Bodega and the Birth of Zeitgeist Rock
An exclusive conversation with Brooklyn’s hottest band
It’s rare to meet a band that’s not only willing, not only able, but eager to speak about the philosophy that inspires their work. It’s rarer still when they’re willing to share that conceptual DNA while promoting their first LP. More often than not, the confidence that comes from fully-formed ideas is learned further down the proverbial musical road, and not innate.
That’s just a small piece of what makes Brooklyn’s Bodega such a powerful quintet. Dole out the sonic touchstones all you want—B-52s, Pylon, LCD Soundsystem, Parquet Courts— they’re all there on some aesthetic level (last Friday the band released their debut LP, Endless Scroll, on What’s Your Rupture?, Parquet Courts’ old label, and recorded it on PC member Austin Brown’s Tascam 388 tape machine). To stop digging at the post-punk label, however, denies the listener a scathingly funny and romantic trove of subversive gooiness that lives below the dancy crust.
Bodega make what might best be described as Zeitgeist Rock (™), immaculately skeletal groovers that leave space for some potent muckraking happening in the lyrics and themes as the music practices truth-telling through a conceptual, albeit pop, lens. Consider the album’s title, Endless Scroll, which first resonates as the title of some nonexistent cultural artifact or rune one might find in a museum before you put the record on and realize they’re referring to modern society’s habit of mindlessly cycling through content on our smartphones. On songs like “How Did This Happen!?,” “Bodega Birth” and “Bookmarks,” that truth to power is breathlessly packaged in bite-sized, single-ready bursts for the digital generation, readymade for consumption yet somehow too urgent and brilliantly conceived to just be chewed up and shit out.
Helping Bodega’s medicine go down easier is the fact that the band—comprised of NIkki Belfiglio, Ben Hozie, Montana Simone, Heather Elle and Madison Velding-Vandam—doesn’t distance itself from the social marketing condemnations it doles out, but acknowledges its complicity. If only the rest of us could acknowledge roles we play in enabling our longer binges and shorter attention spans, maybe we could all slow down and feel ourselves a bit more.
Rock and Roll Globe caught up with Bodega’s principal songwriters, singer Nikki Belfiglio and singer/guitarist Ben Hozie, to find out if the razor-sharp ideas on Endless Scroll can make a difference being sung from inside the very machine they criticize.
Are you guys ready to boogie in Europe? It’s interesting to think about this tour in the context of the themes you explore on the record. Our submission to technological ubiquity, content over creative practice—it seems like Europeans have a different relationship to all of that than we do.
Ben: In what way?
Well, they too are slaves to their devices and passively engaged… but aren’t they also more culturally conscious of how corporate art narratives are packaged than we are? Maybe they’re able to unplug more than we Americans.
Ben: They seem more detached, in an interesting way. Everyone I’ve met over there says, “Oh, I get all of your references—I’m not impressed.” You know what I mean?
Nikki: Their culture is much more detached from society. There’s a huge vacation culture around there. I’ve been emailing, and every email reply comes back: “Sorry, I’m on holiday.” That never happens with an American, unless it’s ,”I had a baby, I’ll get back to you tomorrow.
Is there a trend happening with zeitgeist rock? The easy connection is obviously you guys to Parquet Courts and What’s Your Rupture?, but I’ve also looked at John Maus and how he’s applied his philosophy degree, or Protomartyr—existentialism in pop form, maybe. Is this something happening more now?
Ben: I feel like it comes every five years or something, and we just happen to be riding that wave again. But you can find it… any good songwriter will always have to grapple with the responsibility of what they’re doing. The biggest record that probably influenced the way I write songs is probably The Who Sell Out, you know—them realizing rock and roll music is indistinguishable from advertisements. That’s a brilliant record and it’s 50 years old.
These ideas are more inviting because you guys don’t distance yourself from the muckraking you’re doing, or absolve yourselves of the criticism… you’re complicit with the rest of us. And it makes the words effective because we don’t feel like we’re being spoken to.
Ben: It’s not like we’re living off the grid and thinking we’re better than everybody else. We’re all in this, critical to find a better way, but have yet to find it.
Post-streaming there are all these cottage industries in music, extra hands between the people actually creating the work and their money—licensing people, booking people. These roles used to be consolidated a bit more but now they’re siloed, so to be independent means you also have to be “on your socials,” have captions ready. The balance has to be struck with that sort of thing so it doesn’t affect your work too much. Is there a positive side?
Ben: The positive side to social media is that it can be an extension of the music—it can give context to the music. It doesn’t have to be really vapid stuff—”oh, we just stopped at a rest stop on tour, hope you like us!”—that is 90 percent of it, but there’s a way to make social media that’s also an extension of the art itself. I’ve yet to see anyone do that yet, honestly, but theoretically it could be done.
Where the rollout is an extension of the theme and the project to the point where it’s not diluting it?
Ben: Right—it’s imaginable, like what a good interview is. It gives context to the music. The way I think about some of my favorite artists are, their interviews, the things they say, really illuminate the work—actually are part of the work, really. That’s why the album is sort of paradoxical. It seems like this object that you put on the shelf that is this one statement, and there is something really sexy about that—but that’s really not how any album has come together, and that’s not really the way people experience music anymore.
Maybe we’ve lost the ability to think conceptually and sit with larger, whole album ideas. I was thinking about where I’d seen the image on your cover, then I remembered I saw the original sculpture at Storm King. The cover’s illustration of that piece feels connected to this idea of thinking about the conceptual ideas behind Endless Scroll. Why did you choose it?
Nikki: That cover was something I’d grown up with. I grew up in that area, 45 minutes out in the Hudson Valley, so I felt a strong connection to the way that they show art [at Storm King], the way that they display the art of the person within the context of nature. The earth becomes a background for this piece, which may not have originally be created to be shown there. So when I saw that piece, it’s called “Suspended,” in this grassy knoll, it made me feel as if I was in a computer simulation in some respects.
The way that it’s suspended you think, “this can’t be real.” You come up on it and it gets bigger and bigger because it’s in this ravine, and it kind of has this judgment to it. It feels like this gavel that’s about to be hit on wood—someone’s striking it and it’s about to become your face. Even in this beautiful, earthy environment that I’m supposed to consider real, this felt like a David Lynch film. This felt like an ad. This felt like something I’d seen in a movie. As an image, it felt like a great representation of our work—I saw the computer in it, not just within the sculpture, but in the whole image itself.
Ben: To me it’s like the Pink Floyd prism, or to take it even further into rock iconography, the Stonehenge in Spinal Tap.
Nikki: [laughs] I’m thinking more of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Storm King’s all about site-specific work, too. Maybe it’s a good avatar for the record, too, because it echoes what Ben was saying about using your surrounding scene to channel and instill a very specific reaction—a creation very much activated by being in the middle of it is similar to you guys being in the middle of the endless scroll.
Nikki: Totally! That’s why we placed it in this dark, grey gallery setting. It’s kind of meek, but still inspiring.
Can Bodega “trojan horse” the industry with these sort of big ideas? Can someone push these ideas in to radicalize an infrastructure from within it?
Ben: Yeah, I mean, that’s a really tough question. I don’t think the industry can be changed, but a person can be changed. I don’t know if any one song can do it, but that’s the goal, I guess, to start a conversation. In order for things to change, they have to change on a systematic level. Beyonce could write an anti-capitalist song and sell a million tickets or whatever, that’s not subversive. That’s just dressing up. You have to live it, walk it, breathe it.
There’s this crazy BBC documentary that asks this same question, made by the Century of Self filmmaker [Adam Curtis]. It’s three hours long and draws a narrative between New York City being bailed out by big banks in the ‘70s—
Ben: Are you talking about Hypernormalisation?
Ben: We all watched it together.
There seem to be two distinct energies on this record, the songs where you all gaze outward at the zeitgeist and the ones that turn inward, get reflective and personal. Did you think about that interplay at all, how those different vibes talk to each other?
Ben: I thought about it a lot actually. The emotion that goes into a song like “Bookmarks” or “How Did This Happen!?” is no different than “Charlie.” One thing I hope people understand about our music is that it’s not cynical. I always say that we’re a romantic band. I want there to be a real yearning feeling, like the feeling Bruce Springsteen gives me when I listen to him where it’s music in the best sense of what rock and roll music is—music that gives you a sense of possibility. It’s like that Oscar Wilde saying, ‘a romantic is a cynic when he’s on holiday.’ They’re just flip sides of the same coin.
The human brain can hopefully hold a thought and it’s opposite at the same time. It’s very difficult to do, but you can perform nostalgia, then critique it two minutes later, and that’s not a contradiction.
We’ve been conditioned to not have any agency to be involved in these conversations. My worry is that music been sold to much of the public as a pacifying device in a lot of ways. Activating people may be half the battle.
Ben: I agree. We talk about this a lot. I don’t know if you saw this on Pitchfork today, but there was a pretty interesting article about how smart speakers are going to change the way people think about music, almost like an extension of the way streaming services are changing the way people think about music. Music is little furniture now—not just ambient music, but all music, it serves a utilitarian function. “Music for Cocktail Parties,” “Music for Meditation,” “Music for Studying.” Even post-punk—”Music for your Afterparty Comedown.”
Music is so specific and curated, but it’s always had a utilitarian function. It probably started off as some ritual connected to the hunt, sexual activity, religion or whatever. A good rock and roll experience live is something like a ritual—at its best people forget about time and just kind of exist, let this one droning beat move the body. That’s the promise of dance music, but it’s more beautiful when a band can pull that off because it’s human.
Oh totally, and the word “experience” has been monetized too. That used to be a holy word for a transcendental transformative thing, but not it refers to a digital footprint and a selfie at The Ford Fiesta photo booth. I think of John Cage saying, ‘let’s liberate sounds from all this academic, intellectual bullshit and just feel them on a purely physical level then see what happens.’
Ben: That’s one thing about this album—it really can’t do that. It has to be this product. But there’s great power in that.
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One thought on “Bodega and the Birth of Zeitgeist Rock”
Loving these guys more and more – and check out the VR video! Low tech meets high tech.