behind. Feeling lost and heartbroken after the band's dissolution, she split her time DJing and A&Ring for an indie label. It wasn't until her exposure to the Occupy Movement that the now 31-year-old felt a renewed sense of purpose.
"Just hearing everyone talking about what was going on in the world and talking to strangers about all these different issues—there was this whole community of really sweet people who were really concerned, but also creative and artistic," she recalls. Along with 11 other occupiers, Tennessee set up the Awareness Experiment. "It was like a town hall meeting and we had think tanks on different issues," she explains. The topics on the table were vast: climate change, equality, money's sway on politics. "I thought it'd be amazing to have a space for those conversations to continue."
Photo via Faran Krentcil
In 2013 Thomas signed the lease for 156 1st Avenue and christened it The Deep End Club, a nod to her dad's wild days when he and his buddies would abide by the rule of jumping in pools, fully clothed, when anyone announced a "Deep End Club meeting." It started as a six month pop-up shop, but instantly became a welcoming HQ, stocking the wares of her friends and vintage finds. Occasionally bands would play sweaty, impromptu shows (The Black Lips), and book groups sometimes descended into love life story swapping sessions, but it was also a space where, before the 2014 People's Climate March, likeminded sorts gathered to paint protest signs before joining the walk en masse. It was during this period that she formed a friendship with Erika, who played synth in Brooklyn dream pop trio Au Revoir Simone. Both are frequently told they look the spit of Laura Dern.
Last fall Jenny arrived from LA, following in Tennessee's black and white saddle shoe-clad footsteps. Why did Jenny wind up in the Big Apple? The same reason as so many before her, Tennessee included: a clean slate. Or as Jenny bluntly states: "A break up." She continues: "I felt like a runaway, an orphan. I had no idea where to go and Tennessee's shop was a place that I could just loiter every single day. After a few weeks I was like OK, I need to play some music."
Without The Deep End Club and the community that formed from it, there would be no Nice as Fuck. Jenny convinced Tennessee to dust off her sticks and the trio began jamming out songs during opening hours with the store's door propped open wide. "I remember we started playing 'Runaway' or 'Door' and people would stop outside," says Tennessee. "It's hard to get people to stop in New York, so we'd go, alright that's a keeper. That's kind of how the songs formed themselves. It was so interactive!"
"People talk about how you should play new songs live on tour before you record them, but we were getting that feedback in real time," says Erika, who'd never played bass until the band came together.
"Tennessee gave me a safe place to hangout and find myself again," says Jenny. "The songs reflect the feeling in the shop, but every song has a flipside of a woman coming to New York for the first time and rediscovering herself. It's the most pure thing I've ever been apart of." One day M. Ward dropped by and was so impressed he offered them the opening slot on his Spring tour. Further galvanized by this opportunity, they finished the set of songs that makes up their debut.
Today may be a celebration of the band, the store, and its creative hub, but it's also, sadly, shutters for the Club. Still, it's less the end of an era, and more onto the next chapter, which aligns perfectly with their song "Door," a tune Jenny says is at the record's heart. "The sentiment of 'Door' is of just sort of leaving the door open," she explains. "There are endless possibilities within your relationships, within your relationship with the world, and I think it speaks to all of the things we were feeling at The Deep End Club. It's not one thing or the other really it can apply to everything."
Twenty minutes later NAF play their succinct set all over again so fans who couldn't gain access initially, can squeeze their way in for a better view. No one wants to call time on the good vibes.
The following week I see the girls again, this time in LA where they're opening for Ryan Adams at The Greek, a hollowed out amphitheater at the foot of Griffith Park. It's magic hour when they sassily strut out to the theme tune from Jem and the Holograms—all synths and 80s pizzazz. They huddle close, as if the parameters tonight are the same as The Deep End Club, and not a spacious stage. Truly, this vantage point is too remote for the band. If they had their way they'd be playing in the middle of the floor surrounded by a dancing audience.
"I went to see Lightning Bolt with Black Dice in 2001 and I just remember being the most interactive show I'd ever been to and just that energy with people playing on the floor was something I couldn't shake," explains Jenny, in the bowels of the backstage after their set. "When we started talking about playing outside of the shop I thought, whoa that would be an amazing thing to pull off."
Erika adds: "There's also this real sense of unknown—we don't know what's going to happen, they don't know what's going to happen—and it creates this awesome tension and increases the spirit of it."
"Where I was coming from in my life, I didn't feel I wanted to be on a stage in front of people, because I was rediscovering music and rediscovering myself," finishes Jenny. Given that the singer has been in the spotlight in one form or another since the 80s, it's easy to imagine how thrilled Jenny must've been to find herself looking at music and performance from a fresh perspective. This reawakening is certainly critical to the band's appeal, her sense of liberation, coupled with the verve of Erika and Tennessee, translates from the top down.
"I've never seen a band set up on the floor of the Bowery Ballroom and connect with an audience in that type of intimate way," Jonah Bayer of United Nations and co-creator of web series Sound Advice, (alongside SNL's Vanessa Bayer), told me recently. "Watching them you can tell it isn't a publicity stunt; they mean it and it's about as punk as you can get."
As he quite rightly points out, there's no way this trio, with one slim record to their name, could've sold out two shows at Bowery Ballroom and another at Music Hall of Williamsburg, playing to nearly 2000 people in two days, but thanks to Jenny rep for selling out these spaces on her own, she's got the clout to make it happen. "It's really cool that she's able to use her influence and legacy in order to mold NAF into this sort of revolutionary band," he says. "It's as brave as it is unexpected. I mean, who else does that?"NAF live at the Troubador in LA.
Nice as Fuck made their live debut proper in April, at a Bernie Sanders benefit concert, Bern NY Bern. The girls have been extremely vocal in their support. Erika boils down the senator's appeal to the fact that "he's a real humanitarian and he wants our society to support our people." For a time The Deep End Club seemed like an unofficial campaign office, where you could register to vote, and find out more about his policies. Naturally, they were crushed when he was out of the running, but all affirm that his message still resonates.
Tennessee recounts one of his last NYC speeches: "He just said don't lose your outrage about things that are outrageous. Just walking past a homeless person—this isn't OK. He really put his finger on the Wall Street thing, these 20 people have more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. It's just so fucked. To think we're not more outraged is confusing. That's just the nature of how brainwashed we all are. But I think our generation had been kind of cynical and removed, and it's been interesting seeing all of our friends mature and grow up and go, alright some of our friends are having kids and what sort of world is this. It's real important stuff."
They're not so naïve to think that the mantra from "Guns—"The solution is revolution"—will affect quantifiable change, but Erika highlights the fact that the store, and indeed the band, has helped create a community where there was once nothing. It's less about preaching and more about provoking discussion—sparking inspiration, and building from there.
"It's like we were riding this wave and it was so inspiring and empowering, it brought so many people together," says Tennessee. "It was just a burst of excitement! It's not like there's a simple answer, you have to keep fighting, there's no solutions, it's like, we're working on this issue, then this issue pops back up. We have to make it a part of our lives to keep working on these things."
For Jenny, music is personal first and foremost. "It's saved my life," she says matter of factly.
Clustered on the couch back in the dressing room at the Greek, the girls are upbeat but reflective. This was their final show as NAF, for now at least. Tears were shed during soundcheck. "I cry during every show," says Jenny. "That's why she uses waterproof eyeliner," half-jokes Tennessee. That eyeliner, feline black flicks, is applied nightly by Tennessee. "It's the perfect moment before the show," says Jenny. "She takes care of us, brings us together, and makes us feel beautiful and witchy." But after tonight the matching outfits—white bellbottoms and army green shirts—will be packed away.
Barely a month later The Deep End Club will be rechristened The Modern Love Club, founded by another enterprising girl with a penchant for vintage clothes. It's a matchmaking service by day and a date spot-cum-gallery at night. Currently the work showcased features only female-created art. There's a new lick of paint, but the plastic 60s lighting fixtures remain. The new takes over, but the old lingers if you look close. That's the rhythm a metropolis sways to.
For Nice as Fuck, it's time to go back to the real world: Jenny to her solo commitments, Erika to impending motherhood, all except Tennessee who back in August had immediate plans to explore Northern California with a boy who recently bowled her over. "He packed my drums up," she says smiling broadly. "No boy has ever done that before! Well timed, thanks universe, otherwise I'd be having a mental break down right now!"
Will Jenny return to LA, a city and music scene with which she's long been synonymous? She shrugs, "I don't know. The door is open." Other challenges, more adventures undoubtedly await. "I'm scared but excited because that's me," Jenny says lightly. "You can't be a runaway forever."