Of all the bands in New York City's resurgent rock scene in the early 2000s -- The Strokes, The Walkmen, Fischerspooner and dozens of others -- only one is about to headline a basketball arena. Which is no surprise to Mike Stuto, former owner of Brownies, the Manhattan club where flamboyant Yeah Yeah Yeahs' singer Karen O spilled beer all over her white tie during a packed early performance. "We booked them as a support act for some out-of-town band," recalls Stuto, who today owns the HiFi Bar in the same spot, "and by the time the show happened, they were too big for the room."
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and another onetime New York club band, Vampire Weekend, perform back-to-back nights (Thursday and Friday, respectively) at Brooklyn's Barclays Center. Although VW's album "Modern Vampires of the City" briefly hit No. 1 in May, neither band is a hit in the smash-record sense, and neither consistently plays giant concert venues outside New York. But both are case studies in how to make it in the city -- starting small, methodically building fan bases and, of course, releasing great music.
"It's a little difficult," says Debbie Southwood-Smith, a New Jersey teacher who spent years as a prominent A & R executive, signing the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to Interscope Records. "There's industry in New York, and there's industry in Los Angeles, so that definitely helps. But New York also can be problematic because artists hate coming to New York and playing shows because the audiences are so difficult -- they're so jaded."
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs arrived in the city during a fertile local rock period -- The Strokes were ascendant, and "New York has several bands right now who have the potential to be both culturally important and commercially successful," as a local A&R man told New York magazine. Karen O had masterminded her unique art-punk style in college, first at Ohio's Oberlin College, then at NYU; she had a naturally commanding stage presence, sometimes drenching herself with olive oil. "They weren't playing really small clubs for very long," recalls Southwood-Smith, a label scout who caught early club shows.
By the time Vampire Weekend showed up in New York six years later, The Strokes had imploded, and bands such as Fischerspooner and the Moldy Peaches had more or less faded away. Like the Yeahs, VW drew from punk and new wave, but its sound was more precise and worldly, inspired in part by South African township jive. Crowds, nonetheless, reacted just as they had for the Yeahs. "It was so crazy that people kept accidentally kicking our wires and disconnecting our instruments," songwriter Rostam Batmanglij would tell a Columbia student journalist of a show at Alpha Delta Phi's Coffee Haus.
The Yeahs signed with Interscope, home of Eminem and 50 Cent, had an early hit with "Maps," then proceeded not to sell many albums -- instead, they built up a rep as a killer live band, always willing to bloody themselves onstage. They put out one strong album after another and recorded music for Cadillac and Calvin Klein commercials. Vampire Weekend built relentless buzz early on for those Columbia-area shows, to the point that influential indie-rock critics were hyping the band's "Upper West Side Soweto" sound before 2008's "Vampire Weekend" came out. The album turned out to be terrific, and while the band opted for independent XL Records rather than an Interscope-style powerhouse, VW has made a living playing rock festivals ever since.
Although they're from different eras in do-it-yourself New York rock, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Vampire Weekend have one crucial thing in common, in addition to headlining Barclays. They haven't had to change anything for sales or radio play. "It's that idea of being in total control of your art," Southwood-Smith says. "Those artists that really have excelled are the ones who've taken their careers into their own hands."
Whereas The Strokes had made it in New York City early last decade wearing leather jackets and trying to be cooler than everybody else, Vampire Weekend opted for boat shoes, a doting Columbia University crowd and songs about Oxford commas. Thanks to online hype by indie-rock websites such as Pitchfork, VW was famous before its 2008 debut even came out, but, fortunately, "Vampire Weekend" turned out to be a descendant of Paul Simon's "Graceland" in all the best ways. The band -- Ezra Koenig, Chris Baio, Rostam Batmanglij and Chris Tomson -- has had two No. 1 albums but has made its living mostly by headlining rock festivals.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
"Where has all the charisma and the sexuality and the gnarl gone?" Karen Orzolek asked Billboard magazine earlier this year, as her band was about to put out its fourth album, "Mosquito," which includes one of the year's best rock songs, "Sacrilege." Karen O has been intimately pondering charisma, sexuality and gnarl in rock since she met drummer Brian Chase when they were students at Oberlin College in the mid-'90s; later, she transferred to NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and met guitarist Nick Zinner. As the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the trio put together explosive performances, snagging high-profile club shows at Brownies and the Mercury Lounge in the early 2000s, drawing major-record-label scouts during the Strokes and White Stripes era. They've since built a Barclays-level fan base one blood-spewing concert at a time.
WHO Yeah Yeah Yeahs
WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Thursday, Barclays Center, Brooklyn
INFO $29.50-$49.50; 800-745-3000, ticketmaster.com
WHO Vampire Weekend
WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Sept. 20, Barclays Center
INFO $35-$49.99; 800-745-3000, ticketmaster.com