Words by Cian Kinsella
“Beating the indie sleaze allegations” is how Model/Actriz’s drummer, Ruben Radlauer, sees the band fitting into the New York music scene.
It’s not hard to see how these allegations came about: the city is practically the indie sleaze HQ, and many listeners outside New York first discovered the band through Perfectly Imperfect: a twice weekly newsletter where guests recommend things ranging from the everyday to the unusual, on which Model/Actriz guested in December 2022. Vocalist Cole Haden recommended shopping malls, for example, and drummer Radlauer endorsed butter. Some of the newsletter’s other past guests include Charli XCX, Dorian Electra, and even The Sopranos’s Michael Imperioli.
Perfectly Imperfect is quirky and fun, and the ‘glimpse into the daily lives of cool people’ angle evokes the glossy gossip magazines of the 2000s. But a quick listen to Model/Actriz’s February debut album, Dogsbody, paints a picture of a band far closer to Gilla Band than Sky Ferreira.
The indie sleaze allegations are often tainted with derogatory undercurrents. The implication is that the music is simple, that its pleasure inherently has guilt attached. Critically – however that is measured – it might be fun, but it is too recent to not be cringe, and it is never good. Pitchfork gave The Dare’s debut EP and Frost Children’s debut album scores of 5.8 and 5.4, respectively. But Dogsbody got an 8.2, with writer Jason Greene proclaiming: ‘Their sound recalls early-’00s New York dance-punk bands like Liars, but Model/Actriz are a touch too haunted to slot neatly into the ongoing “indie sleaze” movement’.
At a more surgical level, the sincerity of their music feels way out of step with the smirking, party-hard lilts of their NYC peers. Yes, many Model/Actriz songs have upbeat, pounding rhythms. And yes, Haden’s charisma on the mic has a gravitational pull. However, they also explore the darker side of the human emotional experience.
“There is a strong sense to not default to despair when faced with pain”, Radlauer says. This combo of lyrical vulnerability and musical ecstasy is a rarity, but those who do it well are legends; it’s the same frantic release we hear on alternative floorfillers like Joy Division’s ‘Disorder’ and John Maus’s ‘Bennington’.
Model/Actriz’s lurch away from irony and towards emotional honesty is a very conscious one. “We want the music to be a direct reflection of us and our emotional world,” guitarist Jack Wetmore adds. “In order to keep it interesting and genuine for ourselves.” Sonically, the band were worried that they were going too far with how “weird or off-putting” Dogsbody would be, but the response to the album has been overwhelmingly positive.
For Haden, the challenge to be vulnerable is even greater. Before he could write lyrics from a place of openness, he had to open up fully to himself. “My inner voice felt very inscrutable to me at the start,” he recalls. “So, as I learned the language that felt right to pair with the music, I was also becoming less of a stranger to myself.” The frontman was also acutely aware that he was going to have to take his words on tour with him, so didn’t want to feel like he was hiding behind them. This consideration has paid dividends on the road, and – from Haden’s perspective, at least – “the shows feel all the more joyous now.”
Despite our best efforts, conversations around left-of-centre acts are forever vulnerable to the gravitational pull of the ‘I’ word: influences. That staple of the music interview. “It’s exhausting to consistently have musical influences projected onto us,” Radlauer says, “particularly when nobody has gotten it right.” Exhausting as the inaccuracies may be, the drummer keeps us guessing in regards to the identity of the band’s true influences.
What they do talk about, though, is the inspiration they draw from outside of music. Wetmore finds that “building things or woodworking has created a new kind of patience and slow decisiveness for writing music.” Despite being a guitarist, he claims that he’s not a big fan of the instrument. “Most of my weird practices on Dogsbody come from playing the guitar poorly [and] eventually finding something that sticks.” It’s a perplexing admission, because upon hearing the tinny rings on ‘Maria’ lock in with the song’s syncopated – almost twee – drum beat, you’d be forgiven for believing that they were coming from an adept player.
It presumably helps that Model/Actriz seem to have an overarching musical vision. Wetmore speaks about the band’s ‘universe’. “There’s a sonic world I enjoy: big, weird cinematic sounds”. He describes making music as “scoring your own thoughts”. It’s an abstract way of describing things, a perspective that doesn’t give much real insight into their creative process. Equally, it may be a large part of how Model/Actriz reach a unity of vision and spotlight some of the hardest to reach corners of human experience. “Us, in a room together, playing the same thing for 20 minutes straight,” Radlauer says when asked what the band’s writing process looks like. “And doing that a couple of times a week for a couple months until some sort of song reveals itself.’ The drummer goes on to describe it as “a lot of hive brain”. The individual is subordinate to the group.
So how has their leftfield approach been received outside of the band’s immediate circle? (all the guys’ parents love Model/Actriz, and apparently their grandparents love the band even more). When asked about their reception from the world beyond New York City, Radlauer has only positive reports. “It’s been amazing and everyone is equal parts respectful and lit. People have met us with their hearts on their sleeve and are there to share in the moment.”
photo credit: Lily Frances
Model/Actriz played London’s Wide Awake festival on Saturday, and tour the UK and EU this autumn:
02 November: Club To Club, Turin – Italy
04 November: Yes Pink, Manchester – UK
05 November: King Tut’s, Glasgow – UK
06 November: Hare & Hounds, Birmingham – UK
07 November: Dareshack, Bristol – UK
08 November: Fabric, London – UK
10 November: Revenge, Brighton – UK
12 November: Le Guess Who, Utrecht – UK
13 November: Helios37, Cologne – Germany
16 November: Gannet, Basel – Switzerland
18 November: Primavera Weekender, Benidorm – Spain
20 November: ZBD, Lisbon – Portugal