Folk Me Hard

Antifolk antihero David K connects the New York underground to South Florida

It's a warm Wednesday night in Delray Beach, and David K walks into Dada bearing a gift. Paleface's Multibean bootleg is nothing to look at -- just an 80-minute disc in a square white envelope with a circular window. But to adherents of a loosely defined genre called antifolk, the 2000 release is a work of pure, poetic beauty. K is reluctant to let go of the CD in his hand.

"Please don't copy this for anybody else," he says, holding onto the envelope for another moment. "You can after the show, but until then...," he says, pausing. "These guys have to sell records to make money."

K, who moved to Boca Raton from Manhattan a little more than three years ago to serve as managing editor of Closermagazine and act as business manager for singer/songwriter Lauren Echo, is protective of the whole antifolk scene. He is also its biggest local proponent. The show he's referring to is his ambitious attempt to deliver the New York City scene's sensibility to South Florida's shores. With New York Antifolk Anti All-Stars,he says, he's "bringing the mountain to Muhammad." Besides Paleface, the June 1 concert at the Bamboo Room will feature downtown scenesters Jeffrey Lewis and Joie Blaney, plus the Freakin' Hott and Keith Michaud of Summer Blanket -- two South Florida artists who K says will fill the bill nicely.

Folk this: Joie Blaney, a.k.a. Dead Blonde Girlfriend, at Manhattan's Luna Lounge
Folk this: Joie Blaney, a.k.a. Dead Blonde Girlfriend, at Manhattan's Luna Lounge

In the grand tradition of difficult musical questions -- "How Do You Sleep?" "So What'cha Want?" "Mommy, What's a Funkadelic?" -- you can add "Just what is antifolk?" K is coy, offering only that it is "intangible" and "can't be pigeonholed." "At the heart of it," he reveals, "is the song."

Perhaps a little history is in order. Accounts vary, but what follows is a brief sketch of the genre's origins.

NYC, 1980s: A new breed of musicians is coming of age. Influenced by punk and folk, they want to follow in Dylan's footsteps and play clubs like Gerde's Folk City. But they're too loud, and (gasp!) they write their own songs, much to the chagrin of the exclusive, orthodox West Village folk crowd, most of whom are still covering "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Masters of War."

The acoustic punks, led by a dude named Lach (pronounced latch), say screw it, and head for the Lower East Side. They set up shop at an illegal after-hours club called the Fort, which opens the same week as Folk City's New York City Folk Festival. Much the same way that Slamdance was created by Sundance rejects, Lach organizes the New York Antifolk Festival. And so, an art form is born.

These days, antifolk's home is the Sidewalk Café at Sixth Street and Avenue A in the East Village. Nearly 20 years on, with the scene thriving, Lach remains the ringleader.

K, clad in jeans and a black T, is animated as he talks up the forthcoming show. And with his Dylanesque face screwed on top of a sinewy Iggy Stooge-like body, he is the physical embodiment of antifolk's folk-punk dichotomy. "We all meet Monday night for the antihoot [the antifolk antihootenany]," says K, who flies back to New York whenever his busy schedule permits. "There are anywhere from 40 to 80 people waiting to play, so we all take a number, and the night goes on until the last person has played."

If antifolk were merely song-focused, it wouldn't be a scene. After all, Diane Warren is probably committed to her craft. But in giving time to listening to each others' sets, the performers have developed a strong sense of community over the past two decades. "Unlike other scenes," K says, "antifolk isn't about getting shitfaced. At the end of the night, we hang out, drink chamomile tea, and talk about songs."

Blaney -- who goes by Joie for his solo sets -- agrees. "We watch and learn from each other," the 35-year-old Long Island native says. And, at the risk of sounding like Dr. Phil, they support each other too. Blaney remembers getting a call from his friend Regina Spektor when her album came out on Sire last year. "She said, 'I'm standing in front of Tower Records, and there's a huge poster of me,'" he recalls. "And I wanted to cry -- not because I was thinking, Where's mine? --but because I was so happy for her."

Blaney's not sure he'll ever be in Spektor's position, but he's content working at a video store to pay the bills and releasing solo recordings -- "I swallow alphabet soup and vomit it out in song," he says -- and electric material by his band, Dead Blonde Girlfriend. Recording for Art Monkey, a relatively obscure New York indie label, doesn't mean he lacks ambition. "I want to go up against the big guys," Blaney says. "I want to work with [Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple collaborator] Jon Brion. I want to be a voice in the void."

He's hardly an exception. Paleface had two major-label deals back in the '90s. Kimya Dawson and Adam Green of the Moldy Peaches are both signed to Rough Trade, a Chicago label, as is Jeffrey Lewis, who's completing a tour of England just before heading to Lake Worth.

It's this healthy dose of ambition -- not to be confused with careerism and the commitment to song and community -- that K is hoping will spread to South Florida. "When I came down here, random people would sign up for their slot, then get out," K says. "Then I created the Antifolk Songwriters Open Stage at the Lounge in West Palm, and I changed the mindset. I controlled the list so that nobody knew when they were playing. You stayed and talked with the other songwriters. For me, it was about bringing a sensibility."

And for the June 1 show at the Bamboo Room, K wants to bridge the gap between New York's established antifolk scene and South Florida's loose-knit community of songwriters.

"Keith [Michaud] is the best fucking songwriter around," K insists. "He's brilliant. If he were in New York, he'd be at the Sidewalk performing."

And the Freakin' Hott, one of the harder-rocking bands in the area (which includes occasional New Timescontributor Maggie-Margret) -- how do they fit?

"As a group, Freakin' Hott is a rock band," K admits. "When they play as a duo, they're antifolk."

If it all seems loosely defined, perhaps that's by design. As Blaney says, antifolk is all about inclusiveness. And if the bill at the Bamboo Room exposes Paleface fans to the Freakin' Hott and vice versa, K is happy.

"I'd like to see the scene here get noticed, that there's something happening here," he says. And as in New York, K has a support network. "[Bamboo Room owner] Russell [Hibbard] jumped on this. He wants to do this whether he makes money or not. And Rodney [Mayo] is sponsoring the show -- and he's a club owner! It's a community down here."

K smiles, which makes him look a lot less like Bob Dylan, who never smiles. "I love my life," he says. "I'm getting together all my friends from up there and all my friends from down here. All of a sudden, I'm a music promoter."

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